Category Archives: birds

Fieldwork: In clouded leopard country with Peter Matthiessen

Emerging from the rainforests, near Teirei village in a remote corner of Mizoram in northeast India, my phone comes alive, beeps a message as if from another world.

Peter Matthiessen is no more.

It brings me to a halt. Head bowed, I read the message again. At the end of a long trek, my shoulders slump with heavy backpack. A tiredness changes to an ache, the forest rest house in the village two kilometres away is forgotten.

Divya, my wife, had sent the message from our home in the Anamalai hills in the other corner of India. Peter Matthiessen, exceptional observer, witness, versatile writer of nonfiction including The Tree where Man was Born, African Silences, The Cloud Forest, and Wildlife in America, fiction such as Shadow Country and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, has long been one of our favourite authors. A cherished collection of his books fills a row in our wooden bookshelf at home. The previous day, on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86, Matthiessen, at his home in Sagaponack halfway around the world, had died of leukaemia.

Matthiessen_books_low

Bookshelf (Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan)

How does one respond to news about the death of one of the finest writers about the natural world? And, too, in a text message? I find my fingers moving over the keypad writing something to Divya that I know would be inadequate, mean nothing.

Oh damn. So sad. I guess his books won’t die so soon.

Weeks earlier, when I set out for Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram for a spell of fieldwork on birds in the rainforest landscape, I had no doubt about the one book I would surely carry. The first book I tucked into my backpack was Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. The book, a lyrical chronicle of journey and quest in the high mountains of the Himalaya, itself rang with his searing attempt to reconcile life and death.

And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.

I carried the book in my bag and Matthiessen’s words in my head as I moved between camps over many weeks spent in Dampa. I was here at the invitation of the Mizoram State Forest Department to carry out a comprehensive bird survey, revisiting the same mountains and forests where I had lived and worked twenty years earlier. At that time, I had come to carry out field research on the tribal system of farming in the region called shifting agriculture or jhum and its effects on forest recovery and birds. Why had I returned now? Was I here only for the bird survey? Or was there more? A reliving of experience unearthed from the ashes of memory? A search for something forgotten, or missed for long?

But why was I going? What did I hope to find? … And so I admitted that I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?

And so, along with my fieldwork, I read Matthiessen. I read him with a headlamp on cold nights in the watchtower camp on Dampatlang peak. I read him under fierce sun in the muggy afternoons at the other bamboo forest watchtower on Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang ridge. I read him by candlelight and firefly flicker in the Tuichar Cave deep in the valley below.

Dampatlang watchtower, 2014

Dampatlang watchtower (2013)

Dampatlang Watchtower, 1 March 2014

At nearly a thousand metres elevation, the Dampatlang watchtower overlooks a grand, wild landscape. On one side, to the north and east, the forest canopy of rainforest trees and Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus) bamboo steps away from the ridgeline in a panoply of green. On the other, just metres away, the land plunges several hundred feet past grey cliffs of serow and bear into the valley of Tuichar Lui (river). Beyond the river, dark primary forests climb the slopes of Chawrpialtlang from valley to summit at 1,100 metres. Across the valley of Tuichar, the steep sleeping cliffs of the Assamese macaques face the rainforest from where the hoolock gibbons sing.

ChawrpialtlangForests

At 4:40 a.m., a dark, starlit sky, the silence of mountains, the susurrus of leaves in the wind, the yawing creak of bamboo culms. Soon, I would have to head out to survey two transects, lying about four kilometres away, down a narrow and steep trail. Two decades ago, I walked the same transects with little trouble, but today my legs are killing me. My knees are swollen, I cannot fold my legs, and squatting or standing is agony. Still, unless my legs give way completely, I resolve to see the fieldwork through, walk the transects as many times as I can.

It takes over an hour and a quarter to reach the transects in bamboo and mature evergreen forests. The forests throb with morning bird sounds, sweet songs of babblers and shama, the loud cries of barbets and hornbills. Walking, listening, looking, I pass a stately Khiang (Schima wallichii) tree where a black and white Malayan giant squirrel and a coal-black Pallas’ squirrel with red belly are chewing at fruits for seeds. Clasping fruit to mouth and hanging by their hind legs or stretched along the branch, long furry tails hanging, the squirrels gnaw and chew, unaffected by my presence directly below. A light rain of bitten fruit showers on me and patters softly on the earth as I pass.

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Malayan giant squirrel in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

It takes over two hours to finish the transect surveys before it is time to return. Plodding back uphill, I consider what it is about fieldwork that draws one out, beyond the call of duty or discomfort, into the wild. Beneath the scientific quest, lies something that is far more personal. Behind the aura of exploration, lurks the ego of achievement, the arrogance of conquest.

Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.

Suddenly, a scurrying rustle sounds from the path ahead. A pair of grey shapes darts from the trail, a dozen pairs of iridescent green eyes glint from long feathers: Grey Peacock-Pheasants. One bird crosses the trail, another follows, cagily circles a fallen log before vanishing into the forest. From deep in the forest sounds the guttural laugh of another peacock-pheasant, the ‘Varihaw’ singing to attract his mate. Ahead, on the trail itself, I find a small space, about five feet by two, cleared of twigs and litter, perhaps for the Varihaw to tilt and dance, fanning wing and tail to dazzle his inamorata with his profusion of glinting ocelli.

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Male Grey Peacock-Pheasant in Dampa (Photo courtesy: Mizoram Forest Department)

Further ahead, just off the trail, a dumpy bird—mud brown below, green above, a swatch of blue on his nape—hops away on long legs into the undergrowth, from where he issues a loud two-note whistle. The Blue-naped Pitta carries the touch of earth, forest, and sky on his plumage. And a bit further, a cluster of black feathers, some tipped white, is all that remains of a male Kalij Pheasant killed by a wild cat: a leopard cat perhaps, or that more elusive, shadowy creature, photographed on a field camera placed along the same trail, a clouded leopard.

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Clouded leopard on the trail (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma and Mizoram Forest Department)

Stave in hand, I walk favouring my hurting right knee, wonder if I will be able to repeat the survey tomorrow. Or should I move camp, instead, to the new bamboo forest watchtower, find a water source nearby, and stay closer to the transects?

Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat … and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.

I lean against a Schima tree, my hand on the deeply-ridged, tough layer of bark. In the driest of weather, the tree is yet felted by cool moss, soft to the touch. Now, in the forest of peacock-pheasant and clouded leopard, my pain disappears: I am still beneath the Schima tree.

Only one question remains. With all the earth underfoot in the forest, why does the Varihaw dance on the trail that I, too, must walk?

Bamboo watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang (2014)

Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang, 12 March 2014

Stultifying, sweat-sticky heat by day, worrying, whispering wind by night. The bamboo forest watchtower, perched on this high ridge in Dampa, eases my strain of walking to distant transects over rugged terrain, but is otherwise most ill-suited for camping. It lies open to lashing rain and scorching sun, becomes intolerable in the furnace heat after ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. The only water, a mere trickle, seeps out of dank rocks and litter in a dark ravine almost half a kilometre down a steep, pathless slope. It is a place that stokes the furnaces of the mind, flames through eye to brain, reduces ideas to ashes.

The bamboos on the ridgeline, facing west and south over steep cliffs, are crisping in the sun. The green culms are clothed in leafy clusters of drooping green and papery browns and yellows, as if hung with a grizzled pelt the colour of summer. The forest floor is a slippery slithery mat rustling with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboo forest around the watchtower is rimmed by tall trees of evergreen rainforest over a hundred years old.

Pathlawi_forest

Returning from the transects, I stretch out my blue carry mat in the drifting shadow of the watchtower, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard at my side. Too tired to read, I lie down, cover my face from searing sky with my hat. The ants and flies find me instantly. A black ant, indignant, bites me on my neck. I spring up and swat her away, spend the next minutes flicking ants from mat, hat, book, foot, hair, sleeve, collar, and wrist, until I realise that, but for the first, none are out to get me. They scatter distraught because the grass had been cut, the litter pushed aside, burnt even, to make a small space for my mat, for me to sit on or stretch out. Now they run about to reorient to the changed contours of their own space. So, I sit still, let them figure it out. After a while, the bustle quietens, we readjust to each other.

Then the flies buzz in. A duller one, dripped in grey, like a drab honeybee, and a little gold-and-black hoverfly, a torpedo winging back and forth like a shimmering jewel. I wave, I swat, I blow, I twitch, until I stop to see what they want. The flies come only to sponge a little sweat-salt off exposed arm or leg with their tiny, tickly, tongues. If I stay still, they dab away for a while, lap up a little from elbow-crook or leg, make a short survey of ankle and shin, give a glancing touch to my cheek, a skimming look from the air over my nose. Then they disappear, resume their busy lives, perhaps visiting flowers, transmitting pollen from plant to plant.

Why should I grudge the flies this much? What am I but a little ephemeral fly myself, scanning and surveying, gathering my own little crumbs of learning off the rugged skin of Dampa? What can I aspire for in my fieldwork but to leave carrying a pollen-grain of perception to share with others, when the moment arrives of my own vanishing?

The stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence.

Tuichar cave (2014)

Tuichar cave (Photo: Bhagyashree Ingle)

Tuichar cave, 27 March 2014

After morning transects in the valley, I return to the camp at the Puk, the cave in deep rainforest beside Tuichar Lui. Rending the morning quietude, a family of gibbons howls from the far forests on Chawrpialtlang. Almost in retort, another gibbon family, closer, louder, begins to whoop and hoot in morning abandon. The latter, I notice, are calling not from the primary rainforests to the south and east. Their calls—urgent, clarion, challenging—come from the old bamboo forests of Tuichar, downriver; the gibbons perhaps swing and sing from high trees in the patches of mature rainforest closer to the river, perhaps from the great Tatkawng (Artocarpus chaplasha), Lawngthing (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Thingdawl (Tetrameles nudiflora), and Ficus trees that tower over the bamboo, or, who knows, perhaps from the bamboo itself.

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Male Hoolock gibbon (Photo courtesy: Zakhuma)

Past a whinnying Great Slaty Woodpecker, who dips and darts from the broken fig tree above the cave, we turn off the forest trail, down to the Puk, where I am enveloped by grey rocks, great trees, soft voice of stream. How much this place has given me! Not by asking, just by being here, living, watching, recording: water, food, fire, shelter, experience, data, learning, and unlearning. All steamed in tropical heat, washed in thunderstorm, wafted by winds, lit by starlight and firefly. And yet, how much, really, have I perceived, have I been ready to perceive? How much remains?

The Puk stands on a threshold, a line stretching from river to ridge where dark forest gives way to light bamboo greens. Standing on that threshold, I wonder: have I been wrong about shifting cultivation or jhum all along? My study on shifting cultivation had concluded that many bird and mammal species of deep rainforest will survive in the landscape only if mature or primary forests are retained, that young bamboo forests resulting from short cycles of cultivation of five years or less are insufficient to conserve the full spectrum of rainforest wildlife.

Some conclusions may stand for a while: attested by birds and squirrels and primates persisting in mature rainforest and bamboo forests, in much the same places and manner as two decades ago. (And yet, did the hoolock gibbons not call, just this morning, not from the primary forests where they were expected to be, but from the old bamboo forests?) But my work, like other studies of jhum, was also being selectively cited and quoted as having drastic effects on wildlife. In the landscape around Dampa Tiger Reserve, decrying jhum as destructive, other land uses were being ushered in—monoculture plantations of teak, oil palm, rubber. The part where I had written that the landscape mix of bamboo and secondary forests, resulting from jhum cultivation, was more diverse and preferable to monocultures: that part had gone unread, unquoted, unheeded. Tangentially, I was implicated in the assault on jhum, the picture I had drawn, within the circumscribed ambit of science, was flawed, incomplete.

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

The Char tree (Terminalia myriocarpa)

Perhaps my field study, seen closely, resembles the great Char (Terminalia myriocarpa) tree that stands by the trail to the Puk: an apparently strong framework outside, hiding a hollow inside, home of dark beings that fly by night. One day, the tree will come crashing down, return to the soil from where it sprang. And just as the canopy gap opened by the fall of the Char would stream again with sunlight, crowd with seedlings clamouring towards the sky, so, in the space illuminated anew, other studies will follow mine.

At the Puk, I cannot shake myself out of the self-questioning. Was it all worth it? The studies, the surveys, the travails of fieldwork, camping, the money raised, spent, the energy expended, the ligaments torn and knees pounded, the shoes shredded tromping sharp bamboo and hard rock? The hour upon hour spent walking, looking, listening, binoculars clutched in my hands.

Already the not-looking forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience that now that is spoken of by the great teachers.

I look at my hands, my thin brown arms. In the humid heat, my skin beads with tiny droplets of sweat, small as the pores, in every crinkle and crevice on the skin along my arms. In slanting shafts of afternoon sun, the little droplets glint and twinkle, like flecks of gold on soil. The glimmer shifts and slides as I flex my arms: even sweat is beautiful. In its winking lights, I see the flicker of fireflies in the dark rainforest, the pinprick gleam of spider eyes in the crevices of rocks, the eye-shine of nocturnal civets on leafy trees. I see starlight sprinkled between branches of towering Thingdawl trees, the spangles on the plumage of drongos, the eyes dancing on the feathers of peacock-pheasants. I see the bamboo erupting in flames in distant fields, the flicker of our evening camp fires, and sun flecks and sparks and the eternal shimmer of star and moon and sun in the flowing waters of Tuichar Lui.

Blowin’ in the wind — II

From a boat on Assam’s Deepor Beel—the freshwater lake lying south-west of Guwahati, the largest city in India’s northeast—you can look east past thousands of waterbirds and a carpet of floating leaves to see the city’s seething, smoking garbage dump. Under spotless blue skies, a thin brown haze blankets the lake from fringing forest to quarried hillock, from skirting township to the Boragaon dumpyard. As another dump truck lurches to a halt and tips its load of filth over, an unruly mob of Black Kites and a cloud of dark mynas explode from the murky earth flapping like pieces of tattered cloth caught in a gust. The truck deposits another mound of unsegregated waste—a fraction of the more than 600 tons generated daily from the city of nearly a million people—all plastic and putrefaction, chicken heads and pigs entrails, street dirt and kitchen waste, broken glass and soiled cloth, bulbs and batteries and wires and electronics and metal and paper and more. Beside the truck waits a line of people: women, adolescents, and children. And behind them, a phalanx of Greater Adjutant storks—tall, ungainly birds with dagger-like beaks and naked yellow and pink necks—awaits its turn.

At the Boragaon garbage dump near Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

At the Boragaon garbage dump near Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

In company with cattle and dogs, the people will scavenge first. Driven by poverty, with little or no land or possessions of their own, the women and children from poor families living around the lake have turned to the dumpyard, despite its appalling prospects for their health, to scour a livelihood from the residues of urbanisation. In the waste thrown out of home and market, hospital and motel, collected and dumped again by the trucks, in that twice-discarded garbage, they will rummage to gather things to sell, to use, to survive. Without even a cloth draped over their noses against smoke and stench, they will sift valuable scraps from the offal with metal hooks and bare hands.

Then, it will be the turn of the Greater Adjutants. The birds will parade over the dump, pick up and swallow rotting meat, skins, and bones, fish tails and goat’s ears, eyeballs and hooves, and some will carry it back to their nests on tall trees in villages kilometres away, to regurgitate and feed their hungry chicks. The stork, whose world population is estimated at around 1200 – 1800 mature individuals, about 650 – 800 of which lives in Assam, is considered endangered, its population trending downhill. Yet, there are days when nearly half the world population may be seen in the city of Guwahati, congregating at the garbage dump. In its decline, the stork has learned to survive off the thrice-discarded filth of humanity.

The people go first, the stork waits (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

The people go first, the stork waits (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

With the reek of burning, decaying garbage, the air carries the keening of flies and mosquitoes, the chatter of women and children, the clatter of stork beaks. The air lies thick, in humid vapours that burn the nostrils, clog the windpipe, catch at the throat as if to stifle the breath of life. And above it all, a twister of storks turns slowly, as the lanky birds rise and rise, in a thermal spiral, wings held wide, yellow pouches hanging at their throats, like penitent beings weighed by remorse heading to the heavens.

Greater Adjutant stork with black kite in distance (Photo: Jaydevn Mandal)

Greater Adjutant stork with black kite in distance (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

Seated on low thwarts, the three of us are rowed out by the boatman into Deepor Beel. The floodplain lake, a now-festering fragment of the great River Brahmaputra that has swung its course to the north, is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance. Every year, thousands of waterbirds gather at the lake, from resident swamphens, lapwings, and herons, to wintering migrant shorebirds, ducks, and geese. Rowing in deeper water or punting through shallows with his oar, the boatman guides the flat-bottomed boat, freshly waterproofed with sticky black tar, over water clouded with sediment and plankton, towards the distant flocks of waterbirds. The boat skims the canopy of a swaying forest of soft underwater plants, topped by floating waterlily leaves that look like plates, like expanded hearts.

The floating leaves that carpet Deepor Beel (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The floating leaves that carpet Deepor Beel (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Fed by river and rain, the lake receives water and storm runoff along feeder streams and drains. It mixes city wastewater with the purer flows from the hills of the Rani and Garbhanga Reserved Forests to the south. Polluted by pesticide and fertilizer runoff, contaminated with fecal bacteria, muddied by erosion and sewage, Deepor Beel is slowly turning into ditchwater. Hemmed in between stolid hills and restive city, pincered by highways to the east and west, cleaved from the southern forests by road and railway line, the lake is shrinking, too. Over two decades beginning in 1991, Deepor beel lost 41 per cent of its open water, the area shrank from 712 hectares to 421 hectares and became more fragmented. With the loss of wetland area, the birds, too, appear to be in decline. Only the city and its impressive garbage dump are growing and growing.

On the lake, the water parts for our boat, closes in our wake, the parted plants mark our passage on the surface. In distant boats, fishermen fling their cast nets onto open water, or pull at their nets, stooping to pick their day’s catch from the tangle. Our boat slips over a long, taut fishing net stretched wide across the lake; the water is calm, now it is the horizon that is swaying. To the west vehicles ply on the busy highway, to the north the city burgeons, to the east the unsavoury Boragaon dumpyard moulders, and to the south a train thunders along the railway.

The tracks shrill and clatter under metal wheels, as they will almost every hour: the trains will not stop. There is blood on these tracks, the blood of elephants—herds, calves, tuskers—who tried to cross the tracks from the forest seeking water and forage in the lake. The elephants were slammed, were dragged, were extinguished: a slaughter wrought in passivity, for who, in their right mind, will attribute active intent to trains? Only the journeys of the elephants, the lives of the elephants, shall come to a stop.

Elephant killed by train (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

Elephant killed by train (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

The clamour of hundreds of whistling-ducks accompanies our passage, their pulsed whistles and squeals lance over the water. Suddenly, the air reverberates with wings. The resounding beat and rush of wings roils the air overhead, as hundreds of pintail ducks and greylag geese take wing from rippling lake to splayed-out sky.

Deepor_Beel_low_DivyaMudappa

Ducks and geese in flight over Deepor Beel, Assam (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The storks still soar in the distance. From high, they must see the vast braid of the Brahmaputra winding through the landscape. They must see, far, far to the north, the grandeur of Himalayan peaks, dusted with snow and weighed by glacier. They must see that the lake below is but a drop of water on land. The ducks and geese wheel and quarter, they sweep and swerve in the air. They begin to descend, as the storks do, too, out of seamless, unmarked skies.

A Greater Adjutant descends from the skies (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

A Greater Adjutant descends from the skies (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

As dusk settles over the landscape and the milling flocks of birds settle for their roost, the fishermen return to their villages in their boats. The trucks and trains have passed, and perhaps the elephants have, too.

Dusk at Deeporbeel (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

Dusk at Deepor beel (Photo: Jaydev Mandal)

By night, as the city flickers to life before us, the garbage dump, its people, its birds, all become invisible. Tomorrow, the fishers will return to the lake, and the women and children to the dump. And, from the skies above Guwahati, it is again to the lake and garbage dump that the birds, too, must drop.

…Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
~Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

This piece follows an earlier post, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, at EcoLogic.

Kalakad: three years in rainforest

(With Divya Mudappa, for a volume commemorating 25 years of Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve)

A place that is marked by the presence of people is not unusual, but a place whose presence itself leaves an indelible mark on people is something extraordinary. In the ancient mountains at the southern tip of the great Western Ghats ranges, sheltering among rocky peaks and rugged slopes draped with tall evergreen forest, lies one such place. A place of beauty and challenge and diversity, which if you have really experienced, you will declare has no real equivalent. And if you have lived and worked there, wherever you go, the place will go with you. It will remain a benchmark, a touchstone, a reference point in felt memory and field experience, against which you will forever measure other places, newer knowledge. A place that does all this, slowly, gently, but inevitably, is Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve.

Rainforest panorama

Near the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve sprawls over an expansive forest landscape within the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu state. Occupying 895 square kilometres, it adjoins other wildlife sanctuaries (Neyyar, Peppara, and Shendurney) and reserved forests lying across the administrative boundary in Kerala state, forming a forest tract nearly twice as large over the Agastyamalai – Ashambu hill ranges. Biologists consider this landscape one of the most significant areas for conservation of biological diversity in the Western Ghats. It retains one of the largest and last remaining unbroken tracts of over 400 square kilometres of tropical rainforest, much of which has not been logged or converted to plantations, ripped by roads or ravaged by mining like many other parts of the Western Ghats have been. Partly for these reasons, Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand the ecology of rainforest plants and animals in a relatively undisturbed setting: an understanding that is a vital step to help conserve such a place for posterity.

* * *

From the wide sweep of the Tirunelveli plains, the Kalakad mountains rise abruptly in looming grandeur. South of Tirunelveli, on the national highway that runs down to Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the road turns sharply west towards the mountains. It passes through a rich countryside where paddy, banana, and other crops are grown in flatlands amidst scattered lakes, old village ponds, and rocky outcrops. Past villages at the foothills, the road ascends the mountains to a Forest Department camp.

A mile further, up a steep foot trail along a torrent passing through dense forest, on which everything from rice and gas cylinders and pipes and field supplies had to be carried, in the middle of the rainforest in the shadow of Kulirattimottai mountain, we established a base camp that became our home for three years.

Field station

It was an abandoned house with a cardamom drying room, the remnant of an earlier plantation lease that had expired. It was a house with no electricity or modern embellishments, but as a camp from where we just had to step out to enter the rainforests for our field research, it was perfect. People said we were cut off from the rest of the world. Yet, there in the rainforest, we felt more immersed in the world than ever before.

Photo: P. Jeganathan (19 March 1999)

Photo: P. Jeganathan (19 March 1999)

We had come there to study small mammals and birds, posing fundamental questions of ecology: on the distribution and abundance of species in relation to their environment. What were the small mammal and carnivore species, from rodents and shrews to civet and marten, that lived in the rainforest? And what was the community of birds? How did the distribution and abundance of all these species change from lower to higher elevations or from abandoned plantation and previously logged forest to undisturbed mature tropical rainforest? How did endemic species such as the nocturnal brown palm civet thrive in the rainforest: how much area did the civets need, what did they feed on, where did they roost by day before they set out to feed by night?

BPC_trsr_low

With a bunch of such questions tucked into our belts, we set out to answer them through field research and observations. We laid quadrats to measure vegetation and grids and catch-and-release traps for studying rodent populations. We surveyed transects and point counts for birds and walked trails with tagged trees to document monthly patterns of leaf-flush, flowering, and fruiting of rainforest trees and lianas. We radio-collared brown palm civets to track and study this elusive and enigmatic species by night. With eyes and ears on the mountains and feet on the earth, we tried to discern the pulse and flow of the rainforest.

* * *

radio tracking lowImmersed in the rainforest, day in and year out, our work slowly brought us to appreciate the enduring rhythms of nature and cycles of renewal. From early morning counts of birds, daytime surveys of plots and trails and transects, through nocturnal tracking of civets onto the next day: this was our daily round of activities. Around us, the daily rhythms of the rainforest played on. Every morning, the eagle owls tucked into their tree hollows and as the sun crested the mountains, the black eagles came skimming over the treetops. At the end of the day, as the giant squirrels went to roost in their tree nests, the flying squirrels and civets emerged to roam by night.

Then came the pulse of seasons. The year opened cool and dry, or laced with the moist departure of the north-east monsoon, and Canarium trees flared red amidst a sea of rainforest green. After the elephants passed by in March, peeling tree bark and snacking on Ochlandra reed bamboos, came two hot and tempestuous months with pre-monsoon thunderstorms that revived the wilting shrubs and replenished rainforest streams. Then, from June to September, the southwest monsoon reigned, with short sunny mornings and rain-lashed afternoons under dark, gloomy skies. The forest turned damp, as did our clothes and books and everything in the camp, and fruits of Palaquium trees littered the forest floor and little seedlings sprung up on the moist leaf litter.

Misty rainforest

Then, as one monsoon withdrew, depressions in the Bay of Bengal brewed another. The north-east monsoon brought persistent, torrential rains and thick mists that swallowed the rainforests hardly twenty metres away from our doorstep and poured in through the windows into our home. The swelling rivers, which sometimes flowed over the trail cutting off our base camp, thundered down the valley, carrying revivifying waters to the people in the plains. Even during a deluge it was remarkable how, as the slopes were swathed in dense forests, there was so little erosion and the waters remained clear and pure to drink. Finally, as the year wound down, the winds and clouds and rains withdrew, cool, clear skies would open over the forests again, and the crimson flush of Canarium would flag the beginning of another year.

canarium flush low_Arati_Rao

Photo: Arati Rao

* * *

The rainforests were a place of eternal surprise. Even as we went exploring our study questions, looking for our study species, other creatures, puzzles, and wonders confronted us. We could take nothing for granted: all our senses had to be on alert all the time.

The trail cameras had been set, the civets collared, but dense vegetation kept much hidden. In the darkness of night, our spotlight would reveal little more than shining eyes of flying squirrel or civet in the canopy, or a shy mouse deer nibbling on fruits fallen on forest floor. Even by day, birds were noted more by their songs and voice than by sight, although a glimpse of an elusive Malabar trogon or the sweet songster, the endemic white-bellied blue flycatcher, was an almost daily joy.

Malabar Trogon - Male_KalyanVarma_D08_0133

Malabar Trogon male (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

The sights and sounds of the forest hinted at what was there, and yet constantly surprised us. That loud honk was not the alarm bell of a distant sambar, but the courtship call of a nearby frog; that black blur on the branches was not a scampering giant squirrel, but a Nilgiri marten on his hunt; that repetitive pulse was not the beep of a receiver left on by mistake, but a tiny cricket peeping in the undergrowth; that flash of yellow streaking from tree trunk to trunk was no darting woodpecker or butterfly, but a Draco, the gliding lizard; that whistle emerging from the dark rainforest by night was no forlorn cry of mystery mammal, but the haunting call of the rare Oriental bay owl. In the rainforest, even a sudden silence or a carpet of fallen Mesua leaves revealed something: of the hushing of an unseen cicada on tree bark under the scanning eye of a treepie, or the passing of a sated troop of langur in the trees.

Civet scat with Diospyros seeds

Civet scat with Diospyros seeds

Watching animals, we learned more about plants. The civets, although carnivores, ate more fruits than animal prey, and so we tried to document and identify the fruits and the plants they came from. And fruits were always there: every month, through the year, some species provided sustenance to civets and macaques and birds such as hornbills and mountain imperial pigeons. Seeing seedlings sprouting from civet scat or trail side, we grasped how many native rainforest plants could be regenerated from seed, into seedlings that could be planted to bring back rainforest in abandoned plantations and other degraded sites.

* * *

We had come to the rainforests for our research, but when we left three years later, we went with so much more. Working by day and night, more than what we came to study, we learned about natural history and ecology of the rainforest. And what we gathered informs and guides us to this day. As we completed our doctoral research, wrote our theses and papers and reports, we began a project to ecologically restore degraded rainforest fragments in the Anamalai hills.

Bischofia javanica seedlings in the nursery

Bischofia javanica seedlings in the nursery

Our restoration work was inspired by field experiences in the Kalakad rainforest. It was this place that taught us to not just take away new knowledge, but try to return something to the forest through informed conservation actions. It taught us how we could assist the civets in their task of forest regeneration, how we, too, could contribute to renewal as farmers of the forest.

four years laterFourteen years later, in the hills hundreds of kilometres away, the planted saplings now reach towards the sky having become young trees over twenty feet tall. In the restoration site, the young Canarium flames upward year after year, alongside quick Elaeocarpus and slow Palaquium and many other species, and on the leaf litter below, a passing civet has deposited a fresh batch of seeds.

The plants evoke a recollection of a distant rainforest, a home by the river running below the rocky dome of Kulirattimottai, a place where we would like to be again—to be reinvigorated, to learn, to be surprised anew.

Yet, in this moment, the forest does not seem to be outside of us at all: seeing seed and scat and surging sapling before our eyes, we perceive the rainforests of Kalakad.

 

The enduring relevance of Rachel Carson

It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.

If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, Silent Spring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement. Carson, whose 107th birth anniversary came and passed quietly on May 27, with little fanfare other than a commemorative Google Doodle, died fifty years ago after a battle with breast cancer. Why should we bother to remember Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? What could a woman, a book, from over five decades ago have to do with the enormously changed world we live in today? Yet, over the last few weeks, during fieldwork and travels in India’s northeast and the Western Ghats mountains, I thought frequently of Rachel Carson and her prescient words in Silent Spring.

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson's birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson’s birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

27 February 2014, Chawrpialtlang peak, Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. Slicing through the air over crackling-dry grass on the peak, a black-tipped arrow streaks past, plunges down the sheer cliffs, swerves around the mountain, and is gone. For one rushing moment, the ripped air appears to shimmer, as if in sudden clarity, then closes in the fleeting wake of the bird. A Peregrine Falcon. Windswept and breathless, I stand on the peak and think of Rachel Carson. For it was in Silent Spring that she described and I learned how the chemical pesticide, DDT, sprayed or dusted into the environment, entered water and soil and animal tissue as a persistent organic pollutant, and travelled up the food chain, accumulating from pest to predator to top predator, into birds like Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles, thinning their egg shells, making the brood crumble instead of hatch in the nest, bringing down populations, endangering the species itself. Only when awareness of this issue soared after the publication of Silent Spring and concerted efforts including a DDT ban were made did raptor populations recover, so that the birds could wing and scythe through the air again.

20 March 2014, Mamit District, Mizoram. On the outer wall of bamboo hut after hut, in village after village, in one of the most remote and malaria-prone corners of India, I see inscribed in chalk: “DDT 15/03/14“. The date varied a little from village to village, but it took me only a moment to realise that this was just a marker that each of those huts, the homes of Mizo and Riang tribal peoples of the state, had just been sprayed with DDT. And DDT is the one chemical for which Rachel Carson’s work is most known for and most frequently and unjustly vilified. Carson, using a growing body of research, highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of excessive DDT use in Silent Spring. The book along with the growing tide of awareness led ultimately to a ban on DDT and consequently, or so the accusation goes, it became unavailable for use in malaria control and led to the death of millions. In reality, DDT was banned for use only in agriculture and unrestricted aerial spraying, while it is readily available and continues to be used for malaria control across the world. And here was evidence, decades later in Mizoram, that this accusation is untrue: DDT continues to be used for malaria control as a public health measure. In Mizoram, as in other states in India, the government has an Indoor Residual Spray (IRS) programme of DDT, usually twice a year, coupled with distribution of deltamethrin insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets. DDT was banned for agricultural use in India in 1989, but even this was not a complete ban, as it carried a rider allowing the use of DDT under ‘very special circumstances’ for plant protection from pests, under the supervision of the State or Central government. In 2006, an Indian government order permitted the use of up to 10,000 tons of DDT annually for public health and vector control measures. In Mizoram, where I knew malaria was still frequent (it knocked me down for two weeks during my fieldwork here in 1994), there were more pertinent issues than these false debates and vilification of Rachel Carson. Loss of effectiveness of DDT due to overuse and dependence on the chemical, the need for better public healthcare facilities, and the fact that more than 90% of the local people prefer insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets over indoor DDT sprays, all seem more important issues to be discussing.

23 May 2014, coffee and tea estates near Sakleshpur, Western Ghats. As our car speeds past the gate of the coffee estate, I cannot help recalling the troubling moment inside in 2011, while doing a diagnostic audit for a company that was planning to go for Rainforest Alliance certification of their coffee production. There, beside a small pond, a group of workers had been preparing a pesticide concoction for spraying on the coffee bushes. In the group, helping mix and spray the chemical on coffee bushes, without any protective equipment to cover her face or exposed hands, was a 12-year-old girl. Even as the child was exposed to the chemical, the pesticide tub overflowed and spilled into the pond. Decades after Silent Spring, after knowing the effects of pesticide pollution on the natural environment and learning more and more about how pesticide exposure affects human health, it is a pity that in many of our plantations and agricultural fields, so little is done to reduce or prevent pollution, to minimise or avoid exposure to agrochemicals.

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

Later, in a tea estate, I listen to a manager describe how their chemical sprays had failed to control a pest, the red spider mite, because, he said, the chemical sprays killed the natural predators of the mite such as ladybird beetles. Again, I recall how in Silent Spring Rachel Carson had explained how insecticides had the counterproductive effect of increasing spider mite infestation: by not affecting them directly, by killing instead mite predators like ‘ladybugs’, and by scattering mite colonies that now focused on increasing their reproductive output as they had no need to invest in defence against predators because the people with the chemicals were inadvertently doing this job on behalf of the mites. I suggest to the manager, like Carson did to her readers, that perhaps the best way ahead is to change cultivation practices, foster more biological diversity in the farm landscape, and reduce their reliance on agrochemicals. He nods, but I am not sure he is ready, as yet, to agree.

26 May 2014, Highway to Valparai, Anamalai hills. All along the highway, the vegetation on the sides of the road lie slashed. Beautiful ferns, orchids, wild balsams, and a number of wildflowers that added grace and beauty to the road, now lay withering on the tarmac, crushed under the spinning wheels of speeding vehicles. The Highways Department had been ‘cleaning’ the roadside again and scraping the soil, leaving brown strips beside grey tarmac and concrete. Soon, the exposed earth would be taken up by invasive alien weeds, changing the roadside aesthetic from the lush green of small native plants and wildflowers to dour greys and browns and weeds. Seeing this, Rachel Carson’s words in Silent Spring again came to mind, for she wrote also about the beauty of wildflowers along the roads, criticizing “the disfigurement of once beautiful roadsides by chemical sprays” and “the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control throughout the nation.”

Whether it was wildfowl or wildflowers, Rachel Carson’s insistence in Silent Spring that scientific understanding of the environment should integrate ethical and aesthetic values struck a chord with readers. The book did not merely inform them, it affected them, and spurred them to act, thus catalysing the birth of a movement.

* * * * *

The environmental movement, as philosopher Arne Naess once remarked, was one of the three great movements that marked the twentieth century; the others being the movements for world peace and social justice. Among the three, the ecological or environmental movement is relatively nascent. One can trace roots of environmentalism, at least in its modern form, to early concerns over nature conservation and vanishing species, but it was really in the latter half of the last century that the movement really took off.

In the aftermath of World War II, with the development and testing of atomic weapons, concerns over the perils of nuclear war and radioactive fallout was widespread. Still, there remained unbridled optimism over the promise of new and powerful technologies in the post-war industrial world. At the same time, rising pollution of air and water following industrialisation and consequent effects on human health spurred early efforts to curb pollution beginning in the 1950s, culminating in laws enacted over the ensuing years and decades in various countries. In the 1960s, the great phase of dam-building was also in full steam. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill recounts, on average one dam was built per day around the world during that decade. Construction of dams and the displacement of thousands of people by reservoirs was also bringing growing awareness of the alteration of entire landscapes by human action, and about harmful impacts on the environment and livelihoods of people living in the catchment area and downstream.

Still, this was a period when the industrial juggernaut rolled on, backed by a specific vision of development based on technology and large, so-called infrastructure projects. It was a period, in India and elsewhere, when impacts on environment or the lives, lands, and livelihoods of local peoples could be brushed aside on the basis of a grandiose, little-questioned development trajectory. Besides, India and other countries stood at the cusp of a major transformation of agriculture into intensive cultivation dependent on a slew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the Green Revolution.

It is in this context that one must view the publication of Silent Spring, first serialised in The New Yorker magazine beginning on 16 June 1962, and then published as a book by Houghton Mifflin on September 27 of that year. The book burst on the scene with a telling and convincing account, based on scientific evidence, of the perils that the chemicals used as pesticides and fertilizers brought to human health and the environment. Carson, a skilled writer, explained in clear but compelling detail the various kinds of chemical poisons used in agriculture and pest control, such as DDT, chlordane, and lindane, organophosphates, and carbamates. With care and clarity, she collated research findings published in scientific papers and recorded personal experiences of people around the US, and described the effects of the chemicals on human health, their persistence in the environment, and build-up (bio-accumulation) over time in the bodies of people and wildlife. She explained concepts such as how pests developed resistance to the chemicals, how that ultimately led to resurgence of pests, and to a vicious cycle of more potent poisons being created.

As Carson wrote,

The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.

By ignoring ecology, the agro-chemical industry appeared poised to fail in finding long-term solutions. Carson did not stop with careful explanation and evocative descriptions of the problem of increasing dependence on chemicals. She went further and described a way forward to sustain productive agriculture without recourse to the ‘chemical barrage’. In her words:

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available…. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on an understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are already contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative aspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

There were several reasons why Silent Spring was so effective upon its publication. Carson drew upon her earlier experience as a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service where she served as an editor in the Division of Information, reading scientific publications and transmuting them into readable and informative articles for citizens. Today, she would be called a leading science communicator in biology and the environmental sciences. What was remarkable about her writing was that even as she explained science to the citizen, she did not flinch from simultaneously interlacing into her writing moral values and the ethical consequences of environmental harm, which she was convinced was equally significant to her readers.

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?’

Carson was a dedicated writer. She had always wanted to be a writer since her early childhood. When she joined the Pennsylvania College for Women (later Chatham College) in 1925 as an 18-year old, she enrolled for an English major, until a biology course in her junior year reawakened her “sense of wonder” for nature, another fascination since childhood. Later, she obtained her Master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, following which she taught zoology in Maryland and worked at the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts. Her biological knowledge as a trained scientist, her field experience as a naturalist and keen observer of nature, and her literary talent came together as a potent combination in her books.

Although Rachel Carson is perhaps most known for Silent Spring, she wrote other books including a trilogy on the sea and marine life, a book for children titled The Sense of Wonder, and a number of magazine articles. Of the three books in the sea trilogy, Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea, Carson won the National Book Award in 1952 for The Sea Around Us. That book remained on the New York Times best sellers list for 86 weeks.

The success of Carson’s books such as The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring was at least partly due to the way Carson managed to meld scholarship and literary talent. As Carson said in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

… If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

Still, there was more to Silent Spring than just scientific rectitude or literary flair. Carson recorded and used in the book many case studies and personal experiences of people who had witnessed the effects of aerial spraying and pesticide overuse. The Silent Spring metaphor itself, referring to a spring that goes silent as songbirds decline and disappear due to pesticide use, was inspired by a letter from a friend who noted dead birds lying around her house after an aerial pesticide spraying bout in her area, and who now wanted the spraying to stop. Taken as a synecdoche, it suggested that people were sensitive to environmental destruction and it had reached a point where they had had enough.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Silent Spring and its author were (as one would expect even today) attacked by Government agricultural scientists and companies with high stakes in the agrochemical industry such as Velsicol, a major manufacturer of DDT, and Monsanto. Velsicol threatened to sue the the publisher Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. Detractors and vested interests made personal attacks on Carson, asking why “a spinster was so worried by genetics”, and disparaged her as hysterical, emotional, unfair, one-sided, and as given to inaccurate outbursts. But, ultimately, the science behind Silent Spring withstood public scrutiny, including a congressional hearing, the author herself stood calm and dignified with her research, credentials, and explications, and the book, instead of being pulped as her opponents may have wished, went on to become a bestseller, sell millions of copies, and make history. The reactions and desire for change that the book triggered influenced environmental legislation and policies worldwide. The years that followed the book’s publication saw the first Earth Day celebration and the formation of US Environment Protection Agency in 1970, the gathering of representatives from 113 countries at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, the enforcement of a ban on DDT in 1972, and other efforts around the world overtly inspired or tangentially influenced by Silent Spring. In that period, India, too, made several legislative and policy efforts, as the country enacted the Insecticide Act in 1973, laws to prevent water and air pollution and protect forests and wildlife in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Environment Protection Act in 1980 that also created the State and Central Pollution Control Boards and other authorities with environmental mandates.

The appearance of Silent Spring was one of the defining moments in the history of environmentalism, one that would irrevocably shake the complacency and complicity of state and industry in environmental harm. Today, one may quibble over the details of Silent Spring, over what the author chose to write about, or over how she wrote about it. But what one must acknowledge is that much of what Rachel Carson wrote about and the scientific and moral clarity she brought to it remains relevant over five decades later. From Maryland to Mizoram, then as now, the problems she described and the solutions she offered remain valid, apposite, and vital. In that respect, Rachel Carson and Silent Spring remain of enduring relevance.

Bird by bird in the rainforest

Stop bouncing around like a ping-pong ball you tailless piece of shit!’ I said.

And it worked! The tiny, truncated bird, smaller than a sparrow, hopped onto a thin twig, and paused. Paused for just a couple of seconds, but after fifteen futile and frustrating minutes trying to glimpse the bird in the dense rainforest undergrowth on a misty morning, this was enough to get one clear view. If you can call staring through a pair of Swarovski 8.5 × 42 binoculars—my breath held to avoid fogging the eyepiece, my cold fingers clenched around both barrels, my shoulders and elbows locked, my torso twisted like a snake curling up an imaginary tree, my knees bent so that I could look lower in the undergrowth, past ferns and herbs and leafy tangles and fallen branches, through a tiny gap—at the briefly motionless bird twenty feet away, one clear view. A lot of effort, for one little bird.

I had not said the words out loud, of course, but this was no time to wonder at the power of silent abuse to pinion birds to their perch. I had details to note. A sprightly, dumpy bird, smaller than a sparrow. Underparts ashy grey; a rather big head coloured a dull olive green that continued onto his wings and back. A dark-tipped, pointed beak, like an elongated and sharpened pencil lead. Black eyestripe stretching through the eye, topped by a lighter yellowish supercilium to the side of his almost non-existent neck. Long legs, for a tiny bird, gripping the twig firmly, as he perched and gave me a slightly indignant eye over his shoulder. No tail. At least none that I could see. I would have been grateful for a few more seconds, but he had had enough. ‘Chirririt!’ he exclaimed, loud for such a little bird. ‘Chirririp!’, he let rip, again, before he bounced onto another twig, and plunged into the undergrowth. But I had seen enough. With a smug smile, I wrote his name down in my notebook: Grey-bellied Tesia. A touch darker grey below, a flash brighter yellow on crown and supercilium, and I would have had to put him down as a different species, Slaty-bellied Tesia. Satisfied, I pocketed my notebook, left him to sulk and skulk in peace.

Tesia_Ramki

Grey-bellied Tesia (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The morning had not begun this way, with me casting silent abuse and expletives at unsuspecting birds. I had started on a far more polite note. I had walked into the regenerating rainforest with spindly bamboos and tall trees, at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve near Teirei in Mizoram. On a sober, serious note, I began birding, conscious that I was here to carry out a comprehensive survey of birds at the behest of the enthusiastic Field Director of the Reserve, Mr Lalthanhlua Zathang, on behalf of the Mizoram Forest Department. The December dawn had just broken beyond the hills and the sun was yet to crest the ridge.

DampaDawn

In the chill morning, the dark forest stood cloaked in a grey mist. From the canopy, dew fell like rain on the shrubs and onto the leaf litter covering the earth. Through the soft patter of falling dew, all around, I heard the calls of waking birds. The excited tweets of a canary-flycatcher perched on some distant branch, the chatter of bulbuls flitting around some unseen tree, the piercing screech of hill mynas flying across invisible sky, and soft churrs, and metallic clicks, and nasal notes, all punctuated the quiet morning air even as I struggled to pin-point their locations. And not a single bird showed.

Still, I was hopeful. And polite.

‘Hey guys,’ I said, ‘I dropped by last evening, but it was all very quiet out here. I figured you were busy or tired and I shouldn’t disturb you. Well, it is morning now, and here I am! Please come out. Say hello!’

Nyeaahh,‘ said the White-throated Bulbul, in a nasty, nasal drawl. Like all the others, he refused to show. The coward.

I tried again. ‘Where are you guys?’

More patter of falling dew.

Minutes passed. I heard soft rasping notes alternating with a loud, continuous chaunk chaunk chaunk as a pin-striped tit babbler called from low branches. Elusive and ventriloquial, she frustrated my efforts to spot her, the soft notes seeming to come from nearer and the loud notes from farther away than where she really was. Further ahead, I stopped near a Bischofia javanica tree fruiting copiously: there were birds busy feasting on the high branches. It was perhaps just a tad hasty, a little too jerky, the way I raised my binoculars to my eyes; before I could focus, a large flock flared off the canopy in a great flurry of wings. Green pigeons, but which species? Pin-tailed, or Thick-billed, or Ashy-headed? No telling now, however crisply I focused on the still-quivering twigs. Later still, a little spiderhunter went, ‘Which? Which?‘, flying at top speed through the understorey. My eyes alighted only at the empty spots, in mid-air, from where each call was emitted, by which time the bird had already zipped past to the next, eluding me. From the skies high above, an unseen Crested Serpent Eagle laughed loud and shrilly: ‘Heeeee heee hee‘.

I began to get worried, impatient. I had limited time on this trip, less than two weeks in the field, and only one morning to explore this trail, which snaked along the forested slope above Teirei river. For the bird survey to be comprehensive, I needed to explore different trails and habitats and identify accurately all species seen. By preparing a complete checklist, documenting changes in bird communities across habitats, the survey could add to the knowledge on biological diversity in Dampa and potentially contribute to the conservation plans for birds in the Reserve. I knew that cold, misty mornings were not ideal for birding, as bird activity tended to be low. Notorious skulkers like the tesias and wren-babblers were hard enough to see on brighter days, leave alone the prospect of finding, identifying, and counting them on murky mornings. Such times are best avoided if one was out for a systematic census of birds, on point counts or transects. But now, I was not constrained by rigid survey methods, I was willing to wait for the bird activity to pick up as the sun rose higher, and watch quietly till the bird showed itself. For this to work well, the birds needed to cooperate, too; it was not just a matter of my skill. Or was it?

Qu-ick,’ said a bird from the shrubs. ‘Qu-ick!’

An unknown call, yet strangely familiar, like the voice of a long-forgotten friend who calls you out of the blue asking, ‘Do you recognise who this is?’ I scanned the undergrowth even as I racked my brains trying to recall if this was a bird I once knew. I had studied birds for many months in Dampa Tiger Reserve earlier, but all that was nearly two decades ago. At that time, I had learned to identify by sight and sound over two hundred species in a matter of weeks, while strictly adhering to a policy that ‘no record at all is better than an erroneous one’. When I finished that study in the summer of 1995, my list held over 210 bird species, and I prided myself in knowing the calls of virtually all the birds I encountered on my birding walks. ‘Here sings a Black-naped Monarch,’ or ‘There calls a Red-headed Trogon!’ I would note, or merely pause to listen to the soft, subtle notes of a Snowy-browed Flycatcher in deep rainforest. But now, I felt like I was back at square one, more neophyte than past-master at birding. I felt compelled to reaffirm my acquaintance with these birds again, as if I were transforming faded friendships into comfortable familiarity or flourishing relationships once more. But perhaps, in the return, there was opportunity, too: like when rotational jhum farmers returned to cultivate a fallow, after it had regenerated a full twenty years, finding soil rested and replenished by age.

‘Come on… come on! I can see the leaves shaking there near the ground where you are flitting around. Come out where I can see you.’

A five-minute wait and he refuses to show. I imagine the bird saying, ‘Sorry! Can’t come out now.’ More likely, he didn’t care a whit for my plight. His voice had triggered a cloudy memory, and a name had been forming in my head: Buff-breasted Babbler. But before I could confirm, he just left. Vanished.

‘Bastard!’

This is when things started to get hairy. Here I was, after travelling thousands of kilometres to do this work, birding ostensibly to benefit the birds of Dampa, and they were simply failing me. Or, and the thought came close on its heels, I was here on my own work and failing, myself. In two decades, I wondered, had my field skills declined with age? Did I need to struggle that much more, strain my ears a little harder, to do the same things that I had managed to do earlier, apparently with élan? Had I forgotten the habits of the birds, their individual quirks and mannerisms, which had earlier guided my eyes and ears? Was I a fool to walk into a rainforest again, without the tape recorders and playback equipment that others use to lure birds out, without the mist-nets to snare the birds and securely identify them in-hand, without cameras and long lenses that snapped photographs in a trice to comfortably identify the bird on a computer screen, later? Was I just being a stubborn, old-fashioned geezer, a snob who believed, as I still did, that all one needed to do for a good bout of birding was arm oneself with a choice pair of binoculars, field notebook, and pen? I had no time to reflect on the answers—it was easier to deflect self-doubt and self-loathing onto the birds. Instead of naming the birds I found, I began calling them names.

* * * * *

After failing to find birds on the trail the previous evening, I had returned to my room at the Teirei Forest rest house to find solace, as I often do, in reading. As darkness fell and the temperature dropped below 10°C, I tucked into my sleeping bag and opened the book I had carried along—a book on writing by Anne Lamott which, oddly enough, was titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

In the book’s second chapter titled ‘Short Assignments’, Lamott explains the book’s title. She recalls a story of how her elder brother, when he was ten years old, was struggling to finish a report on birds, which he’d had three months to write and which was due the next day. Close to tears, he sat at the table, ringed by binder paper and pencils and bird books that lay unopened, frustrated by the huge task ahead of him. Then, his father sat beside him, placed a reassuring arm on his shoulder, and said:

Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Well, there I was the next morning, on my own short assignment, ready to put aside my failures and take it bird by bird. But the damn birds refused to show. I don’t know what you would have done in this situation. I screamed, mutely, at every mysterious bird call. I let fly, motionless, at every fleeting glimpse. In complete silence, I cursed.

With that, my luck turned. The tesia was just an early victim. My patience exhausted in fifteen minutes, I pinned him to the twig with one cutting comment.

A little later, briskly turning a bend, I spooked a bird that exploded from virtually at my feet.

Freeze! Asshole!‘ I said, behind gritted teeth, which applied, I guess, to both of us. I stood binoculars glued to my eyes. The bird alighted on a slanting bamboo culm thirty metres away and glared back. Feather for feather, he was one of the most beautiful Emerald Dove males I had ever seen: coral-red beak and silver-capped head on wine-lilac neck, zebra-patterned rump immodestly flaunted under emerald wings. I could have stood rooted there for ever. Only, the feeling was clearly not mutual and the bird hustled away in a clapping flutter.

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Emerald Dove (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

‘And what are you fussing and churring and whistling about? Yes, you with the nervous tic, with your bunch of buddies on the branches. Show yourself clearly or shut your frigging mouth!’

It seemed rather extreme, even to me, to thus lambast what turned out to be a coterie of shy Brown-cheeked Fulvettas winding its way away through the bamboo. They were nondescript and dull birds, brown with a touch of grey on their heads, foraging in the shadow of bigger and more colourful peers.

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

The fulvettas made a dignified exit after their brief showing at my unuttered words. Only, after they left, other words—far greater than mine—came to mind and refused to leave.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

~from ‘A Minor Bird‘, by Robert Frost

The fault was partly in me. A many-layered fault, of finding excuses when I failed at finding birds, of being stubborn, snobbish, or merely impatient. It was like blaming friends—who I had forgotten for years, not seeing them, not casting a thought in their direction—for failing to show up when I wanted them to. Like them, the birds lived neither for my convenience nor my disposal: they had lives of their own, free to roam and do unexpected things. It was I who needed to make more effort to see them to understand, once again if need be, who they were or weren’t. They were like characters in a book, and as Anne Lamott writes:

…if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck… you will finally have to admit that who they are isn’t who you thought they were.

And what if, like the birds, the knowledge that I sought was not something to be chased after or coerced into revealing itself? If the best I could hope for was to remain receptive and observant, and let the story show, gradually, as a reward for attentive and repeated effort?

Finding the bird, identifying the species, knowing their calls and habits: these were just the first but crucial steps of a long chain of things I needed to do to translate a confirmed sighting to something of larger substance. I still needed to systematically cover various habitats from streams and rivers to fallows and forests, resurvey transects I had walked two decades ago, measure vegetation attributes such as tree density and canopy cover to quantify habitat change, then enter, verify, and analyse the collected data, then interpret and write my findings, all in the hope that it would lead to greater scientific understanding and better conservation and management efforts on the ground. Years ago, this had formed the bedrock of my work on the effects of shifting cultivation on rainforest birds in Dampa. Now, while surveying the same areas again after two decades, I had the opportunity to take my earlier work ahead, deepen my understanding of recovery of rainforest vegetation and bird communities. After this short trip in December, I would come again in February for several weeks of work, but I was beginning to wonder if even that much time was enough.

Even during this short visit, I was already becoming concerned about the changes in land-use around Dampa. Monoculture teak and rubber and oil-palm plantations were replacing diverse secondary forests and traditional livelihoods based on shifting cultivation on community lands were being beaten back by government and corporate interests to bring in economies based on cash and private ownership. In such a backdrop, the birds of Dampa seemed inconsequential and irrelevant, but they, too, had a role to play in helping understand the changes. The presence and kinds of birds in various sites serve as revealing titres of transformation in land-use, when habitat alteration reaches its threshold and that little extra drop of disturbance irretrievably changes the colour of the landscape. But, I realised, the birds were not the primary instrument of the assay, they were living measures of change in landscape. I was the blunt instrument making the measurements, scrawling notes and observations into my fraying field notebook. What if I was not up to the task? If all I could achieve was a mismeasure of a pertinent conservation issue, a partial diagnosis stemming from my own limited capacity, my shortcomings? Would I be able to describe my results clearly: after I record the right birds, find the right words, too? Again, I took encouragement from Anne Lamott:

If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. … However, if you do care deeply about something—if, for instance, you are conservative in the great sense of the word, if you are someone who is trying to conserve the landscape and the natural world—then this belief will keep you going as you struggle to get your work done.

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.

The trail that led to the river was overgrown. I could hear the rush of the river over rocks a hundred feet away, but could not see it through the tangle of vegetation. The plants were wet with morning dew sparkling in the sun that now rose over the trees. As mist steamed off the plants, I waded through grass and fern and sedge, wet to my thighs, and squelched along. I dodged swinging banana leaves and shoved bamboo culms and branches out of my way. With all the noise and disturbance of my passage, there was no question of finding birds. The trail almost petered out and so did the morning. I decided to turn back before I started cursing the plants. I would come back, later, begin afresh.

Through a small break in the vegetation, I saw a small segment of Teirei river. On a rock near the middle of the river, a small brown bird sat, flicked out into the air, and returned to its perch: a female Plumbeous Redstart. She kept sallying out, to catch flying insects perhaps, returning each time to the same spot. Out and back, out and back, to me, she looked loopy with life.

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Plumbeous Redstart female (Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan)

* * * * *

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.