Tag: Rainforest

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.

pups at biligiriranga hills

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.

 Wild Dog1_Ganesh Raghunathan_GAN3688

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.

 Wild Dog_Sambar deer_ Ganesh Raghunathan1_GAN3798

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.

 Wild Dog_Sambar deer_ Ganesh Raghunathan2_GAN3805 Wild Dog_Sambar deer_ Ganesh Raghunathan3_GAN3809 Wild Dog_Sambar deer_ Ganesh Raghunathan4_GAN3812

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.

Jackal Road Kill_IMG_9040

Survival

Survival

After the NCF annual meet I returned to Valparai. It was the 31st of July and I was to leave for Bangalore that evening. I got a call saying that one of the herds that we have been following is out in the open and a female had given birth that morning!

Elephant herd in a tea estate

Anand (assistant) and I rushed to the see the herd, but by then, they had moved off with the new born into the coffee plantation, which is much denser in vegetation. So, we climbed a hillock to get a view of the elephants. My hands began to tremble with excitement when I saw the little calf emerge for the first time, partially hidden safely, from under the belly of its mother. Its pink eyes looked BIG compared to its body and its tiny trunk was wriggling around. The mother was a young elephant and an older one stayed by her side the entire time.

First glimpse of the new born

When the wind changed direction, the older female caught our scent. She showed her irritation by uprooting a plant and throwing some mud over herself. Then they slowly moved deeper into the coffee plantation. Since we did not want to disturb them, we did not follow them and returned to the office. I headed back to Bangalore that evening.

 Elephants relaxing in a swamp adjacent to a tea plantation

I was at the SCCS in Bangalore when I got a call that startled me. I heard that when this herd had gone to the river, the newborn had slipped and had been washed away by the strong current.

 

The fragmented landscape

To my relief, a few hours later, I heard that a few plantation workers who had seen this happen, jumped in to the river and helped it to safety on land. The Forest Department and media persons contacted us for advice on how to best handle the situation–whether to just look after it or to release it with the herd? We suggested to keep as few people as possible with the calf (to reduce trauma because of human presence & to reduce the possibility of the herd rejecting the calf due to human smell on it) to start with.

After consulting with other biologists at SCCS, we suggested the calf be fed with a mix of baby gripe water, electral & mineral water but only if it would not take long for it to be reunited with it’s family. Importantly, fresh elephant dung rubbed over the calf to mask the smell of humans. Later in the evening the calf was taken to the place where the herd was and left at some distance from the herd.

Apparently, a little later, amidst a lot of trumpeting by the herd, the mother stepped forward, went to the calf, smelt it and immediately let the calf suckle! From what I heard it seemed like the elephants were celebrating! It was really nice that the forest department and the locals took so much interest and care in wanting to rescue and re-unite the new born calf with its family.

I returned to Valparai a couple of days later and started following the herd that had split into two hoping to get a glimpse of the new born. Early next morning, the anti-poaching watchers called to inform me that there was a herd of elephants in the tea fields and they were behaving in a strange manner, looking disturbed and aggressive. We requested the tea workers who were working close by to move elsewhere and not to get too close to the elephants since they seemed already stressed by something.

Elephants stressed and huddled together with the calf on the ground

By the time I reached the site, there were only a few elephants around. A few tea bushes had been pulled out and the five elephants seemed tense. The watchers said they had heard the call of an elephant calf a little earlier. With some effort, to our horror, we saw a calf and realized that it was the same calf which had fallen into the river, now lying down motionless. The old female was trying hard for about two hours to get the calf up on its feet. Many times, the large female would walk some 100 m away, then turn around and rush back towards the calf trumpeting. Clearly, she did not want to abandon it or us to get any closer to the calf. Finally, even she gave up and started moving away. They may have moved away due to our presence as well, although we were about a 100 m away. We will never know.

 

The adult stands guard unwilling to leave the calf (on ground) behind.

Finally after all the elephants had left the place, we approached the calf. It was raining heavily and the track leading to it was very slippery. We found the calf lying at the edge of the tea bushes covered in a thick layer of slush. It seemed to be gasping for air, and its breath was sounding labored. Things did not look good.

First look of the calf

I called Divya and Sridhar (NCF colleagues) to inform them about what we had just found. The Forest Range Officer instructed his team to assist us with everything we needed as there was no resident veterinarian in Valparai. Once Divya and Sridhar arrived, we tried to administer some basic medication to help the calf gain some energy by consulting our veterinarian friends over the phone.

Medication being administered

Its body temperature was very low and we had a hard time in administering the medications. We were then required to find a shelter where we could bring up the body temperature and then help the calf as much as possible. The Bombay Burma Trading Company General Manager Mr Suresh Menon and the Manager Mr Tarun helped us in moving the calf to a near-by bus stop, a make-shift dispensary, with power, hot water, doctors and other arrangements required to nurse the calf.

After a few hours of heating up the place, feeding it little by little a mix of things as advised by the vets, holding it up to be able to breath more easily, it looked a lot more comfortable than the time when we had found it. Our hopes of its survival were raised. The forest department staff and the local people worked very hard to ensure that the calf would survive.

But by the evening, the news had got around and lots of people began to gather, both out of curiosity and concern. Crowd management was becoming tough. However, the calf also seemed to have regained some of its strength. And it was time for the next step – release.

Scouting elephants to re-unite the calf

In the mean while, our assistants had kept track of the natal herd, which, by evening had started to move towards the larger patch of forest near by. There was little time to re-unite the calf with its family. After dark, the calf was taken to the herd in a canter and set down on a path that the elephants were headed towards. Everyone left the area so as to not disrupt the movement of the elephants. We left hoping for a miracle, and hoping to see the calf reunited with his mother and herd the next morning.

 

However, it was not to be. The calf was found dead in the same spot.

 

Despite our best intentions and efforts, the calf had not pulled through. It was just 10 days old. The forest department staff were very disheartened. They had developed a special liking to this calf. They were not fully convinced of the need to try to reunite it with the herd. They felt that sending in into captivity might have probably saved his life.

We felt that the herd probably knew that the calf would not make it. They stood with the calf for as long as they could and their grief at abandoning it had been evident. We had thought that we could save it. But we were far from being able to ….. we just did not know enough – about its condition or even the basic technique of how to handle a situation like this.

We were also in a dilemma as to whether we should intervene in this play of nature or not? Do we know enough to do it – both in terms of technical expertise as well as nature? Had the mother been too young? Was the calf therefore quite weak and no so healthy? Had the earlier drowning caused some other internal damage? Aren’t deaths such as these, as long as not directly mediated by us humans (electrocution, poisoning, etc.), a natural process?

From an ethical angle, since it seemed like a natural death to us, it seemed acceptable. We felt quite strongly that a ‘graceful‘ death in the wild is better than a ‘disgraceful‘ life in a camp. Is it always only about survival? Is it not about how the life is lived? Would we even be aware of the on-goings in herds that are mostly in the forests? How many calves are born and how many even make it to adulthood? Would the elephants have managed to pull him up had the place been somewhere else where there were no people? Should we not restrain ourselves and not intervene in most cases when we find young ones abandoned or dying? Unless, we are sure that the life we are going to give it after ‘rescue’ is better than death itself. I am certain we could have addressed the situation better if there was a specialist veterinarian based out of Valparai.

But one main thing was that everyone wanted to save the calf. No one had anger or irritation against these elephants, despite the damages they sometimes do. The people are really tolerant here and we need to foster it.

Fungus among us: New booklet on fungi in the Anamalai hills

Fungus among us: New booklet on fungi in the Anamalai hills

The rainforest of the Anamalai hills in the Western Ghats provide ideal conditions for the occurrence of a wide diversity of remarkable fungi. Over the last few years, we have tried to document with photographs many of these fungi, trying to identify the species and learn more about their ecology. Over 27,000 species of fungi are known from India, and the Western Ghats is home to hundreds of species, with many more undoubtedly awaiting discovery. In an effort to stimulate interest in the fascinating fungi of the Anamalai hills, we have pulled together photographs and information into a new, beautifully-designed, and richly illustrated 56-page booklet:

Fungus Among Us: An Exploration of Fungi in the Anamalai Hills
by Ranjini Murali, P. Jeganathan, T. R. Shankar Raman, & Divya Mudappa
Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore (2012).

Download from here: PDF (3 MB)

This booklet presents a brief introduction to the rich diversity of fungi in the Anamalai hills, which we hope will encourage naturalists to observe this fascinating group in the field. Introductory sections outline fungal anatomy, reproduction and dispersal, and interesting facts and present a brief guide to field identification. The text of this publication is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0. Copyright for images remain with the respective photographers.

The fungi are grouped according to their macroscopic features as: cap and stem fungi, jelly fungi, coral and club fungi, shelf and bracket fungi, and other fungi. It was the observation of one such fungus, a purple-coloured clavaroid fungus (see the top-left photo on the right-side page in the spread below) that piqued our curiosity further and stimulated us to work towards bringing out this booklet.

The booklet took us nearly two years to put together. Here are a couple of other gorgeous page spreads from the booklet…

 

The fungi are identified only to Genus level, with photographs and brief accounts presented of 38 genera of fungi. A number of people helped in identification of the fungi (see below). The authors accept the responsibility for any errors that remain and would appreciate comments, corrections, and suggestions. Please send these to: divya@ncf-india.org.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Kalyan Varma and Pavithra Sankaran for helping design this book and for their valuable suggestions. The booklet was published with support from the M. M. Muthiah Research Foundation, Chennai, and the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. We are extremely grateful to Dr. N. Parthasarathy, Dr. Vadivelu Kumaresan, Dr. Gunasekaran Senthil Arasu, Dr. James Lindsey, Ms. Tanya Balcar, Mr. Robert Stewart, and the members of the mushroom expert forum for help with identification of the various genera. We would especially like to thank Dr. Tom May from Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne for taking the time and trouble to give us detailed comments that helped improve this booklet. We thank Atul Joshi for bringing the bioluminescent fungi to our attention. We also thank all the photographers for their generous contributions (photo credits on page 56).

The booklet was printed at TrailBlazer Printers and Publishers, Bangalore on Natural Evolution paper.

 

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.

Through the window

The tea estates lie quiet, now. Through the window, he sees the tea bushes stretching away in precise rows, beyond the clustered houses of the town of Valparai, his home for the last twelve years here in southern India. Later, the drone and whine of the motorized pruning shears on the hill across the Naduar will kill the silence and the sounds of the hills. With visor and machine, the workers will swing shoulder and hip, arms tensed, grasping the handle, scything and slicing the green, leafy bushes to a prickly, wounded, brown fuzz. Smarting and stark, the shorn hills.

There is tension in departure. There must be. Bags packed, his and hers, water bottles filled, his and hers, a last glance around the home they leave behind for ten days, laces, sandal straps, pulled tight, the keys snapped onto the key hook in the backpack, they are ready to leave. They must leave the hills for the city—it is from the airport there that they will depart for Borneo. The cat stands above the steps of their home watching them leave, in inscrutable concern. Black-masked and calico, bushy tail flicking from one side to another.

* * *

The song of the koel in the swelter of the city. The cuckoo’s poignant refrain is heard through summer and monsoon in Chennai city. They have arrived to take their next flight, but must spend the day here. The heat rises, invisible, palpable, inescapable, from tarmac and pavement, from the concrete walkway in the front yard. The city throbs and growls with the stream of motor vehicles. Voices sound from the houses marking the stream of private lives. This is his home, too. The house was built the year he was born. He lived here for the first fifteen years of his life, before he was led to other places for his studies and his travels—to become, to be, an ecologist. Sitting on the porch, he looks to where the tree stood: the mango tree, now long dead, where the purple-rumped sunbirds built their nests, their downy, pendant homes. He does not hear, now, the lively gossip and chatter of the babblers, but the new, raucous conversation of treepies can be heard from the trees around. Trees younger than him, but taller three times, five times over.

The airports have no songs, only the monotony of announcements. There is the utter silence of a thousand noises—a dulling, meaningless cacophony that is always heard and never listened to. The voices of monotony punctuate the silence referring to destinations—flights delayed, arriving, boarding. Destinations: this is the last and final call, say the voices.

Inelegant but powerful, the bird flies though the air. From darkness to gleaming, ochre sunrise, from black to grey to stunning blue and white. Filled with lives, yet lifeless, the bird flies higher and faster. Another airport: Kuala Lumpur. One has to take a train to reach the next flight. Another journey: he flies now over unfamiliar forests and familiarly-carved landscapes. Far below the aircraft’s wings, he sees swathes of oil palm plantations in unending rows, sliced sharply by boundaries and roads, punctuated with towns and settlements. He falls asleep as the flight to Kota Kinabalu crosses the South China Sea. The destination arrives. Or one arrives at the destination. In half-sleep, he cannot really tell.

The chirp of the sparrow cannot be heard. Thick glass separates the waking, walking people in the airport causeway from the little tree sparrow flitting among the tyres of the vehicles onto which people load their luggage. One cannot hear, surely, the gentle swish of water, the soft rustle of sedge, against the egret’s foot in the roadside marsh, or the cry of the crow, even—the vehicle that takes them to their hotel is too fast, the glass windows are pulled tight-shut to keep the conditioned air in, and the unconditional tropical air, out.

The hotel is old, they say. It carries a certain history, of a certain people, they say, in the city once-called Jesselton, and now Kota Kinabalu. Colony, conquest, capitulation, civilisation: the pulse and passage of time has left its varied imprints. He sees it in the remnants of an older architecture, in the crowd and clutter now in the markets, in the high-rises and steely cars flashing past, in the very faces of the people passing by. As night falls, and the rain-drenched city in Borneo goes to sleep, another marker of time and place and history stands quiet and dark and silhouetted on the street. A cinnamon tree.

* * *

Dipterocarp forest at Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo

The forest is dark, dark. No starlight or moonlight, not even the twinkle of a single firefly. Leafy clusters in exuberant green are all he can see in the artificial light cast by the fluorescent bulbs—a few metres only, then it is dark. Unbroken blackness, yet not empty. He knows there is a forest beyond—a forest of tall trees, where orangutans sleep in their leafy nests. He knows they are there because he has been here before. In Danum.

She sits by his side, looking out into the darkness, too. A dozen others from the city have joined them on this leg of the journey. Their companions on this trip, they are tourists, photographers, nature enthusiasts. Over dinner, they chat and laugh and talk of what they have come to see. There is anticipation in the air.

Through the black window of night, the sounds of the river reach his ears. The river marks a boundary that a certain kind of person carrying a certain kind of intention has not crossed. On the far side, the old side, he knows, is the primary, equatorial, tropical rainforest: a lowland forest that has never been logged, its worth never converted into so many ringgit or dollar for so many cubic feet of timber. It is a forest of diverse dipterocarp trees. The trees that send their their seed whirring through the air on winged fruits. The trees that are among the tallest in the world’s tropical forests. On the near side, the new side, where he sits—as an ecologist in a research facility built partly with timber and oil money and partly with science funds streaming in from afar—here, on this side of the river, the forest is shredded by logging. The flat gravel roads have opened the forest wide for the logging trucks to come through. Now, by night, he and the others sitting there see the forest as lost in its darkness. He wonders, does the forest see them as blinded in their light?

Road through logged forest, Danum Valley

Earlier in the day: by the road, they are amidst tall grasses. She, one who is older than the others perhaps, looks through the grasses—one steady eye looking, one large ear gently flapping. She twists a few blades of grass with her trunk and curls it to her mouth; she moves her elephant body at elephant pace and steps forward. Ahead, her calf moves into the undergrowth away from the prying human eyes peering from cars. Another yelps further ahead, like a dog almost—is he agitated? Or lonely?

It is late evening, a brief tropical dusk, and he sits high on the tree. He turns to see her where she ushers her child down a tree trunk onto a bridge of leafy branches and into the enveloping folds of another tree. He turns back to see the people spill out of the cars. Their chatter is clear, it carries, and the engines drone on. From the tailpipe, a different smell wafts up, wafts away. They point at the orangutans they think they have found, they gather together, they are absorbed in the handling of objects. Glasses glint like eyes, teeth flash in ephemeral smiles. Unhurried, he blinks his lambent eyes and turns his face away from them.

Orangutan in Sabah, Borneo

The palm civet and bearded pig find themselves in a blaze of light on the road. They only want to escape into the welcoming dark, perhaps. They pause, they look, but find nothing to see in the blazing beams. The vehicles pass, one by one and another and another, and one more. From inside the cars, eyes peer out into the forest where the civet has entered. They pause, they look, but cannot see anything in the depths of darkness. The civet can perhaps see them now, if he turned to look, but then does he really want to?

Under the glare of the fluorescent light, he wonders now why he has come back. Back to this place, to this very table. From his home in distant India, to Danum. To the forest that he cannot yet see. Is it for himself? For a reassurance that whatever he has come to see is still there? Rather like obsessing over a possession—a jewel perhaps, a pearl in a jewel-box that he must open now and then to see that the pearl is still there, still there for him. Is it for her? She, who has travelled long journeys with him, who cannot stay away from such places even if she tried—and why would she? Is it for them? The people from the other world—the world of the big city that has not left them, but is here, too?

The insects trill, they chirp and chitter, they utter sibilant and metallic squeaks. The patter and clack of frogs punctuate the night chorus. The forest is dark—dark, but not silent. He waves his flashlight seeking to find his way back to his room. The eyes of the resting sambar deer throw the light right back at him.

* * *

He turns forty this year, he remembers, in the morning, looking up at the giant dipterocarp tree that is ten times as old as he is and twenty-five times as tall. The air is heavy and humid. His shoulder slouches with backpack, the sweat drips off his face and runs down his neck and chest as he gazes upward. The tree stands straight and tall.

Tree in rainforest

The tree would have been a lanky sapling when the early men came, walked past, carrying with them one of their own. Carrying their bereavement to be entombed in belian, in the ironwood coffin that they will place with care further down the trail. For decades, it would have stood as a tree, weathering storms and sun in the forest, in the company of its cousins. Soon it would have been tall enough for hornbills perched on its high boughs to look across, past the storm-flattened clearing, past the browned waters of the Sungai Segama, into the forest beyond. And the hornbills gracing its high branches would have seen the forest on the other side whittled away only in the last four decades: the four decades of his own life.

Ten thousand square kilometres for a Forest Management Area, but just over four hundred square kilometres for Danum, for protection. The wheels of progress spin under the heavy logging trucks that cart away the forest—the managed forest—log by log by log. The managed forest: when trees become logs, the forest gains an adjective. Sustainable forests, certified forests, reduced impact managed forests: more adjectives. And further still, from stripped land, from the ashes of the burnt remnants, rise the giant plantations of a single species to begin new cycles of production: with the oil from the oil palm, the lubricated wheels of the economy spin smooth and fast. This is not madness, we are told, this is need—there is reason and it is reason, ultimately, that completes the circle. Nothing should go to waste.

Down in the forest, in stultifying, sweltering humidity, on the dark carpet of dry leaf and twig and fungus and seed lying among snaking roots and curled millipedes, in that carpet of multi-hued browns under the many shades of green above, is a small, black lump of animal excrement. It holds pieces of the shiny skins of fruits, the shining splinters of insect elytra, and it is studded with small seeds. A civet or marten has gone this way, very early in the morning. It is a mere scat, something rotting and dead, yet it seems alive. It moves. It heaves and struggles like something rising from paralysis. The scat is mere offal, these are dung beetles that are at work. There are two, he notes, crouched over them like a giant. Two beetles, seemingly standing on their heads, each gathering its piece of dung and rolling it away. They roll it upslope on the trail, over little leaves and twigs, their dull black bodies all earnestness, unfazed by such obstacles.

From a little distance, across the vast gulf that separates him from them, it looks like they are rolling ahead on wheels. The wheels that need to be buried to nourish the earth, feed the young and bring forth a new generation, and plant the entrapped seed of the rainforest tree. It is just a piece of dung. But nothing should go to waste, after all.

* * *

One thousand five hundred termites per square metre in the rainforest, he reads with astonishment in the new book, a scientific and photographic treatise on Danum. More than six hundred species of beetles from just five individual ferns. Mere facts, blandly stated, not to embellish or exaggerate, merely to inform. Just sundry facts about insignificant invertebrates placed before him like a sampler in a chocolate store: here, try this! Do you like it? Would you like some more?

He wonders if he can take more. Not because he does not desire more, but he really doubts if his mind, his irresolute brain, can really take more. He stands before the tree considering the thought. What is the information the tree contains? Its texture: sprouting like a finely-branched brush, or feather, or undersea hydra, sprouting from the surface of the land, spreading, flattening into leaves turned just so, and so, the upper surface shiny and smooth, ribbed with veins, velveted with epiphylls down to its pointed tip, more midrib than leaf at the point, collapsing over and around into the lower surface white and soft with hairs against impressed veins, with pits and, look even closer, even smaller pits, too, like nostrils for the leaf to breathe—a texture so dense, so particular, yet pliable and ephemeral, unlike the bark, ridged and rough, notched and creviced, with the spiders in the crevices, and eggs, fine eggs under a flake of bark that is dripping wet on the outside, but dry, very dry, beneath. And that does not describe it all, hardly does, there is more texture, and then there is colour and smell and sound and above all life—how many of the six hundred beetles are there on the single fern up there? Is the tree just a piece of the forest—an object to look at, measure up, pass—or a historical monument with its place, its purpose, its baggage, its limitless texture, its intricate forms?

Fern in the canopy

He overhears the man with the camera and lenses say to another member of his group that the best camera of the day is one which is beyond his means. It is a video camera so expensive that the professionals can only rent, use, and return it to the big companies. It shoots three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels. Megapixels? Mega, as in big, and pixel, as in small area. Eighteen big small areas? No, megapixel, as in the mathematically precise number of two raised to the power of twenty or one million forty eight thousand, five hundred and seventy six. A screen, a window of observation, of photographic record, parcelled into more than a million little pieces of information. At three hundred frames a second and eighteen of these millions at every instant, the video gathers and records in its cards, in electronic memory, terabytes of information: more information than can be displayed even today on any existing screen at contemporary capabilities.

Information. How much information does the tree contain? What if the video camera, or a whole bevy of such cameras, shot the tree, from every aspect and angle, at three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels, shot it every second of every day of its four-hundred-year life until the terabytes and yottabytes on the cards ran out? Would we have the information, of the tree, on hand? Would it even come close? And then what? Feed all that to the irresolute brain, the mind that seeks more? There seems to be a problem here. The information available seems far more than the best mind-screens of the day can handle, leave alone illuminate and display.

The rain pelts down in heavy droplets and finer drizzles, merging with mists skimming the treetops, the mists seamlessly melting into the overcast, grey sky. The air is humid; under the thin raincoat, he sweats profusely as he walks in a stupor through a world that seems now saturated with moisture. The rain breaks and the clouds quickly part. The bushy-crested hornbill, separate now from the rest of his flock, sits on a high stump, his wings held open and his back turned to the evening sun. In a world saturated, he tries to dry himself a bit.

* * *

Why does coming to Borneo feel like coming home? Even as he knows he will leave in a couple of days, he knows he will come back again. Yet, he is not of this place. He does not know the people, he cannot speak the language. He loves the food but does not know how it is made, where it all comes from, comes together, in that finesse of process and proportion and place that one calls cooking. The sounds are not alien, but unfamiliar, recalling sounds of his place and other journeys: the drone of the cicadas, the metronomic tk-trrt tk-trrt call of the blue-eared barbet that he last saw and heard in the northernmost rainforest back in his country, the patter of rain, the crunch and rustle of his own footsteps on the forest trail. Clearly, this is not the place where he can, like Walter Scott’s man, in returning, claim:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’

No, that doesn’t fit him at all.

Sitting with a bottle of beer, in the evening, he gazes out towards the forest. The forest is a multi-hued green, rising and falling in the irregular waves of tree canopies, clinging with climbers—rising and falling, but poking out of the waves like mushrooms over base litter are giants, their canopy brave against sky, kissing mists, clouds even. The falling sun and the clouded moon soon rob the forest of its texture, its depth, its waves and whispers, until there is only a formless black to the unattuned eye. The giants that rise above the rest include, of course, the smooth-skinned Koompassia excelsa, the menggaris favoured by the rock bees, and the lanky, straight-boled dipterocarps—favoured, unfortunately, he thinks, by the loggers who are called forest managers. Every other tree in the forest, almost, is a dipterocarp. How does the manager see the forest, he wonders? Half as commodity, a third as collateral, the balance mere crap or carcase?

Rock bees on Koompassia excelsa

He knows he will leave the forest soon. The forest will not leave him—it will go along, too. Who says trees cannot travel? The giant trees will reappear in his dreams, by day or night, for trees there must be in his dreams. From miles away, where the sweep of forest becomes the manager’s territory, the lanky dipterocarp will be brought down, laid flat, sliced flat, and shipped with him, without him, to his other place, his other home. He can buy it in his town in the hills of the elephants, make a cot with the timber of Malaysian sal, to place his mattress and sleep on and dream his dreams of the trees.

Logging in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Further afield, still, in time and space, the forest stripped of commodity and collateral will burn and scar. The carcass needs cremation, the cremation ground its scar tissue. And from the ashes of the fires will rise the new Phoenix, the palm that has travelled, too, across the oceans. The oil palm is the new fruit of the land, the one stubborn shade of green that will replace the many subtle greens.

Large-scale monoculture, oil palm cultivation in Sabah, Borneo

The new earth-scars, the roads to carry crop and cropper, will scour the countryside. The shanty towns will spring up in the backdrop of the factories belching smoke, as after a good meal, the fire in their bellies are well-oiled machines producing well-machined oils.

Clearing for oil palm plantation, Sabah

Palm oil. Palm kernel oil. The oil will follow him, too. It flow and glide along, melt and slide inescapably into his everyday life. He will see it in his soap and shampoo, his cake and fries, his chocolate that he will have now and then. Who says, he thinks, that trees cannot travel?

Perhaps that is what he feels, going back, coming back, to his home in the hills of the elephants, where the whistling thrush sings under the monsoon clouds. If going into nature, into Danum, is like coming home, then isn’t going home also only coming to nature, coming to terms with nature? He has read the poet, Gary Snyder, an unlikely American in the same world: “Nature”, the man said, “is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.” He thinks, now, with the bottle of beer in his hand, that he senses something of which the poet wrote. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just the gentle stream of alcohol coursing his veins: he’s just let his guard down too much, tonight. What do poets know anyway?

He’s no poet. He’s an ecologist. At work, off work, he remains preoccupied with ecology. Ecology, from the oikos and logos of the Greeks. Logos, as the scripture, the study, of oikos, the home. With a renewed awareness, he realises that ecology is nothing less, and nothing more, than a deep preoccupation with home. Everything, now, appears to point home. Even the alcohol offers no escape.

It is late. The darkness descends. He must catch some sleep before the morning. Tomorrow, he must return home.

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.