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.
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.
fieldnotes|Talia Nicole Tamason| 12.4
In the summer of 2016, I volunteered with a small group of fellow field researchers to collect conservation data on whale sharks in Baja California, Mexico. Our conservation data was collected with cameras, waterproof slates for documentation of data, and measuring tape to measure the length of the whale sharks we encountered. All of our cameras varied in style and price, from a GoPro to a cell phone inside a protective underwater sleeve. We each used our own underwater camera to capture photo-identifications of various whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez. Once a whale shark was spotted near our small fishing boat, a few of us would slowly enter the water and swim towards it. Submissions of photo-identifications have to remain raw images and cannot be zoomed, cropped, edited, or altered in anyway, since it affects the integrity of the data. To capture Figure 1 accurately, I had to swim closely and calmly alongside the whale shark while steadying my camera to record an effective photo-identification. While two of us photographed the shark, another researcher would swim underneath the whale shark to record its sex. We quickly measured the length of that whale shark with measuring tape or against the length of the fishing boat and reassembled on the boat to record our data onto the slate. As Figure 2 highlights, the data collected consisted of sex, length and any identifiable markings. If a whale shark had noticeable identifiable markings, such as a boat injury to the dorsal fin as seen in Figure 3, this was also photographed as data. Once back on land, we uploaded our data onto a computer and submitted it to Wildbook for Whale Sharks.
Figure 1. Photo-identification of a female whale shark on her right flank
Figure 3. Photograph of an injured dorsal fin
Figure 2. Photograph of the rough data chart recorded on the boat
Whale sharks are the world’s largest living fish although little is known about them. Whale sharks ( Rhincodon typus) are the largest fish in the world, estimated to reach lengths between 35 – 55 feet. The whale shark is a pelagic, migratory species that is found worldwide in tropical waters. They are filter feeders, which means as they swim they suck in water through their large, 5 foot wide mouth and filter out plankton. Whale sharks have around 300 tiny teeth within their mouth, but the purpose of their teeth is still a mystery. The whale shark gives birth to live young, although the average number of pups born in one litter is still relatively unknown. There is little to no information on key aspects of whale shark biology, such as breeding habitats, lifespan, reproductive/growth rates, basic behavior and pup survival rates. Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, Red List of Threatened Animals has updated the whale shark conservation status from vulnerable to endangered. Conservation policy depends on biological, ecological and demographic data of a threatened species, which in this case is complicated since little is known about the whale shark to enact worldwide conservation laws. Reliable existing data do not currently exist on whale sharks, which threatens their worldwide conservation status. To protect the whale shark, more data is currently being collected through the use of cameras.
Cameras and Photo-Identification Cameras capture more than daily moments in our life, they also have emerged as an innovative and important tool in the field of conservation. Cameras are being utilized to capture photo-identifications of whale sharks. Photo-identification is a form of mark-recapture and is used to record an individual animal’s natural markings. Photo-identification only tags the animal by photographing it, not physically restraining and marking it. Photo-identification is also a permanent method since the whale shark’s pattern will never change. Mark-recapture studies are possible when an animal can be physically marked and then recaptured and identified, later in the future. This process produces sufficient data that can be used to estimate a species survival rate, migratory pattern and demographic data. Unfortunately, conventional tagging of whale sharks has been relatively unsuccessful. Whale sharks are an optimal species for photo-identification tagging since they are difficult to mark-recapture due to the physical tags falling easily off of them. Whale sharks have their own unique spot patterns behind their gills, similar to a human’s fingerprints, and these are the natural markings that are used for photo-identification. In the beginning, the number of photographs for photo-identifications of whale sharks was fairly small and the photographs of their patterns were only matched by trained professionals through the naked eye. But, as photo-identification photographs from research studies increased across the globe, Australia, Belize, Mexico, and Africa, the number of photographs exceeded the number of “reliable eyes” that could match the patterns. Photo-identification has proven to be an effective application in the conservation/management of wildlife population demographics. The largest strength of photo-identification is that it allows researchers to track and monitor wildlife without physically catching and tagging the animal. Even with the slightest form of temporary marking, the process of physically catching an animal can affect the animal’s behavior.
Pattern-matching Algorithm Software System Wildbook for Whale Sharks is a public photo-identification library on whale sharks where people upload their photo-identification photographs. This website boasts a software system that has been developed from an algorithm originally designed for astronomy for star pattern recognition, see Figure 4, to recognize the unique patterns of individual whale shark markings.
A collaboration between whale shark biologists, Ben Norman and Jason Holmberg, and NASA astrophysicists Zaven Arzoumanian and Ed Groth, who created specialized algorithms for the Hubble Space Telescope, created a pattern-matching algorithm software system that compares two lists of coordinates ( x, y ) that identifies individual points to form a geometric pattern within the spots of the whale shark pattern.
Figure 4. Astronomical pattern comparison algorithm example (from Arzoumanian, Z., Holmberg, J. & Norman, B., 2005).
Conservation The field of conservation has benefited greatly from technological advancements, such as cameras and software systems, and from new methods for communication of data among researchers. Cameras have proven to be an effective conservation tool from photo-identification of species, such as whale sharks, to camera traps and camera drones. Cameras are used in tracking wildlife, studying animal behavior, identifying migration patterns, monitoring survival rates, management of population demographics and preventing illegal poaching of endangered animals. Photo-identifications of whale sharks will be used to gather more information on the species, from population demographics to migration patterns, to protect and update its worldwide conservation status. Cameras have always been an entertaining way to capture the daily moments within our lives, but cameras are also an essential tool in conservation and the survival of magnificent species, such as the whale shark.
All photographs taken by Talia Nicole Tamason, © 2016 Talia Nicole Tamason
Arzoumanian, Z., Holmberg, J., & Norman, B. (2005). An astronomical pattern–matching algorithm for computer–aided identification of whale sharks Rhincodon typus. Journal of Applied Ecology , 42 (6), 999-1011.
Holmberg, J., Norman, B., & Arzoumanian, Z. (2009). Estimating population size, structure, and residency time for whale sharks Rhincodon typus through collaborative photo-identification. Endangered Species Research , 7 (1), 39-53.
Speed, C. W., Meekan, M. G., & Bradshaw, C. J. (2007). Spot the match–wildlife photo-identification using information theory. Frontiers in Zoology, 4 (1), 2.
Talia Nicole Tamson has studied and participated in conservation research in Mexico, Australia, Costa Rica, Namibia and Thailand. She currently resides in Chicago, IL as an educator.
Adwait Pawar is an artist and illustrator based out of Bangalore who is passionate about wildlife, traveling and storytelling. He tries to combine the three as often as he can.
field notes| Abhijit Dey |
It started just like any other day. By 8am we were in field in a community forest nearby Mandal, a sleepy little village at the base of a steep valley of the Garhwal Himalayas, India. Sunrays were just kissing the hilltops. But we and our Central Himalayan Langur troop were deprived of the warmth of the sun. To stay warm, the langurs were huddling and sharing body heat with each other on the forest floor. We made note of this kleptothermy–a behavioral adaptation to fight the chilling temperature—in our data sheets .
Central Himalayan Langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) was a relatively unknown species. In India, it ranges in the high Himalayan elevations (1,500-4,000 m) from Jammu and Kashmir to Sikkim. It is primarily greyish in appearance with a whitish head and tip of tail, with a relatively larger body size (avg. 70cm) than other langurs—though females are generally smaller than males. In this species, multiple males share domination over the troop; the group we were following was a large group with 5 adult males, 12 adult females, 7 sub-adults, 8 juveniles and few infants.
We were observing the langurs in order to better understand their behavioral ecology; this required following the troop throughout the day – from morning (when they were still resting, not active enough) till evening (when they were moving towards their resting/sleeping site for the night).
On this particular morning, as the clock ticked forward, sunrays reached the treetops and all our huddling langurs now started moving upwards for a sun-bath. Others got busy feeding and a few were still in resting mode. We had been following the langurs for a month and were acquainted with their behavior. We anticipated they would move to some other location after having ‘breakfast’. Indeed, as per our expectation, they soon started to move towards the village. Their intention was clear: to feed on the crops!
The troop travelled along the upper part of the hill. There were hardly any houses over there and villagers also didn’t frequent that place often. The terrain was somewhat steep and had denser tree cover. Around 10am, part of the troop climbed down the cliff and settled themselves in the crop field, which provided a cool place, a short distance from the village, to munch on fresh green mustard and wheat leaves. Other langurs were on their way to join in.
Everything seemed fine until, suddenly, a few langurs ran away and began looking for cover in high tree branches. We knew this must be the dogs ‘employed’ by the villagers to keep the langurs at bay. Dogs generally raided silently: You didn’t see or hear anything except frantically running langurs.
What unfolded next was nothing our data sheets could quantify!
Two or three dogs invaded the troop, scattering langurs and trapping a few of them in the cliff area. At one point, over a dozen infants and juveniles, with just one or two adult females, were isolated on the cliff, guarded by a dog (D1 in the image below) that was determined to prevent them from moving into the crop field (Point A in the image below).
Whenever they feel threatened or isolated, non-adult langurs make a certain prolonged low pitched ‘keeee-ke-kee-ke-ke’ type call and scan intensely for help. Primarily composed of ‘kids’, the group of trapped langurs started to vocalize in this manner, asking for help!
Now, one adult male (AM1) suddenly came into picture. He was sitting on a high tree branch on the other side of the crop field (Point B), facing the sub-group left behind, with a second dog (D2) at his tail. He was scanning worriedly, looking for a chance to move to the rest of the troop. Could he initiate a rescue mission?
Rescue mission – phase A
The adult male (AM1) was only about 100 meters from the cliff – not much of a distance, but with two dogs lined up in between, the langurs would need to come up with a good plan.
A second adult male (AM2) appeared within a minute or so, positioning himself on a high branch of another tree (Point C) to the left of AM1, maintaining a little distance in between. Few other langurs were also scattered around here, where a third dog (D3) was on duty.
And now the action! AM2 moved towards a lower branch, within possible reach of the dogs, but at a sufficient distance to maintain safety. He acted as a distraction to get the dogs away from AM1 and give the latter an opportunity to run to the cliff. Without wasting a moment, AM1 climbed down and took a sprint. He avoided the dogs brilliantly and arrived at the cliff—where other members were waiting for sprint. He avoided the dogs brilliantly and arrived at the cliff—where other members were waiting for help.
Rescue mission – phase B
Outsmarted and confused, D2 and D3 were now both at Point C. AM2 had not yet carried out the last of his plan. He provoked the dogs again, tricking them to chase him, eventually moving further away and out of sight. The dogs followed, and all we could hear was a little bit of barking.
AM1, now located at Point A, was appearing quite relaxed, and D1 must have felt dejected. With the exception of AM2, the troop were reunited and could wait without any hurry or worry for another opportunity to retreat under ‘cover’. For almost five minutes, nothing happened — nothing except D1 twice being attracted towards Point C and the other dogs. Finally, after a couple more minutes, D1 couldn’t resist the possibility of more action at Point C, and ran that way. This gave AM1 an opportunity to lead the rest of the troop members away; with a mixture of caution and speed, they sprinted towards Point A and kept right on going to a much safer location.
Mission accomplished with a sigh of relief.
Photo and sketch by author.
I am grateful to Himani Nautiyal, PhD student at Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan for giving me the opportunity to volunteer in one of her Rufford granted projects about Ecology of Central Himalayn Langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus).
field notes| Priyanka Hari Haran | 12.3
Immediately, arrestingly, there seems to be serene, unadulterated green. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that it’s a mishmash of many greens all co-existing, as they have for years and years.
From a rocky outcrop, you see the landscape of jade, emerald, moss, and seaweed, and you can’t help but marvel at their sheer diversity. In the senescence of the full grown tree’s leaves, you see not just green, but also the strangest shades of red and brown. They cling on desperately, so close to the gentlest, shyest of greens. The green that is so new to the world, and is growing resolutely every day. Then there is the green that strikes fear in your heart, because when you walk through a dense patch of Carvia, you know you don’t walk out alone. Dozens of ticks have come out with you, on your pants, on your hands, on your legs – you’ve walked through a veritable metropolis of their homes. There is the excellently camouflaged vine snake who makes you stop short and notice his slender body, his grace as he watches you gawk at him. You move, he moves. He doesn’t like any part of the vibrations you’re causing. You’ve made him leave his spot in the sunlight now, slithering away into the undergrowth. The leafbird who forages high in the canopy has no time for you. She will not let you get a good look at her, even if only to watch her and make your observations. She’s busy, she merges into the trees. You see some greens that have invaded this land – the dull grey-green of the Casuarina and the white-green of the dying Acacia leaves. You walk past them many times a day, in the village.
Then there is that astonishing blue of the sky, which robs you of all thought for a second, when you duck out from under the canopy. Or, more beautiful still, when you catch glimpses of it amidst the green. It’s hard to imagine that any photograph could capture the startling contrast in all its glory in that visceral way the human eye can. But blue flies through the forest too. The monarch, with his petite black cap, calls in seemingly every flock of birds you see. The fairy bluebird suns himself on top of a leafless tree with his partner for a while, and with a final sharp call, they’re off. The bright blue of the flycatcher who wags his tail up and down as he sits on a branch for minutes on end – only to dive at the ground to catch a flying insect – will keep you entertained as long as he is around.
There are those purple flowers that stubbornly grow on well-walked trails, wild and obstinate. But also bold in the brown of the forest floor and the green of the undergrowth. Later, you see it take over rice fields abandoned for the season, unknowing of what is to come in the following summer when the crops are planted again.
The flashy yellow and orange of the spider that painstakingly builds a web across shrubs. A large web, hoping for a multi-course meal. You walk right into her sometimes, and by then it’s too late. You’ve torn the web apart and she must rebuild it. The orange of the minivet biases you, because what bird wouldn’t look dull next to that plumage? The abundant fulvettas of the forest stand no chance – their nondescript browns are no match for that orange that begs the question, ‘Hasn’t this bird heard of a little thing called camouflage?’ The female is no quieter in her yellow plumage, only smaller than the oriole of a similar shade.
The flameback woodpeckers work in pairs, trying to crack open Entada pods with their strong beaks. You hear the racket from quite a distance away. They do not care – they are determined to get those insects that are theirs only to claim. But you certainly see the rapid movement of that red crest as they work their way through pods larger than their whole bodies. Not far away, you see ripening berries in shades of red and yellow hanging on a tree that is being overrun with doves and bulbuls galore.
The lonely brown that signifies death in a tree, termites feasting now on the fallen giant. What a spectacle it must have been, the day this tree fell to the quiet forest floor! How the mighty have fallen indeed. You look in awe at the stately trees still standing around you, and then your eyes travel back to this one, crumbling slowly to powder and dust.
Crunch. Crunch, crunch. That’s you walking on the forest floor in your heavy shoes, unlike the quiet cats of the forest with their velvet pads. Whoever knew there were so many colours of decay? There is green, grey, red, yellow, orange, purple and brown. And mottled black where you see fungus feeding on the remains. There are dead leaves choking small streams, deceiving you into thinking you can step on them.
There is black and white too, you know. Black in the thieving drongos, in shimmering bronze, ash, and long racket-tailed. They swish and swash from the canopy to the forest floor, everywhere at once, and incite a flurry of activity in every flock they steal from. On a lonely road near a one-house village, you see ten cattle grazing. They must be ushered through the forest, back home, from where they’ve strayed. And as they herd onto the path, you see that last one is white, with an oval patch of black on his bottom. There is no way this cow will leave without eliciting that smile from you, as he trots merrily away with his friends.
Then there are colours that cannot possibly be described. To call the sunlight golden as it bathes the trees in the morning and warms the forest seems somehow inadequate. Can sunlight be a colour? In its absence, the forest has so very solemn a glow to it – you begin to understand where the fairy tales learnt to describe their forests from. You look around, and there you are, in all the most ethereal ones, all at once. Colours cascade around you, as they have for millennia.
Priyanka Hari Haran is currently a research assistant at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment
(ATREE). This piece draws on her master’s dissertation work with mixed-species flocks of birds in Kali Tiger Reserve.
Maanasa Ganesh is a designer, Japanese aficionado, and ardent bird enthusiast. As travelling and studying new cultures
refreshes her creativity, she is shifting her base to Tokyo to explore and absorb the design landscape.