Sunday, November 14, 2010

Creatures of a Lesser God

Published in the Financial Express 14 Nov 2010

Elephants and tigers, charismatic, sexy mega-mammals, are the mascots of wildlife conservation. Use them as umbrellas to protect a range of smaller less-popular species, said the wise ecologists. The amount of effort, publicity, concern (and millions of conservation dollars) elicited by these popular “umbrellas” is several orders of magnitude larger than any other creatures. We accept this inequality of the haves and have-nots just as easily as we accept it in human society. Today, however, in the grip of the tiger crisis, and with new research on a range of species from leopards to frogs, it appears as if the umbrella plan isn’t holding up. In some quarters, these are fighting words.

Take the long-snouted, fish-eating gharial. This crocodilian is extinct in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar and found only in India and Nepal where we are down to under 200 breeding adults. Put differently, there is no other large animal so close to extinction in India today! The gharial’s only hope of survival seems restricted to the Chambal and Girwa rivers. There is no mega mammalian umbrella here; the crisis is so dire that we urgently need to address the threats to this riverine species head on.
On the other hand, the wet forests of the Western Ghats and the Northeast were declared biodiversity hotspots not because of the relatively sparse mega-fauna but the numerous little creatures.  A myriad species of frogs, snakes and other small fry are found in isolated valleys and are not known to live anywhere else; extinctions are happening to life forms we haven’t even identified yet! The conservation of these “insignificant” creatures falls by the wayside when inordinate focus in placed on large mammals.

In practice umbrella conservation eventually focuses on just that species. For instance, long before the last tiger was poached in Sariska, the four-horned antelope had gone extinct in the Park. Although it was a prey species on which the tiger’s own existence hinged, this missing link in the food chain went completely unnoticed and un-mourned by most conservationists. Umbrella? Although the Tiger Task Force identified a whole range of systemic failures that led to the crisis, the presence of local people became an easy scapegoat for both government and conservationists. Despite the Supreme Court and Ministry of Environment and Forests directive, mines continue to operate around the Park with impunity. In addition to the message that local people are a disaster for wildlife, the fixation on large mammals whose survival is tied to tiny ‘protected’ forests jeopardizes conservation across the ‘unprotected’, greater part of the country.

These same “problematic” humans live with leopards far away from forests and sanctuaries, in the agricultural areas of Maharashtra. Not far from the Chambal, across the wetlands of Uttar Pradesh, the world’s tallest flying birds, the sarus crane, has survived alongside farmers for generations. Traditional agriculture has in fact benefitted a range of bird species such as jacanas, storks, shikras, egrets, herons, prinias, weaver birds, cisticolas and reptiles like monitor lizards, rat snakes and many more. All these ordinary farmers have been practicing conservationists while city slickers mainly preach, rant and rave. Here’s a conservation army to empower and enthuse, it’s time to look past the gates of sanctuaries and national parks and mega-mammals. And this is where the future of much of our biodiversity lies.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Satish “Batagur” Bhaskar

By Rom Whitaker (as narrated to Janaki Lenin)
Published in Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter 24, July 2010

In the early ‘70s the Madras Snake Park became a local hangout for young folks from nearby campuses like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), AC College of Architecture and Madras Christian College. Thirty years later I run into some of these guys, sometimes in strange places. They're now mostly as paunchy and balding as I am and we trade a few stories and get into laughing fits over “the good old days”.

One of the characters who showed up back then was a soft-spoken engineering student named Satish Bhaskar. He was a teetotaling non-smoker, a real ascetic compared to the rest of us. His passion was the sea, and he spent more time swimming than in the IIT classroom. It’s not for nothing that his hostel mates called him Aquaman (privately)!

I was concentrating on crocs at the time, and whenever I could get away from Snake Park it was to survey gharial, mugger and saltwater crocodile habitat across India. At the same time, we also wanted to know sea turtle status: which species come to Indian shores, where, when and in what numbers. So, we really needed a full time sea turtle man.

Opportunely (for the turtles), Satish was getting disenchanted with his IIT course (after finishing most of it) and yearned to be a field man with a mission. The Snake Park had a tiny research budget, but it was enough to hire Satish as Field Officer (Rs. 250 a month, approx. US$ 28 based on exchange rates of that time) and get him out on his first few survey trips. When the fledgling WWF-India saw the good work he was doing for endangered sea turtles, Satish landed his first grant which really set him in motion.

About this time, the Madras Crocodile Bank was being born and Satish was its first resident. He helped to build the place (in between the sea turtle trips) but funds were so tight and sporadic that there were times when he had no work. So what did he do? He kept in shape by filling a bag of sand, carrying it to the other end of the Croc Bank, dumping it and starting again! Villagers still remember Satish hoisting a 50 kg sack of cement over his shoulder casually as if it were no more than a sleeping bag. This was the training that made him so tough in the field; it enabled him to walk most of India’s entire coastline, more than 4,000 km, over the next few years looking for sea turtles, their tracks and nests! He loved going to remote places which few Indians have the stamina or stomach for. “To him, swimming in shark infested waters was the most normal thing to do,” declares Shekar Dattatri, who has known him since the early Snake Park days.

Old Jungle Saying: Satish is incredibly kind to people. If he has anything that someone wants, he gives it away.

In 1977, Satish conducted the first surveys in Lakshadweep and zeroed in on an uninhabited island, Suheli Valiyakara, as the place for a focused green sea turtle study. The only problem was that the main nesting period is during the monsoon and no one goes there when the sea is so rough. In 1982, Satish left his young wife and three month old daughter, Nyla to maroon himself on Suheli for the whole monsoon, from May to September. It meant making elaborate preparations, like calculating the amount of food he would need. We sat with Satish and talked about things that could go wrong during this isolation – chronic toothache, appendicitis, malaria were just a few sobering thoughts. The Coast Guard provided some signal flares and there was talk of a two-way radio but eventually Satish just set sail and that’s the last we heard of him till September.

Actually that’s not true. A few months later, his wife Brenda back in Madras, received a loving letter from him. He had launched his message in a bottle on July 3rd and 24 days and more than 800 km later it was picked up by a Sri Lankan fisherman, Anthony Damacious, who very kindly posted it to Brenda along with a covering letter, a family picture and an invitation to visit him in Sri Lanka. The ‘bottle post’ was very romantic, but of course Satish’s spin was that he was trying to see if he could study ocean currents using this technique!

An emergency situation did arise on the deserted isle, and one that none of us could have predicted: a huge dead whale shark washed up on Satish’s little island and started rotting. The nauseous stench became so overpowering that our intrepid sea turtle man had to move to the extreme other end of the tiny island to a somewhat precarious, wave lashed spit of sand.

That year the monsoon abated late. So though Satish was packed and ready to go home by September 1st, (after 3 ½ months with only turtles and a radio for company), the relief boat from Kavaratti Island, over 60 km away did not arrive. Satish had run out of rations and legend has it that he survived on milk powder, turtle eggs, clams and coconuts for weeks. Fortunately, the lighthouse on neighbouring Suheli Cheriyakara needed servicing and a Lighthouse Department ship, the MV Sagardeep, arrived on October 11th. As Satish clambered aboard, Capt. Kulsreshta's first words were, "Take him to the galley!"

For a person with a gargantuan appetite, Satish could live on very little. On a trip to the Nicobars, Indraneil Das and he ran out of rations and water and they still had a day’s walk ahead of them. The former was half-dead when they ran into a party of Nicobarese who tried to feed them but Satish politely and firmly declined saying they had just eaten and didn’t allow Neil to eat either. Later he pointed that they had nothing to repay the poor people’s kindness! (This trip yielded five new species – two frogs, two lizards and a snake.)

On another occasion, on Little Andaman, Satish had again run out of rations and was surviving on “only biscuits and vitamins for 4 days.” He came upon an empty Onge tribal camp with some freshly barbecued turtle meat. He took some of the meat and left two biscuit packets in exchange mainly to avoid a spear through his back! Just counting the number of times he ran out of food in remote areas, we suspect that he deliberately starved himself to see how far he could take it.

Old Jungle Saying: Satish always travels with a kerosene stove and a pressure cooker. The former is to avoid burning wood as it is bad for the environment and the latter for cooking efficiency. He also carries an automobile inner tube to raft his supplies from canoe to shore and vice versa.

Through the 1980s, again thanks to WWF and other funds, Satish visited many of the islands of the Andamans. His were the first recommendations on sea turtle nesting beach protection. These helped give the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Forest Department a solid conservation basis to resist the efforts of big business and other Government Department interests in “developing” beaches for tourism.

Amongst all this serious work, he had time for research of another kind. Writing in Hamadryad, the Croc Bank Newsletter, he wonders if the sea krait was attracted to light, feigns dismay that this may be true and proceeds to try to make one climb his leg by playing with his torchlight!

By this time, Satish’s work was being appreciated by sea turtle biologists worldwide. Papers on the species inhabiting this region were very scarce indeed and his publications helped to fill that big gap. In 1979 Satish was invited to give a paper on the status of sea turtles of the eastern Indian Ocean at the World Conference on Sea Turtle Conservation, in Washington D.C. In recognition for his contributions to sea turtle conservation, Satish received a fancy watch and award from Rolex in 1984.

When Ed Moll came to India to do a freshwater turtle study, Satish became a key collaborator. He surveyed extensively for a highly endangered Batagur baska which nests on coastal beaches along with olive ridleys. Sadly the Bengalis have eaten the terrapin to near extinction and there are no known wild nests in India. It was at this time that he was nicknamed “Batagur Bhaskar”.

Old Jungle Saying: Satish has no sense of direction. He gets lost easily.

He spent many months, over several years, studying the hawksbill and green turtle nesting biology on tiny South Reef Island on the west coast of North Andaman. He described this island as “one of ten sites most favoured by nesting [g]reen turtles in India”. Saw Bonny, a Forest Department Range Officer stationed on Interview Island, regularly risked his life ferrying supplies to Satish on South Reef Island, even during stormy monsoon weather. Bonny deputed a department staff member from his camp to assist Satish who was working alone. Emoye spent a few days on South Reef, got fed up and wanted to return. Since the currents were strong and Satish was an accomplished swimmer, Emoye requested him to go along with him.

Over the years shark fishermen regularly hauled in sharks from this very channel. The sea was rough, it was after all the monsoon season. Being a modest and understated narrator, Satish rated his swimming skills as “below par” and claimed that his snorkeling flippers gave him confidence. To keep warm during the more than two kilometre swim, he wore two shirts. Emoye rested frequently on Satish to catch his breath and together the two of them swam across the channel.

A party of shark fishermen were camped on the beach in Interview when our intrepid swimmers landed. One of them remembered meeting Satish earlier and enquired, "Still loafing around? Still jobless?" He thought Satish was an ambergris-hunter. It was already dark when Satish and Emoye set out across the island to the forest camp. Half way, a bull elephant in musth trumpeted his warning from just 30 metres away and started to chase them. The two men ran for their lives. Later Satish would recount, “I had done some distance running in college but the penalty for losing was never as dire.” Already exhausted from their long and arduous swim, they couldn’t continue running and the elephant showed no signs of relenting. Remembering a Kenneth Anderson story, Satish threw his shirt down while continuing to run and was gratified to hear the pachyderm squealing with rage moments later. With the animal distracted, the men could finally stumble onwards to the forest camp. They made a pact – if the shirt was intact, it was Emoye’s; if not, then Satish’s. The next morning they found the shirt in three pieces completely smeared with muddy elephant footprints, while one bit had to be recovered from a tree. He later posted the pieces back to Brenda with a reassuring note.

Old Jungle Saying: Satish trusts people implicitly and they, in turn, don’t let him down.

In the mid 1980’s WWF-Indonesia contracted Satish to study the huge, intensely exploited leatherback sea turtle rookeries on the beaches of the Vogelkopf, the western most peninsula of the island of New Guinea, in Irian Jaya. This was a logistically tough place to work. First of all, there was no access from the landward side and one couldn’t even land a boat on the beach. This was why it had remained protected for so long. Then the people from neighbouring areas started taking tens of thousands of leatherback eggs. People swam ashore with jerry cans and sacks and floated the eggs back to boats.

However, Satish found a way to keep in touch. He would swim 100 m out to a passing longboat that was headed to Sorong, and hand his letters to someone on board with enough currency for stamps. There was one boat every 20 to 30 days. By late Aug 1985, he had tagged about 700 leatherbacks almost single-handedly.

Rather uncharacteristically, Satish never wrote up his report for WWF-Indonesia. I have no explanation why this happened nor did we ever discuss this. After a year had passed and there was no sign of the report, I was embarrassed as I had recommended him for the job. The document was sorely needed to put some laws in place very soon. I had my sense of justice as well so I wrote the report in his name.

Sadly, the 13,360 nests that he recorded in 1984 was probably the highest ever in recent years. Ever since then, the average number of nests has hovered way down around 3200. And this has resulted in yet another ‘Satish myth’ – the local people believe that Satish tagged the female leatherbacks with metal tags, and using a giant magnet drew all the turtles to his country! The local elders have refused to permit any more tagging of turtles on this beach.

Old Jungle Saying: He doesn’t like to crawl into a sleeping bag on cold nights; instead he wears all his clothes. Sometimes, he buries himself, except his face which is covered by a mosquito net, in the sand to get away from inquisitive island rats, mosquitoes and sand flies at night. He usually sleeps out of sight of others at camp, after playing a few riffs on his harmonica.

In 1993, while chugging past Flat Island, a small spit of land off the west coast of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve in the Andamans, Satish and his companions saw a pair of human footprints emerging from the sea and disappearing into the vegetation. Satish had evaluated this island as a prime green turtle nesting beach, and despite the others cautioning him of Jarawas (the hostile tribe who routinely finished off trespassers with arrows), Satish swam ashore. His companions watched in horror as he followed the footprints into the forest. While his friends feared the worst, he emerged from another side crouching behind a green turtle carapace, holding it like a shield. The fearsome tribals never showed themselves and Satish returned safely.

On a subsequent trip, some Jarawa came aboard the canoe. Satish later recalled admiringly that the Jarawa were powerful swimmers and he had been very impressed by the bow-wake their breast-stroke created. Everyone else cowered in the back while Satish calmly interacted with the tribals. The crew had already hidden the machetes and other metal objects that the Jarawa coveted for making arrow heads. Eventually the tribals left without harming anybody but did take some spoons.

Old Jungle Saying: Satish likes to catch everything.

Local intelligence was that the Galathea river, Great Nicobar, had a lot of crocodiles. After dark one night standing on the bridge spanning the river, Satish played his torch over the water. Suddenly his flashlight caught some small eye shines along the waters’ edge and he got very excited thinking they were baby salt water crocs. So he crept down to the edge of the river to catch them, but they turned out to be large spiders!

But he did encounter crocodiles. Once while lying asleep on a beach on Trinkat Island, Nicobars, he woke up to a rustling noise. He found a young croc looking at him through the mosquito net. In mock seriousness he later wrote, “I’m overlooking it this time but if the crocs that wake me get any bigger I’m headed back to Madras.”

The Karen of the Andamans are particularly fond of Satish. He earned their respect by treating young and old with courtesy and respect, and also with such exploits as swimming from Wandoor in Middle Andaman to Grub Island (a distance of about 1.6 km) and back, walking the entire coastline of Little Andaman even crossing swift streams such as Bumila and Jackson Creeks and doggedly surveying beaches no matter how big the obstacles. But that didn’t stop the Karen from teasingly nicknaming Satish, Cheto (Karen for ‘basket’, as it rhymes with Bhaskar!). Several older Nicobarese remember “the man who came looking for turtles” even today, many years after his last visit. He was perhaps the only man to ever find a reticulated python on the tiny island of Meroe (between Little Nicobar and Nancowry). The Nicobarese, who frequent the island, had never seen this species there before and were duly impressed. This python was later handed over to the Forest Department in Port Blair.

Satish notched identification marks on the carapaces of turtles that came ashore to lay eggs. Later, a bunch of titanium tags was sent by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for tagging hawksbills on South Reef. In Vogelkopf, he tagged more than 700 leatherback turtles. There is no information on tag returns from any of these turtles. One reason may be that subsequent night surveys (after Satish left) were inconsistent on Andamans, Nicobars and Irian Jaya. Secondly, the English lettering which provides the return address means little to local people. Karen tribals have mentioned finding tags on turtles they ate but not knowing the significance of the metal, simply threw it away into the bush.

For not being a religious person at all, he has the morals of one. He doesn’t like anyone to tell him what to do, which made my job as boss difficult. (But he was conscientious about sending reports so he didn’t need to be reminded.) I clearly remember once when I suggested that he store his things in a tin trunk as they were being destroyed by termites, he took umbrage. “Would I tell you what to do, Rom?” he asked in his low pitched gruff voice with a touch of menace. I never made that mistake again! He is a perfectionist - wanting to do everything right and better than anybody else. He also has an exaggerated sense of justice – always rooting for the downtrodden (probably why he got along well with tribals, villagers and field people). In many ways, he is very un-Indian.

Old Jungle Saying: Nothing is useless; anything “useless” was just something for which Satish hasn't yet found a use.

Once while running to catch a bus to Mayabunder, his chappal broke. On being asked if he’d like to buy a new pair, he responded, "Only one broke - surely another one will wash up with the high tide". He tried very hard to keep South Reef clean of trash. On one occasion, he arrived in Madras with two sacks stuffed with rubber chappals that had washed ashore on the island. Legend has it that he took it to the recyclers.

After twenty years of doing some of the first baseline sea turtle surveys in the country, Satish retired to spend more time with his family. Soon thereafter, an UNDP (United Nations Development Program) - Wildlife Institute of India project did a more extensive survey of turtle nesting beaches. But since then, the 2004 tsunami has changed the profile of many Andaman and Nicobar beaches and we don’t yet know where new beaches are forming, or how the turtles have responded to this change. We desperately need a new Satish Bhaskar to continue the work.

Satish now lives in Goa with his wife Brenda (who was by the way, the Snake Park and Croc Bank’s secretary for many years!) and their three children (Nyla, Kyle and Sandhya). Satish is the man who kicked sea turtle conservation in India into high gear. There’s a strong lesson in all this and an inspiration to young naturalists who wonder, “What can I do to help?” Satish’s single-minded quest for sea turtles in his quiet, often unorthodox way, set the stage for the major conservation efforts being made today. Here’s a prime example of how one person’s passion for an animal and its habitat can help make the difference between survival and extinction.

Inputs from Aaron Savio Lobo, Allen Vaughan, Arjun Sivasundar, Atma Reddy, Manish Chandi, Manjula Tiwari, K. Munnuswamy, Nina and Ram Menon, Shekar Dattatri are gratefully acknowledged.

Also see an introduction by Kartik Shanker and a list of Satish Bhaskar's publications.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Book Review: Conservation at the Crossroads

Published in Seminar Sept 2010

CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS: Science, Society, and the Future of India’s Wildlife by Ghazala Shahabuddin. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010, pp.288, Rs.595 .

In the increasingly polarized field of conservation in India, Shahabuddin’s writings tend to be inclusive and moderate, and this work is no exception. On the one hand is the include-people lobby that believes that local inhabitants can sustainably utilize forest resources, while on the other is the exclude-people lobby that promotes the relocation of people from forests. Which of these two approaches conserves optimum biodiversity? Can these contradictory positions be reconciled or are they mutually exclusive? These are the questions that face wildlife conservation today and now finally there is a book that explores these two major pathways over eight chapters. Shahabuddin is no stranger to these issues as she has co-edited an anthology of essays in a book, Making Conservation Work in 2007 and is Associate Professor at the School of Human Ecology, B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi.

The total protection formula focuses on the Forest Department excluding people from forests by removing villages from protected areas, policing the area from all use, and restricting access to researchers. The community conservation strategy comes in a couple of forms such as Community Conservation Areas, Joint Forestry Management (JFM), and the World Bank funded India Ecodevelopment Project (IEDP). These have been implemented in various parts of India under diverse conditions. Critical to evaluating these management strategies is the independent researcher, who is frequently accorded step-child treatment by the Forest Department, thereby depriving itself of valuable insights in forest governance.

Despite “total protection” being the state’s forest management policy, Shahabuddin chronicles the widespread habitat degradation in India’s protected areas. Infrastructure projects such as roads, dams, and mines, as well as harvesting of forest products by a growing human population both within and without these forests have taken their toll. Using Sariska as an example, the author examines the deficiency in policy and governance. Prior to the tiger crisis, researchers had reported the extinction of the chinkara and the four-horned antelope, vital prey species of the tiger. It was also known that the habitat was degraded because of firewood and fodder collection, and grazing. By 1990, tree regeneration had already been severely hit, with growth stunted across the ecosystems, the diversity of species was plummeting and exotic invasive plants had made inroads. It was just a matter of time before the tiger disappeared.

On the other hand, the department kowtowed to powerful forces that had interests in mining and timber. The park is so small that the dynamite blasts in the mines on its doorstep can even be heard in the core area now. Despite these larger threats from outside the reserve, when the tiger crisis erupted, blame was pinned on the soft targets, local people. While little has been done to improve and secure the habitat, the entire focus of the remedial measures is on moving local people out and introducing tigers into Sariska.

At the other end of the spectrum, the pro-people lobby holds that the pristine nature model is a failure and promotes a more inclusive style of conservation. The community conservation paradigm co-opts local people as custodians of the forests who are also allowed to use it sustainably. However, some crucial questions remain unanswered. How much can be harvested without affecting the future regeneration of a species? Does extraction of such products negatively impact the ecosystem?
Collection of fruits, flowers, and seeds by people deprive birds and mammals of a plentiful seasonal resource. Dead wood collection may negatively impact hole-nesting birds. Shahabuddin rightly notes that few studies monitor extraction and evaluate its impact on the ecosystem. Since most Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) are destined for markets, these tend to change the diversity of the forest until either the resource is over-exploited or the marketable species is selectively nurtured to the detriment of all others. In forests used by people, the species that fare the worst are the ones that are sensitive to habitat change and disturbance. In almost every case, livelihood concerns triumphed over the conservation agenda. Even in flagship projects such as the Annapurna Conservation Area Project in Nepal, biodiversity and degradation worries remain unaddressed.

Joint Forestry Management (JFM) was one of the largest exercises in the decentralization of natural resource management in India. Although “joint” is the operative word, in a majority of the cases decision-making powers were firmly in the hands of the department, with little or no involvement of the villagers. In many cases the benefit sharing agreements were not in place, so although villagers provided labour with the expectation of some returns, these did not materialize. For these reasons, people were suspicious of the department’s intentions; but on the positive side, JFM projects did succeed in providing a source of firewood and fodder by regenerating large areas of degraded landscapes.

The aim of the IEDP was to provide greater synergy between protected areas (and their custodians) and local people for biodiversity conservation. While the poorest people were the most dependent on forest resources, they were effectively sidelined from deriving any benefits from the project as they couldn’t afford the mandatory financial contribution. Conservationists felt that such projects were detrimental to conservation as it led to unnecessary infrastructure development within a protected area causing degradation, while overburdening the officials already charged with protection. Like the JFM projects, there was no consultation with the local people and this appears to be the crucial factor. Periyar and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserves are celebrated success stories because they delegated decision making powers to villagers.

Did these community conservation programs promote biodiversity conservation? Definitely not, is the author’s resounding answer. The include-people champions say that the key to the success of any community conservation measure is security of land tenure. But, with an increasing human population, the corresponding demand for agricultural land and finite forest resources, can forest ownership alone drive sustainability, asks the author. While she agrees that land tenure has to be secure, she also adds that extractive pressure should be low, and access rights clearly-defined if effective conservation is to be practiced. How is it going to be possible to keep the extraction pressure low when there is no sign of the human population growth rate leveling off? Nevertheless, there is an incentive to support this paradigm as local livelihoods are entwined with the ecological services of a rich forest.

Shahabuddin also turns her attention to the state’s discouragement of scientific endeavour in this field. The Indian government took a conscious decision to exclude US funds and researchers from India and effectively stunted its progress in ecological research. Although the Indian economy has been liberalized, the Forest Department continues to perpetrate a Permit Raj. The department’s combative attitude to researchers is captured succinctly by the author, “It is as if science-based perspectives are viewed as a mortal threat by a forest department that believes it has a monopoly on knowledge of the forest.”

The title of the book begs the initial question whether conservation was ever on a straight path, when it appears to have staked a permanent spot at the crossroads. Towards the end, Shahabuddin reconciles that these are not mutually exclusive pathways, when the choice is restricted to only one of two directions. There is clearly no alternative to well-governed inviolate areas for ecosystem conservation. Community-inclusive strategies are complementary to total protection and both need to be treated on par if conservation goals are to be achieved. These are but many stairways to one goal.

The forest department is perhaps the single largest landowner in the country governing over 635,000, and no large scale conservation initiative takes place without its approval. In case after case, the author concludes that the failure, or at least the limited success, of almost every conservation program in the country comes down to the department’s refusal to share decision-making powers with local people. (Indeed, a more appropriate title for the book would have been ‘Conservation at a Roadblock’!) The department does not appear to realize that for conservation initiatives to work, local people have to be made equal partners or that independent researchers are essential to evaluate the sustainability of harvests, and benefits to biodiversity conservation and livelihoods. Given the entrenched hegemonic power structure that dictates conservation policy and implementation today, the system does not have the capacity to engage with local people with trust, empathy and respect which predisposes these various strategies to failure. While the author hints at this institutional failure, she misses an opportunity to make a hard case for change within the department.

I do have a few other quibbles; the work suffers from a lack of editorial oversight. There are repetitions, inconsistencies, language issues, use of local names for tree species and tangents that could have been avoided and made this the high quality publication that it deserves to be. However, I recommend this book highly to anyone who is perplexed by the cacophony of voices evangelizing one or the other paradigm. As for the ones deeply rooted in their include-or-exclude people positions, they might find critical evaluations of their ideology and some common grounds for agreement with the opposite camp. The more consensus there is, the stronger conservation actions will be.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Narcondam - “Pit of Hell”

The full version

Published in July 2010, Outlook Traveller

At daybreak, the ‘Pit of Hell’ emerged hazily from the horizon like a mirage. We had spent almost 24 hours fighting the wind across the Andaman Sea and for much of that time, totally out of sight of land. Four hours later, we reached the end of our almost 260 km voyage from Port Blair. We anchored off the north-eastern shore at Police Post Bay so-called for one of the remotest camps of any police force in the world. Inexplicably the ancient Portuguese called it “Barata (Cockroach) Bay”! It is also probably one of the few outposts that has no civilians in its precincts and consequently, an enviable nil crime rate. A group of paramilitary police of the Indian Reserve Battalion safeguard India’s claim to the most isolated island of the entire Andaman group. It seemed like a paid, policeman’s holiday but as we found out later, these brave-hearts marooned in the “pit of hell” were homesick and afraid of the wild jungle.

Police Post Bay

There was no idyllic sandy beach but the island had all the other hallmarks of an earthly paradise: a picturesque, densely forested hill looming 710 m out of the deep blue sea. So why the contrarian name: Narak-kund (Sanskrit for ‘pit of hell’)? Popular theory says that perhaps ancient Indian cartographers christened India’s only volcano (now drily and unimaginatively called Barren Island) as an infernal sink. But over time (as early as the year 1701), the larger, extinct volcano lying 150 km northeast of the rightful-owner of the name became known as Narcondam. It’s worth remarking that none of the other islands in the Andaman group were named by Indians. If a foolhardy crow was to fly from Port Blair to Rangoon (Burma), he’d spy verdant Narcondam along the way, about 114 km east of North Andaman.

A male Narcondam hornbill

About six months after the tsunami of 2004, Narcondam reportedly lived up to its name by spewing mud and smoke. This sudden activity in a volcano that last erupted more than 12,000 years ago ought to have made front page news (but didn’t). However, the news sang through the internet frequencies exciting volcano spotters around the world. Some speculated that the massive earthquake may have set off some magma movement under the tectonic plates. Eventually geologists at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, reported that it was a damp squib: clouds of dust caused by a landslide had given the impression of an eruption. This did little to convince the police personnel who were evacuated and the outpost abandoned for eighteen months. Nonetheless, there was still a shred of doubt: we wanted to be certain that India had only one active volcano.

For the following three days, we were to live aboard the 48 foot yacht, the Emerald Blue, and commute to shore in an inflatable dinghy. April, with its calm waves before the monsoonal currents set in, was one of the best months to land. Narcondam is a 1700 metre high, solitary oceanic mountain, of which more than 1000 metres lies below the surface of the sea. There were hardly any shallows and landing was tricky; the dinghy would have to surf onto a small ledge on the slope. Amongst the smooth round andesite boulders (of volcanic origin) bordering the shoreline, was a tiny little sandy beach with conveniently just enough space for all of us to make a quick jump into knee deep water before the next wave came crashing in.

Eight of us, with an interest in wildlife and wild places, were crammed on board the Emerald Blue for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While an extensive list of birds seen on Narcondam had been compiled by previous teams of birders, little was known about the rest of the animal and plant kingdom. Members of the team now hoped to add to that sparse information.

A recent birdwatchers’ newsletter had raised concerns about goats over-running the island. Since the 1500s it was a common mariners’ practice to drop off livestock such as goats, pigs, chickens and even giant tortoises on islands as nourishment for shipwrecked mariners. Indeed Alexander Selkirk, the prototype Robinson Crusoe, survived four years as a castaway on one of the Juan Fernández islands, off Chile on such feral goats. Narcondam was no exception: in 1899 A.O. Hume quoted Robert Tytler saying that “pigs, goats and fowls” had been released there. We don’t know if these were eaten up by unfortunate sailors or whether they eventually died out, but in 1976, the Indian Police brought two pairs of goats to keep their personnel stationed on the island well-stocked with animal protein. Perhaps the men got sick of eating mutton every day, because, by 1998, there were 400 of the voracious caprines rapidly eating their way through the native island vegetation.

Ornithologists lobbied for the removal of these animals, going so far as to argue that the island was being held together by tree roots and implying that should forest regeneration be adversely affected then not only the hornbill population but the whole island could collapse. Their worries were not misplaced, as one other iconic island bird, the dodo, was driven to extinction by introduced pigs, monkeys and carnivorous men a couple of centuries earlier on Mauritius. Although the Narcondam hornbill isn’t nearly as harried, the tiny size of its island home (7 severely handicaps its ability to survive any threat. So checking on the goats was high on our agenda.

A giant fig tree

Around the police camp were extensive coconut, banana and areca plantations (in 1916, this area was recognized by its groves of Burmese fishtail palms) and the place reeked of human feces. A yearling water monitor lizard and a gorgeous brilliant green Andaman day-gecko watched us from the safety of trees. Koel calls rang through the forest. In the absence of crows, whose nests would they parasitize? Pigeons, replied Divya Mudappa.

The force of the monsoonal stream had sliced through the embankments of a dry streambed as neatly as a knife through butter-fruit. The vertical walls of boulders were held in place by roots of trees. Still, a pipeline carrying water from a tiny perennial waterfall further upstream to the police camp had to be protected from rolling rocks dislodged by heavy rains and frequent earthquakes. Indeed in several locations, mangled lengths of pipes lay twisted and trapped under piles of debris.

The air was still and very humid; a hill myna high up in the canopy prattled away until silenced by the wild shrieking of a juvenile white-bellied sea eagle being mobbed by two pairs of squawking Narcondam hornbills. It was their nesting season, and predatory raptors were not welcome in the immediate air space. Further up the wash, the boulders below a huge tree were splattered with little brown scat-spots, telltale evidence of a nest directly above our heads. Soon the parents returned after seeing off the eagle, victoriously chuckling to one another. This was our first good look at this charismatic species: the father was a handsome honey-brown fellow while the female was an ordinary black. Since their enormous yellowish-red beaks were in the way, they had to tilt their heads comically sideways in order to see us. By counting the rings on the casque above the beak, we could tell the male was six years old. Disgusted by our presence, they took off screaming invectives.

Kalyan Varma urgently beckoned us over and pointed to a rusty brown bird lurking in the undergrowth. It was a slaty-legged crake, a species not recorded in the Andaman Islands before. Kalyan had been washing his face by the pool when he felt something pecking the Velcro on his footwear. It’s hard to tell whether the crake was mystified by the man or his Tevas. In an ironic situation for a photographer, the bird was much too close to his long lens for a picture!

The hornbills would have been similarly trusting of the first humans they had ever met. Indeed in 1898, the commanding officer of the ‘Elphinstone’, Lt. J.H. St. John, had observed that the birds were tame. But in the intervening century, they had been shot for museum specimens by visiting ornithologists as well as for the pot by the police force, so sadly the hornbills have become fearful of humans, just like any mainland animal. Not only the birds, St. John says even water monitors were as “tame as pet mice and one climbed into the lap of the Chief Commissioner’s niece and seemed to be quite at home.” Needless to say, these lizards were now scarce (apparently hunted by the resident humans) and the few big ones that we encountered went crashing into the undergrowth. The only trusting animals were the numerous skinks who investigated the falling crumbs from our mid-day snacks.

A young water monitor lizard

The forest undergrowth wilted in the heat, reflecting our state of being too. The resin (dhup) of the huge Canarium trees remained uncollected, unlike other islands where it is intensively harvested. At a tiny little beach, we spotted a hornbill chick in a nest hole high up on a tall, straight-boled Tetrameles tree. While the rest decided to get pictures of the parents feeding the little one, a couple of us set out for the lighthouse on the northwest tip of the island. It was a steep climb. The reward for climbing to the top was a spectacular view of Pigeon Island surrounded by an indigo blue sea.

Pigeon Island

Back at the boat, all of us jumped in the water to cool off after the long sweaty day. In the distance we could hear the hornbills squawking, there was a freshly caught snapper frying in the galley and we had the rare privilege of being in one of the most spectacular and isolated spots in the world. Narcondam, the hell-hole? No way! More appropriate would be Swargam, the heavenly abode! The only fine print is that the sun rises at an ungodly 5 am in this paradise (you can blame the westerly Indian Standard Time line).

Very early one morning, we set sail for the west coast. My main goal was to climb the summit, and we hoped to follow the detailed route mentioned in the latest edition (2009/2010) of the Southeast Asia Pilot (the Andaman section appears to have been written by two British nationals and it would be interesting to know how they got permission to go ashore). The estimated duration of ascent was three hours for the “reasonably fit and agile,” and descent was likely to take another two hours. It sounded like it could be done all in a day’s walk but much depended on our ability to land. That morning, the currents were strong and the waves crashed roughly over the rocky beach which was the designated starting point. Nick Band, the captain, made a quick reconnaissance and the prognosis was grim: landing there was a definite recipe for broken legs. Plan B was to attempt an ascent from the hornbill-nest beach on the north coast of Narcondam.

We managed to land but not without getting soaked by the turbulent waves. Within a few paces of starting up the hill slope, we were startled to see a trail. Goats? Rom Whitaker however, noticed the path leading into the roots of a tree. Any goat would have to be a midget to crawl into that tiny space; it could only have been a rat trail. The climb became steadily steeper and more difficult to negotiate with fallen rotting logs blocking the path. Marveling at the massive dhup trees that rose high and lofty as rockets and their fin-like buttresses provided a welcome break from the arduous climb. It was tempting to think that no human had climbed this ridge but in this increasingly explored world, one cannot say that with any certainty.

A giant dhup tree

Half way up a steep climb, an exhausted Rom copped out. He promised to wait but knowing him too well, he’d be off either looking for lizards in the luxuriant valley below or heading back to the beach. There was precious little by way of birds or animals on this climb to keep a bored human entertained. Neither were any hornbills visible nor the fig trees that sustained them. It became steeper and more slippery; dislodged rocks rolled perilously downhill barely missing people behind, and like gibbons we used our arms to take our weight as footholds couldn’t be trusted.

A cool breeze blowing gently off the sea invigorated our catch-our-breath stops. Four hours from the starting point, we reached the top of a 430 m hill, but the summit of Narcondam still towered over us. Several humans had left evidence of their presence here by gouging their names on trees; the culprits must have come from the police camp which was at the foot of the hill on the eastern side. To reach the tallest peak we would have to descend at least 100 m to a valley and then climb another 400 m. Shankar Raman declared, “It would just take 2000 paces to climb that hill”. It seemed so simple, but there wasn’t enough time to do it and camping up there was out of the question. The vegetation at the higher elevations looked denser than the deciduous forest we had just climbed and therefore the going would be slower. (The thickly forested summit also bore testament to the fact that Narcondam hadn’t recently aspired for active volcano-hood.) We could descend to the police camp directly, but we were committed to returning the way we came as we had left Rom behind.

After a half hour rest, our clothes were still wet with sweat, but we decided to make a move. I was also beginning to worry about Rom; I saw visions of him lying unconscious or in pain with a broken leg. The descent was even more slippery than the ascent. We tried to climb down gingerly without dislodging any rocks but a few did escape. Like lumberjacks, we hollered down to the people ahead, “Rock!” but with the slope being so steep there was little they could do to get out of the way in time. Fortunately the rocks missed them; but once, Naveen actually jumped up in the air acrobatically to avoid being hit by a tumbling boulder. Quickly we learnt to wait till the others were behind a tree before sliding down a tricky incline. I imagined that Rom was probably asleep under a tree way down below, unaware of the rocks we were dislodging and perhaps one would hit his head. My disquiet grew worse; I refused to let anyone take any breaks, and I set a punishing rhythm.

A couple of hours later, we arrived exhausted at the beach to find Rom fully stretched out having a snooze to the soothing rhythm of the crashing waves. Apparently he had tacked a note for us on the tree where we had parted, but since we couldn’t remember the spot and being in a hurry, we never saw it. (If any of you find it, please mail it to me.)

Back at the police camp, we chatted about life on the island. They complained about hordes of rats that destroyed everything. We had caught glimpses of the rodents scurrying around in the trees near the plantations. Could they have jumped ship and colonized the island? In 1893, Major David Prain noted that “a rat swarms everywhere” and was the commonest mammal on the island. A decade ago we had experienced a similar situation on South Sentinel Island, another remote island almost 400 km in a straight line to the southwest, so perhaps it was normal for such a high density of rats to live on these isolated islands. Or maybe some early ship seeded these islands with rats as a surer food source than goats and pigs! Of goats, we had seen nary a sign; no pellets or tracks. Thankfully, besides a pair seen by a few police personnel just the previous week, an almost thorough removal had been executed.

On our last night we feasted on king mackerel seviche. Rom bemoaned that he hadn’t been able to see Narcondam’s only recorded snake, the paradise flying snake, a species found in Southeast Asia, but only on this island in Indian Territory.

Next stop was Manta Bay (nicknamed ‘Silly Manta’ after the description of the place read “silly numbers of mantas” in the Southeast Asia Pilot). As we pulled in, a medium-sized black manta swam below the surface. Excited, all of us jumped into the water, a couple with scuba and other with snorkels. Disappointingly, no other mantas were seen.

The Emerald Blue

Just past noon, with three sails hoisted and a strong wind behind us, we set course for Port Blair. Nick cut the engine, unfurled the two additional sails and silently, except for the sound of the yacht knifing through the waves, we sailed the old fashioned way. On a couple of occasions, we had to change direction to avoid colliding with oil tankers and cargo ships. From the early days of shipping, the distinctive profile of Narcondam has been a navigation aid, and even today this area appears to be a busy shipping corridor. As the island disappeared over the horizon, the nagging thought of not having reached the summit had me making plans for a return. That would entail the gauntlet of getting permits again. The devil in my head suggested: to hell with them, go on a fishing/diving trip and then find an excuse to climb the hill. Apparently by their very nature, the Gardens of Eden lead humans astray!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Desperate Neighbours

Published in The Hindu 14 March 2010

 “When there are elephants around, it does something to me” the man said quietly as he rubbed his belly in a universal gesture of nausea. We were visiting his hamlet in a tea garden near Siliguri, north Bengal, to investigate a recent incident of ‘shop lifting’ and destruction by a tusker locally known as Belcha (so named for his spade shaped tusks.). The villagers said that he had destroyed three shops and a granary that year. The ramshackle board and tin sheet shop was so flimsy that the elephant must have found it as easy as filliping a dolls’ house. Cookie jars, ubiquitous accessories in any village shop, still lay broken where they had fallen amongst the debris. Any treats lying exposed had long since been foraged. “What did he want from the shop?” I wondered out loud. “Salt and biscuits,” was the erstwhile shopkeeper’s tired answer. Enquiries about other elephant events pointed us to a neighbouring hamlet, and like vultures we followed in the wake of death and destruction.

The widow at Basti No. 5

At this hamlet, simply known as Basti No. 5, an elephant had killed a man ten days ago. Elephants had raided the family’s kitchen garden on two consecutive nights, and completely destroyed the crop of lenthil and tapioca. On the third night, when the family heard the unmistakable sounds of an elephant in their backyard, they fled their rickety shack. Unfortunately, the lone elephant was not in the backyard as they had thought but stood on the path blocking their exit. The terrorized family fled stumbling and whimpering into the night away from the gigantic dark hulk. While the mother and three children escaped, the elephant grabbed the father and hurled him into a hedge. They could not approach to see if he needed medical help for fear of their own lives as the elephant didn’t budge from the spot until dawn. By then it was too late. As the widow stood mute through our conversation with her neighbours, the awareness of her predicament hit me squarely in the solar plexus. A panchayat elder said that she would get Rs. 50,000 ex-gratia payment from the Forest Department whereas the official notification declares that she should be given Rs. 100,000. With three children to support, her insurance against starvation in shambles and her job at the tea garden insecure, the burden of providing for her family rested solely on her fragile malnourished shoulders.

Why do elephants leave their forest refuge and trouble their human neighbours? Are poor villagers the only affected party in this battle of wits and might? With support from United States Fish and Wildlife Services’ Asian Elephant Fund and Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, I sought the answers to these questions on the front lines of human-elephant conflict and among 130 scientific publications, articles, books and reports from Africa and Asia. As in any story there are two sides. While the human victims are the vocal, dramatic face of this conflict, the toll on elephants is invisible but just as catastrophic.

According to Project Elephant, the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ elephant-affairs body, only 22% of elephant territory in India is given the highest degree of protection as a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary; the rest falls under an assortment of lax regimes such as reserve, revenue and private forests. In other words, the bulk of elephant territory lies in areas that are exploited and degraded by humans. Imagine that you have only the bedroom to yourself and the rest of your house is open to anyone to come and take what they like or even demolish with no thought of your well-being. That is precisely what is happening wherever there is high conflict in elephant country.

The few isolated studies that quantify the loss of elephant-used forests indicate that they are being destroyed literally right beneath the pachyderms’ feet. In one extreme case, Assam lost 65% of choice elephant habitat since 1972, with Sonitpur District alone losing about 30% of its lowland forests in 10 recent years. Elephant forests are also sliced and severed by highways, dam projects and railroads. Elephants live to be 50 years old so what do they do when they lose their homes? They do not just go away to other forested areas, instead they stick it out and try to adjust. What to eat in which area at what time of the year is learnt by rote from the time an elephant is a mere calf following in its mother’s and aunts’ footsteps. Their destiny is intrinsically coupled to their habitat. That is why despite the risk to their lives, they insist on crossing highways and railway tracks and even swim across reservoirs to use their home range. Degraded forests do not move us emotionally nor do they tell the story of this tragedy in the making.

A recent encroachment at Nameri, Assam

In the tea gardens of Sonitpur, a herd of six elephants has virtually no forests within what it calls home. This herd is not a typical family group that retires shyly by day, for there is nowhere to hide, to get away from the constant heckling and harassment. They are now fighting for their very survival with their backs pressed together and are as aggressive as bulls. It is said that other herds, that used to migrate north to Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary for the summer only, are now spending autumn and sometimes even winter as high as 3300 metres. There is nothing in the foothills of Assam to come back for. In a bid to gain political mileage, Bodo tribals were encouraged to fell and settle in the reserve forests of Sonai-Rupai, Charduar, Balipara, Nowduar, Biswanath and Behali and now both the elephants and people of the area are paying the price.

In other states such as Jharkhand and Orissa, mining and forest fires leave behind a scorched earth incapable of supporting elephants. In the northeast, the pressure of an increasing human population has shortened the jhum cycle to such a degree that there is not enough fallow time for secondary browse to grow. This was the mainstay of the elephant populations of these states in decades past. Across elephant habitats, widespread grazing by domestic cattle encourages inedible weeds to proliferate, suppresses the growth of grass and fodder plants, and exposes the soil. Firewood and bamboo collection puts humans in direct competition with elephants. These are not dramatic events but collectively it is nothing short of plundering the elephants’ food supply. When the inflation rate spiked recently and the cost of food escalated to unheard of heights, sociologists predicted food riots. If that is expected behaviour of civilized humans, is it any wonder that elephants are turning to crops and raiding food stores to survive?

The Rengali canal cutting across elephant habitat, Orissa

Elephants spend summer in one part of the forest and go to another for the winter. They are faithful to their home range whose extent is determined by the quality of the forest and where forage and water are located. A herd’s home range may be a tiny 100 km2 in Sri Lanka, 650 km2 in Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu or 3700 km2 in north Bengal. Whatever the extent of the range, elephants need access to all of it to survive. If parts of their home are blocked by human settlements, they will use the cover of darkness to walk through crops, and villages. Forsaking that inaccessible part of their home is usually not an option and conflict becomes routine along these passageways.

Despite adjusting, when making a living in their home range is no longer possible, elephants expand their range by seeking new pastures. For example, some elephants from Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka have been visiting the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Goa since 2002, reportedly because of the Kali hydroelectric project. Humans are no different; when we can’t eke out a living in villages, we migrate to the cities or even other countries in search of work. Such disturbances in elephant habitat disperse the resident herds, creating conflict in their wake. Wherever there is high intensity conflict with elephants, habitat loss is the central theme. Much like Alauddin’s genie, once the elephants are out of the forests, it is almost impossible to put them back inside. That is why we would do well to remember that it is easier to protect their habitat than to create it.

However, habitat loss is not the only reason for conflict. All along the human-elephant interface conflict inevitably rumbles at low intensity. An average adult elephant spends about 18 hours a day in the forest finding about 250 kg of food, a combination of grasses, bulbs, aquatic plants, leaves, bamboo, roots, bark, dry twigs, and fruits. Just beyond the periphery of the forests, humans grow crops that have been selectively bred for greater nutrition, and lesser toxins. Besides where there is no surface water, we plumb the depths with bore wells to cultivate sweet juicy sugarcane and bananas even when all else is dry in the forest. It would take an extraordinarily self-disciplined elephant to turn its trunk up at these treats growing right on the doorstep. Instead of wandering all day long searching for fodder in a forest, here is an opportunity to spend just a few hours a night gorging on so much food concentrated in one place. Is it any wonder that some elephants venture into crops and leave behind fibrous steamy dung balls? Yet research shows that amazingly there are indeed some elephants with ample opportunity to raid crops, which do not give in to temptation and strictly maintain their diet of wild forage. We do not yet know why this is so and studying such elephants may help us understand conflict better.

As if ransacking the elephants’ home isn’t enough, humans kill bull elephants for their tusks. Herds don’t escape the wrath of farmers either. Each region has its preferred choice arsenal to kill and maim elephants – electrocution and mouth bombs in the south, poisoning with pesticides, homemade napalm, poison arrows and gunshots in the north. Stressed elephants may avoid those areas of their home range where they perceive danger and may congregate to find safety in numbers. The habitat that could sustain a smaller herd of elephants may take a beating from such large herds. Eventually the forest becomes so degraded that it cannot sustain the same animals any longer. This drives these elephants to the closest available food: crops. And the vicious cycle of violence continues.

The remains of an elephant visit

Calves learn from their mothers and aunts what to eat, where to find water, which route to take. If crops are on the menu those calves will grow up to consider that as their birthright, a cultural trait. We share the same predilection for “home food”, variously called “comfort food”; there is no other explanation for the Tamilian esteem for curd rice! Young dispersing bulls, whose family has not had a history of raiding crops, may learn the behaviour from other bulls. This may explain why some elephants eat crops while others in the same area don’t.

It is essential to understand that elephants are social animals, intelligent, self-aware and capable of emotions just like humans. Their reactions to various pressures and stresses may vary according to their temperament, experience and learning. In other words, all elephants do not react alike to the same demands, though the general pattern of adjustment and reaction to human behaviour described here holds true.

It is commonly suggested that conflict is a result of growing elephant numbers. But in Assam, although the elephant population is decreasing, the conflict graph doesn’t show a corresponding downward trend. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve has one of the largest elephant populations and yet conflict is generally considered to be low. There is no evidence to tie elephant numbers to conflict but there is plenty to show that high and growing human numbers have an impact on conflict intensity. And this is the bottom line: in the overwhelming majority of cases the cause of conflict is human-driven and it is critical for us to recognize and acknowledge this if we are to find equilibrium in our relationship with elephants.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Mega-Mahseer of the Cauvery

Published in Outlook Traveller Feb 2010 

Joe Assassa was the odds on favourite to win the contest; after all he had 16 years to get to know the river well. He appeared to be on a personal quest - Operation Big - and had already caught some massive mahseer in the preceding weeks. Bruce Schwack, the self-titled ‘Viagraja’, was another contender in more ways than one, for he and Joe shared a common vocation. What were the odds of two Viagra dealers competing in an angling competition in South India? (Actually pretty darn good, read on!) Conversation around the evening bonfire swirled predictably around pharmaceuticals while one of them liberally dispensed little blue pills which disappeared quickly and surreptitiously into pockets.

The “Masheer Classic 2009” was the first competition conducted by the Anglers’ Club. There were twelve contestants gathered on the banks of the Cauvery at the Bheemeshwari Fishing Camp in Karnataka on a Friday afternoon in December. Besides the two merchants of sex-stimulants, others had less-risqué professions such as a telecom executive, a magnesia company magnate, a landscape architect, a businessman, a writer for a British angling magazine, a freelance photographer.

Each angler, accompanied by a gillie (an old Scottish word for ‘fishing guide’), set out in a coracle (no longer lined with buffalo hide but with plastic tarp). The gillie chose the spot - mid-river rocks, reeds or the opposite bank - and indicated in which direction and how far to cast the tangerine-sized ragi dough wrapped around a hook. Although some used extra weights, the ball of local millet was heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the river where the large mammas hung out. Then one settled down comfortably watching the tip of the rod hour after hour. When little fish fed on the bait, the rod tip bobbed. When there was that slow, steady, strong pull that bent the rod down, the angler, suddenly adrenalized, yanked and hopefully hooked the fish, maybe a mahseer, but possibly an ordinary carp or cat fish. That was the general principle of ‘ragi-balling’, which most anglers agree is very sedentary.

As the largest and most challenging freshwater game fish in the world, the mahseer lives up to every interpretation of its name: ‘big tiger’, ‘big head’, ‘big scaled’, and ‘big front-end’. Such royalty does not take kindly to being caught and the spirited fight of even a little chap weighing about 5 lbs. can lead you to overestimate his size. This combative tendency makes mahseer the sport fish of every angler’s dreams. It grows to a monstrous size in the Cauvery, this is where the record 120 pounder (54.4 kg) was caught in March 1946 by J. de Wet van Ingen (of the famous family of taxidermists from Mysore). Obviously, the 1.69 metre (5.54 feet) long fish was mounted as a trophy and is now lodged at the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore. The second and third biggest mahseer were also caught in this river. In 1993, Mark Thompson set the record for Bheemeshwari with a 106 lb. mahseer.

Despite the popular myth that the monsters can only be taken on ragi, purists consider spooning the rapids to be the real challenge. Since the coracle was too unstable a craft to maneuver, the algae-covered rocks too infernally slippery, and the river currents too strong, the gillies generally discouraged the idea. Although ragi-balling has been used for a long time, van Ingen caught the record breaker on a spoon. So there is no need to sacrifice sport for size – one could do both, but it is just much harder reeling in a fighter when you are stumbling, falling on your back, bruising your shins and punishing your knees while fighting the current and the fish.

When you use plugs, flies and metallic spoons, the action is fast and furious; the angler needs some skill to fool the fish into believing that the lure is the real thing. There is no time to sit comfortably in a coracle and fall asleep gently rocked by the river currents. Despite the liberal sprinkling of asafoetida, cardamom and fennel, a ball of ragi didn’t masquerade as anything else; none of the fish were fooled and if you caught a mahseer, it was because it was really hungry. While spooning, anglers take care not to spook the fish; they wear dull colours, hardly ever speak and sneak around behind boulders and reeds, almost on all-fours. On the contrary, ragi-fed mahseer didn’t care if the gillies yelled to each other across the breadth of the Cauvery, or if the anglers didn’t stick to the dress code. Apparently there was no need to outwit such a dull (but hungry) monster; after all, they must know that when food balls start plopping down that humans are about and some may even remember that these treats to be thorny and dangerous.

After expectantly observing several casts and seeing few signs of action, I watched Basavanbhetta, the tallest hill overlooking the river, change colour and mood as the sun set. An eagle owl soared silently across the river, elephants on the opposite bank trumpeted and flocks of cormorants flew westwards into the redness. The wheeling Brahminy kites swooped low every now and then with no better luck than the anglers.

Rom Whitaker imagined what was happening at the bottom of the river around the bait. Hundreds of little ones were driving the interest in the ragi, he said. They dash to the bait as soon as it hits the water. There were some medium sized ones attracted by the swarming little fish and one or two large ones in the area warily wondering if the food ball was dangerous. Even though his rod was still with little sign of action, he said hopefully that it could still be good; a large one may be circling the bait keeping the others away. It started to look to me as if angling was just an excuse to feed the fish with every coracle feeding about five kilos of ragi dough per session.

As I spent time with each angler in turn, I began to quantify the factors that increase the chances of hooking a mahseer. On a sunny day, one said, “Cloudy weather makes them hungry”. On a cloudy day when the fishing was unproductive, another said, “Rain oxygenates the surface, changes temperature and flushes shore creatures into the water and triggers feeding”. Another added that the ideal condition was when the sun followed the rain. But luck appeared to negate all this knowledge. A novice angler, Pritam Kukillaya, beat the competition on the second day (in full sunshine) by hooking a 36 lb. mahseer. Experiences such as these make anglers equally eloquent about the effects of falling barometric pressure while nervously fingering their lucky beads.

So how much skill and knowledge did ragi-balling require? From observing the contestants, not a great deal it appeared. One retorted, “There is skill involved. You have to know when to yank the line so you hook the fish.” A day later, while an angler was reaching for a bottle of water, I watched the reel suddenly sing its high pitched, excited whine while the line stripped away: a fish had hooked itself. All the angler had to do was be at the right place at the right time. Skill, come again? Another suggested that expertise was needed to choose the fishing sites, but the gillies decided the best spot and anglers’ suggestions, with the exception of Joe perhaps, were usually over-ruled. However, there is no doubt that once a mega-mahseer is hooked, playing it does demand every ounce of energy and expertise.

Most anglers for mahseer use large reels, be it a spinner or a caster, because when a monster bites, it tends to run far and fast. “Your arms are nearly torn out from their sockets”, is Macdonald’s vivid description of the first rush in the 1948 classic, ‘Circumventing the Mahseer’. Can you imagine what Sanderson’s hands were like when his 110 lb. mahseer ran on that day in 1871 when all he had was a 400 yard hand line? (In 1897, H.S. Thomas, the author of ‘The Rod in India’ quotes G.P. Sanderson as estimating that fish to weigh 150 lbs. But in his own 1912 work ‘Thirteen years among the wild beasts of India’, Sanderson says he had no means of weighing the fish and modestly suggested the fish was “not less than 100 lbs”. The figure leapt upwards in 1928 when the curator of the Mysore Museum reported that it weighed 130 lbs. So how did the Sanderson fish get its 110 lb. tag? In 1943, Col. R.W. Burton pointed out that the dimensions of Sanderson’s fish were the same as another fish which weighed at 110 lbs.) Whatever the actual weight, there is little doubt that Sanderson was the first on record to break the 100 lb. barrier in the history of mahseer angling!

Reeling in a monster mahseer is a contest of will, strength and wits. The angler should know where to let the fish run to avoid breaking the line and gauge when his adversary is exhausted enough to be reeled in. Fights have lasted hours, and as the angler uses his back as a fulcrum to reel the fish in, back-aches are an inevitable price to pay. In one case, not even an hour into the fight, the angler’s arms began trembling with the tension (he eventually lost the fish). You can lose a large fish by misjudging the topography and the creature’s feistiness. The story of a loss may be entertaining around a camp-fire and to regale family back home, but earns no bragging points. The more emphatically your arms stretch wide, the more everyone thinks “Yeah right”. It is just one more in the anthology of The-One-That-Got-Away stories.

As if the constant posturing and undercurrent of competitiveness weren’t enough, businessman Dhananjai Golla (popularly called ‘Jai’) of the Anglers’ Club felt the hobby needed to be formalized as a sport. While angling is a multi-billion dollar industry in the West, in India, it slipped into oblivion with the end of the Raj and today remains a marginal sport. A handbook of the 19th century avows that there are only four “gentlemanly” sports: “hunting, hawking, fowling and angling.” The last is perhaps the only one that can be legally practiced by gentlemen of today. Among the older generation, it was usually the former hunters who turned to fishing as an alternative means of keeping their senses alive and honed. I was curious about what attracts younger people to the sport. One said angling was his way of relaxing, another said it gave him an excuse to spend some time alone in a reasonably remote and beautiful spot. Another derived pleasure from buying fancy fishing gear and testing it out in different locales. Yet another said that as a child he fared poorly in sports of any kind and when he stumbled on angling as an adult, he felt “this was it”. But the common refrain of every angler’s dream is to fight a fish, a rite of passage that makes men out of mere lads. There is no escaping the fact that this is a male dominated sport.

On the river the anglers were fairly spread out and often out of sight of each other, so the only witness to a mega catch was the gillie. Once caught, the mahseer was weighed, photographed and returned to the river. This “catch and release” concept provides sport without loss of life and is therefore sustainable. Since the fish cannot be brought to camp, the angler’s word supported by his gillie is accepted at face value. The contest was played by gentleman’s rules. A couple of anglers sprayed their ragi balls with fish pheromones to induce a feeding frenzy and increase the chances of catching a fish. When the competition catches on, the organizers will have to decide if such additives can be allowed while keeping in mind the difficulty of enforcing these rules.

At the end of the second day, Jai grumbled about losing a “monster”; the numerous rocks in the river truly tested the nylon monofilament. One advised that he only used a 50 lb. test line. Even though a 20 lb. line may be sufficient to catch a large fish, if it went under a rock, the line needs to withstand the pressure and abrasion. So why not over-compensate and use an 80 lb. line? To give the fish a fighting chance, replied Jai. Later I discovered that the true art of angling lies in catching monster fish with as light a tackle as possible. For instance, an angler who catches a 40 lb. fish on a 20 lb. line scores more than one who catches the same sized fish on a 50 lb. line. Besides a light line enables the casts go further out.

On the third morning, I figured that I might hear a lot more interesting stories and theories by watching Joe fish. Flightily, he said he had to run the idea by his gillie who in turn said that the boat was too small. “Tomorrow”, he promised. We were all heading our different ways homewards “tomorrow” so it was a non-happener. As I got ready to accompany someone else, another gillie who clearly hadn’t been let in on the story hurriedly beckoned me to join Joe. I brought him up to speed but he retorted, “No, no. Joe has big boat”. That’s why he wasn’t Joe’s gillie. During that session, Joe caught a beautiful 40 lb. mahseer (cloudy day) and beat the competition to the top spot.

What sex were the humongous fish and how does one tell them apart? One fisherman said that a cock-fish above 10 lbs. has a ‘beard’, a flap of skin under the chin that ends in a point. Another muttered the equivalent of “bovine droppings” under his breath. It is suspected that large mahseer are hens (Col. Burton caught a 41 lbs. cock fish from the Bhavani and mentioned that all mahseer above 50 lbs. were females) and there may be no way of telling the sex of the fish from just looking at them. So every mahseer angler’s dream fish was a hen, a girl! And the bigger she was, the more ecstatic the fisherman. This was deliciously Freudian! Now it was easier to fathom why there were two Viagra dealers at the event!

The dining room, the Gholghar, was adorned with pictures of anglers with their massive catch. The fish appeared to be over-weight; they were wider for their length than the pictures of the long, sleek fish from the Himalayas in Macdonald’s book. The reason seemed obvious enough. Joe said that fishing was good after weekends when scores of picnicking people dump leftovers into the river. In fact, he said, he caught his three largest ones (the pictures on display at the Gholghar) around Muthathi, the morning after thousands of people had celebrated the dawning of the New Year.

Further, Sunder Raj, the manager of the camp, said that every season they feed five thousand kilos of ragi to the mahseer to keep them within the protected 30 km stretch of river. If they weren’t fed, the fish were likely to migrate up and downriver where destructive dynamiting, netting and poisoning were rampant. Could this be why these mahseer appeared fat?  Maybe not; the hump-backed mahseer of the Cauvery is known to have a greater girth to length ratio.

Once found in rivers and large streams all over the country, sadly, mahseer are today restricted to a few stretches of protected rivers. They are being exterminated by the dynamiters and poisoners even in fairly remote areas (see ‘Wild Water’, Outlook Traveller June 2009). Angling offers an opportunity for people to become knowledgeable about fish diets, hooks, lines, tides, currents, weather patterns amongst other variables. Such people with a stake in the health of the rivers may be the ones to campaign for river and mahseer conservation while paying for enforcement. Besides, their very presence on the river deters fish poachers. If it were not for the records of fish caught and released by anglers, it would be difficult to monitor the health of the mahseer population.

None beat Joe’s catch during the afternoon session although it fell short of his own personal best by several pounds. Pritam’s 36 lb. mahseer came second and Jehangir Vakil’s came third at 35 lb. The fish who refused to take the ragi balls were obviously the wily old crones. Angus Hutton, a former tea planter, recalled a story that hints at the existence of real monsters.

During the terrible drought of 1950/51, Angus visited the Krishnarajasagar reservoir on the outskirts of Mysore with the van Ingen brothers, Botha and de Wet. The water level was way down to the scum and all the junk people had thrown in over the years lay exposed. Some labourers were digging channels to divert the last remaining water to the Brindavan Gardens located below the dam. A muddy puddle caught the intrepid fishermen’s attention and they decided to investigate.

Botha drove the jeep as far down into the reservoir as he safely could. Normally this area would have been under a hundred feet of water. They pushed and shoved their coracle through the clinging mud with great difficulty for about 50 metres to the fetid green pool. De Wet gaffed around the bottom and soon snagged what he thought were the remains of a crocodile. It was a struggle to hoist the heavy carcass up and when the effort became even more vigorous, Angus feared the coracle would capsize and they would all drown in the muddy, sticky soup. Eventually when the stinky remains broke surface, they realized it was a part of a mahseer. The whole rotten piece fell back before de Wet could bring it onboard and he was left holding a single huge scale skewered by the gaff. The scale was roughly three times the size of the largest scale of the 120 lb. mounted trophy which led de Wet to estimate the mahseer to have been 300 lbs., or even 400! The episode was captured on 8mm film by Angus and is currently in the possession of Botha’s grandson. Ragi-balling for a 100 pounder seems modest when anglers could be kitting out with a 100 lb. line and enticing a 300+ lb. monster. So get on down to the river and let a truly feisty giant hen make you a man!

Getting there: Bheemeshwari is just 100 km away from Bangalore, off the Mysore highway. The turn off at Channapatna is currently a smoother road than the pothole-ridden one off Kanakapura.
Accommodation: The Fishing Camp has eight log cabins (Rs. 3250 per night), eight tents (Rs. 2750 per night) and two cottages (Rs. 3500 per night) overlooking the river. All are air-conditioned with hot and cold running water. Those anglers who have bust their backs can rejuvenate at the Ayurvedic massage centre on campus. The provided rates include all three meals, coracle ride, joy fishing, trekking, camera fees, forest entry fees and tax.  For more details:
Angling Information: Angling season lasts mid-November to March. Coracles, gillies and ragi bait are provided by the Camp. The Camp also sells the necessary fishing license (Rs. 1250). Bring your own tackle (see for a recommended list). The gillies have recently been trained in fish handling, importance of mahseer conservation, and ecotourism and have also been equipped with a weighing scale, and miscellaneous other tools.

The Masheer Classic is expected to be held at the same time next year (
Things to bring: Hat, sunscreen, water bottle, shorts, warm clothing for the evenings, dark glasses, camera, shoes.

PS: Our friend, fish expert, Rohan Pethiyagoda, says "I have heard [the relationship between drop in barometric pressure to fishing success] from anglers many times, but it does not appear to make sense in the context of the depth of water in which mahseer operate. Even a massive barometric fall of 10% would represent only the equivalent of 1 m of water depth, which is well within the range of depths a large fish would routinely swim around in..."