The Rescue Mission

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 .

(Huddling)

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.

The raid
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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:
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).

A not at all exhaustive list of colours in Anshi

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.

A not at all exhaustive list of colours in Anshi

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.

A Bold Tusker’s Tale of Timidness

field notes |Nachiketha Sharma|

Pre-monsoon showers at the start of May, drenching the charred ground, filled the entire forest with the aroma of wet mud and brought a huge sigh of relief from the thirsty wild animals. This beautiful forest was changing her clad from grey to green. The sight of blooming lush green grasses could captivate any onlooker.  The beauty and the fragrance in the forests were aided by the orchestral sounds from rutting gaurs, alarm calls of spotted deer, mating pea-fowls, and chirping birds. It seemed to me that the entire forest was rejoicing the upcoming festival of ‘monsoon’.

I was on our regular routine of monitoring elephants in the jungles of southern India. Since the first shower in the forest, we tried our luck to locate our identified herds. Given that water was plentiful in all the waterholes and streams, elephant herds were not travelling across the forest, making them difficult to sight.  I decided to position myself near a source of perennial water, hoping that elephants would visit either in the noon or the late evening.

Everything in the forest had been revamped as was this waterhole which got its water from the check-dam at one end and spread its charm engulfing and drenching the bed of small and tall grasses. Thus grabbing the attention of elephants, who came to drink and then munch some grasses. As I was busy in my thoughts, observing the ripples in the pool, at around 4 pm, I saw a herd marching towards the waterhole. I got alerted and counted the members. Initially, there were five of them;  an aged female, a young female with a very small calf and two juvenile tuskers who were about five years old. This herd was followed by another 15 elephants who came to the waterhole in three groups. Now, there were 20 elephants altogether! They walked with utmost caution and with supreme elegance, interacting with each other by sniffing, touching their mouths, temporal and genital regions with their trunks, to identify each other or exchange greetings!

 

Amazingly, the elephants, after their tactile communications, coordinated well and entered the waterhole in batches.  After spending some quality time in the water, groups started adorning themselves with their own natural cream of mud. All of them glittered brilliantly.  

 

The herds started grazing. All was calm and quiet. Juvenile tuskers were playing and sparring with each other. Calves followed their mothers, imitating them by plucking a single blade of grass, often failing in doing so. Sub-adult females not only grazed but were also vigilant.

Engrossed in observing them, I did not realize that it was already nearly 5 pm. Traversing the tall grasses, a 15-year-old sub-adult tusker (I named him ‘Krishna’) entered the scene. With his distinct short and parallel shinning tusks, I could see that he was at the onset of ‘musth’ (a sexually active state in male elephants). It could have been Krishna’s first experience of being in the musth! He headed straight to the grazing females, sniffing their reproductive signals, perhaps searching for the best partner!

After a bit of sniffing and examining the females, Krishna seemed to lose interest in his mate-searching activity, and turned towards the juvenile tuskers. Upon seeing him approaching, the juvenile tuskers were reluctant to face him.  Surprisingly, he had other ideas in mind. He held the tail of a juvenile tusker with his trunk and pulled the youngster towards him, while another juvenile stood stunned.

He did not stop his unwelcome brawl. He wanted to take young tuskers on. He started poking the rear of the juvenile with his short tusks to initiate a fight. He locked his tusks with a young one, and by lifting head, pushed the young one back on and on. As the young tusker retreated, he pressed the hind legs of the youngster to the ground, forcing him to ‘cry’ for help!

 

After winning his self-initiated wrestling and establishing his hierarchy among the young tuskers, he then marched valiantly towards the waterhole. As Krishna approached, he sensed a slight movement and ripples on the pool. He became cautious. I too was curious. It was a turtle! As the tusker came closer, the turtle rushed into the water from the mud-puddle. And then came the surprise. Seeing the turtle slipping into the water, this tusker lifted his tail and ran for his life as if some giant threat had emerged from the water. He did not return to the waterhole!

I was left perplexed and amused. After showing his strength to his subordinates, how could a ‘bold’ tusker fear a tiny turtle? Like human beings, elephants too have personalities. A few studies on semi-captive elephants showed how elephants differ in terms of how brave, friendly, social or aggressive they may be.  To observe their contrasting personalities in the wild is, indeed, fortunate… 

 

Spiritual values can augment bat conservation

field notes | Dr. V. Mahandran | 12.1

My work on bats often takes me to faraway locations with exotic tropical vistas. On one such field trip, in June 09, 2013, I was exploring the Kuthumkal cave system, situated in Idukki district of Kerala, India. This extensive cave systemonce served as the roost for many thousands of the Indian fulvous fruit bats,Rousettus leschenaulti. Sadly, as of this day, only a few hundred individuals remain due to frequent cave vandalism and wanton slaughtering of bats for bushmeat consumption. Furthermore, this adds to significant littering in and around the caves. Previously, I had heard stories of bats being consumed by locals in the belief that it cures asthma.

Group of Indian fulvous bats (Rousettus leschenaultii) killed by vandals in the Kuthumkal cave, Idukki, Kerala

However, visiting the caves and witnessing these events and the aftermath for me was a truly harrowing experience. Their modus operandi was simple. A group of individuals would enter the cave and block potential bat escape routes with thorny acacia branches. Many of them were carrying country-made rifles using which they would shoot the roosting bats. I observed them consuming the bushmeat along with liquor (Fig. 1 and 2). I interacted with them and tried in vain to convince them to leave the bats alone. The horrible memories of this incident would be etched in my mind for years to come, filling me with disgust at the mere recollection.

Feeling utterly helpless, I finally found a ray of hope in a quaint corner of Tamil Nadu,where cave-dwelling bats are actively conserved by the locals because their spirituality is centred around the belief that bats are the messengers of the deity, Lord Muthaiyan, and hence sacred. Amongst visions of vandalized caves full of blood and dead bats, this ‘cave-temple’ was a breath of fresh air.This cave-temple roost with ~3050 bats is located in Hogenakkal forest. Devotees visit the cave temple and it appeared to me that neither human presence nor religious practices like burning of camphor and/or ringing of bells pose any disturbance to roosting bats (Fig. 3).

Location of killing and processing the bats for bushmeat consumption by vandals

The cave-temple has existed for more than 90 years wherein humans have not just coexisted peacefully with the bats, but even protected them, as a consequence of their spiritual values. Communal roosts located at caves and mines seem to be the most vulnerable ecosystems as they are generally not covered under any the standard protected area networks. Anthropogenic activities have been reported as major factors affecting bat populations across the globe. Hence, conservation of bats, which are significant pollinators and dispersers of fruiting trees, along with their roosting habitats is of critical importance. It is in fact likely that certain traditional beliefs and practices of worship can augment conservation of bats and their roosting habitats. This exemplary cave-temple of Hogenakkal may be regarded as a kind of sacred grove providing a safe haven for these rapidly disappearing flying mammals.

Written by: Dr. V. Mahandran, Postdoctoral Fellow, Behavioural Ecology Lab, Department of Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, Punjab, E-mail: m16.mahi@gmail.com

Photographs by: Dr. V. Mahandran

Postcards from a distant island

Meenakshi Poti| 11.3| Field Notes

Lakshadweep left this marine researcher captivated, both underwater and over land;
Meenakshi Poti

For four months last year, I had the opportunity to live on the islands of Lakshadweep. Imagine,
from walking between throngs of people in the shadow of concrete towers, I was transported to a
place with turquoise water as far as my eye could see, coconut tree skylines and a handful of
people I would get to know by name.

Today, thousands of miles away from that wondrous abode where the sea, the sky and the
inhabitants seemed to care for me like I was one of their own – my bond with the islands has
only grown stronger.
Lakshadweep is India’s smallest union territory, located in the Arabian Sea. It is an archipelago
of 36 islands — 12 atolls, three reefs, five submerged banks and ten completely uninhabited
islands. Before my time there, I had never been to an island before. I applied for a research
permit, and two months later, I boarded a ship from the port of Kochi. It took two days to reach
the Agatti and Kalpeni islands, where the population is a mere ten thousand.

I was there to study the foraging habits of endangered green turtles – a species that is relatively
under-studied compared to Olive Ridleys and Leatherback sea turtle populations in India. Green
turtles are the only herbivorous sea turtles. They feed predominantly on seagrass found in the
shallower parts of the sea.
In fact, the region around the Lakshadweep islands supports the largest population of green
turtles in the Indian subcontinent. But the situation here is quite complex. Fishermen blame the
decline in their catch on these foraging turtles. They believe that fish stocks have fallen because
the seagrass meadows – which act as fish nurseries – have been overgrazed. This has led to an
increase in fisher-turtle conflicts in the recent past.

 

My focus was on studying how the decline of seagrass in the lagoons would influence the turtles’
diet. I mapped the seagrass distribution across the Agatti and Kalpeni lagoons, and sought to
understand how their diets shifted in areas where the seagrass densities were low. An
understanding of the green turtle foraging ecology is integral to their conservation, because of
their endangered status.
Every day in Lakshadweep, I would wake up early, as it gets uncomfortably hot after sunrise.
But for me, it wasn’t only the heat that urged me awake, it was the excitement to get to my
‘office’ and observe foraging green turtles over seagrass meadows, busy fish over the reefs, rays
flying by and an occasional shark. I would speed down the narrow streets of Agatti on my
dilapidated Ladybird cycle, with my research equipment – snorkel, mask, flippers, weights,
GoPro, and makeshift writing pad – sticking out of the front basket.

Weaving past bunches of busy hens and galloping goats, I would arrive at Jaffer’s house. Jaffer
played the role of friend, boatman, chef and island newspaper. I hired his boat, Nihla Fathima for
my work in the lagoons. She was a high-tech, swanky thing, with great speakers (I often heard
Coldplay and Dire Straits while Jaffer was cleaning his boat).

My dives involved taking counts of seagrass in the lagoon – quite a challenging task as it
involved laying transects and plots all across the lagoon. Each plot would take me a minimum of
three hours to finish, as I would “duck dive” to the base of the lagoon to take seagrass counts by
laying down small subplots made out of PVC pipes. Despite the rigour and intensity of
snorkeling for close to six hours every day, I enjoyed my fieldwork thoroughly.
After I surfaced from my dives, I would have lengthy conversations with the rest of the boat
crew – mostly in broken Malayalam, hand signals and my facial expressions – which would
leave them endlessly amused. All of them were involved in pole-line tuna fishing, but they
would make some forays out on the water for tourists too.

They would lay out a plate of khaddi (assorted snacks) for me after I surfaced from a dive, with
fresh lemon juice, kattan chaiya (black tea) or tender coconut water. Sometimes, Jaffer would
make delicious fish biryani while I worked underwater. (Although I went there as a vegetarian, I had no choice but to switch to a fish and chicken diet as vegetables, shipped from the mainland,
are not very easy to get a hold of. Once, we spotted carrots in the local store after several weeks,
but they refused to sell it to us as these were “advance booked carrots”.)
After long days out on the water, I would spend the evenings on the beach, chatting with the
women and children, with a cup of kattan chaiya in hand. The women of Lakshadweep are quite
reserved and are not allowed to swim in the azure waters that surround them because of their
religious beliefs. They were always curious about what I saw underwater, and would imagine the
marine wildlife in their backyard through my stories and descriptions. Later, when I was alone, I
would reflect on the stories that were exchanged with wonder.

There were so many special moments I wanted to share with my family and friends back at
home. But throughout my time on the islands, I had very limited internet and network coverage.
I’m not too talented at photography, so I documented whatever I could through art. I decided to
make postcards to send to people back home. This way, I would remember the features of the
organisms I was seeing or the landscape I was living in vividly.

Each postcard took me around a week to make, because I would usually be exhausted after
fieldwork. The first set of postcards never made it to my friends – I was so disappointed. So I
decided to write inland letters instead. I sent letters to some friends and my family. Funnily,
some of them reached long after I returned from the islands! As for those handmade postcards, I
feared losing even more somewhere over the sea, so I handed them over in person, once I got
home.


I can easily say that some of my closest friends now, I made in Lakshadweep. Even though I
haven’t been back for a year, I still receive messages from the locals to enquire about me and my
family. And of course, I still paint, write and dream of Lakshadweep.
To read more about sea turtle and marine conservation projects, visit www.dakshin.org

This article was originally featured in Nature inFocus

Quest to find an elusive snail

Fieldnotes | Anisha Jayadevan | 9.1

A morning at Shaktikulam harbour

I will remember the smell of fishing harbours for a long time to come.

It threatens to overwhelm at first. Then, it jostles for competition with other sensory assaults: shouts of fishermen auctioning their fish and people declaring their bids; loud colours of saris, lungis and fishing trawlers; the cries of fishermen on their boats passing crates of fish to each other and the ‘thud!’ as the crate lands on the floor of the harbour, hundreds of people busily doing things. My thoughts are interrupted, suddenly- a group of fishermen obscure my view and hastily tell me to move out of the way as they haul a large yellow-fin tuna away from their boats. The floor of the harbour is wet, parts of it speckled with fishscales that glimmer dimly. The wetness clings to my sandals.

I am with Bharti DK, a PhD student of the Indian Institute of Science and Sajan John, a researcher with nuggets of wisdom about everything under the sun and the sea. Bharti’s quest to find an elusive, unassuming marine animal has brought us to the fishing harbours of Kerala. She wants to find out how this animal disperses and how such dispersal might shape its populations.

Bharti holds a shell in her hand, a conical shell with spirals and a delicate minaret. It is the former home to a snail called Conus, one of the species that she is interested in. Conus is usually found ten metres into the sea and sometimes caught as by-catch by the fishermen. “Have you seen this shell?” we ask the fishermen.

Some of them peer curiously at us from their boats and ask us what we are there for.

They point us in the direction of heaps of fish and other marine life they are not interested in. There are people sorting these heaps. Fish that can be sold go in one pile, the rest go in another. A few of these people enthusiastically look for Conus, throwing us any shell that vaguely resembles it. For a short while, our quest becomes their quest. I am easily distracted. Above us, the sky is a blur. There are crows, brahminy kites and egrets circling the boats. Every now and again, one of them swoops and steals a fish from the boats. Sometimes a fight breaks out between the birds as they pilfer each other’s catch.

We prod the heaps of marine refuse with a stick, looking for Conus. Some of the heaps still writhe with life. Hermit crabs stumble out in a daze. Sajan points out some beautiful creatures called sand dollars. They are flat and round and fit in the palm of my hand. I look closer and notice patterns of petals etched on them. I quickly pocket them to add to the growing hoard of nature’s treasures in my room, little knowing that the pretty creatures would gently fill my bag with a putrid odour and metamorphose into a brown, unrecognisable slush.

An auction of rays in progress

In one of the harbours, a big, burly fisherman followed by an entourage of his colleagues, towers over us and asks us what we want. Sajan explains at length. The fisherman disappears into his cabin and comes out holding a shell. It is a species of Conus called Textile Cone which looks like porcelain etched with fine zigzag lines. However, like most other shells we found, its inhabitant is absent.

Back in her laboratory in Bangalore, Bharti will extract DNA from Conus snails from different locations. From its DNA, she will be able to understand the genetics of each population, and find out how related populations are to each other. Some Conus species travel long distances as larva, while others are sedentary. Bharti wants to find out why this is so, what it is about each species that determines how far its young travel. She will use the genetic relatedness of populations to estimate how far a species’ larva travels. The logic is simple : the further the larvae travel, the more will be the genetic relatedness of separated populations.

The fishermen sometimes ask us to come aboard their boats where fish are still being sorted. Picking our way across boats, we see fishermen lolling on their sides, tired from their sojourn at sea. Some of these boats have spent many days at sea, going as far as Pakistan. Not bothering to get up or shift from their reclining positions, the fishermen ask us what we want, and pass around the Conus shell that we show them. Often they make us run in circles: fishermen of the smaller fishing boats tell us to go to trawlers; the men of the trawlers send us back to the small fishing boats.

This has been the general routine in the six fishing harbours we have gone to from Thiruvanathapuram to Kozhikode. Each time we near the harbour our driver announces, “The smell has come!” We don our hats, roll up our pants and let ourselves be enveloped by the bustling masses of people.

The harbours are intriguing with all their activity, but it is sad that my first introduction to many beautiful creatures of the sea is when they are lying lifeless on the harbour floor. Here are marlins with their enormous, jagged fins which look like they jumped straight out of someone’s imagination; here lie eagle rays with little heart-shaped depressions on their bellies; sharks that look sinister even in death; pearly-white, translucent squid oozing out their black ink; plump yellow-fin tunas—their tiny yellow fins contrasting sharply with the grey of their bodies.

Fishermen scraping barnacles off their boats

Before the fishermen return in their technicolor boats when the sun’s rays are still only an hour old, the harbour is in a lull. Then, in a few hours, the activity in the harbour touches fever-pitch and then lapses again into a sleepy restfulness. People from big hotels, exporters and fishmongers arrive at the scene and wait for the arrival of the fishing boats. Some of them form little knots and watch the sea. A few fishermen sit by their boats and mend their fishing nets as the sun rises over the harbour. Once the boats dock, a flurry of activity ensues. Boats are cleaned; barnacles scraped off; smaller fish sorted out; bigger fish bodily dragged out of boats, pulled through a mass of humanity and then auctioned. As soon as a new load of fish is brought to the harbour, a crowd of people surround it and an auction starts without preamble. Once done, the crowd dissolves and forms at another site.

We stand out amidst the throng. The fishermen allow us to interrupt them to ask them about the shell.

“Have you seen this shell?” We ask over and over again. “Do you know where we can find it?”

After this frenzy of activity the pulse of the harbour slows. Fishermen laze in their boats, tell each other about the day’s happenings and catch a few snatches of sleep. Some gather for a game of cards in the shade of the harbour.

As we come away from the harbour, I am reminded of the fishing markets in Asterix comics, always bustling with activity and incident. We learn towards the end of our quest, that there is a separate fishing season just for Conus and other ornamental shells, and we had come at the wrong time. That may be another chapter in Bharti’s quest. As for me, I am content with the opportunity this quest allowed me, to peek into the lives of fishermen, entwined as they are with those of the fish in the ocean.

Anisha Jayadevan is doing her MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, deliriousdandelion@gmail.com.

Photographs: Anisha Jayadevan