Author: Friends

The last gibbon

The last gibbon

Guest post by Kashmira Kakati

When you hear a gibbon call, time stands still and flies past. When that ‘song’ tumbles around the forest mists, it is hard to tell which is the call and which, the echo. It comes from the deep jungles of aeons ago, and hearing it is like having an ear to infinity, a bit like looking at the stars.

A wild female hoolock gibbon up in the rainforest canopy (Photo: A Christy Williams)

In my dreams, the sound of the rainforest always comes to me in this, the call of the gibbon. If there was a sound that had to stand for everything truly wild and free, this would be it. It is also a love song. We now know a lot about our sub-continent’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon—found only in northeast India, south of the Brahmaputra, and the adjoining forests of Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are so few left that they count, regrettably, among the world’s top 25 most endangered primates. We know that they are among the few mammals that pair monogamously, often for life; that they give birth every two years or so and the young live with their parents for almost 8 years, learning the ropes of survival in the high canopy of the rain forest. There is no other animal as agile or gracile as the gibbon in that lofty world. We know that each gibbon family defends a small territory, not by violence, but by singing! We also know that they eat a lot of different kinds of forest fruit, but that they need some leaf as well. Then, there is a lot more that we do not know.

Six kilometers from Margherita in Upper Assam is a Singpho village called Inthong or the village of a “thousand houses”. In the 1960s though, Inthong didn’t actually have a thousand houses. It was just a settlement of 10-20 households surrounded by forests, and what seemed like hundreds of howling gibbons. The young Singpho men even tracked tigers in these forests.

We had driven out to Inthong from my camp at Digboi—not to sample its unique, organically grown phalap or Singpho tea—but to see a half-wild, half-pet hoolock gibbon called Kolia, the Black One. She may be nearly 30 years old. Kolia’s guardian is a gentleman by the name of Bhupeshwar Ningda. From the verandah of his traditional Singpho chang-ghar, Ningda calls out to Kolia. In a trice, out of the betelnut tree, swinging hand over hand on the rafters and rope-walking on the railing, comes Kolia. We are thrilled. In so many years of studying gibbons, this is only the second time I am within touching distance of one. (The first time was when a sudden monsoon shower sent me scurrying for shelter under a tangle of lianas beneath a stately hollong tree in the Borajan forest. The wild female I was following apparently had the same idea. Hearing a noise just above my head, I looked up at the same time she looked down at me. My heart missed several beats. I looked away, and so did she. I don’t know how long we sat there behind that liana curtain, within 3 feet of each other. It may have been minutes, it felt like enchanted hours. Until, as abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped, and we resumed our roles as the observer and the subject.)

Kolia, the last gibbon (Photo: Kashmira Kakati)

Kolia. Ningda remembers the day—but is not sure of the year—when his dog caught the young gibbon as she scrambled along his garden fence behind her parents. Ningda rushed to her rescue and handed her back to her mother. He named her Kolia, because she had the jet black coat of young gibbons. What a surprise he must have had then, when about 8-10 years later, she started turning golden as female gibbons do when approaching adulthood. It was too late to change her name and he still believes, erroneously, that she is male—but that is not important to the plot. Anyway, to continue the strange story, Ningda says that after the dog incident, the gibbon family started staying in the patch of forest around his homestead more often. They were among two or three groups of gibbons that lived there.

This forest patch, formerly part of the Upper Dehing Reserve Forest (East Block), was separated from it when the Powai Bongaon (Forest Village) was set down in that area around 1960. In just over two decades most of the gibbons would disappear, in a familiar but unacknowledged sequence of circumstances that took place all across northeast India. The official term is forest fragmentation—when forests become progressively smaller and isolated from one another by the hand of man. The effective term is death sentence—for the isolated forest, and everything in it, as the incredibly complex system that is a living forest breaks down and ceases to function.

Intricate and complex, the rainforests are now threatened by fragmentation and disturbance (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

By 1995, Kolia had lost both her parents and she was the last gibbon left in the Inthong forest patch. Ningda started putting out bananas for the lonely orphan. She started approaching the house closer than she ever had, seemingly for the bananas, but possibly just for the company of another living being. I’ve seen wild sub-adult gibbons exhibit separation anxieties, lasting months, when the time comes to leave the family and strike out on their own until they find a partner. It has been 14 years this year that Kolia has not seen another of her own species. Her social contact is with Ningda and his large family. She takes food from their hands, and she will groom their heads. She often holds the mirror on the verandah and peers intently into it, trying to touch that familiar animal on the other side. Maybe she understands it is just a reflection. I hope the high intelligence of her species fails her and that she doesn’t understand.

Mostly, she is safe. But sometimes, school boys pelt her with stones. One time, poachers shot at her, taking off a finger. And another time a man approached Ningda, offering him money for Kolia’s heart, which he said he’d grind into good medicine. Such is the nature of the human beast.

When she hooted, we laughed, amused. But it was a song without any context. In the wild, from up on high, she would have been singing a duet with her mate once in the late morning. She would have been singing to celebrate her ‘married’ status, to guard her territory for her family. At Inthong, Kolia would launch into crazed hoots every time someone prompted her. As everyone laughed at the antics of the funny ‘monkey’, I suddenly recognized that she was demented. It was there in her eyes, and from that slightly open, down-turned mouth. I have watched wild gibbon eyes for hours on end, for months together. They are curious, intelligent eyes. Or playful, indulgent eyes. Sometimes they can be angry or annoyed or fearful eyes; and sometimes just sleepy, lazy eyes. They shine. They used to first warily, then calmly, directly, watch me back. But Kolia’s brown eyes were empty. Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. Inside them were two bottomless pools holding all the loneliness of the world, all the burden of being alive when everyone you knew and loved, or could love, has gone.

On the drive out, a tremendous April cloudburst surged down the car windows and brought to me an old memory of a story. It was called the ‘The Fog Horn’, by Ray Bradbury. It told of an ancient sea monster that emerges from the bottom of the sea, answering the call of a lighthouse’s fog horn on a cold, misty night; clutching desperately to a shred of hope that another of its kind was finally calling to it. As it approaches, the frightened keeper switches off the foghorn. The monster is first confused by the silence, then enraged by it. In the anguish and fury of a hope lost forever, it cries out and lashes at the lighthouse, destroying the unbearable untruth. Bradbury sends it back to the depths of the sea, never to be seen again, to wait another million years for the merciful death that would release it from its intolerable existence. Kolia has all the gentleness of her species, none of the fury of the monster. But her call is the lonely monster’s call is the echo of the foghorn blowing:

…whoever hears it will weep in their souls,

whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity…

Note: Hoolock gibbon populations continue to decline across its range, leaving many Kolias calling hopefully, hopelessly, from the tattered, disappearing patches that were once their soaring, vine-tangled forest abodes. In the worst of these forest fragments, they no longer call.

Snared

Snared

– By Ranjini Murali

Under the harsh rays of the mid-morning sun, he almost looked like he was resting in the shade. However, the resigned droop of his head and the large group of people crowding around him, less than five metres away, made the picture of him resting seem terribly amiss. And on careful observation, I could just make out the snare, tightened around his wrist, cruelly pulling up his muscular golden arm.

leopard_teaestate

Anand had been called by the managers of a tea estate, just on the outskirts of Valparai, informing him that a leopard had been caught in a snare there (on 25 March 2011). I had tagged along with Anand when he went to oversee the situation. This leopard had been caught in the snare for more than thirty hours already. He had evidently struggled and was bearing the marks of those excruciating thirty hours. The fur on his left arm, from the elbow to the wrist, had been peeled away by the snare, leaving the area red and inflamed. The snare had probably first caught around his upper arm, a little above the elbow, then pulled along the length of his fore-arm finally tightening around his wrist. His left eye was red and swollen, probably hit by a stray branch, while he had struggled. In spite of being trapped and hurt, he seemed to radiate power and none dared get too close. Cameramen hustled around trying to get the best footage, while the guards tried to keep everyone at a distance so as not to alarm the leopard. The leopard, too exhausted to lift his head, gently closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. My heart twisted as I watched him. So much power and grace caught like that, for no fault of his.

leopard

The range officer and the wildlife vet finally arrived at the scene. As they moved close to the leopard to tranquilize him, he let out a tremendous roar which made me jump out of my skin. Had I said he seemed defeated? Of course not! Even after thirty hours, this guy still had plenty of fight in him. They managed to get a good shot and soon the tranquilizer put the leopard to sleep. The vet, Dr Manoharan, undid the snare and attended to his injuries, which luckily were not too severe. The leopard had dislocated his middle finger and had congestion in his eye but other than that he was fine. He was a young male, around two years, who had probably just learnt to hunt. He may have been looking through the undergrowth for small game when he was caught in the snare. Dr Manoharan then covered the leopard with a gunny bag and left him to recover.

And now the big question—what was to be done with the leopard? Anand and the vet started to discuss the possibilities. Both were very keen the leopard be left where he was. None of his injuries were too serious and he was young, so he was expected to recover quickly. But if the leopard was left here, would that be in the best interest of the leopard, and what of the people living around? The managers quickly interjected here and said there were no houses close to this area and very few people came here. In fact, the tea pluckers came only once in two weeks—an ideal place for a snare. Luckily, the tea pluckers had come shortly after the leopard had been caught. If not, the leopard might not have made it.

Back to the situation at hand. He had not eaten or drunk water in two days and would probably be unable to hunt for some time yet. Should a live chicken and some water in a trough be left for the leopard to help him recover his strength? No one seemed to know exactly what to do. Anand then called on the expert Vidya Athreya for advice—she has been working on human – leopard conflict in Maharashtra for some time. She said to leave the leopard where he was and to not feed him anything as for one he would probably be too scared to eat and would run straight into cover and for another, he might develop a taste for chicken, which would cause more problems than it would solve. She also said to inform any people living around that there is an injured leopard in the area and to be on their guard. Based on her expert advice, the decision to leave the leopard in the same area was made. The Chief Wildlife Warden was then called and informed regarding the decision. After understanding the situation, the go-ahead was given.

A quick note here—the Ministry of Environment and Forests has recently published a very useful guide on human-leopard conflict management, which is invaluable in such situations. We were lucky to be able to call on an expert for advice but in many cases that may not be an option. This guide gives a detailed account on how to handle such a situation.

I like to believe the best decision possible was made in a bad situation. Right from the managers informing the authorities of the situation to the guards preventing on-lookers from getting too close to the leopard to Dr Manoharan performing such an admirable job, everything seemed to have gone as best as it could have in a situation like this. The compassion and the efficiency of Dr Manoharan, really has to be remarked upon. He was keen at looking at all angles before deciding upon the best course of action and he was very open to taking advice from an expert. I was surprised by the compassion shown by the people watching the drama unfold. Around me, I could hear them say in Tamil, “So sad for the leopard, it’s so beautiful”.  In fact, certain people had hired taxis and come all the way from Valparai to try to catch the glimpse of the leopard.

In the recent past, Valparai has been witness to a few incidents of conflict with leopard. Three children have died in the last few years. In spite of this, it was truly heartening to see the peoples’ eagerness to save this leopard. However, like all stories, the media and politicians have made the leopard situation in Valparai seem worse than it actually is. They claim leopards to be practically prowling in peoples’ backyards but after actually living in Valparai for some time, it is quite obvious most people have not seen even one leopard in all the time they have lived there.

Today, whether it was curiosity or compassion that drove the people, I think either can be harnessed for conservation purposes. Most of the time, I like to believe, people do the best they can, given what they know. A little education here can go a long way. In the face of all the terrible stories of death and burning of wildlife, it was very affirming to come across a tiny positive story. Today probably will not make a difference in the bigger conservation story but it was nice to be a witness to an act of compassion, at the very least.

Veni, Vidi, wiki!

Veni, Vidi, wiki!

In the little Tamil village that we know so well, it was just another day. The coffee was flowing like potion and the local Geriatrix had just set up lamps to prevent wild boar-human conflict. The village had just welcomed Cacofonix who brought with him an extended phenotype of electronic lyres to garnish the horrendous volume of what he called ‘song’. Impedimenta had just finished reflecting on civets while the chief had had a long night appreciating the mellifluous notes emanating from the august pharynx of Biligirix. All was well in the village we know so well.

The Valparai TEN
The Valparai TEN

But this 15th day of January was the day, ten years ago that an unplanned miracle occurred. Four years after a failed docom, on this day, Jimmy along with a few others dreamt of creating an encyclopedia on the internet, an eternal work-in-progress; merely because a new software, mediawiki allowed it. What followed is history – how a ragtag band of amatuers created over 3 million articles in english alone with 277 other encyclopedias in other languages including Maori, Kannada and Swahili among others.

Wikipedia today has a great potential to create equity in knowledge, to overcome the somewhat natural tendency of information to concentrate among few. From articles about esoteric programming languages to Gravity Hill and government-forbidden prime numbers, the encyclopedia has taken the transmission of information very seriously.

So, here was the day. Ten years of wikipedia, some hard(ly)working scientists and a few Bangalore Wikipedians was all it took to announce the Valparai Wikipedia TEN celebrations.Screen shot 2011-01-17 at 10.21.06 AMWe had a respectable 11 participants including the Thrush of the Malabar, whose previous night was traumatised by the songs rendered in perfect disharmony by the local photographer. A presentation and discussion on the idea of wikipedia, the five pillars on which it is built and the possible ways to contribute followed. Breathtaking photos languishing in the dark hinterlands of the scientists’ computer found their way to the much accessible commons on wikimedia’s servers, now available to the ragtag group for illustration on articles. Obscure fungi that would have rotted within the electronic backyard of another’s hard drive were uploaded for identification and spiders that weave a silken trap were strung on to the world wide web. Articles were edited and commitments were made – 7 new editors were born!

As our species get more and more cornered in patchy rainforests and animals get smoked into claustrophobic fragments of jungle, the importance of knowing, appreciating and learning about nature remains among a privileged few. The internet, new media and projects like wikipedia are a boon for naturalists, scientists, educators and such to share the knowledge that they accumulate. Be it a photo of a tree or a plant or a paper that we write or read; imagine the possibility if we could all use that to improve an article or illustrate a behaviour on wikipedia. Some have gone as far as to suggest that it is even a professional responsibility, not merely an educational opportunity! That is a journey that some of us began here. Hope we will keep it alive!

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

In the shadows of Perunkundru

In the shadows of Perunkundru

“Some days have a nervous, excited feeling about them while most are drab, mundane and one’s we would never retrieve from the depths of unwanted storage”. – Anonymous

I had been in the Anamalais for over 4 months now, looking for otters where many wouldn’t expect to find them, in the tea and coffee plantations of Valparai. It had been a mostly frustrating time, having not seen a single otter that I was out looking for (thankfully, I rely on signs and not sightings for my data). I would gladly bin most days into the latter category, except those few where my stroke of luck took a brief upward trajectory. Great pied hornbills, an occasional leopard posing beside a cow or stalking a herd of pigs, the motley crew of striped-neck mongooses, brown palm civets and porcupines kept me from slipping into a coma. And, a leopard cat chasing shadows on a tree was an indication of the times to come.

At home up in the trees
At home in the trees

I had taken a break from the “evergreen” tea and coffee landscape, and was instead sampling streams in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. My base camp was Varagaliar, in the heart of the reserve in more ways than one. It is here that the monotonously brown teak plantations give way to rainforests in every hue of green. And recently, all of its inhabitants including the highly damaging camp elephants had been relocated to other places away from these rainforests. The most striking feature of Varagaliar though is Perumkundru, the lone giant who towers over everything else. This lone giant keeps a silent vigil on one of the last remaining rainforests on one side and India’s economic ambitions on the other. His upper slopes are also home to a small population of the highly endangered Nilgiri tahrs. Two major streams starting somewhere deep in the folds of the mountain join in front of the Varagaliar camp and there is water flowing throughout the year. This combined with the open fields (thanks to its earlier inhabitants) now attracts herds of gaur and sambar.

Lone giant - Perumkundru
Lone giant - Perumkundru

After arriving at Varagaliar in the evening, I was told by the watcher that a pack of dholes had killed a sambar near the stream and feasted on it the previous day. And as he had predicted, they turned up again in the dying light and scavenged on whatever was left of it as I watched from a cautious distance. The next morning, I was up with the first light and as I made my way to the stream near the camp to check our camera trap, I startled a pack of 5-6 dholes on the other bank still scavenging on the remains.

Self portrait (camera trap image)
Self portrait (camera trap image)

One of them on seeing me, started off a “wak-wak-wak” alarm call and ran away to join the others listen to this . For the next 30 minutes I watched them finish whatever was left of the now two day old kill. My day was made I thought, and I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The stream I had to sample that day was a good three hour climb from Varagaliar, somewhere in the darker shadows of Perumkundru. The climb took us upstream along the Kurumpalli Pallam, a fast, rocky stream with dense rainforest canopy. An hour and a half later as we were crossing over to the other side near a rocky pool, we (Dinesh, my Kadar field assistant and myself) were completely caught unaware by a small animal, a little larger than an overweight bandicoot with a long tail that burst out of the water and went scurrying into a rock crevice just large enough for animals its size. The small-clawed otter, the animal I was trying so hard to see, was hiding in a rock crevice in front of us, and we were happy to leave it undisturbed and moved away sort-of-contented. Not wanting to linger around, we continued on our way further upstream. We were confronted by wet footprints of an otter on the rocks and we could only guess if it belonged to the one we had seen.

Small-clawed otters in a coffee estate (camera trap image)
Small-clawed otters in a coffee estate (camera trap image)

When I’m not looking for signs of otters or other carnivores, I often try to identify trees as one of the seven or eight species that I can confidently identify (thanks to Divya & Sridhar :P). Dinesh, though infinitely more knowledgeable about trees often avoids my incessant questioning. We finally reached our start point at 11, a good three hours after we started. Overhead were a troop of LTMs (lion-tailed monkeys), not shy but curious. They were peering down at us from the canopy and us at them. It was at this moment that we heard a tiger calling. Everything went silent and then we heard it again. We stood staring in that direction, somewhere further upstream, where the shadows were even darker. The LTMs who had been silent all along now suddenly erupted with a series of alarm calls, while we stood rooted to the ground watching a tiger come down to the stream for a drink. He/she melted into the undergrowth as silently as he/she had appeared. I could then only glimpse momentary stripes of black and orange weaving in and out of a thick green curtain. The cacophony too followed the tiger’s movement and eventually died out. I couldn’t believe my luck! The first six hours since day break had made me feel almost superhuman. We managed to finish the day’s sampling, hoping like always to see another otter or a tiger. Finally, I got back with a wide grin on my face, but having narrowly missed a flock of martens!
That night, I was again driven out of camp by rats and the incessant din raised by fellow humans. As I settled down in the gypsy (parked some distance away), the rutting calls of bull gaurs and the frantic alarm calls of sambar took over, accompanied by an orchestra of night jars, owls and the “brain-fever” bird. I slowly drifted away under the pleasant glow of a thousand fireflies and the ever-watchful gaze of Perumkundru, feeling like a happy insignificant blink in the face of timelessness; which was but now restricted to a few valleys.
Or as Cameron Langford (The Winter of the Fisher) puts it, “And a man’s a fool to think on time, when timelessness encloses him on every side”.

Two days later, we watched a pack of 9 dholes bring down an adult sambar. They were then joined by 6 pups.

In deep waters
In deep waters

If killing an adult sambar wasn’t hard enough, the dholes had to then defend their kill from an adamant wild boar looking for an easy meal!

Face-off
Face-off: Reminds me of the old westerns

Which soon turned into a scene straight out of a western classic,Dholes defending kill – 1

and again Dholes defending kill – 2, and a third time Again . The dogs had won this round.

Every dog has his day
Pups at kill

– Nisarg

Learning to like fish in Valparai…

Learning to like fish in Valparai…

(I wrote this for Tehelka in May of this year, about my experiences in Valparai in March/April 2008 — Anjali Vaidya)

I live in a country where I don’t speak the language. By language I mean not just spoken language, but the language of culture, of pop culture, of mannerisms and manners and intertwining conflicting histories. I have always felt as though it should come naturally to me to understand some of the languages of India, since I’m half-Indian and have spent about a third of my life here, but I fail as often as I try. This is not always a bad thing, however. Every failure is a new piece to the puzzle. Though the puzzle in question is a hellishly complicated, multi-dimensional one that changes continuously, every failure is a new understanding.

Close to a year ago I spent a month and a half in a small village in Tamil Nadu, working with a group doing rainforest restoration. The work was wonderfully peaceful and the area beautiful, but what intrigued me the most was not the trees and rivers and wildlife but the multitudes of people going on with their lives all about me. The villagers had a guileless friendliness to them that frankly startled me, as I was so used to living in or near big cities. They were helpful and kind and extremely curious about me and the others I worked with. But I did not know their language, and none of my time spent poring over my little English to Tamil book seemed to help me much.

I discovered, instead, that I could find kinship with people despite the absence of a common spoken or cultural language. We fell back on the basics; on the wordless gestures that ultimately say the most. Smiles and eye contact and offers of food. “I like you, you like me, let me feed you.” The friendship that stands out most in my mind from my time spent on the edge of the rainforest was one I developed with the woman who cooked for my roommate and me. Through the combination of my English to Tamil book (used as a rudimentary dictionary) and her bubbly friendliness, we became friends. She was convinced that my roommate and I were going to waste away because there was no fish in our diets. Despite my protestations that I did not like fish and was perfectly healthy despite my meatless diet, the language barrier meant that her enthusiasm won out over my verbal arguments.

And so one evening I found myself making my way down to her little place by the river, where she could feed me what she considered proper food. It was fish, cooked in some magical way so that I found it delicious, when I’ve never had the taste for fish in my life. I was on display as I ate; the neighbours clustered round to see this peculiar half-white girl come to eat dinner, asking me questions in Tamil and scolding me for not knowing the language.

The second time I came down to the bottom of the hill was to say goodbye before leaving for Bangalore. Through a combination of sign language and English and bad Tamil, I told her I was leaving, and did not know when I’d ever come back. She was quite distraught, as was her little wisp of an old mother, and I had no words I could use to make them feel better. So on my way out I touched her mother’s feet. I had no idea if this was appropriate or not, but it seemed like a thing to do that might show how much I appreciated the kindness they’d both shown to me.

And as I stood up, her mother started weeping. She seemed impossibly, and to me incomprehensibly, moved by my gesture. This frail, white haired lady with whom I could only communicate through smiles took me by the hand and walked me halfway back up the hill to where I was staying, taking the steps slowly, solemn and sad. There was a narrative here that I could not grasp; a story I caught a glimpse of and then lost without having ever quite known what it had been about.

I call India home, but I am not fluent in any of its many languages. Consequently, I cannot ever be quite at home here: my role tends to be that of an intensely curious and often befuddled fly on the wall. Except that sometimes I find myself swept out into the thick of things. As I was led through the village by a sweet old woman who was sad and moved by my actions to an extent beyond my comprehension, I felt as though I had strayed unknowing into some Greek tragedy, the strange pathos of which teased at my understanding and haunts me still.