The Pied Piper of Young Naturalists

Photo source: deshgujarat.com

It was the interview that was to start my journey as an environmental educator. I had walked in with no formal academic or professional credentials to support my application, except for a great love for trekking and a passion for education. Among the distinguished naturalists that made up the interview panel was an avuncular gentleman who probed gently with questions that were probably meant to test what made me tick. I have no recollection of the exact questions, nor my answers, but I must have passed muster because I did get the job!

That was my first encounter with Luvkumar Khachar as he was later introduced. In the few years that followed I had the privilege of having Luvbha as a senior colleague, mentor, and continuing inspiration. Over the years I realised that Luvbha was all this, and much more, to thousands of young people, leading them like the Pied Piper on a lifelong journey of becoming naturalists. 

Luvkumar Khachar was one of the architects of the nature conservation movement in India. A renowned naturalist and accomplished ornithologist, he was also a passionate nature educator who made it his mission to instil the love for the outdoors in every young person. He conceived and launched the massive Nature Club movement for WWF India, and guided the Bombay Natural History Society for decades, just as he did the Centre for Environment Education after that. His own nature camps—in the desert, in the mountains, and on islands– were legendary, and perhaps every ‘not so young’ renowned naturalist today would remember being at one of those camps.

Luvkumar was born in the erstwhile princely family of Jasdan in Gujarat on 24 February 1931. His early days were spent in the great open spaces in close touch with the natural environment, planting a lifelong love for the outdoors. He always bemoaned the lack of such opportunities for later generations of youngsters. This was one of the prime factors that motivated his Nature Camps mission in the early 1970s. As he recalled, “I contemplated the  apparent lack of excitement among our youth for going out into the great open spaces. Comparing their upbringing with mine, I realized that I had had the great good fortune of  having spent my childhood at Hingolgadh with its wide views of the Saurashtra countryside, across which played the seasons, responded to by plants and animals. A majority of children, especially in urban situations, seldom see a sunrise! What struck me was the immense gulf developing between a city child and a tribal child. Were we not creating a schizophrenic society? The thought was disturbing.”

Having himself had a stint as a teacher in a conventional school he was aware of, and distressed by the fact that schools were becoming fetters to free growth, rather than liberating experiences. “We like to believe that we are descended of a civilization which nurtured intellectual giants, but fail to realise that these thinkers were leading unfettered lives in a land that was largely wilderness, replete with the bounties of Nature. By contrast, today’s child attending the most sophisticated of school is cramped and provides a constricted vision. The child of yesteryears, while enjoying advantages of limitless horizons, enjoyed the benediction of gurus who encouraged questioning. Today’s child seems sentenced to ten years of a concentration camp governed by a syllabus as tyrannical and circumscribing as any prison code! The system instead of exciting the wonder of growing minds, supresses their flights as effectively as any efficient prison warden following the prison code.”

Such scathing words were a trademark of this life-long educator who was always forthright in expressing his strongly-held opinions. But they also represented a warrior who fought tirelessly and hard for his beliefs, even in the face of hostility.

Like most naturalists of his generation, Luvkumar meticulously recorded his observations. His writing was a rare combination of science, intellect and emotion, ably supported by his natural ability as a writer. When Sanctuary Asia, one of India’s leading and best-loved magazines for wildlife science and conservation, was being planned, he told the editor “If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.”

Luvbha was “old-world” in that he demanded high standards of discipline, integrity, commitment, and work ethic; just as he commanded respect and awe. As his young colleagues we were always a little tense about living up to his expectations, and were often pulled up by him, but there was always a twinkle in his eyes and a gentle smile that told us that we had his support in our efforts. For a while we were also lunch companions when we shared work space in the leafy environs of CEE’s Sundarvan. One of the rituals that he introduced was that one of us was to go to his office every morning with a packet of milk, and set the curd that we would all share with lunch.

Luvbha was always chided me for not going on more camping trips. I do regret that I could not attend one of his nature camps. But I am grateful for having had the privilege of learning much from him that has guided my work in environmental education, as well as life-lessons that are now deeply entrenched in me. Luvbha passed away in 2015 at the age of 84. Remembering him with respect, and many warm memories.

–Mamata

Save the Paradox!

An impossible creature like the platypus cannot but fascinate.

  • It has the beak of a duck; the tail of a beaver; the feet of an otter.
  • It is a mammal but it lays eggs.
  • It is bio-luminescent–a rare charecteristic for a mammal.
  • It is a rare venomous mammal–the males of the species have a spur on the hind feet which can deliver venom.

No wonder early scientists thought it was a hoax—that the preserved specimen they were shown had been made up by sewing together parts of various animals.

It was certainly an animal which changed world views.

It shook up the scientific world. Robert Persig, the American author and philosopher thought this pointed to the inadequacy of scientific thinking, when he said, “…when the Platypus was discovered, scientists said it was a paradox. But Pirsig’s point was it was never a paradox or an oddity. It didn’t make sense only to the scientists because they viewed the nature of animals according to their own classification, when nature did not have any.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

It also shook up the world of religion, with anti-evolutionary theory proponents using it to cast doubt on Darwin and his theories.

The animal is found in Australia and Australia alone. Till recently, the overall conservation status of the platypus was not a matter of very deep concern. But recent reports are throwing up some red flags. Platypus habitat is reported to have shrunk by almost 25% in the last three decades. In the last decade or two, they have not been sighted in some of the areas which they traditionally inhabited. The reasons are not difficult to find—urban sprawl encroaching upon creeks and waterways which are platypus habitats; land clearing; disruption of the natural flow of rivers; building of dams and weirs; erosion of river banks; and unstable climate and increased droughts due to climate change.

Fortunately, conservation scientists don’t think the situation is beyond repair, but feel it is time to sit up and take steps. And let us hope they do! The world cannot lose this creature, for then, where would be our sense of wonder? Where the hope of a world which still holds secrets waiting to be discovered? Of the sense that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

The platypus has inspired its share of lore, legend, stories and poetry. My visit to an aquarium in Australia was the only time I ever saw a platypus. And a story from Native Australian lore re-told there inspired me to write ‘Who Will Rule’, a children’s book brought out by Tulika and translated into many languages.

And to end, a classic platypus poem:

THE PLATYPUS

by: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

A sad example sets for us: From him we learn how Indecision

Of character provokes Derision.

This vacillating Thing, you see,

Could not decide which he would be,

Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.

The scientists were sorely vexed

To classify him; so perplexed

Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,

Called him a horrid name one day,–

A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,

Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.

–Meena

Fruit Salad

Last week someone gave us a fruit that was perfect in form and colour. We learnt that this was a persimmon.  I had read poems and descriptions of persimmons in Japanese literature, but had not seen nor tasted this ‘exotic’ fruit before.

This is one of the many exotic fruits that are now being seen and sold in India. Some children today are perhaps more familiar with the taste of fruits like kiwi and dragon fruit, than fruits like ber, custard apple, mango, guava, and the ubiquitous banana, that we grew up eating.

With a lot of the new fruits being introduced and cultivated in India, and several being imported from other countries, the lines between indigenous and exotic fruits are rapidly getting blurred. Along with this, and better storage systems, so is the concept of fruits that are associated with, and available in specific seasons.

Perhaps it is a good time to go back to the roots of the fruits, as I did, with the help of A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Here are some interesting facts.

In terms of food, fruit falls in the category of items called phala that refers to crops that are not cultivated using the plough, in contrast to food grains (cereals and pulses).

Fruits that are indigenous to India, or have been here since recorded history include ber, pomegranate, amla, sweet orange, lemon, lime, mango, sugarcane, jamun, and grapes; as well as coconut, banana and jackfruit. There is mention of these in texts as old as Vedic literature, and their use prescribed in ancient medical treatises.

Interestingly several of these have, today, gained international celebrity as Wonder Foods. Like the amla or gooseberry which is recognised as one of the richest natural sources of Vitamin C

Later arrivals were some forms of the apple, mulberry, peach, pear, plum and apricot. These were not originally of very high quality, but many of these were improved by grafting in Mughal times.

After 1500 AD there was a wave of immigrant fruits from South and Central America that included the papaya, sapota, guava, pineapple, custard apple, and avocado. But over time these began to be widely cultivated, and eventually became fruits of the native soil.

Ancient texts such as Sushruta Samhita, one of the most important surviving ancient treatises on medicine, prescribes fruits as the first item in a meal, beginning with a first round of fruits that could be chewed such as pomegranate, grape and ber; and a second round of fruit to be sucked, like sugarcane, dates, oranges and mangoes.

Fruit was traditionally preserved in India in the form of spicy pickles of mango, lime etc., or with the sweet sour flavouring of Gujarat.  With the Muslim Unani medical tradition came the murabba in which fruits were preserved in a thick sugar syrup, and flavoured with spices like ginger, cardamom, and cloves. The British took a liking to these “preserves” and started to export large quantities of these along with chutneys.

Sweet anticipation: Waiting for the papaya in the garden to ripen!

One of the major use of fruit was to ferment it to obtain alcoholic beverages. The Charaka Samhita, believed to be one of the oldest and the most important ancient authoritative writings on Ayurveda, has a long list of fruits used for this purpose which included sugarcane and its products like molasses and jaggery, grape, mango, wood apple, date, ber, banana, jackfruit and pomegranate.

While we certainly enjoy pickles and fruit wines in all seasons, it does feel a bit strange to be having a mango or watermelon in the winter. For me the anticipation of biting into the first mango in the searing heat of May, or seeing the first custard apples around the time of the Diwali festival, or picking the ripe purple jamuns that match the dark monsoon clouds is an integral part of the seasonal calendar. The pleasure of eating local and seasonal fruits is unmatched by the thrill of buying and trying exotic fruits like the dragon fruit and persimmon.

As we start 2021 which is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables it is a good time to think about the fruits we eat, where they come from, how we buy them, and how we eat and enjoy them. After all the word fruit itself comes from the Latin fructus, whose root is frui, which means “to enjoy.”

–Mamata

The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!

–Meena

Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:

agar

agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from: https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/2020-Winners

Beach Lore

The good news that newspapers brought us yesterday was that eight Indian beaches had qualified for the Blue Flag tag—an achievement indeed! This Certification is awarded by Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), an NGO, and is a respected one, with stringent requirements. There are 33 criteria spanning environmental, educational, access and safety related parameters. Beaches tagged as Blue Flag provide clean and hygienic bathing water, along with basic infrastructure for tourists.

It is not impossible to spruce up for an inspection and get a certification or award. The challenge is make the improvement sustainable, and an inclusive shared vision with all stakeholders. Let us hope these eight beaches are able to do this and stay on the list, even as more join them in the years to come.

At any rate, it provides an opportunity to revise some beachy information:

A beach is a narrow, gently sloping strip of land that lies along the edge of an ocean, lake, or river (yes, technically, even the land around a lake or along a river is a beach!).

Beaches are made of materials such as sand, pebbles, rocks, and seashell fragments. Over the decades and centuries, forces of nature—water, wind, erosion, weathering—act on the cliffs, rocks and landforms at the edge of the waters, and break them down.  As tides come in, they deposit sediment which may have sand, shells, seaweed, and even marine organisms like crabs or sea anemones. When they go out, they take some sediment back with them.

Beaches are constantly changing. Tides and weather can alter beaches every day, bringing new materials and taking away others. There are seasonal variations too. In the winter, storm winds throw sand into the air. This can sometimes erode beaches and create sandbars. In the summer, waves retrieve sand from sandbars and build the beach back up again. These seasonal changes cause beaches to be wider and have a gentle slope in the summer, and be narrower and steeper in the winter.

At 7500 kms, India has the world’s seventh-longest coastline, with nine states and two union territories having coasts.

Apart from aesthetics, beaches are habitats for many, many species. The Olive Ridley coming to nest in the Gahirmatha beach of Orissa is a phenomenon that naturalists come from around the world to witness. In all, about 2,50,000 to 3,00,000 turtles nest here every year, in the space of about two weeks. Thousands of female turtles arrive each night to lay eggs. They make nest holes, lay 100-300 eggs, smooth the nests over, sometimes covering them with vegetation, and go back. Fifty days later, the eggs hatch, and millions of little turtles, each the size of a brooch, make their way into the ocean to start their lives.  

Our coasts and beaches are also witness to a hoary past: The rockcut temples of Elephanta date back to the 6th century AD. The temples of Mahabalipuram are almost as old—going back to the 7th century. The Konarak temple dates back to the 13th century, at which point it stood directly on the sea, though today the sea has moved about 3 km away. Dwarka is believed to have been the Krishna’s capital, and is said to stand on the site of five earlier cities. Fort Aguada, Goa, built in the 17th century has a unique lighthouse. Rameshwaram has the largest temple in India.

And of course, on April 5, 1930, Gandhiji and 78 satyagrahis reached the beach at Dandi on the coast of Gujarat to make salt and history.

So let’s protect our beaches! Let’s Blue Flag them all!

–Meena

Looking and Seeing

A couple of months after the lockdown started there was a spurt of pieces and pictures about different aspects of the natural world that people had started noticing around them—the variety of birds and insects; the hues of the sunsets and sunrises; the vegetation with its changing cycles; the diverse sounds of nature, and much more. True that these became more evident as the relentless activity and cacophony of urban life became more muted. But perhaps, more likely, it was the fact that we humans have had more time to ‘stop and stare’ as it were.  

If we were to stop a moment and think about it, we are always ‘looking’ at things but how often are we really ‘seeing’ something? We use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, merely considering the objects, people and scenes that pass before our eyes. Things appear as they are at first glance, and we move on, not stopping to take in the image in all its dimensions and depths.

The dictionary says that to look means to direct your eyes in a particular direction, while in order to see, you must notice or become aware of someone or something. Seeing is not only noticing that something is, but understanding it, attending to it, and looking past the obvious to enjoy its more subtle nuances. It means noticing not only the details but also how those details are part of a whole.

Thus seeing is not just a function of the eyes but rather a combined effort of the eyes and the brain, which work together to sort out visual input and arrange it into meaningful images, within a context, and with significance to detail.

How do an artist and a scientist ‘look at’ and ‘see’ the same thing? Two beautiful passages bring these together on the same canvas.

Georgia O’Keeffe a 20th-century American painter and pioneer of American modernism best known for her canvases depicting enlarged flowers explained why she did this: A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower–the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower–lean forward to smell it–maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking–or give it to someone to please them. Still–in a way–nobody sees a flower—really–it is so small–we haven’t time– and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself–I’ll paint what I see–what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it–I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman sees more than the aesthetic. As he said: I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

As the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras said “The art of seeing has to be learned”. This takes time, patience, and attention. And having learnt it, a skill that continually needs to be honed.

Today we are inundated with fast moving visual images that grab our eyeballs as they flash across our screens. But our attention spans are continually decreasing, as is our attention to detail. We do spend most of our times with our eyes wide open, but how much of that time do we spend in seeing? What better time than now, to start practicing the art of seeing?

Look! Can you see what I did?

As I look at my little garden blooming after the rains, aflutter with multi coloured butterflies, and vibrant with the hum of the bees, I rejoice in ‘seeing’ it with new eyes each day.

–Mamata

A Preposterous and Perplexing Beast

Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS Source:https://en.wikipedia.org

In the sixteenth century, trade and merchant ships used to carry plants, spices and exotic animals from the colonial outposts of the ruling powers to Europe. In 1515, among the ship load of gifts despatched by the governor of Portugese India, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, to King Manuel I in Portugal, was a curious animal known by its Gujarati name of genda, and its Indian keeper, named Ocem. This rhino was the first to arrive in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, and it caused quite a sensation. The animal was examined by scholars and the curious, and letters describing the fantastic creature were sent throughout Europe.

Albrecht Dürer, an artist, mathematician, engraver and painter living in Nuremberg read about this strange animal and based on the description, he began a pen sketch which became a woodcut. Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS became famous. Dürer himself had never seen a rhino and hence his rendering was more fanciful than accurate.

In many ways a rhinoceros is an odd-looking creature. Even its name, literally meaning a creature with a horn on its nose, belies its unusual appearance. Much before Dürer, even for those who had seen a real rhino, its strange form and peculiar characteristics spawned a variety of tales. Tribes in Africa and Asia where the rhinoceros is found in the wild, have their folk tales that imagine how this creature came to be what it is. Here are some abridged versions.

A folk tale of the Tharu people of the Terai grasslands at the foothills of the Himalaya describes how the beast was created by the Hindu god Vishwakarma. He picked the best parts of many animals on earth and stitched them together. His creation had the skin of an elephant, the hooves of a horse, the ears of a hare, the eyes of a crocodile, the brains of a bear, the heart of a lion, and horns like Nandi, Shiva’s bull. Viswakarma creatively twisted, moulded and further modified these parts, even fusing two horns into one. The result was beyond his expectation, a masterpiece of the art of imperfection.

The naturalist and wildlife writer Edward Pritchard Gee recounted an ancient Indian myth that explains the ‘armour plating’ of the rhino. It is said that, once, Lord Krishna decided to use rhinos in place of elephants in battle. However, when the creature, all covered in armour for battle, was brought in, it was found to be too stupid to obey commands. Therefore, it was sent back to the forest. Unfortunately, they forgot to take off its armour—and so it remains until this day.

One African tale tells of how the rhino got its skin. Long long ago, when all the animals were without a skin, God gave each one a needle and told them to sew a skin for themselves. The animals got to work, each creating for themselves beautifully patterned and fitting skins. But Kifam, the first black rhino, was clumsy and short sighted. As he started on his skin, he dropped his needle; so he charged back and forth looking for it, but being short sighted, he could not find it. In frustration, he snatched up a thorn and started stitching, trying to put something together. When he put on his hastily assembled patchwork coat, it hung in wrinkles and folds. The other animals all laughed at him; this made him very cross; he was sure that they had hidden his needle. Since then the rhino charges at everything that crosses his path.   

Another African folktale explains the rhino’s habit of scattering its dung. As the story goes: In days long ago when animals could talk, Elephant always used to tease rhino about his near-sightedness and bad temper. One day Rhino really lost his temper. He challenged Elephant to a contest. The contest was to see who could produce the largest dung heap. Imagine two very large animals and the vast quantities of vegetation they eat, and you can imagine the lot of dung that they both make! But in the contest, Rhino made the larger pile of dung. The elephant was enraged. He attacked the poor rhino with his trunk and tusk and beat him till he cried for mercy. Finally the Elephant stopped the beating but made Rhino promise that he would never again challenge Him—the mighty Lord of the Beasts. Rhino never forgot that dreadful beating, and he is afraid to ever offend Elephant again. And that is why he always kicks at his dung heap, scattering it until it is quite flat, so that it always looks smaller than that of the Elephant.

While Rhino’s looks may be perplexing, it is the Rhino’s survival in the wild which is a   pressing issue for wildlife conservationists. Rhinos also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered animals on earth.

Of the world’s five species of rhino, two are found in Africa–the Black Rhino and the White Rhino. The other three species are found in Asia. These are the Greater One-Horned (Indian) Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino. While each of these species faces a different level of threat, some of the common threats that all of them face include poaching for their horn, habitat loss, and extreme climate events like floods and tsunamis.

Around 2010 less than 30,000 rhinos were alive in the wild. The plight of the Rhinoceros was not widely known around the world, and most people didn’t know just how close to total extinction majestic species was. So WWF-South Africa announced World Rhino Day in an effort raise awareness about this beast in peril, in an effort to save the world’s remaining rhinos.

Today this has become an international event. How this came about is another, modern-day, story of two determined and dedicated women.

In mid-2011, Lisa Jane Campbell of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe was preparing for World Rhino Day. She searched online for ideas and potential collaborators, and found a blog by Rhishja Cota-Larson from Saving Rhinos in the USA. Lisa Jane sent Rhishja an email, and the two found they shared a common goal of protecting rhinos. In the months that followed, they worked together to make World Rhino Day 2011 an international day of celebration of all five species of rhinos, and awareness of the threats that they face. The two continued to work together to promote this day every year.

22 September–World Rhino Day has since grown to become a global phenomenon, uniting NGOs, cause-related organisations, businesses, and concerned members of the public from nearly every corner of the world!

This is my small celebration of this quirky creature with a horn on its nose!

–Mamata

Look Around for the Butterflies!

September is observed as Butterfly Month in India. We have about 1400 species of butterflies–from the 190 mm wingspan Southern Birdwing, to the tiny Grass Jewel with a 15 mm wingspan. And we are yet to discover all the species there are—in the last few years, 77 species have been discovered in just the Matheran Hills near Mumbai.

Citizen-scientists who sight, record and report their findings are critical in any exercise of species monitoring. So here is a list of some popular guides to Indian butterflies which can get you started on your butterfly journey. Who knows, you may discover a new one, or help to expand the understanding of range or behavior! Good luck!

Common Rose Butterfly. Bangalore. August 2020. Photo credit V. Raghunathan
  1. Butterflies of India. Thomas Gay, Isaac Khemikar and JC Puneetha. WWF/Oxford University Press.
  2. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Peter Smetacek.
  3. Identification of Indian Butterflies. J.H. Evans. BNHS.
  4. Butterflies of the Indian Region. MA Wynter-Blyth. BNHS.
  5. Butterflies of India. Arun Pratap Singh. Om Books International.

There are several excellent region-specific guides too, including:

  1. Butterflies of the Western Ghats. H. Gaonkar.
  2. Butterflies of Peninsular India. K. Kunthe, G. Madhav.
  3. Butterflies of Sikkim. Meena Haribal. Nature Conservation Foundation.
  4. Butterflies of Delhi. Peter Smetack. Kalpavriksh.

(Unapologetically non-conforming to  APA or any other referencing  style!)

And a few tips to help butterflies along:

  1. Butterfly gardening is a great way to provide a hospitable environment. Butterflies need different plants for different stages of their life-cycles. So planting a garden with many different types of flowering plants (or having pots with different kinds of plants) is a good first step. On the whole, plants like hibiscus, shankpushpi, sunflower, chrysanthemum, marigold, mint etc. are among those preferred by butterflies.
  2. Wherever you live, see if you can have some small areas which are left wild, with local species of wild plants. This will help butterflies, as these are probably their preferred vegetation.
  3. Stop use of chemical pesticides in your garden. These can cause serious harm to the butterfly  at the various stages of its development.

–Meena

A Tree for all Reasons

The recent festival of Janamashtami brought to mind one of the few poems that I remember well from my school Hindi textbook. The first verse, roughly translates as:

Mother, if this Kadamb tree

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Photo credit: Rekha Chhaya

Was on the bank of the Yamuna

I too would sit on its branches

And turn into a Krishna.

For years, in my mind, the Kadamb tree and Krishna were closely associated. This was reinforced by many traditional paintings depicting Krishna and his consort under the shade of what was meant to be a Kadamb tree. I did not see a real Kadamb tree till years later.

We had long wanted to plant a Kadamb tree in our little garden but felt that there would not be enough space for it to grow comfortably. A couple of years ago the huge Rain tree just outside our gate began to dry and decline. We felt that this was a good time and place to plant our Kadamb tree. Watching it grow has led us to learn more about this tree.

The Kadamb (Anthocephalus kadamba, Neolamarckia cadamba) or Burflower tree is indigenous to South and South East Asia. It is a fast-growing tree, especially in its early years, and may reach heights of 15-20 metres. The straight uniform trunk is usually smooth and grey, becoming slightly cracked as the tree ages. The trunk sends out uniform horizontal branches creating an umbrella-shaped crown, and the leaves are alternately arranged and clustered at the ends of the branches.  The light glossy green leaves are oval, and 15 to 30 cm long. They have prominent veins on top and are lightly haired underneath. The tree sheds its leaves to conserve water in areas with a long dry season, but stays evergreen where the dry season is short. The leaves are fed to cattle.

Flowering usually begins when the tree is 4–5 years old; and flowers appear between June and August.  The Kadamb flower that looks like a pom pom is, in fact, a ball of tightly-packed tiny funnel-shaped yellow-orange flowers. They have a sweet fragrance and are used for making perfumes. The flowers are offered in temples, and worn as hair adornments.

This year, with Covid on our minds, the flowers which were usually described as a resembling furry tennis ball have taken on an uncanny resemblance the Corona virus!

The flowers are followed by compound fruit that also resembles the round flower head. The fruit is made up of numerous small fleshy capsules compressed together in a ball. It is relished by monkeys, bats and birds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds. When it turns orange and ripens, the small capsules split apart, releasing a burst of seeds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds which are dispersed by wind and rain. So the cycle of nature continues.

The different parts of the tree are also said to have pharmacological and biological properties that have medicinal value. In traditional medicine the bark is used to cure fever and cough, and juice of the fresh bark to treat inflammation of the eyes. The plant parts are believed to be effective in curing digestive disturbances, parasitic infection, high cholesterol and triglycerides, antibacterial activity, musculoskeletal diseases, fungal infections, cancer and anti-diabetic activity, and find place in Ayurvedic preparations.

For many Indians, it is not so much the botany as the mythology of the tree that fascinates. The Krishna connection is the best known, and this tree where he is said to have rested, romanced, and played his flute, is a recurring motif in poems, stories and paintings. The tree is also referred to as Haripriya or favourite of the God.

But the Kadamb tree also features in many a lore and legend in different parts of India. It is mentioned in the epics and the Puranas as a beautiful shady tree blossoming in the rainy season. The tree lends its name to the Kadamba Dynasty which said to be the first ruling kingdom of Karnataka, with Banavasi as its capital. It was considered a holy tree by the dynasty. The Kadambotsava spring festival is celebrated in honour of the Kadamba kingdom by the Government of Karnataka at Banavasi in February every year. The Kadamba flower was the emblem of Athmallik State, an erstwhile princely state of India, now part of Odisha.

According to another belief, Goddess Durga Devi, an avatar of Devi Parvathi, loved to live amidst Kadamba trees, and her presence is sensed if the koel sings in the Kadamb forest. Hence, the name Kadamba-vana-vasini or Kadamba-vana-nilaye (one who dwells in the Kadamb forest). In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the Kadamba tree is considered to be the sthalavruksham (tree of the place) and a withered relic of the tree is preserved at Meenakshi Temple. The tree is also associated with a local deity called Kadambariyamman and the place was once said to be a Kadambavanam (Kadamba forest).

The Kadamb is part of the folk lore of many tribal communities, and even now is associated with tribal festivals and rituals. In Madhya Pradesh the festival of Karma or Karam is celebrated with dance and songs in the bright fortnight of the month of Bhado (August-September), during the rainy season. One of its rituals consists of the worship of the Karam or Kadamba tree.  In West Bengal and Odisha, agricultural communities celebrate Kadam festival by planting Kadamb saplings. Tribal communities of Chattisgarh believe that planting Kadamba trees close to lakes, rivers and ponds, brings happiness and prosperity.

In Theravada Buddhism, it is believed that the Kadamb tree was where Sumedha Buddha achieved enlightenment.

From medicine to mythology, the Kadamb has something to offer. As I watch my young Kadamb growing fresh and tall in this rainy season, every new leaf seems to have its own tale to tell. And my friend Rekha and I, like two fond mothers, exchange notes on our respective Kadamb trees. Hers is flowering this year; I will have to wait another year.

–Mamata

 

 

Tiger Tales

July 29 is celebrated as International Tiger Day as a way to

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Photo credit: Seema Bhatt 

raise awareness about the magnificent but endangered tiger. The day was founded in 2010 at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit, when the 13 tiger range countries came together to create Tx2—the goal to double the number of tigers in the wild by the year 2022. While this deadline is only two years away, it is reported that the current number still far from the goal. It is estimated that the total number of tigers in the wild in the world is 3900.

India is one country which has been showing a significant rise in its tiger population. Last year on International Tiger Day, the results of the Tiger Census 2018 were announced to reveal that the total population of the Royal Bengal Tiger in India is 2967, which is more than double that of 2006. India is also now officially one of the biggest and safest habitats of the Tiger.

As someone who is more comfortable with stories rather than statistics, all the tiger talk took me to the story of Jim Corbett—a teller of many a tiger tale.

James Edward Corbett was born on 25 July 1875 into a family of English ancestry in Nainital, in what is now Uttarakhand; he was one of twelve children. His father who was the postmaster of Nainital died when James was only four years old, leaving his widow to raise the large family on a meagre pension. The young James, or Jim as he was called, had to start earning at an early age to help out the family.

Jim was a wanderer from the time he could walk, and he spent his childhood exploring every nook and corner of the nearby forest, observing the plants, animals and birds. In those days, hunting was a part of everybody’s life. When he was just 5 years old Jim was taken by his brother on a hunting expedition. He was handed a gun and asked to report if he sighted a bear. Much later Jim wrote in one of his books, Jungle Lore, that that was the most frightening experience of his life. But this experience also laid the foundation of Jim’s life-long link with forests.

The fear of the jungle combined with the desire to know more about it led Jim to be observant but also careful. He learned to be silent, which places to avoid, and which to explore further. By the age of 7 he began to be totally absorbed in the natural world around him, appreciating it, trying to understand it, and even attempting to classify animals he saw by the functions they performed. For example, different kinds of birds. He wrote in his diary:

Bird’s that beautify nature’s garden: In this group I put minivets, orioles and sunbirds.

Birds that warn of danger: drongos, red jungle fowl and babblers.

Birds that perform the duty of scavengers: vultures, kites and crows.

Having sorted the jungle birds and animals according to his own classification, Corbett began to study them in detail, tracking them, understanding their calls and pugmarks, and learning to mimic their many sounds. In one of his books he shares this mystery and magic thus: “There is no universal language in the jungles; each species has its own language, and though the vocabulary of some is limited, as in the case of porcupines and vultures, the language of each species is understood by all the jungle-folk.”

Honing all his senses to recognise the signs and movements of wildlife, the observant and fleet-footed young Jim soon became a shikari in the true sense–a person who is one with the environment in which he hunts, and with the hunted. Shooting his first leopard at age eight, Corbett went on to become an excellent hunter, and gained fame for killing several dreaded man-eating tigers. But history has it that he has never killed any big cat without confirming that it had harmed a human.

Over the years, Jim’s love for animals translated into wildlife photography. Inspired by his friend, Frederick Walter Champion, he started to record tigers on film. In the mid 1920’s, when he was in his fifties, Corbett completely gave up shooting with a gun and turned to shooting with a camera. He felt that “far more pleasure was got from pressing the button of a camera than is ever got from pressing the trigger of a gun.”

Jim Corbett spent his remaining years in writing about his hunting adventures and jungle experiences, and promoting the cause of conservation. In November 1947, Corbett and his sister left for Kenya, where he lived till his death in 1955. Jim Corbett’s entire life was a testimony to his close connection to nature, and the joy it gave him. As he wrote: “The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”
But what makes Corbett so special is that he became one of the first champions of the conservation movement in India. Using his influence over then Provincial Government, Corbett played a key role in the establishment, in 1939, of Hailey National Park, India’s first national reserve for the endangered Bengal tiger. In 1957, the park was renamed Jim Corbett National Park in his honour. In 1968, one of the five remaining sub-species of tigers was named after him as Panthera Tigris Corbetti, or Corbett’s Tiger.

For us in India, tiger tales and Jim Corbett are closely linked. And today, his words are as true as they were when he wrote them in 1944:

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated–as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support–India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.”

–Mamata