Category Archives: From the Field

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

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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.

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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.

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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

On Being a Woman in Wildlife Conservation in India

“So, what do you do?”

The guy leans forward, all city slickness, adding, “You look like a designer.”

“Actually, I am a wildlife conservationist,” I meekly say, keeping up with the ping-pong game of what-do-you-do conviviality.

“A what conservationist?” incredulousness is writ large on the questioner’s face.

“Wildlife.”

“Oh, dogs and cats.”

“No, tigers and falcons. In the forest.”

“But you don’t look like a wildlife conservationist,” he expertly avers.

“How does a conservationist look?”

“Like… more wild… more tough.”

woman-embed_030816064348.jpgLeeches bite, a lot, in the forest. But nothing that a woman can’t take.

At which point I put down my rum and coke with a lemon twist and move away from the man, because what he means – and what many other men and women mean – is that a wildlife conservationist should look more like a man.

When I was thinking of what I wanted to do, wildlife conservation was not some expertly gendered feminist choice. I love wild animals, I love the forest, I love wild spaces, and I decided to study a science degree in the field and work in wildlife conservation.

It was a personal calling, rather than a statement. But conversations around a woman taking on an “unconventional choice” because she is a “free spirit” and doesn’t care about “triple bottomlines” are invariably comical, and perpetually stereotyped.

Cut to the road leading to the Sariska tiger reserve, circa 2008. Me and a photographer friend, both of us female journalists at that time (also seen as an “intrepid field” for women, sigh), were headed to Sariska to cover a story.

The road stretched between fields on both sides, with towering and impenetrable trees, grasses and crops skirting us. We were admiring the birds in the skyline, who were settling down to roost at dusk. When suddenly, a knocking sound in the engine brought us to a juddering halt.

woman-embed-2_030816064403.jpgThe leech in question, after biting the author.

The phrase “in the middle of nowhere” was probably written for the rare occasion when you are stranded in the middle of fields leading to a forest. Our car was completely out of commission, and we got out to make some calls. As we were standing with the tough task of making sense over call drops, a group of bikers came down the road, jeering.

It’s when they came back a second time that we decided we needed shelter, and we moved down the road. Many calls to Jaipur later, a car came to pick us up. The driver had golden-dyed long hair, glass earrings, and had music playing, and blindingly-flashing blue LED lights in the interior of his car.

We got in, ruing the garishness which was completely out of sync with the surroundings. We told him our destination, and he started the car, wordlessly. His stack of CDs rocked from side to side as he took us, not too gently, down the bumpy road. At the first petrol pump he saw, he stopped his car, filled up the tank and then spoke his first words to us, asking us for a couple of thousands. “You can’t fill your tank without asking us,” I protested. “We are not that far from Sariska, there was no need for a full tank!”

My colleague added darkly that this was not professional, and it would just not do.

The man just heard us out, some incomprehensible emotion passing through his face. Finally he spat out, “I am a Rajput. I don’t talk to women.”

It was the beginning of the end. Throughout the drive, he would sigh audibly, appalled that his customers were two sharp-tongued women. Under many threats (which were grimly unanswered by the gent in question) we were taken to Sariska, but he left his car and escaped with the keys the next day. We called his boss, who called his mother, who called the driver, interestingly threatening to slap him and deny him her homemade rotis. He finally came back. But he would not speak to us for the next three days.

Not speaking may perhaps be better than blurting out prejudice. In my years in the forest, in villages, and in the middle of nowhere, I have heard the oddest of things, many of which would make Fair and Lovely proud. “Aap jaisi ladki jungle me kya kar rahi hai?” (what is a girl like you doing in the forest?) a divisional forest officer will ask.

What do you mean sir, a girl like me, I politely ask, my hackles raised. “Mera matlab aapko toh shehar me hona chahiye, jungle me aap kaali ho jayengi” (You should be in the city, you will become dark in the forest). Sometimes the firebrand in me wants to say I am more than a skin colour, but I usually end up laughing and talking about tigresses who don’t give a shit.

Another friend of mine, also a young wildlife conservationist, is often asked, “What do you eat in the forest?” followed by the priceless “How come the tiger hasn’t eaten you yet?”

I remember the time I was camping at the edge of a tiger reserve and a fellow female researcher asked me to quietly ask a field assistant to burn my used sanitary pads. Why? Because none of the male researchers should know that such a thing as menstruation happens each month.

And secondly, hyenas would come to scrunch up my pads. I wasn’t in favour of burning anything, but ultimately had to. The secrecy bothered me though. My concern was about hygiene and pollution, not shame and guilt. A couple of years down the line, I am happy to report that we now have the she-cup, which is not polluting and will have no hyenas (or city dogs) coming for it.

langur_030816064419.jpgA langur sits in Pench tiger reserve. These are naughty monkeys, carrying away lingerie and rotis with equal relish.

There was another time when a langur ran away with my bra. My field assistants were not sure if they could laugh audibly or feel deeply embarrassed. They ended up making strange sounds. But I thought it was just as funny as a monkey running away with a pair of boxers.

Because ultimately, forests and animals do not discriminate between men and women. Though natural history has been penned by men, and the forest has traditionally been seen as a masculine space, forged, hunted in, and conquered by valiant men, or pious male missionaries, reality in the forest is far from being so gendered.

One of the best things about being in the forest is the lack of discrimination, and the lack of sexism. The trees arch above our heads, and nature is the most ruthless leveller. Animals regard us all as irritants, or as another species, not as men or women. Tribal societies in many forests are egalitarian, and in the mountains, many women work harder (and are stronger) than men.

So while history says wildlife conservationists should be like men, or more offensively, always look like men, there is a veritable army of women proving this wrong. Each time I hear I don’t look like a conservationist, I say, that’s because I look like me.

Many of us don’t want to look either like a man, or like a supermodel on a forest shoot. We don’t want the men in our lives to draw hearts around us and fill us in with hot pink, drawing us into glass cages of butch or model. If I look delicate, it doesn’t mean I can’t live in the forest. And vice versa for women who don’t give a fig about looking delicate.

Many of us didn’t get into natural history or sciences to make statements or become superheroes. The forest doesn’t see us as breasts and wombs; it doesn’t see us as intrepid and amazing, or masculine and crazy. It sees us as neither the exception nor the rule. It looks at us with its green eye, judging us only by our actions, not by our looks, or body, or hue of cheek. Time men followed suit.

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This first appeared in my column for DailyO here.

It was also reproduced in Sanctuary Asia, here

 

Semal in the city: A month of Semal!

For the month of March 2018, I photographed and observed a Semal (Silk Cotton tree). What a looker this tree is. It had bright red flowers, lots of birds, and plenty of little dramas. All down here!

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Only once a year, a tall tree with thorny bark bursts dramatically into blossom. In red, orange and yellow variants, the flowers seem to be on a cheerful rebellion against Air Quality Indexes above 200, apathy and road-widening stresses. The Silk cotton or Semal tree defies the expectations you would normally have of a tree in the city. Not only is this native tree doing wellin struggling, dry Delhi, it heralds spring – through the annual phenology of its blossoms – bringing scores of birds out and about.

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Tailorbird on Semal: tinier than the flowers!

Once the tree is done with flowering, it breaks out into cotton pods, which waft magically in the clogged air. If a large flowering tree is a keystone in the ecosystem, equally it can be a harbinger of a sense of place.

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Grey Hornbill on Semal.
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A flock of riotous Rose-ringed Parakeets!

I took pictures of a semal tree in Vasant Kunj for over fifteen days at the same time each day –between 6:30 to 9:30 AM. The tree I chose was a representative of Delhi – growing upright in a human-dominated, nutrient-poor environment. The findings confirm what I thought as a child – the semal has an effervescent quality of attracting not just human admirers but also several birds and insects. Observing the semal is also understanding ecology and inter-relationships – I spotted more than ten bird species, but I also saw interactions between different bird species.

The collective noun for crows is murder. Murders of crows were regularly spotted, but despite their snarky reputations, the crows did not harangue other birds – like various kinds of mynas, pigeons and barbets. There were several types of starlings or mynas on the semal – common mynas (with a bandit like yellow band on their eyes), brahminy mynas (named after the ‘choti’ or tuft of hair they have, similar to the one some male brahmins keep), pied mynas (black and white with orange bills) and rosy starlings (rosy pink, white and black), who migrate to India from Europe. There were two types of barbets – the brown-headed barbet and the coppersmith barbet, and two types of pigeon – the yellow-footed green pigeon (a tree-loving bird) and the blue rock pigeon (which nests closer to people, and usually on buildings). Grey hornbills, rose-ringed parakeets, oriental magpie-robins, paradise flycatchers and rufous treepies also visited. The size range of birds the semal supports is wide – from the tiny purple sunbird and oriental white-eye (8 centimetres long) to the huge peafowl. While several birds fed on the semal flowers, others used the crown of the tree as cover, while negotiating their way through the built landscape.

For me, the semal is a sense of place, which is otherwise marred by a shifting baseline. While certain remnants of ecological heritage and knowledge remain in Delhi – such as people selling coconut cream and water and cooling ‘chiks’ on the side of the road – most other ‘natural’ recollections are now just memories. Growing up in Delhi, I saw vultures which have now completely disappeared, and sparrows that have sharply reduced in numbers. Studies have confirmed the worst suspicions – we are witnessing several local extinctions and plummeting populations of species. In the houses I grew up in, wasps made white nests in plug points, crickets and termites flew giddily inside our rooms after monsoons. I don’t see crickets, blister beetles, and the wasp and ant diversity that I saw as a child. One thing that has remained though, is the semal.

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The iridiscent Purple Sunbird on Semal.

Grey hornbills dart in and out of the semal in the ancient Humayun’s tomb complex. In central verges and road dividers exhibiting Delhi’s plummeting Air Quality Index and Respirable Particulate Matter, the semal manages to grow – and thrive. In places where trees branches have been carelessly lopped off – to make way for signboards, lampposts or red lights – it survives. It may not outlive all of Delhi’s infrastructure plans though. Close on the heels of a contested proposal for ‘redeveloping’ Pragati Maidan, which will involve cutting hundreds of trees, more road-development projects are being executed. Citizens have fought to save old trees on Aurobindo Marg which the government wants to cut for road-widening, a proposal which may still come through. Another plan is in the offing is to cut over 2,000 trees – including the cheerful semal – between Dhaula Kuan and the international airport. Still, as planners hasten to widen roads, the semal shelters an arboreal arena of life.

As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

The semal means so much to many species. An important source of food and sustenance as the days get hotter. Yet it may be just another trunk to be cut for road-widening projects or another statistic for ‘compensatory plantation.’ As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

This post first appeared here.

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.

Why Spring is the Birding Season!

Tuk, tuk.

The sound is insistent and almost metallic.

You can hear it in most Indian cities. Under trees, next to your office window, while out on a walk, from your balcony.

The sound comes from a bird with whiskers — a bird coloured green, red, yellow and black. The small, energetic Coppersmith Barbet, bashing on with the cheer of a tuk-tuk on a colourful street; its call heralding the coming of summer.

For summer is almost here, and spring is ongoing. The fingers of heat will run through your face, bringing memories of heat exhaustion, but it is not unbearable yet. And this is the best time to get out there and go birding.

Let’s start with the coast. Coasts are not for everyone. In high summer, the sunlight prances on the water, and the whole world seems like a prism of blinding, broken glass. Early mornings at this time of the year are just right. You can take a boat and go into the sea, or you could hide out on the beach. There will be Brown-headed gulls, flying and hunting together, having come from Central Asia and Mongolia.

gullsforaging-copy_022418014501.jpgGulls foraging for food. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

They are bold birds, fine-feathered, looking impossibly smooth for all their watery pursuits. And if you look really hard, you can find Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint on beaches and on coastal wetlands. These tiny birds have feathers that look like fine, mottled mud — like the colours on ancient, well-worn pottery. The Little Stint is tiny, and that tiny bird makes a long migration to come to India — the ones we get here come from arctic reaches of Eurasia.

Go to the desert, and there too you will be delighted. This is the time of the year to see thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that come to Rajasthan. They congregate chiefly at Khichan village, where villagers proudly feed these stunning, stately birds.

parrot-copy_022418011237.jpgRose-ringed Parakeet at a nesting site. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Over the years, man and Crane have grown together. The cranes have learnt that they can to go to Khichan , generation after generation, for both refuge and food in winter. And it is a date that they keep regularly, the magic of migration combined with peer-learning in the flock, remembering routes in the sky over the desert.

Part of the desert is in Delhi too. The Aravalli ranges start from Rajasthan and come to Delhi. The Aravallis are not moist and evergreen. Rather, like the capital, they are tough, thorny and spindly. A remarkable natural feature that requires much more love. Asola sanctuary in Delhi is full of birds. The area takes getting used to.

asola-copy_022418010744.jpgIndian Scops Owl. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Many native species of shrub and tree in the Aravallis dry forests have thorns almost an inch long. The grass is brown rather than green, and old rocks are worn with time. Thorny plants, well-adapted to Delhi’s heat and dryness, grasp on to it little pinches of dust between the rocky crags. You have to walk carefully, avoiding thorns.

Learning to embrace this tough, old place is rich in its rewards. In between the grass and rocks, you can find the stunning, quaint-as-a-button Painted Sandgrouse which is regularly seen in Asola. And you have the sedate looking, long-legged Indian stone-curlew which is a resident there. In the wetlands of Asola, you will find migratory birds hunting for food and fish — Bar-headed Geese, Mallard ducks and Northern Shovelers.

indian-hoopoe-copy_022418010924.jpgHoopoe on a tree. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

And apart from the birds, this is also the time to watch flowers. The Flame of the Forest is beginning to bloom all over central India. In the Himalayas, the blood-red rhododendron, which may be impacted by global warming, has begun blooming early, in winter and spring.

The impacts of climate change are evident in many phenologies — that is early or late blooming of flowers, changes in when insects or bird eggs hatch, among others. But spring is a time of celebration that is hard to ignore. It’s a time to get out there and look at the sky and the sea, the bough and the boulder. You’ll never be able to predict what you find.

All photos by me.

This piece first appeared here.

Its Migratory bird season – and here is where you can find some birds!

For Delhi: Basai, Najafgarh and Mangar. And read on also to know why these places 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. But the place itself feels both new and old; new because you see something unseen each time, old because there is something primeval about natural spaces. These are places shaped not by the human hand, but by sun, wind, water, birds and animals.

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.

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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 piece first appeared here.

IndiEnvironment: July 2017 Issue

The second issue of IndiEnvironment discusses Haryana’s Mesquite trees (Prosopis Juliflora) which have been cut down by the thousands, on the pretext that they are invasive. Should Mesquite be cut down simply to make buildings? Also, a brief look at the problems with writing on human-wildlife conflict.

Image and PDF below.

Feedback most welcome!

IndiEnvironment July 2017

 

IndiEnvironment_July 2017