Two turtles

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. –Richard Feynman

Watching turtles is a little frustrating. Although there’s a large variety in India, there are few guidebooks or websites which tell you how to identify what you saw. We stopped to see a few of these large turtles on our first sortie into Kaziranga. I didn’t know what they were when I took the featured photo. I have a tentative identification of it being the Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) through its size and colour. The hind edge of the shell is deeply serrated, as you can see. I’m sure that this should be an aid in identification, but it does not seem to be mentioned in any guide. If it is indeed the Indian black turtle, then it is near-threatened. This means that it could still be fairly common inside a sanctuary, so there is a good chance that this is what I saw. But you can always fool yourself.

The common Indian roofed turtles (Pangshura tecta) are relatively small turtles which love to climb out of the water and bask in the sun. It took me some time to decide whether the photos above are of P. tecta or the endangered Assam roofed turtles (Pangshura sylhetensis). Both are found in forest streams. The reptile database is pretty useless as an identification tool because its photos are not curated by experts. Eventually it was Wikipedia which convinced me that I’d seen the rarer variety. The article on P. sylhetensis says that its shell is serrated at the hind edge, as these are. The upper shell of this species is also darker. It is so nice to be able to see an endangered species that you want to believe that you have. So I’ll have to wait a little longer for some experts to tell me whether or not I have. Given the rarity of P. sylhetensis, (the IUCN page claims that only a few specimens have ever been seen) the chances are that I’m fooling myself.


Entering the whirlpool

My introduction to nature came first through the stories by Jim Corbett. These would often feature him sitting in a hide with a goat tied nearby as a lure for tigers. Seeing a goat at an entrance to Kaziranga, I was reminded of this.

The gate was an elaborate affair. We counted off what we’d seen already: rhinos, elephants and wild water buffalo were three of the “big five” here. The gate also showed the elusive swamp deer, barasingha. We had only a little glimpse of one on this trip. Pelicans, shown in flight around the gate posts and holding the sign, are not usually counted among the main attractions. But where was the real big one: the tiger?

It made a brief and almost unnoticed entrance at the bottom of a signboard full of the rules which bind you and protect the forest. If you don’t stand there and read the whole thing you may miss the fact that Kaziranga is also a tiger reserve. In fact it has the highest density of tigers in the world, but they are seldom spotted because of the tall grass that they can hide in. The goat was only a decoy, after all.

The central zone had a less impressive gate: just a boom which could be raised or lowered. But I liked the owls which showed the opening and closing times for visitors. We never did get to see the tiger, but we saw so much here that I didn’t regret the trip at all.

Don’t fix what aint broke

Kaziranga is a star when it comes to wildlife conservation. The number of endangered and vulnerable species which we saw in two days is a testament to its success. So is the fact that it has been an UNESCO world heritage site for over 30 years. As a result, I was intrigued when I saw reports on it in The Telegraph, The Times of India and Scroll. It seems that the union government’s plan to give over management of the park to a private company, is unacceptable to locals as well as to the state government.

In our recent visit to Kaziranga, we saw enormous involvement of locals in the sanctuary. It wasn’t just the hospitality industry. A drawing competition in a school was dedicated to wildlife. Advertisements branded themselves by the local animals. Some of the drivers were wonderful wildlife guides. Social involvement in the refuge seems very deep. I can understand the consternation about handing stewardship of the park and tourist facilities over to a single company.

Here is a summary of the uniqueness of Kaziranga, extracted from the UNESCO site: “The fluctuations of the Brahmaputra River result in spectacular examples of riverine and fluvial processes in this vast area of wet alluvial tall grassland interspersed with numerous broad shallow pools fringed with reeds and patches of deciduous to semi-evergreen woodlands. Kaziranga is regarded as one of the finest wildlife refuges in the world. The park’s contribution in saving the Indian one-horned rhinoceros from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century to harbouring the single largest population of this species is a spectacular conservation achievement. The property also harbours significant populations of other threatened species including tigers, elephants, wild water buffalo and bears as well as aquatic species including the Ganges River dolphin. It is an important area for migratory birds.”

The last of the wild

A trip through Kaziranga is both exciting and sad. In the short period of two days I was excited by the fact that I could photograph and see so many different species. Sadly, many of these were vulnerable and even endangered in the rest of the world. Among the endangered species was the wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), whose photos you see above. This is not the same as the domestic species, Bubalus bubalis. During the ice ages, B. arnee roamed over all of Europe and Asia. The dry climate after the ice-ages restricted them India, south and south-east Asia. Now, they are extinct in Bangladesh, Malayasia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The last refuge of these ancient animals are the sanctuaries of north-eastern India. IUCN accepts counts which may put the current population at about 4000 individuals. Kaziranga counted about 1400 in its last wildlife census.

I saw this herd resting in an open meadow in the mid-morning. Luckily, there was a Varuna tree (Crataeva nurvala) in flower just behind them, providing a nice completion to the photo. Like elephants, the herds are led by an older female.

The next day was my last sighting of wild water buffalos. They were busy grazing in a patch of tall grass next to a stream. Flat, well-drained land is their preferred habitat. When I was a child they would still make long journeys across the country. With the urbanization of India, those days are long gone. The photo which you see above captures the sight which remains in my memory: the sun setting finally on herds which evolved in the times of the Mastodon.

Monitor this (and that)

When I had my first sighting of an Indian water monitor I didn’t know how lucky I was. Only later, when I looked for other images did I realize that if I’d seen it walking or swimming I would have seen only the black and silver top. Seeing it halfway up a tree, in a hide it had selected for the night, allowed me a great view of both the dorsal and ventral sides. I’ve always wanted to use these technical words for upper and lower, and I have to tip my hat to the water monitor for giving me this great opportunity.

More surprises followed when I looked it up. There is no clear record of Indian water monitors. Is this the same as an Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator)? Descriptions of the normal range of V. salvator do not include Assam and north-eastern India, although it is reported from the Andaman and Nicobar islands, as well as far south-west in Sri Lanka. In any case, it is not clear whether V. salvator is one species or four. This single sighting of the brilliantly coloured monitor lizard has taken on a mysterious air in my mind.

The previous day we had a wonderful view of a common Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis) creep through vegetation. I’d last seen it in a completely different habitat a year ago. Although these creatures remind us of the dinosaur pictures of pop culture, they are not. The monitor lizards probably rose in Asia during the Cretaceous period, at about the same time that birds were evolving out of the Jurassic dinosaurs. India was completely separated from Asia in this era.

The center of evolution of these lizards is south-east Asia, as one can understand from the fact that the largest monitor of all, the Komodo dragon, comes from that area. North-eastern India is a hotspot of biodiversity partly because two ancient ecosystems meet here. The monitor lizards of eastern India are examples of this ancient radiation. We live in the best of times when this meeting has produced enormous numbers of species, the worst of times because human expansion is removing these habitats rapidly. Places like Kaziranga are the last spots where you can see much of this diversity.

Blooming algae

I’d only ever come across algal blooms in two context before. In scary newspaper stories about oceans turning toxic, and the sight of green blooms filling up small stagnant ponds. When I saw a stream inside Kaziranga with red streaks floating in its waters (featured photo) I began to construct a story of ecological degradation in my head.

Kaziranga is a large national park, but it is surrounded today by dense habitation. We passed through villages on the way into the park. It was not hard to imagine that fertilizers that they use in farming could leach into this stream and cause algae to multiply. It is too common a story to doubt in today’s world. Further along the stream I found a dense green bloom (photo below) and thought that this completed the story. It only remained to check it by referring to articles on the web.

But what I read complicated this simple morality tale. A preliminary study found an enormous diversity of algae in Kaziranga: 91 species to be exact. About two-thirds were a class of green algae called Chlorophycaea, and half of the remainder were diatoms (Bacillariophyacaea). The remainder were that ancient class of blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) whose blooms once changed the earth’s atmosphere and filled it with oxygen. This rich ecology has been seen across the world to give rise to a seasonal cycle of blooms which is not harmful. I saw reports from places as far apart as Odisha and France.

Human intervention has certainly changed the environment in many ways, especially in the last three hundred years. Within this, algae are finding new balances in the water systems of the planet. Not all of these are destructive to the remainder of the ecosystem. As you can see in the featured photo, the stream is not dead; we found a huge diversity of birds in this very water.

Stump-tailed macaques

There was much excitement just as we emerged on an open track after a long, winding, walk through the jungle. Our gun-toting forest guard had walked past the track and into the jungle on the other side and found a little tribe of stump-tailed macaques. It was past our lunch-time, and our stomachs urged us back to base. As the others dithered a bit, I followed the forest guard into the trees. Soon enough I heard the rest of the troupers crashing into the jungle behind me. When I emerged into a little clearing, they were there: some of the last of the stump-tailed macaques (Macaca arctoides) of Assam.

The first one I saw looked like an aging hippy: long hair, beard, red sun-burnt face, a little startled at being disturbed in its commune with nature. Later, I realized that the resemblance to hippies ran deeper. After the first few startled glances, the troop ignored us and returned to their simple lives of grooming each other and simple contemplation. It was the middle of the day. We saw them resting on trees, but they would have spent the morning foraging on the ground. Little is known about these monkeys in their home range: south of the Brahmaputra and extending east into southern China, Vietnam and the Malayan peninsula. They are scarce throughout their home range. They are extinct in Bangladesh, parts of China, and are critically threatened in India. They are not found in Myanmar.

For many years these monkeys were used in the testing of cosmetics and medicines, until (in 1985) the Animal Liberation Front rescued an infant being used in sight deprivation experiments in California. This case eventually resulted in much stricter controls on the use of monkeys and apes in laboratories. A population was introduced into Mexico in 1974. I could not find the reasons for doing this: was it someone’s folly, or to create a population from which individuals could be easily captured for laboratory use? Most field studies on the behaviour of M. arctoides have been done on a “study population” in Mexico. All animals adapt to new environments, and monkey behaviour is among the most plastic. So I wonder how much of the literature on the behaviour of stump tailed Macaques is applicable in its ancient habitat. I guess the social hierarchy, establishment of matrilineal territories, and other generic macaque characteristics are independent of geography. But their food habits could have changed when they were put into a different environment. It would be wonderful to study them in the Hollongapar reserve.

The clearing was small, and our large troop of camera-laden humans spread out among the trees. I was fascinated by an individual which sat alone, and seemed lost in contemplation. Was this a philosopher amongst macaques, pondering deeply the nature of reality, or was it lost in thoughts about its bowels? I have not seen any other species in the wild which is so indifferent to humans. As a result, I’ve not had the opportunity to study a wild individual of another species so closely. I look at it photos now, and wonder what fills its head.

The only activity came from a child. It peered about, looking curiously at the nearest cameras, and then, when they did nothing more, climbed further into the canopy. I watched it climb and admired its fludity. Later I realized that all four limbs of the stump tailed macaque are adapted to grasping (you can see it in several of the photos here). So the reports from Mexico of troops foraging mainly on the ground seem a little suspect to me. Even a simple record of how many hours a day they spend on the ground and on trees could be the beginning of an useful research program. This is a species which could disappear just as we are beginning to know them; it is such a frustrating feeling.

We left reluctantly. Even our guide and guard were engrossed in looking at the macaques. As we left, they put a mark on the trees near the trail. Apparently sightings are rare, and this was the first one this year. Our guide thought that the troop could stay here for a few days, and he would like to come back to look at them. Was poaching a problem, I asked as we walked off. He said that illegal logging was a small problem, but poaching was not. My last memories are of the macaque philosopher turning over a knotty problem in its mind. How many years does it have left?

An invisible species

The bare facts: capped langurs were found only in north-east India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, north-west Myanmar and, possibly, south-west China. In India they are extinct in Nagaland, Mizoram, central and eastern Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya due to hunting and habitat loss. In Assam their population is now about 20,000, half of what it was in the 1980s. Most of what are left are in small and fragmented populations, which are quite possibly headed for extinction. Some Indian naturalists feel that IUCN’s classification of this species as vulnerable is too optimistic. If all this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, then you and your children may be the last to be able to see Trachypithecus pilateus.

Our car was on its way to Hoolongapar sanctuary, when someone spotted the langurs. We tumbled out to look at the troop busy eating leaves and fruits high above us. In this place they payed us little heed, experience has taught them that humans are not enemies in this area. I noticed dark fur on the back shading to a lighter colour in front (see the featured photo). The golden tinge in the chest and belly hair (photo below) was much more pronounced in some individuals. The Family said “They look like golden langurs.” The cap of stiff bristles around their face was clear, and can be seen easily in the photo of the monkey jumping between trees, which you see above. It was a very brief encounter. Later I realized that we must have seen the subspecies called Trachypithecus pilateus pilateus, which populates the area south of the Brahmaputra. The subspecies
T. p. brahma and T. p. tenebricus are found north of the river, and are separated from each other by the river called Jia Bhoroli or Kameng. I resolved to make a trip to see those.

Our encounter was brief, partly because everyone in the car was in a rush to see gibbons, but also because the langurs were not doing anything interesting beyond sitting and eating. Apparently they spend most of the day doing this, moving slowly through the forest. Gibbons, capped langurs, and other species of monkeys share these ancient rain forests and seldom interact with each other (although interesting stories about their few interactions can be found here), presumably because they are specialized eaters. The capped langurs seemed to be feeding mainly on leaves.

We got back in our cars and moved away, only to realize much later that the sight we had seen was going to become rarer and rarer over the coming years unless something is done to stabilize the population of these vanishing monkeys.

Wattle and daub

As we passed a village on our way to a gate of the Kaziranga national forest, The Family took photos of the huts and sent it to our extended family. One of my nieces, the one who’s studying to be an architect, responded immediately, “Wattle and daub”. I was unaware of the conversation that she had with The Family about the method and its problems. Instead I was trying to get information out of our driver, Hemant.

I found from him that the nice-looking tourist huts in the featured photo, need a change in thatching every couple of years. I suppose the window frames and glass panes also cost a bit, so these wonderful “eco huts” require capital and maintenance costs significantly more than what the villagers can bear. The plastic tank on a tower is good, because of the increased pressure it will impart to the water in your shower, but that comes at a cost in electricity. But the very fact that tourists are now willing to pay to stay in places like this is a welcome beginning of a change in our mindsets.

When I was younger than my niece, a thatched hut was the definition of how poor people live. In my lifetime our consciousness of human impact on our planet’s climate has reversed opinions, and we look at sustainable housing. The village was full of houses like the ones you see in these photos. The walls are made of bare bamboo mats fitted inside a sturdy wooden frame. A little river mud is daubed over these outer walls. Notice the lack of windows and the tin roof. Windows require wood, and cost more. While cost is a factor for these villagers, one must also remember that sturdy wood requires cutting slow-growing trees, and is therefore less sustainable. Bamboo grows fast, and using it is perhaps more sustainable. The tin roof does not require frequent change. Tin is cheap, and the environmental cost of extracting tin is passed on outside the forest.

In the photo above, you can see an element which surprised me: a brick outhouse pokes out of the line of the hut. Why brick? According to Hemant, the government is paying for toilets, and the design includes brick and a flush tank. One of my friends works on water management in a different part of the country, and says that this well-meaning gesture by the government is ill thought out, because the kind of water tank that is used is unsustainable in water-poor areas of India. Brick is the unsustainable element here. Centralized design which comes out of a single office will not be able to take into account the gradations of reality across the country.

Noticing the three kids, I took a closer look. I did mean “kid”, when I wrote that word; the primary dictionary meaning of the word is a young goat. You might want to remember that when you talk of them; also that the meaning of the word kid as a verb is to “(of a goat) give birth”. In any case these kids were sitting outside a lovely wooden door. And, on closer look, there were possibly four of them, not three. The design of the house seems elaborate, with at least two front doors.

I was still thinking of air circulation inside the house. We’d driven on, but Hemant stopped at the hut in the photo above, and told me to take a closer look at the side wall. Indeed this was wattle without daub. I also noticed an undaubed portion of the front wall, presumably for the same reason. He smiled at me when I walked back to the jeep. I remembered the freshman’s exercise my friends were given in their architecture course: to design mud huts. We’d laughed when we were teenagers, but this seems much more relevant today: use local materials to lighten our footprint on our planet. Maybe James Lovelock is right, and we need a sustainable retreat. But then why not to a technology which has been used since the ice-ages, made more efficient with today’s scientific knowledge?

Encounters with hog deer

Through a gap in trees, I saw a female hog deer browsing (featured photo). I didn’t remember seeing hog deers before. The colour of the fur, the two lines of white spots flanking the spine, and less well defined lines of spots further down the body reminded me of a Cheetal’s colours. But this was much smaller, and looked more muscular. It took some time to notice us, then looked at us carefully, and decided we were no danger. Poaching is not unheard of in this forest, but this behaviour probably meant that poachers seldom target hog deer (Axis porcinus). I haven’t explored the protected forests below the Himalayas further west, which is also part of the range of this animal, so it is not unlikely that this was really my first sighting. A. porcinus are endangered because of tremendous loss of habitat, but they are fairly common in Kaziranga. After this first encounter, I kept seeing them again and again.

A very pleasant sighting was of a mixed group at a water hole (photo above). In a group like this my eyes first fix on the largest animal: the rhino. It was completely caked in mud and was grazing determinedly. We kept this rhino in sight, and it raised its head and sniffed at the air only when our jeep’s engine coughed a little. The baby hog deer was more than six months old, since it also browsed. The two adult deer were both female. The behaviour of hog deer is fairly plastic. When food is plentiful, as it is here, they are fairly solitary, with the males becoming territorial. Encounters between females are peaceful and occur by chance. When food is restricted, the deer do associate, but herding is uncommon.

The birds in the photo are very interesting. The large one on the right is one of the endangered greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius). At this distance I could not see the pouch which distinguishes it from the lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos javanicus). I had to resort to the secondary distinction, which is that the back feathers of L. dubius are an uniform colour, whereas the L. Javanicus has a lighter and darker shading on the back. Worldwide there are about 1000 of the greater adjutant storks, and Assam is one of the last breeding grounds, since it went extinct in Myanmar and Laos. The vulnerable L. Javanicus fares marginally better, since there are more than 5000 individuals left across Asia. These are among the largest of storks; so large in fact,that at an archaeological site in Vietnam, 6000 years old digging tools made of the bones of L. dubius were found. The nearby egret is barely larger than the bill of the adjutant.

It took me a while to encounter a male hog deer. Here is one: startled, and not quite sure whether to run. The antlers seemed to fork at the end. When I looked through binoculars I could see a nub of a branch lower down, but it was not very well defined. I’m fascinated by the association of birds with grazers. The two great mynas, identifiable by the tuft of feathers over the beak, sit on their backs not only for a better view, but also to jump on insects disturbed by the cropping. I’ve seen this kind of bird behaviour translated to urban settings, where a family of egrets spent a couple of generations following gardeners as they mowed a lawn.

I got a closer look at the antlers when I saw a male hog deer resting under a tree late in the morning. There was a small branch close to the base, with the main branch curving out to fork again at the tip. The difference between this individual and the other probably means that the antlers are slightly variable. Hog deer have disappeared from all of south east Asia in the recent past, except possibly in small patches in Tailand and Myanmar. Little is systematically recorded about it in Pakistan and Bhutan. There are conservation efforts in India and Nepal. I probably saw one of the few stable populations world wide.