Birds and Elephants at Topslip

February 24, 2007 at 4:27 am | Posted in Anthracoceros coronatus, Batrachostomus moniliger, ceylon frogmouth, coffee invasion, Elephant, king cobra, Nataraj bird guide, pied hornbill, Ponnvandu, regenerate shola, shola, SKCAS, Topslip | 6 Comments

Do you know that India boasts over 1,400 of the world’s 10,000 species of birds? Of these fully 260 species can be seen in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary – one small 500 sq km patch of forest! Serious birders from all over the world visit here every year to enjoy the myriad and unique birds found only in the various remaining small patches of shola forest.

Ponnvandu (our little trust) organised 15 volunteers from our college student work to participate in this year’s elephant and bird counts. It was an exciting two days. Most of our kids are getting into the forest on foot for the very first time! Some are so city bred that they have never even seen the milky way before…

We were blessed with lovely weather. Five of our volunteers were needed for the elephant census and the rest were assigned to enumerate the bird species. Only four of us are decent birders so we decided to form three teams and divided the sholas amongst the three for two days of morning and evening counts. It is exciting work! The forest department lorry drops us at specific points in the forest and from then on we work with the local tribal guides and forest guards to complete routes of 7 to 10 km each in the early morning and then starting again in the late afternoon.

The five that went for elephant counting saw a total of 39 elephants, which is quite encouraging given that this is a dry season census and most elephants are known to head deep into the forest in search of perennial streams and lakes (few and far between). A number of calves and juveniles were counted in the family groups. One young man found himself just feet away from a late foraging sloth bear while he was absorbed in observing a mother and calf elephant. Luckily these bears are very short sighted and it went harmlessly on its way.

Our budding birders quickly got the hang of things, started recognising bird song and we came up with a very encouraging 87 species including many of the rarer birds. The group that first went into the Karian Shola were able to see two nesting Malabar Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus) and one male actually feeding the ensconced female – a very very rare treat indeed. They also spotted the very hard to find Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) on this same hike. One group came across the ‘dreaded’ king cobra up close (a 4 meter/13 footer, about medium sized). This is one species that eats only other snakes. The king cobras come to the bamboo breaks and near spots of water for their breeding season and they can get quite aggressive if someone is found near their nests!

On the second day we were joined by the world famous bird guide (now a forest dept guard) Mr. Natarajan. He is amazing and being a local tribal, knows both these forests and the resident wildlife intimately. Articulate and a wonderful teacher, the lucky five kids that spent the day with him really got a grand education in censusing, bird identification and generally how the whole ecosystem works.

Having these young people from the Sri Krishna College of Arts and Sciences (SKCAS) enthusiastically participating in very rigorous census work was perhaps the most exciting part. They learned a tremendous amount, but more than that they got the feel of what biodiversity means, how fragile these ecosystems are and the crying need for more involvement in conservation work.

One of the saddest findings was that many areas of shola are being invaded by coffee plants. Coffee seeds from the surrounding private coffee plantations are being effectively dispersed into these sholas and one can see that the shola forests are under a very severe threat from this new invasion. Sometime soon I will do a post on what shola forest is, but so far the main point is that we don’t have any idea how to regenerate a shola, so once gone, gone forever.

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Bison’s Charge – A Tall Tale

February 18, 2007 at 6:04 am | Posted in Animal Census, bison, Bos gaurus, bovine, endangered species, forest, Hike, Indian bison, Trek | Leave a comment

In line with our focus on forests and animal censuses, here’s another true story from a few years back.

Roy (Aruna’s cousin) decided to join me for a census and we headed to Mudumalai. Roy is a young man, Chennai born and bred (i.e. big city). This was his very first time in a real forest and we were both looking forward to it. The real beauty of these animal/bird counts is that one is given a route to follow and allowed to walk. If you go to any of our national parks as a tourist, walking is banned! One can only get into the forest in the Forest Department’s own vehicle and that too on a fixed, well travelled route.

Hiking into any of the woods in South India is a glorious experience. Ancient lichen coated, orchid draped trees, sholas, myriad birds and even the undergrowth is wonderful with mosses, liverworts, cycads and ferns to fascinate. it does not really matter whether one does see much in the way of animals – spotted deer and monkeys (macacques or langurs) are hard to miss – still it is an enthralling and enlivening experience.

On the very first day we ended up in different teams. There were too few volunteers. On the second day though, a few more people showed up and we were together. On his first day’s trek, Roy’s forest guide had found them a huge hive of mountain honey and they had seen a few elephants. Roy was now hooked!

We started out bright and early with a forest guard who was a bit of a reluctant (and noisy) walker. With encouragement and perseverance we made good headway, moving through the open teak forest at the periphery and were soon going into a fairly dense forest. After a couple of hours the route led us downhill. We could hear a small stream chuckling in the depression ahead and about 100 yards from the bottom the trees opened up and we were on grass. Roy and I were abreast leading the way, with our ‘guide’ quite a bit behind us. There was another group somewhere East of us, they had been dropped a half kilometer before us and so we were the last to start.

The bottom of this small valley was fairly open with a few small shrubs and plenty of grass. The rivulet of pure mountain spring water looked inviting. We were thirsty and speeded up down the slope when suddenly there was a burst of commotion on the far side of the clearing and charging straight towards us thundered this massive gaur bull (Indian bison, Bos gaurus). Now these are huge animals, the largest of the bovines, easily weighing in at over a ton a piece and muscularly built – one ton of pure muscle!

He was going full tilt, jumped the rivullet and started up the slope, saw us standing startled into stillness and slack jawed not 30 feet ahead. He came to a sudden halt and there occurred again one of those frozen moments. He stared, he snorted, we were barely breathing. Abruptly, he turned and trotted rapidly back the way he had come leaving us still gaping. If he had decided to continue his charge, I wouldn’t be here to blog about it!

He was almost black with huge humped shoulders and rippling with muscles. Four white socks looked incongruosly cute and his neck – wow! The pics here do not do justice to seeing one of these 6 1/2 feet tall monsters up close.

Our guard had stopped at the beginning of the clearing and he now came hurriedly down and tried to persuade us to head home. We were only half way through our prescribed route and both of us flatly refused.

Seeing people in the deep forest is very rare and it looked as though this gaur bull had been frightened by the previous group and had been making tracks away from their ramble when he suddenly ran into us. He must have wondered how his persuers had managed to get ahead of him and cut him off again!

Luck was certainly with us, for the lone bull bison is considered the most dangerous of the forest animals. They almost never have human contact, being generally very shy behemoths of the very deep forest where even poachers rarely venture (an exception to this is Topslip).

The rest of our trek was anticlimactic!

We were surprised to see the amount of cattle droppings on the periphery of the forest range. It turns out that the government actually licences the native tribals to herd cattle within the forest, but, quite naturally, these licences are abused by local non-tribal heavyweights who buy out or extort the licences and then use them to allow large herds of cattle to forage within the forest itself.

Incidentally, Roy is now well settled in Switzerland. He and Akila (and their beautiful baby Leah) had come down this Christmas and we got to spend a brief time together in Chennai. Roy has certainly not lost the forest bug! We are going to try to schedule his next visit so that he can ‘do the census’ again!

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And Now, the Elephant -CHANGE IN DATES!!

February 9, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Animal Census, asian elephant, biosphere, Elephant, Elephas, fire season, forest, Hike, migration, Nilgiri, range, Trek | Leave a comment

The final stage of the census this year will be the elephant count on (CHANGE!!) TUESDAY & WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20th AND 21st. This will be the last activity in this zone of forest as they shut out all visitors for the next two months during the summer fire season. A BIRD CENSUS WILL ALSO BE CONDUCTED AT TOPSLIP (ULLANDY RANGE).

An interesting contrast between the African and Asian cousins can be seen in these two pics: Can you make out which is which?

Those interested in participating please mail me with your contact details IMMEDIATELY!


Below is a map that depicts the contracting range of the Asian Elephant.

Along the borders of the black zones (is all that’s now left) there are frequent clashes (man-animal conflicts) as the elephants try to walk through human settlements and plantations.

Elephants love to walk and can cover 40 to 50 km in a day especially when they are searching for water or better vegetation.

Our count takes place in the South West corner of India, in the heart of theNilgiris biosphere.

Sorry for those whose travel plans have been spoiled by the last minute change in dates. This sometimes happens when working with the Forest Department and we just have to grin and bear it!

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