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Snapshots of Summer II

I want to dedicate this piece to birds I have seen in the hottest months of the year- May and June, in North India. My little homage to these little ones who have to brave dust-storms, drought, and apathy.

And here’s some poetry and pictures for these heroes!

*

Don’t miss the Ibis,

Heed the Hoopoe,

Turn for the Titar,

Peek at the Prinia,

And a little later,

You’ll see the Bee-eater,

Sharing water with the Sparrow,

And some more Titars.

*

Ibis Closeup
Don’t miss the Ibis: A Red-naped Ibis forages for food

 

Hoopoe Amaltas 1
Heed the Hoopoe: Young Hoopoe on Amaltas flowers!

 

Francolins drinking
Turn for the Titar: Grey Francolins, also known as Titar in Hindi, drinking at a forest wetland.

 

Ashy Prinia drinking
Peek at the Prinia: An Ashy looking for a drink. Its reflection just as enchanting!

 

Bee eater Sparrow
A Green-Bee-eater sharing a branch with a House Sparrow.

 

Laburnum.jpg
And I end with the ultimate summer spectacle: chandeliers of Golden Amaltas!
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Unforgettable Stories from the Indian Monsoons

In the cities, we wait eagerly for monsoon rains.

It’s a break away from the sultry, claustrophobic humidity that precedes the rain. We want the skies to change colour, we want a breeze to blow, umbrellas and waterproof footwear to be whipped out, we have a need to experience a different, more exciting season.

Yet as soon as the skies open up and the rains come crashing down, cities throw up litanies of dramas. Red lights stop working, and serpentine, honking queues of cars fish the romance out of any rainy commute.

Somewhere, there is awful water-logging, while in another part of the city, water turns mysteriously grey in taps, making one wonder if the stuff coming out of one’s backside got mixed with the stuff we splash our faces with.

Unless you are very young or very bohemian, the charm of monsoons is often belied by the peculiarities of cities.

Also read – Eight lions on the prowl on Gujarat’s streets. Why is the wild going viral?

But hold that thought. Before you think cities are whimsical in the rain, wait till you hear of some unforgettable (good or bad) monsoon tales from the Indian wilds.

The year was 2011. We were in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, as a group of researchers. We were hoping to spot some tigers, but all we had got was rainwashed forests, and no sightings of animals, who were either hiding under foliage or getting drenched, away from the gypsy trails.

There were flies buzzing everywhere, and after an exhausting ride through the forest and a 4.30am start, we were fatigued to our souls. The sky had just cleared, bringing with it the typically blinding, eye-watering sunshine that follows rainfall.

Slowly but surely, the temperature had spiked up, taking us from squelchy to hot uncomfortably quickly. We were turning our gypsy around to go back, and the words of senior forest staff, who had said “you won’t see anything during rainfall” were ringing in our ears. Our gypsy got stuck.

A particular patch in the forest trail had collapsed inwards, softened by the rain. This is a rite of passage in the forest- your car will get stuck just as you make up your mind to go somewhere. We were stuck at an awkward angle, diagonal to the trail, impossible to turn this way or that, without embarrassingly loud attempts to get out.

And then, the forest seemed to hold its breath. Appearing almost out of thin air, there appeared a full-grown tigress.

tigerbd_072016091851.jpgPicture of T-17 tigress in lush monsoon foliage.

She catwalked towards us, with the ease and insouciance of a dancer loping on rose petals.

We were right in her path, awkward, clumsy, the very opposite of all that she stood for. She seemed used to this sort of human folly, and there was no annoyance on her face.

With the same elegant calm that brought her to us, she softly got off the trail, bypassed our vehicle, and climbed back on the trail again.

Then, she turned. Her face drew itself into a distinctly feline snarl, whiskers bunching together. The look said, “Don’t follow me”.

If our car hadn’t gotten stuck, we would have missed a sighting of one of Ranthambhore’s most well-known tigresses, T-17, also called Sundari, who met an untimely end a few years later.

Also read – [Photo essay] Ranthambore’s wildlife left me mesmerised

More importantly, if our car hadn’t gotten stuck thanks to the rains, we would have missed the chance of closely seeing a tigresses’ attitude-sure, fierce, and tinged with the haughtiness of self- preservation.

If tigresses are haughty (and rightly so), leeches are always hungry (especially in the rainy season).

In the month of September, I was in the forests of Biligiriranga Tiger Reserve, known as much for its fabulous beasts as for its amazing Soliga people, who live in the forest, with a felt understanding of its plants, leaf litter, its rhythm, its darknesses, and its lifecycles.

I was being led through the forest by a Soliga friend, and he was taking me to his temple. His temple was a large tree, with milky, fragrant flowers.

This tree is called the Dodda Sampige Mara, also known as the Big Champaka tree. Said to be more than 1,000-years-old, this tree is a silent, flowering testimonial to the forest, having survived generations of storms, monsoon rains and human death and decay.

sinhabd_072016092023.jpgThe barefoot author at the Dodda Sampige Mara tree.

Standing in a particularly lush and damp portion of the forest with the Big Champaka tree, small creatures looked out from the undergrowth.

Leeches. Near the temple, flushed by monsoon rain, were dozens… and dozens… and dozens of leeches.

All of them were making hungering movements, heads pushing forward. Leeches are not my favourite thing.

Blood makes me queasy. I dug my toes into my floaters, not wanting any part of my skin to touch the forest floor.

We reached the tree temple, and I stood at a distance, awed by its splendour and presence. Come closer, the tree will bless you, my friend said.

And you have to take your shoes off, he added, straight-faced.

Also read – Where birders like me from Delhi can go and see rare cranes and more

There was no question about it. I couldn’t be in that tree’s awesome presence with things like sandals sticking to my feet.

Steeling my mind, I took off my footwear. The leeches moved in, like they’d been waiting for me their whole life.

The monsoons remind me of The Planet of the Apes, that didactic morality tale of what would happen if animals (in the movie’s case, apes) ran our planet.

In the monsoons, my thoughts turn to cousins of leeches – all manner of insects.

Winged, not-winged, with pincers or without, awkward and clumsy or long and many-legged, the monsoons are a time that truly belongs to insects.

They come out of every crack and crevasse, outnumbering us by millions, seeing a short spurt in their lives before getting crushed, sprayed out or eaten.

At one time, insects similar to dragonflies lived alongside dinosaurs. They were huge, the size of chairs. The time of the monsoon is a time when one wonders: what if the world was run by insects?

centi_072016092316.jpgA many-legged, centipede. (All pictures: Neha Sinha)

I was thinking similar thoughts in a forest rest house in Haryana a few monsoons ago. The thing about government buildings like forest rest houses is that they are often well-made, and have gorgeous locations. The problem comes with the maintenance.

No one seems to be interested in maintaining these buildings – not the crusty guards who seem to have better things to do, and not the officers, who have immaculate offices but bypass run-down corridors and guest rooms in the same complex.

I was to spend a night in a nameless government building, with the only thing between me and the thundering sky being a leaking roof. The little citizens of the world were busy. Insects were everywhere. There were little bugs on my bed, and moths on the one light I had on in the room.

Insects with pincers behind them walked on the lime-washed walls.

Winged termites flew here and there. I should have turned off the light to stop attracting more insects, but ironically, I wanted to be able to see what was walking on the bed.

Before turning in after some time spent on the bed trying to avoid the insects, I went to the washroom to brush my teeth. Like innumerable forest rest houses I have stayed in, the bathroom door didn’t shut properly.

Somehow, no one seems to care about bathroom doors not shutting, and bathrooms not having curtains in these places, leading me to believe not a lot of women are on these trails; but it didn’t matter that evening as there was barely anyone around.

I was brushing my teeth when I felt a sensation on my foot. The back of my mind already knew what it was.

I looked down. A long, many-legged centipede, known to bite when threatened, had crawled out of a crack in the floor, and was now proceeding to crawl up my leg. That was it.

I unceremoniously spat out my toothpaste and strode out of the door.

I found the building guard, who was asleep under a thick blanket. I can’t stay here, there are 200 insects in my room, I told him.

Also read – How I was shamed for being a woman in the forest

He looked at me like I was a raving lunatic. Just wait, I’ll come, he said.

Wait on the lawn, he said. He came out, blanket around his shoulders.

We stepped into my room. With our re-emergence and movements, many of the insects had vanished.

Kahan hain kahan hain, (where are the insects?)” the man asked me.

Har jagah hain,” I said, “neem ke patte nahi hain aapke paas? (they are everywhere, don’t you have neem leaves, known to repell insects, I asked)”.

I have this, he said. And he brandished an All-out mosquito repellent. My heart sank. Of all the insects in the animal kingdom, the only one missing from my room were mosquitoes.

Ah, well.

Being close to nature is a certain brand of tough, biting love.

I woke up having survived various insect bites the next day, but the stories I had were even better.

This was first published in my DailyO column, here

Black-necked Stork with beak locked in garbage ring rescued- and fitted with a ‘good’ ring!

A Black-necked Stork that made global headlines because its beak was locked in a garbage ring has been rescued!
After about 5 days of trying, the Stork was finally caught on Wednesday at 9 in the morning. The stork was first spotted at Basai IBA in Gurgaon.

IMG-20180613-WA0006

The Stork was fed a fish and given some water. It ate after days! We are not sure if it managed to drink any water all these days.

Also remember Delhi and Gurgaon is at its hottest in June with temperatures between 40-45 degrees C!

IMG-20180613-WA0013
The Stork rests after its ordeal.

 

IMG-20180613-WA0007It took attempts over many days to catch the Stork.

The final team that caught it includes: Haryana Wildlife Inspector Sunil Tanwar, Krishan guard, drone experts Ajay and Amresh, birdwatchers Sonu Dalal, Anil Gandas, Rakesh Ahlawat, from BNHS: Kasim, Mansur, Debashis.

The bird has been ringed- with the number K16- and will hopefully lead a plastic free life!

And I also hope other birds and animals don’t become victims to garbage thrown by us.

Long live this young Stork!

IMG-20180613-WA0003
The bird has been fitted with a ring of a good type– an identification band with the number K16.

 

Photo Courtesy: Haryana Forest Department and Rakesh Ahlawat

Stork beak locked in plastic- and we are to blame.

A rescue team near Gurgaon is looking for an unusual subject – a black-necked stork unable to open its mouth, as it has a plastic ring around its beak.

Images of wildlife with plastic fatally stuck to them are becoming increasingly common. There are marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, there are albatross chicks dying with bellies chock-full of plastic, there are whales and elephants dying agonisingly with plastic bags in them.

The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the ring. The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the plastic ring. Photo: Manoj Nair

Who would write obituaries for these ancient races filled with symbols of the modern age? The wildlife die unloved, unmourned, detected on coastlines and forest areas, in various stages of decomposition — and only if someone finds them. Most importantly, they die because of us.

Many of these animals are found in remote locations — islands, tiger reserves and coastlines and thus, it doesn’t seem like our problem. At least two things in the case of the stork show us this is our problem.

Firstly, Basai Important Bird Area (IBA) is in our backyard — Gurgaon — and shows the devastating impacts of plastic waste. Ironically, we are in the middle of a Clean India movement, and on World Environment Day on June 5, PM Modi called for an end to single-use plastic.

Secondly, this incident proves just how badly our natural areas are treated. Wetlands become wastelands, and rivers become sewage drains. I wrote earlier how some of Delhi’s biodiverse wetlands, Basaiand Najafgarh, are under imminent threat.

A construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetland, something the Delhi Bird Foundation has been fighting against in the National Green Tribunal. Not only does Haryana not recognise Basai as a wetland, making a waste plant near this wetland is likely to have terrible impacts on the biodiversity – such as debris, further water pollution, wetland dumping and filling.

marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/FileMarine turtles have been found with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/File

The stork with its beak encased in a plastic ring is just an early sign of what litter and pollution tragedies take place when waste is dumped in wetlands and wildernesses.

Birders from NCR and the Haryana forest department have been trying to rescue the stork, which is doomed to die without intervention. “The bird was spotted today but could not be caught. There is a huge mountain of plastic bottles dumped next to the wetland,” says naturalist and birdwatcher Abhishek Gulshan. Till June 11, a team comprising conservationist Rakesh Ahlawat and the Haryana forest department were still looking for the bird.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Commission of Gurgaon has asked the company that dumped the bottles to immediately clear the area.

The problem of haphazard and harmful municipal waste dumping and management in NCR though, is far from over. Plans to make a landfill site on the Yamuna river plain, near Sonia Vihar, are afoot.

This could be yet another way of ensuring plastic and leachates reach our gravely imperilled Yamuna river. The problem is the colonial mentality—which saw wetlands (which did not earn revenue) as “wastelands”. Dumping in wetlands also dries up the area, leading to encroachment.

Plastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/filePlastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/file

“Wetlands are not wastelands awaiting “development”. Dumping of municipal solid waste and debris has been the most insidious way of reclaiming the wetlands by vested interests. Plastic is the latest despoiler. The sad plight of the stork is a tight slap on the face of civilised humans. If only the stork too could poke our faces!” says Manoj Misra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, and petitioner in several cases for river and wetland rejuvenation.

Less than a week ago, PM Modi had said on World Environment Day: “The choices that we make today will define our collective future. The choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live.”

What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTIWhat is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTI

One of the ways to do this is to cut down on plastic trash by not using plastic bags (the kind you’d find in a whale or elephant’s stomach), plastic can holders (whose rings you may find around a bird, dolphin or turtle’s neck or mouth), and plastic straws (found recently inside the nose of vulnerable Olive Ridley turtles), to name a few.

That’s on the individual level.

On the collective level, we have to make our waste — and how it is dealt with — an election issue. No more can our waste go into “wastelands”, “behind the colony”, “in that pond” or “next to that river”. These are not places for our waste. The idea is not just to get waste collected from our doorsteps but to ensure they don’t poison our last wild places and to place accountability for these urgent public health issues. What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste?

Poisoning our last wildernesses — which have their own range of ecosystem services — would be like putting a plastic bag over our heads as we roam about in NCR’s critically polluted “air”.

Meanwhile, a stork awaits its fate — metaphorically holding its breath, without opening its mouth.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here

Running Away From Elephants: on Rauf Ali’s delightful memoirs

Rauf Ali, wildlife biologist, was a dear friend. We lost him too soon to Cancer. I knew he was many things- ribald, jovial, talented and honest, but I didn’t know he was such a good writer! Rauf, I miss you!
I was honoured to review his memoirs for The Hindu. Don’t miss this book!

(Link to buy below).

Running Away From Elephants review: Telling it like it is

 Running Away From Elephants review: Telling it like it is

A humorous, keenly observed take on wildlife and conservation

Early on in his book, ecologist Rauf Ali writes on a langur monkey’s food-gathering techniques, which had “deep psychological insights” on people. At a temple in Agra, the langur would sweetly beg Indian tourists for food, which would result in a few peanuts. But when he saw a foreign tourist, the langur’s technique would change, and he would “charge at them screaming. Whereupon they would also scream, drop their peanuts and run!” This was, Rauf writes, straight-faced, his first encounter with racism.

For the rest of Running Away From Elephants, Rauf says it as it is — and how. He is ribald, keenly observant, and writes with deep affection for “boring” Slow Loris, “nasty” Bonnet Macaques, butting Blackbucks, lazy Gir lions and occasionally, drunk spies and excise officers. Unlike many wildlife conservationists, he has no cloying sentiment or moralising. And on his own life, spent between Andaman and Nicobar islands, Western Ghat rainforests, and Auroville, Pondicherry, he writes: “Forget the Gerald Durrell stories. Nobody dies in these stories, and nobody falls ill either. Field work in reality is, to paraphrase Claude Levi-Strauss, being cold, wet, hungry, tired, or more usually, all four at the same time, most of the time.”

Faced with several challenges (he studied wildlife through the 1970s and 80s, when this was unheard of, and he was often accused of being a CIA agent), university politics, recurring bouts of malaria, and a final, short tryst with cancer, Rauf went through life with Dionysian frenzy. The book is light-hearted, but that’s not to say the author takes his work lightly. He is hard on himself and his own knowledge. Indeed, this is that rare humorous book written not for humour’s sake, but with a thorough understanding of the subjects he takes on —rainforest ecology, how dams negatively impact forests, migratory birds, and monkeys.

Rauf was related to India’s Bird Man Salim Ali, and true to style, he writes a thoroughly funny character study. Salim was deaf in one ear, and when he had to avoid someone, he would turn his deaf ear towards the other, and keep nodding. He would go into paroxysms of rage if birds were not properly identified, but gave Rauf a lot of books. For many others, including this writer, Rauf was an untiring knowledge sharer. Rauf helped set up ecology studies at Pondicherry University, and broke fresh ground in the study of and advocacy against invasive species. Through this book, I also learn he is a fine writer. This book adds to India’s natural history writing in a way none has. Don’t miss it.

Running Away From Elephants; Rauf Ali,

Speaking Tiger Books,

₹499.

Buy it here.

Photo of Rauf Ali: internet.

Why Delhi’s Natural Spaces Are Under Threat

There is a sense of oldness in natural places.

The earth before you will have evidence of being freshly trodden- the many-grooved footprints of birdwatchers in their field shoes, tracks of Nilgai, three-cleaved marks left by hopping birds. The marks may be new, the smell of fresh animal droppings stinging the  air.

Bada Peelu 1.JPG
An ancient Bada Peelu in the Qutub complex, Delhi.

If you’re standing under trees in Aravalli’s Mangar forest, the leaves dapple the sunlight, leaving chequered shadows on the ground and on your face. The colour of the light, and so your immediate world, may become a greenish yellow, sieved through the leaves; on the ground, shadows shift as the leaves move, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. If there are Nilgai nearby, say in the Delhi Ridge, you may be standing on a path made by them. If you are in a wetland – like Basai or Najafgarh, the levels of the water are different in different seasons, and the land around the water shifts accordingly. You could be a completely bone-dry spot that becomes aquatic at other times. Water shapes the place, migratory birds mould its character. The oldest things on earth — birds that are actually living dinosaurs, water that whips terra firma — create the place.

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When Delhi talks about being an “old” city, we mostly refer to fifteenth-century monuments and tombs, the sun warming their stone on winter afternoons. We think of Old Delhi’s ancient bazaars – still selling spices and silver, flanked by solid wrought iron pillars which have seen the times of kings. We think of the feeling of Delhi, an old capital, a centre of power, the sense of government flags, corridor whispers, red beacons, which are hints in the air — power was and is here. But very few think of Delhi as an old city through its natural spaces.

Maybe that’s why Delhi-NCR’s spectacular natural spaces are under threat.

We are at a remarkable moment in the story of the city – citizens are fighting, under duress, to preserve Delhi’s history, for its future. Of the many struggles going on in the city — to preserve avenue trees, to save the trees at the iconic Pragati Maidan from getting axed for redevelopment, and to conserve lakes, three stand out in scale.

One is the pitched battle to save parts of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis. It may not be enough to say that these hills and ridges are ancient geological heritage; it may not even be enough to say the Aravallis act as a safety net for Delhi, protecting it from complete desertification from the Thar. Clearly, these arguments are not enough for developers and a determined state government bent towards hacking away Aravalli’s trees, levelling the ridges, and to sell green-view apartments, which certainly won’t have a “green” view for long.

bird2-copy_012018015634.jpeg

A concerned citizen has moved the National Green Tribunal against the cutting of more than 6,000 trees in the Aravallis in Faridabad. While the Haryana forest department says all of the Aravallis are deemed forest, trees were cut all the same. Not only does this fly in the face of environmental concerns, it is a denial of the fact that the Aravallis too — and not just apartments — are part of cultural and lived heritage for Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Delhi’s Paharganj, derived from “Pahar” or hill, is named such as it was a hilly area, and today the Delhi Ridge (named as the area undulates with Aravalli hills, ridges and streams) is a forest that gives lungs to the gasping city.

Another chapter of forgotten history, lost through tomes of city master plans, is Delhi and Haryana’s Sahibi river. “Cartographic assassination” is what rivers and wetlands face, as they get described in public record and maps, says urban ecology and planning expert Manu Bhatnagar. What was once Sahibi river has today become Najafgarh naala. In this naala too, Delhi and Haryana show reluctance to recognise the old Najafgarh jheel, which hosts flamingos, and migratory birds from Tibet and other high altitude regions.

The area also has what is considered one of the biggest heronries in North India – more than 200 birds have created communal nests in a clump of trees. Heronries are classic features next to wetlands, reminiscent of the sight of squawking chicks-in-a-row at heronies in the world heritage site, Bharatpur. Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) had filed a case in the NGT for the conservation of Najafgarh jheel, though the lake is yet to be officially protected. Birdwatchers and citizens have been rallying for the conservation of the area for years, even as flats in Gurgaon inch closer to the wetland, and have swallowed its basin.

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Finally, there is Basai. It is known in bird watching circles as Delhi-NCR’s finest wetland. It lies unassumingly in a corner of Gurgaon, shoved uncomfortably close to construction sites. This incredible site, hosting nearly 300 species, designated an “Important Bird Area” due to its avian wealth, is created by sewage water. But ecosystem processes sieve and save the water, creating not a filthy cesspool but a resounding arena of life. This is one of those rare places where you will find both the migratory goose in the water and the resident eagle in the sky; where you have a wet grassland merging into a wetland, creating a green-and-blue, grass-and-water mosaic one normally sees in far more “remote” or “wild” spaces.

In less remote, urban spaces, which ironically jostle for both breath and water, wetlands often turn to wastelands, quite literally so. The Delhi Bird Foundation, helmed by avid birdwatchers, has approached the NGT against waste going into the wetland –a construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetlands. Fifteen-year-old birdwatcher and Delhi resident Maitreya Sukumar explains why: “It is a wetland home to many birds. It is a thriving ecosystem. It gets rare birds each year and should definitely be preserved,” he says. Maitreya’s mother is one of the petitioners in the case.

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All over the world, natural spaces in crowded cities are cherished as islands of succour. These are not just points, but “places”, which hold deep meaning for those who visit, an ongoing relationship of belonging between person and place. These places carry a sense of being old, timeless, and un-changing in the surrounding echelons of chaos and noise. New York’s Central Park is not famous because it is a park, but because it is in one of the world’s busiest, fastest-paced cities; the park itself is maintained more as a wilderness than a fully manicured area. The Nara Park in Japan holds several deer; the deer come out and stroll through the city of Nara, walking between people, an unsaid conversation between hooves and heels.

Closer home, Sikkim has recently passed a unique legislation to increase fraternal bonds and personal relationships with trees, allowing a person to adopt a tree as a child: the Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) Rules 2017.

Delhi’s own amity does not lie only in its buildings. Delhi’s geological and ecological history has shaped the names of its places, the quality of local life, and resilience — an ancient story of Nature’s survival in a harsh, polarised environment and environs.

It would be imperative for India’s national capital to not forget where it came from.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here

The Hand-winged Animal

We don’t yet know the precise role of bats in the Nipah outbreak

Most bats fly high/ Swooping only/ To take some insect on the wing; But there’s a bat I know/ Who flies so low/ He skims the floor; He does not enter at the window/ But flies in at the door. In his poem, ‘The Bat’, Ruskin Bond recounts the tale of a ‘crazy’ bat — albeit a fairly benign one — that made itself cosy at the foot of his bed on a lonely night in Mussoorie.

But ‘benign’ is certainly not the reputation bats have: superstition has them down as bad omens; science has proven they are carriers of disease — they are linked to the spread of SARS in China, MERS in Saudi Arabia, Ebola in Africa, and most recently debated as the possible cause of the Nipah outbreak in Kerala; the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, lists them largely as vermin. And blood-drinking Dracula hasn’t helped the creature’s cause.

The bat is something of a chimera: it has wings like a bird, the furry face of a mouse, it often flies zigzag or flits giddily like a moth. It belongs to the taxonomic order ‘Chiroptera’, derived aptly from the Greek words for ‘hand’ and ‘wing’.

Thinning dwellings

I’ve been spooked by bats too, mostly because their movements are so inscrutable. While looking for a white barn owl perched on a lamp-post in Delhi one night, I was startled by a large flying fox that swooped down from the sky, it’s membranous wings translucent against the street light. I was convinced it was coming for my face, though of course, the frugivore was headed for a fig tree behind me.

India has no less than 128 species of bats — yet very little is known about their population status, their behaviour, or their role in the spread of zoonotic disease. Most species are listed as ‘data deficient’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. What we do know, however, is that many species are likely under enormous threat.

A colony of flying foxes in Odisha’s Badagaon.

A colony of flying foxes in Odisha’s Badagaon.   | Photo Credit: Lingaraj Panda

For instance, found in just one cave in a Karnataka village, the Kolar leaf-nosed bat is threatened by granite mining. Because of its very small range and a population of 200 or less, it has a high risk of extinction and is classified as critically endangered in the Red List. Salim Ali’s fruit bat, which also has a very small range in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats, is classified as endangered.

Research has shown that bat diversity has reduced in Delhi. Species once found in the crevasses of old buildings and in the Humayun’s Tomb complex are no longer found there. Humayun’s Tomb used to be known for its colony of Megaderma lyra, or the greater false vampire bat, distinguished by its long ears. And once found in several old buildings was the Tadarida aegyptiaca or the Egyptian free-tailed bat, which feeds on insects while in flight or while crawling on the ground with equal ease.

“Neither species is easily spotted in Delhi anymore,” says Sumit Dookia, Assistant Professor, University School of Environment Management, Guru Govind Singh Indraprastha University. Today, there are only four generalist bat species that remain in Delhi, he says: the fruit-eating Indian flying fox and the Leschenault’s rousette; and the insectivorous greater Asiatic yellow bat and the least pipistrelle bat.

Apart from habitat loss, bats are also prone to fatally colliding with wind turbine blades — and several wind power projects are coming up in India, particularly in Gujarat and in the Western Ghats. Greater mouse-tailed bats have been reportedly killed by wind turbines in Kutch. Concerns have also been raised about turbines impacting the movement or local migration of bat flocks.

Natural history has largely overlooked bats. As for the Wildlife Act, it names just two bat species for protection — Salim Ali’s fruit bat and Wroughton’s free-tailed bat. The Act does not name other bat species except the generic ‘fruit bats’, which are listed in Schedule V, where they find themselves in the company of ‘vermin’ such as common crows, mice and rats — species that can be legally removed or killed. Fortunately though, as bats are considered ‘wild’ animals, they must, at least in protected areas, remain protected and cannot be driven out, unlike feral dogs or buffaloes.

The only instance the animal got its due in terms of formal conservation was when Karnataka declared the Bhimgad forest a sanctuary to protect Wroughton’s free-tailed bat.

More than spooks

But much remains to be done. Bats, after all, provide huge ecological and economic services, says bat biologist Rohit Chakravarty. “Without insectivorous bats, farmers would lose billions to pest insects. Fruit bats are also important pollinators and seed dispersers in tropical forests. For example, the durian is mostly pollinated by bats.”

Chakravarty, like many others, believes that bats must be removed from the vermin list, because their populations could take time to recover from losses. “Bats are long-lived, slow-breeding species. A small 5 gm insectivorous bat is capable of living up to 30 years and gives birth to one or two pups a year. So, killing them indiscriminately can wipe out large chunks of their populations.”

Several organisations have recently asked for environmental impact assessments of wind energy projects, with a focus on impact on bats. Chakravarty adds, however, that we also need to find an urgent, cost-effective solution to mitigating fruit damage by fruit bats in orchards.

It is not yet clear if bats are responsible for the Nipah outbreak. While some bats have been tested — and found free of infection — those were insectivorous bats, not fruit bats. Further testing, and a greater understanding of the movement history of infected people, should bring clarity.

In his 1902 book The World of Animal Life, Fred Smith describes bats as ‘hand-winged animals’, ‘rendering good services to farmers’ by eating pests. It is a 117-year-old reminder that bats are in dire need of conservation focus; and that they deserve adjectives far better than ‘spooky’.

Fruit Bat Bhawani Das
Flying Fox, attributed to Bhawani Das or follower.

This first appeared in The Hindu, here.