Clear the air

It is time to say this. The epidemic and the enforced lockdown continues to show what a strange universe we had locked ourselves into. The walls we had built around our complicated social and economic world have collapsed and through these gaps we can see new possibilities. When we build up again, there will be a push to instantly return to what we had earlier, but it will be good for us to see how flimsy the supporting arguments were.

The air is so clear ten days after the beginning of the lockdown that from the rooftops of Jalandhar one can see the high Himalayas. We’d driven through this city almost two years ago, when we spent a week in the lower Himalayas. Passing through the traffic snarled up in the city I never realized that we were only 450 Km from Srinagar in Kashmir. This air can be kept clear. Change from oil to electric. Electric scooter technology is cheap and widely available. Just the will to change the tax structure to favour a new industry is lacking. Autos on the road are another major polluter, but changing their two-stroke engines to battery would be another step towards clean air. It can be done at a cost much smaller than the lockdown.

Dolphins on Marine Drive in Mumbai! Whales visiting the oil rig at Bombay High! These are not fake videos. We saw different dolphin videos taken by a lot of people, from a lot of different angles. So this we can be take as verified. Just one day of reduced noise pollution in the sea brought dolphins into Backbay. That’s not something I’ve seen written about even in the literature from a century ago. The incidental conversation in the whale video indicates that this is probably not fake. We will not be able to recover this perhaps, because the world’s supply chain moves through the seas. On the other hand, I know some extremely good engineers, and they should be able to put their minds to lowering the noise made by ships, if they can make a living doing it. After all, energy lost to noise is produced by burning fuel, so less noise is an incremental increase in efficiency. In any case, it is good to see how quickly nature can begin to reclaim the earth.

Peacocks dancing through the streets of Mumbai! Who would have thought! I didn’t even know there were peacocks left withing the city. That’s hope for the future. We do have small green lungs in the city. I hope videos such as this give people a reason to hope that planning for more patches of greenery will help preserve these wonders right here, next to our homes. I think a lot of small patches with trees will help.

Away from the big bad city, one has seen videos of elephants roaming through the streets of small towns. That may not be to everyone’s liking. There is a growing body of scientific thought that says that the increasing instances of new diseases, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19, is due to human activity encroaching on parts of the world which were the natural range of other species. It sounds reasonable, because the new diseases are not coming from the already-dead lands of Europe and the US. They are arising in parts of the world where there are ancient ecosystems newly destroyed. We have known for years that human-elephant conflict is due to us taking over their land. Now perhaps we are facing bigger threats as we take over new ecologies.

Enough of a Sunday sermon. Let me end with this wonderful video of a fawn of the spotted deer, Cheetal, galloping in the waves of the Bay of Bengal. The video is verified to come from Puri, that famous temple town and beach resort. What a wonderful sight! I cannot go out to see wildlife right now, but it is coming in to see us today.

The post-extinct Elephants

I read in a document from the Zoological Survey of India that the Ain i Akbari mentions wild elephants in the area that the Pench National Park now occupies. These annals of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar were written in the 16th century CE. I looked at my copy. Pench gets no mention, of course, but a larger geographical area around it is said to have these beasts. The ZSI document goes on to say that books from the 18th century about this area no longer mention these animals. The document concludes that elephants must have gone locally extinct in these centuries. It is interesting that the temperature minimum of the Little Ice Age occurred roughly at this time. This caused changes in rainfall patterns, and resulted in a sequence of droughts during the 18th century. Could it have been climate change of this kind that caused the extinction of the local population of elephants in this region?

Elephant patrol in Pench National Forest

So it is a little surprising to see elephants in the jungles of Pench, until you realize that there are only five elephants, and they are domesticated. The forest department uses them to patrol the jungle, especially areas which are otherwise hard to reach. We were in the usual open jeep when this patrol passed by. Our driver asked about tigers, and one of mahouts said that he’d seen one nearby and it might come down to drink water shortly. It didn’t. As they talked, I saw the elephant break one large branch off a small tree and munch on its leaves.

Intrigued, I searched for elephants in Pench and found the following paragraph in a book for a former forest ranger, R. C. Sharma, in a book called "The Wildlife Memoirs, a Forester Recollects".

R.C.Sharma, memoirs

This is a possible clue how climate change could eventually lead to disastrous denudation of flora, which cause large herbivores to die out. I’m sure an event like this has cascading effects through the whole ecosystem. The landscape that we see in Pench today must have been shaped by the climate of three centuries ago.

Beasts of Nameri

tokay

A wildlife sanctuary should be full of fearsome beasts, and Nameri is no exception. The most fearsome are the leeches. The evening we reached our camp, we met a group of six French tourists with blood-drenched socks who were still removing leeches from their legs. Leeches are abundant when the forest is wet; our previous trip to Nameri had been in the dry months of February and March, when we had not come across these blood-thirsty creatures at all.

grasshopperOur five kilometer walk through the forest began with a sighting of the stunning Tokay gecko which posed for photos high up on the trunk of an immense tree. After that we saw a variety of insects. Large red bugs scampered through the dry leaves underfoot: their bright colours a warning to predators that they are poisonous if eaten. Large red ants foraged in military lines along the trunks of trees. I startled a huge grasshopper, which sprang away and then was still. It took a lot of searching to find and photograph it. It was interesting to see all this with the Victors, for whom it was their first visit to a jungle. In their company I noticed things which I’d got used to over the years. This also made me understand what Sushil Ngate, our guide, and the armed forest guard with us might feel walking through the forest with us.

The ground was often swampy. Some tree-tunks had been thrown across these patches on the route, and you had to climb over them to cross the slushy ground. We managed this with some help from the guards. I was happy that my body-core exercises paid off in a better sense of balance. I guess we get better and better at physical activities with age until the body fails. The path came to a little rocky stream which would eventually empty into the Jia Bhoroloi, and followed it for a while. As we approached the stream, we could hear alarm calls of a barking deer from inside the jungle on the other side of the flow. I wondered whether it was a leopard; they are shy creatures and hard to spot. Sushil said it could be.

bugWe walked on. Now the terrain turned grassy with damp patches: ripe with leeches. I’d tucked my trousers into my long socks, emulating the forest guard. He told us to walk quickly through this stretch and not stand in one place too long: that’s when the leeches begin to climb up you. As we crossed the next swampy ground, the guard pointed out a pug-mark in the mud: a tiger’s. It was fresh. The marks continued next to the path for a few paces and then disappeared in to the grass towards the stream. The alarm calls were explained.

elephant

We walked single-file through the forest with the guard and Sushil leading, and The Victor bringing up the rear just behind me. Suddenly The Family pointed into the foliage and said “Elephant”. I peered at the shadowed bulk. Sushil and the guard noticed a baby and told us to be quiet and keep walking. I saw the mother quickly move to stand between us and the baby, and turn her head to watch us. If she decided to charge, the guard’s gun would have been useless. More than that, I would not have wanted an elephant to be hurt in its natural habitat only because we intruded on it. We walked quickly past, but I managed to click a photo in passing. The mother kept turning to stay between the baby and us; so the small elephant is visible in the photo only as a shadow.

By the end of the walk I had collected two angry and unfed leeches on my shoes. The Victors and The Family were not so lucky. In the last stretch of the walk they picked up a leech each. We sat in the visitor’s refuge and inspected our wounds, and got rid of the blood-suckers.

How to kowtow

kowtow

Somewhere between the Yuhua garden and the Shenwumen (northern) gate of the Forbidden City we saw several elephants kowtowing. This posture is impossible for elephants, since their forelegs bend the other way at the knees. So this statue (and its partners) show that the sculptors had not actually seen elephants. They had seen people kowtowing, and just transformed the human posture to an elephant’s. So you can learn how to kowtow from these statues.