Tiger! Tiger!

Gujarat is aIMG_20190221_103219.jpgll agog with the news that a Tiger has been spotted within its political boundaries. Papers are full of speculation about where it came from and where it went. In the meanwhile the state has quickly laid claim to be the only one in the country with three big cats—lion, leopard, and now tiger!

The news led me to relook at a book the Matriarchs had done for teachers over a decade ago. Called Tales of the Tiger it was an attempt to create awareness and excitement about the tiger through providing interesting information and activity ideas for students.

Compiling information for the book was in itself an exciting and educative safari. It was not just looking at this awe-inspiring cat from the zoological point of view, but seeing it as an integral part of the ecosystem, as well as the social and cultural environment.

Beyond the roar to the lore, as it were!  Sharing a few fascinating facts.

Tigers do not simply roar, growl and snarl. They have a wide variety of vocalisations such as chuffing, hissing, grunting, and mewling. A ‘chuff’ or ‘prusten’ is a friendly and non-threatening sound made when two tigers meet. The ‘pook’ sound is a sound similar to the alarm call of the sambar, a favourite prey animal of the tiger. It has been variously interpreted as a way of locating prey, a mating call, or to announce its presence to other tigers. A tigress uses moans to communicate with her cubs. Tigers also use body (especially tail) language to show aggression, affection and curiosity.

Beyond the jungles, tigers have long been a part of folklore and literature in every culture. The tiger is variously feared, respected, admired, and distrusted, depending on the context. 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. Tribal beliefs, arts and crafts often place the tiger as a central symbol of worship. For example the people of the Warli tribe offer a part of their harvest every season to the worship of the tiger. The people of the Bhil tribe believe that they have descended from tigers. Songs, proverbs and sayings in most Indian languages feature the tiger.

In India the earliest visual representations of the tiger are found on the seals and terracotta figurines on the Indus Valley Civilisation. A seal found at Mohenjo Daro, believed to date back about 5000 years shows a man sitting in a tree angrily addressing a tiger waiting below for him.

Even as scientists have studied and tracked tigers in an effort to understand them better, tigers all over the world are threatened and endangered. In India Project Tiger, launched in 1973, has been an important milestone in the history of tiger conservation in India. 

While the new sighting of the tiger may possibly turn into a contest of “Mine, Mine!” it may be wise to remember and respect that this magnificent cat knows no political boundaries. May it always walk in majesty, wherever it may roam.

–Mamata

 

 

The Coucals are Calling

 

The Coucals are calling at the break of day,P1020594.JPG

Wooing and courting, a-hooping away.

 

The starlings have arrived from far far away,

They chirp and they chatter in a chorus all day.

 

Sometimes balmy, often chilly, that capricious breeze,

Raising billows of dust, and rustling through the leaves.

 

The sun plays hide and seek with wispy clouds,

The koels stridently shriek out loud.

 

Fresh blossoms bloom on some trees

While leaves are shed from other trees.

 

It’s Spring!

Celebrating Basant Panchami

 

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–Mamata

 

 

Colour and Cheer

 

 

P1130289 (1).JPGRight through the long and dusty summer months when all the other plants drooped and dried, it was the riot of pink and white bougainvillae in my little garden that bestowed colour and cheer to the sweltering days.

I have always enjoyed the sight of the colourful mass, and took it pretty much for granted until I read an interesting story about how the plant was discovered. In 1766 the French government had commissioned French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville to sail around the world, to find new territories for France. Accompanying him on this voyage of circumnavigation was Philibert Commerson a botanist, whose brief was to collect hitherto unknown plants from the different continents and countries during the voyage. It is Commerson who is thought to be the first European to describe the plant we know of as bougainvillae.

Recently, the story of the discovery of bougainvillea has been revised. It turns out that Commerson did go on the voyage and was the botanist. But he was accompanied by his housekeeper and lover, Jeanne Baret. The French navy absolutely and explicitly prohibited women on naval vessels. Nevertheless, Baret disguised herself as a man and not only sailed with Commerson, she was with him while he was exploring plants in the new lands where the ship docked. As Commerson was frequently unwell, it was Baret who did most of the plant collecting, and she is believed to have discovered many of the plants which are attributed as being Commerson’s discoveries.

It is now believed that it was probably Baret who found bougainvillea at the very beginning of the trip, in Rio de Janiero. Impressed by the bright blossoms, Commerson named them Bougainvillea after the admiral. Baret also thus became the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. Interestingly the surviving journals of the expedition barely mention her, probably due to the fear of the consequences of admitting that the “no women!” rule had been broken.

Since the introduction of the first two species to Europe in the late 1700s, Bougainvillea have made their home all around the tropical world. They are drought-, salt- and wind-resistant, but require hot climate and hours of full sun. They will grow as shrubs, or vines, or even low ground covers and are found in many colours. Currently, there are over 300 varieties of bougainvillea around the world, and since many of the hybrids have been crossed over several generations, it is now difficult to identify their respective origins. Botanists, however, have traced back most of today’s rich variety of bougainvillea back to only three of the original eighteen South American species identified.

While the Bougainvillea is popularly known as an ornamental plant, the people of the Amazon region had long used bougainvillea as a medicinal herb, and it is only more recently that it medicinal values are being recognised by other schools of medicine.

There is definitely more to the bougainvillea than colour and cheer!

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 It’s not the flowers that make this plant so colourful, it’s actually the bracts or modified leaves that surround the tiny white flowers. 

–Mamata

 

Bananadrama

Guess what is making cricketing news these days? Runs and wickets? Tantrums and tampering? No, it is none other than the good old Banana! It is reported that the Indian team has requested an ample supply of bananas for the team during their 2019 World Cup tour to England. The banana has been designated the “fruit of their choice!”

While the mango always lays claim to being the king of fruits, the solid trustworthy banana is taken much for granted, as it does not make a dashing seasonal appearance and compete for awards of the most varieties and the best of them all!

But, there’s more to a banana…

Bananas are both a fruit and not a fruit. While the banana plant is colloquially called a banana tree, it’s actually an herb distantly related to ginger, since the plant has a succulent tree stem, instead of a wood one.

Bananas grow in what are known as “hands,” so-called because of their appearance, which make up the larger stalk, known as a “bunch.”

The banana skin that we peel and throw is, in fact, a fruit because it contains the seeds of the plant. Although since bananas have been commercially grown, the plants are sterile, and the seeds have gradually been reduced to little specs.

The banana plant evolved in the humid tropical regions of S.E. Asia with India as one of its centres of origin. During the seventh century AD its cultivation spread to Egypt and Africa.  Carl Linnaeus an 18th century Swedish botanist whose work led to the creation of modern-day biological nomenclature for classifying organisms was the first person to successfully grow a fully flowered banana tree in the Netherlands.

Today banana is grown in more than 150 countries, and it is widely believed there are more than 1,000 types of bananas in the world, which are subdivided into 50 groups. There are at least 300 varieties of banana in India.

Even then, Linnaeus speculated about other uses for the versatile banana such as boiling bananas with sugar to cure anger, mashing bananas with honey to soothe eye inflammation and crushing banana root soaked in milk to alleviate dizziness. Today the banana is an acknowledged as a Superfood by all schools of health from Ayurveda to the trendy Diet and Nutrition experts. From digestive issues to depression…the banana is the panacea for all ills!

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source: Google

And there is an International Banana Museum in California, which they claim is “the most aPEELing destination” with over 20,000 (and still adding) banana related items…the world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit!

I do know that the Banana was my father’s favourite fruit. He always used to say “sabse achha kela!” “Banana is the best”. So true…The scientific name for banana is musa sapientum, which means “fruit of the wise men.”

–Mamata

 

 

Haiku…Then and Now

The Haiku is a 17 syllable poetic form that has been written in Japan for three hundred years. Haiku poets have, over generations, celebrated the changing seasons, and also the mystical relationship between non-related subjects. Most of the poets reflected the Zen Buddhists doctrine that all things and creatures in this world are part of the universal and interconnected brotherhood of creation.

Today the cycle of seasons is not what it used to be.  The world is apprehending, rather than celebrating Climate Change. Reports predict the dire consequences of the 1.5 degree rise in temperature, for all living things, interconnected as they are in the intricate web of life.

Among the scientists too there are poets! Some of them have tried to interpret the consequences of Climate Change in Haiku!

Interesting indeed to compare the Haikus from then and now.

 

Then Now
Snow is melting…

Far in the misted

Mountains

A caw cawing crow

 

Big, fast carbon surge

Ice melts

Oceans heat and rise

Air warms by decades

 

Icicles and water

Old differences

Dissolved…

Drip down together

 

Seas rise as they warm

Rates quicken

Last century

Melting ice joins in

 

Even the ocean

Rising and falling

All day

Sighing green like trees.

 

 

More warming,

Higher seas.

Maybe much higher.

Could wake sleeping giants.

 

 

 

Ultra-pink peony…

Silver Siamese

Soft cat…

Gold-dust butterfly…

 

Warming is bad news

For many species.

Once gone…

We can’t bring them back

   

The Then Haikus are from compilations of haiku by some of the best loved Japanese poets—Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.

The Now haikus are from the compilation by oceanographer Gregory Johnson (https://www.sightline.org/2013/12/16/the-entire-ipcc-report-in-19-illustrated-haiku/and  Andy Reisinger one of the contributing authors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5 °C (https://cicero.oslo.no/no/15-graders-haiku)

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

Snakes Alive!

This is the month when many parts of India celebrate Nag Panchami or festival of snakes, by worshipping the Snake God for protection. The many rituals and myths associated with this perpetuate many false perceptions about snakes. This takes me back to my own snake story.IMG_20180830_100525311.jpg

When I started my career as an environmental educator, one of my first close encounters of the wild kind was when we were asked to touch a snake! This was in Sundarvan, a small snake park. The snake was a Red Sand Boa—a non-venomous snake. For someone who was, at that time, far from being a passionate wild-lifer, this was indeed an experience that served to dispel the many myths that one had grown up with. One of these were that snakes were “slimy”, and to be avoided at all costs. The skin of the sand boa felt dry and smooth, and we learnt that most snakes are in fact non-venomous.

And there began my long and fascinating journey in the natural world. A journey along which I had the most wonderful encounters with some of India’s best known naturalists and educators.

One of these was the Snakeman of India Romulus Whitaker.

Not so long after my induction by snakes, Romulus himself came to CEE and fascinated us with snake tales and the importance of breaking the myths that associated snakes with all things creepy and vile, and communicating the vital role of snakes in the ecosystem, especially as friends of farmers because they eat the rats that destroy crops.

A little later, Romulus graciously accepted to write a piece for a book that Meena and I were editing. In this he recounted how he first came to India from New York city when he was 8 years old, and returned a few years later  to make India his home, and herpetology his career. He recalled how “the snake charmers at Juhu Beach in Bombay were my first tutors but it wasn’t long before I outgrew their mixture of magic and nonsense.”

Romulus’s passion for setting the record straight about reptiles has manifested itself in a long and close association with the Irulas, an indigenous tribe of snake catchers of Tamil Nadu who became his friends and mentors; setting up of India’s first Snake Park in 1970 and the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975 and, in 2005 the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. These Parks continue to attract and educate millions of visitors every year, and they have also become the base of conservation research projects in many parts of India including the Andaman islands.

His never-ending impulse to show and tell people about reptiles led Romulus to start making documentary films, many of which have won international awards. One of his first films Snakebite tells about how to avoid and treat snakebite. While studying incidents of snakebites in India, Whitaker discovered that numerous lives were lost due to inadequate production and distribution of anti-venom serum. That is when he mobilised the Irula community to form a snake catchers’ cooperative, who under licenses from the Wildlife Department, extract and freeze-dry venom from snakes and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.

In 2018 Romulus was awarded the Padma Shri for nature conservation. In one of the interviews following the award Romulus said “I believe that touching a snake opens people’s minds and changes it forever.” I can totally vouch for that!

Thank you Rom for helping to open a new world, and for being a continuing inspiration!

–Mamata

The Great Babbler Mystery

I call them Angry Birds! They are continually at war with the world, making their views heard with an incessant grating cacophony of sounds. Their beady eyes glint as they stare angrily at you, and their dusty khakhi-brown feathers are always dishevelled, as if they have just emerged from battle!

They are ubiquitous, making their bedraggled group appearance in the garden, on the sun deck, in the wash area and on the window ledges. They make their presence felt with their incessant quibbling and squabbling. In the morning they are busy poking at the lawn before our first cup of tea. In the afternoon they hop around in the verandah and outside the windows, peering through the glass and rapping sharply with their beaks as if to reprimand us for some misdeed. They are the band of vigilantes—sounding a harsh and strident chorus that makes the intruding cat slink away to safety. They fight like fishwives! Screeching, pecking, pulling, merging into a heaving mass of untidy feathers; and emerging with scrawny bare necks that reveal the wounds of war.

They are the Jungle Babblers or the Seven Sisters as they are called in English, and for some reason, Seven Brothers in some Indian languages.

And I wake up with the comfort of starting the day with them.

Until last week….

My angry birds have disappeared en masse!

At first I thought it may be the grey drizzly weather that we have been having after a long, blazing hot and dry summer that was deterring their forays. Then I thought that maybe they had decided to put in a late appearance; I watched for them morning, noon and evening. Not a straggly feather to be seen! I looked at all their haunts, their favourite foraging patches; the bare branches of the tree at the gate and the wires running overhead, but nary a glint of an eye could I see. I thought maybe they have taken off on vacation, but my bird book tells me that they like their home turf and are not likely to wander far.

How can they all vanish? I haven’t a clue!

jungle-babblers-in-Lucknow-India-bird-festival-uttar-pradesh-2 (2)
Missing from action!

Will they reappear soon? I do hope so!

Till then, the great babbler mystery continues!

–Mamata

Inside Outside

Through the glass, curiously

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Little bird looking in

What do you see?

Strange giants pacing within.

Trapped in a cage of steel, stone and wood

In an existence that your kind has not understood.

Harried human looking out

What do I see?

A fledgeling just sprouting wings

To soar wide and free with a song to sing

Of the air and light, the trees and the sky.

Grow strong little one, spread your wings and fly

And I will wait for you to sometime come by.

–Mamata

What’s in a Moth?

When is a butterfly not a butterfly? When it is a moth!

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Butterflies have always hogged the limelight with their beauty and colour. Moths have always been the Cinderella, perceived as drab and uninteresting, and usually overlooked. Yet, moths greatly outnumber butterflies by a ratio of 10:1 and there are more than 12,000 species of moths.

There’s a lot in a moth for Dr Shubhalakshmi Vaylure, the first woman in India to study moths! “Why moths?” she was often asked when she started her research over 15 years ago. In fact, as she related in an interview, once she was asked why she chose to spend the nights studying moths (not quite suited to being a girl!) when she could study butterflies during the day, she replied “Well, someone’s gotta do this unpleasant night shift.”

It is that approach – Passion, Persistence and Push that sums up India’s Moth Lady!

Shubhalakshmi started by studying zoology and entomology in college, which is also when she signed up with Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) as a student member to use the library, and volunteering, joining nature walks and trails. After graduation she joined the Conservation Education Centre of the BNHS as an administrative assistant. At the time BNHS was the only institution in Mumbai which was offering a master’s degree through research, and she signed up for this.  Isaac Kehimkar, an eminent butterfly expert, suggested she study moths as they had not  been much studied in India. And that is where it all began. On completing her master’s degree, she became an Education Officer at the CEC, and went on to head the Centre.

As fellow environmental educators and Fulbright scholars, Shubha and I have met several times, and her energy and enthusiasm have been inspiring and infectious. Over the years I have been following Shubha’s journey and have seen how capably she has combined her passion for nature with smart use of technology and successful entrepreneurship.

Shubha is one of the pioneers of Citizen Science in India which empowers and enables ordinary citizens to be part of wildlife and environmental research by observing, collecting and sharing local data.

In 2014 she started a social enterprise Ladybird Environmental Consulting. The first project that Ladybird undertook was the development of three mobile-based applications iButterflies, iTrees, iNaturewatch birds under iNaturewatch Urban Challenge, a citizen science programme that worked with schools in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad to collect data on their city’s flora and fauna. Following this she set up iNaturewatch Foundation, to continue such urban biodiversity citizen projects.

For those who are inspired to become citizen scientists, and follow in the steps of the Moth Lady, a great start will be Shubhalakshmi’s book Field Guide to Indian Moths. The culmination of 15 years of research, this reader-friendly field guide features descriptions of 733 species of moths, supported by over 1000 colour photographs. Shubha also coined for the first time, common names for several of the species. Way to go Shubha!

What better way to mark this week which is designated as National Moth Week.

–Mamata