Archive for July 2011

Quote : Arvind Gupta

26 July 2011

Slum-side smile

And somewhere there are engineers helping others fly faster than sound.  But, where are the engineers helping those who must live on the ground?”

Arvind Gupta

Indian toy inventor and populariser of science

quoting from an old OXFAM poster

Read his story.


This one’s for the bird (stamp)!

23 July 2011

One of the problems of Indian Philately is that the “story” behind a postage stamp is quite opaque. The postal department does not oblige philatelists by reliable documentation and transparent procedures. I was writing an article on “Birds on Indian Stamps” for Aasheesh Pittie, editor of the Indian Birds and I found it difficult to find any information about bird stamps. I was constrained to publish the article, though I felt that I had inadequate information and could find no way of getting more. Those who missed reading the article and would like to peruse it may find it here.

Rather surprisingly, some people liked the article, despite it being just a set of dry facts and observations on them, and wrote to tell me so. Two of the responses were of very great interest to me.

The first email was from Mr Zafar Futehally, one of our doyens of bird-watching. He appreciated the article, saying that it enthused him so much that he wished he were young again so that he could start collecting bird stamps. That warmed the cockles of my heart.

A young Peter Jackson poses in front of the Khumbu icefall during the 1953 climbing season. (Image copyrighted by Peter Jackson)

The other email was from Mr Peter Jackson, a retired gentleman from England. Mr Jackson began his career as a reporter for Reuters and made his mark reporting for John Hunt‘s Everest Expedition which climbed Everest for the first time in 1953. He went on to become a good wildlife photographer and a dedicated conservationist. He is renowned for his work on wild cats.  I was quite flattered to receive an email of appreciation from him too.

Mr Jackson mentioned that one of the stamps that was shown in the article was based on his image. Mr Jackson referred to a definitive stamp of India, a 50 paise stamp issued in 1975 showing a flying bird in blue. The List of Stamps (1852-2007), published by the Department of Posts, describes it as “Flying Crane”. One of the leading bird stamp websites “” lists the stamp as Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo) – perhaps because a Demoiselle best seemed to fit the image. The finer details of the image on the stamp are indistinct, as the stamp is itself less than an inch in height or width.

A small postage stamp. almost square shwing a flying bird coming in to land with legs outstretced below, with denomination 50p, and the words "India" in English and the Hindi word "Bharat" in Devanagari script

1975 definitive stamp of denomination 50p

Mr Jackson pointed out that the image was his and it was taken in Bharatpur and was of the Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia), not a Demoiselle Crane. He was kind enough to send me the original image which is displayed in this article. He had photographed it among the many birds nesting in Keoladeo Ghana way back in the 1960s when he lived in India.

Mr Peter Jackson's original image upon which the stamp is based. (Image copyrighted by Peter Jackson)

In his own words, he describes how the image found its way on the stamp :

“I was surprised when I found my photo on stamps. I couldn’t make out how the post got it. Sometime later one of my daughters was lunching with an artist friend. He said that I had sent him the photo for art work. He recommended it to the post and told them they could use it on a stamp if they got my permission. But they failed to contact me and just went ahead. Of course, I was pleased to see the photo on a stamp, but I never got any thanks from the post. It served for 10 years.”

Mr Jackson was unfortunate in that he got no gratitude from the Indian Post, but he was lucky in that the stamp his image adorned was a definitive and not a commemorative stamp.

Mr Jackson’s image on the definitive has adorned millions of letters, parcels and postcards for more than a decade, thereby giving his image exposure to an audience many times larger than ever possible by other means of the time.

We can only thank Mr. Jackson for taking the beautiful image so that it could find its way onto the postage stamp. It is important to know that this contribution on his part is very small compared to the sterling work he has done in his lifetime for Indian Wildlife. A close friend of Kailash Sankhala, he joined the World Wildlife Fund  (today Worldwide Fund for Nature) in 1970. When WWF raised over a million pounds internationally to save the tiger,   he was sent to India to help purchase the equipment paid for by WWF for the setting up of Project Tiger. Later, he became an independent writer on wildlife. Mr. Jackson was appointed as head of the defunct Cat Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN in 1983 and headed it for 17 years converting it into a close-knit team of over 200 cat scientists, including many Indians. He created the CatSG magazine about the activities of the Cat Specialist group in 1984 and edited it till he retired in 2000. He still contributes world cat news to the magazine.  During his time as chairman, Mr. Jackson travelled around the world to help support cats, including many visits to India.

Thank you Mr Jackson for your life work’s  in preserving India’s wildlife in general and our country’s big cats in particular.

In Wikipedia tradition, I present you with a barnstar, in this case, the Fauna barnstar!

The Reptile Rescue Squad – Baby Cobra

11 July 2011

Story by Aditi Baindur

by Aditi Baindur

The phone rang, it was Abhinav Chawla Uncle to speak to Dad! But Dad was out walking the dog! Abhinav Uncle told me that there was a cobra in his room. When Dad got back, I once again pleaded to come along reminding him of how I had helped him rescue the Russell’s Viper. Reluctantly he agreed but ONLY if I obeyed him without exception.

The Baby Cobra in the basket

Gathering our kit, we got into our car and reached Chawla Uncle’s room next to the tennis courts. Chawla Uncle was standing outside adjusting his camera and his lenses – he is a very enthusiastic photographer. Apparently Chawla Uncle’s passion for photography was known to the subordinate staff, one of whom had caught a baby cobra and brought it to him for photography, no doubt excepting some “traditional” fauji appreciation (bottle of rum).

The basket he brought it in was one of the fruit baskets made of thin bamboo slats and which had disintegrated with the cobra inside it. The basket was intact with the snake trapped in it but lifting it or moving it would most probably cause it to fall apart and the baby cobra to escape. Chawla uncle neded Dad’s help to to photograph and then release the snake.

The baby cobra raises its hood

Now, baby snakes are delicate. A hard grip can easily damage their slender jaw bones or their soft internal organs with a lingering painful death following. Yet a baby cobra is venomous from the moment it is born, a miniature version of its parents. Now dad is unfazed by large, strong snakes but handling a juvenile venomous snake calls for a different set of technique. So we did what every person who is out of his depth should do – call in an expert. In this case, the expert was Dad’s good friend Col Christopher Rego who is posted in the Bombay Sappers. Dad and Chris Uncle were YOs room-mates.

The handsome juvenile

Chris Uncle came onto the scene – fortunately he was free that evening.We procured another basket while he was on the way – this time akin to those used by snake charmers.

Chris uncle took the bottom half of the snake charmer’s basket and reverted it on a piece of cardboard. He then had it propped open with a shoe and slid it close to the fruit basket now on its last legs. He offered the entrance under this basket as a new sanctuary for the snake while disturbing it from the other end with a snake stick. The baby cobra bought the trick and slid under the new basket. Then uncle flipped the cardboard over and placed the top cover before the infant realised what was happening.

Chris uncle shows the cobra to some kids who were watching.

We then took the baby cobra to the Demonstration ground where the snake could not escape and adequate safety distances are available. Contrary to urban legend, man can easily outrun snakes. Here Christopher Uncle showed Dad and Chawla Uncle the correct technique to catch baby cobras without endangering oneself and without hurting it. Then we released the baby snake in the marshes nearby and it immediately swam into a large puddle and entered a hole just to be sure we could not recapture it again.

The Reptile Rescue Squad

4 July 2011

by Aditi Baindur

The phone rang. “Dad”, I said, “It’s Singhal Uncle and he wants to speak to you urgently.” Dad was conversing with my aunt’s family who had come for dinner.

“Hi, what’s up?… Uh huh… uh huh. don’t worry, we’ll come right away.”

Apologising to my Bua, Dad told her that a friend had a snake in his drawing-room that needed rescuing. Eagerly, I asked whether I could come along. After some thought Dad said, “Yes, you can be my assistant but you have to do exactly as I say!”

Picking up a snake-stick, butterfly net and the book on Indian Snakes, we got into the car and reached the Singhal’s home – a low-slung bungalow opposite the Golf Course.

Singhal Uncle said that since he did not want to kill it, he had called us. We went inside and heard the snake hissing from behind the TV. The snake was quite infuriated at being disturbed. Carefully we moved the furniture to get a good look. The snake was thick, stocky, and curled up. It had a triangular head held back in a S-shaped coil, ready to strike. It had large oval markings on its back – all distinctive characteristics of Russel’s Viper (scientific name – Daboia russelii).

Russel's Viper (Daboia russelii)

Russel’s Viper is the largest Indian viper which is named after Patrick Russell (1726-1805), a Scottish surgeon and naturalist who came out to India and was the first person to study the snakes. Russel is called the “Father of Indian Ophiology” (ophiology=study of snakes).

Russel’s Viper is dangerous – it is one of the Big Four venomous snakes of India, the others being the Cobra, Krait and Saw-scaled Viper. Russel’s vipers are common in CME, this was to be the first of four that we were to encounter last season. To the best of knowledge, in more than ten years, no venomous snake bite has been recorded in CME despite a large population of Big Four snakes.

Russel’s Vipers are deadly and evil-looking but are by nature docile and only bite if provoked or threatened. The Haffkinne antivenom, available in MI Room, can be used to treat bites by any of the Big Four snakes. So while there is no need for any of us to worry, all of us need to be alert and careful in grass, gardens or the countryside.

Dad said, Russel’s Viper bite, is like having a live coal placed on the body. Sometimes, even if life were saved by treatment with antivenom, a bite can leave a person permanently disabled with amputated limbs or damaged internal organs. So Dad believes that we should never take silly risks handling snakes. Dad’s credo is simple – we are here to rescue the snake and it has to be done without endangering either humans or snakes.

Patrick Russell (1726-1805), after whom the snake is named.

The drawing room was crowded with furniture all of which could not be removed, and it seemed that Dad would need to handle the snake after all. However, he had other plans. He lifted the snake high with his snake-stick and plopped it into the butterfly net where the snake hung immobilised. Dad then carried it across the road and released it into the jungle by cutting the butterfly netting above the snake. The snake fell down and immediately disappeared into the jungle.

It was a perfect rescue – no human came within three feet of the snake and it was harmlessly captured and released into the wild in less than five minutes. We thanked Singhal Uncle for not killing the snake and giving us a chance to rescue it.

Note: Since then, we have had one bite on our campus of a Russell’s Viper – probably the first venomous bite in five years or so.

For information on Snakebite & what to do when bitten, see this post on the blog – Handle that snake carefully!