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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.

 

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)

* * * * *

The journeys of the elephants

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

Row of elephants

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

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

African elephant

African elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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