An uncertain place

Watson’s Hotel, later called the Esplanade Building, was built between 1867 and 1869. It is the world’s oldest cast iron building. For years it looked like it would fall down at the slightest touch. Something is happening to it now, behind high barriers. I can see a scaffolding above the blue metal sheets. I hope it is repairs and renovation rather than demolition. It’s been a Grade II heritage structure for decades, but that did not apparently force anyone to keep repairing it.

Chital

We crossed the last river bed on the way back from Bijrani range in Corbett. This was goodbye. We stopped to see a Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), our last addition to the trip’s list of birds. A family of chital (Axis axis) was grazing between the pebbles at the bottom of the stream. A healthy buck (the featured photo), a doe, and two fawns (photo below) ranged slowly over the stones, picking delicately at small shoots. Strange that they would venture here for such slim picking; they must find these leaves delicious.

Chital lie in a genus of their own, Axis, the last remnants of a five million years old twig on the tree of life. Fossil Axis are found from Iran eastwards to Southeast Asia. They are most closely related to the Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, the swamp deer). Once these were common in the Dhikala range, north of this river. But when its homeland was inundated in the 1960s by the floodwaters gathered behind a dam in the neighbourhood, they went locally extinct. The Chital are now only found in India; a landscape with wild chital tells you definitely that it was taken in India. When they become extinct, a five million year old story will come to an end.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

A bristled grassbird

Another grassland, another grassbird. We noticed the bristled grassbird (Schoenicola striatus) in Dhikala range of Corbett NP because of its aerial display. It is named for its distinctive bristles above its beak, near the end of the gape line. It hasn’t come well in this compressed photo; you can see it only as a dark smudge just above the beak in front of the eyes. It was nesting season, and its aerial display was different enough from the skylarks’ that it caught attention. It touched down on a stalk of grass and turned its head to look all around as it sang. Then in a moment it had hopped down into the tall grasses in the patch and was gone.

The ground was reasonably wet because of the rains. Perhaps it had built a nest in the grass. It population has declined fast in recent years as wet grasslands are drained and given over to humans. This is the sad fate of most grasslands in our country. In my childhood trains used to chug through grasslands: Chital and Sambar would look up at its passing, while Nilgai bounded through, looking for Acacia to browse on. You would hear stories of yellow-green eyes staring at you from low in the grass. Perhaps a tiger, maybe a leopard. I hadn’t seen one, but enough people had for this not to be a tall tale. The word grassland was not part of the vocabulary. For the lack of a name, they were not set aside for conservation, and nearly disappeared. With them went the tigers, elephants, bustards, and lesser species, like this grassbird.

Now, perhaps with the renewed protection to Terai grasslands, following the success of Project Tiger, these species will find a haven. But this bird may be migratory: flying from its Terai nesting sites to the south and west in winter. Trying to find its true wintering grounds is a little confused by the limits of citizen science. The profusion of birders along the coast has resulted in a large number of sightings reported around the large cities in winters, but it is likely to be more common in the grasslands of Bengal and peninsular India, south of the Narmada, from where it is not reported equally often to eBird. The peninsular grasslands are hubs of human activity, and not protected. At the moment all that is properly established is that the population of Bristled grassbirds has crashed in recent years, and not yet stabilized. That earns it the status of vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, in the slippery upper slopes of the road to extinction.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

The tiger of summer

Burning days bring tigers out of hiding. This has been a record breaking summer. We traveled to the protected jungle of Jim Corbett National Park at this time because we knew that extreme heat simplifies the behaviour of tigers. In such adverse conditions a tiger would be concerned only with food, water, and rest. Humans like us had one more need: a connect with ancient times, with nature. Sure enough, as the morning became warmer, there was a movement in the grass, a striped orange, black, and white shape.

All the tigress wanted to do was to walk down-slope to the water. We spotted her as she came down a ridge through tall grass. The slim muscled body was powerful, rendering the steep downhill motion into a graceful slinky walk. I can imagine the fascination of our ancestors, the immense attractiveness of this predator, balancing the danger that it poses. The descriptors attached to tigers in the various Indian languages bring this ancestral memory to us.

A long slow walk, and an occasional look at distant chital. You could feel the calculation in its mind. Do I need food more than water right now? Instincts, you may call it, but not to the sense of self that every animal has. The pauses gave me photos. The featured photo is from such a moment of calculation, its face round like a pot, powerful jaws open, the yellow eyes looking at prey, until it gave in to a greater desire: water. It crossed the road in front of us and walked down another slope.

This tigress must have been incredibly uncomfortable. Tigers evolved in colder climates, and now, in the late anthropocene, as our world comes closer to its end, this one had been pushed to the end of its zone of comfort. She didn’t even walk to the water. She just plopped down in the soft mud and panted. There was a small recent wound in her shoulder. Had she got it in a hunt or in a boundary dispute with another tiger? Our driver, a certified guide, told us that she was twelve years old. She probably had three to four years of life left. The disputes would become more common, and she could even be evicted before her death from her prime territory: shade, food, and water all close by.

After about fifteen minutes, when she’d cooled a bit, she got up and sought water. Further off a mugger (Crocodylus palustris) and a gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) basked in the sun. Those aquatic predators would have engaged my attention on another day. Today my camera did not stray from the tigress. The larger biosphere reserve that Jim Corbett NP is part of will give tigers a route to higher altitudes and more suitable temperatures in coming years, as India warms.

This was her payoff. The hour-long trudge from the deep shade of the jungle, across the long grassland, into the edge of the water was finally done. She settled in like any contented mammal. I had the distinct feeling that a rubber duckie would have been as welcome here as in any bath tub; any excuse to stay in the water would do. She outlasted us in patience. Our morning’s allocated slot in the jungle was nearly over, and we had to leave. When we came back in the afternoon she’d left. There was no shade over the water, and it would have got too warm for her soon after we left.

The woodpecker and the (w)hole

Grasslands in the Terai are interspersed with deep jungles of mixed trees. This is where tigers come for shade and rest after a night out eating and drinking in the sea of grass. But you also find herds of chital, and lone sambar and barking deer moving through the undergrowth. If you are lucky you’ll see a mongoose or a pangolin. We drove slowly along paths under the towering trees and stopped when we heard a woodpecker’s call. Which one? Ahead of us, on a massive trunk sat a Grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus), a lifer for me. Maybe. Because I’ve seen and photographed lots of birds before I started taking an interest in them. I confused myself for a while, “But it doesn’t have the red patch at the front of the head.” The Family was practical, “Must be the female.” It was. I admire pragmatism, especially in the heat of the field.

The lady inspected a hole in the tree, and its surroundings, like a finicky house hunter. I found later that this is one of the commoner woodpeckers in the world, once having lived in a swathe of land across Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, where the climate is neither too hot, nor too cold. When I put my observation into eBird, it demanded verification. The species has been reported often from the Terai and the lower slopes of the Himalayas, but is still considered rare here. As the weather warms they’ll move north (there are already sightings in northern Finland and Norway, as far north as Tromsø) and up-slope, becoming rarer still in India.

As we watched a jeep with two young couples came to a halt next to us. “Tiger?” one of the women asked. “No,” The Family answered as I continued to take photos. “Then why stop?” she asked as the jeep sped off, leaving us enveloped in a cloud of dust. I was never happier about having discovered the many uses of N95 masks.

Later, looking at the photos I’d taken I saw that this tree was being strangled slowly by a fig. I can’t tell the difference between three of the commonest strangler figs in this region: Ficus beghalensis (banyan), Ficus virens (pilkhan) and the immense Ficus altissima. Parakeets and hornbills, of which there are several species here, eat their fruits. Their droppings contain viable seeds that take root in some of the other trees. As the host dies, there are more and more holes in its trunk, attracting Picus canus and several other species which are looking for nesting holes. This area was full of trees being strangled, and sure enough, I could hear the screech of parakeets flying high overhead. Eventually, one of the figs will win by growing faster, throwing its deadly shade over the the remaining, clearing trees from the space under it. A small grassland will nucleate under the tree and spread.

I’m happy that a generation ago, when the Beatles sat in an ashram not far from here and composed their eco-anthem, The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, someone had the foresight to start Project Tiger in these jungles. That has preserved this wonderful cycle between jungle and grassland for the rest of us to enjoy. The shade of these trees were filled with the clicking and chirping of insects, the trilling and the cackle of birds. I was glad I’d stopped here. I took off the mask and breathed the smell of the forest.

The beginning of a story of hope

The first of the national parks of India was established in 1936 in the valley of the Rudraganga river, in what is today Uttarakhand state. Renamed Corbett National Park soon after Independence, after the famous shikari and conservationist Jim Corbett, it became the first site for Project Tiger in 1973. With a current population of more than 450 tigers, it is considered to be the most successful wildlife conservation project in the world. The project’s balancing act between reserving a core area for wildlife completely free of human activity and recognizing the rights of people who have traditionally lived there has become the de facto core of global conservation efforts. In this region, the great success of Project Tiger has led to more ambitious plans.

Core areas of this and other national parks are completely free of human activity, and eco-tourism in buffer zones between human-inhabited and core wildlife areas provide a new source of income for people who live in the vicinity of these reserves. Now a network of parks in the Terai region of the Himalayas is an interconnected biosphere reserve with wildlife corridors connecting parks in three countries (Bhutan, India, and Nepal). This is one way to hedge conservation bets against the coming climate catastrophe, as species move up in altitude. Three bellwether species have sprung back in this huge biosphere: the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), and the Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). Corbett only has the first two, but we had enormous number of sightings of both in the few days that we spent there this week.

The invisible Florican

Bengal Floricans (Houbaropsis bengalensis) are said to be critically endangered. What does that mean, you ask? IUCN will give you one answer. There are less than 1000 individuals left of this species, the only one of its genus. When the last of these grassland bustards dies, not just the species, but the whole genus will disappear. I look at it in another way. Cornell’s ebird application is used by many birders to record their observations. Take a common Indo-Malayan bird like the white-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). It has been reported on ebird 520,415 times when I wrote this. The Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) is perhaps as common, but has been reported only 10,852 times because it is a nocturnal bird; harder to see and identify. The Bengal Florican has been reported 1,037 times, twice by me. There were seven people with me in Manas NP when we saw this bird, so the same sightings may have been reported about ten times more. It is truly rare.

We’d planned our trip for March, which is the breeding season of the bird. Our visit to the eastern range of Manas, the grassland, started early in the morning because the birds are active in the mornings and evenings. The grass was tall, as you can see from the featured photo of the peacock (Pavo cristatus). Floricans would have been entirely hidden. We scanned the grassland fruitlessly for a long time. Then we heard the harsh but faint clicking of the Florican. One came flying low over the grass at a distance. Immediately, another one jumped out of the grass, clucking. The males are territorial. There was a long aerial chase around the horizon. Neither bird came near us. I got a few distant shots of the birds in flight. You can see the white primaries, splayed out like fingers contrasting with a dark lower surface of the wings. The upper surface is completely white, and the body is jet black. As a photographer I was disappointed, but as a birder I was very happy to see this long display of territorial aggression.

The next morning we started much earlier. Perhaps the birds would be more active in the morning. We were either correct or lucky. As soon as we got into the open grassland we spotted a peacock and a Bengal Florican on the road in the distance. The grass was clearly so high that the Florican would be lost in it if it moved away. So we stopped at a distance to get a first shot. The scene was dreamy in the morning fog, and I could not believe in my continuing run of luck: good as a birder, bad as a photographer.

We couldn’t approach too close without spooking the birds. But as long as we kept our distance, we had ample opportunity to take photos. The light was bad because of the fog. But I had a wonderful view of the male: black head and neck, long like any other bustard, dusty speckled brown body and wing coverts, with the white primaries of the wings showing. I’ve consciously traded a long zoom, 2000 mm, for a large sensor, and I’m usually happy with it. But in this light I wished I had a camera with a better sensor. Still, I must count myself satisfied with my first sighting of this rare bird, one in five hundred of all reported sightings. As our grasslands disappear, places like Manas and Kaziranga are the last redoubts of the once common species that abounded through most of India.

Fire and forest

One day in Manas National Park I took the photo of forestry men on foot. The smoke behind them tells you that they were going about their summer job (white hot March is summer in Assam, just before the onset of the monsoon) of setting controlled fires to manage the grassland habitat. Forest and fire. The two words don’t seem to go together, but that is the legacy of English: both the language and the empire. When the English came to India and saw these ancient grasslands, they didn’t have the language to understand them. They hadn’t yet seen the grasslands of South America or Africa. In North America the destruction of grasslands had begun (think Johnny Appleseed). The English invented the phrase “degraded forest” to describe these grasslands.

To understand the fallacy in this, I reached a little further back into history. Grasses evolved about 75 million years ago in ancient Gondwanaland, before the dinosaurs dwindled due to a series of volcanic eruptions that tore that super-continent apart into the Americas, Africa, India, and Australia (that an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs after this is another story). How did this evolutionary marvel spread across the world? One theory is that geasslands spread across northern Gondwanaland (present day South America, Africa, Asia, and India) before its breakup. This theory runs into problems with the evolutionary clock. In order for this early spread to have hppened, many families of grasses would have had to evolve earlier than they are known to have. The second theory is that the evolution of grasses happened in the isolated island-continent of India before it met Asia, and the grasslands spread from there outwards to the rest of the world after the contact. This theory has to contend with major geological barriers to its spread. Perhaps neither theory is right, but nevertheless, India is home to some of the oldest grasslands in the world, and also to some of the most ancient grazing animals in the world (Bharattherium bonapartei is one of them). In order to begin preserving this heritage, we have to give up notions encapsulated in phrases like “degraded forests”, “dry scrubland”, and “wasteland”. The lack of trees is not lack of biodiversity. The rich grasslands of Assam are evidence of it. Look at the bottom of the photo above: the number of varieties of grasses and herbs you see is more than that of the trees above them.

There are other aspects of grasslands which should concern us in this era of a changing climate. Grasses evolved new pathways of photosynthesis to deal with hot and wet weather: the technical name is C4 photosynthesis. In contrast, the grasslands of the Himalayas have many species which use the older C3 photosynthesis. In the ancient battle between forest and grassland, our inadvertent tuning of the atmosphere has shifted the balance. Grasslands are also prone to fire, and trees and grasses which grow in them have evolved to use it. Often seeds lie dormant until the heat of a fire starts new growth. When the ancestors of humans responded to an ancient climate crisis, 2.5 million years ago, by adapting from arboreal to grassland life, they would have encountered fires very often. The use of fire distinguishes Homo habilis and its descendants, us, from all our remaining cousin species of apes. The forestry men I saw were using an old human technology to maintain the environment that gave us this technology.

The language I use to deal with the wild spaces around me is wrong. The culture surrounding it is wrong. Still, that’s what I’ve grown up with. I cannot name the grasses that I see. But I can name the flowering trees. I recognized the beautiful purple flowers of Bauhinia variegata as soon as I saw them. The orchid tree, as it is sometimes called, grows from sea level, here, up to the lower heights in the Himalayas, and eastwards across South-East Asia and Southern China. It was one of the several flowering trees that I recognized in Manas.

Scarlet fever

We live in books and photographs,
our stories all begin with ‘Once’,
three, two, going, going…gone.

Barbary Lion, Atitlan Grebe,
Caribbean Monk Seal, Carolina Parakeet.

We tasted good, our forests were yours
Our horn was valuable, you wore our furs,
three, two, going, going…gone.

Laughing Owl, Passenger Pigeon,
Javan Tiger, Japanese Sea Lion.

We flew and swam beneath the sun,
nested, hunted, raised our young,
three, two, going, going…gone.

Western Black Rhinoceros, Aldabra Snail,
Pyrenean Ibex, Wake Island Rail

Shells, tails, whiskers and bone,
three, two, going, going…

Extinct (2010) by Mandy Coe

Earth Day 2022

Counterculture or moon shots? Rachel Carson or James Lovelock? What prompted U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN in 1969, to sign the declaration to bring about an annual Earth Day? The first one was celebrated in 1970, the Paris Climate Treaty was signed on another. Now in a year that has seen record breaking heat waves simultaneously at both poles (40 Celsius above normal in Antarctica, 30 Celsius above in the Arctic) in a week in early March, and a heat wave in April covering south east, south, and central Asia, Earth Day has come around again. All tipping points are long past, now it is a matter of survival.

The risk of Armageddon has risen dramatically. Stay bullish on stocks over a 12-month horizon.

Attributed to BCA Research in a tweet

We have known for quite a while that climate changes in the past couple of million years drove the evolution of the genus Homo. A brilliant new paper gathers archaeological and computational evidence that Homo sapiens arose in a climate change event 300-400 thousand years ago. If we are the product of a climate change, it stands to reason that large changes in the global climate can drive us into extinction, or at least into a population crash. If the weather is not the end of us, it could be the end of civilization. Quite a storm? Place a buy order with your broker. Better still, read some books or listen to an interesting lecture. Some suggestions follow.

Grasslands of India by Jayashree Ratnam (on Youtube)

Yesterday I listened to Ratnam’s talk about the unrecognized savannas of India. She gave a very clear definition: if the tree canopy is not continuous, then it is a savanna. The sunlight percolating to the ground allows lots of ground layer plants to grow. As a result, the competition to reach the sun does not drive the ecology, and it is totally different from a forest with a canopy. Whenever I’ve traveled in the last couple of years I’ve come across a savanna mis-classified as a degraded forest. As a result of this colonial-era mistake these habitats are being destroyed and species which need such a habitat are now endangered: the black buck, the Indian elephant, the great Indian bustard, the Bengal Florican. Ratnam gave a wonderful account of the under-counting of biodiversity in such biomes. She went on to talk about the cost of this mistake in climate mitigation efforts. Large scale tree planting in these biomes kill the undergrowth and release soil carbon into the atmosphere which is not compensated by the trees. The discussion at the end was specially interesting.

A take-away lesson: by merely re-focusing on highly modified ecologies like cities, roads, their verges and those of farmlands, the very large economy that has been built around carbon-neutrality can work without endangering grassland species.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday (Penguin)

Traveling across the planet can give us a view of the enormous variety of life that shares this current climate with us. But they are mostly limited to what grows in this current range of temperatures, humidity, or oxygen and CO2 in the atmosphere. Halliday then takes us on a tour of what kinds of biomes the earth supported in vastly different eras. The billion year journey is illuminating: our current crisis is not a crisis for the earth, it is for our own survival. A changed climate will support different animals and different plants.

A take-away lesson: the earth endures, species don’t.

A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn (Hachette)

If you live in a city you might have noticed the life around you. Not just the gardens full of roses, other colourful flowers, and the weeds, the songbirds, pigeons, and crows, dogs and rats and their individual fleas, the mosquitos, flies, and the cockroaches, but also the lichens and mosses that grown on concrete, SARS-CoV-2, and other diseases, all live in an ecology we have created. Dunn writes about how the human-modified environment drives evolution. One of the interesting chapters in the book looks at the particular ecological niche that we humans occupy. Interestingly, most humans continue to occupy this niche even today. Across the globe today, and in recorded history, less ideal climates, or extreme climate variability, generally contribute to a fall in GDP and an increase in violent crime.

A take-away lesson: free movement is essential for the survival of species as the climate changes; so one needs to create green corridors joining different biospheres. It is an interesting political exercise to think that the same lesson also holds for humans.

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