Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dung ball heros - a beetle battle

Dung beetles come in two varieties, the hard working types and lazy bums. Hard working beetles locate their target by a strong sense of smell. Once located, they pull off chunks of the mess and roll it into balls, a job usually done by the male watched by his partner. Ball is then rolled straight off to a desirable location by the amorous couple who then use it as food cum breeding chamber.

Once in a while a lazy bum lies in ambush, especially while the female is not around. The male intent on rolling the ball in a straight line despite any obstacles. The bum tries to take advantage of this obsession and some times succeeds but often has to be content with a small chunk of the ball.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

I'm a dung beetle & that mess is my food!

Strolling around in a scrub jungle has certain advantages, and disadvantages. It puts you close to the action and gives a grandstand view of the happenings in the undergrowth. Of course, it also makes you a tempting target for thorn's, bugs and leeches. In the preoccupation to avoid the latter we may miss some interesting things closer to the ground.

The dung beetle maybe an uninteresting creature and to many of us the porcine equivalent of the insect world because of it's habits. Let me assure you, a closer look will halt you in your tracks. It is an enterprising creature and will fight to keep its mess ..... Er! I mean it's prize.

Dung beetles are classified into rollers, (the one in the picture) tunnelers & dwellers. Rollers simply roll the dung into balls and roll them off to the to use as food or a brood chamber. The tunnelers bury the dung where the find it and the dweller s simply live in dung (Yuck!)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Part - 1: Warming Up

I knew I was not made for hard-core trekking but I knew I could manage without giving up if the start was perfect. For someone who has only walked on flat tarmac scrambling over loose rock in search of some prehistoric (?!) rock painting and burial sites was a new experience.

My trekking guide was Muthuswamy, a Veerappan look alike but without the trade mark whiskers. He told me the site was half a kilometer over a gentle slope and would take an 'easy' fifteen minutes to reach.

As we started climbing Muthuswamy realizsed quickly that his assessment of 'easy' was rather misplaced in my case. "Ukkaranuma Saar?" (Do you want to sit, Sir?), he queried, looking very concerned. He must have thought I was having a heart attack the way I was gasping. I reassured him and quickly started snapping pictures. My ego did not permit me to accept defeat. If I sat, he would know. Despite protests from my knees I resolutely kept pace. I was determined to see this to the end.

Finally, when I reached the spot I was soaking. Aching joints & twitching muscles are all forgotten as soak in the view. The experience is incomparable, well worth breaking into sweat and panting for. Then, after the momentary sense of light headedness the exhilaration takes over.

Discovering my feet...... literally

We all have two legs with the feet attached at one end. We are never conscious of them except when they hurt. They take us from point A to point B without ever letting us know that we are putting out entire weight on them. That is, when we walk on familiar ground.

When we are forced out of our environment we become acutely conscious of them because our surrounding dictate our reactions. For city slickers it can become an unpleasant surprise if we are not too careful with them, like yours truly discovered over the weekend.

Of course, the experience of 'discovering my feet' was exhilarating. It took me over hills, down into the valley, through the scrub, along the river and back to my car without ever protesting at the ill treatment it got. Confined to a heavy boot and soaking in sweat would not have been what their idea of a wilderness holiday but at the end of the day we congratulated each other and decided to do it more frequently.

Prologue - Woodcrawling along 'Little River'

A middle aged man with a generous middle is not the ideal profile for a trekker but the temptation was too great. So, with a prayer on my lips I have set forth on what appears to be a long journey of discovery.

I have never trekked before. Most wildlife parks do not allow people to saunter around and disturb the jungle folk but there are exceptions. On the Udumalpet - Munnar road, straddling the Tamil Nadu - Kerala border lies a patch of wilderness that is just being discovered. The Chinnar (literally translated - 'little river') wildlife sanctuary on the Kerala side of the border is contiguous with the Indira Gandhi WLS in Tamil Nadu. The check post used to be closed after 6 PM earlier but now it's kept open all through due to the heavy tourist traffic. The road used to be famous for encounters with elephants and gaur grazing beside it.

My interest was the result of what was a wasted trip. We had driven to Munnar on a weekend to try to get a glimpse of the elusive Kurinji. We did not know that disappointment was in store as the heavy traffic caused a jam on the road and an endless que at the entrance to the Eravikulam NP. We had time to kill but nowhere to go and as we drove downhill we looked more closely at the signboards put up by the Kerala Forest Department.

We had, earlier, stopped for breakfast while going uphill. Then we had seen a herd of gaur on the ridge across road also having their breakfast. So when we halted at the check post we made enquiries about forest entry. Vehicle weren't permitted but you were free to foot it, we were told, and the guard directed us eco-tourism center next door.

The trekking is organised by the Forest Department with the active involment of the local tribal community. The center issues the entry passes and allots a tribal guide who accomapines you into the forest with only a stick for protection! It didn't seem a good idea at that time but therin lies the tale of how I discovered my feet.

Friday, September 08, 2006

BR Hills - A tale of a Tyre

BRT rarely disappoints visitors but then every once in a while an occasion comes along that you wont forget in a hurry.

Monday, 4th September 2006; 6.40 PM. It had been raining and the atmosphere was heavy. The animals had gone deeper and none were in the mood to grant an audience. My fourth visit to BRT was proving to be a damp squib literally.

Chital were there in numbers but even the usually plentiful gaur gave only guest appearances. As for the elephants, they had all left to Mysore for the Dussera festival or so Sudeesh and Nagesh felt! The light had already faded at 5.00 PM and I packed my camera fearing the weather. We had all drifting into a disappointed silence at the trick BRT had played with us.

The jeep was climbing up the slope past the turnoff to Annekere when we were jolted out of our reverie by a loud pop, almost like an air rifle had gone off. We had a puncture. Suddenly we were all awake. 6.40 PM was not an ideal time for a puncture, especially on an incline in a jungle famous for its gaurs, elephants and sloth bears. Mercifully, the rain god was not in a punishing mood.

We had to get off the vehicle in the dark so that the tyre could be changed and suddenly the idea of encountering an elephant or sloth bear became very unwelcome. The rustling of bushes along the track became unusually louder, and that barking deer calling from somewhere in the bush seemed to be sending us a message. It had become totally dark and it made the shadows play tricks on the mind.

Those ten minutes it took Nagesh to change the tyre were endless. There was a four year old, a five year old, and a wisecracking teen who wanted to know just then what snakes were there in BRT. We did not know the resort staff planned to screen a Nat Geo special on Rom Whittaker and King cobras for us after the safari!!

Why I carried a flashlight and a head light on that particular trip I don’t know but they came in handy. I had never ever carried a flashlight on a safari before.

BRT did not disappoint. It just showed us a different face of the jungle.

KGudi - Gaur's own country

Nestled on the slopes of the Biligirirangan hills of Chamarajanagar, Karnataka is a little known destination for ardent wildlifers. It is not for nothing that this 540 square kilometer sanctuary is called the "Gaur's own country". Formerly the hunting preserve of the erstwhile rulers of Mysore, it is one of Karnataka's best kept secrets.

Located at an altitude of 1700 metres the sanctuary is at the bifurcation of the Western & Eastern Ghats. This unique location gives it the benefit of a salubrious climate. The tempratures averaging between 35 to 15 degrees. It is home to over 25 species of mammals nad 240 species of birds making it a paradise for wildlifers.

The sanctuary can be accessed either from Chamrajnagar (28kms) or Yellandur (20 kms) depending on where you are coming from. The K Gudi Wilderness Camp is located next to the check post on top of the ghat road from Chamrajnagar.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Callous tourism

My visits to the jungles are pilgrimages and like an other devout pilgrim I get annoyed when I see things that should not happen. This weekend in Bandipur was a bit of a shock. Shruthi noticed a hobbling chital doe and we were very upset by what we saw.

The poor creature had a hoof entangled in an empty ice-cream container, obviously thrown by a callous tourist. The animal was in obvious discomfort because it was nuzzling the hoof and shaking it every few steps. The offending piece of plastic wouldn't budge.

My four year old Skanda made a profound observation. He said that a tiger would get the doe because it could not move fast. Whether the doe's fate lies in some carnivore's hunting plan we'll never know but I hope and pray otherwise.

Why should we promote tourism in sensitive areas when most of us are so insensitive? We put up boards banning plastic in national parks but allow its sale without proper monitoring. Who is resposible; the careless tourist, the callous vendor or the caretakers of India's forests?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Of Pilgrimages

Pilgrimage, to most of us means worship. It is a journey undertaken to clease your mind and body. It is a journey to clear the cobwebs in the mind and the stiffness in your muscles by just relaxing in harmony with anything that helps us rejuvenate without effort.

Life becomes monotonous after some time. It is measured by the time and we are slaves to the routine. Therefore every once in a while we need a pilgrimage to remind us that life can also have it's brighter moments.

If I ever consider a pilgriamage, let me assure you, there are no two places in the world I will consider more "tranquilizing" than Corbett & Bandipur National parks.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Season of Laburnums

It's holiday season. Examinations are over and time to go on a long holiday. In many parts of India New Year is just come and with that a riot of colours. Just like the colours of Holi, spring dabs the world in a myriad of colours. Every tree and plant competes with each other to display its brightest blossom and this is the season for Laburnum.

This tree is draped in yellow blossoms from mid-March to mid-April and is special in Kerala. The flowers are a part of Vishu, Kerala's New Year. Dawn on New Years day in Kerala households have a tradition where we open our eyes to all things nice. The yellow laburnum has the exclusive privilege to be the "flower of the New Year".

The yellow flowers hang in pendulous racemes about 10-30 cm long, and have earned it the nick name of golden-chain tree. However, this is a part I did not know. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can be sometimes lethal. Symptoms of Laburnum poisoning may include intense sleepiness, vomiting, convulsive movements, coma, slight frothing at the mouth and unequally dilated pupils. In some cases, diarrhoea is very severe and at times the convulsions are markedly tetanic.

Despite its lethal nature it is a popular garden plant and is a sight to behold when in full bloom.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Do jellyfish sting?

When I first saw them I did not realize that I had had the privilege of being granted a rare ‘vision’ of one of nature’s curiosities – the freshwater jelly fish. I did not know that they were such rarities that made an appearance in the same spot only once in many years.
These curious creatures may not invite a second look from most of us unless we knew how rare they are. I realized it only because I dug for more information regarding the “danger” they pose to unwitting swimmers. I have always held that jellyfish can give a very painful sting. In the process I found a lot more about these rare creatures.
The freshwater "jellyfish" is not a true jellyfish and differ slightly from the true marine jellyfish. Craspedacusta sowerbii (kras-ped-uh-kus-tuh) is the scientific name of this freshwater "jellyfish". One obvious difference is that unlike marine jellyfish, C. sowerbii has a structure call a velum on the ventral surface. This thin, shelf-like membranous structure extends inward from the circular edge (ring canal) of the bell. The manubrium, which ends in a mouth, extends down through a hole in the velum. The velum helps set C. sowerbii apart from the true jellyfish. However, because it looks like a jellyfish, we call it a jellyfish! C. sowerbii belongs to the class Hydrozoa which includes the more common hydra.
These jellyfish are about 2 to 3 cm when fully grown. They are translucent, umbrella shaped and have a whorl of string-like tentacles around their circular edge. The tentacles contain hundreds of special cells stinging cells, called cnidocytes. This mechanism is designed for feeding, as the cnidocytes are utilized to paralyze and capture macroinvertebrates and even small fish. However, there is no "hard" evidence that these organisms can penetrate human skin. Freshwater jellyfish eat tiny, microscopic animals called zooplankton that are found suspended throughout the water.
Freshwater jellyfish are most often found in calm, freshwater lakes, and reservoirs. They can also be found in recreational fishing and boating areas. The jellyfish prefer standing water and so are generally not seen in fast flowing streams or rivers. They are found floating or swimming just below the surface of the water and is visible to the naked eye. They often surface in large numbers called "blooms".
This was in Bhadra reservoir, Lakkavalli, Chikamagalur district, in Karnataka, India. I’ll be glad if anyone tells if they had such a sighting in elsewhere in India.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Gangaswamy and the Tale of two Resorts - Part 2

Come February, its celebration for yours truly. The wedding anniversary is an excuse for spending time with two people who make life meaningful, my wife and son, Shruthi and Skanda. We decided to go on the quest for Gangaswamy. It’s a long drive from Palakkad through Mysore and Chikmagalur but it was worth it. Gangaswamy was there!

The resort is located on the east bank of the Bhadra reservoir on a small hillock overlooking the expansive body of water. They have ten cottages now. I decline to call them log huts. Unlike BRT this is a predominantly cement and concrete structure with electricity and hot water. Of course no TV, thank God.

If you are looking for wildlife you will be disappointed. It’s not to say that wildlife is absent, we saw fresh tiger pugmarks. This patch of green is part of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve and has not been developed with the tourist in mind. The jungle is dense with the undergrowth predominated by bamboo. Wildlife is invisible. The trees here are more massive and so good light for photography is a premium.

The ‘tourist’ zone has few waterholes, probably because of the reservoir close by. The salt licks are just being developed and animals need to learn that they are supposed to congregate there to entertain the two-legged visitors. You have a better chance to spot wildlife on the boat trip in the evening. Even the crocs come to bask then.

If you like water and don’t fear its murky depths you have plenty to do. You can go kayaking, water-trampolining or simply swimming around. It’s a different issue that my son’s initial enthusiasm got dampened after a soak in the cold water!

Then there was Gangaswamy. You don’t need TV or music. If he likes you he can overwhelm you with his non-stop flow of words. Athirapally or Shivasamudram will be some minor cascades! He can keep you entertained all day. One unique characteristic is that he is very effusive in his ‘encouragement’ of his subordinates. He has them jumping. You can see the difference in BRT after his departure. He told me some forest land was being put on offer in Bhadra. Maybe I should consider it. Bhadra seems to be a place where Woodcrawlers can retire to!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Gangaswamy and the Tale of two Resorts - Part 1

PART - 1

Gangaswamy is an enigma. Love him or hate him he has this habit of permeating the environment he is in. He comes out either as an obnoxious personality or someone down-to-earth. I first encountered him in 2001 as a part of my New Year celebration. He was the Resort-in-charge at BRT Camp of JLR then. This resort was the not very well known and was a perfect getaway. I believe Gangaswamy has had a large role to play in its development. More of that later but may his tribe increase.

Christmas of 2005 saw us on our second visit to BRT camp (Biligiri Ranganbetta, for the uninitiated). A little known hilltop jungle till recently, it has some of the richest density of wildlife mainly gaur and elephants. We were on our second visit and were looking forward to another amusing adventure with Gangaswamy. However, when we got there, no Gangaswamy. Poor man was shunted some 400 kms north to ‘develop’ JLR’s new resort at Bhadra.

BRT, to me ranks third after Nagarhole and Bandipur for wildlife. If you are not obsessed with the tiger and will manage with an occasional bear or leopard, this is the place to be in. They have some excellent tented accommodation and log huts. No electricity, No TV, and 100% peace of mind. The present incumbent Sourav unlike Gangaswamy is an introvert and prefers to spend time listening to music. He takes time to warm up and speaks only when spoken to. You almost never realize he is around.

Forty eight hours saw us sighting sloth bears, barking deer, gaur, elephants and countless deer. No tiger, no leopard. We are getting used to that. In any case we were there to soak the atmosphere and make new friends. When it was time to go I thought the trip was incomplete without Gangaswamy.

BRT seemed less lively without him and therein lies the reason for a trip 400 km northward......................