If you visit the green campuses and protected areas of Chennai, an arch of sturdy, twisting lianas that form a connected canopy overhead will welcome you, promising cool respite. In the understorey (the layer just below the canopy) you might find dazzling purple-blue Memecylon flowers, and catch a whiff of the spicy, citrusy aroma of Glycosmis leaves. In the more sunlit patches, a dwarf date palm with a sword-sharp leaf tip may thrive, while in the deepest shade, you might find large, shy colonies of Sansevieria, whose leaves provide the perfect anchor for whole colonies of spider webs. The understorey is the foraging ground of flycatchers and thrushes, and arboreal reptiles and mammals make use of an elaborate network of climbers.
This is but a glimpse of a forest type distinct to the Coromandel Coast of India called the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). Found in patches from False Divi Point in Andhra Pradesh to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, these forests seldom have trees that are over 12 metres tall. In Chennai city, TDEFs exist as diluted, urbanised versions of their original selves, their canopies heavily dominated by exotic raintrees and acacias. But in rural areas, in sacred groves in the heart of the Coromandel Coast, these intruding species are replaced by native trees. Each grove possesses a unique character: one may be dominated by Pterospermum suberifolium, another by Garcinia spicata. A lone emergent deciduous Indian rosewood tree might tower over these evergreen species, as is characteristic of the structure of these forests. TDEFs grow in both sandy and lateritic soils, and are adapted to the vagaries of the northeast monsoon which provides much of the rainfall in this region, from October to December.
The red-whiskered bulbul, one of the most common bird species found in India, is hard to miss. She has a smart black crest on her head and a splotch of red on her face. She is bold. She will sing from exposed branches of trees, and show off her wide repertoire of calls in gardens, forests and farmlands. But bold as she is, you would have to be inordinately lucky to catch her to see her feathers up close, or get a quick measurement of her beak length for your study.
Within the collections of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), however, row upon row of this very species are laid out in clean drawers. Collected by Britishers and Indians decades ago by the thousands, these birds are preserved in natural history museums, in India as well as around the world. Similarly, attentive curators preserve insects, marine invertebrates, reptiles, plants, seeds, nests, bones, faecal samples and frozen tissues from a bygone era in many countries.
Sahas Barve’s work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History involves measuring feathers to understand how birds stay warm in cold conditions. Photo: Sahas Barve.
Sketch of a red-whiskered bulbul by Margaret Cockburn, one of the few colonial women ornithologists in India (c. 1860-1880). Photo: Natural History Museum, London
These specimens make natural history museums an invaluable repository of information for researchers. Sahas Barve, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was emphatic when he said that his study on understanding how birds keep warm using their feathers would be impossible without such collections.
In the Valparai plateau of the Anamalai Hills, two researchers stand in a forest fragment and listen carefully. Both work on bioacoustics – studying sounds in a landscape (the soundscape) to know more about life around them.
One of them is straining to discern whether the bird that is making a sharp, cheery call is a yellow-browed bulbul or an Asian fairy-bluebird. In the dense green vegetation around them, there is little hope of seeing the bird, so she must rely on the call to identify the species.
In the meanwhile, the other researcher has just finished his own task. He has put up a small audio recorder in a Ziploc bag, and tied it to the trunk of a Cullenia tree bearing spiky ball-like fruits.
Asian fairy-bluebird, Wikimedia Commons
Yellow-browed bulbul, Wikimedia Commons
Point counts in the forest
An audio recorder tied to a tree, Vijay Ramesh
The first researcher carried out a point count of birds, where she simply stood in a spot and took note of the species around her, based mostly on their vocalisations. Data collected this way is used to explore the species diversity in forests and estimate the abundance of birds at small scales. Studies like this are reliant on a high level of expertise, on-the-ground effort and time. Often, such surveys are carried out early in the morning, and nocturnal birds and birds of prey are overlooked.
The second researcher, who placed recorders in the field will enjoy several advantages over the first one’s method. Huge swathes of forests can be covered by placing multiple units simultaneously, and recorders can be programmed to collect data throughout the day, for weeks at a time. This data, free from individual bias, can be reanalysed many times over to answer a variety of questions. If programmed to capture sounds of the appropriate frequency, these recorders can capture bat, frog and insect vocalisations in addition to bird calls.
A stream flows gently by, and the clouds cannot quite decide how much leave they should give the Sun today. The wind is making ripples in the water below – gently, from the falling of leaves that are too tired to hold on any longer, in the receding twilight of their lives.
I watch, mesmerised by the scene, quite content with my life. It is one of those moments when all of life seems to be rhythmically, harmoniously at peace. Bulbuls, mynas and parakeets abound, and the occasional kingfisher streaks through the air, its bright blue plumage stark against the green of the foliage. I spy a shy waterhen at the edge of the stream, hiding behind tall reeds. I think back to the day I saw a pair of pond terrapins here, lounging on a log, picturesque over the tranquil stream.
I am shaken from my reverie by the arrival of very purposeful-looking people. In a flash, they come and take over the scene. Today is a day of tree-planting, and the people are here this cloudy morning to take hundreds of saplings from where they were born to where they were always meant to be. They are here now because the monsoon is coming, bringing with it the torrential rains these parts receive for months on end.
What is it that draws us to the quiet, to the green? To the mist-curtained mountains, where everything is crystal clear – leaves in high definition even against an overcast sky. Where leopards leave their mark in soft mud, and you smell where an otter has walked.
Do we bow down to how humbling it is, to live in these places, and breathe this air? Our days here end when the moon’s begins, and then we cede this ancient land to the wild. Would we dream of living in reverence like this, in our gray, densely packed cities? We give to nobody there; we do not share the land with myriad life forms the way we do here, in our mountains and forests.
What do we do when it rains here, in these forests?
The Anamalai Hills, shrouded in mist. Credit: Ganesh Raghunathan
Sometimes, I let it touch my skin, kiss and caress me, because I am a stranger here still, and this rain overwhelms me. The land is ruled by the elements — the mist, fog, rain, and wind visit as often as the sun and the moon. Life doesn’t pause here for the rain; its diverse forms are no strangers to the monsoon — the whistling thrush still sings, the cicadas abound, and so I watch.
Leopard in human-use area. Courtesy: Ganesh Raghunathan
Continue reading this here, in the Yale Environment 360 magazine. This piece was placed second in the Yale Young Writers Awards 2020.
In the last week of February, Bandipur Tiger Reserve lost over 60 square kilometres of forest to a massive fire, despite the best efforts of hundreds of people who tried to put it out. The incident was widely covered in the news, with sensational pictures of supposedly charred animals, grabbing everyone’s attention. The loss of forest land was lamented as irretrievable and devastating.
The grassy forests of Bandipur, however, like many dry deciduous “forests” in south India, are not forests at all. The trees here are adapted to fire and the dry grasses fuel it frequently in the dry months between monsoons. These ecosystems are more open than closed canopy forests and the hardy vegetation found here can withstand drought conditions.
Majestic teak (Tectona grandis) and Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) trees dominate the skyline and these natural ecosystems support a wide variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates, contrary to the belief that they are wastelands or degraded forests.
Jayashree Ratnam, associate director of the wildlife biology and conservation programme at the National Centre for Biological Science, said that these forests are mesic savannas. “Having worked for a while in African savannas and being very familiar with the idea that mixed tree-grass ecosystems were distinctive from forests, when we returned to India and started visiting various field sites, we were struck by the similarities of these sites with African savannas,” she said.
Mesic savannas receive more rainfall than some other iconic savannas of the tropics, but such ecosystems the world over are characterised by frequent burning and drought. India, however, has a blanket fire-suppression policy in place and this is doing more harm than good to these tree-grass ecosystems, find a series of studies.
Immediately, arrestingly, there seems to be serene, unadulterated green. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that it’s a mishmash of many greens all co-existing, as they have for years and years.
From a rocky outcrop, you see the landscape of jade, emerald, moss, and seaweed, and you can’t help but marvel at their sheer diversity. In the senescence of the full grown tree’s leaves, you see not just green, but also the strangest shades of red and brown. They cling on desperately, so close to the gentlest, shyest of greens. The green that is so new to the world, and is growing resolutely every day.
Where’s the vine snake?
The colours of decay
Purple on pathways
Read the full piece on Current Conservation hereand find the complete issue here.
The Indian bullfrog is a standout specimen of the amphibian line-up in the picturesque Andaman Islands. He has a loud, guttural croak, and he’s distinctively bigger than his native cousins. These marked differences have been used to jog people’s memories now, to find out how the bullfrog became an invasive species in these tropical islands.
In a recent study, Mr. Nitya Prakash Mohanty and Dr. John Measey from the Stellenbosch University, South Africa, tried to map the invasion history of these frogs from the early 2000s, which was when it was first reported in the islands. Through their study, published in Biological Invasions, they show the value of conducting public surveys to understand the spread of invasive species, and throw light on a biological invasion we know little about.
For the Indian rock agama, gardens and construction plots are some of the last few refuges in densely built-up, seemingly inhospitable cities. But even these safe houses are not entirely without stressors, and these tropical lizards are doing their best to cope with the challenges of living the city life.
In a recent study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution …
I’m not a diver, sailor or surfer. I’m not a marine biologist, studying the wondrous ways of the dolphins. I have never been on a ship, speeding along to touch the horizon. But the ocean can be revered in so many ways. As the new sun threw its rays onto the white-grey morning waters, it struck me in all the ways we take from it.
Fisherman tow in motor boats to spread their nets and cast them deep. Do you think the flavor of the briny spray ever leaves those boats? What sights these men must have seen, out there every day. How many times they must have feared for their lives. They must know the ocean like she’s a goddess.
Early morning joggers are running on the best track in the world while their lithe footsteps in the sand are being washed away again and again, in that relentless motion of the waves that never tire. These waves haven’t tired this year, yes, but then again they haven’t tired in millennia. Not since the moon called to them and they rose up to greet him.
Early morning beach goers are playing in the water. Their squeals as the cool water caresses them rent the sunrise. A girl is collecting shells in a plastic bag. These are the realities. These shells are sold in so many seaside towns as earrings and bracelets and necklaces. Because who doesn’t want to invite the ocean home, in any form it will consent to come?
And then there is me. I came here to sit by the ocean. I leave today, and even though it doesn’t matter to the oceans of the world, I’m not going to see this beautiful sunrise in Pondicherry tomorrow. I’ll see these waters from elsewhere, soon. Why would you voluntarily go without smiling at the ocean every once in a while?
I love the idea of the horizon as the place where the ocean meets the sky. I love the beautiful surface of the sea. It’s unceasing nature. The possibility of a million creatures thriving and brimming within its waters, in the shallows and the deepest, darkest trenches. The way the waves rise and fall for the moon. The way it kisses my legs with foam and my face with sea spray. The shells it slowly leaves behind, without care. The crabs who hide from the waves, and feed in them too. Paw prints of beach dogs that stay as long as the waves allow them to. That lone crow who caws and caws at it, buffeted ever so slightly by the wind. Sunlight lighting its world up so magnificently that you cannot bring yourself to look away, even for a moment. That sound that would cradle you to sleep if you’d let it, when the stars shine their lights for the world.
Olive Ridleys come to nest on a beach not very far from here. They say the nesting of females is older than the dinosaurs. They say that. But do we understand what that means? Can we conceive something that ancient? We only just got here. But here they do lay the eggs. Gently, painstakingly, in leathery softness for the turtles to claw their way out into their home, where they will swim the waters year after year until the shore beckons once again, for the females.
The gulls that fly overhead, with calm, gradual beats of their wings. This may be the only time I wish to be a bird, I think. How it must feel to have the sea wind beneath your wings, to look farther than we can, but still keep seeing that horizon? What does the Arctic tern feel, when she flies pole to pole, over eons of ocean?
It isn’t untouched pasture. But it’s the last, most accessible part of the world that looks it. If you can sit close enough that the trash is behind you, and you look onto it, it looks like it must have for billions of years now. There is no way the timelessness of the ocean will ever fail to evoke these emotions in me. After all, this was where life was born. It was in these shores that the great diversification of everything that lives on land today started. This is where bountiful sponges and corals once lived, and where armoured monsters reigned in glory.
It only takes a whiff of that salt spray to bring me to my knees.