October 20, 2012

One ordinary day in Indira park

15 October 2012: It was a morning like any other, except that I had been delayed and was going later than normal to Indira Park for a walk. I meant to take petrol on the way, but the queue at the petrol pump put me off. It was sunny and hot when I entered the park. On days like this, I take a tree-lined, shady route, one that is more interesting than the well-laidout path. Most of the walkers had left and I was enjoying the quiet.

I was on the bridge over the water body when I suddenly stopped in my track, awestruck by what I was seeing. On the slope next to the water below were two 5-foot snakes entwined and vertical. It looked like they were mating. I could not believe my luck! There was not a soul around and I stood rooted to the spot, looking at the action before me. I had gone to Indira Park hundreds of times but had never ever seen a snake. I groped in my bag for my phone and took a few photos. But my hands were shivering and heart racing. One thought dominated my mind. If they came towards me, should I run straight or zig-zag?

This is the photo I took. Please enlarge and look inside the red circle. Not a clear photo but it is a record of an exciting moment.

I have now read about this and learnt that these snakes are neither dancing (snakes do not dance) nor are they mating. What I saw was a wrestling match between two male snakes of the same species. This is what Janaki Lenin says in her article, "Snake Wrestlers" (The Hindu, 2 March 2012).

"Duelling snakes twine their lower bodies around each other, rise high off the ground and try to slam the opponent to the ground. Their heads weave higher and higher, midair, as each tries to gain the height necessary to throw the rival down. Their fluid and graceful movements seems more like dance than battle. It can go on for an hour and saps the snakes of energy. Stamina is a prime criterion for winning. The one that tires and gives up first is the loser...
...There’s often a female snake in the vicinity of such coiled combat.
When two snakes are engrossed in each other, they become oblivious to their surroundings. A pair of large king cobras fought a long, hard battle across a bridge in Karnataka while people parked their vehicles and gathered around to watch. Unmindful of spectators, snakes have fought in rice fields, plantations, and the courtyards of farmhouses."
Sure, they were engrossed and did not bother about me. Anyway, after a while, they separated and one of them moved in my direction. I turned and took a few steps back and began walking away. Then I saw it  go into the bushes. I decided to stand there and watch the other one till it disappeared. 
It was a very exciting moment in my life. I felt that the unusual delay in the morning was so I could see this sight! I felt special and blessed!  This will be one of my favourite stories and I will add it to my lizard-garden lizard-snake encounters (yes, a blog post on that later). And I know that I will feel the thrill every time I narrate this particular incident to someone! 

October 19, 2012

A car rally with a difference

Sunday, 14 October 2012. Tara and I participated in a time-speed-distance car rally conducted by the Dialogue in the Dark and Madras Motorsports Club. This rally was unique because the navigator was blind. Our navigator -- Kamruddin -- was given the navigation chart in Braille, and, in a role reversal, he was to lead the way by reading it to us.

 The rally went on quite well, but as I drove, there were moments of extreme helplessness because we could not ourselves read the tulip chart. We had to depend so totally on Kamruddin. Since he did not know the city well, he struggled to read out the route to us. And, because the sheets given to him had not been stapled, he once in a while read out from the wrong sheet. Tara's role was to quickly note down what he was saying and then we would interpret the notes and go from one point to the other. We took many a wrong turn, struggled to follow what Kamruddin read out. There was frustration at not being able to interpret what he was trying to say. Yet, we knew we had to be patient and not lose our cool.

It was a very humbling experience, and we realised what it is to depend on someone for our movement -- something that the blind live with all the time.

The best part of the drive was that we made friends with Kamruddin, a student, in the third year of a 5-year integrated course in Hindi, in Central University. He belongs to a village near Vikarabad. He has always lived in hostels. When I asked him what he did in his spare time, he said he liked to 'watch' movies, and when he was in the village, he liked to spend time in the fields where there were a lot of birds. Kamruddin thought the number 39 that was assigned to our car was a lucky number.

It was also wonderful to see normal people mingling with the blind, making friends, walking with their hands on their shoulders. The children who volunteered, also handled the blind very well, making them sit in the cars, taking them to the toilet and for lunch, and making them cross the road. These interactions, for me, were the touching moments that made the rally worth every minute. Thank you, Dialogue in the Dark and Madras Motorsports Club, for making this happen in Hyderabad.

Some criticism: While the rally itself was meticulous and very well organised, the 'entertainment' (unnecessary, in my opinion) and the prize distribution  were handed over to an event management company, and that was when the sincerity of the rally took a beating. Frivolity set in as the loud compere made the blind among the audience sing, dance, and do mimicry...it was a rather pathetic turn to an otherwise enlightening event. It would've been great if someone from the National Association of the Blind spoke to us, or if the people from Madras Motorsports recounted anecdotes from 24 years of 'blind' rallying.

Hopefully, these issues will be addressed next year. I will be there with Tara and Kamruddin.

Note: I deliberately use the word 'blind' and not 'visually challenged'. I believe in plain-speak. Saying 'visually challenged' does not make their life any easier. 

October 07, 2012

The most dangerous animals are two legged

This was an article I wrote for Teacher Plus, October 2012. You can read it below, or go to this link: 

I have been reading about the proposed ban on tourism activities in core areas of tiger reserves in India (see box at the end of the article). I am not surprised at all by this move, having visited the Corbett National Park in Uttaranchal in July 2011. A brief account of my visit will tell you why I am not surprised...

My daughter and I were on the last lap of a ride in my cousins’ sports utility vehicle, in which they had set out on an ambitious drive along the entire border of India. We had joined them on the leg across the spectacular Himachal Pradesh and were to get off at Ramnagar (the gateway to Corbett), en route to Delhi and then back home to Hyderabad. It was 11.30 pm, and as we neared Ramnagar, the drive suddenly became exciting as we began hearing forest sounds and seeing fl ashing eyes and outlines of civets and deer. The hope of seeing more animals was dashed because we were suddenly in the midst of an endless row of guest houses and hotels... there were so many that it seemed like we were back in a busy suburb! Where had the jungle gone?

The sight of those guest houses was the first shock at Corbett.

In the resort where we stayed, we were told that there are two sides to the jungle – one, the famous and much-in-demand Corbett National Park; and the other, the Reserve Forest. Since there was a waiting list for the Park visit, and as we had no patience to stand in long queues, we decided to go to the Reserve Forest. “Animals don’t distinguish between names of forests”, the naturalist/guide reasoned. Another shock. Since we were told that there was no concept of a shared jeep, my daughter and I reluctantly hired ‘our very exclusive’ open-top jeep, forced to erase any concern about crowding the jungle with one more mechanical animal. The comforting factor was that our guide turned out to be a nice chap, well-informed and sensitive. The 4-hour drive began like a just-fl agged-off rally, with one jeep after another speeding into the jungle, filled with tourists shouting, hooting, singing, making merry. Were they on a picnic?

The drive into the forest
Corbett is an amazing jungle, and one finds a predominance of sal trees – the tiger’s favourite. There are also teak trees with humongous leaves, and several other tree species including Acacia (khair) and Indian rosewood (shisham). It is a beautiful, dense forest, and consists of grasslands, wetlands, riverine areas, water bodies and swamps. Our guide sensed our concern for nature, drove slow and pointed out various plants, trees, and mudhills; alerted us to the bird calls; and explained various aspects of conservation. We told him that we were not expecting to see any animals – that we did understand that they may not be seen because of the people and their preposterous behaviour. His response was simple: “The most dangerous animals are the two-legged ones!”

We could not spot too many animals, defi nitely not the tiger. However, we did see spotted deer, which darted away startled when they heard the loud horn of a jeep that overtook ours and zoomed off hurriedly. We also saw rhesus monkeys, langurs, a monitor lizard, a serpent eagle, several white-crested laughing thrushes whose decibel levels seemed louder than those of the tourists!

We drove deep inside, till we came to a temple called Sitavani where legend has it that Sita raised her twins – Lava and Kusha. It is not an impressive temple, but these legends are interesting. It is easy to imagine that Sita raised her children in this deep, beautiful forest, but then, there are many other places in India that are ‘home’ to the legend of Lava and Kusha, which is what our amazing country is all about, I suppose.

Outside Sitavani we also saw a small shop selling chips, biscuits and water in plastic packets. Yes, we also saw empty packets of the above strewn on the ground here and there.

We drove back from Sitavani as night fell. The forest took on a different hue… it was scary with the magnified insect and bird sounds, and the shadows. Add to this the tall trees, the clouds and the moon. After what seemed like a never-ending drive, with us wondering where the end of the forest was, and how our guide could find his way out, we were back into the dusty overcrowded village outside the jungle, and to our resort where a corporate group from Delhi were having a party on the lawns.

Entertainment culture
There are apparently about 150 resorts outside Corbett National Park. These places seem to have become huge money spinners, functioning basically as entertainment centres. Events are frequently held by business and corporate houses. The participants go wild, shout, play on the lawns, and invariably sing and dance to loud music. This is not what a jungle resort should be like! In my opinion, a jungle resort should have the responsibility to educate people and sensitize them to nature and wildlife. What is happening to our forests? What is happening to our tigers? Why are their numbers dwindling? What can we do about it?

Jungle lodges should ideally have very basic amenities, maybe not even electricity. They must offer meaningful, nature-related activities for guests. They could show them videos on conservation; educate them on the necessity for respect and silence while in the forest. Conservationists and naturalists could talk to people, make them aware of the wonders of our natural world. Jungle resorts should be about serious nature tourism, not corporate entertainment.

I have earlier been to Pakhal and Eturunagaram in Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh, to Nallamalla forest near Srisailam, to Bandipur in Karnataka, and to two sanctuaries in Africa – the Maputo Reserve (Mozambique) and the Nairobi National Park (Kenya). Nowhere did I see the crudeness, the unruliness, and the commercialization that I saw in Corbett. We used to go to Pakhal on a school picnic every year, and it was there that our love for nature took root. We had gone to the Eturunagaram forest at Tadvai several years ago… the forest was quiet, isolated, unpredictable and therefore gorgeous. I recently learnt from the Forest Office in Warangal that Pakhal and Eturunagaram are now out of bounds to the casual tourist… you need official permission to go there, and there are no facilities for overnight stay. It made me sad when I heard this, for I feel people should have an opportunity to experience our forests.

Surely, the ideal lies somewhere between the isolation of Eturunagaram and the overpopulated Corbett?

On 24 July 2012, the Government of India banned tourism activities in core zones of tiger reserves in India. This is what some activists have said about the ban:

“…Tourism operators would do well to move away from an obsessive tiger-centric focus and promote themselves as offering a broader nature experience, with the tiger as a tantalizing possibility.” – Shekhar Dattatri, Conservation fi lm maker in The Hindu, 8 August 2012

“… clearly this is a case where the law has confused the current impact of tourism (negative) and the future potential of tourism for conservation (positive). Banning tourism because it is bad today is like banning cricket because there is gambling. The answer surely is to regulate tourism and make it difficult or impossible for builders and contractors to turn forests to cement. By banning tourism in the core areas the eyes and ears of non-governmental agencies have been walled out of forests where tree-cutting, illegal mining, road building, poaching and worse are rampant.” – Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia

“For many proponents, tourism, if done sensitively, is part of the solution to the many conservation related challenges we face today” – Pankaj Sekhsaria, Editor, Protected Area Update, in The Hindu, 2 August 2012