Monday, August 31, 2009

Bomma has a question

11th April 2009

Post field-work, a ride back home with Bomma is by far the most entertaining part of the day. Hours of brain numbing data collection later, this little man still retains incredible energy, spouting anecdotes in rapid succession - like a teapot on steroids, and without breathing between the incessant giggles from his audience. It makes a day’s work completely worth its while. He tells stories of the forest, Veerappan, boss, vets, profs and students and researchers at the field station – long gone but never quite forgotten, elephants, tigers, the weather, rain and fires, the river, food, tribal medicine, sickness, forest rangers and guards. But what really blows a mind away is his ecological insight into the maddening mess of processes that a dry forest is (ask us poor researchers...trying to find patterns, however small our scale be, in all that chaos!). He has advised several of us on experimental design (his own versions of random blocks and basic anova designs). Sample this: I wanted to see what kind of light makes seedlings grow in the forest. To the three basic light treatments I wanted to give my seeds, Bomma suggested a two-way treatment. He wanted me to divide my little nursery enclosure in two, and fill one half with burnt soil, and the other with unburnt soil, and set up light treatments in each half, and compare how seedlings do under each combination of treatments.

“What purpose will that serve Bomma?” I had asked.

“Fire happens so often in the forest medamu, and it will surely affect seed germination. You could see how seedlings grow after a fire...and what kind of light they need after a fire”, he had replied matter-of-factly.

At other times, it would be practical advice about methods in field. My field study involves tagging seedlings and monitoring their growth across seasons. My tags consist of a small square of transparent plastic marked with a unique code in permanent ink. This is tied to seedlings using a thin wire made of clear plastic. After almost a year, the plastic is slowly giving up the fight and succumbing to the sun, heat and rain.

Medamu, thappu pannitengo”, he said – madam, you have made a mistake. “you should have used fine aluminium wire with fine aluminium tags. They would have lasted forever – against the elephants and gaur and cheetal and the weather”

I nodded in agreement. Only, our general state of poverty and abysmal logistics prevented us from implementing the improvements.

But his most recent question took the cake in fine thinking. Mind you, it is a thinking born without any formal education or training. It is purely observational. It comes from being born in the lap of nature, walking her well worn paths, reading the subtle signs she leaves for men to survive in a wild world, eating little of what she has to offer in plenty. It comes from having an unceasing marvel about nature. From treating it as a living entity that grows, wounds, heals, breathes, dies, rots and is born again, uncannily phoenix-like. Be it the grey, leaflessness of trees in December or the fiery red tongues of rogue fires that sweep effortlessly across the crisp lifelessness of dry grass. Come April and a stray spell of rain would nudge every sleeping bud back to leaf, and every black spot of charred earth becomes miraculously coated with a powdery carpet of new grass. Easy to get carried away by the majesty of life here! And imagine being one with this spectacular being. I do believe that every tribal who has walked his share of forest paths is a first rate ecologist!

Lets see if we can answer Bomma’s question. Ever. He wanted to know a very simple thing. Why when all the magnificent teaks and Terminalias and Anogeissus’ and Lagerstroemias produced so many many many seeds every year, close to a few thousands per tree, don’t we have many many many seedlings every year? And if there were, then why doesn’t the forest grow thick and impenetrable? And why so many new trees come from old roots and not seeds? I envy Bomma. He thinks more than I do. And comes up with better questions!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the subject of mushrooms

During my initial field days at Mudumalai I thought the trackers (field assistants) had a fetish for only one thing...honey. Recently I've discovered their partiality for another delicacy...mushrooms.

As we're driving along nowadays, mostly in the moister parts of the sanctuary, there's this sudden frenzy in the vehicle..."Mani, STOP!" What? What? Total confusion as the vehicle screeches to a halt and all the trackers jump out of the vehicle running towards a common destination. "What is it?" I ask, excitedly. After a brief survey of their activities, Mani turns around and says, "Mushrooms, madam", with a bored expression. That wasn't the first time. Since the last two months the trackers have often disappeared after field work to gather mushrooms that they'd seen on the way to the site. "One two minutes, madam", Bomma would inform me and scuttle off to collect his share. I can't help but feel amused. :)

Of course, not all mushrooms can be eaten. The trackers usually collect a huge white one. There are so many different types that are sprouting pretty much everywhere now, wherever it's moist enough. I remember Rutuja showing me photos of a few that she had come across when she was banding trees at Benne plot. There is one that Bomma has shown me twice so far. It's small but, as Bomma points out after excavating one, it will grow only on the roots of a particular short grass species. Now that's interesting. I wonder how many different types there are in all and if they all have particular associations?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Two days of events..some happy, some sad

(All photos have been taken by Halan, Mudumalai Wildlife Ranger)

Thusrday, 13th August 2009, 5:30 pm:
We'd received a call from Halan sir (Mudumalai wildlife ranger) that a captured tusker was going to be released at the elephant camp. We rushed to witness the event.
When we reached there we found a semi-sized truck strapped with bamboo forming a sort of a cage. It was hard to see if there was an elephant in it. Bomman had taken up his post already and informed us of all he knew. "It was found at the bus stand in Coonoor" ,he said. Now that's an unlikely place to find an elephant, I thought. Later we were informed by Dr. K that he was found in a bungalow estate in Coonoor. I have no idea how they manage to catch him, but there he was, the 4 year old; must've been frightened out of his wits!
The next hour passed by in trying to noose him and turn him around so that he could safely walk out of the truck. He came out with a flourish! Sprightly fellow. He calmed down once the kumki eles were around him.
We walked up to Halan Sir. "Sir, what's going to happen now?", we asked. "Oh, we'll release him here into our forest", he said with a smile. "But he'll be alone!" I exclaimed. Halan Sir reassured us that he's old enough to fend for himself. Dr.K also confirmed that, and added that it's better to have him in the wild than at the elephant camp. But it was too late into the evening, so the release was going to happen tomorrow morning.

Friday, 14th August, 2009, 7:00 am (I think):
Little tusker was escorted to the forest early the next morning. Bomman aane was always there to reassure him. He'd become so attached to Bomman aane that he wouldn't leave his side, and had to be chased away when the forest officials released him.
Same day, 9:00 am:
We met Dr. K and his troop along Ponnangiri road. They were looking for the tusker, but didn't find him.
Till then we had a lot of sightings along the road - two sambaar (crossing the road), one striped necked mongoose (crossing the road), one malabar giant squirrel (not crossing the road, but up on a tree in a perfect pose for a photo which I missed), and, a peacock display. I hope you can view this video...

While working we'd also received news of a very tragic kind..a French lady had passed away, apparently "attacked" by an elephant. Here's a news article. Out of the many versions I've heard so far I'm inclined to believe this one.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

why learn tamil?

The earliest reasons why I badly wished I knew tamil was when trackers crack jokes. They always have something to giggle about, and I envy them being so jolly.

Somehow in the last month, my tamil wish to learn has flared up: like punctuated equilibrium. Perhaps due to Dumba's entry in the team. And I always have lot of things to ask and speak about.

My ears are always listening now. And I could understand what Chinbomma was telling Selva on our way back from Dewala. Half of it was in English, still I happy myself to figure out the rest half.

Poly Mara has joined our banding team lately. We make steel bands for trees in three sizes. Small, medium and large. And so are the springs that are attached to them. Now Mara was to attach apt springs to the bands. And here Chinbomma was telling, Mara asked him which spring to attach: "quarter, half or full?", and not small, medium or large :) :).........hahaha.

By the way, trackers got salary the day before, the 10th of the month. (paapa dumba can't take leave ;) though, that's good for him too; but though I have come here, he was to accompany manvalan sir to buy bamboos in mysore ?!!? repairy was planned next year, na?)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A proof of the fact that elephants are actually invisible

Hmmm... a blog about Mudumalai and no elephant stories yet....thought I'll start a chain reaction

Sometime in Feb 2009

So eight plots of enumeration later Chin Boms, Mohan and I ambled idly towards 50 point where our pick up awaited us. I was tired and was wondering if I would be able to outrun an elephant in the unlikely event of being chased by one right here, right now. Suddenly near 44th hectare, Chin Boms spotted a brown mass writhing on the forest floor. He immediately pinned it to the ground, and we all collectively discovered that it was actually a bat (of unknown taxonomy, none of us being bat taxonomists). He was in the process of showing me its torn wing when we heard the first rustle of dry leaves. No one paid any attention to it, so I thought it was still safe when a second rustle sent chilled little shocks up my spine. Coinciding exactly with the chilly-spines was Chin Boms’scream of ‘AAAAAAAAAAANAAAEEEEE’ (non tamilians read as ‘EEELLLEEEEEPHAAAAAANNNT’). If life were a movie, then this is the exact spot where everything suddenly shifts to slow motion. Faces are frozen in horror. Legs trudge unsteadily over uneven ground. The earth shakes and sky turns a deep grey of the exceptionally – morose variety. The heroine (often in high heels) trips and falls with a terrifying scream apparating somewhere between her lips and the nearest pair of ears. All eyes pop in the general direction leading out of their sockets, nerves stick out at temples and necks and blood rushes into faces, making them red and blotchy. And doom catches up at an excruciatingly slow but steady pace.
Thankfully, life is not a movie, and heroines cannot wear high heels into the forest. So I just blindly ran after Chin Boms without a second look behind my back. He of course, stopped after 20m or so, to determine the progress of the elephants. So I stopped too.
“Run madam...keep running”, he shouted. So I ran when he ran, and stopped when he stopped. He looked at me as if I was by far the most mentally challenged thing he had ever come across.
“I said keep running”, he commanded. So I ran again. All the while I had no idea where the elephants were. We finally reached safety. Chin Bomms of course then went around telling everyone that I had to be either completely blind, or completely mad or both (a near fatal state, and in which case I would have definitely died, and since I am alive and still writing this story, I am definitely not both put together). He kept asking why I was NOT running. I kept saying I was following what HE was doing, I ran when he ran, and stopped when he stopped. Simple.I insisted that I had never seen the elephants coming at us. Chin Bomms insisted that I was facing them when they were moving towards us, and staring dumbly into their faces instead of RUNNING! I insisted that there were no elephants where I was looking. Chin Bomms could not for the world fathom how I could miss a 6 ton monster charging at me. I threw up my hands in exasperation. He did the same. OK, truce.
I have this theory about elephants. Given their size, you should never be able to miss them. But there have been these insane times when we’ve nearly walked into them before realizing they’re there. So basically elephants are invisible. They choose the times and place when to become visible and to be visible to whom (this given the fact that only the trackers can spot them most of the times). They generally disappear as soon as the innocent researcher working on elephants arrives, and immediately show up in places where the poor unsuspecting researcher working on harmless things like vegetation is stranded without man power to defend himself. They have a sixth sense that helps them decide whether you belong to the former or latter category, and they behave accordingly.
Hence proved!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Marvankandy Dam

Thanks Meghana for getting us started on Marvankandy. Its also one of my fav spots around Masinagudi. An evening stroll with friends to the dam is always rewarding..the view of the mountains at sunset, a leapord coming to drink water, playful otters, wild dogs on the prowl, elephants coming in for their evening drink, several water birds...we have even once seen over 10 blue bearded bee-eaters feasting on bees from a hive on the power station (which acc to locals provides just enough power to make a batch of idlis). Though photography is 'strictly' prohibited - these were obtained from outside the dam ;)


what a fun I had today...we were sitting in the Dewala coffee estate today, making bands for trees. almost getting there. it was afternoon. overcasted as usual and then, one cricket just started screaching, sitting on a tree just in front of us....few moments passed and I saw Dumba sending a pebble the tree, then the next , and then another...but hardly anything could reach the tree, and which was just 10 ft away. (no, this month's salaries were not yet done ;), but still...) ...then another cricket joined in, and dumba had to continue. ..and i was getting amused, how can he get just irritated by that cricket. i was giggling and then even chinbomma joined, and it was hilarious........first he tried pebbles, one or two even reached, without use. and finally he just picked up a fallen branch and hirled..... it went down straight into the valley ....hahahah

Does my car look like a tree?

It was a pleasant afternoon in July. I was sitting with a book and a pair of binoculars in the verandah.....and you guessed right..not much reading was happening. There was not much activity and I was getting drowsy.. Soon I was joined by Tara and we were generally lazing around.We shortly heard this maniacal laughter coming from the direction of the gate. Both of us were immediately up...Hornbills..we ran to the gate ( luckily we remembered to pick up the camera) We had seen a couple of Malabar grey hornbills flying around in the jamoon tree near the gate and we headed in that direction, scanning at tree level for the birds.

And then , in my peripheral vision, I noticed there was something on the car...and this is what we found.

Pic by Tara.and this is at bokkapuram.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Am I dreaming??

I think everyone who is attached with Masinagudi Field station must have visited, at least once, the Marvakandi dam.
So you would immediately agree with me if I say it’s a place hard to forget.

And now it has become a routine for us to visit this lovely place. Just sit and watch the scenery around!! Oh… It’s really an experience and it’s new every time.

Imagine you are sitting somewhere. A beautiful lake is there right in front of you, surrounded by densely forested area... Some spotted deers are wandering here and there on the bank of the lake… They don’t have the slightest idea that somebody is watching them.. On the other side of the bank a peacock is just wandering here and there.. Exactly in front of you lies a huge wall of the Nilgiri mountains trying to stop the clouds…and the clouds like the brat boys manage to escape to play around!!).. Somewhere far away, rain has begun to fall and slowly a rainbow starts emerging.. Ohhhh!!! Isn’t it a lovely scene?

Well !! This is one of the images which is stored in my mind since that day and I would love to preserve this for my entire life.

I know it seems stupid to describe like this as there is nothing uncommon in this moment.. But if you ask anybody who has spent his/her life in crowded metro city then you will definitely understand why I am so much fascinated about this place. The place which shows different color of nature every time, which makes you forget every thought in your mind, which gives you the experience of peace and brings a ray of hope in your life.

I am so grateful to all those people because of whom I could join IISc and have series of unforgettable and memorable experiences!! Thanks to all!! :D

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Birding around Masinagudi

I did not maintain a diary during my Mudumalai days - thats probably because I typed out an email almost every evening documenting my day in field. After this, I did not have anything different to write in a diary. So I blame it on our hi-tech fieldstation that I don't have a field diary from my 2.5 yrs at Mudumalai.

In the last few months, after I put some distance between me and Mudumalai, I have been getting a bit nostalgic etc and started compling those million emails I typed out to compile a field diary. Here are some notes from my fielddays (you can now call this ecological history):

1st April, 2006

It’s been so long since I went out birding and I am quite rusted. Bomma has been taking Harisha out birding, and like me, Harisha's learning bird names in Bommese. "Chitra" for shikra, "Piginy" for Pygmy. In fact, it was Bomma who initiated me into birding too. Before that 1998 visit to Mudumalai, I had not done much birding. Bomma's really good at spotting nests too.

The field station is part of this row of three houses owned by the TNEB (Tamil Nadu Electricity Board). Next to these houses is the Masinagudi FRH (Forest Rest House) and the loghouse - both of which are operated by the Forest Department and accomodate visitors. Behind the FRH is a large stretch of RF (Reserve Forest) which is heavily grazed. The rest of the TNEB township is slowly moving out since the Pykara dam construction is now complete. Masinagudi has shrunk in size in the last 2 years and most of the TNEB houses now lie vacant. Besides the tourism and dung economy, there's nothing much left here now. A lot of wildlife is returning to these areas and the forest area behind the FRH is excellent for birding.

Just trotted around the Masinagudi log house....saw usual dry thorn forest assemblage: sunbirds, mynas, drongoes, coucal, nuthatches, flowerpeckers, doves, white-headed babblers, white-eyes, small minivets, grey tits, red-rumpeds and, tons of blyth's reed warbler...they are in every bush here. Saw three golden orioles together, and a pygmy woodpecker...also heard the first brainfever call for this year. Saw the orange-headed ground thrush at the same location where I see it most of the time (just around the bend, on the road leading to the loghouse). Again, I heard the flycatcher in the lantana bushes, but could not spot it. I am not sure if I am seeing yellow-throated sparrows or some kind of munias. I could not check the chestnut shoulder patch in the fading evening light.

There are over ten flowering buteas around the loghouse...and they are full of mynas, bulbuls and sunbirds. These sunbirds are going nuts and driving everyone else crazy too. They are hollering at the top of their voices from just about every perch that they can find around these flowering buteas. One could spend all day just watching them fight over these territories.
I wandered around a bit, and then sat in front of that water hole (in front of the log house). A solitary pond heron was pecking away in the mud banks...and many mynas were coming in for a dip after their feast at the buteas. Among these were two grey-headed of them had a very white head, while the other was greying. They rolled and fluttered around in the water...and then went to a small fig tree close by and shook themselves vigorously to dry after their bath.

End of a near-perfect day in field.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

already fida on life as it is, and future will surely be rocking

Today on the way back from Benne, me-krishna-dumba-chinbomma-mani visited the ACCORD people today, and you know, Stan, The founder of Accord already knew Krishna and Dumba. He warmly welcomed us all. He was telling that Dumba's mother has been a star leader of their health intiative, and is still is :) (You know, curiously, I wasn't surprised , instead I was only expecting some such thing, for just yesterday, dumba was telling, she stays alone in the forest, and she does the white washing of houses in Masinigudi! And I was like ,"Wow, she must be YO,and even wanted to ask Dumba if I could stay at her Bhospura house on a weekend:)"

Anyway, Rama-Ramdas were very keen about the tribal kids of their school getting involved in this project, knowing the forests- which , I am told, they know less of , than their parent generation, and learning science through small activities. Now at present, I don't know how to teach the scientific methodology, but as the ACCORD's slogan is : Paths are made by walking. And so they are.

When rama-ramdas came to know that our trackers even know the scientific names of trees, they actually invited them to teach the tribal kids. Now Dumba is keen. If trackers are involved, this is very likely to take shape organically. It leaves me keen on this.

I am sure there will be a day when tribal kids become researchers themselves, and not just field assistants.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

It's a boy!

We have a new member to the "aane" family at the Theppakadu elephant camp. He's only 24 days old. When the forest department had rescued him at Coonoor he was around 10 days old. The story goes that he was stuck in a ravine and his mom died while trying to save him. The mahout who's looking after him hasn't given him a name yet; they'll wait for him to turn one. Right now he's in good hands with the mahout and his family and Dr. Kalaivanan (our resident wildlife vet) to look after him. Let's hope for the best for this little one!