Tag: Coffee

My wild dog diary

My wild dog diary

In the ten months I spent in Biligiriranga Hills, working with Gorukana, I hardly got good opportunities to watch wild dogs. Although I was in a location surrounded by forest, most of my wild dog sightings lasted only a few seconds. Only once, I considered myself very lucky when I got to watch a pack of wild dogs along the road with the pups playing for a few minutes before they ran back to the cover of the forest. This was around my last month at Gorukana.

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The pups at Biligiriranga hills (March 2011)

Many guests I interacted with at Gorukana, felt wild dogs were somehow terrifying. They did not know how amazing the wild dogs were in their hunting strategy, behavior and natural history. We would screen Wild Dog Diaries for the guests and after that, their perception about them changed greatly. Instead of associating wild dogs with something crude and nasty, it changed to admiration.

In the Anamalai hills, I had few opportunities to observe wild dogs. The landscape was very different here. A mix of tea and coffee plantations and forest fragments. Spotting wild dogs was not easy except for a few fleeting glimpses once in a few months. It was nearly a year after I began work here that I got to watch them and as a bonus got some camera trap images as well.

Camera trap-Asiatic Wild Dog

Wild dogs feeding on gaur

Until the recent past I did not have much luck with wild dogs. I would hear stories of friends who watched them hunt and I felt jealous wishing I would get to see it someday too. Only recently my luck with wild dogs seems to have changed. Last week, I witnessed something very special. On 12 September 2013, thanks to Divya’s friend who informed her about a pack of wild dogs that had cornered a young sambar deer in the water in an estate nearby. Divya, Kalyan and Jegan decided to go see the wild dogs. I had reached office at the right time and joined them as they left.

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Stream flowing through the coffee plantation

The wild dogs were at the far end of the stream, where it curved away into the coffee estate. We drove up to a point some distance away to watch them. One wild dog sat on a grassy patch, others were a little distance away.

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We backed up to the bridge to make space for a small truck to pass. It was from here that Divya spotted the sambar yearling standing in the water, alert, tail up, close to nearly vertical river bank, impossible to climb. The deer was scared, all escape routes cut off by the wall behind and the ring of wild dogs in front. The odds were against the deer today. What we had not realized till then was that we had positioned ourselves on the road watching the wild dogs, while the sambar was standing right below us.

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First glimpse

There was absolute silence for a while. The sambar started to stomp the water with its forefeet. Suddenly, a wild dog jumped in. The attack had begun. There was a mix of yelps, yowls and squeals from the yearling and the wild dogs. It seemed like the wild dogs were really excited.

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The deer tried to get away from the dog only to head towards the waiting pack with the dog in the water after it. Few more wild dogs joined in the attack, leaping in the water from the left bank.

By now, the wild dogs and the deer had moved out of sight, but we knew they were there. We could hear the deer screaming and the wild dogs whistling. Just then, we heard a loud bhauunkkk behind us. An adult sambar, probably the mother of the fawn, had emerged from the coffee bushes of the estate and was calling out in alarm. She saw us, gave out another alarm call and disappeared into the coffee from where the other sounds still emerged.Sambar_Running_Adult_Ganesh Raghunathan_GAN3822

The adult

The excited whistles continued. We knew it was all over for the yearling. We were tempted to get to a place from where we could watch it all. But we did not want to spook the wild dogs and spoil their meal. We waited for a while and then moved to a different spot from where we could watch them from a distance.

Three wild dogs were sitting, like sentries, a little distance away from the kill. They kept a sharp lookout for trouble while the rest of the family was busy feeding. The sentries took turns to feed. It seemed like there was a rule that a dog must keep watch at all times. Within minutes, the carcass was ripped apart. The whistles continued as the sentries kept vigil. The dogs took short breaks to drink water from the stream and returned to feed. By now, it had been an hour. We watched the wild dogs take pieces away and settle down a little distance away from the kill to enjoy their portion.

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Sentries keeping watch

Now, a group of people came by and someone spotted the wild dogs, calling out excitedly to a few children who were a little distance away. Their repeated shouts seemed to disturb the wild dogs, as the pack split up and the animals dashed away into the cover of the coffee. We could see a few individuals far away.

What made the day very special for me is the amazing opportunity to watch a wild prey and predator and that too in a place where people and the wild dogs share the same space. The hunt had occurred in a coffee plantation by the side of a road that is used extensively by heavy vehicles.

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Relaxing some distance away

The wild dogs knew exactly when they had to leave the place to avoid being disturbed. They had dashed off in different directions and then quickly reassembled at a place where they were at peace. It was an amazing day and I was glad that I had cancelled my plan to go to Coimbatore that afternoon and stayed back to see the wild dogs.

The next morning, I set off by bike to Coimbatore. My luck had not yet faded. I saw a pack of wild dogs again! This time the pack was crossing the road at the foothills. On my way back the next day, I was hoping for another sighting, but I was out of luck. Instead, I found a jackal that lay dead by the roadside, killed by a speeding vehicle. I would have been extremely thrilled had I seen one alive. The sight of the dead jackal brought me back to the sad reality. Many animals die on the roads to speeding vehicles. I am not saying it was anybody’s fault. Still, just as a precaution, it would be great if people driving the vehicles maintained a slow speed when they are in or near a forest area. Our journey would take a bit longer otherwise in our haste the animals journey would end right there.

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Alien in wonderland

Alien in wonderland

“Oh! So you have come all the way from Pulachi to Pollachi”, Sridhar asked me when he heard that I am from a place in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra called Pulachi Shiroli. Mesmerized by his sense of humour, a little dumb struck, I nodded, “Ya!”. The mere attraction of the Rainforest Restoration Program had brought me to the wonderful rainforests of the Anamalai Hills in the Western Ghats from the Forest Research Institute at the foothills of the Himalaya.

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Valparai town surrounded with coffee and tea plantations, and the wonderful rainforests

Those were beautiful days in the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, where I was studying for my M.Sc. degree. On one such beautiful winter evening, my friend Hari and I were sitting and chatting on the roof of our hostel, sipping hot tea and enjoying the beautiful snow-clad landscape of Mussoorie. The topic of discussion was nature conservation. It was Pavithra Sankaran’s article in April 2004 issue of Sanctuary Asia that brought our attention to rainforest restoration in the Anamalais. I felt that the programme was a ray of hope in conservation where we often hear of losing battles. With excited mind, I wrote to Divya Mudappa and Shankar Raman (Sridhar) about my willingness to work in Anamalais for my Masters’ dissertation. Fortunately, they accepted my request. For me, the dissertation was just a means of reaching the rainforest restoration programme.

As I met Divya – Sridhar in Valparai town located in the Anamalais, I realized that for the next three months I was going to be in this wonderful land with wonderful people. Still, things were not so easy and simple for me. Except for a craze for the restoration program and love for plants, I had not a single quality required for the ecological study I was about to begin. No basics in theory, no idea of study design, or stats, no knowledge of taxa other than plants and a very poor knowledge of English. With this bright background, I had landed up in Valparai!

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Rainforests on the Valparai plateau, often fragmented and surrounded by alien plant species plantations such as coffee and tea, still support high biological diversity

The topic I chose for my dissertation was coffee invasion in rainforest fragments. The alien coffee plant was introduced here by the British for commercial plantations around the late nineteenth century. Two main species of coffee plant― Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) and Robusta coffee (C. canephora)―have been cultivated in commercial plantations in this landscape. They are native to Africa. A recent study had observed that this alien plant had found its way into the rainforest fragments and was even regenerating by itself. And so I began my study to follow the trail of this alien to see how it had carved its way into the forest. It was also to be seen if this invasion was detrimental to the floral denizens of the forest.

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A rainforest fragment adjacent to the coffee plantation

As I was there, Sridhar advised me to go around and get an idea of the landscape as that would help me choose my study sites. So, I visited some of the rainforest fragments and restoration sites. One day with Divya and Anand, I was in Iyerpadi Top, a rainforest fragment, where planting was supposed to be undertaken in the coming monsoon. We were there with some field assistants, to clear invasive alien Lantana camara weeds on the site. As I had no specific work, Divya had asked me to go along and make a bird checklist of the site. My knowledge of birds was terrible but I couldn’t say No. I started to look for birds and made a list. After reaching back Divya asked me for the bird checklist. I uttered the first name, “Indian Drongo”, Divya turned back with a certain uneasiness on her face. She said, “Atul, there is no bird called an Indian Drongo”. [There are four other distinct species of drongos found in the rainforests around here (Ashy, Bronzed, Greater Racket-tailed, and Hair-crested Drongo) and two more in the drier tracts: Black Drongo and White-bellied Drongo.] My checklist stopped already. I was thinking, thank God I am working on plants… maybe Divya was thinking on the same lines, this guy deserves to work only on plants… nothing else.

After one month, I was heading back to my institute in Dehradun to attend the last semester. While I was on my way, someone had perfectly found out that I was indeed an alien to this land and I lost my bag with camera, clothes, and books.

elephants in tea

I got back to Valparai after finishing my semester and soon started gathering some data in the sites we had zeroed in on. Now, the problem was of communicating with field assistants! Somehow, I managed to mug up a few numbers unn, rend, moon…. along with some other Tamil words. But communicating with local people was also a unique experience. One day, I went to a shop and asked the shopkeeper for bread. He gave me a shaving blade. I realized, I should have asked for bredddu instead of bread.
The diversity in the rainforest fragments was exciting. I chanced to see several wild animals during data collection in these fragments. Watching the huge plants with astounding diversity was a thrilling experience. The time passed quickly and the data collection was over. I started writing up the work I had done but got stuck with making sense of the data I had just collected. Patiently, Sridhar sat me down and with his amazing teaching skills taught me the basics of the statistics.

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Lion-tailed macaque in a rainforest fragment

My three months study was about to end. The analysis was showing that the alien coffee had become invasive in some of the rainforest fragments adjoining coffee plantations. This was partly due to the sheer proximity effect of the coffee plantation on spread of coffee seeds and also seed dispersal by wild animals into the rainforest fragments. Interestingly, between the two widely planted coffee varieties in this landscape, spread of Arabica coffee was related to disturbance with low level of invasion in the less disturbed forests. But Robusta coffee appeared more invasive and showed higher spread even in relatively undisturbed forest fragments, with negative impact on native flora. This was turned out to be a major point of concern from this study as many coffee estates have converted from Arabica to Robusta coffee in the Western Ghats (Research article).

Reflecting on my work, I was also struck by the thought that, in many ways, I was also alien to this landscape. However, those three months changed my way of life and thinking. Although coffee had made some negative impacts on the native plants there, I retreated from Valparai silently hoping that I had not made any negative impact on that fascinating landscape and people. But, after four years, I realize that, even if I had not intruded too much into Valparai, Valparai definitely had invaded my mind, and I love to retain this invasion forever.