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.