Ep. 30: Wildfires, Snake Rescues, and the Devastating Effects of Air Pollution

This month: the toll of human-caused wildfires, rescuing snakes to prevent human-animal conflict, and capturing the impacts of an ambient killer.

 

Join former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran as he talks with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Larry C. Price about the impacts of air pollution, and a harrowing series he’s working on with Undark and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Also, multimedia journalist Mary-Rose Abraham joins Subhadra Cherukuri on a mission to save snakes around cities in India, and host Kasha Patel measures the toll of human-ignited wildfires.

Below are the individual segments and a full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to the Undark podcast at iTunes.

 


Kasha Patel: Hey, Undark listeners. It’s your host Kasha Patel. So I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the great outdoors. I rely on the fruits of nature for food, oxygen, water, and last-resort places to go to the bathroom when you’re on a 12-hour family car trip, and your mom doesn’t want to stop because she’s almost in New Jersey. But I know our relationship with the environment isn’t always positive or one-sided. Sometimes, we manage to change the environment in a way that threatens us and then causes even more trouble.

I was reminded of that when I read about the recent wildfires in the U.S. States like Colorado and California are having a very severe fire season. Vox reported that in some regions, 2017 had the second-highest number of burned acres since 1960, and it’s looking like it’ll be even worse this year. So far, 110 large fires have erupted on the West Coast this year and maybe even more since I recorded this podcast. As the earth warms up and climates changes, thanks to our greenhouse gas emissions, many regions are going through hotter and drier spells, which lead to more dire conditions for wildfires.

But on top of that, we’re actually starting some of the fires. The Spring Creek fire this June burned over 108,000 acres making it the second-largest fire ever in Colorado, and that was human caused. It was started by a guy who didn’t completely put out his campfire. Now, I know human-ignited fires aren’t unusual. We’ve all seen those Smokey the Bear ads. “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Side note, I think it’s weird that Smokey the Bear wore pants but no shirt. I was nine when I met him. He should be fully clothed. Anyways, I guess I was distracted by his bare chest because I guess I didn’t realize the full extent of human influence on wildfires.

There was actually a 2017 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found human-started wildfires, quote, “accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires, tripled the length of the fire season, dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires, and were responsible for nearly half of all area burned.” The study analyzed two decades of government agency wildfire records. The National Park Service also reports on their website that as many as 90 percent of U.S. wildland fires are caused by humans. That’s a really high number. I feel like 90 percent of my speeding tickets aren’t even written by humans anymore. Thank you, photo-enforced speeding cameras.

Yes, some of the fires are intentional because people refresh the land for agricultural purposes. Some are utility company accidents, but some of them are just ridiculous. Did you know the biggest fire in Colorado was caused in 2002 when … not kidding … a fire prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service supposedly burned a letter from her estranged husband. Add burning letters from exes for causes of wildfires, along with supervised campfires and gunfire during extremely dry conditions. Of course, officials put out warnings to not have open flames and extremely hot temperatures. But people just ignore them or maybe they don’t think it applies to them. But how do you caution someone against themselves?

Today’s guests might have an inkling. We’re going to talk to a photographer who worked on a big feature for Undark called Breathtaking. It’s about a type of air pollution all over the globe that was created by us and can have drastic health consequences. But first, let’s travel to India. As humans move in on snake territory in Bangalore, they encounter more snakes, both venomous and harmless. Reporter Mary-Rose Abraham spent some time with a snake rescuer in India who gets called in to capture the slithering reptiles in people’s kitchens, bedrooms, fish ponds, and even an elevator shaft.

But here’s the kicker. Most snakes aren’t trying to hurt you. But people panic when they see the creature and hurt the snake or themselves. So, let’s go for a ride with Mary-Rose and the snake rescuer.


 

Subhadra Cherukuri: We got a call about a snake in your premises. We are rescuers. Is the snake still there?

Woman: Yes.

Mary-Rose Abraham: “Yes,” the woman confirms, “the snake is definitely still there.” That’s when Subhadra Cherukuri draws on her tall rubber boots and grabs her keys and cell phone. Just as she is about to leave, a call comes in for another snake sighting. So she routes around in a kitchen drawer for some tongs to add to her snake kit.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Okay, so, we are making sure we have a small pair of chapati tongs because that’s the only thing that we can actually use to rescue very small little baby hatchlings.

Mary-Rose Abraham: We’re heading to the first location, which is less than 10 minutes away. We need to get there fast before the snake slithers away or people start really panicking. Most rescuers are volunteers, like Subhadra, and they are not just helping snakes out of human habitats. They believe every rescue is a step toward reducing interactions between humans and animals, making it safer for each.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Okay, so, I think we’ve just reached the first location. Let’s see if we can find any of the baby snakes. So let’s try our luck.

Mary-Rose Abraham: We head through a side gate into a patio area behind the kitchen. Next door, there’s an empty field that’s overrun with tall grass and weeds. The snake probably made its way into the house from there.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Okay, it’s behind a bunch of pipes. So we’re just trying to take it out, and here she goes into the bottle. Yeah, so we’ve got a really cute little cobra hatchling. Very, very cute. I am just logging her in my app. Mark, can I just have that here? I have to log it.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Mark McKenna Anthony is her husband and co-rescuer. Subhadra takes a photo of the baby cobra which she’ll post on an app that allows snake rescuers around the country to keep track of their catches. Mark will take the cobra home for safekeeping, and we head back to the car.

Mary-Rose Abraham: So, successful mission number one.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Yeah, successful mission number one. Now to number two. Let’s see how that goes. Very beautiful, wasn’t it?

Mary-Rose Abraham: If you say so, yes.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Folks often think I’m nuts here when I say, “Snakes are beautiful.”

Mary-Rose Abraham: We’ve got a 30-minute drive to the next location. That’s enough time to get a bit into the backstory of snake rescues in India cities. Gowri Shankar is working towards his PhD in herpetology, and he runs a training program that has instructed 700 people in rescue protocol, including Subhadra. Though he now specializes in king cobras in the forest, he spent 20 years relocating city snakes.

Gowri Shankar: There’s hundreds and thousands of rats breeding right under your foundation stones or your gutters or drain pipes. Snakes are quite comfortable. They’ll get their food, and there’s enough hiding place we create in the city.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Snakes in a forest only have to watch out for predators. But in the city, there are millions of eyes watching and millions of people fearing them.

Gowri Shankar: Most of the people lost the connection with the nature. When they see a snake, which is about 90 centimeters, they say it’s about 900 centimeters or something. So maybe a common checkered keelback, which is just 90 centimeters, looks like an anaconda for them.

Mary-Rose Abraham: India has more than 60 species of venomous snakes. But it’s really just a few species, the big four, which are the most dangerous to humans — Cobra, krait, saw-scaled viper, Russell’s viper.

Gowri Shankar: But people’s lack of knowledge, ignorance, they do panic. They end up killing snakes, or trying to capture them, they get bitten.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Interactions between humans and animals can be deadly. The formal term is human-animal conflict. According to official records, it claims at least one person’s life every day in India. But those numbers only consider elephants and tigers. Deaths from snake bites are far higher. In fact, the highest in the world.

Gowri Shankar: 45, 46,000 people die annually. These are the reported deaths, right? But I’m sure that more people dying that these are purely accidents.

Mary-Rose Abraham: The vast majority are in rural areas where workers get bitten in fields and farms, and health care is much harder to access. But as cities in India expand, snakes are crowded out of their natural habitat, and city dwellers become increasingly likely to encounter them as well. The snake rescuer’s job is to get the snake safely out of human habitats, and educate the community on minimizing dangerous interactions. We’re getting closer to the second snake’s location.

Subhadra Cherukuri: The map says we’re going to be there in about eight minutes. I’m hoping Mr. Snake, whoever he is, is still there. Fingers crossed.

GPS Device: You’re back online. You are on the fastest route despite usual traffic.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Maybe you can tell me the absolute most urban concrete jungle type of rescue you’ve had.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Well, I’ve had some crazy ones. For example, some time back, there was a high-rise apartment complex, a completely concreted campus. Somebody saw two baby cobras go into the elevator shaft. I had to climb into the shaft, and they were down there actually. So we just had to pick them out of there.

Mary-Rose Abraham: You’re one of the very few women snake rescuers. Have you ever faced any challenges because you’re a woman?

Subhadra Cherukuri: Sometimes people actually ask me, “Are you going to be calling somebody else or are you sure you can handle this?” I’m like, “Yes, well, I have rescued quite a few snakes before.”

Mary-Rose Abraham: In fact, in the last six years, she’s rescued about 70 snakes a year. Location number two is right across from a large lake. It’s an area, glass-fronted architectural firm, right in the heart of Bangalore. One of the employees saw a snake make its way down from a tree into the fish pond in front of the building. Subhadra uses a long stick with a hook to gently swish to the murky water, and she finally lifts the snake up out of the pond.

Subhadra Cherukuri: So once we’ve got him, we bagged him. It’s a rat snake. It’s a nonvenomous one. It’s a nonvenomous snake. Completely nonvenomous. It’s a rat snake. Most likely when I come here, I think you’re getting a lot of frogs or something.

Mary-Rose Abraham: We head back to the car, Subhadra with a hook in one hand, and a snake in the bag in the other. Now that he’s bagged, I’m no longer afraid to stand right next to her.

He’s quite large.

Subhadra Cherukuri: Yeah, I think he’s almost about six and a half feet, a full grown rat snake. Absolutely harmless guy, at least to humans.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Today’s catch is a cobra and a rat snake. The two most common species for rescuers in the city, and Subhadra says she can get up to six calls a day, especially now in the rainy season, when all the little hatchlings are around. She’ll keep the snakes at home, securely, and release a few at a time, every other day. She has to pick just the right spot to let them go. A place out of the way of human habitats, but within a certain distance from their capture point. Gowri Shankar explains.

Gowri Shankar: If you release them within their habitat, within their home range, they do manage. They do come back, or they suffer because they know the place. Yet beyond three kilometers or four square kilometers I don’t think the snake will survive. He will starve to death.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Finding green space within those limits, and far away from houses, will be increasingly difficult as the city expands. For now, Subhadra has a large lake near her house, with areas of shrubs and trees where no one ventures.

Today she’s going to release a non-venomous trinket snake. It’s a slender type of constrictor, and harmless to people. She carefully unties the bag and takes hold of the corners, which have been stitched in a special way.

Subhadra Cherukuri: So that when you hold those corners, the snake cannot get to you from inside the bag.

Mary-Rose Abraham: The snake peeks its head out. The trees, the tall grass, and the distance from any people should make it a nice new home.

Subhadra Cherukuri: He’s trying to see where he is, sense where he is, and yeah, there he is. He’s going, slithering off very slowly. Yep, there he’s gone.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Will you ever see him again?

Subhadra Cherukuri: I don’t think so. Going by this experience, I think he will just stay away, and find his happy burrows here, and he has enough of space. He’s safely away from any human habitation, so unlikely that anyone’s going to call us for rescuing this snake again.

Kasha Patel: Snake rescuers in India, or anywhere for that matter, have a tough task to get people to not panic when they see a snake. It’s hard to see a snake, stop, and get close enough to see, “Is that snake going to inject me with a life-threatening venom, or just leave a fang mark?” And then our snake rescuer Subhadra said that a lot of young people watched Youtube videos, and think that snake-rescuing is easy, so they capture the snake, they take selfies, and then they get injured.

 

Kasha Patel: As we heard, around 46,000 people die annually in India from snake bites, but there’s a much greater threat for Indians, and actually, people all around the globe. It affects millions of people. You can’t see it, but you can feel the impact on your lungs, depending on where you are. It is air pollution. Senior editor David Corcoran talks to photographer Larry Price about a new feature on Undark called Breathtaking, which is about a certain type of air pollution called PM2.5 that is hazardous to our health. Let’s take a listen.

David Corcoran: Larry, let’s start by talking about this project, Breathtaking. And we should say that you are a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, so the assignment here was to go out and photograph air pollution.

Larry, I have to ask you, what drew you to this subject in the first place?

Larry Price: Well, I’m a documentary photographer, so my passion and my pursuit is to record visual stories about the human condition, and I’ve worked in the pollution sector fairly extensively and consistently since 2012, and really felt like there was an untold story here. This issue of PM2.5, as much as been written about it in scientific circles, when I use that term, I always have to explain it.

My mission here is to bring awareness. Is to put a human face on the tragedy of a certain type of pollution, and hopefully some of those images will resonate with people who are charged with making a difference.

David Corcoran: You know, I’ve been covering the environment and public health for years, and I confess I had never heard this term, PM2.5. What is it, exactly?

Larry Price: It’s a scientific descriptor. What it literally means is particulate matter, hence the PM, that is 2.5 microns or less in size.

There was a huge article in the British medical journal, Lancet, and in that, there were some theories and data and all sorts of evidence that this particular type of atmospheric pollution called PM2.5 … the health effects were killing people.

David Corcoran: So you get to the city of Patna in northern India, and your assignment is to take pictures of air pollution. These particles, as you’ve just said, are really too small to see with the naked eye, so how do you take pictures of it?

Larry Price: Well, you can certainly see them, collectively. I was amazed and overwhelmed when I arrived in Patna. Patna is a huge city in northern India. Population’s 2 million, maybe 3 million in the large metropolitan zone that extends beyond the city into the villages. It’s in far northern India, somewhat isolated, for its size, and it is very close to the Himalayan mountain range. I mean, you can drive to Kathmandu in about eight hours. It’s an amazing place. It’s an ancient city, and it’s actually undergoing a building boom there. It’s the bustling economy, and it’s a mecca for tens of thousands of people who are moving from the countryside seeking employment opportunities, so that puts an amazing level of stress on the city and the infrastructure there.

But when you arrive in Patna, it’s stunning. I remember walking out of the airport and looking up in the middle of the afternoon, and it just was this thick, brown, syrupy-looking soup of toxic atmosphere. There was no other way to describe it. I’d never seen anything like it.

This was the first trip in this project. We ultimately decided on pursuing coverage in seven different locations around the world, so this was the first trip, back in November of 2017, and I’ve covered pollution stories before, but had not really been in situations where the atmospheric pollution was so bad.

David Corcoran: Is there any evidence, Larry, that this level of pollution is actually harming people in Patna, India?

Larry Price: Well there’s a lot of data to support that, and a lot of anecdotal evidence, certainly. That was what I was certainly after, visually, but if you look at the recent Lancet reports, and a lot of the recent data from 2015 on, it’s estimated that, in India alone, a million people are killed by pollution, and I’m talking about atmospheric pollution. And by killed, I’m talking about people who have tendency toward having high blood pressure, heart ailments. The big one is respiratory conditions.

The biggest issue that people tend to get are … actually, there are two. COPD, which is a lung disease — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — and asthma. Those are the two big ones. And then combine that. If you have those conditions … it’s arguable that the pollution causes those diseases. It’s demonstrable that the pollution aggravates those conditions, and the Lancet report details this in amazing data points. Their estimation was that if pollution initiatives actually worked in India, or in Patna, that the average life expectancy would actually grow by four years.

David Corcoran: Some of the pictures that you took of people affected by this type of air pollution are just stunning, and really poignant. Obviously podcast, not a visual medium, but I wonder if I could ask you to describe a couple of the people that you photographed?

Larry Price: I tried to avoid just doing these general views of atmosphere and smog and pollution, and of course I took those photographs, but the overarching theory was, “Let’s try to describe, and show, the literal health effects.” In this series we’re trying to describe what PM2.5 is, but we’re also really trying to show what it does, what it’s like, how people feel being trapped under this blanket of toxicity 356 days a year.

So my approach, as a documentary photographer, I tried to humanize my visual reporting. I try to get out on the street. I try to find situations … seek out situations where I can show the effects of these conditions. I break it down into smaller components of the contributors to the PM2.5 pollution, and then take those apart. It takes an inordinate amount of time. It can be an amazing journey of discovery, but it can also be really frustrating. You’re trying to get something as simple as showing traffic, for instance, and you’re so stuck in the traffic that you can’t get a good picture of traffic. It’s an amazing process. It’s exhausting, but at the end of the day it’s all about the human experience.

David Corcoran: Some of the faces are so striking. And one thing that was particularly affecting, as far as I was concerned, was that the people you photograph are often not very old. They’re in their 60s or maybe early 70s, and yet they look so much older.

Larry Price: Yeah, my first experience talking to someone who was obviously having health issues, there was a 75 year old man in one of the … yeah, I guess I would describe it as sort of a middle-class neighborhood near central Patna. I was interested in showing, or exploring, the notion of how indoor cooking and coal sort of coalesced into the health effects, so by doing that I was able to spend time with a few families, and sort of try to understand their daily routine. And this couple, they would get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and they would start boiling water to make their morning tea, and go through their routine pretty much the same way I’d do here in Ohio, when I’m home, except instead of turning the tea kettle on, or efficient gas stove, they would collect coal, cow dung, whatever they could find to burn. Paper, bits of wood, and that sort of thing, and they would ignite these materials over a tiny little clay stove to boil their water, or cook their food and their meals, and the entire interior of their living space would just fill with this toxic smoke.

And coal, when coal burns it’s incredibly dirty, and it’s one of the biggest 2.5 contributors on the planet, and he was constantly coughing and obviously having problems breathing, and he spent most of his time sitting on this little cot in this room adjacent to their kitchen, breathing in this thick, acrid smoke.

So you take that, you multiply that by a million people every day, three times a day, and you can imagine the amount of carbon from that one little source. Something that’s unlikely as a cooking fire that goes into the atmosphere and contributes to the overall PM2.5 count.

So while I was spending time with this couple, I asked them, through my translator, if they knew that this was harmful. The man coughed a couple of times, and was breathing and wheezing, and he told my translator that … basically what he said was, “What are we going to do? This is all I know, and this is what we have to do.”

So it was sort of jarring to realize that that this technology for clean fuel and clean food preparation’s available, but then I started thinking about it, and you look at the socio-economic levels of some of the people in some of the neighborhoods, and they’re doing what they can do to get by. In some cases they can change. A few people told me that they like to burn wood because it makes the food taste better, so you have custom and cultural concerns, obviously, but in essence they were polluting their indoor environment, day in and day out, and they were literally paying the price with their health.

David Corcoran: It’s such a complicated problem, and as you say, if people have no choice but to burn coal or burn wood just in order to survive, it’s very hard to see a way out of this problem.

Do you see any hope that the situation will improve?

Larry Price: I can remember thinking many times walking down the street with my cameras, sort of looking at all of the fabric and texture of India, under this toxic shroud, and thinking to myself, “This is hopeless. How can this ever be turned around?” And it’s kind of like the old proverb, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I think it’s awareness. It’s education. It’s government initiatives to make some hard and fast decisions about transportation infrastructure, maybe subsidies for people to get the proper fuel — simple little things like that. To me, it all comes back to education, and it all comes back to government initiatives.

There was a really poignant and distressing quote in the story. If you pull up the India piece and look at it. The environmental minister for Bihar State, which is the state that Patna’s located in, he says, on the record, that he doesn’t think there’s a pollution problem in Patna. And this is at the very top tier of the government, so until people can stop politicizing environmental concerns and come together and work toward solving the problem, putting agendas aside, dealing with traffic, dealing with emissions, education … no, I don’t see a lot of hope for it, which is somewhat distressing, and my point of view is this was the first trip I made on this project, and subsequent projects have seen progress being made in unlikely places, and in other places where you would think that initiatives would be more on the positive side, I see it stalled.

David Corcoran: You made an important point about our series, Breathtaking, which is that it’s not just photographs. There are articles by local journalists. There are graphics and maps that really give you a very rounded picture of this problem of particulate matter and its consequences, but the photographs are really central to it.

Larry Price: Well the beauty of the project that Undark is starting to publish in this series, is the depth and breadth. It has narrative, it has really well-written prose. We’re doing classic documentary photography that I’m trying to make as powerful as I can, and it also has multimedia components and amazing graphics, so we’re coalescing all this data, all this visual information, into a coherent, powerful piece that tells a story of human suffering and the science behind it. I’m most successful when I can make a photograph that … I call it the double-take. You’re looking at a series of pictures and you just stop. I want to make pictures that just stop you in your tracks, and sometimes those pictures are beautiful, sometimes they’re discouraging, sometimes they’re desperate, but the idea is that I want people to look at my pictures and appreciate them for their humanity, and I want people to say, “Oh my gosh, how can this be happening?”

If I can do that every now and then, I feel like I’m doing my job as a journalist, and a photographer.

David Corcoran: That’s a great answer. Larry, what’s your next stop?

Larry Price: I just got back from southern Chile. I was in Santiago and further south in Patagonia, where I was working for a few weeks, and then in late November, early December, I’m planning a trip back to Europe, to the Balkans. So that’ll be our last installment of seven parts.

David Corcoran: So you are really traveling the globe for this series. Larry Price, is the photographer for the Undark series, Breathtaking, about the type of air pollution called PM2.5. Larry, I want to thank you so much for doing this series in the first place, and then for coming on the podcast to talk about it.

Larry Price: Well thank you David. Great to be here. This has been an amazing, if exhausting, project, and I’m sort of looking forward to getting this out there. Hoping to do my part to create an awareness which is such an important, if unknown, type of pollution that, in some ways, every one of us, every single day, has to deal with.

Kasha Patel: All right, Undark listeners. That is our episode. Thank you for joining us, and remember to stay safe and smart out there. We are produced by Lydia Chain and the music is by the Undark team, and I’m your host, Kasha Patel.

Talk to you next month.

Update: An earlier version of this podcast and transcript provided an incorrect description of PM2.5, a scientific and regulatory term referring to fine particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. Although particulate pollution larger than 2.5 micrometers is generally considered less hazardous, it is still a public health concern. There is also no meaningful lower threshold for particulate pollution below 2.5 micrometers that can be considered safe. The podcast and transcript also incorrectly cited the number of annual deaths caused by global air pollution. That reference has been removed.

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3 comments / Join the Discussion

    I lived in India, in Vadodara, for 5 months as a student back in 2000. While there, I got to travel around a lot of the country. When I visited Delhi, every night when I returned to the hotel, my nose would be all stuffed up from the pollution. When I cleared it out, what came out of it onto the tissue was black with pollution. A few years later, I lived in Moscow. The times I would leave the city and get way out into a forest to go for a hike, my lungs would burn from inhaling the super clean air.

    Reply

    The NYT reviewed a study that shows that the yearly burnt surface in the US in prehistoric times was about 5 times what it is today. There are species that are adapted to live on burnt soil that are facing extinction because of lack of fires. So highlighting human-started fires is just selective reporting. There is a federal agency tasked with suppressing them. Why not mention that? Because you’ve decided you are against fires in advance, like the logging industry or the real estate industry. So you select the facts you want, and sell those. What kind of information is that? Being in balance with Nature means accepting that it does sometime things we don’t like.

    Reply

    What’s the paper that was referenced in Lancet? How is a science podcast referring to a massive number like “9 million” from a scientific journal and then not referencing the paper?

    Reply
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