The recent Whitley Fund for Nature Award has brought support and attention to our work in Arunachal Pradesh, for which I have felt grateful, as it will help scale-up our current work. It also came with a fair amount of media attention, celebrating this recognition, which I appreciate.
At the same time, as it often tends to happen with media articles, facts have got mixed up during reporting as the authors of these articles did not first check them with me. I agonized over what to do about it. Madhu Katti advised me to write a blog post about it. I dilly-dallied over this as usual, but finally I thought I should write – because inaccurate reporting misrepresents the work, and inadvertently devalues the partnerships that we have established or seek to establish through our work.
It started with the article in the Hindustan Times that appeared to have used very little information from the Whitley Fund for Nature Press release, some information from the National Geographic website and presumably in journalistic enthusiasm, attributed out of context quotes to me. And then other websites/newspapers seem to have used this article to write more such articles with a few added embellishments/changes here and there. Given the rash of such articles that are out there for the world to read/see, I felt I should set the record straight.
The very first line had me uncomfortable.
‘A young wildlife biologist who converted bird hunters into their saviours in remote forests of Arunachal Pradesh was awarded the 2013 Whitley Award..’
I find this sentence somewhat derogatory and patronizing to the people we work with. I did not single-handedly ‘convert’ them. The change that happened among the Nyishi people living around Pakke Tiger Reserve is something that has happened over a long period, some of them changed due to personal experiences, others maybe due to constant engagement/dialogue with various park authorities/officers and researchers/scientists and others because they were provided incentives. Through our work, we are recognizing, facilitating and strengthening that change. For most of the people who were hunters in the past, the monetary and other incentives were not necessarily the only reasons for the change.
I believe it is insulting to characterize a people just as ‘bird hunters’. These words somehow put down people whom I respect and work with. We view them as equal, if not more important partners in our conservation efforts.
And, flattering though it might be, being described as a young wildlife biologist at 42… ☺
The later sections of the Hindustan Times article went on to mix up our work in Namdapha with the Lisu with the current work/project around Pakke Tiger Reserve with the Nyishi, and again used words that were patronizing.
‘But their killing by locals for meat and habitat loss because of shifting cultivation had threatened their existence deep inside forests.’
This is a creative interpretation of the actual situation. Yes, of course, people do kill hornbills and habitat loss threatens these species, (as it does most wildlife), but it is not necessarily because of shifting cultivation only. Nowhere in the Whitley Press release or other websites that report parts of my work, do we say it is because of shifting cultivation.
The article, perhaps inadvertently, manages to convey that ‘locals’ only are the bad guys. This is a simplistic interpretation of a highly complex and nuanced situation. We are talking about forest-dependent rural communities, often economically marginalized. Shifting cultivation is an age-old practice and is a form of subsistence cultivation in hilly terrain, where there are few alternatives for people dependent on subsistence agriculture. In fact, it is possibly less harmful for biodiversity conservation than logging, conversion of primary forests for tea, other cash crops and plantations! There are other larger drivers of habitat loss, which have little to do with local people. Hunting itself has been a traditional practice and is carried out for a variety of reasons in northeast India. It may not be sustainable anymore, is against the law and several species are targeted for commercial purposes and most species possibly cannot sustain the current hunting and other pressures. However, the issue is complex and cannot be represented in simplistic words that put down the region’s tribes.
‘Many tribals were not aware that Due to their predominantly frugivorous diet, the brightly coloured birds with loud calls have always been considered important agents of seed dispersal in the tropical forest.’
This one had me cringing too. The words “Many tribals were not aware that..” were perhaps copy-pasted on to a completely different sentence perhaps taken from the Nat Geo website, while forgetting to change the letter in ‘Due’ to a small d!
Of course, local people, especially hunters, are aware that hornbills are seed dispersers. People observe, they know. But that is not the point. The knowledge of a species’ ecological function is not enough for hunting to stop, or for these birds to no longer be viewed as a resource. Their connections/relationships with nature are at multiple levels and while hornbills have much folklore/myths associated with them and hunters also marvel at the pair bond of hornbills; they also see it as source of medicine, meat and for other cultural uses. The way the sentence reads is again patronizing as it seems to convey that ‘scientists’ have to come and teach everything to ‘poor tribals’. We learn a lot from people, especially hunters as most have excellent natural history skills and knowledge of the forest.
‘A small and poor tribal group in Namdapha National Park, called Lisu, were hunting the birds and logging for their fuel needs.’
What do I say about this? The Whitley Award is in support of our hornbill conservation work, not for our work in Namdapha with the Lisu at all. Secondly, the Lisu may occasionally hunt hornbills, but they do not particularly target them for specific body parts, unlike some other tribes that use hornbill feathers and casque/beaks. And yes, most forest-dependent communities will need to cut some timber for fuel needs – they have no alternative! But this is not the same as ‘logging’ in the sense with which this word is usually used to mean commercial extraction/harvest of timber for wider markets.
And hornbills actually are one faunal group who are doing well in Namdapha, with high densities of 4 species as shown by the research of Rohit Naniwadekar.
Thirdly, yes, the Lisu are a small community, and yes, many are poor in economic terms, but again the sentence reads in a derogatory way.
‘Datta established a community-based conservation program with them to reduce hunting and save wildlife by first improving the quality their lives. “We started schools; built river embankments to stop erosion and protect agricultural land; and supplied solar panel lamps that power homes and save the enormous expense of kerosene and batteries,” she said.’
This bit is correct, but totally out of context as it is work we carried out for 8 years (2003-2010) on a different issue/problem in Namdapha with the Lisu. The text is taken from the Nat geo website, but the quote attributed to me is in the context of the Whitley award!
The context of the Namdapha work was different; the goal was to reduce hunting of wildlife in general, especially of large mammals, not hornbills per se.
‘Her team also provided fuel-efficient stoves and water-heating devices in an effort to reduce deforestation.’
Yes, we did do this in one Lisu village, but it was not enough to address ‘deforestation’. And again it has nothing to do with the Whitley award and the current work/project.
‘In addition, the tribal community for the first time got access to better health facilities and education.’
Again, we did this till 2010 at a small-scale, but it was not necessarily the only access they had. And it was not enough, given the remoteness of the area and numerous communication and other logistic difficulties in achieving this and lack of a sustainable long-term way of ensuring both funding and delivery of access to health care and education.
‘And now they were working to find market for handicrafts made by the tribals.’
We did try this for a while, but the effort did not work because it was difficult to establish reliable and viable markets for the products and difficulties in ensuring quality and adequate supply from such a remote area.
‘The efforts had resulted in protection of the fragile birds.’
NO! As I said before, this work in Namdapha had nothing to do with the protection of hornbills.
The current work/project that we are working on in terms of hornbill conservation and research (and the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program) is in and around Pakke Tiger Reserve with the Nyishi community and this is the work to be taken forward and scaled up with the recent Whitley award.
The Namdapha – Lisu work (from 2003 to 2011) was not so much only about hornbills, but in general about finding solutions between the people and park management, reducing hunting of wildlife in general, monitoring abundance of key faunal groups and assisting the community in various aspects on health, education, rural energy. NCF Research scholar Rohit Naniwadekar carried out his PhD field research on hornbill ecology in Namdapha from 2008-2011, but our community-based conservation work there did not focus on hornbills. It was a larger issue of park-people conflict and finding solutions to the problems in Namdapha, but that is another story.
Below is the full Whitley media release which I had seen (the link to the official shorter one finally sent out by Whitley Fund for Nature to the media is given above)
India’s north-eastern region is known for its biological and cultural diversity. The region encompasses two global biodiversity hotspots. The region harbours the world’s northernmost tropical rainforests with an estimated 7000-8000 species of flowering plants, over 600 bird and 150 mammal species. Large forest areas still remain, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, in part due to low human population density. Arunachal is home to over 25 tribes and 110 sub-tribes. However, hunting and deforestation threaten the survival of wildlife and their habitats. Most forests are community-owned, yet conservation efforts have largely been Protected Area-centric. Hornbills, a conservation flagship, and seed dispersers in these forests are declining rapidly.
42 year-old conservation scientist, Aparajita Datta leads a programme in the Eastern Himalaya at the Nature Conservation Foundation, an NGO established in 1996 to promote science-based wildlife conservation in India. Focussing on hornbills as a conservation flagship, she is seeking to improve the status of hornbill populations outside Protected Areas by establishing models of community-based conservation, augmenting knowledge of the ecological needs of hornbills and threats to their survival, and creating a wider rural and urban constituency for conservation through an outreach programme that facilitates citizen participation in conservation. She and a team of NCF researchers are engaged in understanding the anthropogenic drivers of wildlife decline, studying plant-animal interactions and long-term monitoring of hornbills and other key faunal groups. She is also actively engaged in advocacy, evaluations and policy issues related to management of tiger reserves, especially in Arunachal Pradesh. Working directly with local people in Arunachal on conservation and protection of wildlife habitats outside designated parks in a partnership with the Forest Department, this project is seeking to consolidate long-term conservation approaches in the larger landscape for hornbills and other wildlife.
Thank you again, everyone, for the interest in reporting our work.
If you are near the NCF office in Mysore, Seetharam Shetty is the man to look out for. He is famous in the area, not by name but by what he has to offer. For one, he serves inexpensive, hygienic, clean and tasty food. Secondly, when this affable fifty-five year old serves food, he offers it with a broad smile that covers almost half his face with a broom shaped moustache. And lastly, the way he communicates with people of all ages and classes with a standard, “Chatni or curd, Sir! ”.
Seetharam was ten when he started helping his father in the family business of providing ‘tiffin’. While learning the ropes of the business from his father, he simultaneously got trained as a mechanic that helped him secure a job at the Jawa factory. Life was steady, with father running a business and Seetharam working at the factory. The income was sufficient to look after the family of five.
And then, one fine day, things changed! The Jawa factory closed down unexpectedly, Seetharam lost his job and at the same time his father stopped working due to his deteriorating health. Life got dependent on the meager savings. Seetharam went from one place to another, “Sir, do you have a job?” All attempts failed! Finally, he retorted to ‘tiffin’, a business his father had mastered.
From then till date, Seetharam has been running the tiffin service and serving food to hundreds on a daily basis. When asked why he addresses everyone as ‘sir’, he replies “Sir, I learned to call everyone ‘sir’, when I was unemployed”.
For Seetharam, age or class is immaterial, what is important is that his customer relishes the food and that provides the bread and butter for his family. A typical day begins at 4.30 a.m. The rice and lentils get onto the fire while his wife, the chef adds the desired ingredients. The mix gets moulded into various forms that Seetharam finally sells out of aluminium tins as Chitra anna, Bhat, Puliogyre, Idlis, Neer dosa and Dal vadas. His stall opens at 8.30 am under the shade of a chatri beneath a raintree. Little boys in their school uniform flock around and Seetharam patiently serves each of them a plate full of his goodies. He stands under the chatri until the tins are empty.
The best dish Seetharam serves is the Neer Dosa, dosas made with a batter with the consistency of water. It differs from the regular Dosa, as it doesn’t include Urad daal and the batter does not need to be fermented after grinding. Attesting the popularity of this recipe, he boasts claiming to sell over 100 neer dosa each day and at times, within a couple of hours. What better way than to start the day with a healthy neer dosa!
Seetharam however thinks otherwise. He believes that what we eat today, even though from his stall, is not really healthy. The best and healthiest food available was that when he was a kid and that too for five or ten paise. “The rice was so pure then! No pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It was pure, organic, ‘fat’ rice, which was fragrant. Now, it is white, ‘polished’ rice grown with pesticides. That old taste is no more!” While talking to me, he gave a spoonful of rice to the child and some curd, then he looked at me and grinned, “with such food, what we don’t know is their future, sir!”
Nothing in nature goes to waste. This was what we documented by setting up a camera-trap at the carcass of a dead gaur. On 23 December 2012, the staff of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department found a dead young adult gaur on the boundary of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and a tea plantation. In the past, the practice would have been to either bury or burn the carcass. This time, however, we were all curious to see what would happen if the carcass was left to nature.
Therefore, with the support of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and the plantation company (Parry Agro Industries Ltd), we set up a Reconyx HC 500 camera-trap to record the process of disintegration of the gaur when left undisturbed in the human-dominated landscape. We set up the camera-trap on 23 December 2012 and let it run till 7 January 2013.
On the first two days, we did not have any captures on the camera-trap and the body of the gaur began to swell and decompose. Then, from the second night onwards, the action began. A time-lapse video, pieced together from 20,345 images taken by the camera-trap over the 15-day period, records how a variety of mammals, birds, and insects consume the remains of the gaur.
This is a stunning illustration of how natural processes of decomposition, scavenging, and disintegration operate when a carcass of an animal like the gaur is left undisturbed, even in a landscape of tea plantations. It goes to show how life and death are interconnected in the dynamics of prey and predator, carcass and scavenger, in the communities in nature, of which we too form a part. In a little over a fortnight, this is all that was left of the carcass.
Incredible, isn’t it, the number of creatures that benefit from even one dead animal? For those of you who have watched the video closely, can you guess (and name as accurately as possible) all the animal species that one can see in this video? Just post your answer in the comments below. If you get the answer right, you will get an exciting gift* from us!
*If there are many contenders for the prize we will draw lots!
The Tsangpo originates in western Tibet from the Tamlung Tso lake and then flows below the almost 8 km tall Namchi Baruah peak along perhaps the deepest gorge in the planet and then meanders around several snow-capped mountains. It then takes an orthogonal turn and enters India as the Siang river in the verdant parts of Upper Siang district close to the Gelling village and tumultuously reaches close to the Yingkiong town, the headquarter of the district.
The river was being celebrated at Yingkiong today, the 8th of December; the Siang river festival. The Adis from nearby villages, the Membas from farther villages and the Mishmis from the farthest villages were here today. A model of each of the houses of the tribes that inhabit the district is built here at the school ground in Yingkiong. The Mishmi-dwelling is the more modest house with bamboo strips for walls and banana trunk fibers for thatch, the Adi-dwelling with wooden sheets for walls and stemless palm leaves (Zallaca secunda) for thatch and the majestic Memba-dwelling with wooden sheets for walls and for roof.
Like the river itself that takes steep turns along its course, I change the course of this article and write about the traditional items of the Adis that are on display, some of which are never otherwise shown to outsiders. My friend from the Bomdo village, Agar, who explains the cultural relevance of all these items tells me that some of these are not shown even to their neighbors unless the items are being sold or bartered. Most of these items were bought from the Tibetans by bartering smoked meat, cane, animal hide and suchlike.
The dangkeng is a vessel reserved for the Aran festival of the Adis. The millet beer filtered using Phrynium leaves is collected in and served from the dangkeng. The dangkeng is supposed to have a spirit and is believed to never leave its owner. From the Bomdo village, Agar tells me an anecdote that a dangkeng that was sold to a person from Simong village, at least 50 km away, actually made its way back to Bomdo!
The Adi bow is called Epey and is made from the lower part of the bamboo that is thicker and the quiver is called Gatbung. The arrow called Pungnir usually has a metal head and is tipped with poison called Yongmo (Aconitum ferrox). In earlier times, Yongmo was sourced by the Adi people in Bomdo village from an area called Eko Dumbing, at least three days walk away from Bomdo. Nowadays, with registered single barrels, 0.22 and air guns, the bow and arrow are seldom used.
Yossa is the Adi sword bought from the Tibetans several decades back. These swords have inscriptions on them and the price of the sword increases with the number of markings. The Yossa was used in wars and also has cultural value. When the Adis die unnatural deaths, the Yossa is used to cut down the shelter built far from the village for the dead body after a day to ward off spirits.
The wealth of an Adi is expressed in the number of mithuns and the number of beads he or she has. These beads were bought by the Adis from the Tibetans but were perhaps of European origin. Beads encapsulate a wealth of stories in them too. Stuart Blackburn documents the myths and stories associated with beads: “in nearly all of these stories beads come from either the spirit world or the natural world, of trees and animals; beads are not given a supernatural or magical explanation, they are not gifted by the gods. Instead, beads are made from bones or from a dog’s heart, while their holes are created by a woodpecker. Curiously, a snake is very often brought into the explanation: it bites the beads, which explains their markings; it spits on them, which is the reason for their colouring; and in one Apatani story, a snake, cut into pieces and boiled in a pot, becomes a heap of expensive beads, which rescues a poor couple from poverty.” According to Blackburn, beads are the “aide-mémoire” which can be used to arrive at the migration routes of the communities.
There are beads that are manufactured from India as well and the Adis have a clear distinction of ‘duplicate’ and ‘original’. Below here are the originals with the duplicates. A clue to distinguish them is that the old ones have several markings on them and are quite discolored. Still for an untrained eye, its almost impossible to tell, even in the Bomdo village, only few can differentiate these.
I was glad to learn so much in a day of the festival; about the rich culture and traditions of the Adis. At the festival, there was to be a rock show and traditional dance later in the evening, but I gave it a miss and instead went back to the Bomdo village to appreciate and learn about their culture some more!
Roy, S. (1997 ) Aspects of Padam Minyong Culture. 3rd edition. Itanagar: Directorate of Research.
Blackburn, S. (2004) Memories of migration: notes on legends and beads in Arunachal Pradesh, India. European Journal of Himalayan Research 25/26: 15-60.
Singh, R. K., Singh, A, Tag, H. & Adi community (2008) Traditional skill among the Adi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge 7: 27-36.
By Aparajita Datta
Last week, we saw how hornbills are important for seed dispersion in forests. Their nesting habits are linked to how they disperse seeds. So here’s some more information on how these interesting birds nest. Hornbills make their nests in tree hollows. They look for hollows that are large enough for the mother hornbill and her chicks to stay inside in till they are big enough to fly. They cannot make a hole themselves, so they choose a tree-hole that is made by woodpeckers, or a natural hole that is formed where a branch breaks off.While being locked up in the nest, the mother hornbill does not need to fly. So she sometimes sheds her wings and tail feathers, and re-grows a new set before it is time to leave the nest again. Sometimes, the mother hornbill only sheds her tail feathers, so that she is able to fly, if anything happens to the father hornbill.
When the mother hornbill is ready to lay her eggs, she goes into the hollow, after a lot of coaxing from the male. Then she locks herself inside by sealing the opening with her droppings. She only leaves a slit through which her mate can feed her.
The mother hornbill usually lays two eggs, although in the case of most of the large hornbills, only one chick survives. When the chicks hatch, it is possible to hear them calling from inside.
The father hornbill has to work very hard. If he does not supply enough food to his family, then the mother breaks out of the nest. However, on her own, she is not able to take care of her chicks, which often die if something happens to the father.The father hornbill can carry lots of fruit in his throat pouch. Once, when I was watching a Wreathed Hornbill nest in Pakke Tiger Reserve, I saw the father bringing out 200 small fig fruits and pass them on inside. Sometimes, he may bring just a crab or a lizard. The father makes visits throughout the day, once every 1-2 hours. It can get stuffy inside the dark home, so the mother hornbill sits facing the slit with her mouth open, perspiring – the tips of the beaks are visible with a pair of binoculars.
In Arunachal Pradesh, hornbills start nesting in March and the mother and chick come out in July. She is cooped inside for almost 3 – 4 months. She does not like to dirty her nest with droppings, so she aims and shoots the droppings out of the slit Through the slit, she also spits out the seeds of the fruits she eats. Many hundreds of seeds fall on the ground below and become a huge pile. You will find a garden of seedlings below the nest tree, thanks to the hornbill. However, of the thousands of seeds that the hornbills throw out, only some grow into seedlings and even fewer into trees.
When the chicks are big enough, the mother hornbill breaks the seal and comes out first. The chick usually comes out a few days later. In some species, like the Great Hornbill, the mother hornbill comes out much earlier and helps the male feed the chick.
I have watched many nests over the years and it is always a joy to see the young bird come out of its safe home, perching hesitantly and looking out to see its big forest home for the first time.
[This article was first published in the Hindu In School.]
In April this year, The Hindu launched an exclusive schools edition. NCF has a weekly column each Wednesday in this paper, on wildlife, nature, conservation and other things directly or indirectly related to these.
Twice a week on this blog, we’ll post the pieces that have appeared in the column.
Hornbills are unique birds: they get their name from the horn-like projection called a casque on their beaks (though not all species have them). They are larger than other forest birds. Hornbills have no feathers below their wings, and the air rushing through makes a whooshing sound that can be heard from very far away.
When it’s time to breed, they look for hollows on tall trees and the mother hornbill goes in and locks herself up inside, sealing it with her droppings, leaving a slit for food to be passed through. The father hornbill has to feed her and the chicks through the long breeding season.
Hornbills are flashy with strange beaks, bright skin around their eyes, long eyelashes and most have a brilliantly colored pouch of loose skin at their throat. In this, they carry lots of fruit, which is their favorite food.
Do you like figs? Hornbills love them. When a fig tree in the forest is in fruit, you are sure to find hornbills gorging noisily on them. They also eat many other kinds of fruits. But their diet is not complete without beetles, lizards, crabs and even the occasional rat.
Hornbills are very picky; they eat only the ripest fruits. They test the softness of the fruit with their beaks before deciding to eat it.
Hornbills swallow fruits whole. Most fruits they eat have large seeds. The fleshy part is removed in the hornbill’s stomach and digested. The cleaned seeds travel up from the stomach, come out in the mouth and are spat out.
Freshly dropped seeds have a pinkish colour. I discovered this one day, when I was following a Great hornbill in Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. The Great hornbill after feeding on the black fruits of a laurel, flew to a fig tree and perched for some time. I saw it spitting out seeds. After it flew off, I searched under the canopy. There were many seeds; I touched one. It was warm, clean and pink!
The colour maybe due to acids produced in the hornbill’s stomach when the fruit is being processed. Most seeds come out from the mouth; only the tiny seeds of figs are passed out in its droppings. If you go roaming in a forest with hornbills, look under trees where hornbills have perched, or under their nest and roost trees.
Hornbills fly long distances looking for fruits. The seeds are spat out several hours later somewhere else. As they spit out countless seeds, some seeds find a place to grow and become new trees. That’s why many trees in tropical forests produce juicy coloured fruits: so that hornbills can ‘ plant’ the seeds elsewhere in the forest. Hornbills like fruits that are black, red or orange in colour.
Hornbills need large, dense forests to survive. Forests that are the hornbills’ habitat are being cut down for timber, mines and to grow crops and vegetables. They are also hunted.
Hornbills symbolise a healthy forest. They are important in keeping the forest alive. If we lose hornbills, many forest trees that depend on them to spread their seeds may eventually disappear from the forest too. A forest will be a lonely place without these intriguing birds.
- In India, we have nine species of hornbills. The commonest of our hornbills, the Indian Grey Hornbill, can even be seen in city parks. Look for it near large fig trees like banyans and peepals.
- The Rufous-necked hornbill and the Narcondam hornbill are considered endangered. The Narcondam hornbill is found only one single island of 6 km2! The Brown hornbill is rare in India; found in parts of north-east India. The Great hornbill, the largest one in India, is threatened locally.
This article originally appeared in the Hindu in School on 4 April 2012.
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.
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.
* * *
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the edge of the foaming sea, behind the spent waves on the beach, shapes materialize in the night. They are ancient shapes that have appeared countless times over millions of years. They slowly pulse towards the shore, their domed shells barely showing at the surface. Under a waning gibbous moon, scaly flippers strike the sand. Wrinkled necks emerge, stretching beaked heads with unblinking eyes to survey the beach. Like time travellers from some primeval epoch, a great wave of sea turtles has arrived on the land.
The sea turtles are all pregnant females. Impelled by the timeless purpose of reproduction, they have returned seeking their ancient tie with land, where they will leave their eggs. Beached like soldiers off a flotilla, the domed and armoured turtles advance upon the shore. They seem to move as a group, yet each is driven by her individual purpose. They crawl up the beach not far from the village of the fishers. They advance to where the high tide will not reach, to find the right spots for their nests.
One sea turtle is ahead, leading, yet not leading, the group.
That she is not the first tonight is still marked clearly on the sand. A row of scythe-like scuff marks leads from and loops back to the sea: a sea turtle had emerged and returned. Perhaps she had found no suitable spot. Perhaps she had decided to return later.
The time is now right and the lead sea turtle trudges ahead. Walking with difficulty on sand, she finds a spot, and begins digging with her flippers. She gives up in a while, moves ahead and digs again. This time the place seems ideal and she locks into old instinctive habit. She digs the jug-shaped nest with her hind flippers, smooths the sides, and lays over a hundred eggs one by one over an hour.
Job done, she pats down the nest using her flippers and her hard plastron shell beneath, weighted by her body. She swishes the sand around with her flippers to hide the marks and location of the nest.
Her eyes brim with salty tears. Her reptilian visage is inscrutable. It is time to head back.
Normally, she would turn instinctively to the brighter horizon over the ocean, but now there are lights inland, and the land horizon is beguilingly bright, too. She pauses in an inner turmoil.
Finally she turns, disturbed and befuddled, heading towards town and village, dogs and roads—towards almost certain death.
Fortunately for her, some help is at hand tonight. Kind arms of volunteers coax her, guide her with friendly lights, even heave her forty kilogram bulk, to turn the turtle around. She is brought to the edge of the surf, where she steps and effortlessly melts away into the waters, heading east. Heading into the ocean, where dawn will soon break the darkness of night.
After seven weeks, from the nests that have escaped poachers and sand mining and beach erosion, little sea turtles emerge by night into their new world. Along with other early terrors of survival—dogs and nets and litter and kites and poachers—the baby turtles, too, face the serious quandary of light.
Millions of years of evolution have honed and refined their perception of the kind and quality of light over the sea that will lead them back to it. But the light that would guide them is now masked by the glow and shimmer of lights from land. Further up the shore, the lights of the village-become-town and the town-become-city shine and beam. The horizon has a dull artificial glow. The clouds over the land of the people gleam in reflected light.
The faces of the turtle hatchlings are inches above the beach sand. There are sand dunes around and the moon is behind clouds. They are specks on the ground under the great envelope of sky, now blurred by unfamiliar lights. They are all at sea on land. On their very first steps on the surface, the hatchlings face a higher risk than their mothers of turning to the wrong horizon. A turning that is usually fatal.
Lights that show the way for one species, disorienting another. Now, the sea turtle—that great and ancient navigator of the oceans and its currents—is thwarted by the new current that runs at the flip of a switch to light up the horizon.
How difficult is it to give sea turtle mothers and their babies a better chance to live on the ancient shores? Shores where we have obtained only recent privilege to share with them. How difficult is it to dim or obscure the seaward lights for a few weeks during the nesting season? Will individual people living along the coastline oblige to turn down their lights? Or does it need a combined effort as a human society? Together, we could designate lights-out periods, night closures for vehicles on beach roads, and create shades or allow appropriate natural vegetation along the seaward side of towns and cities to hide our lights. Perhaps such collective purpose can only emerge from each person’s consciousness of the problem and motivation towards its solution. The annual tide of turtles on the beach offers a parable then for us, for their great en masse nesting phenomenon is still driven by deep and motivated individual purpose.
Further down the beach, sometime later, new shapes arrive from the sea. They are boats returning with the fishers and their catch. The catamarans and skiffs are drawn to higher ground and moored with stout ropes tied to stakes—their stakes are driven into the beach. The nets are hauled and tossed and the fishers walk to their huts. Where their feet strike the moist sand along the edge of the beach, thousands of tiny lights spring up briefly and fade away. These are the lights of tiny one-celled creatures—dinoflagellates—that bring biological luminescence to the seas. They are named Noctiluca scintillans, meaning the night-lights that scintillate. In the night, then, the subtle lights in the footsteps of the fishers flash a different message. On the shores of our planet, the human footprint can be beautiful, too.
My thanks to Rohan Arthur, Divya Karnad, Divya Mudappa, Bivash Pandav, Kartik Shanker, Kalyan Varma, and Phil Hart for inputs and photographs.
An edited and shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 June 2012.
For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The wide, old roads radiating from Coimbatore city, in particular, had long rows of grand tamarind trees on either side. One could see them on the road to Mettupalayam and the hazy blue mountains beyond, on the road to the sacred hill of Marudhamalai, towards the Sathyamangalam hills and Mysore to the north, through the expansive plateau and plains to Salem, and southwards past Pollachi to the ancient hills of the elephants, the Anamalai.
The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, quite unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees seemed only to need a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.
They stood like this until the men came with the axes and saws for the slaughter of the trees. The men brought heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots of the tamarind trees out of the earth. Trees that had stood for centuries were brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.
The tamarind tree is an old and dignified citizen of our city avenues and gardens, our countryside and farms. Its name, derived from the Arabic tamar-ul-Hind or the ‘the date of India’, finds mention in written historical accounts of India going back centuries. There is irony in this, for the tamarind is native to Africa and not a species that grows naturally in India’s forests. Despite being alien to India, the tamarind has not run wild and become an invasive pest, becoming instead what biologists call a naturalised species. Embraced by a deep tolerance and cultural acceptance into Indian cuisine and culture, the tamarind is today a familiar and inseparable part of Indian life and landscape.
Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees seemed to have an abiding presence, like torch-bearers marking a productive countryside, like the enduring blue mountains in the distance. Their wide trunks rose above stout roots that pushed into the soil, like muscled and flexed thighs gripping the earth. Their fissured bark was thick and brown, aged and toughened and weathered, like the wrinkled face of the old woman selling mangoes in the patch of shade below.
Under the dense canopy, thousands of pedestrians and riders of two-wheelers found quick shelter from rain. Or, in scorching summers, a refreshing coolness cast by the tiny leaflets—how many leaflets does a tamarind tree have, a million, ten million? Even the air-conditioners seemed to waft easier and cooler in the metal cocoons of parked cars that escaped roasting in the sun. The trees seemed to abide, they granted benefits, and their beneficence was taken for granted.
Every year, the twigs were weighed down with hundreds of lumpy brown pods, with skins like coarse felt covering pulp, tart and tasty, and disc-like, shining seeds. The fruits were there for the taking. The adept and nimble climbed the branches to knock down the fruit. Their friends darted around to grab the fallen pods, dodging traffic.
On the roads, many tamarind trees had managed to rise above anonymity: each tree, even if not named, was numbered; each individual claimed by negotiation or auction by someone from the village or panchayat for its fruit. Collected, dried, and packed, the fruit of the tamarind trees would eventually find its way into a thousand dishes, enrich the palate of millions, and become inseparably incorporated in people’s cuisine, in their lives, in their very bodies. And no one could stop the children, who needed only a handful of stones to claim their share. The trees brought utility, food, cash, plain fun.
And yet, there is more to the tamarind. Beyond the utility and the benefits of the trees, there is something intangible, amiss, overlooked. It seems to emerge as a touch of beauty—an enlivening green in an increasingly dour landscape. A beauty fragile forever from the prospect of loss just a chain-saw away. It seems to emanate from the trees, too, from the sounds where a few still remain. The soughing of wind through ten million leaflets, in mournful restlessness, carrying the delicate aroma of the tamarind’s modest, finely-marked flowers. The creak of branches and the click of twigs holding the tamarind’s pendant fruit. Or, when the wind abates, a calming susurrus pierced only by the occasional screech of parakeets. And when dusk descends, the tamarind trees darken to the chuckle of mynas, the chatter of shy owlets, and the hoots of somnolent owls, rising with the stars. The trees are silent but full of sounds, and one who hears them may find things worth listening to.
Reading the landscape
Naturalists and ecologists, who spend a fair bit of their time watching the earth and its creatures, sometimes say that you can read a landscape, you can see its wounds and sense a need for healing. On the Mettupalayam road and onto the hills beyond, sure, you cannot miss reading the landscape: somebody has spelt it out in big letters for you. “Vote for ——— Party”, says one sign, painted with a crudely-daubed logo, rather unwittingly symbolic in its background of whitewash. “Faith in God”, says another, pointing to a higher authority. “Enjoy the Serene Villas”, declares a sign for a resort promising a better place, not above, but ahead. A painted board of the Forest Department, placed in front of a patch of forest that has existed for millennia, asserts: “Preservation Plot: This Forest has been Protected as it was for Decades”. And a wit, who has perhaps had a bumpy ride, has painted on: “And so has this road.”
The wounds are there, too. There are the cuts and gouges in the land, festering moistly with garbage and hyacinth. One wishes the waters would not find their way into these old tanks and streams to turn dry dumps of civilisation’s discards into suppurating sores. There are the stumps of surgery: trunks and branches neatly sliced to make way for better things like wires and cables. The rot sets in, hollowing into the stumps, but only to make homes for families of owls or mynas. There are the thorns in the side of the stumps and trees that remain: nails hammered in the hundreds, carrying rusty boards and advertisements and nameplates, or garlands of wilted and dried flowers placed for adornment—of what? Then come the nooses and garrottes—wires and ropes—some hanging loose, some stretched taut, decorated with ribbons or hooks and loops to hang the street-trader’s merchandise, or merely forgotten and cutting into the bark. And there is the wounded heart, cut with deep, desperate strokes, on the blazed bark of one of the trees still standing; a heart pierced by an arrow saying, “Sundari, I love U”.
Fall from grace
Then the old roads were labelled tracks, the tracks became streets, the streets became roads, and the roads became highways. And yet, we are not satisfied, we need super-highways. This idea brooks no questioning, no obstruction. The trees must make way for tarmac. The people who stood in the shade must make way for the cars that proliferate. The vitality of a living countryside must make way for the deathly artificiality of the city, spreading like a virus down the arteries. The living countryside and its other users don’t really matter: they mostly don’t have cars, anyway.
The tamarind trees are now painted with broad waist-bands in white and black, so that they are more visible to the highway motorist who can then avoid them. How effectively we mark something to be more visible and to be more ignored at once!
So, the tamarind trees drift into wayside anonymity, from anonymity to disuse, disuse to neglect. The fruits fall and are crushed under the tyres of vehicles. The road surface is studded with hard, shining seeds driven into hot tar, staring like eyes without eyelids at the sun and sky. Shade and greenery are replaced by heat and grime. The screech of parakeets and chuckle of mynas is replaced by the endless screech of tyres and squeal of brakes. The hoot of owls is deafened by the toot of horns and the soughing of wind by the howling of sirens: the ambulances are now busy day and night. Places where a person could live a full, good life become sites, where one cannot even die a good death.
Now, the tamarind trees are but old fixtures in the landscape, like old people, grandparents and elders, suddenly out of place in a redefined world, suddenly unwanted. And when the old trees fall, the countryside is bereft, like families broken.
Better road sense
It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countryside. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?
Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
Yet, it is not merely that one misses seeing the trees for the road.The tamarind trees—those still alive on the roads around Coimbatore amidst the stumps of those that are gone—seem to stand for something deeper. An awareness that beauty is forever pitted against the peril of loss and tolerance against the spectre of alienation. Only when we cannot bear alienation, will we usher in tolerance. Only when we cannot countenance loss, will we embrace beauty.
An ear-piercing shrill! We stop dead in our tracks and listen. ‘Just a bird’, I mutter and walk on. Silence. Thud! Some commotion in the nearby bamboo patch. ‘Could it be an elephant?’ we wonder. More silence. Another thud follows a shriller cry! We look at each other. We can’t be wrong this time. It must be them. Quickly positioning ourselves on the ground we wait with bated breath. After a few restless minutes, a head with its red mottled face finally emerges out from the thick undergrowth. It looks suspiciously on both sides of the clearing, fixes its eyes on us for a moment and quickly disappears. Soon the entire group marches in front of us and vanish on the other side. Ending a desperate seven day-long search, we finally have our sights on an elusive primate species in this isolated and fragmented forest patch.
I have been studying the behavioural ecology of the stump-tailed macaque Macaca arctoides in the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam for the last three years. The sanctuary is a 21-square kilometre tropical lowland, semi-evergreen rainforest patch close to the foothills of Nagaland, surrounded by tea gardens, agricultural fields and human settlements. This particular study is a sub-set of broader research objectives including the behavioural ecology of other primate species of the sanctuary. I am trying to understand how a community of primates, particularly the three species of macaques — the stump-tailed , pig-tailed macaque Macaca leonina, and rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta — co-exist together in a fragment with diminishing resources.
In the mist-wrapped quilt of darkness, my motorbike feels intrusive at 0400 hrs on the road that leads to the entrance of the park. Setting off from Bheleuguri village, my temporary home, my field assistants and I often negotiate our way between herds of wild elephants to reach the macaques’ sleeping tree before they descend from their roosting site and vanish into the thick undergrowth. It was a frantic seven-day search before we finally sighted them, and we simply couldn’t afford to lose them. On arrival, the sight of cuddling lumps of black bodies on the distant branches of the Ficus tree brings a great sense of relief. I prepare to follow the group from dawn to dusk for next five days unless we lose them, and then switch to observing the other primates of the sanctuary for the rest of the month.
Gigantic Ficus trees, with their sprawling canopies, are the most preferred sleeping trees although they equally prefer trees such as Dipterocarpus macrocarpus, Artocarpus chama and Castonopsis indica. These sleeping sites are distributed throughout their home ranges, including areas where they overlap with a neighbouring troop. The tall trees ensure safety from leopards Panthera pardus and pythons Python molurus—the primary predators of macaques in the sanctuary. Unlike other primates of the sanctuary and those individuals of their group that prefer to sleep on different trees, the entire group of stump-tailed macaques shares a single roosting tree. The majority of sleeping sites and trees are selected repeatedly by the group.
As the first rays of sunlight kiss the canopy high above, the group stirs slowly and is ready to start a new day. They go about their morning rituals with fresh showers of urine and faeces adding pungency to the air, already thickened by the odour of their droppings. With us intruding into their ablutions, it’s no big deal if an unwelcome lump of droppings occasionally land on our heads!
Their interaction in the morning is dominated by allogrooming activities, while the group is still on their sleeping tree. Grooming helps in maintaining social bonds besides facilitating the removal of ectoparasites from one another’s bodies. Being a terrestrial primate, they accumulate heavy loads of ectoparasites while foraging in the undergrowth, especially bamboo thickets. Although occasionally displayed while foraging, much of their allogrooming is almost exclusively confined to mornings and evenings on their sleeping trees.
All of a sudden, a fierce fight breaks out amongst the adults and the group starts moving down the sleeping tree. The fragment of rainforest wakes up once again with shrills shrieks of aggression among the adults. Generally, adult males descend using trunks of trees, while juveniles use numerous lianas for their descent. But today, all of them descend using a single thick liana. A perfect time to enumerate the group! Knowing exactly what to do under these conditions and remembering their field-training, Dilip and Noren, my local assistants, start counting each individual descending the tree and I begin to assign age and sex to each of them. Finally, when all the individuals are on the ground, we match our data. It stands to 133!
This group, to the best of my knowledge, is the largest reported group of stump-tailed macaque anywhere in the world. Looking at their sex ratio, it becomes evident that the recruitment rate of the group is extremely high. The number of juveniles and infants is twice the number of adult females. This means that the females are breeding every year! Moreover, the size of the two troops that the sanctuary harbours has doubled since 1998. This is quite incredible! How do we explain the existence of such a large group? A larger group size perhaps improves their access to resources. Given the finding that higher population densities are found within the sanctuary, the species has probably benefited from the protection it receives in the sanctuary. The lack of space to form a new group could also be a plausible reason why a single group has grown so large.
I plough through rain-fed streams as I follow the group, as they hurriedly cross overhead through the dense canopy. Today’s destination is an area with huge trees of Artocarpus chama. The party splits into three recognisable sub-groups, and each of them position themselves separately in three different trees; a few of them start feeding on fruits fallen to the ground.
Artocarpus chama is an important food resource for the primate species in the sanctuary. Besides them, squirrels, deer and elephants have also been seen to feed on them. Elephants, in fact, help dispersing this species, as one can see numerous saplings emerging out from their dung, away from the parent trees. The convergence of species to resources when found in plenty and switching to a different set of resources during lean periods is one of the many mechanisms by which different species live together even under conditions of limited resources and reduce inter-species competition. A greater overlap in food resources indicates that two species would compete for the same resources when it is in shortage and during this tussle, the out-competed species could eventually disappear. This might be one of the several explanations for the disappearance of many primate species from the fragmented forests of upper Assam, where primates compete with each other for resources that are diminishing rapidly.
After a bounteous early lunch, with cheek pouches stuffed with these juicy offerings of a fruiting tree, the group moves ahead but abruptly turns back, immediately moving in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, a train pierces the quiet woods with an extended shriek. The group has finally hit the dead end of the park, both literally and metaphorically!
The sanctuary is divided into two unequal chunks of forests by a railway track and this is one of its most serious conservation concerns. During my study period, I have seen three capped langurs, two pythons, and several other animals that met their ends on this track. The rate at which these animals are being mowed down is alarming as this will not only impact the dwindling numbers of several solitary species but also have its impact on changing the group composition in social species like primates. The idea of connecting these patches through canopy bridges has been mooted, but not materialised yet. Besides, it is unlikely that it can help terrestrial species like stump-tailed macaques and have, in fact, never been seen doing so in the entire study period.
The group has already moved a considerable distance from its sleeping tree and found a log, laden with mushrooms – an unexpected delicacy. Within moments, the log is disrobed of its fungal ornamentation. A pig-tailed macaque, feeding quietly high above on a Dillenia tree, watches this marauding army for a while, displays its typical puckered face and resumes its feeding bout as if nothing has ever happened!
Stump-tailed macaques generally avoid interactions with other primate species but whenever they do, they seldom indulge in aggressive interactions. Unlike their South American cousins, primates in this part of the world do not form poly-species association — a temporary association between two or more species that usually form to enhance foraging efficiency and predator avoidance, however, such associations never seem to develop in the tropical forests of northeastern India. Although Hollongapar is reported to harbour seven species of primates, the existence of at least one species—the Assamese macaque, and its single population—is, today, doubtful. I have not seen this population since 2005. Has this species become locally extinct in this threatened fragment? If yes, could we attribute its disappearance to inter-specific competition with the other sympatric primate species of the sanctuary?
The group trudges through the opening of a bamboo thicket and we find that a female is actually leading the party today. We wait till all individuals follow her and soon we too join the caravan.
Do stump-tailed macaques have spatial memory of the forest? Researchers are still unable to understand how primates process spatial information mentally to navigate in their natural environment. Nevertheless, if the ranging behaviour of stump-tailed macaques is any indication, they definitely seem to possess some kind of map of the forest in their mind. I am intrigued by the way they find their select sleeping trees and trees laden with ripe fruits in these dense forests where visibility is extremely poor.
It is time to climb up the roost once again before the darkness thickens in the forest. The entire group ascends to the topmost branches and position themselves – grooming, huddling, displacing one from a favourite spot and activities ‘social’ to macaques beyond foraging and feeding unfold. The group unrecognisable beyond the individual silhouettes becomes inaccessible to me. I look at the last individual who still struggles to find a suitable place to rest. Tomorrow, I will come back before they wake up and see how they unfold their secret of life in front of me. For now, I have to make a long winding tour back to my own sleeping site!
The macaques seem to be doing fairly well in Hollongapar, at least for the time being, given their healthy breeding population. But how long this population will survive in the long run is anybody’s guess, as sooner or later the sanctuary will reach its maximum carrying capacity.
In other northeastern states the status of the stump-tailed macaque is still unknown but all over the hills, they are hunted for their meat. In the Garo and Khasi Hills of Meghalaya as well as in the Ngenpui Wildlife Sanctuary and Dampa Tiger Reserve of Mizoram, they often raid jhum fields. In fact, in Nagaland, they were considered a serious pest, as reflected in the writings of McCann in 1933. He observed that these monkeys were troublesome to Naga cultivators and did considerable damage to their crops as did the rhesus macaques in the plains. He further added that the Nagas were somewhat apprehensive of them on account of their aggressive display and ability to attack a lone man or woman. Today, however, the species must be threatened in this state as most Naga tribes are known for their hunting skills.
In the upper Brahmaputra valley, the most endangered primate species are found in reserve forests that are outside the Protected Area (PA) network. Although legally protected to some extent, they have for long been ignored and so have their unique species assemblages. An integrated landscape-level approach leading to conservation planning is urgently needed. But, ultimately, the involvement of local people in this endeavour will determine the success of any possible conservation intervention.
I am heading back to the camp, after a five-day schedule with the stump-tailed macaques. It is getting dark and I am not able to see anything beyond us. Beside me I can see the happy faces of Noren and Dilip da, exhausted but excited, their passion and enthusiasm unmatched, their spirit unparalleled. Much later they reveal that they don’t like anything in life as much as working in these forests, and given a chance, they are ready to leave the luxury and comfort of their homes as well. ‘Bhal lage’, (‘feel good’) – this is their invariable, gentle answer when asked why they want to do this work. Even I feel happy, as those two words seem to echo the passion for conservation that we must evoke to ensure the future of the sanctuary as well as of the last stump-tailed macaques huddling in their roost as evening darkens around them.
An edited version of the article was published in the Sanctuary Asia, www.sanctuaryasia.com in October, 2011