Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Published in Marine Turtle Newsletter 126

By Janaki Lenin (1,6), Ashish Fernandes (2),  Aarthi Sridhar (3), B.C. Choudhury (4), Jack Frazier (5,6), Sanjiv Gopal (2), Areeba Hamid (2), Sandra Kloff (6), Biswajit Mohanty (6,7), Bivash Pandav (8), Sudarshan Rodriguez (3), Basudev Tripathy (4), Romulus Whitaker (9), Sejal Worah (10), Belinda Wright (11) and Kartik Shanker (3,12)

1 – IUCN/SSC/Crocodile Specialist Group, South Asia and Iran.
2 – Greenpeace, Bangalore India.
3 – Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India.
4 – Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, India.
5 –  Smithsonian Institution, USA.
6 – Member, IUCN/CEESP/Social and Environmental Accountability of the Private Sector
7 –  Wildlife Society of Orissa, Cuttack, India.
8 – Worldwide Fund for Nature-Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal.
9 – Madras Crocodile Bank, Chengalpattu, India.
10 –  Worldwide Fund for Nature-India, New Delhi, India.
11 –  Wildlife Protection Society of India, New Delhi, India.
12 – Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.

Local communities – in every part of the world - define “conservation” within their environmental, social, historical, cultural, economic, and political milieu. In developing countries, where demand for natural resources (sought by communities and corporations alike) is not only high, but directly linked to life styles, effecting positive conservation action becomes a bedeviling proposition. It has been widely recognized that it is not enough to just create laws and enforcement mechanisms; for species to survive in the long-term, local communities must become partners in the conservation enterprise. A case in point is the conservation of olive ridley turtles in Orissa, India, where the conflicting demands of traditional fishermen/small scale fishing communities, mechanized fishers (including trawlers), international conservation organizations, local conservationists, enforcement authorities, the state government and corporate interests have created a monumental imbroglio (Shanker and Kutty 2005; Mathew 2004; Sridhar 2005; Shanker and Choudhury 2006; Wright and Mohanty 2006; Shanker et al. 2009).

Over the past 3 years, the waters have been further muddied by the direct involvement of IUCN/MTSG in advising a major corporation that is developing the largest port facility in South Asia, not surprisingly an environmentally and socially sensitive issue. The special issues of Marine Turtle Newsletter No. 121 and Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter No. 8 carried eight articles with different perspectives on the IUCN’s and MTSG’s engagement with the ongoing port construction at Dhamra, Orissa, on the east coast of India. The port, being built by Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL), is located some 4 km from Bhitarkanika National Park, with one of the highest mangrove diversities in the world and less than 15 km from Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary, one of the most famous turtle mass nesting beaches in the world. Shanker et al. (2009) provided a brief history of conservation and a summary of the current social and political context. Here, a section of the community, including academics, biologists, conservationists and other practitioners from a variety of institutions and backgrounds express their concerns for the biodiversity of the region, interactions with local communities, the conservation of olive ridleys, and most particularly, the interaction between IUCN and DPCL (the port promoters) and its implications on a broad range of issues fundamental to effective conservation (see for example Frazier 2008).

In numerous collective and individual letters (and other communications) to the IUCN and MTSG over the last three years, many of us have raised several concerns regarding the lack of consultation by IUCN and the MTSG with local conservationists (see MTN 121/ IOTN 8). Besides providing an update on our negotiations with TATA Steel and DPCL as well as the perception of IUCN’s impact in this region, we will focus on two concerns: firstly, the inadequacy of consultation, or even basic information-sharing, by IUCN/MTSG with national members, local fisherfolk organizations and civil society groups and NGOs, many of whom have long years of experience in this geographical area (for a full account, see MTN 121/IOTN 8); and secondly, the lack of clarity, transparency and the limited scope of IUCN’s agenda in the Dhamra case.

Negotiations with the DPCL and TATA – Weaving sweet nothings

Given the lack of meaningful dialogue with IUCN and MTSG, other attempts were made to develop dialogue and explore realistic measures for preventing environmental and social problems resulting from the development of Dhamra Port – consequences that are to be expected from such a massive development project. A coalition of local conservation groups approached the port promoters – TATA Steel and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), as well as the implementing company, DPCL. The following individuals and organisations took part in the dialogue process: Ashish Fernandes (Greenpeace India), Debi Goenka (Conservation Action Trust), Mitali Kakkar and Prahlad Kakkar (Reefwatch Marine Conservation), ND Koli (National Fishworkers’ Forum), Janaki Lenin (as Regional Chair of the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group), Biswajit Mohanty (Wildlife Society of Orissa),  Divya Raghunandan (Greenpeace India), Bittu Sahgal (Sanctuary Asia), Ravi Singh (WWF India), and  Belinda Wright (Wildlife Protection Society of India). Throughout the dialogue, this collective of groups consulted others, including B.C. Choudhury, Jack Frazier, Sudarshan Rodriguez, Kartik Shanker, Aarthi Sridhar and Romulus Whitaker. Between October 2008 and February 2009, four meetings were held (the last of which was at the construction site at Dhamra).

At these meetings, the obvious gaps in the sole Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted in 1997 (for a totally different development site and a much smaller development project) were pointed out and the need to conduct a comprehensive, credible and independent impact assessment was stressed by the conservation alliance, some of whom are authors of this piece. It was also emphasized that a credible assessment should have been done prior to the commencement of construction work for the project. From the very first meeting on October 23, 2008, the Precautionary Principle was cited repeatedly to urge the port promoters to suspend construction until the completion of the new assessment (i.e., for a period of one year), which TATA Steel, L&T and DPCL refused to do. At the third meeting on February 10, 2009, at Dhamra, Mr. Sengupta, Vice President, TATA Steel, offered to consider deferring elements of construction by a few days to avoid interference with any fresh impact assessment but totally ruled out suspending construction or dredging. On February 20, 2009, the conservation alliance proposed a compromise and requested the company to suspend dredging during the turtle season, but this was rejected on the grounds that the latter had been advised that suspension of work was unnecessary. Requests that the port promoters share the expert advice (studies, evidence, recommendations, etc.) that recommended that suspension of work was not required, were rejected by the port developers at this meeting and subsequently (a letter from Greenpeace requesting this information was addressed to Mr. Muthuraman, Managing Director, TATA Steel dated February 27, 2009 has elicited no response) ( Additional correspondence available on request). Not surprisingly, the conservationists present at this meeting considered this a poor demonstration of good intention/will and/or application of the precautionary approach by the company and its advisors.

TATA Steel has publicly pledged to withdraw from the project should it cause unacceptable negative impact on the turtles and their nesting habitat. However, they had rejected a Greenpeace commissioned study nor have they cooperated in implementing an independent assessment. This situation left the conservation alliance with no option but to disengage from the dialogue process until such time that the port promoters were willing to reconsider their stance.  From information made available on the IUCN website, the only source of information that has been made available by IUCN, the participating organizations and individuals can only presume that the company’s reluctance to conduct such a basic, universally required exercise for any development project, particularly in an environmentally sensitive area, was instigated by their IUCN advisors. Subsequently, an arribada took place in Gahirmatha in March 2009 and this was used as evidence to show that dredging did not negatively impact turtles and their habitats, while ignoring any mention of the long-term impacts on the coastline.

Continuing impasse with IUCN and MTSG – Invisible revelations

In November, 2008, several months after their interaction with the Dhamra project began, the IUCN planned a one day technical workshop at Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Presentations by the IUCN consultants on their activities at Dhamra dominated the agenda, while the meeting organizers ignored the fundamental concerns repeatedly expressed by local membership over the preceding months. Besides, some MTSG and IUCN members and several organizations with a long history of involvement in the Dhamra port issue were not even invited to participate. These objections were raised before the workshop, but no attempt was made to resolve them, despite repeated requests by several members to the MTSG and the IUCN.

In the end the workshop was postponed and finally convened again in February 2009, with exactly the same agenda. While a few select institutions received invitations seven weeks earlier, most received their invitations just three weeks prior to the workshop. Contrary to the statements issued by MTSG and IUCN, numerous key individuals and institutions (many of the same ones who had been eliminated from the earlier invitation list) were simply not invited. The lack of participation in drafting the agenda, the short notice and selective invitations did not inspire confidence, and many IUCN members (WWF, WPSI) and MTSG members (B. Pandav, K. Shanker, W. Sunderraj, B. Tripathy, R. Whitaker) declined to attend. Besides the staff of DPCL and IUCN, representatives from eight out of approximately 24 IUCN member organizations in India, four NGOs and two universities participated. Hence, less than a third of the key actors participated in the workshop. Nonetheless, the press release ( issued after the February 24-25, 2009 ‘workshop’ in Bhubaneswar gives the impression that there was widespread agreement and support of the IUCN-DPCL partnership.

On 24 April 2009, some of us requested the IUCN to provide details of their agreement with the port developers, financial and technical reports and recommendations given to the company. Specifically, we requested copies of:
1. The Terms of Reference/Scope of Engagement of the IUCN with the Dhamra Port Project.
2. The final agreement between the IUCN and DPCL/TATA Steel.
3. Financial details pertaining to the IUCN’s involvement with DPCL: particularly, how much are IUCN representatives being paid to advise DPCL?
4. Reports and recommendations submitted so far by IUCN/MTSG to DPCL.
5. Periodic assessments and compliance reports from the commencement of IUCN’s work till the present.

On 29 April 2009, Michael Dougherty, Regional Communications Coordinator, Asia Regional Office, IUCN, responded saying that these documents were circulated during the February 2009 workshop. However, colleagues who attended the workshop (among the authors of this piece) refute this claim; these documents were not made available during the workshop or at any other time. On 18 May 2009, we made the same request again. Moreover, an earlier letter was sent to the MTSG chairs (8 May 2009) requesting this information and further details on dredging and other port activities, but this also elicited no response. Hence, it has been difficult – if not impossible - to get basic information from the IUCN, and requests for specific information are not adequately answered.

While some field trip reports and recommendations are now available on the IUCN website (, most documents including the agreement between IUCN and DPCL and its financial details have been declared confidential. In short, the relationship between IUCN /MTSG and local organizations and conservationists contradicts the lofty rhetoric on the IUCN website, reminiscent of “self-laudatory monologue” typical of large international NGOs (Igoe & Sullivan 2009). We do not agree with IUCN’s claim that there is open discussion, sharing of information and positive conservation outcome.

IUCN’s impact – Naked but not transparent

Any recommendations and mitigation advice to port developers is handicapped by the lack of a scientific assessment of the environmental impacts of the project on the coastline and the ecosystems in close proximity, not to mention social and economic impacts on marginalized inhabitants of coastal communities. In general, such attempts to bridge the gap between industry and conservation have raised concerns for both ecological health and justice (Frazier 2005; Igoe & Sullivan 2009).

There is simply no reliable environmental impact assessment, nor – it would appear – any interest in producing one. It is widely believed that the IUCN capitulated to industry’s demands instead of insisting on a meaningful EIA, despite the fact that this is a basic pre-development requirement that is virtually a world-wide standard. The impacts of dredging of sand and other bottom sediments near the nesting beaches of Gahirmatha Wildlife Sanctuary (C.S. Kar pers. comm.) is apparently not being addressed by IUCN/MTSG as evidenced by the lack of reference to this in any report. The impact of annual dredging to maintain a 19 km shipping channel, and subsequent impacts on coastal currents and food webs are unknown. This is especially worrisome given the dramatic changes to the geomorphology of the Gahirmatha beaches during the last two decades (Shanker et al., 2004; Prusty and Dash, 2006). Little is known of the recommendations being made by the IUCN/MTSG to DPCL to mitigate coastal erosion, invasive species or the other concomitant negative impacts of ports, if indeed any such recommendations are being made.

MTSG’s advice to the company seems to have focused on two actions: to use deflectors on the dredger’s drag-head to shield turtles and to use light shades to reduce the disorientation of turtles and hatchlings during nighttime operations. These are likely to reduce some short-term negative impacts of the port development activities on turtles. Remarkably, the latest communiqué posted by the IUCN on its website ( indicates that the IUCN-DPCL agreement is primarily to draft an Environmental Management Plan (EMP), and that this will be drafted in the second phase of the project. However, now more than two years after the agreement was developed, the only advice that seems to have been provided are a few isolated sea turtle mitigation measures. Hence, conservationists in India are mystified and deeply disappointed by the obsessive focus on sea turtles to the exclusion of other life forms and ecological interactions, particularly since the port site lies just 4 km away from Bhitarkanika National Park (a regionally important RAMSAR site and proposed UNESCO World Heritage site).

IUCN’s engagement with the private sector is said to be governed by the private sector guidelines (, which include the preparation of a due diligence report, yet this essential document is not available on its websites. There is no information available to suggest that this was ever done. The lack of environmental precaution by the corporation and regulatory failure of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (see epilogue) has resulted in the flouting of environment laws and regulations (see MTN 121/ IOTN 8). Local conservationists view IUCN’s willingness to over-ride its own private sector guidelines in order to partner with a powerful corporation (and thereby attain significant corporate funding), as aiding and abetting an ecologically and socially devastating project, while undermining their own efforts to make the state and corporations play by environmental rules. It is particularly worrisome when IUCN has refused to collaborate with, or even recognize, local conservation NGOs or community groups.

Local individuals and groups have demonstrated their willingness to enter into meaningful discussion and constructively engage with both the company or IUCN (as summarised above), but they have been repeatedly spurned by these large, powerful organizations. Both the National Fishworkers’ Forum and the Orissa Traditional Fish Workers’ Union have opposed the project (See IOTN 8 and 9). Yet, without their crucial support, the sustainability of project recommendations is in jeopardy. Within the conservation community, IUCN has demonstrated that it is acting in isolation (if not in opposition) by refusing to seriously consider the opinions of local groups. International staff and contractors with their tenuous and ephemeral connections and superficial knowledge of the highly complex issues involved are hardly the way to effect change in the current context.

Partnerships with industry: A global strategy to curb biodiversity loss or new suit?

The collaboration with DPCL is part of IUCN’s global strategy to curb biodiversity loss. High-level dialogues and partnerships with extractive industries have been set up, e.g., the IUCN-ICMM (International Council on Mining and Metals)
(, the EBI (Energy and Biodiversity Initiative) ( and the controversial partnership with Shell. These interactions generally aim to develop voluntary codes of good environmental and social conduct and to integrate considerations of biodiversity protection in the development of extractive industry projects.

Although there is value in interacting directly with the private sector to address environmental issues, and not withstanding IUCN’s good intentions, many IUCN members worldwide, affected people, indigenous groups and advocacy organizations are deeply concerned about the way IUCN is handling these partnerships, and this concern has been elaborated in the specific case of the Dhamra Port development (Frazier 2008). At the last World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, no less than 60% of the NGO members supported a resolution to end IUCN’s partnership with Shell (Igoe & Sullivan 2009). IUCN’s partnership with DPCL is another example that justifies concern for all the reasons stated above (as well as others).

It is critical that the IUCN and MTSG develop partnerships with local groups and address the range of conservation concerns engendered by the Dhamra project. Anything short of that runs contrary to the Precautionary Principle and the IUCN/MTSG’s own conservation mandate, but instead fits the general behaviour of large international NGOs that are notorious for undermining local groups to achieve their own agenda (Frazier 2005, Igoe & Sullivan 2009). When local environmental organisations and affected peoples lose confidence, then IUCN should reevaluate its partnership with the private sector and efforts should be made to bring these communities into the process.

While we believe that it is necessary and possible to engage constructively with the DPCL and TATA Steel, this has to be done in a manner that truly considers local stakeholders and gives credence to local opinions and concerns. If these basic principles are not observed, any potential value of the IUCN- private sector partnership will be reduced to cheap greenwashing.


Recently obtained documents from the offices of the Forest Department of Orissa show that the land on which the Dhamra port project is being built is a Protected Forest. The project does not have the mandatory clearance from the Government of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests for usage of such land and has therefore violated the Indian Forest Conservation Act, 1980. An application has been filed in the Supreme Court by conservationists Bittu Sahgal, Romulus Whitaker and Shekar Dattatri seeking punitive action, and on October 9, 2009, the court issued notices to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the state government of Orissa.

Literature cited

FRAZIER, J.G. 2005. Biosphere reserves and the Yucatan Syndrome: Another look at the role of NGOs. In: R. Smardon and B. Faust (eds.) Biosphere Reserve Management in the Yucatan Peninsula - Special Edition. Landscape and Urban Planning 74: 313-333.

FRAZIER, J. 2008. Why do They do That? Ruminations on the Dhamra Drama. Marine Turtle Newsletter. 121: 28-33.

IGOE, J. &  S. SULLIVAN. 2009. Problematising Neoliberal Biodiversity Conservation: Displaced and Disobedient Knowledge Executive summary of workshop held at Washington D.C., American University, Department of Anthropology, May 16-19, 2008,

MATHEW, S. 2004. Socio-economic aspects of management measures aimed at controlling sea turtle mortality: a case study of Orissa, India. Paper presented at the Expert Consultation on Interactions between Sea Turtles and Fisheries within an Ecosystem Context, Rome, 9-12 March2004. FAO Fisheries Report No. 738, Suppl. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2004. 238p.

PRUSTY, B.G. & S. DASH. 2006.  The effect of rookery geomorphology on olive ridley nesting in Gahirmatha, Orissa. In: Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (eds. Shanker, K. & B. C. Choudhury), pp. 384-392. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

SHANKER, K. B.C. CHOUDHURY, A. FERNANDES, S. GOPAL, A. HAMID, C. KAR, S. KUMAR, J. LENIN, B. MOHANTY, B. PANDAV, S. RODRIGUEZ, A. SRIDHAR, W. SUNDERRAJ, B. TRIPATHY, R. WHITAKER, S. WORAH & B. WRIGHT. 2009. A little learning …..: the price of ignoring politics and history. Marine Turtle Newsletter 124: 3-5.

SHANKER, K., B. PANDAV & B.C. CHOUDHURY. 2004. An assessment of the olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) nesting population in Orissa, India.  Biological Conservation 115: 149 – 160.

SHANKER, K. & R. KUTTY. 2005. Sailing the flagship fantastic: myth and reality of sea turtle conservation in India. Maritime Studies 3(2) and 4(1): 213-240.

SHANKER, K. AND CHOUDHURY, B.C. 2006. Marine turtles in the Indian subcontinent: a brief history. In: Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (eds. Shanker, K. & B. C. Choudhury), pp. 3-16. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

SRIDHAR, A. 2005. Sea turtle conservation and fisheries in Orissa, India. Samudra Monograph. International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Chennai, India.

WRIGHT, B. AND MOHANTY, B. 2006. Operation Kachhapa: an NGO initiative for sea turtle conservation in Orissa. In: Marine Turtles of the Indian Subcontinent (eds. Shanker, K. & B. C. Choudhury), pp. 290-303. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

Peeling the onion: the politics of conservation and corporations at a sea turtle rookery

By Kartik Shanker, Janaki Lenin and Ashish Fernandes

The Hindu Survey of The Environment 2009

There is a large body of work on the impact of development on the environment, including rigorous historical accounts, and careful studies on governance, institutions and political ecology and economy. More visible however is the widespread, somewhat histrionic rhetoric, from pro-development capitalists and environmental activists. A common thread between those in favour of development and those advocating environmental sustainability appears to lie in the realm of social and environmental justice and equity. One can therefore ask if those who claim to subscribe to this common goal – ie. “self-proclaimed” socially responsible corporations and environmental conservation organisations –  actually do justice to it in their actions.

Typically, this battle between environment and development has been cast as a fight between “good versus evil” (or at best, “good versus misguided”) by both sides. However, the role of big international NGOs (or BINGOs) in conservation has been questioned in recent years. In his seminal article, “A challenge to conservationists: can we protect natural habitats without abusing the people who live in them?” in World Watch in 2004, Mac Chapin questioned the corporate funding of large international conservation NGOs working in developing countries, such as Worldwide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, and their drive to establish protected areas from which indigenous people are excluded. While displacement of people to enable infrastructure development such as dams is well-known, people are also evicted in the name of conservation, dubbed ‘conservation refugees’ by Mark Dowie.

Currently, many of these large conservation organisations work with or receive significant funds from large corporations. For example, Conservation International’s website states “We partner with businesses such as Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s to help them establish “green” benchmarks and embrace environmentally sound practices.” IUCN has major partnerships with Royal Dutch Shell, Total (French Oil Giant) and other agreements are in the pipeline. Recently, the partnership between Shell and IUCN came under considerable criticism at the World Conservation Congress held at Barcelona in October 2008. According to the agreement, the partnership aims “to enhance the biodiversity conservation performance by Shell” and “to strengthen IUCN’s capacity for leadership in business and biodiversity”. Though more than 60% of the IUCN membership voted for a motion to end the agreement, it was rejected on a technicality.

In India too, there is substantial controversy over the conflicting demands of environmental conservation and development, and the role of policy in facilitating change. For example, the recent suggested replacement of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991, with a Coastal Management Zone Notification, is believed to be driven by business interests that would result in the development of the coast, at the cost of local inhabitants and habitats. The politics of conservation and development, involves a variety of players, and is not simple. We illustrate this here through the battle over a port and a sea turtle nesting rookery involving many actors, including large corporations, international conservation organisations, local conservationists, and many others.

A brief history of sea turtle conservation in Orissa

Olive ridley turtles nest en masse at several beaches in Orissa, mainly Gahirmatha, Rushikulya and Devi River Mouth. Sea turtle conservation started in Orissa in the mid 1970s, when Robert Bustard, a FAO consultant, visited Bhitarkanika on a crocodile survey, and discovered the mass nesting beach at Gahirmatha. Over the next two decades, various organisations including the Forest Department, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), and Utkal University were involved in sea turtle research and conservation. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, following the introduction of mechanized boats, there was large scale exploitation of adult turtles in Orissa (>50,000 turtles per season) for sale as meat in West Bengal. Due to the implementation of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 by the Forest Department in the early 1980s, and conservation efforts by many individuals and organisations, this was eventually stopped. Notably, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed her support for sea turtle conservation in Orissa and facilitated the involvement of the Coast Guard, which helped in enforcing regulations.

Despite an alert issued by the CMFRI, the mortality as incidental catch in trawl nets continued to increase dramatically through the 1990s, and in recent years, more than 10,000 dead turtles wash up on the Orissa coast annually.  The unpredictability in the extent and timing of arribadas, declining size of nesting turtles, aggravated by the huge mortality of adult turtles, is believed to be indicative of an impending decline in olive ridley populations in Orissa. It has also become clear that changes in the geomorphology may be leading to the decline in nesting at Gahirmatha, while nesting in Rushikulya appears to be increasing, and mass-nesting in the Devi region has not occurred for more than a decade.

Through the 1990s, many conservation organisations and programmes such as Operation Kachhapa focused on mitigating trawler related mortality through enforcement and media campaigns. Around the same time, the USA extended its domestic law to all its trading partner countries, requiring shrimp trawlers to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs). Following extensive protest and deliberation at the WTO (in which India was one of the complainants), the US position was upheld. Though mandated through law in Orissa, few trawler owners are inclined to use TEDs for a variety of reasons. As elsewhere, such as the USA, trawler owners protested that only one of the causes of turtle mortality was being targeted.

The focus on trawlers created a vitiated atmosphere, in which most fishermen perceived conservation as anti-people. In 2004, recognising the impasse between fishing communities and turtle conservation, local and national conservation organizations and individuals, community organisations, and fishworker support organisations came together under the umbrella of the Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium ( This group has been attempting to promote the conservation of marine biodiversity, including turtles, along with the livelihoods of the poor artisanal fishermen. The laws are conducive to this goal as they mainly seek to prohibit mechanised fishing in near-shore waters, which is beneficial to turtles and traditional fishermen. Today, a large number of international, national, local and community-based organisations are involved in various aspects of sea turtle conservation in Orissa (see

History of the port at Dhamra

The Dhamra Port has been in the pipeline for over a decade now. Clearance to build a port was granted in 1997 taking advantage of an amendment to the Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) Notification that allowed the expansion of minor ports (Dhamra is a notified minor port) with clearance issued by the Ministry of Surface Transport rather than the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The power to clear such projects has since returned to the MoEF. The port was to be built by International Seaports (India) Private Limited under an agreement with the Government of Orissa. In 2004, Tata steel and L&T agreed to develop the port as a 50:50 joint venture through the Dhamra Port Company Limited (DPCL) which was awarded a concession by the Orissa Government to build the port. According to the website, it will be the deepest port in India and strategically close to the mineral belts in nearby states ( Although the characteristics of the current port proposal vary from that of International Seaports Limited, the environmental clearance granted to the latter was used. It is widely considered that the scientific and legal validity of the EIA and environment clearance for Dhamra port are questionable, given the change in scale and location of the project.

The opposition to this port citing negative impacts on sea turtles picked up again about 3 years ago, with Greenpeace being the most outspoken critic. Citing concern for sea turtle conservation, representatives of Tata & DPCL then contacted several biologists around the country and requested that they conduct studies (offshore distribution studies of olive ridley turtles with satellite telemetry) to see if sea turtles would indeed be adversely affected by the port. Biologists and subsequently NGOs such as Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and WWF declined to engage with DPCL unless the company agreed to a fresh EIA and to stop construction while studies were ongoing.

In 2006, DPCL contracted the IUCN, to draft an environmental management plan. The IUCN, working through its voluntary body, the Marine Turtle Specialist Group, undertook the project, over-ruling the opposition expressed by almost all its local members. Members of the MTSG in India believe the agreement was  effected without due process, a lack of transparency, in contravention of the precautionary principle, and therefore likely to undermine local efforts towards sea turtle conservation in Orissa. To illustrate the extent of protest, IUCN’s involvement in the project is opposed by WWF, Greenpeace, OMRCC, Wildlife Protection Society of India, Wildlife Society of Orissa, biologists working at the Wildlife Institute of India, Indian Institute of Science, WWF, Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, and several local conservation organisations.  Despite protests and numerous letters, the IUCN and MTSG continue to engage with the company.

While IUCN’s advice to use deflectors on dredgers and light reduction may reduce negative impacts on turtles, the need is for an environmental management plan, based on a comprehensive impact analysis. Inexplicably, the IUCN advisors who stressed the need for a fresh EIA in their scoping mission, today conclude that it is unnecessary. The focus on sea turtles to the exclusion of other biodiversity, particularly in Bhitarkanika National Park which is closest to the port site, and ignoring the consequences of coastal erosion/accretion, invasive species brought by visiting ships and the other concomitant negative impacts of ports, is likely to have long term fallout. So too is the IUCN’s refusal to work with local conservation organisations, while partnering with a major international corporation.

Over the last 6 months, the port promoters (Tata Steel and L&T, as well as DPCL) have held meetings with a coalition of local conservation groups. The conservationists continued to stress the need for a comprehensive, credible and independent impact assessment given the very obvious gaps in the 1997 EIA. Again, due to the refusal to pause construction (or even dredging during the nesting season) while studies were ongoing, the dialogue did not lead to a resolution.

Corporate conservation: a tangled web

Clearly, all parties have taken some actions ostensibly to effect positive impacts on the environment. IUCN, through the MTSG, has stuck to the argument that its engagement with the project will be beneficial for sea turtles. Local conservation groups have argued for a broader conservation outlook which addresses a wider set of concerns including habitat conservation and local livelihoods. Tata Steel/DPCL’s willingness to accept some environmental safeguards may have been (and still be) an opportunity to mainstream some of these as regulations in port and coastal development.

However, both conservationists and corporations have also been remarkably similar in their singular approach to meet their mandates. The corporation has been clearly unwilling to negotiate on the critical issue of a faulty EIA or to consider halting construction. As noted sea turtle conservationist Jack Frazier has repeatedly stressed, big conservation NGOs, especially IUCN, have largely ignored a range of other issues such as the impact on social development, environmental consequences of social change, impacts on fisheries, introduction of invasives through bilge water disposal, and most importantly impacts on the coastal ecosystems. Conservationist organisations have a lot more in common with corporations than they would like to believe, particularly in the way that they use information selectively. And large international conservation organisations appear to have much in common with their benefactors,  especially in the way they function and make decisions.

In conclusion, it is not clear that such conservation – corporation partnerships are beneficial for long-term conservation of species and habitats, especially when done in contravention of the precautionary principle, in opposition to local conservation groups, and with little transparency. By focusing exclusively on sea turtles to the neglect of coastal ecosystems and people, it appears as if this BINGO has either abdicated its role as a leader in the field or has set its bar so low that it does no more than provide a green chit to the company. In developing nations such as India where resources are scarce, the long term viability of conservation depends substantially on local support. Lack of attention to social issues can alienate local communities from conservation, ultimately jeopardizing the survival of species and habitats.

Acknowledgements: This article has benefited from comments and discussions with Jack Frazier, Sudarshan Rodriguez and Aarthi Sridhar. For more articles on this issue, see the Marine Turtle Newsletter ( and the Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter (

Kartik Shanker is with the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore & Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore.
Janaki Lenin is the IUCN/SSC/Crocodile Specialist Group’s Regional Chair for South Asia and Iran.
Ashish Fernandes is an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace, Bangalore.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Trails in the Misty Mountains

Outlook Traveller Oct 2009

It is said that Somerset Maugham had a transcendental experience at Neterikkal Reservoir in Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. I had a more worldly expectation; I went armed with a long wish list of animals, birds and insects. As we climbed up the road through Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s (BBTC) Manjolai tea estate, RC, our Kani guide, pointed to a distant grassy platform as our destination, Kudiravetti.

The tops of crotons and rose bushes that border the front yard of the rest house had been cropped by sambhar. Below us spread the Manimuthar and Karaiyar reservoirs, and the towns of the plains. The Kudiravetti grassland had few trees and a strong wind made hovering in one spot difficult for a black-shouldered kite. Despite its remote location, the rest house had electricity and running water. Hotel Manikanda Vilas in Oothu, just 15 minutes drive away, was the feeding station.

That night as we drove around the tea estate our light beams picked up the ‘eye shine’ of gaur, and sambhar grazing on the succulent grass. Although the chilly mountain air kept us awake and alert, we were startled by the brilliant eye shine of a large leopard stalking sambhar. Not a bad start. Despite our excitement and curiosity, we drove on so as not to interrupt the hunt or disadvantage the predator. The rest of the night didn't show up anything spectacular.

The next early morning we set off to visit Muthukulivayal, a two hour drive away. As the sun warmed up, scimitar babblers and Eurasian blackbirds got busy and it was tempting to dawdle along the way. We had to hurry to beat the mist. Crossing the various bridges around the Upper Kodayar reservoir revealed extensive vistas of forest as far as the eye could see. A herd of 17 gaur (check mark on my list) crashed through the forest as we approached. We gave them a five minute head start before venturing after them. At the top of a grassy knoll, we watched the herd disappear behind the hill. A huge black bull, so muscle-bound he could barely walk, brought up the rear.

We scanned the rocky outcrops for Nilgiri tahr but there was no sign of them. Unwilling to return just yet, I glassed the rocks again and came to rest on three immobile rocks balanced on a large rocky slope. I excitedly gestured everyone over and pointed to the tahr. Maybe I was losing it entirely; they were rocks after all. Just then, the three basking rocks peeled away from the slope. Then others stood up on nearby rocks and the final tally was eight tahr (check). All of them made their way sedately across the grass, up the slope and over the crest. Elated at having seen the tahr and gaur, we gorged on a celebratory breakfast of idlis and coconut chutney. My trip was made and everything else could only be icing.

Our host, Mr P, announced that our booking did not allow us to stay more than two nights and we’d have to vacate the next day. This could be bad. We considered the alternatives, none of them simple or bother-free. Eventually we decided we’d ask Mr P to re-check and sure enough, we were alright. There was no need to panic. I began to suspect that Mr P reveled in crises.

We returned to Muthukulivayal the next evening hoping to get a good shot of the gaur. We did indeed come across three herds but they were very skittish. The safe distance was several hundred metres, no good for a decent picture. One lone bull grazed in the dull light and Gireesh waited for a silhouette against the sky shot. When he did crest the hill, Gireesh whispered, “He looks like a rabbit!” Later that night, we came upon another lone gaur bull grazing in the tea estate that ignored us completely. He grazed with single-minded concentration. We cleared our throats to get his attention; he wasn’t falling for that trick. Finally when Ravi turned off the engine, the gaur looked up long enough in the middle of a bite. Instead of a majestic stately creature, it looked like he was having a ‘duh’ moment.

After sunset, we spotted a leopard (check) near the Upper Kodayar dam who disappeared into the undergrowth like a ghost. On the other side, a couple of gaur with two tiny calves stood silhouetted on a short bluff overlooking the road. Although we were close by, they didn’t run away. RC surmised that the leopard may be stalking the calves and they were playing it safe by being out in the open, by the road. We didn’t hang around to learn the outcome of this unraveling event.

On our return, Mr P had another crisis ready for us: one of the bridges that permits access to Kudiravetti was to be demolished the next day and we would have to leave by 6 am. It turned out that the demolition was slated for 4 pm only; by then we would have left. So yet another crisis fizzled out with no major intervention. We figured he had earned the nickname of Mr Crisis Queen.
Another morning, we set off for Kakachi to trek up the Sengeltheri path. We parked the car near the Forest Department bunker called Fern House and explored the forest patch along the road. The enormously winged tree nymph butterflies (check) flapped and soared lazily through the trees. Large velvety brown, aromatic nutmeg fruits lay by the roadside, apparently eaten by lion-tailed macaques and other creatures. Tree ferns grew luxuriantly along the streambanks.

While birdwatching along the road, Ravi amazed us by spotting a large-scaled green pit viper on a branch about 25 feet off the ground. Try as I may, I just could not see it among the jumble of leaves, and branches. Since pit vipers are known to sit in the same spot for weeks, sometimes even months, we returned that night to see if we could eyeshine the snake. No luck, their pupils are too small. The next day I was finally able to see the snake stretched along a twig, a couple of inches to the right of where he had been before. Subsequently we spotted it regularly on our trips up and down that road until we left a couple of days later. This is a real ‘sit and wait’ predator!

With a pair of mountain imperial pigeons quietly honking at each other, we set off up the path behind Fern House. We were armoured in our choice of anti-leech weaponry: Ravi liberally dusted his socks and shoes with snuff, RC smeared Clinic Plus shampoo around his chappals, Gireesh’s leech socks were sprayed with insecticide and powdered with snuff while my leech socks were doused with insecticide. The smell of RC’s sweetly perfumed foot gear wafted up as I followed him up a steep slope.

It was impossible to tell what species of massive trees lined our path; they were so tall that their leaves were way up in the canopy. Helpfully, researchers had labeled some trees along the path and I saw the most humongous Calophyllum of my life. It was a steep uphill climb that expanded the capacity of our lungs to the limit. The spiny rinds of cullenia lay strewn along the path; the aril, or seed lining of this fruit is a favourite food of lion-tailed macaques. As the sun rose, beams of light filtered through the tree trunks and lit the forest floor. Distant calls of Nilgiri langurs and the drumming of the white-bellied woodpecker resonated through the forest. At a junction of two paths, we hear a constant, rapid, loud clicking sound. RC said “elephant stomach rumbling or the whiskers of a tiger vibrating.” He turned circumspectly onto the Sengeltheri path to investigate while I walked straight down to a large swamp. I was pretty sure they were frog calls but local tribal intelligence maintained that it was the tremendously vibrating whiskers of a tiger.

Seeing us, a giant Malabar squirrel set up a din that sounded like one of those light flashing toy guns. We had breakfast on the rocks while I mused over the enigma of the skid tracks all around us. Gaur apparently have no sense of balance here; even on perfectly level ground they appeared to slip and slide. Beyond the rocks, a path split off which RC said was made by elephants. He reluctantly led the way on my suggestion. After a while he refused to continue as the terrain was flat and should an elephant charge there was no way to escape. Back on the main path, courting butterflies chased each other in the sun beams. A lot of the time in the rainforest is spent with our heads thrown back and with binoculars glued to our eyes. To maintain this posture, one needs a neck of cast iron and arms of steel.

We wondered what Mr Crisis Queen had waiting for us at base camp. It wasn’t long in coming. Twenty people were expected to visit that night. There were only 3 rooms of which we had 2. None of the rooms were large enough for even 3 people to share. We anticipated unpleasant drunken noisiness. Only five people came up while the others stayed elsewhere. What did I tell you?

Next morning as we reluctantly left the forest behind us, I realized that my faculties were alert to movements, sounds, colours, and textures; I was no more a sluggish domestic buffalo. It may not have been an out of body experience, but the energy the forest gave me and the sharpening of the senses allowed my mind and body to encompass the world.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Descent into the Valley of the Hornbills - A Kameng Odyssey

Outlook Traveller June 2009

“I’m an Indian and even I don’t want to visit this place. It’s a punishment posting for me, I’m sorry to say. But I have no choice, I’m building a dam here. Why did you people choose to come here?” asked a loud voice that cut through our dinnertime conversation rudely. The man was drunk and we were suddenly tongue-tied. No one tried to reply to his befuddled face and eventually the engineer’s embarrassed colleagues hustled him away. How was one to tell him that the idea of visiting this part of the world had made us salivate with anticipation? However, we didn’t blame him for his uncharitable thoughts. If we had been stuck in Seppa (christened “Septic Seppa” for its garbage and disarray), we would have also rudely barged into someone else’s party and asked the same question. But we were just transiting through this frontier town and had another 60 km to go.
At our destination, Marjangle, a Nishi village set on a one-vehicle dirt track on the Arunchal hillside, we set up camp on the gravelly beach and went to sleep to the soothing sounds of the River Kameng gurgling over pebbles. Kameng trickled out of a lake below the 6858 m Gori Chen glacier on the Indo-Tibetan border. It rushes down western Arunachal Pradesh increasing in volume until it meets the Brahmaputra near Tezpur, Assam. This expedition was to be the third descent of the Kameng.

The next morning, an audience watched us break camp. There was an audible gasp when the tents were collapsed and packed into bags. Pretty soon, the only things left standing were the crafts - two rafts, one catamaran for cargo and a safety kayak. A second “cat” would be put in much later in the trip. Long after sun-up, we were all kitted up, briefed on safety issues and had boarded our respective rafts. “Will you bring us a woman or two next time you come,” asked the village elder while we waited for the “cat” to get loaded up. We turned to each other, “Did he really say that?” The elder repeated his request and we pretended to ignore him. He upped the ante, “I’ll give you [an animal’s] head” and he spaced his hands out in front of his chest. I wondered what animal he was offering to trade but to seek clarification is to signal willingness to negotiate. Our presence was provocative enough that he unsheathed his sword and began an impromptu dance on the river’s edge. The cameras came out which goaded him to dance some more. Eventually the “cat” was ready and we set off. Considering how recently (right up to the 40s and 50s) head-hunting and slave-taking were part of the area’s history, we got away easily.

Two young hunters watching us portage the rafts over boulders

The river was low as the last monsoons had not been adequate. We decided to forge ahead nonetheless. The rafts snagged on boulders and often just the whole crew, comically bouncing up and down in unison was enough to free them. The “cat”, weighed down by cargo, needed more hands-on shifting and shaking to make it budge. Sometimes, we carried baggage around non-existent rapids delaying us by hours. On the first day, we barely made 8 km of the total of 116 km.

We were tired, yes, but the kitchen crew and the river guides slogged the most, making several trips transporting the heaviest bags, pushing and pulling rafts out of rocks, over boulders, setting up the kitchen, cooking, pumping water into the decanter for drinking, loading and unloading all the gear every day. At the end of a very rough first day, Anvesh (the safety kayaker) moaned in mock misery, “Why did I not listen to my father and study to be an engineer?” I remembered the homesick engineer at Seppa and thought Anvesh had it good.

Every afternoon, while we set up camp, Rom would stalk off with a fishing rod hoping to catch a chocolate mahseer or snow trout, but any fish would do. The local fish didn’t fancy his American spinners. The kitchen staff helpfully made a ball of wheat dough for bait. On the Cauvery in south India, Rom had successfully caught mahseer on ragi balls. The Himalayan fish didn’t even taste it. The local fishermen we met along the way advised using insect baits. The dynamite blasting we heard every day, however, didn’t bode well. Throwing a stick of the explosive into the river stuns all the fish in that area and they float belly up, easy pickings for the lazy fisherman. The larger fish go into the pot, while the smaller fish float down river, unnecessarily dead.

Once camp had been set up, vegetables chopped for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch, we sat by the fire roasting our wet suits, and polypropylene underwear (The “polypros” were essential especially if we fell into the freezing water.). The trick to speed drying is not to let them hang from a post but to stand in them by the fire. But by the time we pulled ashore, everyone eagerly anticipated getting out of the wet, clingy, heavy suits so this wisdom was wasted knowledge. We were shooting through rapids within a short time of donning our fire-dried and smoked suits and it was no wonder that none of the river guides ever bothered drying theirs. Nonetheless we hassled it every night for those first few minutes of comfort every morning. All our belongings went into a waterproof bag that had to be vacuum packed to withstand the tumbling through the rapids. Unfortunate souls who didn’t pack well had to dry their sleeping bags and clothes by the fire. In one case, even a passport!

The next day, the speed of travel increased as the Pakke River joined the Kameng and we didn’t have to stop for every little pile of boulders. And we finally encountered some pretty hairy rapids, the Pakke Socksucker (Class 4 +). The rapids were spaced out in 4 stages and we managed to get through the first two easily while the third almost had us! Just as we were digging into our shoes (and socks) for the last stage, Arvind, the river guide, yelled “BACKPADDLE, BACKPADDLE”. Our adrenalin-fueled paddle-work took us ashore; we had been about to shoot straight into a logjam. There was no choice but to haul out and hoist baggage and raft over the boulders, paddle across a still pool to a beach. Exhausted, this is where we camped.

The Gruesome Geyser
The next morning we woke up to discover that the river level had gone up overnight. Our campfire was inundated and the still pool had turned into a cascading waterfall. It had rained upriver; and it could only get better. The day’s highlight was Gruesome Geyser (Class 5). We braced ourselves for the washing machine turbulence and I was mundanely hoping not to lose my contact lenses. But then, anticlimax: the river guides decided not to risk it; so we portaged the bags over the boulders. Once the rescue team signaled “ok”, by holding one closed fist on top of the head, to each other, the guides rafted down. Thus we chickened out of rafting two of the best-named rapids of the river!

After a few days of team paddling, we were finally just developing a rhythm. In the heart of the rapids, with the water deafening in our ears, Arvind yelled “HARD FORWARD, HARD FORWARD.” We obeyed him reflexively but sometimes we were paddling the air so hard that we almost lost balance and fell in. When the raft was in danger of being buffeted, we hunkered down and held on to the safety rope. If we weren’t where we were supposed to be on a rapid, we would have to instantaneously go “OVER RIGHT” or “OVER LEFT” without conking our counterpart’s teeth with the back of the paddle. It seems very easy to fall into the rapids, perched as we were on the side tubes. Seat belts would be life-threatening if the raft flipped. In fact, a slamming hard turn through a boiling rapid caused one rafter to fall in. He went under for a moment but the rapids quickly spat him out. Later the guides told us that some particularly ugly mothers can pound an overboard rafter underwater for a minute or more before releasing him. But Max came shooting out of the rapids, face and feet pointing skywards. We were downriver and paddled hard to get to the centre of the current to meet him. Several hands hoisted him aboard, a textbook rescue. The rapid was christened the Max Ejector.

We stopped under the bridge spanning the river at Pakke village; the rapids ahead needed scouting. School kids clutching fragments of textbooks and notebooks in their hands crowded around, a few also had catapults, and all had runny noses. One of the older ones shyly asked, “The last year when the kayakers came, they gave us American food. It was very tasty. Do you have any American food? We’d like to taste it once more.” Unfortunately every article was packed in the wet bags which were lashed to the rafts and the catamarans and there was no way we could unpack kit and caboodle there. Another poked the inflatable raft and asked what was it made of. Rom countered, “What do you think it is made of?” and the thoughtful youngster replied “elephant skin”. Last year, a man had tried to puncture the inflatable “cat” with his dagger, perhaps not maliciously but out of curiosity. Some of the kids wanted to get into the raft and we were afraid that it might capsize because once a few got on, there was no way we could hold back the others. Although we said it was dangerous, we did wish we could take them for a ride. Our trip wasn’t bringing any benefits to local people directly, but we could share the fun at least. As we prepared to leave, one of the kids hailed us. We had left a rescue bag behind.

Eamon, one of the river guides, studying the medical kit for a quick cold fix

That afternoon, the river was flat and we paddled extra time to get past Seppa. Filth, plastic bottles and other debris, the familiar symbols of modern civilization littered the banks. Perched inches above this sewage-stinking filth, sometimes being splashed with it, felt disgusting. A few hundred metres away was a sandy beach dominated by two large fig trees, which was to be our camp. Anvesh warned everyone against hanging anything on them as they were colonized by weaver ants. We could see the small parcels of nests on the crown silhouetted against the sky. These little Napoleans of the forest are disproportionately fierce in protecting “their” trees. Make the mistake of leaning on the tree or hanging anything on it, and their stinging bites are enough to sow terror in your memory forever.

The next day, we rafted through 23 rapids (Class 4) within a few hours. Arvind talked of hydraulics, spill-overs and whirlpools and when he described his strategy for riding them, we felt like teenage adrenalin junkies. But he seemed so confident that we suppressed any glimmer of sanity. This was white water nirvana. Anvesh, who had been complaining earlier, couldn’t stop beaming. He eskimo-rolled more times an hour than any sea otter.

Confluence camp

Somewhere along the way we entered Pakke Tiger Reserve. After seeing a lot of slashed and burnt hillsides, finally there was old growth forest of the kind we sought. At every pit stop we found leopard tracks. On a sandy promontory overlooking the confluence of Kameng and Bichom, we struck camp (Confluence Camp). Drawing inspiration from the spectacular setting, Rom headed for the rocky pools upriver. Fishermen must be exceptional optimists to go out repeatedly in the face of so much failure. Hours later, a dejected Rom returned to camp mystified by the seeming lack of life in the river. Earlier that day we had seen a dead fish bobbing amongst some rocks, a victim of dynamiting. It was the very same species of labeo, an algae-eating carp that we had seen with fishermen, and at the market in Seppa. Where had all the other fish gone? In particular where were the mahseer?

The river narrowed and passed through “Gorgeous Gorge” with vegetation dripping down its steep stony walls and contorted trees perched precariously on the edge. The river was swift flowing but deep and there were no boulders to add fizz to our journey. We drifted along gazing up at the towering cliff sides, content in the knowledge that there were no roads or any infrastructure for a few miles around. It’s a miracle that in this country of a billion plus people, one could still lose oneself in the wilderness.

That evening we camped at the wildest spot on the entire trip. It had been named “Stampede” last year, after a lone, curious elephant had been startled enough to run right through the middle of camp, missing the guy ropes of a few tents by inches. True to Anvesh’s tale, an elephant had walked down the steep beach, swam across the river, climbed up onto our beach and disappeared into the jungle. When we thought back on our day’s journey through high gorges, this was the first place that was negotiable by elephants; we were going to camp in the middle of an elephant highway!

One of the crew caught a large grasshopper for Rom and he went off to try yet again, while some of us ventured to explore the forest behind the camp. We followed the stream silently, ears alert to sounds of elephants feeding. Despite it being far away from humanity, there were abandoned fishing traps on the river. High up in the nearest hill, we heard the bleating of goats. Yikes! We were close to humans, I muttered dismissively. It was while I was climbing over some large boulders that I realized that the elephants had also done the same. I would never have believed that possible had it not been for the tracks imprinted in the sand. Large ones and little baby ones. A leopard had also walked along the river as had others, such as civets or martens. Colonies of little towers, about three inches high, rose in the drier parts of the river bed; it was dirt that had passed through the gut of earthworms. Birds of unknown pedigree flitted amongst the red flowers of the bombax trees. Contentment and peace settled over me at the sight of all this life.

Back at camp, I mentioned the goats to Rom who refused to believe us. He said it was a bird making the bleating call. That was hard to believe just as it was hard to believe that there were goats in the middle of the forest. While we stood there debating, three pairs of Great Indian hornbills, their great wings beating “whoosh whoosh whoosh” flow homewards in the dusk. There was nothing more to be said.

We had two fires going that night, one at either end of the camp, to keep out the elephants. We also agreed that if an elephant did approach we would yell and make for the high ground on one side of camp. Another wondered if we should take turns staying awake and keeping watch. Eventually after dinner, everyone was so exhausted, we just crawled into our tents and went to sleep. A brief spell of rain put out the fires unbeknownst to us. Despite the failed precautions, all the tents were still standing the next morning!

We were about to position ourselves for the day’s first rapids, when one of the “cats” loaded heavy with bags hit a major hydraulic which swung it around and left it perched precariously. Bhim would have slipped back and continued on had a subsequent wave not hit him just then and he capsized. Meanwhile the other raft had already made it through and they rescued Bhim and towed the “cat” to quieter waters. We managed to raft through this white water without mishap and the men rushed over to help.

Trying to set right a flipped catamaran

One side pulled and the other side pushed, it was evenly matched. The fulcrum had to shift to set the “cat” back on its tubes. It was exhausting to even watch the struggle. The force of the rushing water didn’t help the efforts at all nor was there any way of accessing the bags to lighten the load. Finally one of the crew crawled through the gap under the “cat”, a risky maneuver, and pushed hard. The free tube flew through the air and landed with a splash on the other side sending the “pulling” team into the water. Anvesh declared this was the first “cat” flip he had had in the last 12 years.

Landslides caused by road construction
About 16 rapids later, when the sun was nearly overhead, we began seeing earth-diggers, trucks, roads, colonies of construction workers. These were precursory signs of the dam that was being constructed across the Kameng. Debris slid into the river, landslides marked the points where roads had unsettled the stability of the slope. The boulders rolled down, bounced off the slope, flew through the air to land in the water with a big splash. The river guides’ shrill whistles pierced our ears. They were trying to attract the attention of an earth mover way up on a hill slope that was dropping the boulders into the river. Eventually a passing car conveyed our message and the machine stopped.

We had long flat stretches to paddle against a strong headwind until we reached the outskirts of Bhalukpong by late afternoon. The vehicles stood ready to whisk us away to Nameri Eco Camp where we were greeted by the nonstop raucous chatter of hill mynas, and parakeets. After 7 days of paddling, it felt good to rest our weary bodies on soft mattresses, eat dinner at a table, have a hot shower and clean the sand from our ears. The fishing may have been disappointing, but the rafting certainly was way beyond our expectations. The trip had all the makings of a rite of passage; we felt totally renewed despite being completely wrung out.

The triumphant team