Category Archives: rainforest

The mistletoe bird

It is one of those little plants that you hardly notice in the rainforest. It perches on tree branches, like a sea fan on a coral boulder, like a Christmas decoration. At a glance, it seems like another tassel of twigs and leaves emerging from the tree. But look closer and you see that its leaves are smaller and a paler green, tinged with coppery yellow, unlike the tree’s longer, parrot-green leaves. On the tree’s brown branch powdered with white lichen, the little plant arises out of a swollen bulb-like base, holding out dark brown twigs dusted with white spots, like chocolate sprinkled with sugar. Clusters of pinkish-red berries and buds line the smaller plant’s twigs, on the tree bereft of fruit or bud.

The clutch of leaves, berries, and flowers are on the tree, but are not of the tree itself. The little plant is an epiphyte: a plant that grows on other plants. It is a mistletoe.

In the company of mistletoes lives an unassuming little bird that you hardly notice in the rainforest. A tiny bird, small enough to hide behind a leaf or to hold in a closed fist, and drab enough to escape the attention of anyone but an ardent birdwatcher. An undistinguished little bird, dull olive brown above, rather dingy white below, with sharp eyes, glinting dark and attentive, and a sharp beak, gently curved to a point to poke among the flowers. A metallic, fidgety tick-tick-tick call announces her presence as she darts through the boughs. You have to be quick to spot her before she disappears. In keeping with her modest appearance, birdwatchers call this species the plain flowerpecker.

Plain flowerpecker Dampa DSCN3938

Small enough to hide behind a leaf, a Plain Flowerpecker, in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram

I’ve traveled far from my home in the mountains of the Western Ghats in southern India to see this flowerpecker. And not just any plain flowerpecker, but a particular one: a bird flitting among the mistletoes on the same trees where I had seen the species two decades earlier. I am seated on the steps of the Dampatlang watchtower in Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, northeast India. Twenty years ago, I had spent many quiet, contented hours watching birds around me from the same steps while camping here for fieldwork. To the south, steep cliffs plunge to Tuichar valley. An evergreen forest with many trees adorned with mistletoes surrounds me on three sides.

Alongside the watchtower grow two small orange trees and a straggling Holmskioldia holding bunches of scarlet cup-and-saucer blooms. Against the wild forest backdrop, the planted orange and cup-and-saucer plant marked what seemed a very human temperament to cultivate and ornament the lands we live in.

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Pale-billed Flowerpecker with a fruit of the Singapore cherry Muntingia calabura in southern India.

Seated two stories high, I am almost eye-to-eye with the flowerpecker. The bird flits from branch to branch, dives into each mistletoe cluster, peeking, probing, seeking with eye and beak. Flowerpeckers remain closely tied to the mistletoes on the trees within their territories spanning a few hectares at most. The birds consume mistletoe flower nectar and fruits, but this is a two-way relationship. The plant, too, gains when the birds pollinate its flowers and disperse its seeds.

Many mistletoes have tube-like flowers that, when probed by a flowerpecker beak, part like a curtain or pop open furling the petals down and thrusting the stamens out to dust the bird’s head and face with pollen. After the bird sips the sugary nectar with a special tube-like tongue (who needs a straw when your tongue itself is rolled into one?) and flies over to probe other flowers of the same mistletoe species, some of the carried pollen may rub off on receptive female parts, triggering the latter plant’s reproduction.

Despite this penchant for flowers and the bird’s name itself, the flowerpecker remains, at heart, a fruit-lover. Mistletoes often have long and overlapping flowering and fruiting seasons so there is always food for a hungry flowerpecker to find. Ripe mistletoe fruit never fails to attract flowerpeckers.

Mistletoes represent a group of over 1300 plant species worldwide belonging to five families, chiefly the Families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae. As the latter name suggests, the fruits are viscid, the usually single seed surrounded by a sticky pulp, often enclosed in a rind-like peel.

The plain flowerpecker and its close cousin in southern India, the Nilgiri flowerpecker, manipulate mistletoe fruits in their beaks to gently squeeze the seed from the pulp. They swallow the sugary, nutritious pulp and wipe their bills on twigs to remove the sticky seed. If the flowerpecker swallows the fruit, the seed passes rapidly through the bird’s gut to be excreted out. To remove the still sticky seed, the birds wipe their rears on twigs or tree branches. In either case, these actions have the same result, which biologists call ‘directed dispersal’: the mistletoe seed gets planted where it is likely to germinate.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed. Photos by Kalyan Varma (http://kalyanvarma.net).

Mistletoes are also partial parasites. They synthesize their own food through photosynthesis, but their special roots draw water and nutrients from the host tree on which they are perched. Extreme infestation of trees by mistletoes is rare in natural forests, occurring more often in degraded or managed forests and monoculture plantations. Still, foresters and others concerned with production of timber or fruits from trees sometimes call for mistletoes to be removed or eradicated.

Recent research suggests that this may be unwarranted. In forests, falling mistletoe leaves add vital nutrients to soil under the trees where they grow. Experimental removal of mistletoes causes a cascade of harmful impacts including declines in soil nutrients and populations of other species. Besides flowerpeckers, mistletoes sustain a large number of other species worldwide. The barbet-like tinkerbirds of Africa, the mistletoebird and honeyeaters of Australia, the sunbirds and white-eyes of Asia, mouse lemurs and sifakas of Madagascar, tyrant and silky flycatchers and colocolo opossums of the Americas, the eponymous mistle thrush of Europe, myriad insects and other creatures—all find food and spaces for hunting or nesting in mistletoes.

Plain flowerpecker with a mistletoe fruit in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram.

Back at the watchtower, I watch the feisty flowerpeckers defend their mistletoes, darting at intruders who entered their territories, chasing after them zipping between branches with rapid ticking calls. Fighting flowerpeckers have been known to fall to the ground while grappling fiercely with each other. One imagines their raging little hearts beating furiously, as they flay and peck at each other to defend what they perceive as their own.

Together, the flowerpecker and mistletoe epitomise an irreplaceable vitality of the forest.

An hour later, as I leave the watchtower, I sense that there is more to it than just a symbiotic evolutionary link between bird and mistletoe in a forest webbed with ecological connections. Perhaps, behind the gleam of that flowerpecker’s eye, there resides, too, a temperament to cultivate and protect what she consumes and an aesthetic to adorn the trees in her forest with the prettiest little plants she can find.

An edited version of this article appeared on 19 August 2017 on Scroll.in.

6 impossible things a coffee lover can do before breakfast

1. Wake up and smell the coffee. No, not the coffee brewing in your percolator or stove-top at home, this coffee has not been a bean yet. Far sweeter, heady, finer than jasmine, it suffuses the air all around, seeps into your lungs inside, bathes you in fragrance outside. It emerges, imperceptibly, from millions of soft, white-petaled flowers packed along the branches of waist-high bushes ranging all around you under the shade of rainforest trees. A week earlier and you would have barely seen the waiting green buds clustered at leaf axils, a week later and the spent blooms would have wilted away. You arrive on exactly the right morning, a week after the first rains of summer, at the tropical coffee plantation in glorious, copious, synchronous bloom.

Coffee Flowers

Arabica coffee in bloom. By Marcelo Corrêa (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Listen to the morning buzz. No, this is not the artificial twitter of virtual voices flickering out of your phone or computer screens. This is the real thing: the morning chorus of birds carrying the sibilant twitter of sunbirds and white-eyes, alongside the clarion clang of racket-tailed drongos, the rhythmic metronome of barbets, and the raucous cries of great hornbills. All around sounds the delicate, pervasive hum of pollinating bees—small stingless bees, striped honey bees, giant rock bees—all living up to their clade name, anthophila, the flower lovers. Dip into the flower, sip the nectar, shrink and become the bee.

Rock bee in the Anamalai Hills

Rock bee (Apis dorsata) hive on a rainforest shade tree above a coffee estate in the Anamalai hills. By T R Shankar Raman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Share and savour a bole of fruit. The jackfruit, like disfigured, spiky footballs, hang heavy from the knobbly bole of the shade tree. A macaque has eaten a monkey’s mouthful out of one, revealing oozy white latex and pulpy yellow innards. Now, the leaves shiver behind a leaping red-black blur. Cream-faced, tuft-eared, bushy-tailed, the giant squirrel soft-lands on branch, scurries to bole. Hanging by his hind feet, he pulls a marble-sized seed wrapped in pulpy flesh to his mouth. Later the fruit could fall or be yanked down by a hungry elephant. Take a bite yourself. Savour the fruit of giants.

Jack fruit tree AJT Johnsingh DSCN2331

Jackfruit tree in copious fruiting. By A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ratufa indica and jack fruit

A pair of giant squirrels tearing away at jackfruit. By Chinmayisk [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Eyeball the headlines. Look up the news: for instance, about yesterday’s gathering of eminent area residents at the annual jack feast. Parallel furrows on tree bark show Sambar had stripped off a snack, just before Elephant came by after her mud bath and rubbed herself on the trunk. By night, Civet came for the rainforest fruit platter, placed a seed-studded scat on a rock as his mark of approval. Porcupine left a quill behind, unexplained. You can only surmise what the writers on this landscape are up to, or mean, by the marks they leave behind.

Indian crested porcupine

Indian crested porcupine. By Harsha Jayaramaiah [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Clean up after. A tiny bird, small enough to hold in your fist, shows you how. The flowerpecker flits above among the mistletoes adorning tree branches like Christmas decorations. With his beak, the bird pinches the mistletoe fruit, sticky to touch, to pop the seed and wipe it off on a twig. Or he swallows it and will later have to wipe the goopy seed off his butt on a twig where the seed will grow into a future mistletoe. Biologists call this directed dispersal, but there’s something even more admirable in what the little fella does that you could emulate: don’t just wipe stuff off, regenerate what you consume.

Nilgiri flowerpecker planting a mistletoe seed. Photos by Kalyan Varma (http://kalyanvarma.net).

6. Read the coffee grounds. Open all your senses, sip your brew now: imbibe a little of the land of elephant and hornbill and civet in India, or the land of tamandua and toucan and coati in Costa Rica, or whichever tropical place made your coffee. (You didn’t think you made it yourself, did you?) Look in the cup, imagine a future where you will cherish and feel connected to lives and lands so impossibly wonderful wherever they are.

Ltm panorama highres

A lion-tailed macaque looks out from a rainforest tree over coffee plantations and forests in the Anamalai hills. By T. R. Shankar Raman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Why Mizoram must revive, not eradicate, jhum

There is something extraordinary about the cheraw (bamboo dance) performed during Chapchar Kut. The dance is unique, elegant, and spectacular, but it carries a deeper connection to the land and lives of the people, particularly to the remarkable practice of shifting agriculture (or jhum) which subtly encapsulates the dance of the bamboos themselves on the mountains of Mizoram.

I first watched the grand cheraw performance at the Assam Rifles stadium in Aizawl in Mizoram’s Gospel Centenary year. Although the state had seen great transformations in religion, traditions and economy over the last century, the cheraw itself had been retained as a deeper marker of culture.

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut in Mizoram's gospel centenary year (1995)

The cheraw dance performance at Chapchar Kut following Mizoram’s gospel centenary year (24 February 1995).

Two decades later, in 2014, I watched the cheraw performed again in the same stadium by Mizo boys and girls decked in bright traditional dresses patterned with bamboo-like designs on clothing and headgear.

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

Nearly two decades later, the cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut 7 March 2014).

To the clacking beat of the bamboo held by the boys at their feet, the girls gracefully stepped and danced as if nothing had changed across the years. Yet, in the surrounding countryside, much had.

The government had been continually trying to eliminate jhum and replace it with monoculture plantations such as teak, rubber, and oil palm. This attempt to eradicate jhum goes against the grain of ecology, agriculture, and culture of Mizoram. Consider these four reasons.

Jhum helps retains forest cover

First, foresters claim jhum causes loss of forest cover. Scientists have instead pointed out the loss is only temporary and that too in small patches that are cleared. This contrasts sharply with the permanent loss of extensive forest cover when jhum is replaced by other land uses such as settled agriculture and monoculture plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak. Plantations such as oil palm and rubber that directly cause deforestation are being promoted by the state government. This accounts for over 20,000 hectares of forest loss in Mizoram in just the last few years.

Jhum does lead to a change in the type of forest cover. As soon as cultivation is over and the fields are rested, forests very rapidly regenerate on jhum fallows. Dense bamboo forests, especially mautak (Melocanna baccifera), and secondary forests with trees rapidly cover the jhum landscape. For every hectare cultivated, at least 5 to 10 hectares are left regenerating. This forest cover is still superior to plantations of a single species such as oil palm and rubber that are not forest at all.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

Jhum supports biodiversity in the landscape

Second, biologists report  jhum areas have fewer plant and animal species than mature rainforests. But they also point out the wider jhum landscape supports more biodiversity than terraced agriculture, oil palm, tea, and rubber plantations.

Wildlife scientists, including myself, have underscored the need to protect mature rainforests. Mizoram  has done a creditable job in protecting such forests in the core zones of many wildlife reserves such as Dampa, Murlen, and Ngengpui. In the surrounding landscape, however, the dense bamboo and secondary forests created by jhum are better for biodiversity conservation than any of the artificial monocultures being planted. This must be acknowledged.

A sustainable, organic farming system

Third, from an agricultural point of view, jhum is unfairly labelled as an unproductive system. Comparing yields per hectare of specific crops (such as rice) in jhum with other ‘modern’ agricultural systems, fails to consider many benefits of jhum. Jhum is a multiple-crop system that raises diverse food and cash crops, conserves indigenous seeds and varieties, and promotes household food security. Also, while cultivation may last a single year, farmers gain resources over many years from fields and regenerating forests: fuelwood, perennial crops, bamboo and bamboo shoots, mushrooms and forest foods, housing materials and timber. A fair comparison with other systems of farming would take into account the returns to farmers over the entire jhum cycle (and not just yields per hectare at a single harvest). Agricultural scientists today believe jhum is a sustainable farming system that can be refined rather than replaced.

It is the stated policy of the Central Government and Indian states like Sikkim and Kerala to transform conventional agriculture towards organic farming. This is a progressive trend. For Mizoram, the first state to enact organic farming legislation, it is doubly ironic that the authorities are trying to eradicate this remarkable organic farming system (jhum) instead of capitalising on having a head start. The state’s attempt to eradicate jhum is regressive from the perspectives of current scientific understanding of agroecology and government policy.

The dance of the future

Finally, the cheraw at Chapchar Kut subtly and intricately epitomises cultural connections and values. The  group dance celebrates the spirit of community that Mizoram is famous for and embodied in tlawmngaihna, the bamboo attests the connection to forest and land (ram), and the circular dance within the bounds of the bamboo seemingly reflects the rotational system of jhum cultivation itself. But today, as oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is being replaced by one dependent on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests.

What will happen then, in future, to the dance of the bamboos? I imagine Mizo boys and girls assembling at the Assam Rifles Grounds in Aizawl for the dance. But the boys are not holding bamboo culms at the feet of the girls any more: they are at the gates in dark suits selling tickets, collecting cash. The girls, clad in monotonous green dresses patterned with spikes and needles, stand in the sun, alone, their arms aloft, their palms open and fingers splayed wide, their eyes staring, unblinking at the fierce sun. The feet of the girls are fixed to the earth and don’t move. And through the gates, the spectators trickle in, to see the Mizos perform the oil palm dance.

One hopes that such a dance is never performed, that such a day never comes.

This article first appeared in the Chapchar Kut special issue of The Frontier Despatch, 4 March 2016.

Fire and renewal in Mizoram

Last month, a photo-story of mine appeared in the remarkable People’s Archive of Rural India. Here is an excerpt and some images as a slide show. You can read the full story here Crop cycles: Fire and renewal in Mizoram.

March 15, 2014: Today, farmers of the Serhmun village would start a fire on the hills near Tuilut, to meet a deadline set by the state government. We were in Damparengpui, a remote village in Western Mizoram, from where we wanted Lal Sanga to take us in his autorickshaw up the bumpy, winding hill road to Tuilut.

“Do you really want to go all the way to see that?” he asked. It would turn out to be the loudest, hottest, most spectacular fire that I had witnessed at close range. A deliberate fire that would reduce to ashes what had been, until some weeks ago, a dense bamboo forest. And yet, the fire did not signify destruction as much as it did a new beginning.

Read on…

Or click to view the slide show.

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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.

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.

 

How green is your tea?

(With Divya Mudappa in Business Line, BLink magazine special issue on animals, 27 Sep 2014)

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

Gaur grazing at edge of a forest in a tea estate in the Anamalai hills.

You could have imagined you were on a forest trail. Fifty metres away, the dark hulk of a solitary bull gaur, over five feet tall at the shoulder with taut muscles and thick, curving horns, looks up from the swampy valley where he stands in his white-stockinged legs. Eyes locked with gaur, your ears pick up the harsh bark of a great hornbill resounding through the cool mountain air from a patch of tall trees on the hill slope beyond. As you skirt the gaur and walk quietly down the trail, stepping past fresh scat of a sloth bear and dropped quills of a porcupine, a stripe-necked mongoose darts across, a flash of crimson bright against background green. The green is not the multi-hued mosaic of a real forest, but a more uniform smear of a monoculture. Row upon row of neatly pruned metre-high bushes range away in tight lines, punctuated by well-spaced and heavily-lopped silver oak trees. In the mountains of the Western Ghats, at the edge of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, you are walking through a large tea plantation.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

In south India, tea is grown as extensive monocultures with sparse canopy of alien silver oak trees.

Tea plantations often get bad press from environmentalists as ‘green deserts‘. As a form of intensive production based on keeping large estates under a single crop, tea plantations tend to support far fewer wild species than comparable areas under native forests. Still, when one takes a broader perspective, tea estates, too, can play a role in wildlife conservation. Recent field studies show that by modifying conventional land-use practices and protecting some neglected parts of the tea estate landscape these plantations can help conserve wild species. They also illustrate how important it has become to widen the scope of conservation into the countryside outside wildlife protected areas such as national parks and sanctuaries.

Read on here… or from magazine pages below.

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