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Remember how the Grinch stole Christmas?

Remember the children’s tale of how the Grinch stole Christmas? Well, here’s a true life tale that tells a similar story. See the following link for the newspaper article that talks about the banned video.

https://goo.gl/45yJqw

See the video below.

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Stewardship of the Earth – R.I.P. Simba

Many years ago, I was shocked when an economist friend of mine (not you, Larry) said “so what?” in response to my moaning about arctic sea ice loss and the threat of extinction to polar bears. The economist in question is a thoughtful, gentle human being who would never think of himself as cruel or unkind. But he was thinking in terms of economic resources for human needs and, like a lot of people, myself included, who are stuck in their heads (i.e. nurture their intellect and take pride in it), they see themselves as thinking people, and therefore naturally superior – unthinkingly superior – to all other living things.

I came to humility rather late in life. This late-found humility was triggered by a number of factors; the increasing number of vegetarians and vegans in my circle of acquaintance, the anti cow-slaughter movement in India, increasing evidence of methane emissions from cattle farming for meat, and a video about South African Anna Breytenbach who has made interspecies communication her life’s work. I had always appreciated animal pets as sentient beings, but Breytenbach’s work, in particular, brought me to see them at eye level so to speak, dispelling any vestigial notion of superiority. Yes, we can think faster, outwit them in IQ tests, juggle, ride bicycles, add numbers, make wars – and exploit our planet – much better than they ever can. Despite all this, if we don’t recognise them as sentient beings with as much right to live as we do, then we put our own humanity, and humankind, at risk.

A friend recently remarked on the number of stray dogs in her neighbourhood. She complained that animal rights activists were busy protecting the rights of the dogs, while ignoring the plight of poor people in the same area who were struggling to eke out a living. I neglected to point out at the time that a government that does not respect the rights of animals as sentient beings is much less likely to respect the rights of economically powerless people. Take the case of infrastructure. When have rich people ever lost their homes and land to make way for a dam? If you can show me an example, I would wager they were richly compensated and ended up materially better off than before. Never so in the case of the poor. The same applies to roads. An eight-lane highway is deemed necessary and land is appropriated, very often from people who can never afford to use that highway.

And so I come in this roundabout way to the fact that Simba died two nights ago. This blog posting is a mark of respect to the passing of a much loved animal. She was only a cat, but she was a sentient being. R.I.P. Simba.

On Leeches, Jungle, Bliss and Beauty: things we have lost

I had the privilege of spending a week in a pristine rain forest in the northern Western Ghats with a handful of people best described as practitioners of deep ecology. Which means we moved about in the jungle in the least invasive manner humanly possible, on foot, leaving no footprints behind. On the contrary, it was the forest that left deep footprints in our memories. Here was a small segment of the planet that has been allowed to retain its wildness and its purity. It is still possible to drink water from these streams; pure, unfiltered, sweet; and we did, the whole week. Yes, there are leeches in paradise and my companions taught me to scrape them off with a fingernail from their tail end to dislodge them. “They have a right to live too, and we are the invaders in their habitat.” So-called primitive societies knew how to live in symbiosis with Nature, without the need to ‘conquer‘ it. Our modern civilization, with all its immense achievements, has ‘conquered‘ Nature and with climate change, we are currently witnessing the Pyrrhic depths of our victory.

In the forest, we bathed in rock pools and under waterfalls, luxuriating in Nature’s bounty. Birds, butterflies, trees, and insects were identified and added to lists in notebooks. Latin names of species and botanical names were bandied about freely among the group. “We use the Latin names as definitive identifiers, since local names vary widely, sometimes from one village to the next.” We tasted button-sized jamun fruit (Syzygium Jambulanum, a.k.a.Java Plum, Jambul, black plum, faux pistachier, jambolāo… see what I mean about variations in local and regional names?), mini jackfruits, a variety of Kokum (Garcinia Indica), a cousin of the cashew fruit from a young tree with cashew-like leaves, and the leaves of a tree that left a mildly sweet taste on our tongues when chewed (apparently used as an ingredient for weight loss by the health food industry). I was told about, but did not see, a tree, the underside of its leaves as rough as sandpaper, and used as such by forest tribes to smooth wooden implements and furniture.

We stood at dawn under the eaves of a hut and listened to the Malabar Whistling Thrush sing its daily morning ode to joy. As it sang, I was told that they love the rain and welcome the monsoon with redoubled full-throated vigor.

Malabar Whistling Thrush (also known as the naughty schoolboy)

I learned that, of the many species of colorful butterflies that flitted through the forests, the ones that flew fast and rarely sat still were usually a favored food of birds and insects that preyed on lepidoptera. Some beautiful specimens, on the other hand, hardly bothered to conceal themselves and were often seen lazily gliding down from the treetops to eye level, knowing they were toxic to most predators. Most spectacular among them was the Malabar Tree Nymph, Idea Malabarica. I had never before seen a butterfly glide so far with hardly a flutter of its wings.

Malabar Tree Nymph – Idea Malabarica

The herpetologist in the group, a snake lover from childhood, thrust a hand into the undergrowth and brought it out to reveal a foot-long, slender green snake curled around his arm; a non-venomous vine snake. “Touch only its underbelly,” he cautioned. “Only predators touch a snake on its back and this causes them stress.” he gave us time to admire it for a few moments before allowing it to slide back into the undergrowth where it immediately became invisible again. A few moments later a metallic blue-black centipede wriggled across our path, looking for all the world like a shiny finished industrial product from Apple rather than a denizen of the wild. We respectfully watched it cross our path before continuing our walk.

While shy langurs leapt about among the topmost branches of the forest canopy, our guide showed us pale gray chalk-like lumps on the ground among the bushes. “Leopard scat,” he said. “There are several in this area, but they’re noctural and shy away from humans. I’ve not seen one in my two years here. There are sloth bears as well, but they too are very reclusive and we never see them” Just as well, since sloth bears, despite their name are very fast and can easily outrun humans.

In the evenings, there were more walks to look at the endless varieties of birds and trees, and we invariably ended up at woodland streams to bathe under a waterfall or soak in rocky pools, taking care not to pollute the water with soaps, creams or lotions. For cosmetic use, the woods provided us with wild aloe vera and a plethora of other medicinal plants I knew nothing about. On the way back to the hut that was our sleeping quarters, a few bits of sambrani were carefully scraped off the bark of a tree. Also known as benzoin resin, gum benzoin or gum Benjamin, it is used in perfumes, incense and medicines. Sambrani usage has a long tradition in India, and its sweet smelling smoke is used during pujas (religious ceremonies) and also in Christian churches to sanctify the communion service.

Nature’s bathtubs and showers: rocky pools and waterfalls

Standing 1 meter tall, this flower exudes a smell of rotting flesh when mature, thereby attracting insects that help pollinate it.

The week spent here was mind-expanding and humbling at the same time. How much knowledge have we lost in the race to industrial progress? How much intrinsic knowledge and wisdom of “uneducated peasants” have we ignored, simply because they had no diplomas on paper, no degrees from institutions of higher learning. After this week, I can’t help thinking, it is we urbanites who have lost out.

 

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Saving the World, One Turtle at a time.

Statement: Olive Ridley turtles are plentiful, so they are in no danger of extinction.
Answer: Wrong. Human beings are even more plentiful, and their habitations are encroaching on the Ridleys’ nesting sites at an alarming rate.

The SSTCN* is a voluntary group that has been patrolling the beaches of Chennai, every night for four months of the year, from January to April, since 1987. That’s a lot of dedicated patrolling by a group that’s entirely voluntary and has been largely self-funded since its inception. Thanks to nature-film series like National Geographic and Universum, the life cycle of sea turtles species and their general pattern of behaviour is widely known. The adult females mate in shallow waters or out in the ocean, then stagger ashore a few weeks later to lay their clutch of eggs in pits scooped out of the sand with their flippers. They cover the eggs with sand after laying (anything from 50 to 200 hundred eggs), using their flippers to wipe out traces of the nesting site. Conservationists use these telltale smooth patches of loose sand as an indicator that there is a nest underneath.

Ridley sea turtle: Image courtesy National Geographic

The eggs hatch under the sand in around 45 days. And then another miracle occurs. The newly hatched turtles emerge from their nest and fight their way to the sea, guided by the phosphorescence of the breaking waves in faint starlight or moonlit nights. They struggle out through undulations in the sand and disappear into the waves, where perhaps one in a hundred will survive to become adults. The sand temperature at the time of hatching determines the sex of the baby turtles, with relatively cool temperatures producing males, and females emerging as temperatures rise.

Several of the students who volunteered for turtle walks in the past have gone on to play significant roles in various national and international environmental organizations. The current group of volunteers has significantly improved contacts with local fisherman. Several fishermen, formerly enthusiastic poachers, are now supporters of the conservation network. These fishermen can play a significant role in the future of conservation efforts. As human dwellings increasingly encroach close to the shoreline, the turtle hatchlings face another hazard. Lured like teenagers by the bright lights of the city, they head for the houses, away from the sea. For this reason, the volunteers patrol the beaches every night, collecting freshly laid eggs and taking them to hatcheries. Six to seven weeks later, the hatchlings are brought to the same stretch of shore and released, guided safely to the sea by the light of volunteers’ torches.

Once in the water, the young turtles face the hazards that nature has designed for them. An estimated one or two in a thousand survive, grow to adulthood, and emerge from the sea a decade later, to lay their clutch of a hundred eggs or more on the very same beach from which they entered the sea. This is a process that has gone on for a million years, and it is in the interest of mankind that they can continue to do this for centuries to come. In myriad complex ways, the future of humanity might depend on it.

*SSTCN – Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network. See their website at https://sstcn.org/ if you’d like to know more about their great work.

Saving the Tiger

Ranthambore National Forest and Tiger Reserve is a stunningly beautiful place that spreads over 450 sq. km. Writers like Jim Corbett and Rudyard Kipling have painted vivid portraits of Indian jungles for readers in the English speaking world. On a recent visit to Ranthambore, sitting in an open jeep, slowly winding its way along rutted jungle trails, tales of Mowgli, Bagheera and Balu the bear seemed to come alive. She expected to see a barefoot boy in a loin cloth peering out from among the tall grasses. Instead, she came face to face with …Shere Khan.

Shere Khan. Her real name, said the guide, is Noor...

Shere Khan. Her real name, said the guide, is Noor…

...or Mala, or more prosaically, T-39, the mother of 3 healthy cubs

…or Mala, or more prosaically, T-39, the mother of 3 healthy cubs

The moment was so unexpected, so pure, so anti-climactic that there seemed to be magic in the air. Noor is also known to the park rangers as Mala, a name that means ‘necklace‘ for the decorative, beadlike stripes on her flank. She had apparently just fed at dawn, the remains of the kill lay somewhere in the grasses nearby, her belly was full, and she was tired and too sleepy to investigate the little open jeep with three occupants parked at a respectful distance.

These magnificent animals are under threat from us humans. Ironically, one way to save them might be to bring more humans to visit them in their natural surroundings, just like the passenger in the jeep who watched her in awed silence for nearly two hours. For every tourist who comes to see them here, there are perhaps two or three locals who earn a livelihood, people who have been displaced from their own natural habitat in the jungle, displaced by the need to preserve wildlife. The villagers who used to live in Ranthambore forest were relocated when the tiger reserve was set up. These displaced people had to carve out a new existence in small settlements surrounding the jungle that was once their home.

We met one of the displaced people, a Rajput by the name of Dharamveer. He was proud of his forbears who had built forts and castles in these hills and jungles, and today he was one of the lucky ones; someone who had done well by doing good. When he was displaced from the forest, Dharamveer had trained as a tiger painter, painting iconic portraits of Shere Khan with the finest of strokes using delicate brushes that were a mere three or four hairs thick. This fine work gave the tigers in the paintings a lustrous lifelike glow that seemed to move as they caught the light. Buoyed by this success, he assisted widowed women to retrain in other handicrafts and has created a thriving business selling their work.

A Rufous Treepie

A Rufous Treepie

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the entrance to the reserve is through the old Ranthambore fortress gate

the entrance to the reserve is through the old Ranthambore fortress gate…

the sambhur belled, once, twice, and again... (Hunting Song of the Seonee Pack)

…the sambhur belled, once, twice, and again… (Hunting Song of the Seonee Pack)

We visited his store after the safari and were welcomed by the artisans who proudly showed us their wares. There was exuberant patchwork art, as well as many other fabrics, woven on rural handlooms, carvings, tribal paintings and animal protraits. As usual, there was more than one person could buy, but an American friend is exploring the market for these attractive products outside India. More on that will follow in a later posting.

Exuberant patchwork, handloom fabrics, carvings and nature paintings

An exuberant patchwork of Hathi the elephant; handloom fabrics, carvings and nature paintings

 

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Fireflies, Orang Utans, Palm Oil and Climate Change

Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. Some of the world’s carbon is locked up in its tropical forests, a good reason to leave the forests untouched, but a strategy that condemns the locals to a life of relative poverty. Enterprising as people are, they find it profitable (and it affords their families a decent living wage) to cut down a few acres of tropical forest and plant oil palms instead. Harvesting around 10 acres of oil palms yields an annual income of US $ 20,000 a year. By doing this, they are depleting the world’s remaining store of carbon, but does the rest of the world have a moral right to object, having already done so in the more affluent parts of the world over decades and centuries past? When asked, a small farmer shrugs and points to the undulating stretches of forest behind him. “I’m taking only 10 acres, and there’s over 100 million acres of untouched forest behind me.” Which brings us to the moral conundrum of climate change. A similar answer is heard from anyone who drives a car or flies to a holiday destination in a plane (yours truly, in this case); it’s just one more drop in the ocean.

This way to the gaint

This way to the gaint

The giant among giants

The giant among giants. 88m to the crown

Surprisingly, in a tropical jungle, the undergrowth is not dense. One can see the forest and the trees.

Surprisingly, in a tropical jungle, the undergrowth is not dense. One can see the forest and the trees; but not the leeches!

Talking to a businessman in Tawau, the third-largest city in the Malaysian third of the island, he spoke of the pains taken to extract only some of the most valuable timber using heli-logging methods (with large helicopters) to lift harvested tree trunks from the jungle, leaving the surrounding growth and trees untouched for future generations, and with no access roads to encourage future encroachment. Clear-cutting, he assured, is practiced only on second and tertiary growth forests that are replanted for further harvesting. In Kalimantan, I was told, lightning strikes (both celestial and man-made) set fire to thousands of acres of primal forest, and these clearings are later used for palm oil plantations.

Orang Utans are shy, solitary creatures, which is just as well for them, since encounters with humans, their close relatives, has not been very beneficial to them. At the Rasa Ria Orang Utan rehabilitation center, and several other places on the island, considerable sums of money are invested in rescuing orphan orang utans from the wild. They are painstakingly rehabilitated over a period of 6 to 8 years before gradual release again into the wild. The rangers entrusted with the task are obviously dedicated to their charges and proud of the natural wealth of their island.

A young male Orang Utan relaxes during feeding at a rehabilitation center

A young male Orang Utan relaxes during feeding at a rehabilitation center

After nightfall, fireflies emerge from the trees like thousands of falling stars. During the daytime, proboscis monkeys, looking like simian philosophers, forage in the undergrowth

After nightfall, fireflies emerge from the trees like thousands of falling stars. During the daytime, proboscis monkeys, looking like simian philosophers, forage in the undergrowth

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Will tourism provide for a sustainable Borneo? Only time will tell. Actually, what happens there is up to us, as we help to shape the future with our cumulative thousands and millions of daily actions.

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