Why Indian Forest Rest Houses need Preservation

We were walking in the forest, steadily, over fallen bamboo leaves. Ahead of us were more clumps of bamboo, standing out from passages of resplendent, luminous Sal forests. All of a sudden, there was a cry from one of the group members. We ground to a halt. The bamboo clump right ahead looked scattered, like the nucleus of a flower turned inside out, a painting made by a crazed artist.

Unmistakably, these were signs of presence of elephant — elephants had foraged through the bamboo, leaving it in chaotic bits and pieces. The air was cold, like cut diamond, pure and clear. But the tension in our group was thick, settling heavily around us. The guards with me were grasping their lathis a little tighter, eyes shining bright, mouths set in hard lines. I knew though that it was not elephants they feared. It was perhaps the hint of Naxals, who had burnt parts of the Maromar rest house buildings in their rebellion against the state.

karmajhiri-day_070918125249.jpgKamajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench Tiger Reserve. 

As we approached the rest house, with its scorched tree house and singed trees, the sight of the main building took away my breath. This rest house in Jharkhand’s Palamau tiger reserve, built before Independence, had survived the human hand. It was quaint, impeccable and the sort of colonial design one doesn’t get to see much anymore. High ceilings, white walls, funny handles.

Somehow this place had survived efforts at plywood-and-glass modernisation. It had also survived the approaching forest. It had endured and it deserved honour.

***

Karmajhiri Night

Karmajhiri Forest Rest House by night.

While forest rest houses (FRHs) across the country are stunningly beautiful — relicts of a forgotten, and climate friendly architecture — they have also been at the centre of struggle. Meant primarily for the forest department to survey or inspect forest, these grand old buildings have been eyed by other departments, who have often assumed control.

There have been proposals to commercialise these places through public-private partnerships. And many buildings have been modified in ways that do no justice to their heritage. Old, heavy furniture has disappeared or is kept without care, replaced by cheap, shiny new things. A rash of modern tiles cover old surfaces, and mirrors with glittering panels and golden-brown polyester curtains hang like invasive aliens in these solemn old spaces.

The climate-friendly lessons the buildings hold, almost a century before the advent of air-conditioning, have dissipated. Ventilating windows have been boarded, the lessons of high ceilings forgotten.

A new judgment by the Supreme Court, announced last week, comes as a breath of restorative air. The apex court has said that forest rest houses need to be under operational control of the forest department, and none other.

The judgment also says:

“The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IBs [inspection bungalows] many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement/addition to these buildings. We expect these guidelines to prevent the misuse of Forest Rest Houses/Inspection Bungalows…”

This summer, I was in Karmajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench tiger reserve, Madhya Pradesh. We had just come back from the forest. The air was golden, sizzling at 44 degrees Celsius. The only respite from the overpowering heat was a shower of cicada rain. Cicadas give out a liquid that will fall on your face as you pass by. In the central Indian heat, when things take on a mirage-like quality, you’d even take what comes out of an insect, if it helps cool you down. In the deciduous forest, largely leafless in the beginning of summer, I saw langur monkeys hugging trees, gathered tightly in the little strip of shade afforded by the trunk.

The whole forest was holding its breath and waiting for the monsoon.

fireplace-rukkhad_070918125327.jpgThe fireplace in Rukkhad forest rest house. The thick-walled building is cool in summers while the dining room is warm in winters. 

As I reached the Karmajhiri FRH, the verandah’s shade felt like a soothing balm to my inflamed, sunburnt limbs. Old FRHs are often built to have deep verandahs that encircle the entire building, offering relief from both scorching heat and slashing monsoon rain. And as I entered the room, the heat seemed to dissolve away. The high ceiling of the building and its little, unreachable ventilating windows were custom-made for the unforgiving summer. As the hot air rose, it dissipated through the windows just below the ceilings.

At the very centre of the building was the dining room, equipped with a fireplace. The thick-walled building is cool in summers, the dining room warm in winters. In sharp contrast was a new dining space next to the old forest rest house — a modern construction with low ceilings, flimsy doorways, as hot as any other building in the fury of central Indian heat.

A step in to these old FRH or inspection bungalows — be it Rukkhad in Madhya Pradesh, Pench in Maharashtra, Corbett in Uttarakhand, Northern West Bengal, or IBs in the Himalayas — feels like a step back in time. These are preserved parcels of history, gift-wrapped in memories a natural historian or an aesthete would love. And I am not suggesting these need to remain part of an anachronistic or disused past.

dining-room-rukkhad_070918125845.jpgThe dining space in Rukkhad forest rest house. 

There should be an exciting future for these buildings — a centre for meetings on conservation science, inspections and monitoring, and an abode for modern conservation researchers. Restoration has to be careful and meaningful, and the buildings should be used for what they are meant — a study of the forest.

The melding together of conservation science, architectural history and a dynamic forest is precious. When I think of — and go through — heat and pollution islands in cities, my mind goes back to the thick walls, mosquito-netted four-poster beds, and high ceilings of Karmajhiri.

From the past is a lesson for a climate-adapted future, which no number of modern steel and glass buildings can erase.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here.

Advertisements

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!

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

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.

bird1-copy_012018015446.jpg

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.

bird3-copy_012018015800.jpg

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.

bird4-copy_012018015925.jpg

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.

Snapshots of Summer.

It’s terribly hot. The heat is like a net you have to walk through: you can’t really see it, or escape it, but it leaves marks on your skin, and a feeling of being trapped.

But there are some things which add colour, life, and cock a snook at the unbearable heat. Wildlife is courting. Birds are calling. The arena of life drums on, beautiful, unaffected and resonating. Here are some snapshots from May:

Blackbucks.

Blackbuck Courting 3.jpg
Blackbucks are courting in the sizzling heat.
Blackbuck Courting 1.jpg
Blackbucks in Haryana

Blackbucks

 

Barbets.

Copper Clear
The Coppersmith Barbet Calling. When it calls, it makes a sonorous sound in its throat (you can see the action here), without opening its mouth.
Copper Heat.jpg
When birds feel hot, they often open their beaks like this, something like a panting dog.
Copper Alert May 17.jpg
Coppersmith Barbet in Delhi.

 

Dressing to Impress.

While the Sunbirds have finished courting, the lizards are just emerging in their finery:

Garden Lizard Breeding Colours.jpg
Garden Lizard in breeding colours: what an orange that is! Haryana.
Garden Lizard Clear.jpg
What an embellishment on the tree!

 

Endemic birds you must know about!

If you were to describe native things about India, you could talk about the particular texture of hand-pounded coconut chutney, the inky vegetable dye splash of kalamkari, art deco buildings merging with Mughal style domes which merge with glass-fronted malls. You may speak of food, fabric, folklore, festivals.

To this, I will add: what makes India a very particular and special place is endemism in wildlife. We have over 100 bird species found only in India, and more than another 100 that are native to South Asia.

Species evolve differently owing in part to unique landscapes – for instance, the Palghat gap, a valley in the Western Ghats, has helped create endemic species like Sholicola Ashambuensis, a Shortwing bird. The small but ecologically significant Thar desert holds a breeding population of the Great Indian Bustard, a large bird found only in the Indian subcontinent – and now believed to be found only in India.

The remoteness of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have created birds that are very much Andaman and Nicobar versions. Endemics include Andaman wood-pigeon, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Bulbul, Nicobar Pigeon, Nicobar Bulbul, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, and many more.

Today (May 5) is Endemic Bird day. Here are six endemics you must know about:

The Indian Peafowl

It’s nice to find a total showstopper, looking like it has a hundred eyes on its tail, dancing in forests and also sitting on a roadside tree in the National Capital. In times of political turmoil, diminishing species, and conflict between communities, one national symbol still remains national in range and occurrence.

peacocksemal-2_050518020032.jpgThe Indian peafowl [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Indian peafowl, a South Asia endemic, is not a bird shy of drama. Greek myth says the peacock was a watchman for Hera – with a hundred eyes on its tail. This bird doesn’t just shine, it glitters.

The tail of the peacock is effortlessly glamorous, and its dancing to attract females is the stuff of lore. It also manages to strut its stuff in the oddest, most protocol-ridden places. There was a peafowl nest in India International Centre, which the staff nurtured, rather than destroyed. There are peacocks at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

peacocksemal17mar_050518020102.jpgA peacock with its effortlessly glamorous tail. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

There are peafowl in crop fields and near old monuments. But we don’t know how many peafowl we have in India, and we should start counting, because peafowl regularly die in crop fields after pesticide poisoning. Peafowl is also being poached.

peacock-wooing-1_050518020126.jpgPeacock trying to woo potential mates [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Great Indian Bustard

The thing about a species being named after India is that you expect to be able to see this bird. Sadly, for the GIB, its magnificence has not granted it protection. Found in Thar desert, scrub land, grassland and crop fields, the GIB is close to extinction, a death by a thousand cuts. At the time that India became independent, the GIB was found in a range of states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and others. Today, the only significant populations are in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The bird has lost out on habitat – farmlands are laced with poison, and skies are full of wires, and grasslands are taken over. This large, heavy bird collides with wires and dies instantly, with wires being a new, urgent threat.

Upcoming solar farms and intensifying lattice of transmission wires in the Thar desert and the Kutch area have killed several GIB in the recent past. India may be the last country on earth to hold the GIB – some were found in Pakistan, but their status now is unknown. It would be a chronicle of a death foretold if this critically endangered species, down a global population of a paltry 150 birds, went extinct.

There are plans for captive breeding, and stopping habitat loss. While the plans continue to get made, the bird is in shock – and disappearing because of it.

Indian Pitta

Native to South Asia, the Indian Pitta is a truly beautiful bird. “Pitta” doesn’t describe the bird the way its Hindi moniker, “navrang”, does. This forest bird has nine colours, and a presence that ricochets through the forest. It likes a thick understory, and has a distinctive, sweet, two-note whistling call. Usually, you won’t find the Pitta in open areas. The bird is also a marker for good forest cover, and with forests getting diverted everyday, you won’t find it in every forest.

indian-pitta_050518020145.jpg

indian-pitta-2-1_050518020159.jpgIndian Pitta, a bird many may never have heard of. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The colours of the pitta are emblematic of the kind of hues associated with India – a deep yellow, a flaming orange, turquoise, emerald green – bold, unapologetic colours, the sort you’d find on the houses of village walls, and saree pallus. The Pitta calls with its head up towards the sky, often together or in pairs, charming the woods with sweet music.

Green Avadavat

You may never have heard of this little bird. If you see it though, you won’t forget it. The Green Avadavat is in big trouble, partly because it is good-looking. It has a crayon-red, perfectly triangular beak, zebra like stripes on its flanks, a green upper body, and a yellow lower body. The bird is a part of the illegal cage trade, which has pushed this bird to being listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. This is a shame, because this bird breeds only in India, and is a true Indian endemic.

It lives in scrubland and grassland, which development projects also like. The future of the bird lies in India and we must hasten to protect it, before desire wipes it out. A caged avadavat will not sing, and does not have much of a future.

Nicobar Megapode and Narcondam Hornbill

Of the many island endemics, there are two every Indian should know of, chiefly because ill-conceived plans threaten their existence.  The Narcondam Hornbill is found only on the tiny, wind-swept island of Narcondam in the Andaman sea. This island is all of 7sqkm. The bird has nowhere to go, and no other place to hide. The government has given permission to make a radar station and a power station on Narcondam island.

If construction does happen, this further imperils the bird, already facing the threat of invasive species like rats and goats, which have been introduced by policemen residing on the island. The Nicobar Megapode is considered related to the chicken. It has a major breeding population on Tillanchong island. Here, of all things, the government is making a missile firing station. One can hardly think of a more negligent way to deal with birds that India calls its own. As this headline says, the government has put bombs before birds.

India’s locales, mountains, islands, shrubs and forest have contributed, painstakingly, century after century, feather by feather, to create these species.

Let’s be mindful, let’s be proud. Let’s learn our endemic names. And let’s learn to protect them.

This first appeared in my DailyO column. 

Flamebacks Forever!

The heat is killing, and you are convinced all the wild animals are sleeping in the forest. Then, like the beat of a little drum, like the sound of a very precise hammer on a very particular nail, you hear it.

Tak, tak, tak, takk..

Golden flameback 1.jpg

A doctor chiseling away at a tree, a sculptor, an artist. Flamebacks are woodpeckers who weave holes in trees to prise off insects. I say weave, as they often leave patterns on the wood. They start from the bottom and make their way up, in spirals.

Like a golden gyre, which you can see only if you are quick enough, conscious enough, of the ways of Treeland.

Golden Flameback.jpg
Flameback on a mature tree. Pench.

And sometimes, very rarely, you will find a woodpecker on the forest floor!

Flameback Forest Floor crop.jpg

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!

*

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.

Tailorbird (3)
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.

Grey Hornbill Semal Apr 2
Grey Hornbill on Semal.
RRP Flock Takeoff Apr 2
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.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30.jpg
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.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: