On meeting a Gaur at dinner

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Ogden Nash

There is silence, broken only by the sound of a strong man eating

P.G. Wodehouse

The Gaur (Bos gaurus) didn’t look at me as I fiddled with my camera. Should I correct for the fact that the light was not perfect? Which do you prefer, the photo out of the box, or the one which is corrected?

The common lime

Late in the morning I found a nice spot in the hotel in Tadoba from which to do some butterfly photography. Since these flighty creatures are more active at this time, it helps to have a bright day. A common lime (Papilio demoleus) flitted along a straggly row of periwinkles at the edge of the road. In the mornings it prefers to fly low. The butterflies lay their eggs on citrus trees, and the caterpillars are considered to be great pests since they can munch their way through substantial amounts of leaves. Tadoba is close to Nagpur, which is a center of orange trade. So there could have been citrus trees in the neighbourhood. In any case, in there parts of India ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), another host plant for the caterpillars, is also common.

What I find interesting about this butterfly is that it is highly invasive, being found across the world. In the 21st century it managed to reach the Dominican Republic, and is currently spreading fast across the Americas. It has no natural toxins, and is an easy mark for predators. The caterpilar is also parasitized by several wasps, whose larvae eat it from the inside while it is alive. How does it manage to spread in spite of these natural barriers to growth? The answer seems to be that it breeds fast. In the region around Nagpur there are eight or nine generations in a year. In cooler places they may pupate through winter.

Later I found a potter wasp’s nest in the hotel. These wasps belong to the subfamily Eumeninae, and are parasitic. They catch larvae of beetles or spiders, paralyses them, and brings them to their mud nests. There they lay eggs inside the paralysed animal, so that their larvae can feed on them as they grow. I wonder what fraction of wasps have evolved such parasitic lifestyles.

Serene Saturday

Sometime the jungle is peaceful and quiet. The trail broke out from thickets into an open meadow. It was early morning. A golden sun. A small herd of chital (Axis axis, also called spotted deer) grazed in front of us. A sambar (Rusa unicolor) walked through the herd. Chital are easily spooked, but this herd did not mind us. Sambars are alert. It looked up at us briefly and went back to breakfast.

The scene before me was a very clear illustration of how these two species of deer manage to live in the same forest without conflict. The chital is largely a grazer, the sambar a browser. The chital is an under-rated ecosystem engineer. Its grazing keeps small plants from growing too high and smothering jungle seedlings before they can reach their full growth. They also keep the spaces under trees clear. A jungle looks very different from a garden gone wild because of these grazers.

This difference between the two kinds of deer is also reflected in their sizes. The small chital cannot possibly reach the lower canopy. I waited for the sambar to flick out its long tongue, as it does when it wants to reach a leaf too high even for its long neck. But this canopy hung low enough that it could just use its lips.

The little group fed peacefully. No smell or sound of a predator bothered them that morning. On a stump nearby I saw a black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). It is as dark as a crow, as intelligent and aggressive, and an incredibly good mimic. It is hard to get a good photo of a drongo because of its colour. I was lucky here. It sat in full sunlight for this portrait before it rushed off to its next appointment.

Ghost tree

Driving through the jungle paths you sometimes see the skeletal white torso and arms of a ghost tree reaching out towards the path. I find them beautiful, and often pause to take a photo. They grow even more ghostly after dark, shining white in even the faintest light which breaks through the darkness of the jungle. Since I’d only visited jungles at the height of summer earlier, I’d always seen ghost trees (Sterculia urens, also called the gum karaya tree) without leaves. The leaves grow back in early monsoon. In winter they look even more beautiful, as the leaves turn amber and gold. I took these photos in Tadoba in early November. In a month the tree would be bare again.

Deeper in winter is the time of the flowers. I would like to see that sometime. Ghost trees not only have male and female flowers, but also hermaphrodites. Interestingly, these last are completely barren, incapable of producing seeds. However, they do have nectar and attract bees. What role could this play in the survival of the species? I couldn’t find any literature on it. The tree is commercially important, since an edible gum, gum karaya, is obtained by tapping its trunk. I was surprised to find that this is the ingredient E416 often mentioned on wrappers of chocolate. Over the last couple of decades I had the impression that the trees were dying out. It seems that overtapping was the culprit. Apparently there are now attempts to heal the tree after tapping. I hope this succeeds. I would hate to see the ghosts die out.

Follow the sun

Look! Far down the track. Are those five wild dogs? Stop, take a record shot before going forward. We’d just turned into a track inside Tadoba’s jungle core, and found a bunch of Asian wild dogs (Cuon alpinus, also called dhole). This is much rarer than a tiger sighting. I’d only seen them as fleeting shapes in the jungle before now. We took photos, but before we could move, they came lolloping towards us. One of the scouts ran ahead of the pack and stopped, letting the other catch up. Behind, more of them were coming on to the track.

Two dogs in front and two at the back marked out a territory between which the rest of the group appeared, eventually numbering about ten. I couldn’t believe my luck. A whole group of them so relaxed in our presence! It is estimated that there are about 2500 individuals left in Asia. We were looking at half a percent of the world’s population. Ours was the only jeep on the track. Goodness, I thought. My pictures better turn out to be good, they are among the few human records of this encounter.

Asian wild dogs once ranged across the Eurasian continent. A million years ago you could have found its ancestors as far away as in northern Germany and Russia, and more modern ancestors as far west as in Portugal and Spain. After the last glacial era, the expansion of humans over their hunting grounds led to a slow contraction until now they can only be found in protected areas in central, south, east, and southeast Asia.

From more than a decade ago, I have a photo of a bunch of them running across a road in summer. Now, comparing the winter coat of the nearest scout with that photo, I saw that this is the right season for viewing them. The coat is thicker, and perhaps even more colourful. Nor was this an individual appearance; all the dogs seemed to have a more colourful and glossy appearance. I like the photo above, because it gives me a full picture of the lower jaw. If you are interested in family trees, then you can begin to use this photo to compare teeth with those of other canids. In other ways they seemed to resemble foxes more than dogs: the bushy tail for one, and the colour of the coat.

But fossils and genetics tell a different story. Dholes lie near the base of the canid family tree. Their ancestors separated from those of the African black-backed jackals about 3.5 million years ago. The ancestors of Dholes split from those of the African Wild dogs about half a million years later. Around 2.5 million years ago, the rapid differentiation began of their cousins who evolved into wolves, coyotes, the Golden jackal, and domesticated dogs. The dhole is not particularly close to either our pet dogs or to foxes (genus Vulpes).

The group began to drift off into the grassy firebreak between the track and the forest. A few of them began to munch on grass and leaves. I suppose this must be a characteristic of all canids, a way to get some roughage. None of them seemed to throw up after, in the way that some domestic dogs do. I saw some them indulge in play, rolling in the grass in ones and twos for short whiles. Since the grass was high enough to hide them once they lay down, I do not have photos of them at play which are clear enough to be shared.

As the last of the group drifted off the road, I realized that a sighting like this is so rare that I will perhaps never see something like this again. This will remain a memory to cherish even as I continue to enter the jungle again and again, in search of other sightings, other moments of bliss.

Ripening rice

A field of rice, almost ready for the harvest makes a lovely backdrop for the macro of a flower that I didn’t recognize. It had been planted along the border of the field, so I suppose it must be an useful plant: either a vegetable or an easy-to-grow spice. Farming is hard, and land is hardly ever wasted. You would think that the wisdom of the market would price our most important commodities, food, high enough to give farmers a living. But it seems that we are willing to pay much more for a device on which to view insta photos or tiktok videos than we are for a month’s food.

This year I’ve followed the main growing cycle of rice in India: the kharif crop, planted during the monsoon and harvested in November. Around Vaitarna lake I saw tractors and oxen plowing fields, whole families engaged in flooding them, before planting and transplanting the seedlings. It is a labour-intensive job which is open to chance. There are years when an unseasonal rain can destroy the ripening crop, or its lack wither the seedlings before they grow. In this region at the edge of Tadoba, there are dangers from pests, the many birds which I spotted around the field, insects, mold, diseases, even wild boars. Although each family owns its own piece of land, families collaborate on the larger projects around the farms: plowing, ensuring deliveries, safety.

I watched the old farmer walk through the field, inspecting it closely, making sure that there is no last minute disease that sweeps through the fields, estimating the day on which the crop would have to be harvested. This is the most productive crop, but he would have to raise at least one more crops in the year to make a living. By December there would have to be a second planting. This land was close enough to a dam for a third crop to be grown in summer. The life of a farmer is hard, and money makes it harder. No family can subsist entirely on farming. Every family in the village has one or two members working in a big city to supplement the income. More than half of the country’s population is engaged in the primary production of food, but this is responsible for only a fifth of the GDP. There is clearly an imbalance here.

Guardian of the golden apples

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
“Extinguishes all hope!”

Lewis Carroll (Song of the Mad Gardener)

Waiting for tigers can be futile only if you close your eyes to everything else in the jungle. Five jeeps, drawn by alarm calls of chital and monkeys, were spaced out on a track in Tadoba to get a view of a tiger. It was already a little late in the morning. In spite of the repeated calls, I was sure that it would soon find shade and lie down, without putting in an appearance. After all, it was late enough for butterflies to have started sunning themselves. I focused on a rice swift (Borbo cinnara). Five petalled yellow flowers are so common that I have difficulty identifying the man-high plant it was getting its nectar from. But I did know that the caterpillar at the edge of the leaf right at top will not grow into the same butterfly.

What makes better sense? Would butterflies put their larvae on the same plants that they would depend on for nectar later in life? Or would it be common for them to lay their eggs on a plant which they would visit for nectar? So many unknowns! Why worry about inconstant tigers?

The rice swift does have the club at the tip of the antenna which distinguish butterflies from other moths, unlike other members of its family, the Hesperiidae. The family name probably comes from the Hesperides, the women who guarded the golden apples of the tree which Gaea gave to Hera at her marriage to Zeus. Their name reflects one account of their parentage, from Hesperos, the evening star, who was also called Vesper. This one, appropriately, flitted from one golden flower to another, but was ineffective at chasing away the caterpillars which fed on the plant.

Tigers, Rajahs, and Nawabs

When I smugly said “I’ve seen a few today,” in answer to The Family’s lament about not having seen a tiger during the day’s safari, her eyes popped wide. But she knows me too well. In seconds she said “I don’t mean butterflies.” Not even a blue tiger, Thirumala limniace? Not even when it is feeding on cypress vine morning glory, Ipomoea quamoclit? I thought it was quite a sight, the sun shining through the wings of the butterfly. As for the flower, it may have originated in Central America, but by the mid-18th century, when Carl Linnaeus named it, it was already widely established globally across the tropics, leading him to describe it as a native of India.

My attention had been initially drawn to a tall herb with red flowers glowing with the afternoon sun shining through it. From the shape of the leaves it could have been marijuana, but the flower rules out this unlikely identification. My best guess is that this is the Monarch Rosemallow (Hibiscus radiatus). Jungle safaris are not the best suited to spotting wild flowers. Rules of usage prevented me from getting off the jeep and walking round to see the flower from the front to confirm my guess.

The reason we had stopped was a piece of carrion on the ground, under a distant tree, but visible from the track. The guides had identified it as a leopard kill from a few days ago. The disturbed leopard had not come back to claim it. The fact that it had been lying there for a few days told us that there were no vultures left in this area any longer: an unfortunate local extinction in an area once known for white-rumped vultures.The Commander’s eagle eyes had spotted a butterfly on the carcass. I took a photo. The distance and the dappled light made it hard to get a good photo, but it was enough to see two butterflies and identify them.

The one in the foreground was definitely the Common Nawab (Polyura athamas), of which I had a good photo from thirteen years ago. I’d seen the other fluttering around canopies in the forest, and misidentified it earlier. It was the Tawny Rajah (Charaxes solon). The common names betrayed the casual racism of the 19th century English in India, who named many nectar feeders after ranks in the British military, but the carrion feeders after the ranks of Indian nobles.

I’ve seen a Baron and a Sailor feed on mud, and an Admiral on animal dung. But seeing the Rajah and Nawab feast on meat made me think of matters that I’d not given any time to earlier. Years of helping The Clan to reinforce better eating habits in my nieces has given me the certain knowledge that animal metabolism requires more than sugar. In this light it seems odd that some species could survive on sugar alone. I jumped to the conclusion that nectars must contain a lot of amino acids. Later search led to papers which build on exactly such an insight. Apparently the study of amino acids in nectar is now a booming field. There are studies of how the amino acid profile changes in species across a family and how these serve to attract different pollinators, what other purposes these acids serve, even how they get into the flower in the first place! But every question leads to another. Why do these two butterflies need the extra amino acids? The beginning of an answer is the observation that it is largely the males who prefer non-flower sources of food. Here is a mystery that requires more thought.

Miss Piggy

A sounder of wild boars (Sus scrofa) rooting near the jungle track was a new sight to me. In earlier trips to the jungles of central India I’ve only seen them running across tracks, or running away into the darkness of the undergrowth. Seeing them feeding warily without running made me look carefully at what other differences I could see. The most visible was that the striped squekers seemed to be missing (again). This was not surprising, since it was the breeding season. So perhaps these multi-generational matrilineal groups are less timid when the babies are grown. I didn’t see a male in the group. November is very early in the mating season.

Pigs are famously omnivorous. The plot of at least one lurid crime story involved getting rid of the body by feeding it to pigs. Nevertheless, a master’s thesis that I came across found that more than three quarters of its diet is made of grasses, roots, and seeds. The amount of meat in the diet changes with the seasons, being largest (about a fourth) in the dry summer months before the monsoon. Their habit of rooting is said to destroy plants, but at the same time, the overturning of soil is found to encourage forest regeneration. Their position as the favourite snack of predators like leopards and tigers ensures that their numbers are never out of control in the forest.

There seems to be a consensus that the species originated in Indonesia or the Philippines about 2 million years ago, and spread across the old world (three independent migrations has been suggested). Based on the shapes of skulls and teeth, and later on immunological characteristics, as many as sixteen subspecies have been accepted. Although there is not yet a complete gene map of S. scrofa, genomic analysis suggests a smaller number of clades. I found it interesting that the two subspecies suggested for India based on skull shape seem to be supported by genomic analysis. So, for completeness I should tell you that the boars we saw are Sus scrofa cristatus, the high-skulled Indian wild boar. Definitely a Miss Piggy!

We’d seen the boars at the edge of the protected core area of Tadoba NP, much closer to human activity than I’ve ever seen earlier. The reason became clear that night when we went for a walk through the village where our hotel was located. Two men were sitting by a fire next to a field where wheat was ripening. In this growing season boars often invade fields. The ripening of wheat, the seeding of grasses in the forest, and the breeding season of boars are all coincident.

Teak tok

Quite possibly you are familiar with teak wood: that dense hard wood which so much of the lasting furniture of the last two centuries was made of. My father in law once gave us two large roof beams from an old house. A carpenter looked at it and swooned, “Real aged teak.” There are many hard woods that he’d worked with, but one of the reasons he loved teak was that it never gets termites or other pests.

Now, a couple of days before Diwali, I was parked in a jeep under a towering teak tree (Tectona grandis), waiting for a tiger to arrive. Tiger watching is often said to be a fruitless task, if you count as useless the silent hours spent in the open air of a forest in central India, sitting next to someone you love. I spent the time looking up at the trunk slowly turn with the earth to point at different parts of the sky. The sun shone on the tree from different directions as this happened. The large leathery leaves of teak blazed green as the sun illuminated them from above.

Later I look a macro shot of the surface of a leaf: so intricately patterned, like hide. New leaves appear brown and then change into green. The trees were just past their post-monsoon bloom. There is a typical fragrance in a teak forest in bloom. I missed it this year. Most trees already had berries. I don’t know whether the berries brown as they ripen, or like the leaves turn green as they mature. “Does anyone drink teak berry juice?” I asked The Family. We’d never heard of it. No one does.

The reason turns out to be interesting. There are stories that newly cut teak wood smells leathery. The Commander demonstrated to me that if you take a young leaf and rub it on your palm it produces a juice that looks like blood. This is due to tannins which give the new leaf its brown colour. But it seems that teak has large amounts of interesting chemicals in the wood, root, leaves and berries. They have germicidal and anti-fungal properties, and even inhibit some plant viruses. In general they can stress the body if eaten. That’s probably why teak wood is free of pests, the leaves are not used by humans, teak berry juice is not common, and I did not see birds feeding on teak berries.

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