Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I haven't posted in a year, so it's time to either revive this blog--or bury it. Think I'll bring it back.

Two weeks ago I published a syndicated editorial on fracking through Blue Ridge Press (BRP). I learned a number of startling things while researching the piece--and after it was in print.

I discovered while interviewing Sharon Wilson, a regional coordinator for Earthworks, that the natural gas industry has been exempted from seven major federal environmental regulations. Why haven't I read that before? Why isn't that fact front and center in the debate over the health and environmental safety of fracking?

Those exemptions include a pass on Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. The so-called "Halliburton loophole", pushed through by former Vice-President/former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, exempts corporations from revealing the chemicals used in fracking fluid--some of which are proven carcinogens.

Another loophole leaves hazardous waste, including contaminated soil, water and drilling fluids, unregulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Still another loophole dodges the Superfund law, which requires that polluters remediate for carcinogens like benzene released into the environment.

While researching this story I also learned how much money the natural gas industry throws at Congress to line their re-election coffers--especially those on key energy and environmental committees. Republicans received at least three times more cash than Democrats.

After the 700-word editorial was published in newspapers across the country, with a longer version on 90-some websites and aggregators, I got a peek into the contentiousness of this debate. Editors contacted my BRP editor, Glenn Scherer, shocked by the number of furious letters they'd received. Some people also found my personal email and sent me long-winded, ranting, demeaning letters--some far longer than the editorial itself. Each was rife with misinformation.

You can read the long version of my piece here:
The Fracking Industry Buys Congress

There are so many fronts on this debate, from water usage (in 2011, during the worst drought and biggest wildfires in Texas history, the natural gas industry used more than 13 billion gallons of Texas water in fracking operations). Recent studies in Colorado have shown that methane releases from fracked wells were far higher than estimated, discounting industry's claim of substantial climate change benefit over coal. An article in this issue of Rolling Stone lays out fracking as a ponzi-scheme land grab: The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom And then there are the earthquakes in Texas and Missouri and Ohio.

Nationwide, residents living near fracked gas wells have filed over 1,000 complaints of tainted water, severe illnesses, livestock deaths, and fish kills. Complaints sometimes involve hundreds of households. But despite rising debate, there is a veritable gold rush of new natural gas wells being dug across the country, now numbering about 493,000 across 31 states.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Back in Delhi

Am back in the crazy, mass-of-humanity cacophony of Delhi, horns honking, maniacal traffic, air choked with wood smoke. Great to see old friends, but am missing the thick bamboo forests, the gymnastic langurs, the peacocks, the sambar deer. The squadrons of dragonflies that hovered over the open grasslands. The midnight howling of jackals. The night sky awash with a canopy of stars. The majesty of tigers, among the world's most magnificent creatures. Missing almost daily time spent with the working elephants that are used to patrol the tiger reserve.

I love the animals.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tiger kill

We started our day today with a 7:00 AM ride on elephant back to a clearing where a tiger was devouring the sambar deer he’d killed during the night. He was the area’s alpha male, a huge cat, knawing away, ignoring the three elephants that circled him from 30 feet away. The park charged $15 per person for a few minutes with him; we were there to photograph the tourists. We returned two hours later: by then he was full-bellied and ready for a nap, occasionally hissing at one of the elephants. He was done with the show.

We got the word that a mother tiger had killed a cow outside the national park. It was near a small village, so the parks department opted to bury the kill to prevent the female and her three nearly-grown cubs from hanging around and eating it. They sent in four elephants. The mahouts were instructed to drive the cats away from the village.

The tigers were on the move as we raced back and forth in a car trying to find them. Villagers worked their fields, kids walked around and played, people rode bicycles and motorcycles along the dirt roads. It was chilling to see them engaged in the dailiness of life, oblivious to the danger.

Then we glimpsed a tiger loping through a field, chased by the elephants. A minute later, we heard a blood curdling scream. The female was so stressed that when she encountered a man he attacked. He died about an hour later. Soon after, we heard a dog screaming—she'd gotten it, too.

The cat wandered into a hotel compound and went to sleep. Her cubs stayed in the village, hunkered down in a thick stand of bamboo.

Today near Todoba Tiger Reserve, about five hours from here, another tiger killed someone. And yesterday a tiger was shot in a rice field in Uttar Pradesh.

Trying to save tigers in an overpopulated country is not easy, and both humans and tigers suffer.

Someone who was born here in Bandhavgarh and who now works as a guide told us over a beer at the end of the day that despite government claims that there are 65 tigers in the park, there are really only about 45. And in Ranthambore, another famous tiger reserve, they have lost six or seven tigers in the last two months.

Tomorrow we’ll attend and photograph the funeral. The man who died was a poor villager in his late 20s, a man who lived in a bamboo hut with his wife and two small children. Donations from the local tourism lodges will pay for the firewood for his funeral pyre, which will be lit in the middle of an open field.

To bed. I’m exhausted and numb.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Am in Bandavgarh, staying on the periphery of the famous tiger park. We head in each morning as predawn light pales the sky, driving in an open safari jeep. At that hour, the park is shrouded in mist, a veneer of frost dusting the straw grassland in wintry white. We look like mummies, wrapped in down clothing. It's not the steamy, sun-baked world one would imagine when picturing India. But the temperature climbs with the rising sun, hitting 65 or 70 F. (18 to 21 C.) by midday. We strip down layer by layer until the chill returns with the setting sun.

Much of the forest is a deciduous mix of silk cotton, teak, sal, and ebony, woven together by mammoth strangler figs and tall thickets of bamboo. We see sambar deer tall as a horse. Small and large herds of spotted deer. Two peacocks fly across the road trailing impossibly long, magnificent plumage. As we approach, big blond langurs bound away on springy legs, the gymnasts of the forest, and a pair of bushy-tailed jackals head for the undergrowth.

Estimates vary, but up to 60 tigers roam this area, slipping in and out of the chain link fence that surrounds the 1500 square kilometer park. Cattle graze within sight on the other side. Hunting them is child’s play for a tiger—and killing them invokes the wrath of the villagers.

We meet a park guard. News comes across his walkie talkie in staticky bursts: three near-adult cubs are in the area. We sit and wait, but don’t see them.

We drive through the park, dust rising in clouds behind us. We see enormous tiger prints, fresh ones, and follow them. And there she is: a female watches us briefly, then slips into the forest, reappearing further on. In side view we can see how huge she is, and how utterly magnificent. Wow.


But the next day--we watch three tigers up close for half an hour--20 to 50 feet away!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In the Pantanal

This "flooded landscape" is as dry as it ever gets, the rivers down some 12 to 15 feet. It's the end of the dry season amidst the worst drought in 40 years. The profusion of wildlife here is stunning--and it's all drawn down to the river at this time of year.

I've seen my first-ever jaguars, something I've dreamt of since I first stepped foot into Latin American rain forests two decades ago. This is the only place to see these elusive animals.

Have been in the field with biologists--and trapped and radio-collared two cats over the last three nights.

More to come.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dirty Water

This is from my article "Dirty Water: India and China share a grave environmental problem—extreme water pollution" that was just published in Scientific American Lives--a special issue that launched a new magazine. To read the rest of the story, click on the title to this post.

The hazy dawn knits river to sky on the banks of the holy Ganges river in Varanasi. Even at sunrise, the city’s 4.5-mile waterfront bustles. Bathers brush their teeth, soap themselves, and scrub their children. Legions wash laundry, gather water, and scour dishes. Men swim and lounge on ghats (steps that descend into the Ganges). Black noses and curving horns betray the presence of submerged water buffalo.

Women in bright saris gather in groups or with their families at the water’s edge. Up to 60,000 pilgrims journey to this sacred, 3,000-year-old city from across India each day. They sculpt altars in slick, gray mud, making offerings of flowers and candles. They pour Ganges water, pray, take a sacramental sip and immerse themselves in the turbid river for spiritual healing.

At the “burning ghats,” flames consume the bodies of the dead: Hindus believe casting their remains into the Ganges guides their souls to heaven. To them, this river is the mother goddess, Ganga Ma, who washes away humanity’s sins.

Four hundred million people rely on the Ganges watershed for drinking water, including Varanasi’s 1.6 million residents. But along its 1,560-mile journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the river absorbs raw sewage from 116 cities. Waste has turned these waters into a highway for viruses and bacteria, including deadly, dysentery-causing microbes like E. coli O157 and Shigella, and those that cause cholera, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Last year, the Indian government pledged $4 billion for river cleanup to stem the tide of waterborne disease.

But the problem of environmental water pollution extends far beyond the Ganges. Municipal waste, pesticides, and industrial chemicals foul waterways and drinking water across the globe, with the worst pollution concentrated in developing countries. If India’s waterways are the dubious poster children for sewage, then China’s waters take that role for toxic chemicals. Municipal waste is also a severe problem in China, but three decades of meteoric industrial growth have laced lakes and rivers with a witches’ brew of chemicals. Some Chinese waters are now among the most polluted on Earth.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pangolins in peril

I've written on the Asian wildlife trade many times over the last years: the Asian turtle crisis, with turtles of many species being vacuumed off the Asian continent and eaten to the brink of extinction in less than a decade. Turtles are now being shipped or smuggled from across the globe, from Africa, the U.S., and every part of the globe, valued for their meat (and the longevity it is thought to impart) and used for Asian traditional medicine.

I've also written on the trade in tiger bone and other tiger parts, focusing on India's precipitous decline--catastrophic losses that were finally admitted by the government after decades of coverups. Nearly all parts of the cat, from eyes and whiskers to genitals and tail, are prescribed for their purported medicinal and aphrodisiac powers.
This month, I have a story on the Southeast Asian trade in pangolins--shy, armadillo-ish animals. They are the most-traded mammal on the illegal wildlife black market. Prices for their meat, organs and scales has skyrocketed from $10/kilo in 1990 to between $160-$250 today. Their precipitous decline prompted re-listing of two species, the Chinese and Malayan pangolins, from near-threatened to endangered.

Asian traditional medicine needs to adopt substitutes for endangered species--and needs to substitute manufactured synthetic compounds for animal ingredients. With pressures from habitat loss, disease, climate change, and so much more--animals can no longer be taken out of the wild in large quantities for any reason. Many species cannot survive even small losses.