field notes| Tanvi Dutta Gupta |
After an early morning rush to the airport, I wake from a sleep, soothed by the smooth Malaysian highways, and look with bleary eyes out of the window. I have to blink a few times to make sure I’m not still dreaming. We left Kuala Lumpur only a few hours earlier, and when I drifted off the road was lined by the plastic blooms of palm oil plantations, robotic rows stretching to the horizon. But the vegetation on either side is now too chaotic, too green, too beautiful, to be anything other than proper rainforest.
These jungles aren’t tame. In their shadows roam elephants, boar, bears—and Malayan tigers. This big cat has become increasingly elusive as populations plummeted over the last century. This is the most endangered extant group of tigers, with less than 250 individuals left in isolated pockets of the southern, central, and northern Malay peninsula.
It is for them we had come together, eight Singaporeans drawn from a variety of occupations—zoo researcher, future teachers, environmental engineers, retired principals— for a CAT (Citizen Action for Tigers) walk. My mother and I complete the spectrum, respectively as a not-for-profit consultant and aspiring conservationist. We were invited by my friend and mentor, Dr. Vilma D’Rozario, a former psychology professor and pioneering environmental educator who has coordinated CAT walks from Singapore for three years now.
These walks are the initiative of Dr. Kae Kawanishi, the founder of the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT). She entered these forests for her Ph.D. two decades years ago, leaving behind her two-year-old daughter. She devoted three years to near uninterrupted fieldwork, completing the first population study of tigers in Malaysia, with support from local park rangers and indigenous communities. When she emerged, it was with revolutionary data providing the first insights into the dynamics of big cats in the tropical rainforest, and a fierce commitment to their conservation in the patches where they still clung on.
We were driving towards one of the most critical pieces of this forest. Taman Negara National Park has long been recognized as a vital hotspot for tiger conservation. Two decades ago, the western end of the Taman Negara national park supported the densest population of tigers in Malaysia, with nearly two individuals per hundred square kilometers of forest. Then a decade later, the population crashed. Settlements and roads now all but separate the vast 130 million-year-old Taman Negara from Malaysia’s largest remaining area of montane forest, the Main Range, which runs the spine of the country. Western Taman Negara marks the only place where the two forests meet. This means western Taman Negara is also the only place where animals—like tigers—can cross between the normally separate populations, introducing vital genetic diversity.
But the size and inaccessibility of national parks like Taman Negara mean that it’s difficult for the already underfunded and understaffed wildlife department to establish firm ranger presences in the areas. As such, animals small and large, whether predator or prey, fall victim to cable snares set by poachers emboldened by the scarcity of anti-poaching patrols. With too little official presence to effectively control them, regulation—or at least a preventative presence—has to be supplemented by citizen action, like this CAT walk.
The car stops now, and we sleepily stumble out into the bright afternoon sun. As I blink into the light, I see we’ve pulled off the highway where it rises into a bridge with forest on either side. Eco-viaduct, reads the sign next to it, and we push through tall grass to reach it. One side is the Main Range, the other side is Taman Negara. This viaduct, which elevates the highway to create a passage underneath for wildlife to cross from one reserve to another—is the direct result of Dr. Kae’s advocacy to connect tiger populations in order to sustain genetic diversity. It’s also a sign we’re finally reaching our journey’s end.
Fifteen minutes later we pull into Merapoh, the small village that will become our home for the next two nights. Our accommodation is basic, but clean and welcoming; we unload our bags and distribute ourselves. Walking outside, there’s so much more birdsong than I expected. My mother and I scan with binoculars for several minutes, but succeed in focusing on nothing but rustling leaves, where there definitely was something a moment before. We’re so far from Singapore, and the isolation one feels from the rhythms of urban life is expansive and freeing.
That night for dinner we join Alex, MYCAT’s local representative, at the village restaurant. Over fried noodles and rice, he tells us about his work here. Originally from Manchester, he came upon MYCAT when a friend who had been on a CAT walk recommended the organization. Now he’s begun a rainforest nursery here for thousands of trees, providing employment for local Batek women to collect and raise saplings, as well as managing and leading those CAT walks that led him here three years ago. He interrupts the conversation several times to greet locals as they enter the restaurant for dinner, talking with them in rapid-fire Bahasa. When he comes back to our table, he explains that he’s telling them we’ve travelled all the way from Singapore to see these forests. We’re a far from inconspicuous group, all clearly foreign and unfamiliar with the area. Which is in fact the point. Our presence here as external observers is a deterrent to anyone considering casual poaching, and moreover, by staying in local homestays and eating in local restaurants, we reinforce a positive correlation between MYCAT and economic prosperity for the people in the area.
After dinner we all climb into the back of Alex’s pickup truck for a night drive. We cluster like cattle, clutching each other to stay upright as he shoots off down the road, up and over the hills. To the sides of the vehicle the dark is thick velvet, broken only by our weak flashlights. We rake the shadows as we pass from the edges of Taman Negara to palm oil plantation; each tree emerges alone and ghostly, as if drawn only in pencil. Occasionally two pinpricks of light blink in surprise and we shout in excitement, banging the car’s windows to stop. Leopard cat numbers have grown at surprising rates in plantations—buoyed by booming rat populations, in turn fed by the rich, oily fruit. We see three of them that night, slinking close to the ground. Their sleek bodies stain crimson in the red light of our torches: white light disturbs nocturnal mammals and can often bedazzle them for several seconds, startling them away. With the red light, the impact of our presence is muted, and we can watch as one cat watches us, licking itself lazily, self-assured in its mastery over the night. In the palm oil plantations, it is the primary carnivore. Nothing else is left to compete.
As we drive out the next morning, the forest looks very different. At the viaduct Alex gives us a safety briefing—stay close by, don’t wander off, don’t scream if there’s a leech—and introduces us to our aboriginal guide before we set out to the starting point of our walk. Our goal today is to patrol for snares and signs of poaching, but also to gather some valuable data on the tigers. Tigers are never seen here: Dr. Kae, in twenty years, has never managed to find anything more than pug marks and scat. As such, the population is entirely documented through camera traps. MYCAT and the Wildlife and National Parks department have set up several in the area over the past decade.
Barely a hundred meters in, we’re up to our knees in mud and much annoyed by leeches. At a river crossing, most of us choose to wade barefoot, after the first person in loses her slippers to the fast-flowing water. On the far side we gingerly put on our hiking boots, trying in vain to dab off the worst of the mud with our leech socks, but generally resigning ourselves to damp feet. This is a jungle for animals, not people. We two-legged beasts must lumber noisily through the scratching branches and crackling leaves, with all the stealth of a marching band. Alex goes ahead with a machete, clearing a path, but still I feel extraordinarily ungraceful as the sound of yet another twig snapping under my foot resounds through the forest horribly like a gunshot. As soon as we pause, however, the forest quickly reasserts itself. We watch the late morning light ring undisturbed through the canopy. Without the distraction of our tramping feet, we can hear the sounds grounding the space around us: the droning hum of cicadas, the mournful calls of gibbons, the steady trill of a distant sunbird.
Then we set out deeper. This jungle is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Most of the time there is no path for us to walk on and we have to push through dense undergrowth, our vision is constrained horizontally to the next few meters, and vertically to even less.
After an hour we break through into a wide corridor cleared of vegetation, created for a line of electricity pylons which runs the length of the reserve. It’s our first chance to look up and, literally, see the wood for the trees. At the edge of the clearing a white-handed gibbon perches on a dangerously thin branch, unfolding its preternaturally long arms and swinging down, tracing a neat semicircle in the air. The tree shudders violently as it lands. “You won’t be able to see this anywhere else in the forest,” Alex tells us. “Only in this clearing—where development has cut a clean, unnatural swathe—can you get a glimpse of the most forest-dependent species.”
The fact is that most life here takes place beyond the reach and sight of human visitors. As we walk, I get a sense of vast stories at play—tree fall and tree rise, predator and prey and life and death—to which we are tangential. I can’t shake the feeling of being an intruder, as if we’ve just interrupted something which will resume as soon as we leave.
As the day passes, we catch glimpses of this larger picture. One tree is smeared with mud at about shoulder-level: a tapir had passed by. Another buzzes with sweat-bees issuing in and out of a small hole; on either side, the bark is raked with pale streaks—a sun bear tried to get at the honey, before giving up and moving away. The thick wingbeats of a rhinoceros hornbill echo through the forest, and my mother and I, through some unimaginable stroke of luck, happen to be standing at the exact gap in the trees to see it land. It’s immense and odd, the casque on its bill an unsettling shade of red. I turn around to get my camera, but it disappears in those two seconds. Once again, the life of the jungle has left us behind. A window, briefly opened, has closed once more.
The biggest insights lie in the ground itself. Where the mud has caked hard or leaves have fallen to preserve patches of soft silt beneath, we can encounter those who walked before us. Alex shows us how to distinguish a dip in the ground from the pressure of a toe. We cluster tight on the slick path. It’s started raining and my poncho becomes a makeshift tent, but everyone is transfixed as he explains how to tell the round circles of wild boar feet from the dinner-plate sized imprints left by elephants and the three-toed marks of tapir. He measures some of the footprints with a ruler and marks down the results—these signs can be vital clues to the presence of prey and predators.
Towards the end of the walk Alex shows us one of MYCAT’s camera traps. We come across it with a gasp—cutting through the dense forest, it’s so easy to forget that humans have come here before. The alien shape of the camera’s cuboid is a visual shock among the chaotic vines of the grove. It’s only with traps like this, Alex explains, that MYCAT can document the forest’s inhabitants. Blurry footprints aside, this provides the clearest picture, pun intended, of what lives here out of our sight—tigers and their prey, with luck—and direct the work on how to protect it.
As we walk away and out of the forest, I keep looking back at the trap. I try to picture the camera waiting here, the small eye of it, in sun and rain, night and day, watching for what passes. This is how we touch that other world we’ve come close to, but have never held in our grasp, all day. This is how we learn, rather than speculate; this is how we conserve.
After dinner and much-needed showers, we look through the photos from camera traps Alex checked earlier that week. No tigers. There are porcupine, though, as well as leopard cat and elephants. And as I examine the picture of a barking deer closely, I am hit by an intense wave of gratitude to have shared the same space as these remarkable creatures. I was where they were. I walked where they walked. As foreign as I felt in the jungle, we were, briefly, united by our paths.
The next morning we plant trees under the eco-viaduct. With luck, a tiger will cross from Taman Negara to the Main Range by this path every few years. That rate sounds low, but with the tiny size of the populations here, one individual crossing to mix its genes with those on the other side of the divide could make the difference between viability and extinction for the Main Range or Taman Negara tigers. Every handful of dirt we pack into the ground is a small step towards that. Shovel by shovel. Sapling by sapling. Alex describes how they imagine the viaduct looking in several years: a lush rainforest indistinguishable from the reserves on either side, the road running now beneath the highway uprooted and returned to soil. No sign that humans ever stepped there.
We set off back to Kuala Lumpur soon after, cramming muddy shoes into plastic bags and attempting to brush the worst of the dirt off our last pairs of pants. We cross the edge of the reserve and re-enter the palm oil plantations that will bring us most of the way back to the city. I think of what we have left behind: a small patch of fragile saplings, and even more intangible, the footsteps we left on our walk, somewhere deep in the forest. It’s hard to believe it will make a difference. There may not be a single tiger left here: even if there is, it could pass within twenty meters of a camera trap and MYCAT could miss recording it altogether.
It feels like an exercise in futility. But it is not: this is just one piece of the slow hard work of conservation. One group like ours coming every weekend will eventually build a population of support. Ten saplings planted every day will eventually build an unbroken stretch of green. This is an exercise in hope. We are putting our faith in the forest. We are believing in the resilience of its stories to keep playing, for the trees to prove larger than us once again.
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.
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.
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.
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.