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.

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.

Terning gullible

Evening fell on Bhigwan lake as we gave up our search for the Taiga Bean Goose and drifted gently to a spit of land where a mass of brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) were preparing to roost. The noisy squawks and squabbling of a typical gull colony had died down. A few had gone to sleep, tucking their heads down on their shoulders. When these birds sleep, their knees lock so that they don’t keel over. Most species of birds alternately put one hemisphere of their brains to sleep: the eye that faces out from the shoulder is connected to the hemisphere which is awake.

Brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus)

Most of these birds still had the winter’s white head with just a small dark “ear muff” colouring well behind their eyes. But in a very few the head had turned that rich dark brown which signifies that they are ready to breed. It was the middle of March, and the day had been very hot, so it was time for these birds to begin their flights back to Ladakh, Mongolia, and Tajikistan, where they breed. On days like that I wish I was ready to fly off to these cold high plateaus too.

River terns (Sterna aurantia)

As we drifted we saw, for the first time that day, a group of river terns (Sterna aurantia). All of them had developed the fully black caps and the bright bills which denote the coming of spring. Appropriate enough, since Holi was just three days away. We’d last seen them in masses from a boat on the Chambal river. It was good to see them here, closer to home. Since they are resident birds, there will be opportunities of seeing them over the breeding season, which continues till the beginning of the monsoon. In most species of terns individuals do not begin to breed at the end of their first year. The river terns seem to be an exception. You might expect that this would make them less vulnerable to habitat loss, but we seem to have taken care of this roadblock to extinction by polluting most water bodies around us.

Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini)

When you spend enough time staring at a flock you see the little things you may have missed at first. There was a Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini) hiding among them. Once considered a separate species, it is now treated as just another subspecies of lesser black-backed gulls. The rest of the species breeds in the west of Europe, but the population which includes the individual we saw comes from the far northern tundra of Russia, breeding along the coast of the Laptev Sea. This sea contributes most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. Its harsh climate made for a very weird ecosystem. But now, as the world warms and the sea ice production falls off, this gull is seeing its breeding grounds become subject to the fastest changing climate in the world. It lives at the thin edge of climate change. On that peaceful, rapidly cooling, evening I wondered how the bird life of Bhigwan would change in the lifetime of the eight year old youngster who watched all this with me.

Wet pentameter

Mumbai changes water into money,
converting sea to sky-scrapers. The wealth
of India poured from its port once; cotton,
gold, opium, sailed the seas to buy tea and
flamingo mallets for a Mad Hatter’s
party on a distant shore. A warm rain now
pours on rock heaping into new caves built
for people who fly to more distant shores.

Now the waiting ocean rises again,
unheeded at the further ends of the
land. In mangrove forests, home to tringa
and turtles, plastic bottles rise unseen
from the mud where fiddler crabs burrow. Silent,
slow, but determined, the tide rises to
claim its right. The concrete tetrapods, the
sea walls, Marine Drive, will last, becoming
home to new generations of shrimps and
crabs, that some new fishermen will harvest.

The ocean lends water to the monsoon.
The clouds pour their flood over mountain-sides,
bringing the ocean’s waters to the rice that
feeds the people who fill monsoon waters
with their filth and flush it back into the
mother water. The black water kills the
slow fruits of the sea, and the fish and the
sharks which eat them. The rising waters will chew
at this filth and clean it. The rice will still
grow, the clean rain will still fall on the hills
a million years later. But who will know?

The changing city spins its lights. On. Off.
A frozen Neptune guards the waters of
a porta-potty. A dockyard is closed off.
A port moves from one shore of a harbour
to another. New tunnels, electric buses,
sea taxis. The last gasp before sinking.
Blue cherenkov light threads a creek where new
bacteria breed. When? How long? How much longer?

Unplanned. Unexpected. Unforeseen.

Walking through certain parts of Mumbai you come face to face with once unforeseen histories. For example, in the early 20th century CE, when most of the buildings in south Bombay were planned, the British empire seemed rock solid. Even the first world war yielded benefits. The end of the Ottoman Empire meant more profit in West Asia. When Japan attacked Russia and invaded China, it occupied a rival which had designs on central Asia. The empire advanced in Africa too. Bombay and Calcutta were fast becoming rivals for the second city of the Empire (G. B. Shaw wrote a play in which the capital had moved to Calcutta). Those wonderful Edwardian structures lay neglected for decades after the Empire fell due to overreach. The sandstone carvings in the featured photo seem to have come alive in these years. Now I see a slow restoration of buildings in south Mumbai as India’s economy makes a fitful start after the pandemic.

The story of Vijayanagara is another such. When Colin McKenzie discovered the first ruins in the modern day village of Hampi in 1800, he didn’t know that he had chanced upon a city which rivalled Beijing in the heydays of the Mings. The kingdom had its beginning as usual: a general realizing that the empire he served had weakened enough that he could carve a portion of it out for himself. When Harihara took parts of Karnataka from the Hoysala empire in the 14th century, the startup could have flamed out in a couple of generations like many others. Instead, his descendants discovered diamond mines, built up military prowess and industries like iron smelting, took the surplus, both iron and steel, and carefully bred horses, into trade and expanded. You can see the growing prosperity in the ruins of palace architecture as it progressed from post-and-lintel to elaborately carved arches within three centuries. Then, in the mid-17th century, when a neighbouring kingdom obtained a new steel-making technology, it could build cannons which overpowered the final remnants of Vijayanagara. All of this was a series of accidents, on which some people gambled and won.

Some years ago as I passed through Meghalaya, I saw the pristine jungles being torn apart by illegal quarrying. The limestone goes into the construction industry as the rest of India builds its infrastructure. A then-unforeseen consequence was this haphazard mining. In the last decade there has been an attempt to regulate this, and preserve this natural heritage. But one unexpected effect has been the discovery of a cave in which stalactites have preserved the evidence of a climate shift about 4200 years ago which may have destroyed Civilization 1.0. This change would not only have been unexpected, but also unrecognizable, to the people of Akkad, Mohenjodaro, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and the Aegean, as they struggled with failing agriculture and supply chains.

Sometimes changes can be foreseen, but its direction still remains hard to predict. As the infant drooling over The Family in the photo above grows up, he stops drooling, becomes picky about food, and bounces between walls when kept in quarantine. All entirely predictable. But what will he become later in life? We can plan as much as we want, but watching a child grow can be both alarming and happy. But absolutely unpredictable.

And this? A clear lesson that we do not deal well with change. It is entirely predictable that some things will outlive their use. Why can’t we possibly design them to decay quickly? The rusting jeep will probably disappear relatively soon, its metals taken up and dispersed through the environment by bacteria which happily chelate heavy metals. The little plastic discards heaping up around this rusting hulk may well outlast Civilization 2.0.

Getting used to extremes

On Sunday morning I woke to the laboured groan of the air purifier in our bedroom. There was a smell of dust in the air. When I drew the curtains I saw a wan light outside. I opened a website which gives the air quality index anywhere in the country and saw something shocking. At 6 AM the dust count index had suddenly maxed out at 500. I have an older purifier in the study. Within the hour it switched off; its filters had clogged due to the dust. Popular web sites were still calling the air quality reasonable, because they average the count over 24 hours. It would be a day before they noticed that there was something wrong. By then the daytime temperature had fallen to a new record for January in Mumbai, in a belated vindication of Carl Sagan’s 40 years old paper on nuclear winters. When I looked at satellite photos I saw two things: clouds and dust. There were masses of white clouds over the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, and over the Indian Ocean, but not much over the landmass of India. And there were long gray fingers of dust reaching across the sea from Iran, Balochistan, and the Arabian peninsula towards Mumbai, Goa, and Trivandrum. Everyone I knew was talking about it, but news channels wouldn’t pick up on it till late Monday.

Air Quality in Mumbai’s dockyards on Monday afternoon

The nature of the problem is shown in this screen shot of the air quality in the dockyards of Mumbai. You can see that gaseous pollution is not a concern, but the dust content of the air is as bad as it can be. Dust comes in two varieties: PM2.5 and PM10. The letters PM mean particles of matter suspended in air, and the numbers give the size of the particles measured in microns. As you can see from the graphic here, these are much thinner than a strand of human hair and can easily pass into the lungs. In the short term inhaled dust causes inflammation and allergies. In the long term it is more damaging (go here for more). We had a stock of N95 masks at home, so we put one on immediately. I surprised myself by thinking well of the pandemic for once.

News of a massive dust storm in Balochistan in the middle of the previous week had largely been ignored in the media. But you can see the roiling dust in the atmosphere in the satellite photo from Sunday. Long thin fingers of dust stretch down south from it and then curl eastwards towards India. Another branch stretches west across Pakistan and towards northern India. By the next day, the dust over the Arabian sea has been entrained into two lanes: one passing over Goa, the other over Trivandrum. The southern lane stretches across the Bay of Bengal to Odisha, Bengal and further east. Mumbai is at the edge of the lane. Meanwhile the main mass of dust has diffused over most of northern India. In Tuesday’s photo the whole of the Indian landmass has a thin dust cover, and the dust over the sea seems to be settling. In most parts of India the air quality was not as bad, but a general drop in temperature signaled the effect of dust high in the atmosphere.

When we talk of weather it is usually just the temperature and the various forms of water: fog, rain, snow, and hail. But I suppose we now have to broaden our mind to include anything carried by air. Dust storms of this kind, called the loo were not unusual in the northern plains between April and June one, although they have decreased in frequency over the years. But this is probably triggered by a different weather system: the extreme La Nina event this year in the east Pacific. It has already brought record snows to the Hindu Kush and the western Himalayas, will probably bring tsunamis to the west Pacific later, extreme hot weather to the US in summer, and enhance the monsoon rainfall over India. And the disturbance has churned up this storm. The event is said to be one extreme of the normal, but when the extreme is normal, what can you say about change?

Karma

I spent many weeks of the hard lockdown in 2020 observing the habits of parakeets from my flat. I read and wrote about them extensively. Is it the fruit of my karma that now they sit on my window frame as I work and peer in at me? Should I have given more heed to that famous German philosopher who said “When you stare into the eyes of a parrot, the parrot stares back at you.” Or is it that the storms of the last couple of years which knocked down so many trees in the neighbourhood have reduced the number of places that the Psittacula krameri could perch on? The increasing number of storms is the result of anthropogenic ocean warming, of course. So it could still be karma, but in a more complex way. So perhaps I should think of these parakeets as climate refugees.

This one looked at me as I took its photos, then it made curious sounds which I don’t thing I’ve heard before. Maybe the equivalent of “Bring down these walls.” When I didn’t move it must have decided that I was a dumb animal, and went back to examining the glass on the window carefully. Interesting that it ran its tongue over the glass. Parakeet brains must devote a large space to taste.

Much confusion

You can tell that I’m not a natural born ornithologist by the fact that my first question after taking the featured photo was “What’s that bush with the white flowers?” Everyone else in the jeep was babbling about greater, lesser, and common whitethroats. The Family gave me a look which would have melted the lens in her binoculars if she’d not had to take it off her eyes in order to look at me. As a peace offering I said “Definitely a common whitethroat. See.” She looked at the photo I’d taken and said “Okay. At least you go it.” It was at extreme range, and any attempt to zoom made it a little fuzzy. October took a look and said excitedly “Clear eye ring. Obviously Curruca communis.” Wisdom looked, but reserved her judgement. I waited until I could search for a good explanation of the difference between the common whitethroat (Curruca communis, also greater whitethroat) and the lesser whitethroat (Curruca curruca). There is one, and it is worth reading.

Why the excitement? Because this is another bird of passage in India. It spends its summers breeding in Europe (every single country, including Iceland), south across Gibralatar to Morocco, and eastward in an arc over central Asia right up to Mongolia. In winter it migrated to Africa. The western population crosses the Mediterranean and the Sahara to winter in a narrow band across sub-Saharan Africa. The eastern population crosses either the Mediterranean or the central desert land (the complex of the Gobi, Thar and Arab deserts) to winter in the great rift valley and the surrounding parts of eastern Africa. For a short while the greatest density of these birds in the east is in the Rann of Kutch. We had timed our trip to catch this unique sight.

A new longevity record has been registered for the Common Whitethroat Curruca communis, with a bird recaptured in Italy 18 years and 11 months from the date of ringing. This exceeds the previous longevity record by almost 10 years.

Roberto Pollo

C. communis is very well-studied bird. Its population crashed during the great Sahel drought of the 1970s and 80s (those with long memories may remember the Live Aid concerts of 1985 in response). But the species is said to be well on the way to recovery now. I always wonder though what this means. The genetic diversity in the current population must be much reduced compared to what it was before. Would this have consequences in the coming years of a warm earth? There is evidence that the evolution and speciation of warblers was strongly influenced by climatic changes. Perhaps we are at the beginning of a burst of such speciation.

Unfortunately I got sidetracked by the interests of people around me and never got back to the question that interested me in the first place.

After the rain, me

Saturday night I fell asleep to the sound of thunder and very hard rain. We’d planned a simple trek, just the two of us, to a hill fort outside Mumbai on Sunday morning. The rattling of windows in a proper monsoon storm woke me before the alarm. I looked out of the window and decided to cancel our plans. Even if the rain stopped, as it briefly did soon after sunrise, the ground would have turned to mush, and the mountainside would be slick with water. Not the easiest conditions for a walk.

After a cup of tea, The Family decided to go for a walk around the complex. It has been an odd monsoon. Very high winds, many dry spells, but normal rainfall on the average. The result is that several trees have fallen, and lots of branches and twigs have been shaken off others. These have been piled up next to paths, waiting for final disposal at the end of the monsoon. Today the lawns and playgrounds between buildings were flooded.

On a tree quite a way above my head, I saw one of the exotic giant snails which usually hide below shrubs and fallen leaves. This climate refugee must have started its journey early, but it was far from the only one. The half hour walk yielded so many creatures that The Family threatened to leave me on my own if I stopped again to take a photo of nameless creatures. I must have really tried her patience, because she was impermeable to my argument that each climate refugee has a story worth listening to.

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

Paul Verlaine (Il pleure dan mon coeur)

Oh sweet sound of rain
Ground and on rooftops!
For a heart that is bored,
O the song of the rain!

He cries for no reason
In this sickening heart.
What! no treason ?
This grief is without reason.

Paul Verlaine (It rains in my heart)

Here is a small selection of creatures which were trying to get away from their flooded homes. The colourful millipede is extremely common along the west coast of India, and perhaps even further afield (It is Anoplodesmus saussurii. Thanks for the ID, NN; it is no longer nameless). Unfortunately there is no go-to field guide which would let me identify it. It is a creature that lurks in leaf litter, and quite innocuous. The small brown snail was new to me. It had crawled out of the pool below a tree on to a giant bracket fungus growing on the trunk. I don’t know how many kinds of slugs you find around Mumbai, but I’m sure I’ve seen this species before.

Back home after the walk, I checked my phone for messages. There was a forwarded message from the Municipal corporation saying that the main water purification plant for the city had been damaged. Flood waters had breached the pipes, and citizens were advised to boil water for drinking. Are these episodic extreme rain events due to climate change? If yes, then are we beginning to see the conditions that will eventually force us to join the ranks of climate displacees?

A fire in my soul, smoke in my lungs, ashes in my mouth

April 2: We reached Dehra Dun’s airport (altitude 558 m) in the morning, two hours before our flight. It was crowded, no social distancing, and we were glad for our double masks. Two hours stretched to four and then a brief announcement of the cancellation of our flight. The gate agent said “Bad visibility”. Huh! The sky was absolutely clear. Tickets were refunded quickly, and the baggage handed back. Our one hour flight by an ATR-72 was to be followed by a four hour drive to Almora (altitude 1604 m). This now became a ten hour drive. What causes less pollution: fifty people on a single flight, or them individually, or in groups, driving the same distance? Late at night, climbing past Naini Tal (altitude 2084 m), I spotted fires on the forested slopes. The smell of smoke penetrated my mask. Bad visibility began to make sense.

April 3: Forest fires do not always give you spectacular photos, sometimes all you see is haze. The next morning as we walked through the forest trails in Binsar National Park (altitude 2410 m), the haze in the air cut off all views of Nanda Devi (altitude 7816 m), Trishul (altitude 7120 m), Panchachauli (altitude 6904 m). That was part of the reason for coming here. Most of the haze seemed to be lower down, and I couldn’t smell any smoke. We took the short walk up to zero point, the highest place in the park. I looked up the SPM levels in Almora, which is the nearest place where measurements are taken. That seemed to be at a level where exercise could be unhealthy. Much of the next seven days we would find ourselves surrounded by haze, the smell of smoke permeating our masks. The air quality was dangerous very often, preventing us from taking the walks we had planned on.

April 4: We’d planned a long drive from Binsar to Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). It was not only tiring, after the unplanned drive two days before, but also took us through hellish terrain. At times the fire had spread to areas right next to the road. May and June are often a season of forest fires through Kumaon, but this winter had been warm and dry. Forest fires had apparently started in October 2020. People we talked to expected that it would continue till the monsoon. In cities, since the air is always bad, most people have become conscious of the effect of haze and pollution on health. In this place, where the air is normally clear, that understanding has not taken hold.

Why do fires start? We got multiple answers to this question from people we talked to, and perhaps all of them are right. One said that some fires are set by villagers, and they go out of control. Usually winters are wet, with rains every couple of days, and the fires are easily doused. But this was a particularly dry winter. It hadn’t rained for a week in Binsar, we were told. Perhaps. Rains were predicted when we packed, so I’d brought along a light poncho which was never unpacked. A dry winter leads to conditions where fires can go out of control, and then large scale fires change conditions so that it does not rain. This out of control feedback seemed to have set in over Kumaon.

Others told us about the forest department setting fires to clear deadwood. In Almora someone showed us the thick carpet of dry leaves which had fallen off white oak trees (Quercus leucotrichophora, banj in Hindi). This was the reason why fires run out of control, he said. Someone else showed us thick mats of needles dropped by Roxburgh pines (Pinus roxburghii, chir or cheel in Hindi) as we walked through Binsar. This was the reason why fires were raging he argued. Both were right, of course, a dry winter produces kindling. One person told us that green branches of oaks burn readily, which is why villagers use them in the kitchen when nothing else is available. But the fires around us carried a smell of pine resin. When I stopped to take the photo above I could hear the popping and crackling of pines as they caught fire. Oaks could burn, but many of the slopes have extensive pine forests.

The air did not clear up as the road climbed to Munsiyari. The place is known for its views of Panchachauli, but through this thick haze we would have to be very lucky to see anything. The road climbs to about 2500 meters before dipping in to Munsiyari. At the very top of the climb we were lucky enough to spot a female Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) as it ran across the road. We stopped the car and tiptoed to the edge, and I saw the male in the split second before it noticed me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Both were lifers for me. Between the bad light and the fast movements a photo was impossible. When we reached our hotel and looked at the TV news, it was grim. The fires had spread from Kumaon into Garhwal. A significant fraction of Uttarkhand state’s 53,000 square Kms was on fire.

April 5: We’d selected the hotel for the view of the mountains we would have. But the thick smoke covered everything. When something like this gets into the news, you can bid goodbye to reason. There was a lot of finger-pointing and buck-passing in and off prime time. Why would the forest department not be more careful? Someone said that they hire contractors and they do not follow guidelines. What was the state government doing? They borrowed two helicopters from the air force to dump water on the fire: one for Garhwal, another for Kumaon. Such a large part of the state was on fire that this inadequate move had to be nothing but optics for TV. Meanwhile, on the ground there was no major change. By evening we’d got a few drops of rain. Perhaps the next morning would be good. We were to leave for Kausani (altitude 1890 m) late in the morning, and we might get a view of the Panchachauli before we left.

April 6: It rained for an hour at night, and we woke up to a faint view of the mountains. There was also time for an hour’s walk up before we left for Kausani. The hills around Kausani were ablaze, and the smoke was terrible. We decided to cut short our stay here and retreat to the lower lakes. They had had crystal clear air when we came up. We had a long chat with the owner of our hotel over dinner. He thought that the connection between ordinary people and the forest had been cut because the forest department stood between them. It is an interesting point of view, and I’ve heard variants of it before: conservation can only come when the state becomes a helper to the people who live in a landscape. If you give people no stake in the land or forest, they will not take care of it. True enough, I suppose, but was this the whole story of this disaster? Such a large scale disaster must have multiple causes.

April 7: It was a short drive to Naukuchia Tal (altitude 1220 m), so we had time to chat with people on the way. One theory we heard was that trees are money, and fires are a good cover for illegal trade in trees. Stories of corruption have a way of circulating, and you don’t know whether they are correct unless someone takes the trouble to investigate. With all these varied viewpoints about human motivation, one thread was constant: that this was a dry year, little rain, and the fire was spreading because of that. This part of the story was something we had experienced. The drive took us through several patches of burning forests. Were there more fires where there were more people? I could not tell.

April 8: The air in Naukuchia Tal was relatively clear on our first day there. We even saw worker clearing away dry leaves from the slopes around Naini Tal, perhaps a precautionary measure. In the evening we saw a big plume of smoke on a slope across the lake. It died out within an hour. It seemed to me that someone in a farm had set fire to the stubble left over in the fields after a harvest. Luckily this didn’t spread. How widespread was this risky behaviour? I recalled reading that when farmers had two crops a year they would leave the stubble in the fields to rot back into the earth. As they move to three crops a year, they want to clear the stubble faster, and use fire to do it. I’d seen government advertisements on the long drive from Dehra Dun requesting farmers to stop this practice. Was there an alternative? I haven’t followed this issue enough to know the answer.

April 9: The morning was not as clear as it had been the previous day. Clearly the fire had come closer during the night. We decided to drive to Mukteshwar (altitude 2170 m) for lunch. There are supposed to be good views of the high Himalayas from this little town, but we neither expected, nor got, any view of the mountains. The smoke obscured everything. We dropped in to the Devasthal astronomical observatory (altitude 2450 m). The 4 meter liquid telescope was under maintenance. Viewing was said to have been wonderful from here in the 1960s and 70s, but in recent years the moisture content in the atmosphere has increased, obscuring the telescope’s view somewhat. Another victim of climate change! Astronomers have moved to Leh in Ladakh, and the world’s largest telescope could come up there soon.

April 10: Our bags were packed for the last time. We would spend the day at Sat Tal (altitude 1730 m) and drive on to the plains. The Sat Tal valley smelt of smoke. We’d only had one clear day till now, our first day in the lake district. The evening news spoke about these forest fires spreading into the Nanda Devi National Park. Ecological disasters seldom make it to the TV news channels or the large circulation newspapers. Even now, even with forest fires on this scale, this news was being squeezed out by the rising COVID-19 second wave and the state elections across the country. The next day, as we drove to Delhi (altitude 220 m) to catch our flight back home we read that the air force helicopter which was requisitioned for fire fighting in Kumaon had been sent back without being used at all.

What did we learn? The weather is definitely a major factor; in dry years like this the risks are immense. Most predictions agree that a warming climate is also a wet climate, but there will be local differences which are not yet worked out. Along with the climate, there are multiple human factors involved in safeguarding the environment within which we have to live and work. Why do farmers set fire to their fields every year? Farming is under stress, and farmers should have a stake in clearing fields safely. In Uttarakhand, where farms and forests mingle, mistakes are costly. Similarly, the methods of clearing forest debris may need to be re-examined. Do common people have a stake in the health of the forests? The government’s stewardship of the land has to involve the local population, otherwise there are just not enough hands to fight fires. These are all big questions, and many people are thinking about it. We just happened to be caught in the middle of an object lesson for a few days.

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