Archive for the ‘wetlands’ category

Interpreting Lakes #1 – the Wetland as a concept

18 January 2012

Backdrop

We have a set of small lakes in the campus where I stay. I love taking a small bunch of kids of our campus around and we call ourselves the Painted Storks Nature Club. They love seeing birds but need to understand the environment more.

The wetlands of Pune, where our campus is located, are severely under threat. Since our lakes harbour many resident and migratory birds safely and since our lake system is a successful example of an articial wetland, numerous groups of school and college students, birdwatchers and nature lovers visit this pplace. As a friend, I like to guie them around telling things while showing the birds.

The article below lists my talking points to instil the concept of “Wetland”.

TALKING POINTS

  • What is a wetland? It is a place where the water covers the soil.

  • It is a kind of habitat. (Other types of habitat include, mountains, jungles, desert, grasslands, etc).

  • In CME itself besides wetland we have the following kinds of habitat –

    • Woodlands.

    • Gardens.

    • Farms.

    • Throny scrub.

    • Barren rocky area.

  • Types of wetlands include:

    • Swamps and marshes.

    • Streams and rivers.

    • Lakes and ponds.

    • Mangroves.

    • Temporary and permanent ponds.

  • We have the following waterbodies, guess which of these can be considered part of our wetlands:

    • Three lakes.

    • A number of ponds.

    • Nalas (sewage drains flowing in the open).

    • A 2.2 km long by 125 m wide manmade rowing channel.

    • A highly polluted river flowing along the periphery of our campus.

    • Quiet pools in disused quarries.

    • Small pools of water created by trapped rubble blocking outflow.

    • Seasonal temporary ponds and puddles.

    • Disused wells.

    • Lily ponds in gardens.

    • Water tanks storing water for fire-fighting.

  • Mostly wetlands are the interface between water ecosystems (aquatic ecosystems) and land ecosystems (terrestrial ecosystems).

  • In our campus we consider the interconnected lakes, ponds, marshes, nalas and the land adjoining immediately as part of one big wetland.

  • This wetland is clled the SARVATRA BIRD SANCTUARY.

  • Our wetland contains many birds but it also considers other kinds of life such as:

    • Plant life:

      • Plants on land e.g. Fig trees, Lantana bushes, Subabul trees.

      • Plants whose feet are in water eg Haldikunku plant, acquatic ipomea, bulrushes.

      • Plants which float in water e.g. Pistia (water lettuce), Eichhornia (water hyacinth).

      • Plants which float in water, e.g. Duckweed.

      • Plants which live in the water.

    • Animal life.

      • Birds such as cormorants, ducks, herons, kingfishers, swallows.

      • Small animals such as mongoose, palm civets, water monitor lizards, snakes.

      • Insect life, including insects which live on water, such as pond-skaters, or which have life cycles in water suchas mosquitoes and dragonflies.

      • Microscopic forms such as protozoans, plankton etc.

      • Snails.

      • Fresh water sponge.

      • Humans visiting the lake.

        They all form part of the wetland ecosystem along with water, soil, air, and weather.

  • Why preserve wetlands?

    • If wetlands aren’t preserved, many different species of plants and animals would go extinct. This includes types of fish that lay their eggs in the wetlands and spend much of their time at sea. Due to this, the abundance of fish and other seafood would go down, greatly affecting fishing industries.

    • Wetlands are like filters for the water that go through them, clearing out toxins and making the water less polluted. They replenish the groundwater.

    • Many of the members towards the bottom of the food chain live in wetlands. If those are eliminated, many other ecosystems would go off balance.

    • Wetlands provide extra protection against floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

    • Wetlands also provide fish, reed or building material, and peat for fuel.

    • They are a significant deterrent to flooding and drought.

    • Wetlands absorb water during wet periods ad release it during dry periods.

Freshwater wetlands have higher productivity than farmland, forests, grasslands and even marine seashore ecosystems. It supports maximum amount and maximum variety of life.

The Reptile Rescue Squad – Softshell Turtle

8 August 2011

Story by Aditi Baindur

by Aditi Baindur

If you are a tortoise and go for a very long walk on the CME campus far from your home, you may  find that you are back very soon from where you started and named ‘Myrtle’ on top of that.

It was during the summer holidays last year that my Dad got a call at office from Bhattacharya Uncle. His daughter Shreya had found a tortoise in the garden. What, he asked, should be done? Naturally, Dad felt that it had to be restored to its habitat.

He picked me up, our tortoise books and we soon reached Bhattacharya Uncle’s bungalow adjoining Holloway School. The turtle was in the lawn surrounded by Shreya and Priyansh, Bhattacharya Uncle’s kids and Shrey Kamoji. It had withdrawn itself into its shell.

Shreya holding the turtle she discovered.

The back was coloured “muddy-shoddy, grey, brown, black, ochre”. It had three black  stripes on its head.

I picked it up and turned it over. We saw that had got flaps to hide its legs under and realised that this was the Indian Flapshell Turtle or Lissemys punctata.

The flapshell turtle with its flaps wide open showing its legs and its face. (Image:Shyamal)

Now the turtle struggled to be put down. No sooner had this been done than its knobby, ridged and clawed legs  emerged and it scurried away along the lawn but was repeatedly recaptured while we pored over our books. We wanted to know why the turtle was wandering so far from the CME lakes. Our handbook by J.C. Daniels had this to say –

“the adults and young make long journeys during the rainy season, which is probably the reason for the species being so widespread….”

Indian Flap-shell turtles are the “aam janta” in the turtle community of CME and occupy the four lakes and the river. They are also found amongst the reed-beds, ponds, quarries and marshes and the 2 km long rowing channel. The nearest water body or marsh to Bhattacharya Uncle’s house is more than a kilometer away.

Black streaks on the head

The turtle had crossed roads, houses, gardens, fences, ditches and braved the dangers of stray dogs and turtle-eating people to land up where it did! If allowed to roam free, it would head deeper and deeper into the CME campus and surely would be killed.

Shreya asked ‘is it a boy or girl’? Since it isn’t easy to identify the sex of a turtle just by looking at it, the children decided, (two girls both older vs two boys both younger), that it looked feminine and soon names for ‘her’ were being proposed. It was decided that her name was actually “Myrtle” and that she would be a very good pet! Undying vows were made to look after the creature if only they could have it please, pleeassee…

Mindful of what the parents would have to say to this, Dad pointed out that Myrtle fed on shrimps, insects and worms from within the water (they actually eat that and some vegetation too) and her family was probably missing her.

It was decided to restore Myrtle to her home. Everybody set out in our red Maruti van for the rear Nashik gate. There Myrtle was released at a suitable spot upstream into the marshes near the CTW lake. The last photo that we have of Myrtle is of a grinning Shrey Kamoji holding the turtle last before its release. And the reason for that is, as soon as we set it on the ground some good seven-eight feet from the water’s edge, Myrtle became greased lightning and vanished before we could photograph her!

So Myrtle the turtle went back to tell tales to the grand-turtles with a new name to boot.

Crafting India’s Landscapes!

20 May 2010

(An extreme view of tree plantation & a small example of practice)

Its that time of the year when civic and nature organisations in India wake up from their slumber and begin to consider tree-planting yet again. Though this is an annual affair, strangely India’s forest cover and biomass doesn’t seem to improve even where these activities are being carried out.

Typically, tree plantation begins with the collection of whatever dismal fare in saplings the forest department is willing to provide, followed by the desultory digging of holes and careless planting of trees. This activity, concluded in a couple of days in the early monsoon, will be followed by a relapse into torpor.  The final act is, of course, the appearance of a plague of self-publicised reports in the papers.

School-children plant trees as they take part in a "One day - One lakh plantation programme" on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Is this the way we should plant trees? (Click image to read more)

Over the next few months though, the thousands of saplings, thoughtlessly planted, are exposed to the harsh Indian environment accompanied by the complete neglect by the tree-planters.  The subsequent perishing of the year’s plantation by the end of the next summer (except for the miniscule few which by God’s grace actually manage to survive) should come as no surprise. And in the hallowed traditions of Hindu religious ideology, the kaal-chakra turns to bring us back to tree-planting season again. Paradoxically, all of us feel good having participated in a worthwhile activity even though it is conducted so abominably.

Not all tree-planting is conducted this way. People plant carefully selected saplings to enhance their gardens and backyards. Some corporates do succeed in giving strikingly good tree-scapes and gardens to their campuses. Children all over carry out this activity with the single-minded intensity of play. To them it is something well worth doing. A few civic organisations do exceptionally fine jobs of restoring plant cover and biodiversity to their favourite haunts. But these are a drop in the ocean when compared to the morass of carelessly contrived tree-plantation schemes in our country. Not convinced by my assertion? Please see the text box below :

Unhealthy trends in tree plantation

I am sure you would have your own “war stories” to tell.

Its not that we are cultural “philistines” as far as trees and plants are concerned.

The Pipal or Bo tree (ficus religiosa) (Image: Eric Guinther)

Hindu culture gives trees (or plants) an importance of their own. Planting a tree is said to be more fruitful than having a hundred sons. A number of trees figure in our pantheon of objects worthy of worship – the Peepul Tree (Ficus religiosa) and Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) come immediately to mind. The Kalpavrisksh which fulfils the wishes of all, the Bo tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment, the Aak (Calotropis spp) tree under which Emperor Akbar was born are some examples of trees in our culture. Fragrant flowers are offered to our Gods in obeisance. Certain plants are associated with our deities – the “krishna” and “laxmi” varieties of Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum) and the Lord Dattatreya’s fondness for the Umbar or Audumbar (Ficus racemosa) spring to mind.

Kalpataru, the divine tree of life. The wish-fulfilling bountiful tree is guarded by mythical creatures Kinnara and Kinnar. This bas-relief is the adorned wall of Pawon temple, an 8th century small shrine between Borobudur and Mendut temple, Java, Indonesia.

Above image by Gunkarta. Source : Wikipedia.

Yet, we tend to approach tree-plantation with less finesse than a three year old child.

Perhaps it is semantics.  The term “tree plantation” implies that our job is just to plant – it’s nature’s business to do the rest. The truth is, if we want to really make a difference, the business we should be in is “growing trees” not “planting trees”.  That implies a whole lot more than partial burial of an juvenile plant in unprepared ground. The successful planting and growing of trees is not a rapid paced activity but takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Accordingly, there is a need for  thinking deliberately, planning and careful preparation before we get down to the plantation which is just one event in the long process of growing trees.

Maybe the  reason is selfishness. In this materialistic world, there is nothing to be gained by labouring for unborn generations. In such a view point, tree plantation would be meritorious only as a means for acclaim (for publicity and public adulation), getting rich (through corruption or by marketing one’s products) or as an indicator of performance (X planted more trees in his tenure than Y).

"Monocultures are ecological deserts. Tree plantations are not forests." (click image to learn more).

Another malaise in tree-plantation is mono-culture. It could be that most people do not realise that the planting trees of a single species, termed as mono-culture, is harmful. But the gaurdians of Indian forests should know. Invasive trees take away more from our environment than their successful propagation. Yet it is the bureaucratic forces which have championed the cause of ecologically harmful  exotic trees which grow quickly  –  such as Australian Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis), Kubabul (Leucaena leucocephala) or the various forms of Eucalyptus – or even worse, the highly poisonous Jatropha curcas, purportedly for “bio-diesel”.

Jatropha curcas, the Physic Nut tree, is a poisonous, semi-evergreen shrub or small tree. Useful for biodiesel, it is ecologically useless. (Image: R.K.Henning, http://www.jatropha.org, CC-BY-SA 2.5)

It is the banal attitude towards tree plantation which reduces such a worthy activity to a pedestrian one that irks me greatly.

The highest form of appreciating nature is in growing exotic trees - Alexander von Humboldt. (Public domain image)

A great scientist of the nineteenth century, Alexander von Humboldt stated that the highest form of nature worship was engaging in one or all of the following :

  • Writing Nature poetry.
  • Painting landscapes.
  • The rearing and planting of exotic trees.

I find that I agree broadly with Humboldt. This blog showcases some of the finest nature poetry. You can read about Frederic Edwin Church and his “Heart of the Andes” over here. I agree that growing of plants is a really worthy activity but I would replace the word “exotic” with the adjective “right”.

As far as growing trees is concerned, my own humble opinion can be summed up as :

Tree-planting is a craft. We should be “tree-smiths” – carefully crafting the environment in the manner that we make a Japanese garden, with each tree carefully chosen for effect, harmony, utility, importance, i.e. for a purpose. Growing trees is not meant to be hedonistic or banal. It must be done spiritually – a kind of zen activity.  It must be done to completeness. And the result must be healthy trees that give us the benefits we hoped for and more.

For that, we really need to know and love our trees. I love to recall the feel of the bark and leaves of the Banyan, the smell of flowers of the Neem (Azadiractha indica) or the crushed leaves of the Kadi Patta (Murraya koenigii) , the visual extravaganza that the Laburnum (Cassia fistula) provides in summer. Once we get a feeling of love and appreciation of trees, then and then alone can we make quality choices about the best or most appropriate shrub or tree to be chosen for a spot.

Umbar or Audumbar (Ficus racemosa) - one of the trees best suited for biodiversity. (Image : Dinesh Valke, CC-by-NC-ND)

If you want to attract birds, the Umber or wild fig (Ficus racemosa) is your best bet. If you want a red avenue in summer, it’s the exotic Gulmohar (Delonix regia) you need to choose. For lots of shade with few trees, opt for the Rain tree (Albizia saman).  You can never go wrong by planting Babul (Acacia nilotica) for the welfare of the poorest of the poor – it’s firewood has the highest calorific value.

Babul has the highest calorific value of Indian trees and is consequently of great importance to the common man. (Image credit : Dinesh Valke, under CC-BY-NC-ND)

On the other hand, if you don’t do the learning yourself and rely on the “experts”, expect to find that you have created yet another tree-covered barren landscapes by using Kubabul provided by the Forest Department or orchards of stunted Jatropha if you believe the agro-industrialists.

The real challenge in growing trees is not planting trees but keeping them alive. We can tackle this is many ways.

One is commitment. Choose carefully based on what level of care you can commit. In other words,

“Bite off only what you can chew”

or

“Cut your coat to suit your cloth”.

Our children of the Painted Storks Nature Club wanted to plant trees in the Sarvatra Bird Sanctuary. But it is not possible (or realistic to expect) for the children to come  and water the plants since the sanctuary extends over many acres, has lonely corners, and very little access to water. So we decided to plant in close vicinity of the Middle Lake Garden which is frequented by the children, where water is nearby and where the gardeners can help water these plants.

Sunset at the lakeside Mandir - a picture of serenity.

The Lake Garden provided little scope for useful addition, so we decided to plant some trees and bushes around the CME Lake Mandir where except for a Tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum var krishna) in front and a Tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) above the temple, no other plants were present. It is just 30 meters from the garden and on the lakeshore itself.

We chose our plants carefully. Since we were planting around the mandir (temple), the emphasis was given to shrubs with bright flowers or having perfumed flowers. We tried to choose those which are commonly used for worship in Maharashtra. We also decided to plant three small-statured trees which would highlight the mandir’s background. We chose well-developed saplings for plantation which were sturdy enough to survive (unintentional) neglect and which already had some flowers so as to enthuse the children and give them a foretaste of how the garden would look. It was more expensive but worth it.

Children plant a shrub with rapt concentration.

The Painted Storks planted the following shrubs on the side of the temple :

* “Juhi” (Jasminum auriculatum)
* “Mogra” or “Madanbaan” (Jasminum sambac)
* “Tagar” or Crepe Jasmine (Tabernaemontana coronaria)
* “Anant” (Gardenia jasminoides)
* Red Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
* “Raj Chameli” (Jasminum nitidum)
* “Chameli” (Jasminum flexile)
* “Zai” (Jasminum officinalis)
* “Sarpagandha” (Rauwolfia serpentina), a medicinal plant.

"Juhi" (Jasminum auriculatum) (Image: Dinesh Valke, CC-BY-NC-ND)

"Tagar" (Tabernaemontana coronaria) (Image : Himanshu Sarpotdar, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Behind the temple we planted three saplings of small trees having beautiful flowers :
* “Parijaat” (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis).
* “Savni” or Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica).
* “Sonchafa” or “Champak” (Michelia champaca).

"Parijaat" (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) (Image:JM Garg, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The first tree being planted - a "Parijaat".

That is it – exactly twelve plants, but well chosen, well planted and well-located. What do you think are the odds of survival of these twelve than the desultory planting of many more? And when they do survive which will give the better effect?

A child nails an Aluminium name label to a Neem tree.

One could of course say, don’t confuse gardening with tree-plantation, but the principles are the same.

Problems and dilemmas will arise in this activity, as it does in all of mankind’s ventures. The most important one would that as to how to water the plants regularly. In my opinion, this would be the most difficult of all tasks associated with nurturing trees. When we know that we cannot come often to water the plants, should we not plant?

We could choose to plant drought resistant native species such as Neem and Babul. We could jury-rig  drip irrigation with plastic bottles and tubes which would need less water and give a longer effect. We could mulch the saplings – the mulch helps retain the water, reduces erosion, suppresses weed growth and seed germination and adds to the fertility over time. We could water in the evening where our water loss due to evaporation will reduce. We could choose to come at a fixed intervals as per our convenience – say once a fortnight or month, to water the plants accepting the triage due to the environment. We could plant hardy two-three year old saplings rather than very small saplings.

By applying our mind, and by matching our effort to our thought, we can increase the chances of survival of the trees.

If I were to plant a few hectares of arid area in Maharashtra, for example, I would choose native species such as Babul and Ber  (Zizyphus jujuba) for the general backdrop, add a few Ficus to form the focal points and plant many interesting but scarce trees. A few Agaves would help prevent soil erosion in the monsoon run off along with some simple landscaping, a few legumes would help improve the soil condition. There would also be a few creepers, many shrubs (both perennial and annual) and definitely useful grasses and bamboo. Maybe a few exotic Gliricidia trees to provide ready-made green manure for the caretakers. Amidst these, a few trees or shrubs carefully selected to provide all kinds of resources (nectar, food, shelter, nesting etc) to the typical biodiversity of that place.

Mother of Cacao (Glyricida sepium) a green manure tree. (Image :Kim & Forest Starr, CC-BY-SA 3.0, click image for source.)

That’s all I can come up with off the cuff. But in reality, the tree plantation scheme for this otherwise hypothetical scheme would be worked out carefully in much greater detail and perhaps even plotted graphically on a map. The location, aim, species available would all be considered. A planting schedule over two-three years would be considered. The civil engineering works would be restricted to a bare minimum. Nothing more than a fence, water tank or supply. A shed for the forest guard and perhaps minimal amenities in a place under a shade tree where the nature-lovers can sit, rest, enjoy nature, have their meal etc.

However, I would expect the record-keeping and science to be top class. None of the careless generalities thrown in by so-called experts. The practice of science in even such a routine activity as tree-plantation should be second to none.

That then is my view of tree-planting…

Let’s not just plant trees, let’s craft Nature.

Credits:

My sincere thanks to Mr Nandan Kalbag of www.gardentia.net who dotes on his son-in-law (yours truly) and fielded telephone calls on asking what plants to choose at all times of the day and night.

Members of Indian Tree Pix/EFlora India such as Mr JM Garg & Mr Dinesh Valke (and others) who made images available on the internet with Creative Commons licenses.

Century Post & World Biodiversity Day tomorrow

This post is the 100th on this blog. Tomorrow is World Biodiversity Day. I hope that I have done justice to these landmarks with this post/

The CME wetlands are featured on DNA

24 March 2010

The CME wetlands have been featured today on page 2 of the DNA Newspaper (Pune edition). The occasion had been a visit on 7th March 2010 by the students of an extra-mural ecology course conducted by  Dr Prakash Gole’s Ecological Society. Our wetlands have featured prominently. Authored by Rahul Chandawarkar, a reporter and columnist with DNA.

Image credit & copyright : DNA Pune Edition. Click on the image to enlarge.

Comb-ducks at a limpid pool

18 March 2010

There is a quiet spot in the CME wetlands – where people do not go and where the dreaded water weeds have not yet come. Here the Blue Kingfisher flashes chestnut as he shoots across the clearing. Openbill storks roost every night in a tree along with herons and egrets and other storks. Just below the tree are many bushes, one of them Lantana. With the setting of the sun come the Hummingbird Hawk-moths (Macroglossum stellatarum) who sip the nectar from the little pink and yellow Lantana flowers, enjoying the last vestiges of cool weather before they vanish till the next winter.

A yellow sunset over a pond with silhouettes of trees along the horizon.

Below the roost is a pond inhabited by those residents of CME who like the quiet life. Here the Spotbill population finds its headquarters, the Common Moorhen picks its way amongst the reeds and fish plop and create small ripples in the enjoyable silence. A hint of a fragrance from  the pale green flowers of a tree add a master’s touch to this nature’s composition.  At the end of a summer day, the crimson glow through the leaves colours the water rippled by the swimming of ducks.

Abhinav and I were there to pay obeisance to the Spotbill monarch when two white patches shone  in the fading light  on a bank opposite where the legions of Spotbill lay snoozing, bill under wing. At first they were indistinguishable; peering through a binoculars  resolved them to be two large white duck with green-black markings, one of which had a curious growth on its beak, proclaiming to the world that they were Comb Duck or Nakta, a pair (Sarkidiornis melanotos).

A white Nakta female and two grazing Spotbill duck against the pond shore in the evening light.

Female Nakta

They had decided to grace this small hidden spot which fitted their requirements. Attempts to photograph them were not successful as we did not have a suitable lens. A record shot is all that we could manage.

One of the strange misshapen looking ducks, the Nakta is found in Amazonia, equatorial Africa and Madagascar as well as South and Southeast Asia.  Though having a wide range and hence not considered threatened, Comb Duck numbers are declining all over the world. They frequent well-wooded wetlands and usually nest in tree-holes, a habitat becoming rarer by the day. Shy of humans, they are easily disturbed.

A pair of Nakta on a United Nations postage stampThis gave me great happiness for two reasons. The trivial one was that our bird count went up by one more. The more important reason – it showed us that the CME wetland is vibrant and healthy – a rare thing in India today.

I pray to mother nature and all our Gods and Goddesses that this couple find this spot suitable and they be permitted to raise their family for many years to come undisturbed.

Image credits.

  • Nakta stamp – Kjell Scherling (www.birdtheme.org) : Reproduced under fair use.
  • Sunset & female Nakta – Abhinav Chawla (license Creative Commons Sharealike-attribute 3.0 unported).

Wetlanding with WII

13 February 2009

As I walked up the paved road for my first glimpse of the architecturally crafted buildings of the Wildlife Institute of India in Chandrabani near Dehradun,  many images flashed through my mind. I remembered the halcyon mid-eighties when the Institute functioned from the Forest Research Institute campus. I recollected the raucous times the 1993 Nandadevi expedition guys had at WII from the sheer joy of having visited the remotest wild area in the country. Now I was back, this time to attend a five day Training Course on Wetland Conservation and Management from 27 to 31 Jan 2009. I had learnt of this module from the institute’s website. My superiors were understanding and generous and so, here was I.

By virtue of having attended the first Army course on Wildlife in 1985, I consider the WII to be one of my alma maters. Sure, I knew what wetlands were! Bharatpur, Bhitarkanika and the like. Me, I came from CME Pune to get a few pointers about our four lakes. And to have a lot of fun!! I love being around hard-core wildlifers. They are a breed apart!

The Wildlife Institute of India

The Wildlife Institute of India

The Wildlife Institute immediately strikes you as different from the archetypical govt scientific institutions. You’d probably imagine – large, dusty, brown, shoebox, full of babus. What you get instead is great architecture, small, green, clean, full of intelligent dedicated people. They have a good library, wi fi, a nature walk (its true!) and a green campus adjoining the Sal forests of the Siwaliks. Most importantly, a vast fount of knowledge and experience rests in the minds of scientists who worked there.

I had applied for the training as a ‘lateral entry’ from the Army and the Dr PR Sinha the Director was kind enough to include a ‘fauji’ amonst the foresters and naturalists attending the capsule. But nature-lovers soon connect, and I did NOT feel like a fish out of water – instead I felt that I came home. The beginning started with a lecture on what was a wetland. I was surprised to learn that the best and most accurate definition of a wetland was given by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Wetland Conservation batch with the insturctors! Final day after receiving certificates.

The Wetland Conservation batch with the instructors! Final day after receiving certificates.

We were a motley crew, comprising a handful of forestors, some foreign students, some eager young WWF field workers and a jaded armyman in the form of yours truly. This led to an excellent atmosphere, leg-pulling and mutual sharing of experiences.

The thread of instruction very soon plunged into details but since it illustrated profusely on slides and the teachers bantered with us, we were soon at home with terms such as “ramsar convention’ and ‘palustrine’ and ‘mangal’. Now its not my aim to reproduce what was taught there but I learnt that our lakes were not lakes but a wetland and were value-added by the presence of a heronry.

The most amazing things I learnt were that wetlands are very critical biodiversity hotspots and rate higher than all types of forests. They are more important in that an acre of wetland has 6 to 8 times more productivty than agriculture and more than that of normal forests. We were told the intriguing stories of wetlands such as Bhitarkanika, Mannar, Chilika, Asan, Wular Lake and high altitude wetlands across the Himalayas.

The WII overfed us with an official dinner and two more official high teas to boot. They gave us a lot of goodies, including the WII bag, tie, numerous CDs and best of all – a copy of Kasmiericzak’s (I give up I just cant spell or pronounce him right) book on Indian Birds!

Well, since I’m plugging the WII, I think I’ll mention that they did have one drawback. Yours truly was unable to show off his blog as as all blogs had been firewalled for security reasons! That small hitch apart, I felt really good to be there. We were not talked down to and very hospitably treated which is much more than one can say about other places today.

Overheard in the class! – ”Are storks edible?”

A vigil in the dark

9 February 2009

Things change after dark! The harmless hedge in your garden that beckoned you with its fragrant blooms by day, now threatens to harbour snakes and other myriad creepy-crawlies by night. The dull, noxious neighbourhood nallah suddenly metamorphoses into a romantic riverine rendezvous by moonlight. So it is with the CME Lakes.

Sitting by the lake late at night offers an experience radically different to the familiar scene during the day. At first when you wait on the lakeside culvert, it is dark and cold, the senses seek light desperately and your mind rebels at this seeming waste of time. It takes a good quarter of an hour for the mind to settle down. You get used to the cold breeze, the pupils of your eye enlarge and amplify the scant night-light. Your ears attune to the sounds. And then, imperceptibly, you plunge through the rabbit hole and enter wonderland. Slowly, the world comes alive by night.

You are alone but not lonely. The full moon shines down delicately scalloped by the cirrus clouds high in the stratosphere. A large yellow Venus and a small Jupiter shine high on the horizon. The stars are veiled by the clouds; most will appear once the clouds have crawled past. A soundless blinking pair of lights reveal the path of an aircraft making its way across the peninsula to some magical destination in the Far East. In the distance, around the lake shore and slightly above the waterline, a beautiful necklace of yellow and white pearls amongst the dark trees trace the industrial area around CME’s perimeter.  The shadowy outline of trees on the far bank are silhouetted against the night sky brightened by urban glare. The lake water is dark, patterned with varying shades of black and gray with wavelets in the gentle breeze rippling the moon on the water.

But it is not very quiet. No, peace and quiet comes much later on a Saturday night. The night-wind carries sound faithfully across vast expanses of land. The rattle of a goods train crossing the Mula River and the plaintive hoot of its engine are as clearly heard as the DJ mixing numbers in the Officers Institute or the racy Hindi songs at a marriage in Dapodi. The barking of dogs in faraway Se La road provide a contrast to the miniature fireworks display far away beyond Kasarwadi, no doubt to celebrate a marriage, festival or a cricket victory. But these noises can never drown out the whine of mosquitoes which hover around you. Down the road toward the Cadets Training Wing, a pair of cicadas serenade each other through the night.

The concrete culvert feels hard, rough and cold even through the thick denim of your jeans. You turn up your collar to reduce the prickles and shiver the breeze brings on. The nose wrinkles first at the odour of Odomos that surrounds you to keep the rapacious mosquitos at bay. The faint stench of decaying vegetation in your nostrils now penetrates through you. It is only if you walk along the shore that you can partake of the delicate aroma of a night-blossom  beckoning its lover-moths to pollinate her.

The fish are the first living things to draw your attention. A large splash, followed by a black stain on the water indicate where a large Rohu, probably in his second year, comes up by night to draw in oxygen through his mouth. Confident of safety from the legions of herons, storks and cormorants who wait for them by day, the fish surface every few minutes. That itself is worrisome, is an  oxygen deficit building up in the lake?  A small plip on the water surface followed by a flickering little flying shadow is the only indication of some small insect bats hawking flies and sipping water from the lake surface. The water birds, who are a riot by day, are quiet except for an occasional squawk from the lake which tells us that the favourite jester of CME, a purple moorhen, has just offended his neighbour.  Now, a pale streak across the sky shows the path of a small meteorite burning to oblivion as it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

A few birds can be seen dark stationary silhouettes perched on stumps or on a lonely vigil among the reeds. The duck sleep on the shore with heads turned back and bills shielded in the feathers of the back.  A soft chuk, chuk, chuk churrr behind me in the grass beyond the road, tells tales of an Indian Nightjar, a secretive and nocturnal resident of CME. There is harsh kwiirik chuk in the trees by the roadside. Their author is not hard to find despite his small size. The pint-sized Spotted Owlet is perched on a branch with a commanding view over where his prey, the metads and field mice, could gambol. A pair of dark animals with long snouts and long thick tails must surely be a pair of palm civets out to trouble the denizens of Bhosari. They pause at a wet trail by the river, but the water-snake which made it has long gone by and they turn away – they have bigger fish to fry. A soft whirring tells of hawk-moths which have finally arrived at the night-blossoms, plunging their extra-long and thin proboscis deep into the corolla of the Raat-ki-Rani flowers to get at the sweet nectar and leaving behind a few grains of precious pollen for the plant. An ominous shaking in the bush turns out to be nothing more than a cow grazing in areas where she is normally driven off by day.

The symphony of shadow and sound continues throughout the long vigil and the ambience mesmerises the senses. The soul begins to meditate and just as you reach a state of bliss, rude reality bursts into your presence. In this case, its the increasing screech of a Dhai-Ton truck, carrying the armed patrol of the College on its nightly round. The vehicle soon recedes with a dull roar, but takes along with it the very special moment. No doubt, you will experience something like it some other day, but today’s deed is done. You will have to return home to a different set of pleasures.

As you move off, the lake and its life continues in its endless cycle of existence unaware of the happiness they have given you.

Notes

  • CME – the campus I stay on.
  • Nallah – a stream or dry streambed. Water not necessarily fresh.
  • Rohu – Labeo rohita, a freshwater carp often cultivated in Indian water bodies and very good to eat!
  • Dhai Ton – a light military truck. (Dhai = 2.5 in Hindi)