Competitive grazing

In Valparai we saw four different kinds of wild plant-eating animals: the huge Gaur (aka Indian bison), the shy barking deer (Indian Muntjac), the rare Nilgiri tahr, and the Nilgiri langur. There were also domesticated cows and buffalos, and a very small number of domestic goats. If all the grazers eat the same food, then the one that eats fastest could starve the others to death. There is the unlikely possibility that the common food plant grows really rapidly, so no species dies out. The more likely possibility is that the different animals eat different plants. In fact, as I looked this up I found that biologists use the word grazing for eating grass, and browsing for eating shrubs and bushes. So avoiding conflict by eating differently is well recognized.

A herd of Gaur feedingWe frequently saw family groups of Gaur grazing among tea bushes, heads down, except when they looked up to keep an eye on us. In forests we found Gaurs to be more cautious, but here on the tea estate they seem to be used to humans. On watching closely, it appeared that Gaur did not touch the tea, preferring to eat grasses, and perhaps other plants, which grew around the tea. I walked among the tea bushes at one point and found that the paths had little other than grass. So this cousin of cattle was eating mainly grass, although they are known to eat a variety of plant material. Maybe they don’t like tea; I don’t much like Nilgiri tea myself.

Barking deer: Indian MuntjacThe barking deer (Indian Muntjac) is a very shy creature. We were lucky to spot one from a road above a sunken meadow. It did not bolt because it never noticed us. It moved through a patch of tea, over the grass, which it completely ignored, looking for something else. An article in the journal Mammalia explains that 80% of its diet comes from shrubs, flowering bushes and trees. Grasses make up only a small part of its diet. The Gaur and the Muntjac occupy the same range but eat differently. This is the classic strategy of two herbivores in the same geography: one grazes, the other browses.

Nilgiri tahr We saw a family of Nilgiri tahr which munched on grass for a while, but then started eating flowers of Lantana bushes growing by the road. An article in the journal of the BNHS claims that this is common. The tahr eats mostly grass, but also a wide variety of flowering bushes. It avoids competition with other herbivores by the fact of being nimble and eating in places where the others cannot reach.

Langurs follow the same strategy. They browse leaves high up on trees, and so avoid competition with other wild herbivores in these places. Domesticated cattle are not so lucky: they eat the same plants that Gaur eat. Sometimes they are seen feeding side by side, and apparently there is occassional conflict. The Gaur is huge: often over a ton in weight and its shoulders are man-high. In a conflict, it is bound to win over domestic cattle. This does not appear to be a serious problem in Valparai, since most people here are involved in tea production and not farming.

A dead white man

Statue of G. A. Carver Marsh (b 13 Aug 1862, d 1st Feb 1934)
Statue of G. A. Carver Marsh (b 13 Aug 1862, d 1st Feb 1934)

Dead white men, dead white males, or dead white
European males (DWEM) are the famous deceased
European males that are often the focus of
academic studies of history and Western culture.
(Wikipedia)

Nilgiri teas are the least aromatic of the Indian teas. On our trip to Valparai I kept coming across the various ways in which the plantations which grow this insipid leaf had devastated the rain-forests of the Nilgiris. We stayed in a bungalow built for the manager of one of these estates, so I keep my complaints a little muted.

But as we left Valparai and began on the 40 hairpin bends which cross the Anamallais, The Family spotted a viewpoint with this statue. Had we found the culprit: the man responsible for this ecological devastation, the Hitler of the hills? The inscription at the base of the statue identified the man as G. A. Carver Marsh. Clearly famous in his lifetime, his memory is slowly fading. I am unable to find his full name. And of the many things he must have been known for in his lifetime, I can only find the following reference in the book Madras Miscelleny by Muthaiah S., “The Anamallais may have been opened up by G. A. Carver Marsh, perhaps the only pioneering planter remembered in South India by a statue (at a road bend near his Paralai estate) but it was three planters from Ceylon, E. J. Martin, O. A. Bannantine and Unwin Maclure, who first planted tea there”.

Such is fame. All the blame I was laying on this dead man must now be redistributed. When you dig deeper, you see that coffee plantations predated tea in this region. So perhaps the blame gets diluted further.

Even such a clear case of devastation cannot be traced back cleanly to a single original cause. The best one can say now it that it was the economics of a mercantile empire which destroyed this region. What then is Mr. Carver Marsh to be remembered for?

A shy johnny

Malabar langoor The Nilgiri langurs we came across were very private. There was a large tribe of them foraging on trees by the road near Valparai. As soon as our car stopped, the nearest ones fled further into the forest. I got off and tried to photograph the ones in the next tree, and they fled as well. This happened over and over again. I got a couple of shots of one by hiding behind a thick bush and sighting through a narrow opening between its thorny branches. The only clear shot was of one sleeping on a high branch of a tree very far away (below).

A sleeping Nilgiri langur
A Nilgiri langur sleeps on a branch of a tree as far from a road as it can get. I guess it finds this posture comfortable.

These monkeys have a glossy dark body with a light golden brown head, and would look lovely in photos. The morning light was just right, but the subjects were shy. This was so frustrating and strange! The lion-tailed macaques we saw would walk right next to us without even looking at us. So it could not only be the indirect conflict of lost habitats which was influencing the behaviour of the langurs. I just had to google this.

The answer was simple: exactly as I’d thought, they were traditionally hunted, as they continue to be. Traditional medicine uses their body parts as medicines and aphrodisiac. Since the passage of laws protecting them the trade has gone underground and presumably trade volumes of so-called medicines have decreased.

An important reference seems to be the 2011 studbook, but arkive is a good place for a shorter description. I learnt from the studbook that the classification of langurs is still an open question. There may be as few as 5000 individuals, and even the higher estimates still give a total population of no more than 15000. It is a pity that this beautiful monkey is so hard to see.

Super Sunday

Nilgiri tahr Malabar parakeet
Black-winged cuckoo shrike Malabar langoor

Valparai is a good base for birding and wildlife sighting. Although the ecology in the immediate neighbourhood is massively disturbed by the monoculture of tea, it is a buffer zone for the nearby Annamalai tiger reserve forest. With the boom in nature tourism in India, tea estates in this region have begun to create boutique hotels which are geared to this traffic.

In our last few hours we had a number of lucky sightings. Going from left to right and top to bottom are pictures of one of the endangered Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) a small herd of which crossed the road as we drove back to Coimbatore airport, a Malabar parakeet (aka the blue-winged parakeet, Psittacula columboides) seen at a distance and against the light but a lifer, a view of the confusing grey-bellied cuckoo (Cacomantis passerinus; thanks for ID help Doe-eyes), a member of a very shy band of the black-bodied Nilgiri langur (Trachypithecus johnii) which is slowly losing its habitat to humans.

muruganguideLike us humans, most animals and birds seem to have a fairly routine life. So an individual will usually be found at one or three usual places. That’s why a local guide helps. S/he knows where a hornbill has been nesting, or parrots come every day at a certain time to feed. We were lucky to have Murugan with us. He was a fount of local knowledge, and had enough interest in birds to be carrying a well-used copy of a Tamil edition of “Birds of Southern India” by Grimmett and Inskipp. More than that, he never tried to hurry us on to somewhere, but neither did he stop suggesting what he knew would be great sights. I wish we knew more than a few words of Tamil. It would have been good to have longer conversations with him.

Engineering macaque safety

Lion-tailed macaques are found only in the western ghats of India. They were in the list of most endangered monkeys and apes till 2012. In that year the IUCN found that various state governments had taken conservation steps and the population had turned around. Now it is classified merely as endangered.

Our guide, Murugan, is full of information about the local wildlife. Whatever I can check independently is fairly correct. According to him there are three tribes of macaques in the locality. The largest has about 90 members, then there is another with about 35. The one which we saw is the smallest, with about 20.

A villager led The Family to where some members of this band were exploring a trash heap. They dug through it fairly systematically and found various discarded fruits and vegetables to eat. The Family shares trips with her phone. She approached less than a human body length to take photos. I was tense, but these macaques are so used to humans that they ignored her.

Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.
Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.

Man-monkey conflict usually arises due to such closeness. One sees evidence of this in cities, where monkeys have discovered high energy foods like potato wafers, biscuits and aerated drinks. I had seen such a conflict once when my niece, then five years old, would not let go of a bottle of Pepsi which a bigger langoor wanted. An undiplomatic incident was averted when she obeyed her mother’s instructions to let go.

Nothing like that happened here. The only danger we were in came when two male macaques started fighting, and forgot that a human was between them. The same villager shooed them away. The Family decided to tip him for saving her. Normally I don’t like to tip for normal human kindness. But maybe she was right in this case: when you set up an economics where the well-being of the macaques brings cash rewards to local villages, then it could lead to innovative non-zero sum solutions to possible future conflicts.

Fabulous Friday

gaur sittingmacaque
greathornbill malabarsquirrel

The lush green valley of Valparai is a good place for wildlife and birding. The morning’s outing gave us a small bird list, but with a couple of “lifers” (birders’ shorthand for seeing a bird for the first time in one’s life). I put together four great sightings in the photos above. Going left to right, top to bottom they are a bull Gaur (also called the Indian Bison Bos gaurus) keeping a wary eye on us, one of the endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus, this band feeds on garbage heaps around villages), a juvenile great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) with its deep calls and immense flapping wings, and the Malabar giant squirrel (Ratufa Indica), not endangered, but rare.

A good-enough Friday

bakery

Years ago I was introduced to the delightful world of Tamil pickles. Our weekend’s hotel added one to the tally: a sweet beetroot pickle. Other than this the food was well-made but unremarkable. The Family disagrees, but she has to agree when I say “my post, my choice”. In any case, late on the morning of Good Friday we drove down to the bakery in the village. As promised, we found “eatables and other bakery items”.

latecarnival

The bakery is outside the village temple, which was getting ready for a festival to Murugan. Temporary stalls, mostly selling toys, lined the road. Our guide, named after the day’s diety, promised that if we waited for a couple of hours the street would be packed with devotees. We made a quick escape, but caught the first of the revellers dancing at the next cross roads. This was so totally unlike any of my mental pictures of Tamil temple festivals that we stopped to take a few photos.

goodfriday

The group looked like a carnival held a month to late. Was it really Good Friday? We passed a church where a tuneless choir was singing. A little further along the road there was a procession carrying a cross. Relief! We were not taking a vacation on the wrong weekend.

Maundy madness

The morning was a blur of movement as we sped through a deserted Mumbai to the airport. It seemed as if the city had already emptied out for the Easter weekend. There were some queues at the airport, but we breezed through to catch breakfast at the food court. The plane was delayed on the tarmac; due to “VVIP movement”, we were told. The flight was a little rough with bouncy pockets of clear air above a horizon-to-horizon sea of clouds. After landing in Coimbatore there was a minor wait for our luggage, before we were out in the stifling noontime heat and into a waiting car.

colouredhouses

The Tamil villages we sped through were a blur of coconut and banana orchards surrounding brightly painted little houses. It has been almost a decade since we came for a holiday to these parts, and as before, I am struck by the bright and dark greens, reds and purples contrasting with pinks and yellows on buildings. These are colour schemes which I only see on silk saris otherwise. From Coimbatore airport we sped towards Pollachi, and then to the Aliyar dam.

teashop

We stopped for tea just outside the dam in a little shop selling tea, coffee and the inevitable “tiffin”. In the last decade there has been an important invention: there is a kind of oven which was in use to boil water for tea and coffee. You can see it in the photo above. The fuel seems to be coir, the waste product from coconuts. Of course, one can use anything which is handy. Neat invention.

aliyardam

Immediately after this we entered the Annamalai Tiger Reserve, and the road started climbing up the Nilgiris. This part of the land suddenly turns green because of the water. The scrubland gives way quickly to forest. The milkweed disappears, and soon lanata begins to appear. The air is full of butterflies.

There are 40 hairpin bends on the way to Valparai. Everyone stops at the ninth to take photos of the lake behind Aliyar dam. As we climbed, the jungle gave way to tea estates: bright green interspersed with the purple of Jacarandas. The air was full of the smell of Eucalyptus and Jacaranda. We turned the last bend and saw a signboard announcing we had arrived. The remaining 9 kilometers still took us half an hour.

Breakfast at Kosi Bazar

Just after the Almora-Gopeshwar road crosses the Kosi, a little road-side bazar has sprung up, invisible on maps and satellite photos available to you and me. For a couple of hundred meters, the road is lined on both sides by shops. The owners walk here from nearby villages early in the morning and leave late at night. The shops were just opening as we came by at 7 in the morning. We had passed a kill some distance down the road. The shop-keepers told us that the cow was prey to a leopard which had been seen in the area several times that week. In the animated conversation we were told the puzzling story that leopards drink blood. Could this be a misinterpretation of the reason the leopard hangs on to the neck of its prey? A leopard kills by holding the prey by its neck until it chokes to death.

kosifood
A limited menu is painted on the wall. Below the trees at the back is a little herb garden

We found three eateries next to each other and checked out possibilities. If you read Hindi you can see in the photo above that the menu is limited. Breakfast is the most varied: pakodas, puri-chhole or alu parathas with tea or coffee. For lunch you can get rice with vegetables and kadhi or with rajma beans. Dinner is just roti and vegetables with yoghurt. This man was just starting up. He had tea on the boil, but the dough was still being kneaded by the old gentleman at the back. Another helper had finished peeling potatoes and was rapidly chopping up a kilo of onions. Large bowls of yogurt had set overnight, but the huge containers were still to be filled with the day’s vegetable curry.

A multipurpose room
A multipurpose room: gas cylinders, sacks of potatoes and onions, and a fridge surround the tables. The major local god is Golu dev, but it is Lakshmi who finds a place in shrines like these

Lesser yellow-naped woodpeckerThe process had reached further next door. The table by the road was already taken, but the inside room was empty. We sat down next to a Pepsi cooler full of an eclectic collection of things which need to be cooled. Those large clay bowls you can see next to the window are used to set yogurt. We opened out the window so that we could look out to the trees next to the river. We saw a lesser yellow-naped woodpecker just sitting here: a lifer for all of us.

A caption
Alu parathas with bowls of sabji ready to serve. The yogurt in the large bowls was set overnight. The yellow paste in the steel bowl is yogurt with haldi, a local speciality

Meanwhile our patron was busy making fresh parathas with thick layers of potatoes inside. The yogurt was thick and fresh, and the mixed sabji which came with the parathas was hot and spicy. If we had breakfast like that every day at home we would be spherical in no time. We’d asked for tea, and we found that our three cups were bottomless. It was a lovely roadside breakfast, and one that lasted longer than the time we had allotted. The morning’s birding here was the best we had that day.

We went on to Kausani, where we saw no birds. There was a cloud cover so we never saw Nanda Devi or any of the other peaks either. On the way back we stopped again at the same shops in Kosi Bazar and had our afternoon tea. The birds were still there.