Friday, December 15, 2006

Film Review: The Right to Survive

“The Right to Survive”

Turtle Conservation and Fisheries Livelihoods

Directed by Rita Banerji and Shilpi Sharma.

Produced by: International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

This is a long needed film – one that highlights the alienation of local people in the name of conservation. But it is too long and quite difficult to keep track of what battle is being fought where. We had to view the film twice and take extensive notes to figure out what it was about.

The film tells us that there are 3 main turtle nesting areas on the Orissa coast and 3 classes of fishing being used in these areas:

Gahirmatha – motorized and traditional fishermen

Devi – trawlers

Rushikulya – traditional fishermen

Gahirmatha – It was never made clear in the film if the motorized fishermen are fishing illegally in the Core Area of Gahirmatha. This area isn’t just a turtle sanctuary but is also a nursery for fish stocks. And by the film’s own admission over-fishing has seriously depleted fish catch in these areas. So advocating fishing here albeit by traditional fishermen who have minimal impact, is really shooting oneself in the foot – if we want to sustain fisheries in our rivers and seas, we need such Protected Areas where fish and shrimp can replenish themselves. This becomes especially urgent as recent Food and Agriculture Organization reports state that unless we do something about it, by the year 2048 fishing will be an extinct occupation.

Rushikulya – This area seems to function as an example of how conservation and fisheries can work together, like keeping the trawlers from Andhra Pradesh out and local groups rescuing baby turtles. But this situation is not highlighted enough or even identified within the film as an example to the fisheries sector or the Forest Department.

Devi – Here there is no protection, it is subject to intensive trawling, and the trawlers refuse to use the Turtle Excluder Devices (TED). The identified offenders were the day trawlers. The simple, large-meshed trawl guard to keep turtles out of the nets was ingenious but was only shown for a few seconds in passing with no discussion and left the viewer asking for more.

Although the use of these guards could make day trawlers turtle-friendly, the film left its initial accusations hanging: that day trawlers messed up the livelihoods of the traditional fishermen and that fish stocks were rapidly depleting. After making the statement that protection of fish resources will automatically protect turtles it is perplexing that no conclusions are made. When everywhere else in the world TED efficacy is identified as a way of minimizing the impact on turtle mortality while maximizing fish catching potential (with a loss of only 10%), here we have a trawler worker saying he loses 90% of his catch using TED. In the absence of any rebuttal, his words can only be taken as the gospel truth. It is curious that a tried and tested device such as TED is dismissed as causing such significant losses, and the trawl guard which has not been tested is being promoted as a turtle-friendly device!

Several vital points were passed over, especially the protection of the moving turtle congregation and alternate livelihoods for the Gahirmatha fishermen. Turtle conservationists Aarthi and Kartik’s opinion that we still have plenty of time to be creative and change methodologies could be deadly for the unique phenomenon of the Orissa Ridley arribadas. Considering that we know little about sea turtle biology and the fact that the average size of adult females coming ashore to lay eggs is getting smaller, the demise of the arribada could even spell the death of the species. Seeing tens of thousands of turtles come ashore should not make us complacent about their future. On the human side, the rising tide of suicides among the Gahirmatha fishermen further underlines the need for urgent action. Unfortunately the film didn’t stress this urgency.

Who are the main losers if the various ports and oil rigs come up? Do trawlers stand to lose along with turtles and traditional fishermen? The film did not mention the likely fall-out of these developments and who will be impacted. While the unstated purpose of the film is apparently to revoke the Central Empowerment Committee’s strictures on fishing in the turtle nesting sites, the film missed a crucial opportunity to focus the fight against a common enemy – Big Industry. Perhaps this should have been a key argument that might even unite the trawlers, traditional fishermen and turtle conservationists.

The bottomline however, is this: just because industry is a bigger threat to turtles does not absolve the responsibility of the fishing community (be they traditional, motorized or trawlers) to nurture fish stocks for the future by respecting Protected Areas for the vital function they have been established (including sea turtle conservation).

Although well-shot, the visuals have no story within themselves and merely illustrate the narration making it unexciting and pedantic (how many ‘boats on the sea’ shots does it take?). The graphics are good and effective. The editing has little rhythm - paying more attention to the rhythm of the narration rather than the inherent rhythm of the shots. The questions left unanswered, the missed opportunities for pushing arguments, the lack of any definite conclusions makes the film seem unfocussed, vague and results in more confusion than clarity.

“The Right to Survive” could have been a seminal documentation of the problem but unfortunately falls far short of the stated goal “attempts to provide a solution for tomorrow”. This may have been a more effective 30 minute film.

Co-written with Rom Whitaker

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Last Great Indian Unknown



Published as cover story in Outlook Traveller Oct 2006






The bridge washed away in May and no vehicle could cross the boulder-strewn, mischievously gurgling M’pen River. There was no choice but to walk the 18 km to Deban. Once we got there, there would be no guarantee that we could cross the Noa-Dehing River and the Deban Nullah into the Buffer Zone of Namdapha National Park where we hoped to camp for the following week. We'd just have to try our luck.

It was an embarrassingly large entourage for two people to camp in the forest for a few days. There were seven porters, two tour guides, a cook, his assistant and a mass of things to carry that included literally everything but the kitchen sink - stove, gas cylinder, tents (different ones for sleeping, dining, shower and toilet), provisions, toilet seats, etc. I vetoed the blankets, pillows and a folding dinner table. I tried to veto the rasogolla tins but the cook wouldn’t hear of it.

The M'pen River wrapped itself around us, firmly nudging us downriver with the muscular persistence of a large python. It was already mid morning and the forest was quiet – you quickly get used to the steady metallic droning of the cicadas. The only other creatures about were large wood spiders and leeches. There were plenty of the small plain brown leeches but the ones that took my breath away were what I consider to be the world’s prettiest leech – a spectacularly beautiful large velvety brown one with sparkling emerald green stripes. They sat inert on leaves angling for passers by. Once onboard, they worked their way to a patch of bare skin and sucked their fill of blood. Given a choice of bloodsuckers like mosquitoes, ticks, horse flies, I’ll take leeches any day. They do not have parasites or transmit diseases the others are notorious for. They just suffer from a bad PR machine that promotes the larger-than-life prejudice against slimy, wormy limbless creatures.

As the road skirted the boundary of the Park all we could see were Chakma settlements and fields. Namdapha itself was hidden from view by a steep embankment. The commonest plant along the way was a colonizer I was familiar with - eupatorium. A weed that came with ships’ ballast from the West Indies in the late 1880s, it has colonized most of our National Parks and Sanctuaries. It was easy to fantasize being a pioneering explorer in this remote jungle; this weed brought me down to earth. Eight km later, when the road swung into Gibbons Land, we got our first real view of Namdapha National Park. The towering trees occluded the sky, the variety of birds heard but not seen, and the occasional glimpse of a forested mountain were tantalizing. I had learnt not to hope for too much, as the rainforest is very miserly in revealing its secrets. Namdapha is reportedly the only place in India to see the four cats - tiger, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and leopard. But I knew that if I saw even one of them here, I had the good deeds of all my previous births to thank. What I could, however, hope for were butterflies, birds like hornbills and hoolock gibbons, India’s only ape.

At Deban, it was clear that we were never meant to get to Namdapha’s Buffer Zone. Deban Nullah was declared treacherous (too deep and the current too swift), the boatman had been transferred and the captive elephants were loose in the forest until the tourist season began in October. So we were going to have to chuck our carefully considered plans and instead make the best of the Miao-Vijoynagar Road. The guesthouse and its grounds looked like a Government guesthouse franchise – the concrete construction, the marigolds and crotons, the pine trees and the lawns. But on the bright side, it had a comfortable bed with a mosquito net.

MV Road, as it is marked on the map, was actually non-existent. In 1974, the Public Works Department (PWD) set out to build the road but twenty-four years later, they had reached only as far as Deban, a distance of ten km (that’s forty metres a year!). In 1998 the Forest Department decided that enough progress had been made and threw the PWD out. The only route to Vijoynagar is the Lisu path which wove along the southern bank of the Noa-Dehing River. The Lisu are forest people whose settlements, Gandhigram and Vijoynagar, on the other side of Namdapha, hugged the border with Myanmar. Their knowledge of the flora and fauna of this forest is unparalleled. During the open season they worked as porters and forest guides but with the rains all the Lisu, down to the last soul, had migrated back home to emerge only in October.

Although we were so far east, Arunachal Pradesh still patriotically followed Indian Standard Time. This meant that the sun rose at 4 am. At 7.30 am (about 10 am daylight time, long after the dawn chorus of birds and gibbons had ended) we headed for Hawa Camp, a spot five km further up the MV Road.

Lush, waist high vegetation lined the path. With shirts tucked into our pants and leech socks protecting our legs, we were all right. Leech socks look like Christmas stockings, made of woven cotton or canvas that cover the leg below the knee. They are worn over regular socks and inside the shoes. While the fashion-conscious would shudder at its crude cut, it effectively protected your legs from becoming a bloody mess at the end of a forest walk. The leech was to become the undeniable mascot of the trip. Pronounced "leese" by the Assamese, Wancho and Singpho people alike, we halted every ten yards, for de-leeching. It was a futile exercise – the longer you stood still removing leeches, the more the leeches got on.


It was too late in the day to see any animal and I contented myself with horticultural delights. Rocky outcrops covered with ferns, philodendrons dripping from tree trunks, the translucent green of the birds’ nest fern, a spectacularly large black orchid flower, the pink flowers of Impatiens (balsam) and colourful begonias lined the path. It was difficult to take one’s eyes off the slippery path to see the beauty of the forest above. Recent rains had churned the earth into a chocolate sauce consistency that threatened everyone’s ability to remain on two feet. In places the path wound around the sheerest edge of the slope and losing one’s step here could mean a rapid and bone-jarring descent of a km or two. Japang Pansa, a Wancho tribal, who was our guide warned that this was no place to lose one’s balance and fracture bones as it would take two days just to reach anyone at the bottom of the slope. Two captive elephants had tumbled down the slope and died, he said. Ouch!

The sheer size and spread of this forest made my head light; most of the rainforests I knew in South India were finite little oases hemmed in on all sides. Namdapha is one of the two largest protected rainforests in India at 2000 sq km, a whopper compared to that other iconic rainforest of the South, Silent Valley which measures only about 90 sq. km. Namdapha is also contiguous with Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (21,000 sq.km) in Myanmar, the world’s largest tiger reserve making it one of the most extensive rainforests in all of Asia. When we arrived sweaty and breathless at the wayside clearing that is Hawa Camp, I gulped in the rare view of the Noa-Dehing River below and the forested mountain slopes beyond. Japang said aloud what was on my mind, “This is just one day of our lives but for the Lisu, this is their entire life.”

How do the Lisu survive in this remote corner of India, out of reach of medical help? Japang answered matter-of-factly, “If anyone is seriously ill, they just die. Every July-August a lot of them die of malaria.” In clear weather, it would take a healthy Lisu five days to walk from his village, across Namdapha to Miao. To survive in Gandhigram or Vijoynagar means complete reliance on one’s knowledge of medicinal herbs and edible plants with no outside support of any kind. Do the Lisu wear leech socks, I wonder? Japang says, “No, they just brave it; their skin is too thick for leeches to get through.”

On the way down, a raucous, piping birdcall echoed through the forest. Rufous woodpecker. Japang filled me in on the peculiar breeding habits of this bird. It lays its eggs in an ant nest about 2 to 3 m off the ground. Don’t the ants eat the baby birds when they hatch? He said the village elders told him that the chicks smelt like ants so they were left alone.

Although Japang had served in Namdapha for many years and patrolled its paths all year round, he had never seen a tiger here. There was no rancour in his voice when he said that visiting tourists had seen one in November. Such is the way of the forest.

After that ten km trek and nary a hide of any animal, the sight of a troop of Hoolock Gibbons feasting above the Deban guesthouse was welcome. As I watched a hairy arm shoot out of the foliage to grab handfuls of fruit, I noticed something moving around next to it. It was a baby gibbon – a recent addition to the 2500 left in the world – fuzzy and blond. It seemed an odd time to have babies but we were to see more of them throughout the trip. Papa gibbon was disconcerted by our focused interest on his baby although we were 75 metres below. Even at that distance you cannot mistake who the father was; he was black while she was blond.

Japang, pointing to the northern horizon where the clouds obscured the sky, said that on a clear day one could see Daphabum, the snow-capped mountain that presided over Namdapha. No outsider has ever gone there, Japang said. An army expedition ended in failure a couple of years ago and the only people who have been there were the Lisu. They had described Daphabum as a place littered with plane wrecks from the Indo-China War of the early 60s. They scavenged the scraps, and melted them to make woks and other kitchen utensils. A Chinese pilot crash-landed his plane there and the intact cockpit is still used by the Lisu to sleep in when they visit the mountain. I was incredulous. Japang insisted that it could be true, as he had recovered pieces of aircraft from the Namdapha River which originates in Daphabum.

It rained all through the night and into the morning. My plan of going down to Gibbons Land with Japang had to be canceled. I thought if we put on our raincoats we could go but Japang held me back, “The path would have become a river. Wait till it stops.” Instead we watched the Noa Dehing rapidly turn into a roaring muddy river, carrying heavy tree trunks like matchsticks. Japang mentioned that the M’pen River, on the way home, may also be running full with this rain and we might have to camp there for a couple of days until it subsided. As we sat out of the rain watching the river fill up, Japang recalled an incident when he had been on patrol with a party of eleven Forest staff in the Buffer Zone. They had been marooned by a flash flood. They had run out of food quickly and the Chakma fed them for three days until their supplies ended too. “So those of us who knew about such things went into the forest for edible leaves; others went to the river to catch fish. There were so many fish in the river then. We could stand in the water and wait for a large fish to swim by and we’d hit it with a machete or club. We cooked the fish and the forest leaves together and lived on that for a few days. Despite that we became weak and could barely move. In the meantime our families were very worried. They were finally able to get the boatman to rescue us after 12 days.” If the M’pen was flooded we would be stuck in a similar position and I had no illusions about how the team would fare.

Leading this team was a novel experience for me. Until then I had always been part of a team led by an experienced and hard taskmaster – wake up before dawn, instant noodles the only sustenance, and jungle walks late into the night. I had felt inadequate, a novice naturalist and on this trip I felt like a one-eyed jungli leading the blind through the rainforest. I had to make concessions for the rookies on the team who had never been in a forest before. A couple still suffered from aches and pains of the trek to Deban. Our walks would have to be limited to no more than 10 km a day.

Optimistically I made plans to leave for Gibbons Land with Japang at 5.30 the next day. The others would follow after breakfast. The day was bright and clear with the haunting ululating songs of Hoolock gibbons. All worries of swollen rivers receded from my mind. As we walked in blessed silence watching Great Indian Hornbills at fruiting fig trees, I nearly jumped when a loud “aar aar aar” came out of the bushes to my left. A moment later a small yellow and brown weasel-like animal shot up the embankment. Yellow-throated marten. Even before we could react, a young marten ran across the path and dived into the bushes. Japang moved forward to investigate when another marten crying similarly in alarm scrambled up the embankment. They had been feeding on a flying squirrel – just the head, skin and intestines remained. We left them to it and continued on. Japang surmised that the squirrel might have come down to the ground where it may have been killed by the martens. Why would it come down? Because it couldn’t fly, its skin may have become heavy with the rain. Or the martens killed the squirrel up in the trees and it fell down and they followed it. We’ll never know.

Numerous pugmarks of various small mammals were imprinted into the fudge-like mud; if we were better jungle watchers, these could tell us many a tale. But neither Japang nor I were that well-versed and we had to let the jungle hang on to its mysteries until the next time when I promised myself I’d go out with a Lisu. While Japang was invaluable, there was a lot he didn’t know. Without his aid, I’d probably never have seen the yellow-bellied leaf bird, long tailed minivet, dollar bird, great barbet or the racket-tailed drongo. Namdapha is a bird watchers hotspot where names such as purple cochua, green cochua, beautiful nuthatch and Blandford’s rosefinch come alive. The Park encompasses a range of altitudes - all the way from the floodplains of the lowlands to the snows of Daphabum. Such diversity of habitat spawns unique plants and animals, many not even known to science. The vast expanse of forests on the southern and northern banks of Noa-Dehing haven't been explored at all.

While waiting for others to show up at the Forest Department outpost in Gibbons Land, a flock of Brown Hornbills flew from tree to tree. Japang explained that these birds were unique in the hornbill world. Most female hornbills incarcerate themselves in a tree hole for the entire time it takes to incubate eggs and raise their babies. The male hornbill is the sole provider of the family during the female’s confinement. Should the male get killed, it’s curtains for the female and babies. Brown Hornbills, however, live in family groups and therefore the female hornbill has not only her mate but also her sons to provide for her.

Moti Jheel is a pond atop a hill, the only other "sight" to see along the MV Road. Although we had done ten km already, the fair weather wasn't going to last long. The team agreed to do the additional ten km that afternoon. Before we set out, the team bargained with the cook for the last spoonfuls of salt with which to thwart the leeches. The path to Moti Jheel was quite different from MV Road that we had been on so far. The canopy was entirely closed with minor breaks over streams. The forest was dark, leeches thick, and the climb steep. Birds’ nest ferns graced tree branches and there was hardly any undergrowth at all. It seemed like no one had been here in years, but Japang insisted he had come up in March. A wild pig guarding her family grunted in warning. We stood stock still until the pigs moved off into the forest and Japang gave the all clear. About an hour and some later, we unexpectedly arrived at a primeval pond coated with green algae. None of us would have been surprised if a Loch Ness-like monster or a hand holding Excalibur emerged out of the water. This was Moti Jheel. Mythology aside, it was hard to imagine what life forms lived in this pool. Japang looked at the water thoughtfully and wondered aloud if a huge snake could live in there. In reality, it was probably home to nothing more than a few turtles, frogs and assorted insects but then, there could well be a few surprises in store if explored further. The walk downward was slippery and our tired feet slipped and slid with leeches hanging on for dear life.

We spread out along the road intent on getting rid of leeches from our footwear. It was a black day for leeches – they were tortured with salt, sugar, tobacco and DEET. Within minutes those gorgeous green and brown leeches had turned into flaccid, colourless, lifeless bodies lying along the road. That night, one of the leech-paranoid members laid a white trail of salt around his sleeping bag like medieval Europeans hung garlands of garlic to ward off vampires.

It began to rain seriously that night. By morning the campsite was flooded. Japang sounded dire warnings about M’pen in spate. Tawang, a Wancho porter, was dispatched at 6 am. If he didn’t return by 10, he had crossed M’pen and we were to follow. At the appointed hour, already driven stir crazy, I picked up my knapsack and began heading out. Not even ten yards down the road, I met Tawang. Bad news. It looked like we may have to camp here one more night at least. I was worried. If we were marooned here we would not last very long – we were not forest-hardened enough to survive on forest leaves and roots. So far the rainforest had granted me more than I had dared to hope. I fervently wished our luck would hold a bit longer. An hour later the rain abated and we decided to give it a shot. The river had subsided since that morning but it was a lot fuller than the last time we had crossed it. Big smooth boulders underwater were a hazard and many a time we nearly fell into the swift current. Shikari, the Chakma porter, had the big tin trunk with crockery. This was going to be a challenge. But Shikari just tied a rope to the handle of the trunk and floated it across the river looking for all the world like a man walking a big rectangular dog on a leash.

Just after everyone had crossed without mishap, we heard a distant rumbling. I looked questioningly, pat came the answer “the mountain is falling” – a landslide. Soon the clouds closed in over Namdapha and the heavens opened up as we sped towards Dibrugarh blasting Assamese folk songs in our wake. As I gazed at the white clouds receding in the distance I knew I'd be back to explore that last great Indian Unknown.

The gharial on the brink

Published in 'The Hindu' 8th October 2006

Wispy tendrils of mist rose delicately from the water surface, tinged gold by the dawn. Your breath hangs as little clouds of vapour as you gaze upon the Girwa River on a cold winter morning. A trio of hollow clapping sounds from the other side of the river, half a kilometer away tells you that an adult male gharial is advertising his presence. It is the height of the breeding season. The place seems trapped in a time in early history when man was still clad in animal skins. It is only as the sun rose higher and burns the mist off the water that the world comes into focus with appalling clarity. The 5 km stretch of the Girwa River in Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the only three wild breeding sites left in the world for the most unique of all the crocodiles. This gentle crocodile has become the most endangered large animal in India, twenty times more so than the tiger.

For the thirty years of Project Crocodile, initiated and supported by a joint Government of India/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/UNDP programme, the National Chambal Sanctuary was the focus of intense gharial conservation efforts. The only Protected Area spread over three states – Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – the Chambal has over 100 km of river that can be called suitable gharial habitat. So it was natural for conservation attention to be centred here.

Bandits as protectors

Traditionally, the Chambal has been protected by its reputation. The local residents lived under the thumb of the dacoits, and for a long time Chambal’s infamous icon was Phoolan Devi. The ravines afforded effective protection to bandits who successfully evaded any attempt to capture them. Gharial protection could then afford to be minimal only; the dacoits made sure no outsiders trespassed. Dedicated crocodile researchers from the State Forest Departments collected wild nests to be incubated at Kukkrail in UP and at Morena, MP. The resulting hatchlings were reared for three years, protected from predators under a programme hatched by FAO consultant Bob Bustard. When they reached a metre in length, they were released in the wild.

Over 5000 such juveniles were introduced into the Protected Areas of Chambal, Girwa, Son, Ken and Mahanadi rivers. Surveys to monitor how the gharial were faring had to be conducted only during the day. On the Chambal river at least, nights belonged to the bandits, but not for long.

The mafia takes over

When the notorious Chambal bandits started to give themselves up in the 1990s, the inadvertent protection that the National Chambal Sanctuary enjoyed began to unravel. The state police machinery didn’t sweep into the void created by the brigands and soon the Chambal became the hangout of the other anti-social element, the mafia. While the bandits of the earlier era were happy to sponge off the rich landlords and traders, the mafia exploited the natural resources. While one group excavated sand to feed the building boom in cities like Delhi and Agra, another poached freshwater turtles. While the sand-miners destroy basking and nesting sites, the turtlers kill gharial which get accidentally snagged by the thousands of vicious hooks. Fishing is banned in the National Chambal Sanctuary but there is no enforcement. Fishermen chop the snouts or kill gharials deliberately when they became helplessly entangled in their nets. Besides, fishing depletes the prey of the gharial, depressing the habitat’s ability to support larger numbers of the animal.

During the dry summer months, the river runs shallow as water is pumped to irrigate cucumbers and other crops. Barrages, dams, electricity pylons and other developments are driving the final nails in the river’s coffin. The Forest Department, charged with protecting the wildlife and resources of the Protected Area has no protection itself from the armed locals. Any outsider is liable to be kidnapped and held for ransom. Under these circumstances patrolling and protection has naturally been at a bare minimum. The Chambal is going down the drain and the future of gharials, turtles, river dolphins, otters and water birds looks bleak.

The Gharial Multi-Task Force

The first alarm bells rang in 2004, when researchers Dr. R.K. Sharma and Dhruva Basu compiled survey findings of the last ten years which showed a drastic decline in gharial numbers. Surveys conducted in 2006 reveal a worsening decline. At the recent meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, in France, the Gharial Multi-Task Force was set up with a Core Group consisting of all the main gharial researchers in India and Nepal, the only two countries where wild gharial survive. One of the first tasks of the Task Force was to assess the population trend of the gharial. Has it declined sharply enough to justify uplisting in the Red Data Book from Endangered to a Critically Endangered species?

Although the revision hasn’t been effected yet, the initial assessment is startling. The area once occupied by the gharial has shrunk by over 98%, and the numbers have plummeted by 97% in the last sixty years. In the 1940s between 5,000 and 10,000 gharials were found from the Indus river system in Pakistan to the Irrawady in Myanmar, covering 20,000 sq. km. Today about 200 adult animals occupy less than 250 sq. km. When Project Crocodile came into effect, there were an estimated 200 gharials of all sizes left in the world. Thirty years and a massive crocodile conservation exercise later, the gharial numbers are creeping down to their lowest low in the early 1970s. But now the pressures on gharial habitat have multiplied and quality of what remains is deteriorating. The question is can we achieve now what we failed to do then?

If gharials die, so do we

The gharial requires deep, free-flowing rivers unfettered by dams and barrages. The water has to be clean and clear for its fishy prey to breed. Gharial must have undisturbed sand banks to bask and nest. We are also talking here about an intact, protected river habitat, on which our own survival hinges. It’s not for nothing that the wise ancients depicted Ma Ganga astride the gharial.

Six years ago, the world saw through Project Tiger’s hollow claims of success. Today, India’s second largest species conservation programme, Project Crocodile, is in danger of being similarly discredited. What went wrong? The quick answer is that the ‘simple’ part of the job was admirably well done: 12,000 gharial eggs collected, incubated and hatched, over 5000 juveniles released into Protected Areas and sporadic monitoring done. But the ‘hard’ part was ignored: there was little or no effort to get the river people on the side of the gharial and the conservation movement. As a result today, there are 2 gharial left out of over 700 released in the Mahanadi river in Orissa! In the Girwa about 60 of all sizes survive while over 900 were released. The Chambal has fared marginally better with about 78 adults out of the over 3500 gharial released.

Despite years of conservation education we are today facing the worst environmental crisis in history. The only way to reverse this trend is for every citizen to put conservation at the top of the priority list. We need a rejuvenation of political will that will encourage and support conservation efforts of the State Forest Departments and NGOs. And to save the gharial what we need now is a holistic approach to river conservation. The ban on fishing and turtle poaching has to be enforced while at the same time working with local communities for alternate livelihood options. The inter-linking of rivers is predictably the worst thing that could happen to all our riparian wildlife and has to be appraised by hydrologists and biologists before we flush away all our river resources. The gharial, turtles and dolphins are not the only ones dependent on healthy rivers; our own survival depends on it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

HOW TO AVOID BEING BITTEN BY SNAKES

In houses and gardens:

v Learn to identify the local species of snakes and which ones are venomous. You need worry only about avoiding the venomous ones.

v Piles of debris (stacks of bricks, firewood, etc.) and rubble are good hiding places for snakes.

v In areas of known snake activity, keep the surrounding area clear of low bushes, and hedges which are clear at the root base. The idea is to avoid providing cover for the snakes while approaching the house and for you to have a clear range of vision.

v Keep the house and surrounding area free of all rodents (prey) and rodent burrows (shelter).

v Use a torch/flashlight when walking outdoors at night.

v Sleep off the ground on a cot or bed.

v If you see a snake, it is best to let it find its way out of the house by itself. If it is well settled in, use a hockey stick like curved stick to pick up the snake and drop into a tall bucket with lid. The snake can now be moved outdoors.

v Do not try to kill the snake as you can get bitten in the process.

v Encourage ratsnakes to live in the garden as they will eat all other snakes.

v Don’t reach into spots you cannot check for snakes first.

v A dog trained to fear snakes (get their nose bitten by a harmless watersnake when they are puppies) will warn you of the presence of one.

Outdoors:

v Avoid reaching your hands in to stacks of straw, wood, etc.

v While walking at night always use a torch.

v Always wear footwear (of any kind).

v Watch where you step.

There is only one sure cure for venomous snakebite: antivenom serum. Most snake bites are not dangerous, only 10 to 15% of venomous bites prove serious enough to be potentially fatal. Check if the local hospital stocks anti-venom serum ahead of time. In case of a bite, go to the hospital immediately. First aid measures like pressure bandages, tourniquets, cut and suck are NOT recommended.

FIRST AID (courtesy http://www.lfsru.org/firstaid.htm)

The best and most effective instant action to take in case of snakebite is to follow the four point plan below:

  1. Reassure the victim

Keep calm. Fear and panic will only raise the pulse rate and blood pressure and move the venom into the system faster. Tell the patient that most snakebites are from non-venomous species. Even most venomous bites are rarely serious but all bites should be watched for symptoms.

  1. Immobilize the bitten limb without compression.

If the bite is on a hand or arm place it in a sling bandage or use a piece of cloth to support the arm. In the case of a leg bite, keep it still on a cushion of cloth or straw.

  1. Carry the patient to hospital as fast as safely possible.

Don’t waste time washing the wound, seeking traditional remedies or applying any drugs or chemicals to the patient. Keep the patient as immobile as possible; carry the patient on a stretcher or ride in a vehicle, boat or bicycle. DO NOT WASTE TIME.

  1. On the way to the hospital note any of the following signs and tell the Doctor.

The Doctor will want to know if any of the following signs or symptoms were seen on the journey to the hospital:

a) Difficulty in breathing

b) Drooping eyelids

c) Appearance of any unusual bruising

d) Swelling. Carry a pen and mark the limit of the swelling every 10 minutes or so

e) Drowsiness

f) Difficulty in speaking

g) Bleeding from the gums

h) Bleeding from the wound that does not seem to stop

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Setting Free - issues relating to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation

Zoos' Print Vol. XXII No. 8, August 2007

One early morning we found a gunnysack on our doorstep that contained a baby toddy-cat. Its eyes were barely open and it lay asleep in blissful slumber. I fed it some milk with a small-animal feeding bottle left over from the days when I was rearing a litter of mongooses. As he grew and became more active by the day, I felt less energetic. He was nocturnal and I had to stay awake and play with him as I took my role as mummy seriously. I had read Joy Adamson’s books and was completely carried away by the romance of rearing baby animals.

When he was half-grown, we decided it was time to move him out of the house and introduce him to his future home. We propped a large cage – 5 feet x 5 feet x 7 feet –under the banyan tree behind the house and gave him a branch and a small sleeping box. A month later we opened the small door at the top of the cage so he could easily climb onto the banyan tree. He was frisky. He ran up to the top of the tree and came running towards us and ran up again. He wanted us to climb up and play with him! A couple of days later, he disappeared. The crown of the banyan tree was contiguous with a long hedgerow of palmyra trees. During the hot summer nights, scores of palm fruits drop to the ground with their husks torn apart. I like to think that our toddy-cat is one of the nocturnal feeders.

Over the years I wondered if I did right. I fed the toddy-cat bananas and other fruits and he loved to clamber up when I had a cup of yogurt. Where would he find bananas and yogurt in the wild? I also hand fed him; would he know where to find food now that he was on his own? Having interacted only with a couple of humans, would he know how to behave with another toddy-cat – would he know when and how to display submissiveness? Would he recognize and avoid predators like Great Horned Owls and pythons? I reprimanded him when he used his teeth too hard or when he jumped on me suddenly. Had I unwittingly altered his natural behaviour without thinking about the far-reaching effects it would have in his life out in the real world? Before the toddy-cat’s cage was opened, I didn’t get him screened for diseases. He could have harbored any infection and spread that to the wild toddy-cat population. After spending his growing years in the safe security of a well-bedded sleeping box, would he go through the trees looking for similar beds? I also do not have a clue what I had done to the local wildlife by releasing a series of small carnivores into the same habitat. It was time to re-consider why I went through the effort of rearing these wild creatures when everything seemed set against their survival. The unavoidable truth was that it made me feel good.

There are hundreds of people like me around the country who rescue birds, mammals, and reptiles. Most rehabilitators rear such animals in their homes and one fine day decide to release them in the jungle “where they belong.” On the other hand, most wildlife biologists and managers stay clear of such animal welfare concerns and as a result the rehabilitators are left to their own devices. Handicapped by the lack of guidelines that prescribe how to rear, where to rehabilitate these animals and with little scientific background and usually nil post-rehab monitoring, it is difficult for rehabilitators to judge if their methods work and what percentage of released animals survive.

The few studies that have occurred show that the overwhelming majority of such rehabilitated animals die of various causes. Listed here are some of common mistakes:

(a) Imprinting the young animals on humans

(b) Acclimatizing the animal to food that it is unlikely to find in the wild

(c) Inappropriate cage size, design and location

(d) Inadequate response to predators

(e) Behaviour alteration

(f) Choice of habitat for release

(g) Kind of release - soft or hard

(h) Non-assessment of the impact of the release on the resident population of the species at the site

If all this makes wildlife rescue seem like an expensive and difficult enterprise, that's because it is. In most cases rescuing animals interferes with the cycle of nature. Orphaned and injured animals if left alone will become prey to predators thus ensuring the continuance of natural law. We are interfering when we 'rescue' these animals and bring them home. Often animals are rescued on the mistaken belief that they need rescuing - every year several leopard cubs stashed by their mothers in the security of tea bushes are “rescued” forever making these large carnivores unsuitable for life in the wild.

Ideally wildlife rescue is recommended when every single animal’s life counts for the future survival of the species. In almost every other case the amount of money, time and effort needed to rear the animals may be better utilized in protecting the habitat. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is rescuing of animals who endanger the lives of humans, (venomous snakes), animals affected by a natural or artificial calamity (oil slick, development projects).

If, after reading these words of deterrence, you find yourself in a position where rescuing an animal is necessary then help is at hand. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has requested Mike Jordan, Chair of the Re-Introduction Specialist Group (Europe and North Asia), to frame the necessary guidelines. A preliminary round of consultation with the South Asian members took place in Coimbatore in late Nov 2005 and a manual is expected to fill the long felt lacuna.


Viji, the Turtle Girl



When you delve into the history of herpetological conservation in India, as I did recently, you keep bumping into one personality called J. Vijaya. I have never met her and all I knew of her was that she spent most of her short life working on turtles and that there is a small memorial to her right next to the turtle pond at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Viji (as Vijaya was called) was India’s first woman herpetologist when such a career was unknown in this country.

Student days

Viji came to the Madras Snake Park as a volunteer in late 1975. She was then a first year zoology student at Ethiraj College, Chennai. She assisted the keepers in cleaning the cages, made sure that visitors didn’t throw stones at the animals, helped in the office and library and filled in for anything else that needed doing. Shekar Dattatri, then a school boy joined the Snake Park as a volunteer a few months later and remembers her as a very quiet person with the insular, focused interest of a Dian Fossey.

While Shekar played truant from school and spent all week hanging around the Snake Park, Viji could only visit on weekends. Besides doing little projects at the Snake Park, the duo went on short field trips together with the Irula tribals - to Vellore looking for rock lizards, to Mambakkam, Ottiyambakkam and Chitlapakkam and other places looking for small creatures like scorpions, lizards, snakes and geckos. Caring for animals in captivity at the Snake Park and observing wild ones in their habitat was a steep learning curve.

The first published mention of Viji surfaces in the September 1980 issue of Hamadryad, the newsletter of the Madras Snake Park in its early years and later Madras Crocodile Bank, when she wrote a short note on the breeding behaviour of mugger crocodiles. A September 1981 editorial mentions that she was working as a Research Associate on a project (which included checking wild scats and feeding captives) to assess the effectiveness of monitor lizards as rat predators. She had graduated by then and was working full-time at the Snake Park.

A turtle biologist is born

In those early days when herpetological conservation was still nascent, Romulus Whitaker, her boss at Madras Snake Park was assigning various people to different critters – Satish Bhaskar to nesting sea turtles, Valliappan to sea turtles in the meat markets of Tuticorin – and he might have put Viji onto freshwater turtles. Once, Rom and a team from Snake Park including Viji, went to the Indian Institute of Technology campus to catch a couple of crocs that had escaped from the Children’s Park Zoo. Near the edge of the huge sewage treatment ponds, they came upon hundreds of turtle eggshells, dug up and strewn around by mongooses. That was the first inkling they had about how common the Indian flapshell Lissemys punctata and the Indian black turtle Melanochelys trijuga were. Viji began collecting data on the turtles’ nest size, number of eggs per clutch and nest survival (precious few!) and that may have been the decisive moment.

Shekar remembers returning from a field trip to Sri Lanka with Viji clutching an old frayed bag of the Indian black turtles. At the Customs check, she had to open the leaking bag for inspection when the turtles began pissing in unison. It made an already cumbersome procedure smellier. He laughed as he recalled affectionately, “She’d do things that I wouldn’t dream of doing.”

At this time, Edward Moll, the Chairman of the World Conservation Union’s Freshwater Chelonian Specialist Group needed an assistant for a nation-wide survey of turtles and Rom, who was a member of the group recommended Viji, who was just 22 then, for the job.

The first surveys

The survey got underway in August-September 1981 and she traveled up to West Bengal (the major consumer of freshwater turtles in the country) to meet up with Pankaj Manna of the University of Calcutta, the other team member. With Pankaj as translator, they began with the meat markets. Thousands of Indian softshell turtles Aspideretes gangeticus and narrow-headed softshell turtles Chitra indica came for sale during the winter months - when the water was low and the creatures were easy to trap, hook, or catch with bare hands. The price of turtle meat plummeted from Rs. 18 to Rs. 5 per kilo during these months; “it was cheaper than beef,” Viji reported.

From Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, she wrote about the movement of the turtle trade - most went to Bengal but some found their way to Assam. Initially turtle exploitation was confined to the states immediately around Bengal. But by the time of her visit, states further upriver like UP were being hunted for the Bengali markets (Viji would eventually discover that turtle exploitation extended as far up as the Punjab). On a typical day, 10 baskets of 10-20 turtles each, along with freshwater fish from reservoirs and rivers were sent by train from UP alone. The market was big and the business competitive; at least 20 agents worked the River Rapti. Viji also documented how turtles were caught by harpooning and hooking. The hapless turtles were flipped on their backs and their flippers stitched together with binding wire for the journey to Bengal. In 1981, the catchers were already complaining about the small size of turtles (5-10 kg. range); 10 years earlier they were easily able to catch 40-70 kg. ones. Based on Viji’s findings Ed Moll estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 Indian flapshells, 7,000 to 8,000 large softshells and at least 10,000 to 15,000 hardshell turtles were coming into the Howrah market in Calcutta annually. He felt that the latter was probably an underestimate, because on one day in May 1983 (off- season), he witnessed over 350 large hardshell turtles being auctioned off.

It can’t have been easy doing this work as most of the places Viji visited were the ‘badlands’ or ‘wild west’ of India – the Chambal ravines with its dacoits, Bhagalpur (at time of the infamous Bhagalpur blindings), crowded, goon-infested parts of UP. But she was totally oblivious to anything besides turtles. The black and white pictures she took of the gory Ridley sea turtle slaughter on Digha beach and in the meat markets of Calcutta, shook the public when India Today magazine ran them in the early 1980s. This was the first media expose ever done on the free-for-all trade in sea turtles and highlights the difference one individual can make for conservation.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took action (another woman who dramatically affected conservation in India) immediately and overnight, sea turtle exploitation was cut to a trickle. Mrs. Gandhi also wrote to the Coast Guard asking them to protect sea turtles, a tradition that still continues. Ironically, the present govt. has abdicated its role as caretaker of India’s wildlife by allowing ports and other developments along the coast that are detrimental to the turtles’ continued survival.

The forest cane turtle

The forest cane turtle (at that time Heosemys silvatica) was at the top of the agenda of the Freshwater Chelonian Specialist Group. Viji decided to go and look for the obscure little turtle in Kerala which hadn’t been seen for 67 years. Only two specimens of the species had ever been recorded by a Dr. Henderson (of the Madras Museum) in October 1911 from Kavalai. Henderson describes the locality as “20 miles from Chalakudi, the starting point of the forest tramway service.” When Viji planned her trip, she discovered that ‘Kavalai’ meant ‘crossing or junction’, the tramway had long since fallen into disuse and every district in Kerala seemed to have a village by that name. She somehow made contact with the Kadar tribals in Chalakudi and sought their help. She wrote: “The ‘Moopan’, or headman, was appointed to accompany me as he was the oldest man available to accompany a girl into the forest. Moopan, whose actual name I was never allowed to address, was a dignified man four and half feet tall with a serene face. Rain or shine, we would go out with his big umbrella and his sickle, which he used to chop off plants to make way in the jungle.” She was finally able to find a cane turtle in July 1982 and that shot her into the international herpetological limelight.

Shekar remembers that first turtle well. “The first time Viji got one back to Madras, she brought it to my house. So long as it was daylight and as long as someone was watching it, the turtle would not come out. When it was pitch dark, it would slowly put its head out. The moment you shone a torch, it went back in. This was the most bizarre creature I’ve ever met.” Perhaps what captured everyone’s imagination most was that Viji saw wild cane turtles ‘dive’ under leaves when frightened, just the way an aquatic turtle would dive into the water. Henderson also recorded the fact that this turtle “did not affect the neighbourhood of water, a fact borne out by the absence of webbed digits.”

In December 1982, one of the female cane turtles Viji brought back laid a clutch of two eggs. She discovered that this species wasn’t a vegetarian as earlier thought. Besides eating fruit and fungi, it fed on invertebrates such as millipedes, molluscs and beetles. From knowing virtually nothing about the animal, Viji made a quantum leap in documenting what this turtle was about.

Unbeknownst to the scientists who considered the turtle “lost” for close to 70 years, several cane turtles were sold in the European pet trade as Tricarinate hill turtle Melanochelys tricarinata or Indian black turtle in the 1960s and 70s. One of the turtle hobbyists who bought several was Reiner Praschag who maintained them in captivity in Austria for many years.

Research and conservation

Rom remembers a clutch of Indian flapshell turtle eggs Viji had been incubating under a tin roof shed at the Croc Bank. It had already been about 300 days when Rom remembers writing them off as dead, but Viji persevered. The Irula tribals had told Viji that the sound of thunder makes turtle eggs hatch. A couple of weeks later, it rained for half an hour and on cue the eggs hatched. Viji excitedly said that there had been no thunder; the rain beating on the tin roof was what did it. It would be wonderful to learn more about this intriguing aspect of turtle behaviour.

By the end of 1982, Viji had a captive breeding group of cane turtles and Travancore tortoises established at the Croc Bank. She set up a field camp in the Nadukkani forest (a very remote and pristine forest, with the least damage wrought by fire), Kerala to study these two chelonians. It was several kilometres from the nearest Kadar village and it was a challenge to get there even on a good weather day. She lived alone in a cave, the former abode of leopards and bears, for several months at a time far from any help should anything have happened.

Here she captured and notched 125 turtles; if any of these turtles were caught again she would know how far they had traveled since being released. She also extended the range of what was being called India’s rarest turtle to Neyyar Sanctuary in Kerala (200 km. south of Kavalai), and to Agumbe in Karnataka (over 200 km. north of Kavalai).

Shekar also mentions Viji’s incredible sense of direction. He said anyone going into the forest with her didn’t have to worry about keeping track of where they were going or mentally marking particular trees to find their way back. She could wander through an unfamiliar forest for kilometres, without stopping to take stock of her bearings, and yet unerringly find her way back without an effort. Besides, while the rest of the group was cautiously keeping an eye out for elephants, she merely strolled through paying no attention to leeches, ticks or elephants. She was completely at home in the forest and no inconvenience fazed her.

In addition to capture-mark-releasing of turtles, Viji also carried out the first studies in Indian forests on tracking the movements of turtles. In 1983, Viji’s operating budget was about Rs. 900 a month (including salary). There was no way that the Snake Park could afford radio telemetry equipment but she did the best she could with what was available. She stuck a spool of thread onto the carapace of the turtles with Araldite and let them wander. Following the thread, she could then get at least a general idea of daily activity patterns and even figure out the approximate home range of the animals she was studying.

The end

Ed says Viji was an excellent field biologist whose best traits were her perseverance and her ability to observe. She did not have a strong biological background to interpret the data she was collecting and Ed invited her to Eastern Illinois University to do her Masters. In September 1984, Viji left for the States to do her post graduation under Ed Moll and later returned to India to do field studies. In April 1987, she was found dead, of unknown causes, in the forest she loved; she was 28.

Epilogue

In 2006, 19 years later, her name was formally given to the cane turtle that she spent so much of her time studying – Peter Praschag, the son of Reiner Praschag, and several other herpetologists analysed the DNA of Reiner’s now-dead turtles and recently re-named the turtle Vijayachelys silvatica in her honour. It is a monotypic genus, which means that there is no other turtle like it to share the name of Vijayachelys. Just as there are very few other people like Viji.

This article was based on interviews with filmmaker/conservationist (and one of Viji’s few friends), Shekar Dattatri, Rom Whitaker and Ed Moll, her professor.

Friday, February 24, 2006

THE AGUMBE RAINFOREST RESEARCH STATION


Published in Hornbill July-September 2005

If you are a researcher in the Western Ghats who is tired of staying in Inspection Bungalows or Forest rest houses under the threat of eviction anytime and your experience of life in the jungle is the same as mine, read on. My memory of working in the rainforests of the Western Ghats goes like this – wet tent, damp firewood, leeches galore, mouldy clothes, an unending series of dinners of semolina, instant noodles, rice and dhal and a desperate craving for pizza. Of course, there is the bright side of camping – of time spent watching a giant millipede make its way across the leaf litter, glow-worms that light up the night like earth bound stars, lizards that seem like butterflies as they glide from tree to tree, waking to the call of the Malabar Whistling Thrush. For a late blooming naturalist like me whose idea of comfort was four walls and a bed, the dreariness of camping (which hits a low at nightfall) outweighed the joyfulness (during the day) and I suspect that’s the reason why so many field researchers drop by the wayside in India. Rom Whitaker decided that if the researchers can’t be brought to the mountains, then the mountains will have to meet them half-way. That was how the idea of the field station began more than a year ago.

But why in Agumbe, you may well ask? Agumbe holds a special place in Rom’s affection as he caught his first king cobra there back in 1971. He has since visited the place as often as he can. When the rest of the country’s towns and cities are undergoing a vast transformation, Agumbe has remained the same for the last 35 years and that appealed to Rom. Ok, there are a couple of tea stalls extra but that is the only visible change. The people are still warm and effusive, bringing you hot steaming cups of heavenly kashayam (a non-caffeinated medicinal drink) to ward off the rainy chills. It also helps that the people here have a reverence for king cobras, missing elsewhere. In one case a king cobra strayed into a bathroom and the people of the household lived with it for three days before seeking our help. They consider it a god who has graced their house and they were very particular that we didn’t harm the snake (or anger it) in any way. “That’s half the battle won,” Rom said in admiration. After living all his life in places where it was hard to convince local people to let snakes live, it was a welcome sign of relief that he didn’t have to do any proselytizing here. Rom’s dream was also to have a station where king cobras casually cross the backyard to drink from the spring and he found it in Agumbe.

Agumbe is only a non-glamorous Reserve Forest but adjacent to one of the last surviving lowland rainforests, Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary and the more famous Kudremukh National Park. A couple of kilometers from the town into the Reserve Forest, Rom came across an eight-acre agricultural land. When we heard that the family was looking for a buyer we began scrounging for money. We didn’t have any but Rom’s mum, Doris Norden, said she had some money she would like to give him for the cause. Hectic parleying began with the owners but before the deal could be concluded Doris died. Exactly a year later, Rom bought that piece of land with money his mother had willed him and finally Rom was the proud owner of land in prime king cobra territory.

In April 2005, Rom won the Whitley Award, which would help set up cottages, buy basic scientific equipment, and a vehicle. The land is not connected to the electric grid and Rom decided he wanted a place that was a model of sustainability – a hybrid of solar and hydel electricity would power the station. It’s easier said than done unless you have expert help which we found in Jos van den Akker of Auroville. Jos found ways to cut costs and put us in touch with hydel power expert, Ramasubramanian.

We needed help with building designs and blueprints so Srikumar Menon, a faculty member of the Manipal Institute of Technology volunteered his help. A team of his architectural students have come up with a design for the cottages and during the first week of December 2005, construction will begin. It finally seemed likely that the rainforest research station would transcend from a dream to reality.

Naturenet CafĂ© is the name of the local village information centre that Rom dreams of setting up in tandem with the field station. With high speed broadband and intranet connectivity, local farmers can find the best market prices for their produce, school students can get trained in the new technology, information on sustainable ways of farming, land use, ecology, wildlife will be made available here. Passing tourists can purchase locally made handicrafts and information on the rainforest, not to mention hot cups of kashayam, king cobra T-shirts and merchandise. For me, it’s just the place to do emails without having to hike up to Thirthahalli or down to Manipal.

It has been a frustrating few months – we had the money and the designs but the monsoon was in full swing. At the time of writing Agumbe had already received more than 7000 mm of rain, reportedly next only to Cherrapunji. As we sat in the courtyard of the old mud farmhouse and watched the rain swirl round and round, a flock of woolly necked storks walked in and out of the mist. Birders visiting the station made a casual list of 200 species of birds, barking deer visit the land in plain sight of the house, a troop of common langurs are shy neighbours and of course there are the king cobras.

P. Gowri Shankar is the intrepid Education Officer who lives on site. In between visiting local schools and colleges on environment education campaigns, he has caught 18 king cobras from people’s houses, gardens, wells and plantations. Early this year he became the first researcher to ever witness a wild king cobra making her nest. Rom scurried around for a video camera to send Gowri but by that time nest building was complete. The mother abandoned her nest after a few days because of local disturbance nearby – a land owner decided to set fire to a massive trunk of tree which smoldered for days. Smoke is anathema to snakes and it effectively drove the mother snake away. Similarly temperatures and humidity of two other nests (both also abandoned by the mother snake) on private estates were monitored throughout the entire period of incubation and the results of the first such studies of wild nests are beginning to emerge. In all instances, Rom put his hand deep into the nest to put in data loggers and reported that the packed mound of vegetation kept the eggs dry during the torrential rains. The output from the data logger however, suggests that the pile of leaf litter does not raise the temperature of the nest chamber. These wild nests took a lot longer than captive eggs to hatch because of the low temperatures they incubated in but they produced very healthy, sturdy babies. Surprising too was the hatching rate of 99% - we thought we were doing well with 60% in captivity. The natural incubator the mother king cobra makes from leaves somehow keeps the eggs healthy while no man-made incubator seems capable of maintaining the high humidity without a fungal attack.

One observant villager mentioned that he had seen the mother king cobra bask in the morning light and then go into her nest. Perhaps she was bringing additional heat into a cool nest to aid incubation? Maybe there was survival merit in speeding up incubation so the eggs remained vulnerable only for a short time. Until we find a nest with a guarding female, this will remain mere speculation. And therein lies the conundrum – female king cobras in the Western Ghats seem to be very sensitive to disturbance. They seem to flee at the first smell of danger and yet we have heard of occasional persistent females who tried to return to their nests for days despite being repeatedly chased away by people. It’s a matter of time before we come upon a determined nest guarding king cobra and until then the questions will remain.

In March this year Gowri was called to a house to catch a king cobra that had fallen in to a well. After considerable difficulty he pulled out a male. The very next day the same people called Gowri to catch a king cobra which had fallen into the well. It turned out to be a female. Intriguingly this leads us to surmise that female king cobras may actively seek their mates.

In April we visited a nest abandoned by the mother king cobra who had been making a nest in the same place for the last three years, according to the villagers. If this is true (and you can be sure we will be there next nesting season) this will be the first recorded evidence of king cobra nest-site fidelity in India. Every single nest site we have seen in the last two years has been GPS marked (as was every capture and relocation) and in the following years, it would be interesting to see if nest-site fidelity is the norm.

One of the questions also remaining to be answered is – why do king cobras gravitate towards habitation. For years, the standard reply was because rats live with people; rat snakes come to eat rats and king cobras follow to eat the rat snakes. But there is a possibility that king cobras living close to villages may seek coolness during the hot dry months and warmth in the cold rainy months. We make convenient cave-like dwellings (we call houses) that provide the optimum temperature for a snake when the weather is harsh.

We hope the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station will function in just the same way for researchers – a cool place to hang out in the middle of the rainforest.