Monthly Archives: January 2014

Bamboo bonfires and biodiversity

Can wildlife and slash-and-burn shifting agriculture coexist? This question led me into remote rainforests of northeast India in 1994 for a field research study in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. In December 2013, nearly two decades later, I went there again. From the Anamalai hills in south India, I travelled across the country to initiate a comprehensive bird survey in Dampa, including a resurvey of my old field sites. As a prelude to other writings I will post here in the days ahead, I post below an edited version of an article about my work in Dampa in the mid 1990s. This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine (a remarkable periodical published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which after a print run of over 112 years, perished with the recession in 2009). Original PDF here.

JhumBurn

A jhum fire speeds upslope in a field at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve (photo from 1995).

The heat from the fire is intense, even from a hundred metres away. The entire slope is ablaze. Piles of slashed vegetation and tens of thousands of bamboo culms that had sun-dried for three months burn ferociously. The bamboo hisses, crackles, and explodes, audible a mile away. Hot gusts of wind scud the fire upslope, throwing branches and small trees ten metres into the air. High above, unmindful of the billowing fumes, swallows and drongos, in a frenzy of activity, hawk insects. Ash and smoke darken the sky, reducing the sun to a dull orange ball. In twenty minutes, almost as rapidly as it started, the fiery spectacle ends. On the soil, only a blanket of smoldering ash and tree trunks remain.

The fire was kindled by tribal farmers of Teirei, a remote village adjoining tropical rain forest in the Lushai hills of Mizoram State in northeastern India. The farmers practice traditional slash-and-burn shifting agriculture locally known as jhum or law (pronounced lo). Ash is an effective way to enrich the poor soils with nutrients prior to cultivation. The burned patch, significantly, was just within the border of the five hundred square kilometre Dampa Tiger Reserve. This reserve was established in 1989 to protect tigers and other wildlife species such as the hoolock gibbon, capped langur, clouded leopard, hornbills, great slaty woodpeckers, wren-babblers, and other endangered species, many of which are found only in the tropical rainforests of northeast India within the country.

CappedLangur_Ramki

Found only in northeast India within the country, the capped langur is a leaf-eating primate that prefers mature rainforest habitat. (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Jhum is a serious conservation issue in northeast India. Between 1989 and 1995, remote-sensing analyses estimated that more than a thousand square kilometres of forests were lost due to jhum in the seven northeastern states. The effects on wildlife are largely unknown because few studies have been done in these often remote, insurgency-ridden parts of India. On the other hand, more than a hundred ethnic communities and well over a quarter of a million families depend upon jhum for their livelihood and economy, frequently cultivating in or at the edge of protected areas, as in Dampa.

A farmer in Teirei village clears his jhum field (photo from 1995), cutting bamboo and pioneer trees in a secondary forest that has regenerated on land that was cultivated and then abandoned ten years earlier.

A farmer in Teirei village clears his jhum field (photo from 1995), cutting bamboo and pioneer trees in a secondary forest that has regenerated on land that was cultivated and then abandoned ten years earlier.

The conservation issues raised by jhum are many and controversial. Many conservationists claim that, by destroying forest cover, jhum causes wildlife declines and extinctions, soil erosion, and drastic environmental changes—most evident when tall, primary rain forest is replaced by crop fields. Others have argued that the effects of jhum may be relatively benign compared to those of terrace cultivation, tea plantations, and monoculture forestry. By maintaining a mosaic of fallows and regenerating forest, jhum may help increase biological diversity at the landscape level. Yet, the critical question is: do species of high conservation value—those that are rare or specialized or have small geographical ranges—benefit or suffer from slash-and-burn cultivation? To unravel the answer, one needs to first understand the cropping patterns and changes that occur in the forest vegetation as a result of jhum.

Although timing of cultivation, types of crops, and agricultural practices of jhum vary in Indian communities, the broad pattern is remarkably similar to slash-and-burn cultivation in southeast Asia and other tropical regions. Until recent times, the enterprise in northeast India has been driven and regulated by the community that controls the land. Each household is allotted a parcel of land between one and four hectares in size. Normally, this would be part of a slope of secondary forest that has been regenerating for five to ten years since the previous cultivation. Tall, mature rainforest is also cleared, but rarely, owing to the scarcity of such forest and the difficulties of clearing.

When mature rainforest is cleared, as occasionally happens, all vegetation including tall, mature trees are cut, to the detriment of species dependent on undisturbed habitat. (Photo courtesy: S. U. Saravanakumar)

After the cut, in January or February, the slash dries on the hills until April, when it is burned just before the onset of pre-monsoon rains. Farmers then sow several varieties of rice, their mainstay, along with more than a dozen other crops, including eggplants, beans, and tubers, as well as some cash crops such as tobacco and chilli peppers. A busy season of weeding and multiple harvests follows until October, when the spent field is abandoned. Fields are rarely cultivated for more than a year, because one round of cultivation severely depletes the soil. The next year and in successive years, new areas are cleared, until the vegetation in the first site regenerates sufficiently to permit cultivation again—usually within ten years. But is this a sufficient amount of time for native rainforest plants and wildlife to recover?

To observe a regenerating forest from the time it is cleared to when the vegetation or a semblance of it recovers is practically impossible within the lifetime of a rainforest biologist. Field biologists therefore sometimes use a short-cut solution: they study various sites cleared and abandoned at different times in the past, which currently represent different ages and stages of forest regeneration, a method called ‘space-for-time substitution’. Such an opportunity existed in Dampa. So, to study changes in vegetation and wildlife here, I surveyed sites that had regenerated for between one and 100 years and compared them to rainforest that had never been cleared. It was a special and awe-inspiring experience, like a virtual voyage through time, visualizing the birth, growth, death, and vicissitudes of a rainforest and the plants and animals in it—a fascinating subject for any rainforest biologist. After months of fieldwork, with the data from transects and plots in the hand, the trajectory of changes could be pieced together.

Soon after a field is abandoned, weeds, grasses, surviving crop plants, and bamboos sprouting from underground rhizomes run amok, creating a dense and vigorous tangle that at first threatens to smother forest regeneration.

Open fallow: a jhum field in its first year of abandonment after cultivation.

Open fallow: a jhum field in its first year of abandonment after cultivation.

The grey bush chat is a bird of the open fallows.

The grey bush chat is a bird of the open fallows.

In these open fields with hardly any canopy, common and widespread wildlife proliferates. The ubiquitous red-vented bulbul, common tailorbird, white-rumped munia, and grey bush chat thrive in the open land that has lain fallow for one year. Most rainforest species avoid these areas, although the occasional pigeon or woodpecker may briefly visit an isolated tree standing dry and forlorn in the field. The common hoary-bellied squirrel scurries on the ground, picking at choice bits of food. The grass looks good for ungulates, but the shy barking deer and sambar seldom venture here, for they may be snared or shot.

Fortunately, this situation does not last long. The vegetation recovers with astonishing rapidity. The open, weedy fallows rapidly give way to bamboo forests. In five years, the bamboo, along with pioneer trees such as Macaranga and Trema, form dense stands that reach ten feet and higher. Wildlife from the surrounding landscape begins to colonize. Understorey birds are among the first to appear in sizable numbers: rainforest babblers, warblers, flycatchers, and bulbuls. If lucky, one might also see the bamboo-loving woodpeckers: the pale-headed woodpecker and the white-browed piculet, clinging to the smooth culms, searching for insects.

BambooForest

In the early years of forest succession, bamboos establish rapidly and dominate the vegetation, along with some pioneer trees.

Bamboos reign supreme for many years. In Mizoram, the bamboo Melocanna bambusoides dominates regenerating fallows for at least the first thirty years. As time passes, more bird species appear, and the air is alive with their calls. Some arboreal mammals, too, venture into tall bamboo and secondary forests that have been allowed to regenerate for ten years or more, particularly if they are near mature rain forests. Phayre’s leaf monkeys—carrying a permanent expression of amazement due to the white circles around their eyes—forage in troops of a dozen or so individuals in the canopy. They feed on leaves of trees and climbers, often nibbling only at the leaf petiole and discarding the rest. The sprightly, dark-furred and red-bellied Pallas’s squirrel, and even a few of the cautious black-and-white Malayan giant squirrel scamper through the canopy or pause to gaze suspiciously at observers. As bamboos and pioneer trees grow taller and larger, rainforest tree seedlings sprout and flourish in their shade.

If left undisturbed, the slow-growing saplings eventually take over after the bamboos flower en masse and die. One site, that had regenerated for a hundred years, contained mostly tall rainforest trees and lianas with little trace of bamboo. Here, and even more so in primary rainforest that has never been cleared, plants and animals achieve their highest diversity.

Mature rainforest in Dampa Tiger Reserve

Mature rainforest in Dampa Tiger Reserve

Camping in a cave by the Tuichar River, deep in primary rainforest, I could experience this first hand every day. Here were lofty rainforests with their profusion of life. In a single day’s observation at a wild fig tree fruiting just above my camp, I saw four species of primates including a family of hoolock gibbons, five species of squirrels, three species of green pigeons in large flocks, great, oriental pied, and wreathed hornbills, imperial pigeons, Asian fairy bluebirds, and, surprisingly, even a flock of laughingthrushes that had ascended into the canopy. In stark contrast, fig trees that were left standing alone and tall above a jhum fallow or a bamboo forest held only a vestige of these spectacular gatherings, fewer species, and mostly common ones.

When regenerating bamboo forests are cleared for cultivation within ten years, as usually happens in northeast India, rainforest recovery is interrupted and the land undergoes another of the endless cycles of bamboo. Due to the spread of shifting cultivation in the region, which means short fallow cycles of fewer than ten years, huge areas are under this “arrested succession” of dense, almost monotypic bamboo forests. Besides having fewer species, these bamboo forests are also prone to destructive fires after bamboos flower en masse and dry up. Nearly forty years after the last bamboo flowering during the late 1960s, vast areas of Mizoram underwent a spectacular bout of flowering during 2006 – 2007.

Short-cycle jhum may result in large areas of arrested successional bamboo forests

Short-cycle jhum may result in large areas of arrested successional bamboo forests.

The wildlife species that suffer most due to jhum are often those most critical from a conservation point of view―those that are rare, specialised, or restricted to the northeast Indian rainforests. India’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon, and other arboreal mammals such as the capped langur and the Malayan giant squirrel, occur only in mature rainforest and are locally extinct or very rare in jhum-altered landscape. This patterns of change was also evident among the bird species. The number of bird species increases with forest regeneration, rapidly at first, then slowly to reach maximum diversity and abundance in the 100-year-old mature forest and undisturbed tropical rainforest. Moreover, the mix of bird species or bird community composition also changed with time, achieving by a hundred years a high similarity with primary forest.

Where does this leave the claim that jhum increases biological diversity in the landscape? Obviously, more species can be accommodated in a tropical rainforest landscape when new habitats such as open fallows and dense bamboo forests are created by jhum. The additional species appearing in the landscape are, however, mostly common and widespread species, of open scrub or dry deciduous forest habitats. Many species considered more important for conservation—rare, endangered, restricted-range, and habitat-specialist species—decline or suffer from habitat alteration due to jhum. The increase in biological diversity in the landscape may this come at the cost of such rainforest species.

Still, any assessment of the effects of jhum needs to consider livelihood needs and traditional rights of the people who practice jhum cultivation. Social scientists and activists have justifiably championed the cause of indigenous peoples. Yet, defining what is traditional and who is indigenous in communities undergoing rapid socioeconomic changes, market integration, and migration is difficult. In and around Dampa Tiger Reserve, as in other parts of northeast India, the human population has soared in recent years and includes many settlers from other parts of Mizoram, Tripura, Nepal, and Bangladesh, all with their own customs and traditions, and far removed from places where their traditions initially evolved. Over the last century, a large proportion of the people in Mizoram have converted from animism to Christianity. With road- and market-penetration, human societies are not static, but change dynamically.

Village of Damparengpui (December 2013)

Village of Damparengpui (December 2013)

Jhum is not the only problem for wildlife conservation in northeast India. Large-scale logging by the government, illegal timber poaching, and conversion of rainforests to monoculture plantations of tea and teak—widespread ecological ills caused by state and private, mostly non-tribal, interests—consume precious land and forest. As a consequence, the burgeoning tribal populations, growing at among the fastest rates within India, are forced to clear remnant forest tracts and to cultivate at shorter fallow periods. And so, the vicious cycle of arrested bamboo succession continues. If wildlife conservation in India’s northeast is to be effective, all the forces of landscape change must be addressed, squarely and urgently.

A teak monoculture established in the buffer zone of Dampa by the Mizoram Forest Department in erstwhile community jhum lands.

A teak monoculture established in the buffer zone of Dampa by the Mizoram Forest Department in erstwhile community jhum lands.

Although it is easy to say that from a biological perspective one needs undisturbed, preferably large tropical rain forests, it is not an easy conservation objective to achieve. Such areas are scarce, and one is often left with only various-sized, disturbed fragments of rainforest in a jhum-dominated landscape. There are alternatives. In Meghalaya, tribal communities protect small, sacred groves. In Mizoram, thanks to state laws passed in the 1960s, villagers use a network of “supply” forests under regulated use for biomass harvests. More infrequently, a few “safety” forests exist, fringes around villages created to protect them from jhum fires. These areas are rapidly diminishing or vanishing as villages grow and lifestyles change. It is important to include these areas, along with agriculture and plantations, within the ambit of conservation planning for it to be effective at the landscape scale.

Conservation efforts in northeast India cannot proceed without due consideration of the legitimate needs of the millions of poor farmers, such as the people of Teirei, who depend on jhum for their livelihoods. Shifting cultivation is an organic system of multiple cropping well adapted to areas of high rainfall. Alteration of jhum to mechanized or terraced agriculture or monoculture plantations, even if possible, may be even worse for biological diversity and food security.

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

In the final reckoning, many forms of land use and forest types will be a part of the landscapes of the future in this region. It is also evident that in parts of northeast India, intense, short-cycle jhum and wildlife conservation are largely incompatible. For wildlife conservation to be a reality, there is one type of land-use and forest that is essential in this mix: protected sites with primary rainforest.

In Dampa Tiger Reserve, conservation efforts have been promising. After initial difficulties, eleven villages with nearly five hundred families located inside the sanctuary were resettled on the periphery in 1989. Today, jhum is mainly restricted to the buffer zone and areas outside sanctuary boundaries. A large project implemented through the local government and village councils has been underway in Mizoram to develop and sustain alternate livelihoods for the villagers, with the goal of finding alternatives to jhum, and ostensibly to minimize pressures on forests.

Meanwhile, scientific surveys continue to reveal the extraordinary diversity in these rainforests. Using camera-traps, forest staff have obtained photographs of the rare and elusive marbled cat and the clouded leopard. A survey to catalogue resident reptiles and amphibians has revealed the presence of several rare and endemic species, including some that could be new to science. In many ways, Dampa represents a tantalizing pocket of hope for what is possible in these remarkable rain forests.

The journeys of the elephants

It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,

Row of elephants

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?

African elephant

African elephant

Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
~ Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge”. The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of  Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…

And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:

There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtest: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtesy: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:

as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,

Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.

It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.

…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.

As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,

Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,

because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.

If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,

The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!

This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy British Museum)

This is Hansken. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).

Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,

when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.

Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.

The elephant 'Soliman' (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

The elephant ‘Soliman’  in Vienna, 1552 (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:

but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.

And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:

and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.

Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.

Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:

For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

Further reading:

Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species. 
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14063

Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., 
Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, 
D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and 
Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, 
Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of 
the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.
http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/

Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by
Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.

Trophies 101: a year of books and bookstores

I went trophy hunting—in the year just past—roughly twice a week, every week, without fail. It was difficult, it was wonderful, it needed the patience of a stalker, the resistance of a gone junkie. On my hunts, I roamed the alleys and mazes of concrete jungles, scoured dark recesses and dusty nooks, scanned thousands before selecting the few, the chosen, the one. I have them all now with me, waiting to be proudly displayed on my shelves. My trophies of 2013, harvested from five countries across three continents, from over two dozen places: books.

It was an unusually good year for book hunting. I had had to travel on work or for taking a break from work to places far from the small hill town of Valparai where I live. The icy grachten of Amsterdam in January, sun-drenched northern California in April and May, verdant Vermont in July, quiet Uppsala in August, the dour streets of London in October, the dense forests of Mizoram in December, passing through Bangalore or New Delhi or Mysore or Coimbatore or Chennai, Indian cities that I visited on other trips on work or to see friends and family, always coming back home to the Anamalai hills, to Valparai. A little too much travel, if you ask me, and with too much time in workshops and meetings, places where there is always too much talk and too little done, so many moments when you itch to leave the room, go home, take a cleansing bath. On the work front, it was a year of moderate and quiet progress in Valparai itself, although the world around appeared to careen towards catastrophe and conflict, whether from extreme climate events around the world, or, closer to home, over disputes on how to conserve the Western Ghats or coexist with wild species like elephants. On the personal front, too, it was not an easy year, with deaths in the family, illness and stress among people close to us, worry and guilt about personal time infringing the ineluctable backlog of work. But wherever I was, there were always books at hand, or else I went looking.

The books were an attempt not so much to escape from it all, but to find solace and space, as they say, in the scheme of things. To make sense of the world around us, to see the world through other eyes, to feel transported, thrilled, or transformed by great art: what does that better, if one pays attention, than books, than literature? So, at the least opportunity, I hauled myself out of whatever I was doing or wherever I was, on quests for books. Books in public libraries, once-used books in curbside shops and on pavements, books in small, independent bookstores and larger, lavish bookshops, books in digital formats online for my Kindle, books borrowed from or gifted by friends (what are friends for, anyway?), books rediscovered in the shelves that Divya and I have lovingly filled and tended over the years, here in Valparai. As Emily Dickinson wrote of these “kinsmen of the shelf”:

Unto my Books—so good to turn—
Far ends of tired Days—
It half endears the Abstinence—
And Pain—is missed—in Praise—

And so, with the books in hand, I read. I read for the sheer joy of reading, for meeting my self-imposed challenge of reading one hundred books in 2013, for filling every empty space in everyday life. I read with a vengeance, read with heart. I read with attention, and read myself to distraction. I read on buses, on trains, on flights, in bus stations and train stations and airports. I read while waiting, secretly exultant at the delayed flight, the slow unpunctual train, the taxi stuck in traffic. I read while the morning coffee brewed in the filter, while the computer booted up, while being driven from somewhere to anywhere, while listening to music, while watching but not really watching the rubbish on television, while the rotis baked and the dal cooked in the kitchen, while waiting for meetings to begin, while waiting for them to end. I read on the couch, in the bed, sitting on chairs, on rocks, on river banks, in cafés, in bookstores, in a watchtower overlooking ranges of hills, in a cave in deep rainforest. I read sitting, standing, reclining, or lying down, in places a few feet below sea level (in The Netherlands) to over thirty thousand feet (on transcontinental flights). I read in sun and shade, under streetlamps and fluorescent tubes, using a LED headlamp or by candlelight. I read under the sharp buzz of caffeine from one-coffee-too-many, with that lightheaded feeling that one gets in the other ‘coffee shops’ of Amsterdam, with a mind mildly muddled by beer or vodka or wine. I read with both eyes flitting left to right and left again, or sometimes, just with one eye, the other drooping closed, moments before melting slowly, deliciously into sleep at night. I read on the shores of Lake Tahoe, on the banks of the Singelgracht, in my cousin’s swanky apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, on BART and Caltrain in California, in the homes of friends and family wherever I went, and most of all in the hills of the elephants here at home in Valparai. I just read and read and read.

The year that began with reading Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, filled up quickly with many books whose authors and voices I will remember and continue to hear, speaking to me as to a confidant or companion, for long. Still, eight books stood out as my best reads of 2013, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I read on my Kindle, and others that I read as paperbacks. Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a powerful novel on hunger and the depravity of totalitarian regimes set in the Russian Gulag during World War II, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a stark novella set in the American west of the 1920s, Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, stories remarkable for their imaginative detailing as for narrative technique, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, describing three journeys of a lost young man, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a classic, more like a non-fiction novella than an essay, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a hard-hitting early book about homelessness, poverty, and living on the street, and finally, William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic for all writers, The Elements of Style, a book I re-read for perhaps the third or fourth time.

Best books of 2013

Best books of 2013

On 29 December 2013, as I clicked past the last page on my Kindle of the hundredth book, I found myself dissatisfied with ending a year of reading with Thoreau’s Walking, more a long essay than a book. So I picked up a paperback from a friend’s bookshelf and ended the year reading this fine classic: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Through the year, I had kept track, on my online Goodreads account, of what I read and what Divya and my friends were reading. Among ourselves, we sent and received book recommendations that led to more reading, or helped find new authors to read. It was also interesting to compare impressions about books and authors with Divya and friends who had read the same books, to see what we agreed on and what we felt differently about them.

Still, not everyone takes kindly to such reading. On 2 January, when I wished my mother-in-law for the new year and invited her over to our home in Valparai, she replied: “Yes, I will come, but you must not be reading.”

So at this point, 101 books, 18816 pages, and more than five million words later, a statutory warning: Relentless reading can cause injury to friends and family.

* * *

What is good etiquette for a person who is reading a book? I am not talking about posture or mothers’ reading instructions (“Sit up straight, hold your book at least twelve inches away from your face, read in good light.”) This is about when and where it is appropriate to be reading a book, especially in company. Occasions when one is at a dining table or hosting guests are certainly out there in the forbidden list. I never read at a dining table, unless I was alone or waiting for people to show up. Still, I watched with envy as people at dinner tables, at home or while eating out, whipped out their so-smart phones, caressing their email and twitter feeds on touch screens, or their hands under the table, fingers flitting at the virtual keys, sending that all-important text message. And if the phone rang, of course, it must be picked up, the clangorous urgency of its shrill metallic cries immediately mollified with soft words and conversation. Even guests are forgiving, if you say, “I have to take this call” and step out with your phone for a quick chat, an extended ten minutes, or even longer. Imagine their chagrin if you say, “Can you excuse me for a few minutes? I was just in the middle of this wonderful passage in The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.” Or, their horror at: “Wait! I’m pages away from finishing Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and I cannot rest until I know how it ends.” The tyranny of the mobile phone, I tell you, trumps books any day.

Yet, there are grey areas. Can you read during working hours, for instance? And is it okay if you are reading non-fiction, connected with your work, but not so if you are reading fiction or poetry? As a nature conservationist, would reading Richard Mabey’s The Ash and the Beech or Edward Abbey’s polemical Desert Solitaire be forgiven, but not Patrick White’s extraordinary The Tree of Man or Rabindranath Tagore’s ecstatic poetry in The Gardener? If you have a social conscience, then should you read Michael Sandel’s Justice or Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, say, but not Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, or Mahasweta Devi’s Bitter Soil? And does that mean, by extension, that for working hours, stuff like Anaïs Nin‘s erotica or Ursula K. Le Guin‘s science fiction are a strict no-no?

How much time can one spend reading in a day? I calculate that, from the books I read last year, I read about 50 pages a day, on average. At my reading pace (moderate, not fast), that is about an hour and fifteen minutes of reading time, ranging from a low of a few minutes on some busy days to around five hours on days when I had more time or was travelling by train. This did not include time spent reading newspapers, magazines, stand-alone essays, the occasional scientific paper that I was reading or reviewing, in print or online. All told, it would still be about two hours a day, on average, of reading time. Is that a lot? Compare that with television viewership in Indian metros, which apparently exceeds two hours a day, while it averages around five hours per day in the US. Still, I can’t use these numbers to my advantage, as the hours add up for me because I watch TV, too. But: I sometimes watch TV while reading a book! (Is it really so odd, that while reading about the almost unendurable depravity and deprivation in the concentration camps of The Hunger Angel, one finds a kind of release watching the slaughter of Nazis on TV as portrayed by Quentin ‘The-rant-ino‘ in Inglourious Basterds?)

Excuses, excuses!

* * *

Still, if you find yourself seized this year by the idea of making it your year of books, and you happen to be in or near any of the places I was lucky to visit, here are some pointers to places where you may find something of interest, too.

Public libraries: Check out the great Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, although it is a library with no members and books can be read sitting there, but not borrowed. The small public library in Valparai itself is a good place to find local and regional newspapers and magazines, and titles in Tamil (a bunch of books on nature and wildlife that we donated last year is yet to pass through the bureaucratic channels and appear on its shelves). Still, I wish we had better and bigger public libraries, like the one I enjoyed visiting in San Mateo, California, for instance, or the wonderful Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam. With excellent collections, comfortable and inviting reading spaces, and ancillary facilities including internet, audio-visual materials and public documents, these are truly fantastic public spaces for local people and casual visitors.

CraftsburyLibrary

The public library at Craftsbury Common (Courtesy: Craftsbury Public Library)

Another quiet and enchanting library is the public library at Craftsbury Common in Vermont. In this rustic Vermont community (less than 200 households), the library was housed in a clapboard building along the road on one side of the meadow-like common until about a decade ago. As recalled by David Brown, a long-time resident and Director of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop that is annually held here, when a new building was ready on the west side of the common, members and volunteers from the Craftsbury Common community formed a long human chain to pass the books hand-to-hand to move the entire collection to the new building. I thought almost everyone from Craftsbury Common would have had to gather to make the chain. Imagine that: almost all the books of a public library passing through the hands of almost everyone in the community!

Institutional libraries: If, on reading the above, you are tempted to visit Craftsbury Common in Vermont someday, don’t miss the other library, a short distance down the road, the Brown Library of Sterling College, which is open 24 hours a day. One of the smallest colleges in the US, Sterling College lays strong emphasis on nature, conservation, farming, forestry, and sustainability, and it certainly shows in their library. It has one of the widest collections of environmental periodicals I have seen and an excellent collection of book titles, too. In California, I spent a lot of time in two of the libraries at Stanford, where I was enrolled in a creative non-fiction course (a Stanford Continuing Studies course taught by a superb instructor, a poet and former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Peter Kline). The Green Library was my refuge for many happy hours of reading just about anything from the New Yorker to Earth Island Journal, fiction and reference. Down the road, past the grand main quad and the green oval, is the Falconer biology library, where I spent many hours reading, even sleeping, on their comfortable plush chairs, and writing at the large tables with views of trees through the windows. In India, I did not much enjoy the institutional libraries, perhaps because I felt a bit lost when I was there. The library in the new building of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore was a bit of a disappointment, given that it did not have much on nature and conservation, or literature, that I could find. The Centre for Ecological Sciences library, an old, cozy haunt, in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is also displaced now to a monstrous new building with an elevator and imposing corridors confusingly flaring away in all directions. I confess: during a short visit there, I could not even find the library. The tiny library of our own institution, the Nature Conservation Foundation, is just a few shelves and stacks in the garage of our Mysore office. Still, I found a book or two to pick up there.

Smaller, independent bookstores: Of all the places where I loitered and lingered looking for books, some of the best were the smaller independent bookstores. The English Bookshop in Amsterdam is a fantastic place located near the heart of the world heritage canal district with an eclectic but tasteful choice of books for the book aficionado. Its proprietor, Liesl Olivier, knows her books and gives you superb recommendations. Thanks, Liesl, for James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In nearby Leliegracht, walk into Architectura & Natura for a selection of titles on architecture, landscapes, gardens, and nature.

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

Not to be missed in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy: The English Bookshop)

In California, around San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Rockridge near Oakland, there are so many bookstores, and although I tried to visit as many as possible, I managed only a handful. The absolute best and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever visited is Mrs Dalloway’s at Rockridge. Named after a famous book by Virginia Woolf, whose book A Room of One’s Own was one of my 2013 top reads, this store also keeps a selection of Woolf titles, on a shelf rather quaintly named ‘A Shelf of Her Own’. As a double bonus, you can walk down the road to Pegasus Books, to whet your appetite even further. In San Francisco, you shouldn’t miss City Lights Bookstore, a large store where the hours spin away so fast that you end up missing your trains, or Green Apple Books, which is just packed with more books than I, unfortunately, had time to see.

Daunt Books's famous gallery

Beautiful interior of Daunt Books (Photo: RachelH, Wikimedia Commons)

If you are in London, I highly recommend a visit to Daunt Books, a short walk down the road from Baker Street or Bond Street tube stations. This store focuses on travel literature and is charmingly organised: the shelves for each region or country contain not just travelogues and guides, but fiction, poetry, and non-fiction titles written by authors from that country or region. On the Argentina shelf, I found Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, which I had searched for in vain in many other places, and from the Canada shelf, I picked up Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s Runaway. While visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, we stopped by the Kew Bookshop, a good place for books on all things green.

Larger bookshops and chains: The smaller bookstores are a greater pleasure to visit, but one is sometimes tempted to go book hunting in the labyrinths of larger stores. Crossword and Landmark in India have stores worth visiting, although their collections are not exceptional and I watch with trepidation as their space gets taken up more and more by ‘lifestyle’ products and toys and gaming consoles and CDs and DVDs. In Bangalore, Gangarams shut shop on M. G. Road and has moved to Church Street. Although the store looks like they have not really settled in, it is worth a visit. In London, there are monster stores, which you would need weeks to see in their entirety: particularly Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, Waterstones, and Hatchards, the last priding itself as the oldest bookstore in London founded in 1797. Blackwell’s, also on Charing Cross Road, has an impressive array of academic titles. In Amsterdam, the Athenaeum is great for titles in all world languages, while the American Book Center across the road is the place to go for English titles. Another huge place to get lost in among books is the Polare store near the flower market, Bloemenmarkt.

Used Books: Roughly half the books we bought last year were from stores that sold used or second-hand (shouldn’t it be third-hand, assuming the first person may have held the book in both hands?) books. Top of the list is certainly BookBuyers at Mountain View, California, followed by Books Inc, just down Castro Street, and Bell’s Book Store in Palo Alto near Stanford.

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

BookBuyers, Mountain View, CA (Photo courtesy: Google streetview)

Although these stores don’t have that new and spacious look that some of the larger bookstores have, they are absolute treasure chests. You can find an incredible diversity of books here, including old Penguin paperback editions, out-of-print titles, almost good-as-new books at less than half the price, or often available for as little as a dollar per book. I had to borrow an extra suitcase from my brother and sister-in-law in California to carry the books I picked up there back to India, leaving yet others behind in another bag for my cousin’s husband (bless his soul) to carry to India a few weeks later. I struck it rich again in Vermont, as the public library was having a dollar sale of old books, finding hardbacks in impeccable condition of Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. In London, I had little time to visit used book stores, but for a single Oxfam store. In Amsterdam, the Saturday street markets at Noordermarkt and the nearby Lindengracht has stalls with used books that are worth checking out, if you can overcome the temptations of the wonderful selection of local foods and other things also available in the dozens of other stalls down the street. Back in Bangalore, I never got a chance to beat time and traffic to revisit Blossom Book House in Church Street. Fortunately, one of our friends, who practically lives in this massive bookstore when he is not out in the field looking for otters and such, has been mining it for all kinds of interesting books and sharing some of those with us.

Online: Then, of course, were the books downloaded online: e-books from the invaluable Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or purchased from Amazon for Kindle. From Valparai, we also ordered many printed books online, from Amazon or its Indian wannabe equivalent, Flipkart. Last year will perhaps be the last year of reading books on e-readers for me. In October, while reading Richard Jefferies’ post-apocalyptic novel After London, my e-reader, a Kindle 3 keyboard model, suddenly turned hot in my hands, almost burning my fingertips, forcing me to shut it down. After it cooled, I booted back up to find that images were no longer displayed, but I could still read texts. But not for long. After three years of regular use, on 29 December 2013, minutes after I clicked past the last page of the hundredth book of the year, my Kindle froze, gave up its ghost, and died. Amazon, of course, refused any replacement as it was past warranty, and offered at reduced price newer machines with back-lit or paper-white touch screens and other completely unnecessary embellishments that somehow were not as attractive as the older reader. Besides, they should make things that last, shouldn’t they? Like books.

* * *

So what were these 101 books that I read: the trophies? Why do I call them trophies? Only because I am displaying them here, like the books in our wooden, glass-fronted shelves at home are displayed. In Mizoram, I remember visiting two decades ago, the home of a Mizo tribal, Liando, whose walls were adorned with hundreds of skulls of animals that he had hunted in the past. It was a display that signified prowess, that symbolised his prestige within the community. My trophies signify neither prowess nor prestige, they are merely the documentation of an accomplishment of reading about fifty pages a day, for a year—of these 101 books.

My 2013 bookshelf:
Sridhar's books 2013

Books2013

I could go on about these books, but I am no critic, only a reader, so it is difficult to give you further insight into these books or the kind of incisive comments about them that you might want. All I can tell you is that I wish you a good year of reading ahead and hope you find the time to visit those independent bookstores and libraries and bookshops of your choice. You will find that, if you can put aside those two hours every day for reading, it will be two hours well spent. You will find that something miraculous happens, as if the author who is not there physically is speaking to you, the reader, or through you, by your presence and your reading, to the world, like a bubble that expands from your hand to enfold the universe. In 2013, a hundred years after Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I read his rhapsodic poetry in The Gardener. How strange, then, to discover that the poem ends with this final stanza!

Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

It is time I wound up this essay. And besides: the new year is already here, the hours rush on, and in the bedroom, J. M. Coetzee is waiting.