Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Interview with Barbara Block

Published in Current Conservation 7.2

Barbara Block is Professor of Marine Biology at Stanford University, USA. Over the course of the last decade, she has mapped the seasonal movements of predators in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Her work has lifted the veil of opacity from the oceans: we now see migratory pathways, feeding and spawning grounds, and homecoming gatherings.

Although marine animals seemingly have the freedom to go anywhere on earth, Barbara’s work highlights they are creatures of routine, following the same route to arrive at the same spot at the same time every year. Barbara won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2012 for using technology to monitor oceanic hotspots, and enabling the public to build a rapport with the animals of the deep. Since oceans are huge expanses, we think we can take as much as we want and there will always be more. In this interview she talks to Janaki Lenin about why we should conserve bluefin tuna and sharks, and the challenges of changing people’s opinions.

JL: Why should we be concerned about tunas?

BB: Giant tuna, such as bluefin tuna, have a commodity value where a single tuna can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. When wildlife has a high value, it is hard to stop commerce or trade in the species. This is the case for bluefin tuna which is the most sought after member of the tuna family. Bluefin tunas (three species) are in a high-class, luxury market. The rest of the tunas, which includes species such as skipjack and yellowfin tunas, primarily goes into cans. For these species, there is often a bycatch of non-target species such as turtles and sharks. Instead of the target species, the net actually captures top predators in the ecosystem.

JL: You were part of the 10-year-long census of Marine Life program which sounds astounding in its ambition. Could you tell me more about it?

BB: We tagged 4800 animals, about 75 scientists from many nations working together. We took on the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean, and asked, “Could we learn how it works from the top predators?” We started with arrows on a map. Do the white sharks go this way? Do the blue whales go that way? Do the tunas go this way? We did a lot of testing of existing and new electronic tag technology. Together as a multinational coalition, we did almost the impossible. We got a glimpse for ten years of how the Pacific Ocean worked. What we discovered was there was a pulsatile movement of the animals according to seasons. Animals you thought would wander everywhere were basically going away and coming home, going away and coming home. The northeast Pacific, which is about the size of the Atlantic Ocean, from Hawaii to coastal California, basically had a repertoire of seasons that the fish and animals were following. None of us had known that. So we learned it was a finely-tuned periodicity much as you’d expect on the plains of Africa in which animals were going through large migrations on a seasonal scale.

JL: You also did a Tag-a-Giant campaign. It’s amazing you managed to tag a thousand animals. How do you process data like that?

BB: We’ve had a lot of experience handling tags, animals and the large data sets that are generated. In the case of Tag-a-Giant, that’s my favourite project. That’s the project I started with. I was a youngster when we first put computers into tunas in the North Atlantic. We decided early on to put tags internally into the tuna, and have a long stalk that sampled the environment come out of it. The idea was we let the tunas go with tags that said, “We’ll pay you a US $ 1000 if you return our recorder.” Sure enough, 24% of them came back in the Atlantic. We put out about 700 of those tags, but we also put out pop-up satellite tags which didn’t need a fisherman to intervene. And those we got back at 80% level. So together now, we have in the Atlantic, over 30,000 days in the life of tuna. Imagine if we did this to humans, we would find that we have places where we gather at restaurants, foraging stops. A Londoner and an American can be in the same place, say in New York. It’s the same with tuna.

We found out where are the lunch stops are that many of the animals come to versus where are the lunch stops that are only one side might come to. We found the tunas were mixing across the ocean but separating back to their spawning grounds.

JL: When people see the tuna at the Monterey Aquarium, what do you want them to think about the tuna fishing industry? What do you want them to take away from this experience?

BB: I think we have to stop thinking that tuna are just food on our table. We wouldn’t go into Africa and eat the lions, zebras and elephants, in most cases. We are basically doing that in the ocean. We are not looking at wildlife in the ocean as anything but food, and we could leave to our children an ocean without these animals. We have to learn to live sustainably, and potentially raise herbivorous fish that are much more productive; not carnivores, but herbivores that could feed many people.

JL: How would you protect something that is so valuable? Just looking at the price of tuna, one appears to be so much more expensive than a tiger.

BB: I think it’s hard. Aquaculture to some extent is going to help save the day. Around the globe, there are many projects that are trying to raise tuna. Japan has taken a spectacular lead on the technology, Australia has got an on-land facility. There’s probably 10 facilities being built – one in Taiwan, a couple in Spain, Greece, Israel. It’s like producing gold, if you can do it. I believe there’ll be some breakthroughs there. I’m not saying I’m for farming tuna. If a portion of the market could be met through that type of activity, and done sustainably with good science and sustainable feeds, then it would take the pressure off the wild stocks.

I think if the wild stocks are managed correctly, the tuna can be fished sustainably. But it’s a cocaine-of-the-sea type of problem where many people want it and no one’s paying attention to the rules. Pirated tuna is a really big problem. I dream of a new technology. What if we could barcode every tuna that’s landed and keep track of them. What if we could barcode every live elephant, or every live bluefin tuna left on earth so you really could keep track of them. So my dream is really to make a tag, a carcass tag that allows us to keep track of fishery in a more accurate manner from point of landing to market, so we don’t have any pirating.

JL: At the 2010 CITES meeting, there was a call for banning bluefin tuna fishing. Some were calling it a point of no return if the voting failed. The voting did fail. Where are we today?

BB: In the Atlantic, there is a complex population structure of the Atlantic bluefin tuna that is emerging with genetics. Our lab and many others are doing this work. What’s coming out from this work is that the population near America is much more threatened than the population on the eastern side of the basin, the Mediterranean population. The tagging and genetics show that because the European tuna come over to our waters, they help protect our tuna. If our US or Canadian fishermen catch one of their fish, they don’t kill one of our fish. So we have this complex set of dynamics going on that are critical to capture in the models being used to manage the fishery. The European fish are thought to reproduce quicker, faster, potentially they have a larger and stronger population. Whereas our population that breed off US shores in the Gulf of Mexico of North America is the weak population: the animals take longer to mature, and reach larger body size at maturity. These bluefins are the giants of the ocean, the largest tuna in the sea. Our North American population is extremely low and the eastern Mediterranean population is larger, potentially rebounding quicker (due to lower age to mature), but we’re still not sure. Some say they are coming back after a short letup in fisheries take. The models being run by ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas] don’t really reflect the true biology of these populations. Until they do, I would be cautionary. They don’t have enough robust analysis of the mixing of populations, which population is which that you are modeling, and until we get there, it would be premature to say the tunas have recovered.

Furthermore, your question refers to the western bluefin population that’s spawning in the Gulf of Mexico. That is what should be discussed in those contexts, but unfortunately people say ‘bluefin tuna’ which is a whole species that doesn’t require an endangered species status. It’s a very complex problem. It raises the big question: in the ocean, what is an endangered marine species? When are there not enough parents to make the next generation? That’s a tough question. That’s the limit of our knowledge right now. What happens when you get down to the last few giant bluefin tuna? In our case, there could be larval cascades going on. In the old days, there may have been tens of thousands of bluefins spawning at once who made lots of bluefin babies and their burst of reproduction meant they were the dominant tuna. Now, a lot of the times they get many more of the smaller tuna eggs, the blackfin, and at the same time they get bluefin. There’s a potential that they are eating the bluefin at this point.

JL: Does the fishing community see what you are doing as helping the long-term survival of their industry, or do they see you as an adversary?

BB: I think we’ve come a long way with our fishermen especially in America. They respect us for the high content of the information we have put on the table. We are advocates for the fish, but we are also not going after closing fisheries. We think of sustainable fisheries. I’d like to see us protect, for example, the spawning areas immediately. It’s a case where longlines get set for a different tuna species called the yellowfin tuna, and the bycatch is bluefin that is protected by law. Currently, we wouldn’t outright close the boundaries and say, “Don’t fish here.” So we try to look for solutions that are practical for the people we are working with, and I think that builds respect rather than adversity between the two groups.

JL: Both the main species—sharks and tuna—are going to East Asian consumers. Shark fins go to China and tuna goes to Japan. So shouldn’t we be working with those economies?

BB: Sushi has become a fad around the world that it’s really amazing. In our grocery stores in America, we didn’t have tuna when I grew up. But now there’s tuna as a healthy snack. Same thing around almost all cultures. Eating raw fish has been passed from Japan to everyone. So there’s a global tuna pressure. Then canned tuna is very popular in America. I think to solve the problem we need to begin to think about what is it we want with our oceans. Do we want an ocean devoid of tunas? Or do we want an ocean that is managed correctly? So we can probably have healthy fisheries if we just had healthy management. That’s all we are saying.

What we see as marine conservationists is the need for building protected areas in the sea. And there are some places like the California coast that might be a National Park, like Yellowstone, in North America. Places deemed unique in our oceans, rich in biodiversity should obtain World Heritage Site designations. The Great Barrier Reef is one such place but we need more.

When I first moved to California 20 years ago, I had no idea when I looked out my office window, what a special place it is. And now after all this tagging, we’ve learned, “My God, we might be living in a hotspot in the sea.” We had animals coming from Indonesia, we had animals coming from Japan, we had animals coming from New Zealand. Many marine predators come to Monterey for a part of the year, and it’s exciting to see that this is the most spectacular place and nobody knows it’s there. And that’s my challenge. How do you make the seas transparent?

JL: What do you think should be the strategy at the coming Bangkok meeting? Even if it’s sustainability that you are talking, not outright banning. How do you set quotas? It’s all a question of bargaining and Japan is going to veto anything.

BB: Yeah, I know it’s really tough. What’s happened is that the green groups have gotten better at understanding the game and how it’s played. Japan is an economic force that is trying to get votes to help sustain its way of life. It’s a country that requires lots of tuna. I take hope in the fact that everyone is trying to solve the tuna aquaculture problem. And even I get bitten by that bug. We’ve raised tunas for 20 years and I can’t think of anything more fun than trying to raise, in our case, bluefin or yellowfin. Bluefin is very difficult to do. But Japan’s solved it and so has Australia; Spain’s trying to solve it. And I do think there’ll be a day not too long from now, 20 years from now, when a lot of the meat will be coming from these facilities.

JL: Would such an operation be economically feasible?

BB: I think it’s economically feasible and I think just like salmon, which 25 years ago was wild caught, is almost entirely produced through aquaculture. The challenge will be: Can we do aquaculture scientifically correctly? Which means that you’ve got to develop the feeds; you’ve got to make the feed out of something that is not competing with human protein. It’s very difficult and I recognise that. We dream of fish that eat soy grown on our farms in the plains, and then are potentially genetically selected like plants. Or, the other idea is raising fish on algae with the right essential oils.You feed little cubes like brownies to your tunas. At Monterey, we feed a snack to tunas that’s just like a green brownie, and it’s just seaweed with the right vitamins in it.

JL: What about sharks? We’ve talked a lot about tuna.

BB: The problem with sharks is that they reproduce in a manner very similar to us. They use internal fertilization and have a small number of pups per year, a reproductive style that has allowed them to be successful in the oceans for millions of years.

We always hear about shark-finning, but people are eating the meat of some sharks, not all sharks. Humans are taking sharks at a level that really defies imagination. It just makes me wonder how could there be all these sharks in the ocean. The level of landing of sharks is stripping shark populations globally. They cannot handle the kind of fishing that was set up originally for tunas and other bony fishes.

As tuna populations become smaller, the longlines and other gear target sharks by mistake. That was initially problematic for the fishermen, but now they are directed towards the sharks. Out there in the open ocean where people fished, initially sharks weren’t brought in, but now they are brought in. They are brought in for their fins, they are brought in for certain parts of their meat, and that is happening everywhere you go in the ocean. It’s really tragic because sharks cannot keep up with that pace. So there are places we go where we don’t even see sharks anymore.

What’s interesting about that is we don’t understand what a shark does in a healthy ecosystem. We know they are important. We know that ocean ecosystems that are normal require top predators to maintain resilience and balance. When we remove them, we may ultimately be flipping the ecosystem to some new equilibrium that we don’t even understand. It’s happening everywhere where sharks are being removed; we are getting a new set of ecosystems. In some cases that might mean you have herbivores on the reef overnight, more algae growing because certain animals aren’t there anymore, or the sharks were removing part of the ecosystem that you didn’t realise what role it was playing. So we are doing these experiments everywhere and nobody really knows what the consequences are. I’m happy to say that off the California coast may be one of the places where sharks are running wild in a big way. Same in parts of Australia. It’s a question of what makes it healthy versus what do you gain from a healthy ecosystem? Do you gain happiness because you have have wildness? Or do you gain something in value that’s worth more? So we are actually looking for support right now to understand what does it mean to have an intact ecosystem. In general, it means more linkages, more stability, more resilience, but that’s hard to translate.

JL: The trouble with making people feel a personal connection with any marine creature is the lack of a personality.

BB: That’s what Shark Net is about. The Rolex award is about using new tools to bring a more personal connection to stories. I really don’t know if youngsters in India, Japan, or China would have the same interest as American youngsters. They love sharks. Here, there may be a culture that fears sharks, I don’t know. So how do you overcome the —what is a shark?

JL: Do sharks have personalities?

BB: An hour from where I live in San Francisco are the biggest predators, 5000 lb. white sharks, in the sea. I don’t dive very much anymore in my area; I have a healthy fear, but my students all surf. I think it’s great that I can go out and study the sharks in the fall, get them close to the boat, and work with them. None of them are real personalities to me; I see them as white sharks. But my students who study them quite regularly, they’ve got their favourites out there.

There are sharks that’ll only approach the decoy one way. There’re sharks that come right up. One shark called Engine comes right up to the boat and always likes to tap the engine. He keeps us on our toes.

Shark Net, a mobile application that is downloadable free from iTunes, allows the user to keep track of individual white sharks off the coast of California. 

Powered by wave energy, the Glider is a floating robot that rides the waves between California and Hawaii, while trawling a listening device seven metres underwater. Should a shark with a tag embedded in it swim within 300 metres range of the robot, the latter picks up the signal and transmits the data through a satellite link. Besides the Glider, a network of fixed listening buoys with underwater microphones located at congregation sites also pick up information from tagged sharks.

The data from the Glider and the listening buoys is used by Barbara Block and her team to monitor the predators. For people with no scientific background, Shark Net presents the same data in an easily understandable form. Each shark has a name and profile with high-definition videos, and details of its comings and goings. When the signal of a shark gets picked up by one of the listening devices, within minutes the user gets an alert. Hopefully, over time enough people will develop an interest in the individual lives of these animals to care more about their future.

A trip in more ways than one

Published as 'A Walk on the Wild Side' in Outlook Traveller November 2013. The theme is '150 trips to do before you die.'

Photo credit: Paresh C. Porob

I was intimidated by the forest. Being seasoned jungle farers, my spouse Rom and Amar Heblekar, the Forest Ranger, strode confidently ahead into Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Goa. I hurried after them, using them as a shield against whatever terrible creatures might jump out from the vast wildness.

The trees towered as tall as seven-storey buildings with thick python-like lianas strung haphazardly between them. Many were smooth-barked, while knobs, thorns, and grooves adorned others. Sunlight streamed between gaps in the canopy in thin beams, highlighting leaves of green, yellow, and brown. The vivid orange, red, and pink blooms of ixora closely resembled the cultivated ones in my parents’ home, and the familiarity offered some comfort in this strange landscape. I had never been in a forest before.

Someone had reported seeing a king cobra in Cotigao and Rom wanted to see the spot. He didn’t expect to find the snake although that would have made his day. Since Amar knew the area, he led the way.

Following the men, I scanned the sides of the path and looked intently at plants for snakes. Reptiles didn’t feature in my list of dreaded animals as I had spent the past months living at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Some of Rom’s empathy for them had also rubbed off on me.

Snakes have the unnerving habit of coiling in plain sight and yet remaining completely invisible. Dappled light played on the gnarled surface roots of trees, creepers, and dry twigs, and I almost called out “Snake!” The three of us made a loud racket as dry leaves crackled loudly underfoot. If snakes had ears, they’d have heard us from miles away.

A greater racket-tailed drongo perched on a bare branch sang melodiously. The lack of an audience didn’t seem to affect its virtuoso performance. From the treetops, a giant squirrel loudly scolded us.

The morning wore on and as it grew hotter, cicadas set up a ceaseless, deafening buzz. With imaginary dangerous beasts remaining safely out of sight, I took my time to take in my surroundings. When the men stopped, I caught up with them just in time to see Amar pointing to a sturdy liana and saying the big king cobra had been resting there. That was our first inkling that adult king cobras were tree-dwellers. I wondered how many king cobras had been coiled up on trees that morning, observing us looking for them on the ground.

The liana was slung like a hammock between trees. Not only would a lounging king cobra have a soft breeze cooling its belly, it would also have a vantage point to gaze on the picturesque glade below. I stood gazing at the scene slack-jawed when a gorgeous white butterfly with black veins dreamily floated past. Its wings were so extravagantly enormous that the insect seemed to have difficulty remaining air-borne. Rom murmured, “Malabar tree nymph.” The old Greek name for king cobra is Hamadryad, wood nymph. Since then, the two nymphs of the forest, the butterfly and the snake, have remained intertwined in my memory.

At Amar’s suggestion, we climbed up a hill slope to see a waterfall. The higher we hiked, the denser and wetter the forest grew. I had only heard of leeches before, but now I saw them feverishly wave their fiendish heads. As the person leading the walk, Amar woke them up from deep slumber, Rom whetted their appetite, and at the rear, I became the sacrificial victim. Pausing to catch my breath was a standing invitation to legions of bloodsuckers. So I soldiered on, disregarding all protests from whining thigh muscles.

Photo credit: Paresh C. Porob

By the time we crested the summit, only the roar of the waterfall was audible above the sound of my heart’s frantic beating. The white sheet of water crashed down on to rocks a hundred feet below. That’s when I noticed the trickle of blood seeping between my toes. I tore open the Velcro straps of my walking shoes, and discovered a bloody mess. Following Rom’s example, I flicked off the offending engorged bluish-black leech and washed my feet in the cool stream. I tried futilely to mimic Rom’s nonchalance to leech bites, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the fresh trickle of blood.

From the top of the waterfall, we gazed at the thick evergreen forests below us, when a pair of pied hornbills flew across. Their huge wings and enormous casques made them look like escapees from a prehistoric age. Eventually I forgot to be traumatized by the forced donation of a few drops of blood. Leeches could have put me off from venturing into rainforests again, but I refused to be a wimp.

Late morning on our way back, we caught the stench of a rotting carcass. Following our noses and the distinct buzzing of blow flies, we found the bloated cow. Blood oozing from puncture wounds in its throat had dried. Only when I stepped around it to take a photograph did I notice the soft underside had been eaten. I overheard the men say it was a leopard kill.

Continuing on our way, I was alert to every movement and sound, glancing behind me for stalking leopards, above me for spying king cobras, and below me for bloodthirsty leeches. My eyes opened wider, my ears almost swivelled straining to pick up every quiet sound, while my nose tried to distinguish between the many earthy hints.

The creatures of Cotigao are also found along the rest of the Western Ghats. Walking through squelchy and slippery rainforests can be uncomfortable and messy. So what makes this forest special? The deciduous forests of Cotigao are drier and much more open, and hiking is a pleasurable experience, like walking through an ancient living cathedral.

Here is how Cotigao ranks: Comfort – check, access – check, diversity – check, scenic beauty – check, animal life – check, walkability – check. Many other deciduous forests along the Ghats share the same attributes. But this off-the-beaten-track Goan forest has one ace up its sleeve that makes it a hands-down favourite.

Rom and I drove half an hour from the forest rest house to Polem Beach. We swam and floated in the blue-green shallow waters until we were several shades darker. Not only did cool sea water rejuvenate us, but it soothed itchy leech bites. Where else on mainland India would you find a sparsely used spectacular beach almost on the doorstep of a forest that boasted a picturesque waterfall?

More than an expectation of wildlife entertainment, Cotigao made me face irrational fears and taught me to eagerly anticipate the unexpected. It was a rite of passage; I walked in as a gauche, immature fusspot and emerged a jungle-alert woman.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Published in Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter No. 18, July 2013

Australian marine biologist Brad Norman founded ECOCEAN to protect and conserve whale sharks. Despite being the world’s largest fish, little was known about them. ECOCEAN developed software to identify individual animals based on their unique patterns from photographs. Since then the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-Identification Library collected more than 47,000 photographs and 22,000 sighting records of whale sharks sent by citizen scientists from around the world. In 2006, Norman received the Rolex Award for Enterprise, and in 2008 National Geographic Society named him an Emerging Explorer.
In November 2012, Brad Norman was in Delhi to attend that year’s Rolex Awards ceremony where Janaki Lenin interviewed him.

How big a role did citizen science play in how much you’ve learned about whale sharks?

It has and continues to play a really important role. As a scientist, I can only be in one place one day of the year. But now we are finding these whale sharks are distributed around the world from the input of the citizen scientists. Currently, using the photo identification library we’ve developed, people in 54 different countries participate by sending photos or information about the whale sharks that they may have seen in, say, Mozambique, Philippines, or Mexico.

How do you identify whale sharks?

The spots are unique to each individual. So ECOCEAN adapted an algorithm that NASA scientists use in the Hubble Space Telescope to map stars in the night sky to map the spot pattern on the skin of the whale sharks. We scan the photo that you took of a shark today against the thousands of other photos in the library to see whether the shark has been previously identified. We’re finding that some sharks have been seen in the same location, especially at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia where I work. I first swam with a whale shark in 1995; I saw that shark again in 2012. And we can prove that using this software. He’s called A-001. It’s an unexciting name, but he’s called Stumpy because a part of his tail is missing. He’s got a Facebook page now called Stumpy WhaleShark. Stumpy posts a different news story every day, and it encourages people to learn more about the marine environment and the species within.

You started the citizen science program in 1995. How many people have participated in this?

There are a lot of members of the public that have contributed, but so have many researchers and conservationists from around the world. There are 3600+ individual people who have participated by sending whale shark identification sighting data and photographs. But tens of thousands of more people have received the ECOCEAN whale shark public awareness brochure or learnt about the sharks through various media we have produced.

Are these animals getting killed anywhere?

Very much so. That’s part of the reason I started my long-term commitment to whale sharks and continue to push for their international conservation. There’s still a lot of hunting in China mainly for their fins. In India, in the Philippines, in some other parts of the world, historically there was a lot of hunting going on. ECOCEAN has worked with various stakeholders to secure protection under federal legislation (Australia), and especially under international agreements, like CITES and Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).  Many local groups continue to work hard to get whale sharks protected in their individual countries.

Whale sharks are listed as Threatened (Vulnerable to Extinction) under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  In fact, I was asked to prepare the report which succeeded in upgrading their official conservation status. Prior to this, the whale shark had been listed as Data Deficient.

There are places in the world where they are still being hunted. As an alternative, we’ve tried to promote ecotourism. Ecotourism, if done well, can actually be economically as well as ecologically positive, and a sustainable alternative to unsustainable hunting.

We’ve proven that many of these whale sharks come back to the same location each year; they are a renewable resource rather than the once-only value of a dead shark for fins. There might be a small amount of money in hunting, but if you do tourism and if people keep coming back every year, a whale shark has a high value. In some countries such as the Philippines, it’s not very expensive to go swimming with whale sharks. It can cost less than US $50 per person to go swimming with the whale sharks. In Mexico, it’s similar situation, although it appears over-exploited because the regulation and ability to monitor is limited. In fact, more than 100 vessels take people swimming with whale sharks. It’s far from ideal, but fortunately, there are so many whale sharks there.

But in Australia, where whale shark ecotourism was first initiated, the industry is very well-regulated, with a very limited number of licenses, and a very high-quality tourism experience. There’s a maximum of 15 licensed vessels, of which sometimes only 6 or 8 boats go out per day. There’s a lot less pressure on animals. But the cost of swimming with whale sharks is almost A$400 per person per day. And people are really prepared to spend the money for a unique but well-regulated tour.
There is however a very real risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg if whale shark ecotourism is not regulated properly. So we need to establish that if whale shark ecotourism is to go ahead, it should be done in a way that does not over-exploit the species and ensure it has very minimal impact. No touching or grabbing hold of the shark, and not too many people in the water. That’s why I helped to establish some guidelines in Australia, which we are constantly testing. The evidence is showing that the management and current situation in Australia is having a positive effect on the numbers - which is very good.

The tourists get to swim with them, see the beauty of these sharks, but also learn more about them. We try to do that with the information brochures we distribute and the public awareness work we undertake, and try to get people to feel a sense of understanding and even involvement with the whale sharks. And a little bit of ownership too. That’s why we use the photo identification program. So that members of the public can play a strong role in a citizen science project to help us scientists and conservationists to monitor whale sharks and also understand their numbers in the wild: whether the same ones are coming back, whether their numbers are still in decline as they are a threatened species, whether numbers are stabilizing or even increasing because of the protection that’s been brought in around the world.

In recent times, it’s worked very well. There’re a lot of people participating in the photo identification citizen science project. So we’re really lucky it’s becoming a good way of getting people involved, to learn about the biggest fish in the sea.

So the problem in Gujarat, India, was they were killing these whale sharks to use the oil.

That was one of the situations that was understandable because it was to waterproof the wooden boats up there. But there is a very high market for fins in the East Asian market, and there was a lot of export for a couple of years before there was a big furor and the Indian government brought in protection. There’s an amazing story of how the fishermen who used to hunt the whale sharks were encouraged to protect them. It’s a good initiative launched by the Wildlife Trust of India in collaboration with the Forest Department and local authorities. If whale sharks are caught in a net, the fishermen quickly try and release them. If they had kept hunting the whale sharks at the numbers they were taking – it was suggested that one year up to a thousand whale sharks were killed – there’d be few left within years. The species is really long-lived, and although unknown for sure, it’s believed that they can potentially live up to 100 years. And they probably don’t mature until around 30 years old. Most of the sharks at Ningaloo Reef are boys (usually about 85%). Most of these are immature. But they are not there to breed – just hanging out like teenagers and eating a lot!

How do you know when you see a whale shark that it’s an immature male? Are they sexually dimorphic or do you have to examine them?

Our work is predominantly non-invasive. In order to determine if it’s a male or a female, you have to swim underneath. It’s very obvious if a whale shark is a boy; their sexual organs (two claspers) are underneath the pelvic fin. In a girl, the claspers are absent. In a mature male, these claspers are elongated, they are hanging down a little bit, they are calcified and you can tell they are ready to mate. An immature clasper is thin and smooth and tucked up against the belly. But we don’t very often see the old boys. There’s a small percentage of mature males at Ningaloo and that’s provided me the opportunity over many years to determine at what length and age the males become mature. We don’t know at what size or age the females are mature. In order to do that, you have to cut them open and look at their ovaries to check for maturity. And we don’t want to do that. It’s possible they mature at a smaller size but so little is known about them.

Are you analyzing dead specimens from locations where whale sharks are still being hunted?

Many countries have stopped hunting whale sharks - and that’s good. In other countries where this hunting continues (e.g. China), there is very limited data available. If whale sharks are ever found washed up on a beach, they are often in isolated locations, and by the time the authorities get to them, they are already decomposing. So it’s rarely possible to do any analysis.

What’s the longest distance a whale shark has traveled?

It’s hard to say. Using the photo identification library, we’ve identified sharks moving within a small area but between four different countries: between USA Gulf coast, the Yucatan in Mexico, Honduras, and Belize in Central America. This shows the outreach or the potential of this library. So four different groups of tourists or researchers in four different countries have taken a photo of a shark, sent it into the central database which is at, and we’ve been able to prove several animals moving between those four countries, four different jurisdictions. We do believe these whale sharks are long distance migrators, and we really want to do some more work with satellite tags. But it’s quite an expensive undertaking.

We’ve tagged several whale sharks but the tags have stayed on only two or three months at a time. And as a not-for-profit group, we have in the years past stayed away from spending $3000-4000 per tag. Recently, however, we tagged a couple of whale sharks using a different technique, a different attachment mechanism. Hopefully with minimal impact but maximum output. So we did a test case, with a mechanism timed for release after four weeks. One shark traveled about 600-700 kilometres. We plan to ramp up our efforts next year, funds willing. Hopefully, we can get these tags to stay on for over a year. We’ve yet to track a whale shark for a complete annual migration.

How many young do they have?

We still don’t know where they breed or how often they breed. Up until a few years ago, we didn’t know how they actually bred – whether they really were live bearers or not. But there was a whale shark caught in a fishery in Taiwan, back in 1995, and it still is the only pregnant female that’s ever been found. They cut her open and she had 300 near-term embryos. I was involved in a genetic study a couple of years ago, published in 2010, showing those embryos were at three different stages of development. Some were between 35-40 centimetres, some were between 45-50 centimetres, and some were between 55-60 centimetres. At this size, they are very vulnerable when they are born. But how often do they breed, where do they breed, we still don’t know.  These are intriguing mysteries we hope to solve soon.

Were the embryos in three different breeding cycles?

We aren’t sure. Our genetic study, led by Professor Jennifer Schmidt (a genetics professor at the University of Illinois), aimed to establish whether these embryos were fathered by different dads. It turned out that they were all from the same dad. What we believe is the female has the ability to store sperm and fertilize the eggs at different stages, and maybe push out 100 babies at a location this month at a certain time, another 100 next month and another 100 the month after to maximize the chances of survival. That’s the first and last time we’ve had a pregnant female. We don’t know what the gestation period is? Is it a year, 18 months? Do they breed once a year or once every three years? We don’t know.

I’ve recently travelled to the Galapagos on the invite of a local NGO and also the Charles Darwin Research Station to train local stakeholders in the use of newly developed tags for whale sharks. The sharks there are unusually big up to 12-13 metres. They are all females and they are quite big in the uterine region. So we believe they are pregnant. We really hope to establish whether this is in fact a breeding location - which currently remains unknown.

These animals can get up to 18 metres in length, the biggest of all the fish in the oceans. At most locations where they are observed around the world, their average size is usually between four and eight metres. The males don’t seem to become mature until at least eight metres in length. So most of the whale sharks we get to see are immature.

If you say that a lot of the animals you are seeing are immature but they keep coming back to the same location, are they coming back for seasonal feeding?


Are they social? Do you see numbers together?

They don’t usually interact. There’s one place in the world where you do get a lot of sharks and that is the Yucatan in Mexico. They are not necessarily interacting with each other, but congregating at a feeding hotspot. However, at most sighting locations, the whale sharks are usually swimming alone, not so social unlike whales or dolphins.

They seem to be found in both, clear and turbid waters.

Whale sharks can dive down as deep as 2,000 metres that we know. But as filter feeders, they are always looking for food pulses, or areas where there is a high concentration of food. And the thing is, a lot of the time when you do see them, they are feeding and where they are feeding, the water is full of plankton.

It’s rare that you find them in really clear waters, but when you do, it’s wonderful as there’s great visibility. Ningaloo Reef is one of those locations. Most of the time we see them, the water is quite clear in that area between 10 and 20 metres visibility even when there is a food pulse. They are known to feed at Ningaloo Reef around dusk, when the plankton comes up to the surface and congregates, enabling the sharks to take advantage of that. There are certain places around the world, including Ningaloo and a few others where this happens. It’s allowed us to learn so much more about this cryptic species.

The most important thing in a scientist’s career is data. With a creature like this, it seems like you spend a long time gathering itsy-bitsy pieces of data. How do you survive as a scientist?

It’s actually a little difficult sometimes. And I also run a non-profit called ECOCEAN which compounds the situation. But we are very lucky to have great volunteers. We do it because we love it, and because we are passionate. You don’t do it to bank a million dollars. In fact, I’m not even on a proper salary and ‘keeping the wolf from the door’ is sometimes a challenge. I love these animals and I want to make a difference – and this provides me with a very positive feeling. We do get a few small grants along the way. The Rolex Award for Enterprise I received a few years ago was the biggest kick I’ve ever got in my life. It enabled us to bring this project to many countries around the world, which was fantastic.

Why would anyone worry about whale sharks? It’s just a fish. It’s not a predator in the true sense of the word.

One of the things about whale sharks is they have an important niche in the environment. We believe they may be an indicator of ecosystem health. They could be a bit like the canary in the coal mine. Because they are dependent on small organisms, they are dependent on productivity. If whale sharks that have been coming to a spot every year don’t come one year, we can take a look and ask, “What’s going on?” It might be pollution, habitat degradation, over-exploitation, or something we are yet to identify.

We obviously want to use a lot more high technology to be able to understand their movements, behaviour, habits, and migration. These animals don’t lend themselves to doing this kind of study because they live in isolated areas, they can dive to a couple of thousand metres, and it’s expensive. For an NGO that has to work hard to find funding just to keep the lights on in the office, it can be a challenge. But we are cracking new ground all the time, so it’s very positive.

Whale sharks were only first discovered in 1828, even though they have been around for millennia. Up till the late 1980s, there were only 320 confirmed sightings of whale sharks around the world. It’s testimony to their rarity. But there’s still more we don’t know about them than we do. They are not out of the woods yet.

Is it possible to say if they are recovering in any part of the world?

Ningaloo is probably the best place in the world to study these animals because there is so much data being collected. Ningaloo Reef is bucking the trend in whale shark decline.  The most recent stock assessment available using the photo-id program has shown not only has the decline stopped, but whale shark numbers have stabilized and even slightly increased – likely attributable to good management and minimal impact ecotourism.  If we use a similar design, we may be able to show recovery in other parts of the globe also.

Postscript: In May 2013, fishermen released a newborn whale shark tangled in a fishing net off the coast of Gujarat, the first evidence the species may be breeding in Indian waters.

Monsoon Safari

Published in Outlook Traveller October 2013

The jeep stopped and we sat still for a moment in surprised silence. Then, as if by an unspoken command, we lifted our cameras in unison and started clicking. Two professional photographers, armed with bazooka-like lenses, noisily fired away their cameras. The four dholes, or Asian wild dogs, were so close I didn’t need any fancy lens to get clear, full-frame photographs. I was on safari with seven tourists and photographer Arati in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka.

Two dogs circled us while two lay down on the grass in full view, like celebrities so used to media attention they pretended we didn’t exist. The dholes’ reddish coats stretched tight over their bloated bellies, and their round ears swivelled at the slightest sound. One of the circlers whistled, and the rest of the pack trotted off. Unlike other members of the canid family, dholes whistle; they don’t bark or howl.

The dogs ran lightly despite their distended stomachs, and vanished into the forest. We had only been 30 minutes into our safari when we encountered the pack, not a bad start for an off-season visit to Bandipur.

The forest was lush green from recent rains. But nothing could resurrect the bamboo that had flowered en masse and died a few years ago. It will be a many moons before Bandipur’s elephants taste bamboo again.

As we bounced along the rutted dirt track, all of us probably had the same question: Would we see a tiger? Huge pugmarks, the size of my hand, were imprinted deeply into the soft wet track. Lantana, a thorny plant from Central America, formed a green curtain, as high as fifteen feet in some places, on either side of the road throughout most of the park. Probably many pairs of eyes, tucked out of sight within the tangle of weeds, watched us drive by. If we were to see a tiger, it would have to be in plain sight on the track or the wide grassy verge.

When the British brought lantana to India to adorn their gardens in the 1800s, little did they realize they were sowing the seeds of an empire that would outlast their own. By the late 19th century, the ornamental plant escaped captivity and become a pestilence in forests and village commons. All attempts to eradicate the botanical scourge were a failure. Parthenium and eupatorium, other plants from foreign shores, have also set root in Bandipur. Despite being overrun by these noxious inedible weeds, the park, paradoxically, packs one of highest densities of herbivores in the world.

The rains had awakened glory lilies from dormancy. Their curly-tipped leaves clung to bushes as the creepers made their way toward light and burst into bloom. The bright red, earth-facing flowers glowed like jewels against the deep green forest. Despite every part of these plants being virulently poisonous, the scientific name celebrates the beauty of the flowers with a double affirmative: Gloriosa superba. Mysore argyreia’s large, purple, trumpet-shaped flowers competed with the glory lilies for our appreciation.

Minutes passed, and when no more animals made an appearance, I grew aware of the toll the rutted dirt track was taking on my behind. I was seated on the last and highest seat in the three-tiered safari jeep. While it offered an almost 360º view of the forest, it bounced the most. I sat on my hands to relieve the soreness when we suddenly came upon a lone pregnant elephant.

Even though we were a good distance away, she trumpeted, and ran with her tail raised in alarm. Then she wheeled around and mock-charged. A newly married woman sitting next to me shrieked, closed her eyes tight, and gripped her husband. When her bluff didn’t work, the elephant picked up a leaf with her trunk and swatted the air. That trick didn’t chase us away, so she walked into the lantana that swallowed her up.

A few minutes later, we caught a quick glimpse of another elephant with her calf before they hid in the bushes. Bandipur elephants aren’t usually this shy, and I wondered if perhaps pregnancy and having young made them feel vulnerable.

As we climbed higher up a hill slope toward a fire watch tower, the trees grew stunted. Above us, a lone sambhar stag posed in silhouette, proudly holding his head of antlers aloft. From this vantage, the deciduous forests of Mudumalai stretched out below us, and many ranges of the blue Nilgiri Mountains created a wavy horizon.

We clicked pictures of the panorama until our time was up. We headed back through a sharp torrential rain, the canvas top of the jeep keeping us almost dry. Earlier this year, the park had been horrendously parched and many feared for the survival of its denizens. The belated rains filled all the waterholes, and animals were not huddled around a few puddles anymore. Good for beasts and forest, but sad for tourists hoping for a wildlife extravaganza.

I wondered how Arati, who was at the front of the jeep, was faring. Light was flat, skies cloudy, and animal life scarce. Seeing dholes early on our safari made me greedy for more. But the maxim of a forest safari is: there are no guarantees. That evening at the Windflower Tusker Trails Resort, the staff rued we hadn’t seen a tiger. We had come at the wrong time, they said.

Gajendra Singh and his wife, Vishalakshi Devi, the youngest daughter of Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the last ruler of the princely state of Mysore, set up Tusker Trails in the mid-1990s. The park had once been her family’s hunting reserve. A few years ago, the Windflower group took over the resort on a 30-year-lease. Twenty-two terracotta tile-roofed cottages were set amid five acres of native trees, the most common being the red gum-oozing axlewood.

Gajendra Singh explained that the trees had been cut before they bought the property, and the re-growth was only twenty years old. “Nothing browses on these trees, and nothing gnaws on them,” he said. “That’s why they’re so successful.”

The resort is unfenced on two sides and wild animals wander in freely after dark. Gajendra said, “We have had every animal come through except tigers.”

A troop of bonnet macaques wandered around the resort, picking insects from the grass, walking on the cottage roofs, and looking for hand-outs from guests. At meal times, the monkeys sat on the wall of the dining room and watched us eat patiently.

Elephants wandered up from the forest during the dry season to drink from the swimming pool; wild boar rooted under the lantana hedge. A leopard snatched a deer from the reception, knocking over a coffee table that remains broken to this day. The resort apparently has an unwritten timeshare agreement between humans and wildlife.

I asked, “Are guests safe?”

General manager Fazal replied, “After they check-in, they are given instructions on how to stay safe.” I witnessed a couple being briefed by a staff member in a manner akin to a stewardess explaining how to open the emergency exit on an aircraft.

At 10:30 pm outdoor lights were doused. Guests were advised to retire to their rooms and not venture out even if they heard animal noises outside.

That night, while Arati photographed the swimming pool, she heard a tiger calling “aaauuummm” repeatedly. She hurried back to the restaurant. “I’ve heard tigers before but this was bone-chilling,” she said. “It seemed so close.” We had seen tiger pugmarks right outside the resort gates earlier that evening.

At dawn the next morning, I startled a herd of spotted deer that had been silently grazing amongst the cottages. As the animals melted away among the trees, I took it as a good omen for wildlife viewing that day. At the hotel reception, everyone wished, “Hope you see a tiger today.” It’s the Bandipur way of saying “Have a good day.”

Our first stop was at a gaur carcass, reduced to skin and bones, by the side of the road. The bovine had died of natural causes, and for three days, two tigers had feasted on it, said Natraj, the naturalist accompanying us. Now, a stripe-necked mongoose was looking for leftovers. Occasionally, it stood on its hind legs, scoping the terrain and us. Its orange eyes and Rudolf-like large red nose made it look like a demented clown.

Our driver stopped to confer with the driver of another safari jeep. Both said, “No tigers. Saw only tracks.” On that discouraging note, we rolled forward. Freshly and clearly imprinted over the other jeep’s tyre tread marks were the pugmarks of a tiger. It had waited until the track was clear before striding down. We had missed him by minutes. Natraj said the 880 park has nearly 100 tigers. If every one of those cats was as fastidious and secretive, what chance did we have of seeing one? Especially, when the jeep’s engine announced our approach loud and clear?

In an open clearing ahead of us, a herd of elephants gathered. As soon as we drove up, the giants crashed into the lantana. A couple of them trumpeted, while one set up a high-pitched braying. All we could see were two trunks sniffing the air above the bushes. We backed up and waited. Minutes ticked by, but the distress calls didn’t abate nor did the elephants move. I feared a calf had been hurt badly.

In the end, we couldn’t fathom what happened. When I mentioned this to Gajendra Singh later, he said, “A cat must have been involved.”

I was still disturbed by the elephants’ behaviour when we came upon a large herd of gaur. These wild cattle turned to go but stopped. They watched us over their broad backs, stamping their white-socked forelegs nervously. Unconvinced we were harmless, they wandered off into the bushes anyway, the mothers with calves leading the way. Last to leave was a one-ton heavy, velvet black, muscle-rippling stud bull, the protector of his harem.

Why were they so shy? But then, why would they want to be seen, if they can help it? During the dry season, they have no choice because trees shed their leaves and visibility is greater. Someone said the department hadn’t set out salt licks this season, so the animals were spread out through the forest. Or, they were in neighbouring Mudumalai indulging their salt tooth.

We arrived at a cliff overlooking the Moyar Gorge. The unease I felt about the spooked animals disappeared at the sight of water cascading down below us. I sucked in the cool air sharply when I saw the steep slopes on either side, with barely a foothold for an adventurous animal. Even lantana hadn’t taken root here.

Back at the resort, I lowered my sore bum into a soft-cushioned chair. Throughout my forays into the jungle, I had to listen to the constant drone of the jeep’s engine, grinding through slush and revving up slopes. I found bird song and peace not in the forest, but at the resort. Darting amongst the lantana thicket were white-eyes, ashy prinias, red-whiskered bulbuls, jungle babblers, and white-throated fantail flycatchers. A grey mongoose came nosing around.

On my badly scribbled list of creatures-we-saw were: Oriental honey buzzard, crested serpent eagle, grey junglefowl with half-grown young, red spurfowl, jungle bush quail, peacocks, southern plains gray langurs, sloth bear, and barking deer. Seeing a tiger may rank as the pinnacle of wildlife-viewing experience, but it was a joy to see these creatures of the forest.

I remained puzzled by the shy herbivores. In years past, they had been as nonchalant as the dholes. I pondered Gajendra Singh’s theory of how animals might perceive us, “We think snakes are slimy and awful because they don’t have fur. We are just as hairless as snakes. Imagine what other animals must think of us.”

When I looked up, the mongoose was gone.

Squeezing life out of rock

Published in Times Crest May 5, 2012

Enclosed within the ancient city walls of Jodhpur, with the Mehrangarh Fort as its pivot, is the 70-hectare Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park. The Park was recently opened to the public. While two trails are complete, six more are expected to come up soon. One trail begins at Singhoria Bari, a renovated ancient gateway to the city that now serves as Visitor’s Centre.

The mention of a ‘rock garden’ conjures up images of a couple of centrally highlighted boulders with gravel raked evenly around it Japanese style. Or at least, aesthetically and deliberately arranged piles of rocks with little plants tucked between them. But the Rao Jodha Park is none of that.

It’s literally a vast expanse of hard, volcanic rhyolite rock emerging out of the sandy Thar Desert with hardly enough soil to grow a dozen coconut trees. It doesn’t seem possible for anything to survive on rock that gets oven-hot from the mid-day sun, and the area doesn’t even receive enough rain to bring relief. And yet, miraculously, more than two hundred species of plants thrive in these conditions. Called lithophytes, these plants of the rocks, range from the statuesque columns of the perennial leafless spurge to seasonal grasses. But the Mehrangarh rock plateau wasn’t always like this.

Seven years ago, when Pradip Krishen, the author of ‘Trees of Delhi’ who subsequently became the Director of the Park, first arrived here on the invitation of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, he saw a badly degraded rocky hillock. It was overrun by one species, mesquite or Prosopis juliflora.

In the early 20th century, seeds of this hardy tree were dispersed from aircraft to green the landscape and stabilize sand dunes. It made good charcoal for wood stoves prevalent in the area until recently. But this well-intentioned effort was to unleash an ecological nightmare. The Mexican mesquite grew faster than people could harvest, and since its seeds are spread by cattle, thickets were quick to form. Soon, it was the only plant visible in the entire landscape.

The Mehrangarh Trust, which had spent the last four decades renovating the Fort, turned its sights on the region’s ecological heritage. Could Pradip transform this Marwar landscape to one that Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur and the Fort, may have seen in 1459? Could the ecosystem recover from centuries of neglect and callous use?

Pradip’s first big challenge was mesquite, which is virtually indestructible. It monopolized the few spots where plants could grow and then discouraged others from taking root by releasing toxic alkaloids underground. The choice was simple: mesquite or native plants. Pradip declared war on the monopolizing invaders. But it’s one thing to declare war and another thing to win the battle.

Merely chopping the tree at the base made it pop up again like the Lernean Hydra. At least, the monster grew only two heads when one was cut off. Mesquite was worse; it sprouted a dozen branches with renewed vigour. One local advice was to saw the tree down and cover the stump with cow dung. Pradip found that manure did not even dampen the tree’s spirit. Weedicides were not an option as they would have run down the rocky slopes and collected in a series of lakes where freshwater was stored. Another suggested setting fire to the trees which seemed too destructive.

The Achilles’ heel of this terror lies fifteen inches below the surface where the first roots sprout. This is the budding zone and the reason mesquite rises afresh even after being chopped to the ground. Uprooting this tree from soil is a challenge. But in Mehrangarh, mesquite grew on hard rock. Perhaps a compressor-driven auger would work? Pradip says it was too slow and expensive. Dynamite? Despite his gut instincts, Pradip did experiment and was horrified when a single charge took the crest off a rocky knoll.

When Pradip was at his wit’s end, the Trust introduced him to a group of local stone miners, the Khandwalia. Dhan Singh Khandwalia is a short, wiry, dark man with enormous, rough hands. Over four centuries ago, his ancestors had built the Fort and his knowledge of the bedrock is unsurpassed. Could he use his knowledge of stone to solve Pradip’s problem?

Pradip recalls, Dhan Singh squatted next to a short mesquite tree and struck the rock with a heavy hammer. The resounding tone told his discerning ear where the faults lay. A few more test soundings and he had a plan of attack. After chiseling the rock for an hour, he exposed the mesquite’s roots. The normally round roots were shaped into flat, ribbon like strips as they snaked into cracks and crevices. This was yet another ace up mesquite’s survival sleeve that enabled it to find purchase and moisture in the slimmest gap. Having found his Hercules, Pradip pitted thirteen Khandwalia against the Mexican hydra-headed monster. In a task reminiscent of the twelve labours of the Greek hero, the Khandwalia were to rid the area of mesquite.

While the stone miners set to work, laboriously pulling up one tree at a time, Pradip explored rocky hills and sands of the Thar Desert. With help from the man who wrote the definitive book on desert flora, Dr. M.M. Bhandari, Pradip found plants that were found only in specific remote locations. The professor was elderly and couldn’t walk much. He sat at home and directed Pradip, “Go around this hill, you’ll find a big rock and maybe it’s still splashed with vulture poo. Go down there and you’ll find some plants like this.” As Pradip found out, the professor’s memory of geographical features was astonishingly accurate. This was how seeds or stem cuttings of many rare plants were collected and brought back to the nursery in Jodhpur for propagation. Dr. Bhandari’s help was so critical that Pradip says there is only one succulent he hasn’t been able to find but he’s confident he will one day.

After an experimental two-hectare area had been cleared of mesquite, Pradip says he saw the bare, pit-marked landscape and felt a sudden jolt of fear. Had he removed the only thing that was capable of living in this harsh landscape? There were no precedents, no one to ask for advice, no reference points. Other knolls were also degraded and grazed, and their local plant life was also in retreat. This was the very first attempt at restoring a rocky desert ecosystem, and the threat of failure dogged Pradip at every step.

Since mesquite had colonized every favourable location, Pradip decided to use the tree as a where-to-plant guide. Once the unwanted Mexican was pulled up, nursery-grown natives took its place. In some places Pradip dusted the rock with soil, accelerating years of natural accretion. He felt grasses and plants like seddera took root faster on such “treated” rock than undusted areas. In others, he widened the cracks a few millimetres so plants could be wedged in.

Behind the elegant white marble mausoleum of Jaswant Thada, a small remnant chunk of mesquite provides shelter to animals like jackals and wild boar. Eventually Pradip says these trees would also have to go as they continue to produce seeds that colonize the newly-freed areas. But before completely taking them out, native species will be inter-planted, and the Mexican removed in phases. This will ensure that the local wildlife is not denied shelter.

In the end, Pradip needn’t have worried. The plants, provided security from cattle and people, and a lot of encouragement, did what comes naturally from millennia of adaptation. Today, the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is the only place you can see what rocky hills in the Thar Desert looked like five or six centuries ago.
Sadly, Dr. Bhandari died last year before he could see the Rock Park in full glory.

A steep flight of stone stairs leads down into a 14th century aqueduct. Flanked by plants like silver-grey wall lindenbergia, pale lavender blossoms of Bandra lepidagathis, and the glossy green-leaved rubber vine, the walk is a lesson on how these creatures have learnt to squeeze water even out of rock.

Some, like heart-leaf indigo, live short fast lives, telescoping their entire existence into the narrow window when rains make living on rock bearable. Once the dry season sets in, they shrivel up, germinating only when the rains come again. Others, like the succulent leafless spurge, send their roots deep into the finest fissures in the rock. Even during blazingly hot summer days, hairline fractures in stone hold moisture and are key to the plants’ survival.

Suddenly the steep embankments of the aqueduct fall behind and the vista opens up spectacularly wide. The fort, a reminder of past historical glory, competes for attention with a gentle hill slope, covered with native vegetation, a living breathing ecological heritage. The trail leaves the aqueduct and winds across the rocky plateau back to Singhoria Bari.

Today, unique trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers and grasses of the desert thrive, flower, and fruit in this seemingly inhospitable landscape. And in turn, they provide sustenance to creatures large and small, from moths, butterflies, and ants to raptors and wild boar. It’s astonishing how little these tough plants of the Marwar rockscape need to survive, and yet they are at the very core of sustaining an entire ecosystem.

Rao Jodha Rocks

Published in Outlook Traveller April 2012

In the distance, the brawny edifice of Mehrangarh Fort seemed to soften with the golden evening light. It was early February and I was in Jodhpur. At my feet, dry grasses were aflame with the setting sun’s fiery colours. Candelabras of cactus-like leafless spurge (Euphorbia caducifolia) grew out of crystalline, volcanic rhyolite rock. Within the shelter and coolness created by the thorny plant, creepers and seedlings of other species reared their tentative heads. Tiny red flowers sprouted from the tips of the spurge’s green columns. The remarkable survival of plants in the almost complete absence of soil in the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park inspires awe.

Plants lead schizophrenic lives, and none more so than the ones of the desert. Their focus above-ground is to produce leaves and flowers, set seeds, and handle the summer harshness as best as they can while below-ground, their roots single-mindedly snake through any crevice all year round, not only to gain a root-hold but also precious moisture. Botanists call these plants of the rocks, lithophytes.

The meagre average annual rainfall of 23 centimetres disappears within hours in the desiccating dryness of Marwar. But deep within rocky fissures, where no ray of sunlight or wisp of dry wind can penetrate, moisture clings long after it has disappeared from the surface.

When summer reaches its peak, some plants look dry and dead. They have withdrawn all their life forces below-ground, cutting their losses, leaving their resource-sucking limbs to crumble. To them, retreat is the better part of valour. But once the rains arrive, they miraculously burst forth, painting the entire rocky landscape green. It’s an unimaginable transformation when rocks spring alive. The sap-filled columns of spurges, however, are the Rajputs of the plant world, braving the seasons with showy greenery year-round. For them, there is no hiding underground, waiting for good times.

Although the landscape is old, the scenery is not. The Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is the handiwork of a team led by Pradip Krishen with support from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust which has spent the last forty years restoring the fort to its former glory. About a million tourists visit this historical site, spectacularly located atop a 125-metre rock. Steep rhyolite columns would have afforded no easy access to an invading army and indeed, it is said that this fort was never taken by siege.

Although the foundation of Mehrangarh fort was laid in 1459 by Rao Jodha, it was not completed until two centuries later. It’s possible that before construction began, humans lived and grazed their livestock in this inhospitable rocky landscape that was later to become the city of Jodhpur. Ancient paintings illustrate the rulers’ lives in the fort but Pradip found no chronicle of the wild flora and fauna. Not only had centuries of colonization, building tenements, and grazing sent native plant life into retreat, they were just not appreciated enough.

The newly repaired 9.5 kilometre city wall afforded protection to the freshly planted native shrubbery from grazing cattle and donkeys. But the main threat to any plant regeneration, mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), a Mexican interloper, was already well-established within the precincts. Pradip said its roots produce a toxin that prevents other plants from growing. The only way of eradicating it is by uprooting it, root, stock and barrel. A local community of stone miners, the Khandwalias, liberated the expanse of rhyolite from mesquite, one tree at a time.

While teams of these stone workers chipped laboriously, Pradip made exploratory forays to other rocky outcrops in the region to catalogue species, and collect seeds and cuttings. Since mesquite had already indicated which locations had cracks that would foster plant growth, Pradip intuitively set down native species in the same holes. In all, thousands of members of about 130 species of plant life populate the 70 hectare landscape.

A five minute downhill walk from the Mehrangarh Fort’s main entrance is Singhoria Bari, a 16th century gateway to the city that was renovated to serve as the Park’s visitor centre. Just off the main road, the rhyolite walls and rippled sandstone walkway were designed to blend stylistically with the ancient monument. Pictures of the place before renovation show a boarded-up gateway falling into disrepair, its courtyard piled high with concrete rubble. Former guards’ rooms now house attractive posters of native plant life, a souvenir shop and a ticket counter.

This is where the Gully Trail begins. Following Pradip’s lead, I walked down a staircase of stone into an ancient aqueduct. It was carved through rock to channel water from an upstream catchment to the Ranisar Lake down below the fort. By leafing through the handy guide, I could identify some of the plants by matching the unobtrusively placed numeral-carved sandstone blocks. Since only a few plants were in flower, pictures in the pamphlet illustrated what I was missing, the many gorgeous flowers and fruits that even rocks can foster.

During the heat of day, the aqueduct is cool and shady. It affords a good place to marvel at the neem trees emerging out of rock, and the delicate little herbs with tiny pink, yellow and white flowers.

Pradip pointed to a small herb sprouting out of the masonry wall. The leaves of the wall lindenbergia (Lindenbergia muraria) were dull green turning brown and it is partial to the lime grouting used in old construction. The attractive rubber vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora) with waxy green leaves lines the walkway. A Madagascan import during the First World War, its milky latex was to be used to produce tyres for aircraft but the effort proved too costly to be a commercial enterprise.

The masonry walls also provide ample shelter space for lizards and a toddy cat had deposited a round jalebi-shaped turd in a little gap. Moths, bees, and butterflies arrive with the changing seasons to exploit the glut of flowers and provide their pollination services. Huge clouds of house sparrows and bulbuls twitter from the shadows of large bushes. Fat rock pigeons, fed grain by the many people concerned about their rewards in the after-life, fly through. Partridges engage in a round robin of calls reminiscent of creaky hand-pumps. Black-shouldered kites and shrikes perch on a steel cable above. Large numbers of black kites wheel overhead. With the original flora coming back, no doubt there will be a cascade of benefits for local animals and birds. In addition to the rich auditory, olfactory and visual feasts of the rocky desert, I gorged on the luscious, yellow fruits of the jujube bush (Ziziphus nummularia).

The aqueduct takes a bend and suddenly the vista opens up. The imposing fort dominates the view on the left, while the dramatic spurges silhouetted against the azure blue sky on the right are magnificently picturesque. We followed the trail’s signature yellow arrow as it led away from the aqueduct and along a ditch, rich with riparian reeds, grasses, trees and herbs. There is evidence of small wildlife, porcupine nibbles on the bark of a bitter drumstick tree (Moringa concanensis), and at dusk, a wild boar snuffled along the slope looking for tubers and meagre pickings. Pradip mentioned hares killing seedlings. The rocky path winds back to Singhoria Bari. In February, the café was under construction and in time, will serve refreshing beverages and snacks.

Jaswant Thada
A brisk five minute walk from Singhoria Bari is Jaswant Thada, an elegant, white marble mausoleum for royalty. Just before the driveway to the parking area, we jumped over the low wall onto a rocky slope. The small Devi Kund lake busy with water bird activity stretched out in front of us. Spot-billed ducks, grebes, coots, and shovelers swam in flocks, herons, egrets, and ibises stalked the waters’ edge while darters stood on dead neem trees drying their wings. I didn’t notice the pintails and stilts until they were airborne and the fast whirring of wings made identification impossible. I could have stood there for several hours watching birds but this time, I was more eager to hear of the heroic lives of plants in these parts.

The walk took us around the lake. Several plants were in bloom while the toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica) was in fruit. Its tiny, translucent, ruby red fruits have a sharp mustard-ish taste. It could be the ‘mustard tree’ of the Old Testament. Pradip said in some places, existing cracks in the rock were enlarged before wedging plants into them. Had he not pointed them out, I would not have noticed the chunks of rock grass (Oropetium thomaeum) turf that had been tucked smoothly into crevices. Most of these valiant plants have made one of the harshest landscapes their own but they look dusty, insignificant and self-effacing. Eyes saturated by the showy extravagance of plants in water-rich climes need to look again to appreciate these resource-frugal plants. They are at the centre of the universe of the many local insects, bats, birds and animals.

Clumps of the herb, seddera (Seddera latifolia), dotted the rock. This hardy resident often grew in straight lines, exploiting the linear chinks barely wide enough to slip in a one-rupee coin. Here and there, the gum arabic tree (Acacia senegal), emblematic of the rocky desert, emerges head and shoulders above the rest. A clump of green twigs with blunt ends called the rambling milkweed (Sarcostemma acidum) never sprouts leaves. Right after the monsoon, beautiful, fragrant white flowers erupt out of the stem tips.

When the walk ended at Jaswant Thada, we wandered onto its well-maintained gardens. Amongst the green sprinkler-irrigated lawns were two gorgeous desert teak trees (Tecomella undulata) in profuse bloom. One had yellow flowers and the other was bright orange. Sunbirds flitted from flower to flower while spotted doves preened under its cascading foliage, vaguely reminiscent of pomegranate.

While visitors can go on these two walks now, six more are planned for the near-future. This is perhaps, the only location where one can see, for the first time in six centuries, what these rocks might have looked like before they were degraded. The Rao Jodha Park is a story of some peoples’ immeasurable capacity to set right historical neglect and resurrect an entire ecosystem that had gone to seed.

The desert didn’t just make warriors out of humans. When caught between rocks and hard places, even gentle beings such as plants have turned a liability into an opportunity. The life and death struggles of these frail-seeming yet tough-at-heart warriors, played out in such inhospitable conditions are no less dramatic than tales of human history. I was hooked. The by-line of the Park couldn’t be truer, “It grows on you.” Come monsoon, I want to see for myself the miraculous transformation of browns to greens. The ephemeral herbs and grasses blanketing the landscape will probably push all memories of the harsh summer into the remote past. All that matters is the here and now.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Barefoot Researchers

Published in The Hindu as 'Tribals with microscopes' on 13 Jan 2013

Photo: © Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet
Erika with two parabiologists

Around the world, forest people, frequently tribals, make work in the wilderness possible for researchers, foresters, and conservationists. In India, the Kadar in Kerala, Irula in Tamil Nadu, Karen in Andaman Islands, and Nishi in parts of Arunachal Pradesh navigate through landscape that looks uniformly the same to outsiders. Not only do they know the haunts of wildlife better than anybody else, they set up camp, cook, and transport gear and rations. Frequently, their superior senses help us outsiders avoid danger. For all these contributions, these field assistants’ names may be mentioned in the acknowledgements section of reports and scientific publications. Their expertise is rarely recognized officially. Since their skills are superb, they could just as well do the research themselves. But their lack of formal education has always held them back.

Bolivian biologist, Erika Cuellar, achieved what others merely talk about over an evening drink: empower barely literate indigenous communities to do research. She was in Delhi recently to receive the Rolex Award for Enterprise that will enable her to expand the scope of her work.

For the past 13 years, the 41-year-old worked with the Guarani, Chiquitano and Ayoreode communities in Kaa-Iya National Park, a vast 34,000 forest almost the size of Kerala. The park protects a part of the Gran Chaco, a tropical dry forest interspersed with swamps, salt flats, scrub, and grasslands. One of the hottest places on the continent, the terrain is tough and forbidding.

Although the main focus of her work was the guanaco, the wild progenitor of the domesticated llama, she has crafted a fresh approach to research and conservation with her program of training parabiologists.

Erika adapted the concept from Costa Rica. In 1991, overwhelmed by the numerous insects waiting to be identified, Daniel Janzen, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested training local people in bug taxonomy, parataxonomists. And he succeeded. But Erika wasn’t happy just to teach one narrow field. She told me, “Indigenous people should learn how to study different species, different classes of animals and plants. They should also learn tools of management, how to communicate – a few things that are important for decision-making. Knowing a little of everything builds up their confidence.”

Erika developed a curriculum to train the three communities living in the Gran Chaco in various aspects of ecology with an award from the Whitley Fund for Nature in 2007. The university that oversaw the course conducted multiple-choice exams because the students cannot write elaborate answers. The desire to study was so strong that 120 people applied. Only 20 were chosen. Erika says, “They don’t read, so studying was very difficult. But they put everything into studying to pass exams.”

One such applicant was Louis, an Ayoreode, who couldn’t read or write. He now knows basic maths, how to use a GPS and microscope, and the principles of taxonomy. When Erika saw the disbelief cross my face, she nodded knowingly as she explained how she had initially refused to let him attend the program. But he was persuasive and she relented.

Throughout the eight months, Louis attended classes and also struggled to teach himself to read and write. But his literacy skills were still inadequate to sit for the exam. He came up with a novel idea: His wife could read the questions, he would provide the answers, and she would write them down. Astonishingly, the university approved this unorthodox solution, and Louis passed with 55%. He is now qualified to collect data, analyze it, and present the results. Erika became emotional as she said, “All of us are so proud of him. I understood you don’t have the right to judge people. You have to give them the opportunity. This is one of the most important things I ever did – having him in the course, and giving him the certificate.”

Photo courtesy: Erika Cuellar
Erika with the 2008 batch of parabiologists

Kaa-Iya National Park is unique not only for the many wild animals like jaguar, armadillo, and the guanaco, but also in its origins. In a first of its kind for Latin America, indigenous people campaigned for its protection. Once the government created it in 1997, the area’s tribes managed it. The 20 parabiologists assist their leaders in making management decisions. Not only does the parabiologist program empower members of the local communities, it also enables scientific governance of the park.

In India, since forest tribal skills rarely have a place in the economy, they are on the wane. The younger generation has no incentive to learn traditional knowledge from their parents. Unless a program such as the parabiologists’ scheme inculcates a sense of pride in their knowledge and provides a livelihood, we may soon lose these skills and knowledge.

With the aid of the Rolex Award, Erika plans to expand the project to neighbouring Argentina and Paraguay. Both these countries have significant chunks of the Gran Chaco that need protection. The problems are many: Although a National Park exists on paper in Paraguay, the military hunts there. Grasslands are being taken over by trees and shrubs, and cattle are catalyzing the problem. This limits the habitat for the guanaco, of which only 400 are left in Bolivia and Paraguay. Erika doesn’t appear fazed by the enormity of what she has taken on; she brims with confidence as she narrates her future course of action and her strategy.

If Louis overcame literacy challenges, Erika had her own share of struggles. The big one was to prove she could work in a man’s world. Although she is half-Guarani, when she first arrived at Kaa-Iya, her tribesmen didn’t accept her. Her project required her to accompany hunters, and some of them thought taking a woman along would bring bad luck. Others felt she wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. The women were suspicious because hunting was an all-night activity, and Erika was the only woman among their men. Erika says ruefully, “I thought that the women would understand me. But the women understood me even less than the men did.”

She demonstrated to the hunters that she was as tough as they were. If she had to walk 10-20 km., she did it without complaining. The going was tough, the terrain was hard, and water scarce. But she willed herself on. Two weeks later, the hunters accepted her presence.

As Erika talks about growing up in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, three things stand out: her grit, determination, and generosity. Her father told her, “I’m not going to stop working until the day I die if you need to study. You don’t have to work while you study.”

She says, “In spite of all the economic difficulties we had, I feel very grateful I could study.”

She always wanted to do public service, helping people makes her happy. And the parabiologist program is her way of giving the opportunity of studying to people who didn’t have it.

Erika says she lives by her father’s advice, “I don’t care if you are a builder or a cook or if you work in a laundry, but do it well.”

She recalls the time when she was to spend 40 days in the company of 14 men. She worried if she would be fine. Her father said, “You are going there to work. You do it well and they will respect you. And maybe…they will help you.”

And they did.