Thanks for a Spelunking Time!

Humans and caves go back to the dawn of time. In popular media and imagination, people of the Palaeolithic era are cave-dwellers, armed with rocks and clothed in animal skins and furs. While it is true that human ancestors did live in caves in that period, these were probably not their predominant dwellings. But since bones, artefacts, weapons and paintings in caves are sheltered and preserve better, a lot of objects used by early humans are found there rather than anywhere else, giving rise to the perception that humans mostly inhabited caves.

Mawsmai Caves
Mawsmai Caves, Meghalya

Our fascination with caves is long-standing. These dark, mysterious places figure in many an adventure story. Aladdin for instance, found his magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders. The thieves in the Ali Baba story hid their treasures in a cave which opened with the famous spell ‘Open Sim Sim’. Pirates are often associated with caves, as are many children’s stories involving lions and tigers.

Most caves are formed by the dissolution of limestone. Why does this happen? Rainwater as it falls to the earth dissolves carbon dioxide that it encounters in the air it passes through. As this carbon-di-oxide laden water percolates through the soil, it turns into a weak acid. The acid slowly dissolves the limestone along the joints, planes and fractures in the soil to form cavities. Some of these cavities in time become large enough to form caves.

India has its share of breath-taking caves which are of interest from a geological standpoint as formations;  from the archaeological stand point in that they house ancient cave paintings and artefacts; and from an aesthetic and religious standpoint—as the home of fantastic carvings and temples.

The earliest evidence of humans in India have been found in the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, with some of the shelters showing evidence of being inhabited 1,00,000 years ago! The cave paintings here go back to about 8000 BC. The Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra have Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, with the oldest dating as far back as 2nd century BC! Badami, Elephanta, Amarnath and Borra are among other popular and highly-visited caves.

But Meghalaya may take the prize when it comes to caves. The Krem Liat Prah caves in the Jaintia Hills are listed among the longest caves in the world, with a length of 30,957 meters—and this is only the explored length! In fact, the top nine out of the ten longest and deepest caves in India are in Meghalaya!

Another interesting cave is the Siju Cave of the Garo Hills, also known as the Bat Cave, which spans over 4 kilometres long, but with nearly all of it is filled with underground streams and rivers, is not easy to explore.

During my recent visit to Meghalaya, we were able to visit three touristy caves (Mawsmai and Arwah caves, and the Garden of Caves at Laitmawsiang) which easily are accessible and not too difficult for even the inexperienced. And that gave me a small taste of what it would be to be a spelunker —a person who walks and climbs in caves as a sport (from the Latin spelunca, which in turn derives from Greek spelynx, both of which mean ‘cave’).

A lot of the work of discovering, exploring and bringing to light the caves of the state has been done by the Meghalaya Adventurer Association founded by Brain Dermot Kharpran Daly and his group of dedicated spelunkers.

But all is not well with the caves of Meghalaya. Limestone mining for the cement industry is a major threat to the caves. As one drives across the state, one can see hill after hill carved and hollowed out. In fact, this has already led several disasters including the collapse of the Krem Mawmluh Caves, the seventh-longest cave system of the state. Much of this mining is now illegal, but that does not mean it has stopped!

Is there nothing we can do to stop the depredation of these amazing structures that have formed over million years?


Bridging the Past and Future

Bridge-building brings to mind heavy equipment; tonnes of steel and concrete; engineers and overseers by the dozens. And lakhs of rupees.

Well, what if there were bridges which involve some rubber trees; centuries of traditional knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to another; and a lot of cooperation? And very little money.

And indeed there are such bridges by the dozens in Meghalaya. Built by the Khasi and Jaintia communities, the Living Root Bridges, locally known as Jingkieng Jri, play a key role in rural connectivity in the dense forest areas of the state, which are also among the wettest areas of the world (think Cherrapunji).

Living Root Bridge

The process begins with the planting of two rubber trees– Ficus elastica—one on either side of the river. These trees take about 10 years to grow and give rise to secondary aerial roots.  A bamboo scaffolding is created across the river, and these roots are woven together and trained onto to this to start creating the structure. The aerial roots thus grow across the river, and when they reach there, they are planted again on the opposite side. The roots along the scaffolding grow thicker and intertwine. The roots need to be guided to grow in the right direction for the next few decades, after which they can stand on their own.

The planning and engineering skills required to build these bridges is enormous– they often rise 50 to 100 feet in the air and may be as much as 175 feet in length. Many are ‘single-storey’ bridges, but there are ‘double-storey’ ones as well. They have always been built and cared for by the local communities, and the tradition continues.

The bridges need loving care—for instance, every two years, the bamboo scaffolding has to be changed since the moisture and humidity might damage it. Properly cared for, these can last for a hundred years and more.

These bridges have been around for centuries and are even today, about 100 are in use, connecting over 75 villages. While local communities use them for their normal day-to-day movement, these bridges are also now major tourist attractions. They also act as corridors for animals to safely cross the rivers—barking dear and clouded leopards have been recorded to use these bridges. The bridges support the growth of moss and provide a habitat for squirrels and other small animals, and nesting sites for birds.

The technique is used not just for making bridges but also other structures that are needed locally, for instance,  ladders and steps to provide a reliable mode of movement especially during the monsoon season; platforms and towers which serve as lookout points; erosion and landslide prevention structures to protect slopes and help in soil stabilization.

A true testimony to the patience, skill and cooperative spirit of the communities who build, use and care for them. And also to the effective methods of transmission of traditional knowledge, so that generation after generation is able to do this work effectively.

This sustainable and eco-friendly tradition has been recognized internationally. In fact, as of last year, the Living Roots Bridges or the Jingkieng Jris has been included in the UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage Site status.

I was lucky enough to see such a bridge and walk across it. It was an amazing experience. The one I visited was very accessible to tourists. But some other intrepid members of our group went to see a double-storey one, which involved six hours of trekking. And came back exhausted and with aches and pains in every joint. But they said that every pain, ache and stiff joint was worth it, and given half a chance, they would do it again!

So take the soft route or the hard, but if you can possibly see a Living Root Bridge, it will be a memorable experience.


On Orchids

For most of us:

Orchids = Rare

Orchids = Exotic

Orchids = Beautiful.

I recently went to Meghalaya where I visited an orchid park. And of course the variety and beauty of the orchids we saw were amazing. But when I tried to figure out a little bit more about these flowers, I found all the three equations mentioned above, which have been firmly planted in my mind for decades, to be false!

Orchids in fact belong to one of the top two most-common families of flowering plants on earth! This is the family Orchidaceae which comprises about 750 genera and close to 28,000 species!  So orchids are not rare!


The dictionary meaning of ‘exotic’ is ‘origination in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’. Actually, with their wide distribution, orchids may be among the least exotic flowers. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica. At least four species have been reported from north of the Arctic Circle. So orchids are not exotic in most parts of the world! 

And while most orchids are beautiful, there are some which are warty, bumpy, hairy and unbeautiful. In fact, the latest orchid to be discovered—the gastrodia agnicellus–from a forest in Madagascar, has been dubbed “the ugliest orchid in the world” by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom. It has been likened to a soul-sucking eyeless worm. While I am not very comfortable to have anything castigated so severely on the basis of looks, I have to admit after looking at pics of this flower, orchids are not always equal to beautiful!

Ok, easy enough to demolish myths. Now time to look at some facts.

To begin with, what are orchids? Orchids come in different sizes, different shapes, grow in different parts of the world. But the one characteristic which unities them, as well as differentiates them form other flowering plants, is the fusion of the male portion of the flower (stamen) with the  female portion (pistil), into one structure called the column—often visible protruding from the center. Orchids have three sepals and three petals, which all appear to be part of the flower. The middle petal is modified and is usually brightly coloured and exudes a scent.  

Orchids are among the oldest flowering plants known. A few years ago, Harvard University scientists discovered a fossilized bee carrying orchid pollen which dates back at least 15 million years. However, scientists speculate that orchids have been around much longer than that, maybe as much as 100 million years.


Orchids have the tiniest seeds in the world. A single seedpod can have up to 3 million seeds in it.  The seeds are so small they can only be seen under a microscope. The plants take about 5-7 years to bloom once germinated, and can live up to a hundred years.

Incidentally, the vanilla bean comes from a species of orchid.  It is the only orchid which is commercially grown and harvested, not for its flowers but its beans!

India has a vast orchid diversity—a total of 1256 species have been recorded, out of which 307 are endemic to the country. But our orchids are under pressure. This pressure mainly comes from illegal harvesting and exploitation for trade. Orchids are illicitly collected from the wild and traded as ornamental plants.

So yes, do get orchids for your home-garden. They will surely add a touch of colour and beauty (unless of course you choose the gastrodia agnicellus!). But make sure they are sourced ethically. For many of them are indeed under threat.


Aquarium Alert

Last week, a huge aquarium housed in a Berlin hotel burst. Water, about 1500 fish, and debris flowed across the street causing chaos and slightly injuring two people. It was early in the morning, otherwise the 1 million litres of water pouring out from the aquarium might have led go many more injuries.

The AquaDom which burst was a star attraction of a complex with hotels, cafes and shops. It is supposed to have been the biggest cylindrical tank in the world. It is still not clear why the aquarium cracked when it did. It is speculated that the sudden overnight fall in temperature—it went down to -10c that night—may have caused in the acrylic glass tank to crack, which then led to its exploding under the weight of the water.

There were about 1500 fish of 80 species housed in the tank, of which most died. Just a few fish which were at the bottom survived.

Aquaria have never been easy to construct or maintain. Quite apart from managing the engineering challenges of building a structure that can hold the huge weight of water,, the design of these structures must take into account the requirements of the different types of creatures they house, since modern aquariums include all types of aquatic organisms: mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates as well as fishes in one exhibit. And what the tank is made of also requires thought–many substances, especially plastics and adhesives which are nontoxic to humans, are toxic to water-breathing animals.

Maintenance issues include problems such as water clarity, dissolved wastes, temperature, tank decor, disease treatment, and nutrition. And then of course, the glass has to be such that it does not reflect, so that visitors can see the creatures. Further, the structure has to be acoustically properly designed.

Maintaining water quality is critical of course—first and foremost, the inlet water must be free of pollutants including sewage and industrial wastes.  In fact, chlorine and other additives have been removed from water before it can be used for this purpose. The gaseous equilibrium of the water with the atmosphere has to be maintained to ensure adequate oxygen and to avoid super-saturation with nitrogen. Provision for  purification of metabolic wastes is of course critical.

Even addition of plants to an aquarium has to be done with care. Since aquaria are usually kept in bright light for many hours, the plants there photosynthesize much more, and the balance of carbon di oxide and oxygen and water in the water goes awry unless carefully balanced.

India never did have an AquaDom equivalent, but the Taraporewala Aquarium in Mumbai has a hoary history. It is the oldest aquarium in the country, and was opened by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India in 1951.

Taraporewala Aquarium

The cost of building at that time was about ₹8 lakhs, of which ₹2 lakhs came from a Parsi philanthropist D. B. Taraporewala. So the government graciously named this aquarium after him.

It has over 100 species of fish and other aquatic animals like sharks, seahorses and turtles. The collection consists of freshwater, marine and tropical fishes brought from across the world.

It was a major tourist attraction for locals and tourists. And to keep up with the times and modernize the exhibits, it went through a major renovation less than 10 years ago.

However, construction work undertaken for the Mumbai Coastal Road project may likely have weakened the 70-year-old building and it was feared to be structurally unsafe. An audit was carried out in March 2022. Based on this, the government was to decide whether to repair the structure, re-construct it, or shift the aquarium from its location on Marine Drive to another location at Worli.

As of now, sadly the Aquarium is closed, and it is not clear what the government has decided.

Fish are probably low down on the priority list of policy-makers and decision-makers.


Save Our Soils

December 5 is marked as World Soil Day every year as a means to focus attention on the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system, and as a vital contributor to environmental and human well-being. The day reminds us of the degrading state of this resource, and urges for the sustainable management of soil resources. The date of 5 December was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

At first glance soil seems just like a layer that covers the earth’s land surface. In fact soil is a world in itself, made up of inorganic and organic components, that provides food for humans and animals through plant growth. The inorganic components include air, water, minerals, and masses of tiny particles of rock broken down over millions of years by baking sun, rainwater, atmospheric gases, cracking ice and penetrating roots. It is the living organisms like lichen, algae and fungi, as well as earth-dwelling organisms from earthworms to microscopic bacteria—dying, decomposing and leaving their remains on and in the soil that transform these lifeless particles into a form that initiates and maintains life on earth, and that can support millions of life forms. Hard to believe that there are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil than people on Earth!

Like humans, soils need a balanced and varied supply of nutrients in appropriate amounts to be healthy. When this balance is disturbed soil loses its ability to process nutrients and convert them into a form that enables plants to grow.

Agricultural systems lose nutrients with each harvest, and if soils are not managed sustainably, fertility is progressively lost, and soils will produce nutrient-deficient plants. Soil nutrient loss is a major soil degradation process threatening nutrition. It is recognized as being among the most critical problems at a global level for food security and sustainability all around the globe.

The theme for World Soil Day 2022 is “Soils: Where Food Begins”.  This aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing the growing challenges in soil management, increasing soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

Even as humans are using this day to speak up for the health of the soil, I thought that it should also would be a chance for the soil to speak up for itself!

Here is what I imagine the soil would like to share!


I am soil, ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains, in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

I can often get weaker, unable to help life to grow

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are to sow and to reap

Have you ever dreamed that I too need time to breathe?

Ever thought that I also need to recuperate

From trying to keep up at such an unnatural rate?

Give me break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients right from my depths.

One day quite soon I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be only a dream.

Then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Imagining that the fruit I bear will be so good,

But could you thrive on just pills, not natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

You will drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy all “enemies” in just one stride.

You don’t realize that with the deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not only the foes.

You strip me of my protective cover

Rip the grasses, trees, and shrubs that flower.

Those keep me protected in a secure cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, naked and bare

To be blown, swept or washed away somewhere.

You clad me in an armour of tar and concrete

So I can’t breathe, nor can the creatures beneath.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to factories, labs and vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass

The bugs and beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, one that never fails.

It’s these myriad earth dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow upon all plant life.

Let my friends and foes all show their might

If I am strong and healthy, it will be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest

Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.


Zoos and the Sense of Wonder

Cheetahs at Oakland Zoo. Picture: Oakland Zoo site

Oakland Zoo is celebrating its annual Glowfari Festival through November, December and January. This year, the highlights include ‘a walkabout through the land down under with kangaroos and koalas, icons of the California coastline including whales, otters, and jellies, exotic animals of the tropical rainforest, and a trip to the past with a towering T-Rex and a megalodon shark tunnel!’ Ok, apart from the t-rex and megalodon shark, that’s not very usual for a zoo, right? Well, not till you learn that these are not real animals that the visitors will see but hundreds of huge hand-painted animal lanterns  placed throughout the zoo’s campus, making for a totally unique tour of the zoo by night. The spectacular lanterns are arranged throughout a mile-long pathway. They glow in the dark, turning the zoo into a fairyland. The tag line of the fest is ‘A Wildly Illuminating Lantern Festival’.

Sean Kenney’s Lego Butterfly

Some years ago, a New York based artist Sean Kenney toured several zoos and botanical gardens in the US with over 150 life size and larger-than-life size sculptures of animals and plants made with, hold your breath, Lego blocks! Lego blocks are this artist’s chosen medium. who turned his The largest sculptures took up to nine months to construct. The pieces are set in place as per a master-plan, and glued tother. A lion, for example, took 474 construction hours and Lego 48,248 bricks to build.

Brevard Zoo currently has an exhibition called ‘Life Beneath our Sea’ which displays a dozen giant sand sculptures hand-crafted by world-class artists using over 500 tonnes of sand, which is bringing the beauty of underwater scenes to the viewers.

These are just a few examples of innovative programmes being done by zoos to attract visitors, bring the beauty of wonder of nature to them, and educate them.

It is well recognized that experiences with animals and educational elements can increase zoo visitors’ motivation to take conservation action, and this is why zoos place so much emphasis on educational initiatives.

San Diego Zoo, probably the top-rated zoo in the world, has developed curricula on a number of topics that can be taught through a combination of classroom activities, along with activities to be done during a visit to the zoo. The topics range from the Panda curriculum to the Wildcats curriculum to Animal Adaptations to the Australian Outback curriculum. They also organize field trips with guides for schools, opportunities to get close to small animals, safari park guided field trips, special early morning trips and even sleepovers at the safari park!

The Singapore Zoo has specific programmes for various levels, from pre-school to primary school to secondary school. They also have professional development programmes for teachers. These are very structured experiences. For instance, one of the education programmes offered to secondary students ‘Fragile Forest’ helps them get a multi-dimensional experience of life in a rainforest ecosystem. It includes a walk amidst fascinating flora and coming face to face with lemurs, bats, butterflies, birds, tarantulas, snails, millipedes, etc. This tour also demonstrates the importance of rainforests to our lives, and ways individuals can help to save them.

And it is not just children that zoo education caters to. Many zoos like the Smithsonian offer internships for adults and senior students, and encourage volunteering.  

A number of zoos pivoted during COVID to offer virtual zoo experiences, including pre-recorded virtual Zoo tours, online classes allowing children to personally interact with Zoo educators and virtually meet several animal ambassadors up close. Some Zoos like the Taronga Zoo, run an educational TV channel, with new videos releasing every week. Other zoos offer virtual guided tours through the Zoo Commissary, Vet Hospital, and behind the scenes Aquarium.

Yet other zoos offer educational kits like exhibit design kits, , biological artefacts (i.e. skulls, feathers, shells, etc), and materials to conduct conservation learning games.

India too places emphasis on zoo education. The Central Zoo Authority got Centre for Environment Education to develop a Zoo Education Masterplan—a 330 page document which provides zoos in India a detailed way-forward on the why, what and how of education at such facilities.

Lets hope zoos across the world are able to effectively use education to support conservation.


Going to the Zoo

As a child in Delhi, one of the major highlights of the year was a visit to the Zoo. And if we were lucky enough to have guests from out of town with children, it was a bonanza year, because the zoo would be on the itinerary for the guests, and we could go along too. The birds visiting the wetlands which are a major part of Delhi Zoo; the lions, tigers, elephants, zebras; the mischievous monkeys, the exotic zebras and giraffes—these were our only encounters with creatures that we otherwise only saw in 2-d in books. And from such visits grew our wonder at the world of nature and our love for it.

And that indeed is one of the stated purposes of zoos—to introduce visitors to nature and to lay the foundation for a conservation ethic. As India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA) sums up, the objectives of zoos are:

‘CONSERVATION: To be involved in programs which assist the survival of wild populations of animals. This is often done in partnership with other organisations.

EDUCATION: To increase the level of awareness, knowledge and understanding of visitors about animals, the environment and conservation, and to motivate behaviour change which will help the environment.

RESEARCH: To conduct and facilitate research on animals both in captivity and in the wild, with particular emphasis on threatened species.

RECREATION: To provide enjoyment and enrichment for visitors through close contact with living things.’

I spent two decades of my career as an environmental educator, and zoo education was something I was involved in at some stage. I still carried the deep impacts of my childhood zoo experiences and worked with a passion to make zoo visits more educational, striving to sow the seeds of love, respect and care for the environment, nature and animals.


But last week, I took a 4-year old to the Bannerghatta Zoo and Safari Park. She liked it. But I saw nothing like the excitement and wonder I remember feeling as a child. She was reasonably excited when she saw lions and tigers and bears close up during the safari. And then during the walk through the zoo, she did like the zebras and monkeys and giraffes, but I could see that she was disappointed that they were just standing there, not ‘doing’ anything. And then when we saw a herd of elephants, she could not see the baby-elephants clearly, which she was not happy about. And as she walked through the zoo, she was tired and hot and cranky. All in all, if my childhood zoo visits were an 11/10, hers was a 7/10.

I got to thinking why. And then I realized that she had the wildest and most remote of habitats and the most exotic of animals at her fingertips. She just had to switch channels in the comfort of home to see lion cubs playing with their mother’s tail; elephants mud-bathing; kingfishers swooping in for a fish catch; tigers chasing a deer. No wonder the physical sights were not so exciting.

I still believe that zoo-visits have a major role to play in nature education. But obviously, it cannot be business as usual. While zoos in India are making some efforts to make onsite education more exciting, there are international zoos which have taken this to new levels of innovation, immersion and interaction. Next week I will share some interesting and really cutting-edge programmes.

India has 145 recognized zoos in India as per CZA. Pre-Covid estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces, with over 8 crore visitors every year. Zoos are still the most accessible way to see animals for real–national park and sanctuary visits are expensive and time-taking. We cannot lose this opportunity of zoo-visits to set off positive action for the environment.  And to do so effectively means we must understand the challenges that new media poses to traditional visit experience, as well as recognize the exciting opportunities it offers.


The Tree Pies Are Here!

The last couple of weeks we have been hearing a new addition to the usual morning symphony of bird calls in our garden. This new sound was different—a somewhat harsh and raucous intermittent call. The other birds fall silent while this fills the air. As we looked for the source of sound, at first we could not see anything except the familiar babblers and doves and crows going about their morning business, until a rustling among the drying leaves of the tall old palm tree caused us to look closer. Suddenly we saw a hitherto unknown bird emerge and perch on the branch. Another swoop brought its partner flying from beyond to perch next to it. The first thing that struck us was the striking colouring and long tail that set these birds apart from the more staid and dull-hued birds that usually frequented the tree.

Rufous treepie
Rufous treepie

The tree-pies were in the neighbourhood! Last year they had caused a similar excitement when we had spotted them one day, but sadly that was only a one-time sighting, and we did not see them again. This time it seemed as if they were seriously prospecting the tree as a suitable site for potentially settling in to nest and breed.  

The Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) belongs to the Corvidae family, to which also belongs the common crow. The bird is endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and it is found in open forests, woodlands, groves and gardens in cities and villages. This species is not found elsewhere.

The body of the bird is the size of a myna, but it is elongated with a long tail which distinguishes it. The body is rust orange, with an ashy-black head and breast. The tail feathers are black interspersed with light grey, and the wing feathers are black with a white-grey band down the outside. The beak, legs and feet are black; the eyes are deep red with black pupils. The beak is slightly hooked at the tip.  With such striking colouring, the tree pie makes quite a contrast to its relative, the common crow, with its monochromatic colouring.

What this bird does share with its Corvid family kin is the attraction to shiny objects. Tree pies look for and steal shiny objects such as coins and small jewellery, and stash these in their nest. Possibly a male ploy to attract the females! No wonder then that one of the local Indian names for this bird is taka chor, literally ‘coin stealer’. The bird is also called kotri, derived from one of its calls which sounds like a screeching ‘ko-tree’.

The tree pie indeed has quite a repertoire of calls—from the loud, harsh and guttural to some which are sweet and melodious like ko-tree or bob-o-link. Thus it is confusing when one looks for the source of the squawking call, only to find a melodious tune emanating from the same place. It makes one wonder if it is one bird or several different ones calling.

The tree pie is an arboreal bird, rarely seen on the ground. It is an agile climber and hops agilely from branch to branch, or flies from tree to tree with a swift noisy flapping followed by a short glide on out stretched wings.

The rufous tree pie is an omnivorous and opportunistic feeder. Its diet includes fruits, seeds, small lizards, insects, as well as the eggs of other birds, and even small birds and rodents. In the forest tree pies often join mixed hunting groups of birds like drongos and woodpeckers; they collectively disturb insects in tree canopies and feast on them. 

Tree pies make their nests concealed in the foliage of middle-sized trees. The nest resembles that of its cousin the crow, made of thorny twigs, but it is deeper and well-lined with rootlets. It is here that 4-5 eggs are laid, and when they hatch both male and female share the parental duties.

A fortnight has passed since we heard the first harsh call of the tree pies. Since then we have been able to also enjoy the rest of their repertoire, in something like sound-surround. The soft melodious chirping coming from the foliage of the karanj tree, the bob-o-links that punctuate from the neem tree, and the kotri call from the top of the straggly palm. If we look hard enough we can also spot the tip of the long tail peeping out from the leaves, and occasionally are treated to a glimpse of its sweeping graceful flight from one perch to the other. It looks like the tree pies are here to stay this year.


Manchineel: Evil Queens Would Have Loved Them!

We all know from our childhood how Snow White’s wicked step-mother poisoned her with an apple. The step-mother apparently brewed a malodorous and poisonous potion, and dipped the apple in it so that it would absorb the toxins. And she had to take a lot of care because knowing that Snow White would be suspicious after many attacks on her, she had to leave half the apple free of poison so that she could eat it to allay the girl’s doubts and tempt her into eating the other half. The Queen must have gone through hoops to gather various obscure ingredients, brew the powerful potion, and soak one half of an uncut apple in it! And for all that, the poison was only strong enough to put Snow White to sleep, waiting for true love’s kiss!

If only the Queen had known about the Manchineel, a tree which bears apple-like fruits. The tree is one of the most toxic ones known, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most dangerous tree. The sap of the tree is extremely poisonous, and every part of the tree, from the bark to the leaves to the fruit, is pervaded with the sap, and hence poisonous.  

The poisonous nature of the tree has been recognized for long. Its botanical names is Hippomane mancinella. Hippomane is derived from two Greek words: Hippo for horse, and mane a derivative of the word mania. The story goes that a Greek philosopher gave the tree its name after seeing horses go crazy after eating the apple-like fruits. One of the Spanish names of the tree, given by Christopher Columbus, is manzanilla de la muerte, meaning ‘little apple of death.’

Evil queens would not even had to go to the trouble of feeding the fruit to their victims. It is said that simply standing under the tree during rains will lead to dire consequences—serious blistering and blinding. In fact indigenous people of the Caribs where the tree is native, are known to have poisoned enemy water supplies with the leaves. They also dipped arrows in the sap to make effective poison-tipped weapons. Ship-wrecked sailors of yore who ate the fruits died horrific deaths with their mouths, throats and stomachs blistered. Even the smoke from a burning tree can cause blindness.

Fiction and films have used the toxicity of the tree to create dramatic situations—from enemies being given machineel leaves rolled into cigarettes to kill them, to villains tying their victims to the trees!

Manchineel trees are native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. They grow well in sandy soils and flourish among the mangroves. The trees grow up to a height of about 12 metres with a 60-cm thick trunk. The leaves are yellowish green in colour, and long-stalked, shiny, leathery, and elliptical. The fruits look like apples and are sweet smelling, and range in colour from yellow to red.


The tree is quite common in Florida. Many of the manchineels growing there are labelled with a warning sign, telling people not to eat the fruits or stand under the tree during the rains.

If only the evil queens of old had known of this tree! Of course, they would have had to figure out a way to grow these tropical trees in Europe where most of the stories are set. But they were ingenious enough to have found ways to do that. And how much more interesting fairy tales would have been!


Paper Tigers

29 July is International Tiger Day. The day was first launched at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 and is observed annually to remind the world about the decline of the global tiger population, and to encourage efforts for tiger conservation. On this day we will see many reports and statistics about tigers and their falling/growing population, and many conferences and seminars will be held on research and studies on tigers.

This is perhaps a good time to look at the tigers that roam not the forests, but that have also populated the pages of language and literature. The tiger has been a dominant character in folklore and mythology in many cultures.  

Perhaps China is the richest country in myths, representations, traditions, and legends related to tigers. Tigers have been a Chinese cultural symbol which has inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. In Chinese folklore, tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters: fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building, facing the entrance, to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Even in modern- day China, children wear tiger-headed caps, and shoes embroidered with tiger heads to ward off evil spirits; they are given tiger-shaped pillows to sleep on to make them robust. During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger has equally captivated the people of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – feared and revered at the same time. These majestic beats and the lives of the people, especially those that live in close proximity to the tiger and its habitat, have long been intertwined, giving rise to several myths and legends surrounding them. Tiger lore has been interwoven with gods and legends, giving it a mythical status.

According to stories from Indian mythology, the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons, to creating rain, keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Humans are often attributed as having tiger characteristics. The consecration ceremony of a king in ancient times required the king to tread upon a tiger skin, signifying the King’s strength.

Songs, proverbs, and sayings in most Indian languages feature tigers as part of their treasury of folk lore and literature. Tigers appear in many stories in the Panchatantra.

A popular belief among many tribes in the Northeast of India is that the cosmic spirit, humans, and tigers are brothers. There are many folk tales based on this theme, with local variations. The belief that the tiger is a human’s brother has meant that the people of these tribes would rarely kill a tiger. There are traditional rituals performed even today to honour and worship the tiger.  

In more recent times, tigers were introduced to non-Asian audiences through the writings of Englishmen who had lived in colonial India by authors such as the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. His books like The Man Eaters of Kumaon were perhaps some of the early depictions of human-tiger conflict.

In the culture of the West, where they are not found in the wild, tigers have nevertheless sparked the imaginations of writers, and have become popular fictional characters in stories, films, cartoons, songs, and even advertisements. Perhaps the best recreation of the fearsome tiger is Shere Khan of the Jungle Book fame.

Anthropomorphized tiger characters in children’s books have won their place in millions of hearts. There is boisterous and exuberant, Tigger, who is a one-of-a-kind friend in the world of Winnie the Pooh. He eagerly shares his enthusiasm with others—whether they want him to or not, and steals our heart.

Calvin and Hobbes

And we have the imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, who is very real to the irrepressible six-year-old Calvin—a faithful companion in all the capers, sometimes a comforting friend, sometimes a savage beast. The two friends have deep philosophical conversations, ruminating on how best to find meaning in their lives, the essence of which is what all of us are seeking.

Other than literature, tigers have permeated our language through numerous aphorisms, proverbs and sayings. Here are a few ‘tigerisms’.

Paper tiger: Someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.

Tiger economy: A dynamic economy usually referring to of one of the smaller East Asian countries, especially that of Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea.

Tiger mom: A particularly strict mother who makes her children work very hard in school to achieve success.

Catch a tiger by the tail: Try to control something that is very powerful; have a difficult problem to solve.

A tiger cannot change its stripes: You can’t change your true nature, even if you pretend or claim otherwise.

Eye of the tiger: Determined and focused

A new-born calf has no fear of tigers: A Chinese saying that means that the young are brave, but often due to inexperience.

As tigers in the wild continue to be threatened and pushed towards extinction, International Tiger Day is also an occasion to celebrate the power of words that keep the tiger alive and vibrant in the pages that they also inhabit.

Some beautiful words by Ruskin Bond capture this spirit.

Tigers Forever

May there always be tigers

In the jungles and tall grass

May the tiger’s roar be heard.

May his thunder

Be known in the land.

At the forest pool by moonlight

May he drink and raise his head

Scenting the night wind.

May he crouch low in the grass

When herdsmen pass.

And slumber in dark caverns

When the sun is high.

May there always be tigers

But not so many that one of them

Might be tempted to come into my room

In search of a meal!

Ruskin Bond