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.

Sailers and Lascars

Many of the butterflies of India were given their English common names by Charles Bingham, a career military officer in British India, who took up entomology as a very serious hobby after being posted to Burma in 1877. The butterfly genera called Lascars and Sailers were given their English common names by him, in the idiosyncratic manner of the 19th century British in India. Eastern Indian sailors on British vessels were called lascars; the names throw light on British society of that time.

The common lascar (Pantoporia hordonia), one of which you see in the featured photo, was described in 1790. But a common name was given by Bingham in his books on the butterflies of India, published in 1905 and 1907, when he settled in England after his retirement. The sullied sailer (Neptis clinia), which you see in the photo below, has the same overall shape and markings, albeit in different colours.

The sailers and lascars were very common in early April in the Hollongapar forest. They flew at about shoulder and head height. Their flight is weak; every flap of the wing is followed by an interval of gliding, and they easily alight on a sunny leaf, or descend to the ground. Still, they fly up very quickly when they are disturbed.

I used the common names for the whole genus, because there are several species of each, distinguished by slightly different wing markings. You can see a whole lot of similar looking species in the web pages for Neptis, Pantoporia and Phaedyma in the IFoundButterflies web site. You find them all over India, and once upon a time I’d managed to chase down a fair fraction of them. In April I was happy to photograph just the two you see here.

The dark knight rests

The sun was moving down rapidly. In the last light of the day, I had my first sighting of the butterfly called the Knight (Lebadea martha). It was exactly where you might expect to find it: just over a meter from the ground, basking near an open patch of ground. I took a photo of this battle-scarred veteran. I learnt of the interesting eating habits of its caterpillar later. I also found afterwards that Assam in April is when you are most likely to find it in India. Detailed ecological studies are absent in India; they come from elsewhere in south-east Asia.

Amazingly, there is extensive scientific literature on the structure of the Knight’s wings in the field of nanomaterials. It’s almost as if Bruce Wayne was working on his armour. Wings of butterflies are made of a material called chitin, microscopically organized in very cleverly stacked scales. Chemists found that by treating the wings of a Knight, they could make wearable biosensors which could make very sensitive chemical analysis of people’s perspiration. Could a future version of a fitbit made of the wings of this butterfly provide early medical warnings for everyone?

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.

On the forest floor

When I saw this hairy little beast crawling across the floor of the jungle, my first question was “What will it grow into?” Mandar said “I just about know butterflies. I can’t help you with caterpillars.” Indeed, there seems to be no easy way to relate a caterpillar to the adult. All I can say is that a caterpillar is more likely to grow into a moth than a butterfly, simply because there are 10 times more moths in the world than butterflies. Once you notice that a caterpillar is hairy the chance that it will grow into a moth increases even further. Caterpillars of butterflies are rarely hairy.

When I was a child our garden was full of hairy caterpillars which would irritate the skin awfully if you brushed against it. I must have done this several times, because I now have a strong aversion to touching caterpillars. I watched this guy make its way across the forest floor, and thought of all the leaves it was not eating. Ten minutes later I saw the white moth which you see in the photo above, and began to wonder whether this is what the caterpillar would grow into. This is not just idle speculation. The photo seems to be of a tussock moth (subfamily Lymantriinae), whose caterpillars are often hairy and cause itches.

You are not food!

A crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela) sat in a branch of a tree which arched over the track our jeep was on. We stopped a distance away and examined the bird. S. cheela is widespread and not uncommon, but one always stops to pay our respect to this hunter. The black crest gives it a hooded appearance, and the streaked and spotted feathers look good in sunlight.

It was midmorning, so it must have fed already, but it was on the lookout for some tidbits. It perches on trees until it sees prey, then swoops down to pick it up. It looked at us, and decided that we were neither food nor a threat. It ignored us completely after that. Our jeep could then creep forward until we were directly below it, and I could take the odd angled photo that you see here. I’ve never seen one eating a snake, although that is their main prey. Occasionally I’ve seen one with a large lizard.

Our jeep rolled on.

The common Indian roller

Wildlife watching is frustrating. There are times when the light is just brilliant, the air is particularly clear, and you can see tiny details on branches of far away trees; but there are no birds to be seen. This was such an unfortunate afternoon. We drove out into Kaziranga for our last outing of the trip. The Family was feeling a little ill, and decided to stay in bed. The morning’s haze had disappeared, and the air was cool. Golden light seemed to drip over the whole jungle. The only thing visible was the Indian roller (Coracias benghalensis) which you see in the featured photo.

The roller is a beautiful bird, but you can see it outside of cities very easily. Strangely, I don’t have a good photo, so I take every opportunity to take one. It had light behind it, and the tail was covered, but the colours came out pretty clearly. If it had decided to sit on the other side of the trail, then in the better light you would be able to see the lilac feathers in the throat more clearly. You need to peer at the photo rather closely to notice that there is a change in colour between the breast and neck. What you can see very clearly are the talons.

The bird sat quietly. It wasn’t interested in giving us a demonstration of the wonderful acrobatics which it gets its name from. We were in the middle of the breeding season, so perhaps it had found a mate. But there was no nest in sight. We moved on through the seemingly empty jungle.

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 the stripes and rosettes on 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) creeping 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 guess 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.