Little notes from the high Himalayan mountains

The view from the top of a 5000 metre ridgeline is nothing short of breathtaking. The outstretched valley below glitters like speckles of snow on the floor, and the emerald river meanders its way through rocks. In these high mountains, stories of the ghosts of mountains past become more visceral. Snow leopards slowly stalk the mountain for their ungulate prey, with impeccable camouflage and grace. One is truly inspired by the romance of being in, and working in, the mountains.

A mixed-herd of Ladakh Urail (Ovis orientalis vignei), one of the few species referred to as the mountain monarchs and a key to the trans-Himalayan ecosystem. They influence vegetation structure, plant species composition and nutrient cycling, while also being determinants of predators (including the rare snow leopard’s) population density.

 

Romanticism aside, mountains are the water towers of the world. They impact the lives of millions of people below. They are home to communities that graze livestock and cultivate the land. Studying and conserving high mountain species is an important first step in ensuring the conservation of our own communities.

Researchers from Nature Conservation Foundation’s High Altitude Program have been working across Ladakh and Spiti, in the Trans-Himalayas of North India for over 2 decades. A lot of the research has tried to understand status of and threats to ungulates – wild sheep and goats- and the enigmatic snow leopard, living in these mountains. Ungulates are particularly important as they are key determinants of predator populations (including snow leopards) and help in maintaining vegetation structure and nutrient cycling. Knowledge from the research subsequently forms a basis for community engagement. This facilitates interventions such as community-governed grazing free reserves, that help conserve ungulates and in turn their predators.

Pictured here is 26-year-old Rigzen Dorjay from Saspochey village, Ladakh, that has been working towards monitoring and conservation mountain ungulates in his native Ladakh for nearly 5 years now.

Nevertheless, working in these mountains has its share of challenges.

Although beautiful, the desolate beauty of the high altitudes holds some hard earned lessons you have no means to learn outside of a mountainous landscape. The skill required to walk through knee deep snow, balancing precariously as one ascends a frozen river, having to recalculate footing multiple times to ensure non-occurrence of fatal slips. There is also an immense test of patience to spot a snow leopard with your own eyes, undeterred by knowing that a clear view only comes after several weeks (not days!) of scanning the slopes and being constantly battered by frigid winds. It takes persistence, courage and above all belief in oneself, for it is only belief that will help you cross a very difficult ridgeline. While there are often days with no sighting of even the tracks of your study species, being able to spot a well- camouflaged herd in the mountains still becomes a sort of an addiction.

Field sites take days of driving to get to. Teams have been stuck for over 15 days in a village, to which either side was cut-off to cars by landslides and avalanches. Supplies are hard to come by. In a landscape where you have barely enough oxygen to breathe, fresh vegetables are a luxury. Most field sites are so remote that one often camps for several days. In the colder months (which sometimes include summers), this often means that when dawn breaks, you may find yourself waking in a sleeping bag lined with a layer of ice. The oil used for cooking dinner turns as hard as a brick, and you might as well forget your morning brushing routine, for the toothpaste that you would like to use is frozen as well.

As mountain ungulates in the trans-himalayas are found in extremely low densities, it is important to be vigilant while finding them. Often tracks made by their hooves and their dropping on mountain slopes are indicators of their presence.

 

Nonetheless, if you find some courage to thaw your seemingly paralyzed fingers and toes, you will soon realize that doing good conservation sciences in the mountains isn’t merely about trekking its slopes. No matter what your purpose may be, whether it is estimating the population of snow leopards and their prey, or understanding disease transmission between livestock and wild ungulates, one must ensure that the data they collect is robust. This means that in addition to the cold, the altitude, and the rugged terrain, robust application of appropriate methods remains. A key to ensuring this is working as a team, especially one that involves locals. Through this we keep each other’s spirits high, learn from failures and use experience to tweak existing methods. This ensures applicability of methods in these harsh landscapes; knowledge from which, is one of several tools used to conserve the mountains and its denizens.

 

Munib Khanyari is a Research Associate at Nature Conservation Foundation’s High Altitude Program. He studies factors that affect mountain ungulate populations at a landscape level. 

Manini Bansal is a Visual Communication Designer and Photographer. She works with Dakshin Foundation as their designer and is the Art editor and Managing editor for Current Conservation.

Photographs by Manini Bansal

 

Studying secrets from dead sharks

fieldnotes | Zoya Tyabji | 14.1

 

At a social gathering recently, I was asked by an old relative the ubiquitous question of what I do. “I study sharks”, I usually respond. Conversations stopped, sounds dropped, and all eyes were on me. After a second of disbelief, they asked “Aren’t you scared of getting into the water and swimming with them though?”

It’s a common misconception to think that studying sharks entails swimming in the ocean like a scene from Jaws. But sharks can be studied in multiple ways depending upon the questions you want to answer– from underwater visual surveys through diving, putting baited remote underwater cameras, or tagging
methods. However, I study them at fish-landing centres, one of the most efficient and cost-effective way to acquire a whole lot of secrets from them. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India has one of the few targeted shark fisheries that remains in India, along with sharks caught as bycatch here. By visiting
landing centers, I document biological and fisheries aspects so as to inform management in the hope that it can lead to better conservation strategies.

Such basic information is scarce and severely hampers effective management measures. Contrary to the glamorous belief, my field site is the fish-landings at Junglighat and Burmanallah, located in Port Blair, the main city of South Andamans, which I have been visiting every alternate morning or when weather
permits for the past year and a half. My subject of study are sharks caught by fishermen for their meat, fins and liver oil which is then exported out of the Islands.

Sampling sharks

On sampling days, my team member Tanmay Wagh and I wake up alongside the chirping of the first morning and ride sleepily to the landing site. It is imperative to get there early so that we can sample the sharks before they are auctioned and sold off. Once we enter the landing sites, we are caught in the
commotion of the place.

The only constant here is coordinated chaos. Fishers separate their catch on the boat and land it on the platform of the fish landing site. Then they either transport it to the market or sell it to traders who export the fish to peninsular India. In this chaos, our noses guide us to the pungent and very characteristic
smell that emanates from the pile of dead sharks. Walking towards a pile, I put my disposable gloves on and pick up a measuring tape and weighing scale, while Tanmay gets ready with the data sheet, pen and camera to record the data. We record the species of the shark, size, gender, maturity and weight. This is methodically carried out for every individual shark in different boat catches which are randomly sampled. This cost-effective sampling method provides us with comprehensive information on seasonal diversity of elasmobranchs; biological traits such as size frequency, sex ratio, maturity and length-weight relationships; interactions of shark species with fishing gear and grounds.

However, after sampling more than 2000 dead sharks, I craved to see a live shark. On one such sampling day, we were recording shark species that mainly live in the deep sea, characterized by their small size (approx. 1 metre total length), huge green eyes and spines on their first and second dorsal fin. I had picked up one such shark and was taking measurements from the tip of the tail to the tip of the snout, when I realized that the gills, spiracles and eyes of the shark were moving. The shark was alive!

After more than a year of sampling, I suddenly blanked out on how to sample sharks that day. Little did I know that my wish to see a live shark would be granted in such a situation and so soon.

Unexpected events

Our experiences at the landings paralleled that of the hustle bustle, such that they were always eventful. Sharks here are called ‘Badmaash’ (translating to ‘naughty rascal’). While researchers working on turtles are called turtle man or researchers working on snakes are called snake man, I am sometimes referred to as ‘Badmaash madam’ at the landing site. The lack of theatres in the Andaman Islands makes everyone crave drama. While people on the mainland watch James Bond movies, we witness first hand inspiration for such action movies. One such occasion was when we suddenly heard a big boom in the midst of sampling sharks. We turned towards the sound to see that the fuel tank on a boat had caught fire and burst, resulting in the boat splitting and catching fire. The two fishers on the boat had caught fire an were flung into the sea. However, instead of the water healing, the high salt concentrations in the sea can lead to severe injuries and infections (which is why you should not believe the movies). The fishermen had to be rushed to the hospital immediately. Luckily, both of them are now safe with their families, although gravely injured.

On another occasion, a fisherman was trying to offload a 2-meter Bull shark, weighing almost a 100 kg. While pulling the shark from the boat, instead of landing onto the platform, the fisherman lost his balance and instead fell over the side of the boat, and into the water with the shark on top of him. After a few small physical bruises and a big one on his ego, and with the help of the onlookers, he successfully brought the shark onto the platform. The fisher is now a good friend and we have had plenty of discussions over a morning cup of chai where we still laugh about his fallacy.

Findings and future directions

I developed an interest in sharks while working on a coral reef project. The lack of sharks while studying the health of reefs, followed by numerous interactions with locals who remarked on the steep decline of sharks in the past decade, is what made me question their status in the islands. Being green-eyed and enthusiastic, I never realized it would mean me studying dead sharks for a year and a half. The experience provided me with a skillset to study sharks, wherein I learnt species identification, techniques to study them and it became a stepping stone for my professional development; and to value ground truths.

As I spent more time at the fish-landing site, my interactions with fishers changed my perception that sharks had to be studied through top-down protection approaches and management measures. While overfishing is one of the most serious threatsto the marine ecosystem, the blame is often and easily placed on fishers. However, we fail to recognise that fishing is one of the most lucrative and primary livelihood opportunities for them. It is indeed the demand from the consumers that feeds this problem, and that attacks the ethical practices of fishers and their livelihoods. Additionally, being the primary and most important stakeholders, fishers are often the last ones to know or have a stake in policies which raises conflict between stakeholders and fishers. This further causes a lag for efficient management to take place.

The experience thus convinced me that it was a holistic approach that we need to take, one that certainly involves a balance between top-down and bottom-up approach. But also, one that involves the target species and the communities who depend on the fisheries for their livelihoods. Most importantly, we need to turn fishers into allies instead of alienating them. Thus, it is a complex and multipronged approach of understanding aspects of the biology and fisheries of sharks with socio-economics of the stakeholders.

While interacting with fishers, we also gained insights into the historical catches of sharks and current trends, their distribution, species vulnerable to fishing gear and perceptions of fishers towards sharks. However, even though this contributes a lot to the bigger picture of sharks, we still require a lot more studies in order to gain a holistic approach towards shark conservation.

Finally, despite the nauseating, strong and very pungent smell of working with dead sharks of the most eventful and fruitful sessions I have had, answering so many vital questions that are imperative to understanding the shark fisheries of the Andaman Islands. However, the biggest irony remains that in order to manage and conserve live sharks, we need to monitor the dead ones.

Working at the landing also has a few advantages. The stench that sticks to you and your clothes and follows after the sampling is over, has helped me plenty of times. Once I was trying to buy boat tickets and was standing at the end of a long queue at the booking counter. To my surprise, they generously let me go all the way to the front of the line. While I was admiring this act of kindness and turned around to convey my thanks, the hands on everyone’s nose and frowns made me soon realize it was the unbearable stench of the sharks that had allowed me to gain a free pass.

 

Zoya Tyabji has been fascinated with all things marine, and has studied sea kraits, coral reefs and elasmobranchs in India. She is currently the Project Associate of the marine team of Wildlife Conservation Society-India.

Barkha Lohia loves working on picture books, editorials and sometimes dabble in tattoo art. Apart from these, she can often be found loitering around jungle spaces of Delhi. Clicking, collecting and sketching away.

Boiling bats— the carnage of climate change

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 is a conservationist, Wildlife Rescue Technician and an applicant for a PhD in Ecology.

Deepti Sharma is an animator, illustrator and chocolate milk connoisseur, currently based in Goa. She deeply cares about sustainability and conservation, and love drawing plants, animals and imaginary creatures.

Men, Snakes and Nicotine

field notes | Aditi Patil | 13.4

As I stepped out of the car onto the fertile soil of Chikhodra village in Anand district of Gujarat, I was explaining to my team how field work is all about improvisation. My coresearcher in this project was a 25-year old woman named Manya Singh, a trained ecologist and terrified of reptiles. We had come together to understand the implementation of the National Agroforestry Policy 2014 in Gujarat. Our third team member was a recent graduate of Agriculture Science, named Praful, who was proficient in the local language. We were going to interview farmers to understand what trees they planted on their farms and their experience with the practice. Manya suggested that we sneak in a quick smoke first. “Aditi, could you be a doll and get me a Marlboro from that store over there? I’ll get the survey sheets in order till then,” requested Manya.

The store, however, was thronged by men who were already staring at us, which made me terribly uncomfortable. You’d think as a woman living in India I’d be used to these stares.
But no one ever gets comfortable with objectification, no matter what they tell you. So I reached out to Praful, “Praful, could you be a doll and get Manya a Marlboro from that store
over there?”

Praful had other concerns. “Of course, I can go. But the bigger question is, why would Manya smoke a Marlboro when there are tobacco farms all around us?”

“You’re right, we are in Anand! It has a dedicated Bidi Tobacco Research Centre built way back in 1947!”

“Of course, that’s the first thing you do after your country gets independence!”

While the non-smokers of the team intensely discussed tobacco history, Manya had gotten the survey sheets in order, gone to the store to get her cigarettes, smoked one, spoken with a couple of men there, figured out the village demography with leads to which farmers we should talk to. I admired her gumption, patriarchy be damned.

As we crossed paddy fields and plantation farms, I couldn’t help observing that a steady supply of water from Gujarat’s Narmada canal-system made all plantations possible in Chikhodra for now. Anand district had an efficient canal system, making irrigation possible for successful tree farming, unlike many of other places in Gujarat, which did not even have drinking water.

The three of us were walking along one of these canals in a single file as it was a thin walking space between the canal’s wall and the adjoining palm plantation. I was walking in front explaining how water-intensive palm plantations might not be a good idea with the climate crisis staring us in the face, how this is in direct conflict with the objective of the National Agroforestry Policy.

Suddenly Manya let out a short high-pitched squeal. It was an annoying mixture of a bark and a moo. Scores of rose-ringed parakeets perched on a nearby palm tree instantly flew off, scared by this human siren. I turned around to see her face turn several shades of green resembling the paddy fields we had just crossed. After three whole minutes of trying to find her voice and two more in making sense of it, she finally blurted, “There’s a snake in the water.”

Brilliant, I thought, and turned on my mobile camera, rushing to the spot. Manya seemed horrified by this and began exclaiming, “Aditi, are you crazy? Did you not hear me? There’s a snake in the canal and it was huge and it was moving like Kraken! ”

“Wow, who was that?”

“In Pirates of the Caribbean!”

“What?”

“Kraken, the sea-monster who arises at the world’s end in the Johnny Depp movie!” I wanted to feed her to whosoever this Kraken person was right then, but I had signed
ethical social research regulations. So, with all my patience, I politely asked, “Manya, the snake! Who was the snake? Was it a banded water snake? With bands or it? Or was it plain grey like the plain-bellied water snake?”

“It was like Kraken, huge and wiggly! I’m out of here.”

“You do realise there can be a family of snakes here right? All the best wandering off alone!”

The look on her face as she imagined a family of “Krakens” was the best moment of my day. Thanks to Manya’s loud drama, we found ourselves surrounded by several men from nearby farms. We quickly explained to them our purpose in their village. One particular man introduced himself as the son of the Sarpanch [an elected leader of a taluka/village] and offered his suggestion, “You can finish all of your surveys right here with us, we will help you.”

 

I thanked him and explained that we wanted to speak to women farmers as well. They laughed among themselves while we looked at them with a straight face not getting the joke. The Sarpanch’s son tried again, “Madam, I’ll help you get all the data, there is no need for you to waste your time walking all over the village. My house is nearby, we can all sit there and talk. My wife makes excellent tea!”

A simple study on trees was going to be a lot more than just trees. We could have sat there and discussed the Sarpanch’s son’s understanding of gender roles and how the work that India’s women do on farms often goes unnoticed.

But Manya slyly said, “Thank you so much, Sir! We would love to go to your house. Thank you for making our work easy, we would’ve been lost without you!”

And then she quickly winked and whispered into my ear, “Let’s go to his house, there’s bound to be women there, we’ll talk to the lady of the house and the women who work for her. We’ll get all perspectives under one roof!”

Field work was all about improvisation.

Aditi Patil is a Political Economy Analyst-Illegal Wildlife Trade at Wildlife Conservation Society. She often wonders if she was born into the wrong species.

Ankit Kapoor is an Illustrator and Animator who graduated from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology and currently freelances out of Delhi/ Chandigarh.

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.

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