The Real Wild Side of Mumbai

field notes| Manya Kotera |

The unparalleled rush of driving through the pitch-dark roads of Sanjay Gandhi National Park in a bumpy Gypsy, a leopard framed by our headlights lounging in our pathway, was far from what I had expected when I committed to an internship in Mumbai. I was always interested in nature and, to gain exposure and experience in the field of conservation, I interned on a project conducted by Ramya Nair, who is working with Dr. Vidya Athreya at Wildlife Conservation Society- India. Her project was particularly interesting because it looks at social science-based tools for conservation research in order to study human-wildlife interactions beyond a “conflict” perspective. I also simultaneously volunteered on a leopard density survey headed by Nikit Surve, another researcher in the team.

Driving into the park for the first time, I was awed by the peculiarity of the environment. At the outset, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the bustling highway, overflowing with traffic, and the road leading to the National Park that was covered in a sea of people. It felt like we were driving through a regular city park with the exception of the occasional herd of spotted deer running across the street or macaque couple mating on the branches. The sheer number of people in the park made it hard to believe that we were in a Protected Area. Looking around, you could see the basic hallmarks of any public park – children playing, couples frolicking, senior citizens power walking, pre-wedding photoshoots and the like. Owing to my narrow metropolitan perspective, it was astonishing to think that, by night, there were leopards roaming around. More surprising than that was the fact that there were over 1500 Adivasi families living in tribal hamlets or padas within the boundaries of the national park.

As a Bangalorean who was born and raised in the city, to whom the forests were limited to 3-day vacations, this volunteering experience gave me a new perspective on nature and wildlife. It helped me realize that there need not be a distinction between forest life and everyday life. Under Ramya’s project, I went through interview footage so, despite not being present, I learnt quite a bit about the social institution of Waghoba, a tribal big cat deity. It was interesting to see the role of Waghoba in making people more tolerant to sharing space with leopards in the landscape. Waghoba manifested as a coping mechanism for them to deal with fear and livestock depredation. Another interesting finding was that the people from Adivasi communities that worship Waghoba considers both big cats (tigers and leopards) as wagh, which diverges from the western taxonomy of distinguishing between different species of big cats. Watching the recorded footage of the practice of worshiping Waghoba helped me acknowledge the fact that such alternate lifestyles are entirely valid even though many of us are not exposed to ways of living beyond the constraints of urban life. By not exploring and understanding them, we are limiting our worldview to that which we see in our immediate surroundings. In fact, the academic papers that we were reading as part of research under the Waghoba project helped us realize the deep-rooted effects of colonization that make us overlook the experiences of people to whom the jungle is home. Reading these papers alongside working on-field was enlightening because I could see what I read play out before my eyes. It made me realize the importance of field experience to academia in any field of study, while giving me a more intimate understanding of the world beyond urban life.

Camera trapping allowed me to experience forests in a new and personal way – on foot rather than through a car window. While walking the trails, we had to constantly remain vigilant to prevent any sudden and unfortunate encounters with wildlife, which was new to me as I was accustomed to having my head in the clouds and music blaring in my ears. Initially, I was amazed at the other volunteers’ ability to identify birds by their call, while simultaneously finding pug marks in the ground and also sniffing out the urine scent of scrape marks. But through the course of my experience here, I learnt to engage all my senses and be constantly aware of my surroundings. Now I even find myself sighting birds like the brown-headed barbet while walking around my neighborhood! I can’t even imagine what I must have missed in all these years of living in a metropolitan bubble. 

Now, wherever I go, I find myself hearing a certain bird call or seeing a certain tree which reminds me of my month in the park. It is jarring to see that even though the same elements are present, it is different in some indescribable way. It forced me to consider the alarming rate of habitat degradation and realize the need for conservation research. This experience was a real eye-opener and it has inspired me to pursue my interests in wildlife conservation.

Boiling bats—the carnage of climate change

field notes|Ari Drummond|

Monday, 26 November 2018 was catastrophe and carnage. When temperatures spiked from 36C to over 43C, Spectacled Flying-Foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) plummeted from canopy heights to forest floors, carpeting leaf litter with carcasses. We arrived before the nightly fly-out unsure of what we would find.  Though history had yet to record the effects of climate change on this Far North Queensland species, knowledge of heat stress events in their southern cousins–the Grey-Headed Flying-Fox (Pteropus poliocephalus)–stifled hope for moderate loss.  As the sun set we watched as around thirty flying-foxes departed their roost to seek hydration from nectar and fruits. The black specks vanished into a dusky horizon that should have been peppered with bats.

Night descended and malodorous fumes settled in a forest thick with the screams of babies calling for mothers that would never again groom and suckle young.  Trailing lianas and a thick, thorny forest understory flouted the beams of our torches as we attempted to trace the echoing cries of the new orphans. We found as many as darkness would allow, some gasping their last breaths.  As we searched, tripping over bodies, we found young adults weakly hanging against trunks of their towering roost trees, glazed eyes unblinking as we attempted to unhook their claws from thorny vines.

Over the next 5 days our small team of volunteer flying-fox carers and rescue workers would collect almost 12,000 corpses and 351 live bats. We worked in heat reaching up to 45C, perhaps even hotter inside the 6-acre stretch forest.  Death clung to every branch. In the forest centre we found the trunks of the tallest trees encircled by layer upon layer of dead bats, sometimes nearly 30cm deep. Even after 3 days of desiccation and rot we still found live young half-buried in the decomposing piles. As we scoured the forest for the live, we packed the dead into bag after bag.  When we ran out of bags, we counted the scattered bodies into piles. With no options for disposal we left the bodies to stew and rot in the viscous heat. By Day 6 the forest was silent except for the constant hum of thousands of flies, still but for the wriggling of hundreds of thousands of maggots.

Spectacled Flying-Foxes are a keystone species in Queensland’s tropical ecosystems.  These bats are pollinators of a variety of native flowering trees and shrubs and have a long evolutionary history as primary seed dispersers of the fruiting trees that comprise Australia’s northern rain forests.  This region encompasses the Wet Tropics World Heritage Site, a major biodiversity hotspot. Without the flying-foxes the rain forest will lose a key player responsible for forest regeneration and growth.

Heat events such as this occur yearly in Australia and seem to be occurring with increasing frequency and severity.  Due to mass die-offs, the effects are more evident in species like flying-foxes; however they threaten more than just bats.  During the same event that withered the forests of Queensland, birds dropped from their perches and small mammals expired beside dried riverbeds.  

This is climate change in action.  Skeptics point to geological history and the uneven distribution of climate change effects to argue that the changes we see are part of a natural cycle of the Earth’s physical environment.  While such changes do occur, the scope and severity of what we currently face are unprecedented, outside of mass catastrophes such as extinction-generating meteorites and volcanic eruptions.

Usually we talk about climate change in terms of prevention.  However events such as Far North Queensland’s first extreme heat event reveal that the time for prevention has already passed us by.  In order to protect species and delicate ecosystems we must shift our attention from preventing temperature increases to addressing the immediate challenges climate change has already laid at our feet.  This includes finding novel ways to protect and preserve Earth’s biodiversity given that climate change is already altering the habitats and behaviours of organisms across the globe.

In a few hot days we lost at least one third of the Spectacled Flying-Fox population.  That week, as roosts vanished, we watched as local governments struggled to respond and trained animal rescue workers tried to cope with the scope of the crisis.  

None of us at Edmonton was prepared to for the true face of global climate change: carnage. We witnessed the decimation of a colony estimated to have contained around 13-14,000 flying-foxes before the event.  Of that number we were able to save 351 or less than 3%. In order to conserve the remainder of the species we will have to find ways of actively protecting the animals from future heat event effects. If these 12,000+ deaths can teach us anything, it is that we need to stop focusing on prevention and start examining how we can proactively support ecosystems and wildlife that are going to face extreme climate events with increasing frequency and severity. 

 

Ari Drummond

A city-girl field ecologist

field notes|Anusha Shankar|13.1

 

Ecology is sometimes thought of as a bourgeois profession; one that only the middle class and above can have the luxury of seriously considering as a career. And this might well be true. Maybe ‘saving the world’ is a luxury for those who can afford it. Many ecologists indeed feel passionate about what we do because at some level we are thinking about the Earth’s well-being. And there is always an acknowledgment that this profession isn’t about making money –  you won’t make money. It takes near-impossible resolve to keep this mindset if you are penniless. But I never could quite put my finger on why I could earn 10 times as much driving a truck than I ever would as an ecologist with over 10 years of post-high school education. I realised one day when I was in the field that it’s for two main reasons: we have curiously explored the little secrets that make animals work the way they do, and tried to uncover new knowledge of how animals interact with their environments. And we often get to do this by exploring places most others don’t get to see. This professional curiosity in often remote places cultivates an awe for the natural world.

It’s far from glamorous once you get down to it – you might literally wade through cow dung or get swarmed by 100 ticks at once (itch for months), get deported, and go to other insane  lengths  to  see  these things (some, or all, of these, might have been my real-life experiences). But at the end of it all, I don’t just get to see the Milky Way light a path through the universe. I see the Milky Way in Arizona at 2 am after my shift watching a wild hummingbird sleep.

I followed gibbons in the forests of Northeast India, watched a king cobra devouring a rat snake in the wild, and studied nesting hornbills, in the Western Ghats of India. I held transparent butterflies and woke up, for months, to a cloud forest valley bathed in clouds in Ecuador. I saw penguins near the equator in the Galapagos, and blue-footed boobies. The majestic Swiss Alps in the snowy warmth of the spring; the breath-taking Himalayas, their dizzying heights leaving me literally breathless. The caressing, windy, confusing, warmth of the high Andes, with its bluer-than-blue skies. This has been my past 10 years – a self- proclaimed city girl.

How lucky am I? This is not altruism – I am selfish. I want to continue   to be able to see these things. This profession satiates my curiosity, and quenches my need to experience the Earth as it should be – less polluted. This Earth is marvelous. Its diversity moves me to tears. I am amazed by  it. How much you can see and learn if you stop and observe the world around you!

Many ecologists enter the profession because they want to get away from people. But to be successful in the field, you come to realise that the key lies in the opposite, in working well with other people. There is no way we can save our wild places simply by roaming them; we need to reach across disciplines and work with people to solve the problems humans have created. We must lead by example to continue having the chance to experience our wilderness. One way is to have compassionate conversations with others who think differently from us. To gently bring up questions about our lifestyles. How much stuff do we actually need to own and use? How much plastic and oil and land and fish and clothes and straws… at what cost? What do you or I, or all of us, really need, to be content? How much is enough?

I know this is cliché, but our Earth really is the only one of its kind that we know of. On one rock in the universe we know of, there are giraffes, blue whales, giant smelly flowers, microscopic and indestructible tardigrades, some ten thousand flying, feathered, colorful things we call birds. There are green leafy things that don’t move (much) and act like our planet’s lungs. This concept, of our blue-green planet, continues to astound me. I want its diversity to continue existing, for my selfish current self, and for the future. There are over seven billion of us humans, and I am sure we can come up with ways to make it happen if we put our heads together. Let us open our minds, work with engineers and architects, painters and children, to keep our disappearing diversity from slipping away.

Thank you,

A city-dwelling forest lover

 

Anusha Shankar is a National Geographic Explorer and a post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. For her Ph.D. from Stony Brook University, New York, she studied how American and Ecuadorian hummingbirds manage their limited energy.

Maanvi Kapur is a lover of good design and all things illustration. Fine Art was a part of her life from an early age and she received formal training in painting and sculpture. Her true love lies in illustration, and that means anything from portraits to nature to still life.

Stripes in the cotton

field notes|Rohit Subhedar|

Greetings with any person here usually begin with a hearty “Ram ram kaka”. A chair or a charpai is immediately offered, followed by extremely sweet tea decoction, and it is considered rude not to accept the tea. On a day when one is not working, conversations can be endless. Gonds and Kolams inhabit the Kagaznagar forest landscape in Telangana, which connects three major protected areas namely Tadoba, Indravati and Kawal. The landscape is an interesting mosaic of low elevation hills slowly merging into farms and villages. Two rivers, Pranahita and Wardha, are fed by small streams and water channels in the forest. They are the main water source for the villagers to feed their crops. I usually hear clangs of glass bottles when I walk through these farms. Low gusts of wind keep this music on, not to entertain a passer-by like me but to keep wild animals out. To me, the sound of these glass bottles, are a constant reminder that these local communities share space with wildlife. This space is often the stage for encounters that adversely affect both wildlife and local communities. Sometimes the wild pig eats away the farmer’s crop and sometimes the farmer traps a pig in his snare.

                                                                                                 Kagaznagar forest landscape

On one cold winter morning, I was sipping that extremely sweet tea with a Gond village headman. He was telling me all the ways they have tried to outwit wild pigs to protect their crops. Although the damage was significant, he still found it funny that nothing worked. He told me that wild pigs are intelligent animals and they can adapt to just about anything. From my conversations with other farmers in the area, I understand that they hate wild pigs for the menace they cause but also respect them for their risk taking attitude! As the conversation went on, the headman spoke about other animals too. He told me how wildlife populations have come down due to various pressures such as hunting and deforestation. He told me one final thing before I got up to leave – “We believe it is good luck if we find the pugmarks of a tiger in our farms”. I asked him why. He said “We don’t really know, we were told by our elders that the presence of tigers in our surroundings is a good omen”. This belief is further validated when one finds pointed wooden posts near Gond settlements which represent the tiger spirit called “Waghoba”. Numerous forest deities are found in the forest as well. The place of worship always has clay toys of animals such as horses, bullocks and large carnivores like tigers and leopards.

On another day, our team got a call from a villager reporting a tiger sighting. We rushed to the spot immediately and spoke to the person who had seen the tiger. He pointed us in the direction in which the tiger went. We searched the area thoroughly for any signs for about an hour without any luck. Considering the sighting to be a false one, just when we were about to leave, one of my field assistants shouted – “Pugmarks here!” As I walked towards him, I realised that I had walked through a patch of forest followed by a village road to finally stand in the middle of a cotton field looking at pugmarks of a tiger. The cotton fields at the time of harvest provide excellent cover for tigers to move from one forest patch to another. I wonder what that Gond headman would say about this. Is his belief somewhere embedded in scientific reason? Does the presence of ‘Waghoba’ scare wild pigs away from farms? Or perhaps keep a check on their numbers by killing and eating them? I cannot be sure. My scientifically trained mind seems to reason it out this way. For all I know, the stripes are here to stay, moving, feeding and reproducing in a human-modified area. In a cotton field.

                                                                   Kolam temple with a big cat on the centre wooden pole

                                                  Painting of tiger and elephant (although not found in the area) on the temple wall 

Rohit Subhedar is currently working with WCS-India as a Junior Research associate.

The turtle and I

Poem | Madhuri Ramesh and Kartik Shanker | 12.4

 

I wandered lonely ‘pon the shore

A windy night with restless seas,

When all at once I saw a score,

A swarm of nesting olive ridleys

Upon the beach, beneath the moon

A lumbering, bumbering turtle typhoon

 

Whose turtles these are I think I know                                                                                

I thought they were in Gahirmatha though;

They won’t mind me standing here

And watching them nest ungainly and slow…

 

I tagged a turtle with great care,

It swam away, I know not where;

For so effortlessly it glided,

All its tracks were elided. 

Long, long afterward, on a beach

Someone found it, once more within reach.

Upon reading the tag, she wrote to me:

‘Tis the turtle that has the measure of the sea.  

 

How do I study thee? Let me count the ways

I track thee to the depth and breadth and height

My telemetry can reach, when you dive out of sight

For the ends of science across the bays.

I follow thee through almost every twist in the maze,

Data columns to be filled in by months and by days

A fierce need, by moon and torch-light

I obsess over thee, and for authorship will fight.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines

Write, for example, “The dogs entered the hatchery

And now my paper on TSD has receded into the distance.”

The turtles no longer come ashore and nest.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

I watched them every night, and sometimes they watched me too.

Through the months, I collected their eggs carefully, gently

I counted them repeatedly under the starry skies.

They watched me sometimes, and I watched them too.

How could one have foreseen the eggs were all destined to die.

 

Somewhere I have never travelled, dived beyond

An unimaginable depth, your flippers move in silence:

In your most mundane movements are things which enthrall me

Or which I cannot fathom because my text books fail me.

Your slightest shift will easily confuse me

Though my mind is closed by science, as a clam’s

You bewilder always slowly, subtly as an underwater current

(tugging, pulling, carrying) a little hatchling.

– Madhuri Ramesh and Kartik Shanker

The authors are biologists who believe poetry sounds better with a smattering of turtle-speak. They would also like to thank the original poets for inspiration:  Byron, Noyes, Eliot, Tennyson and Keats for ‘Turtle Song’ (Issue 11.2); Wordsworth, Frost, Longfellow, Cummings, Barrett Browning and Neruda for this poem.

Vidyasagar Saple is a graphic designer and visual artist based in Mumbai. His dual life allows him to work with a variety of creativity fields and constantly explore different mediums.