Thursday, November 15, 2007

FIG-uratively speaking!

Talk about figs, and the most common association that springs to mind is the proverbial fig leaf, our ancestral lingerie. In the bird world, however, figs are the manna that enthrall and enchant. Plant a fig in your backyard, and you invite, by default, a large cross-section of the avian world to your domain. Frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds are drawn to them like a magnet, and several species of birds descend on these trees in fruiting season, resembling hungry guests at a banquet. While in their feeding frenzy, you could tickle their toes, and they wouldn’t notice. Compared to the gusto with which these wild figs are dispatched, our cultivated ‘anjeer’ seems like a bland also-ran.

On our recent trip to the Pench National Park near Nagpur, we were fortunate to come upon a wild fig in full fruiting glory, and the tree was laden with figgin’ Coppersmiths!

A brown-headed Barbet and a red-vented Bulbul joined in the revelry, and we were subjected to unhindered avian gluttony
Is it any wonder, then, that our wise forefathers (where are they?!) revered these fig trees and worshipped them? The banyan and the peepul still stand unharmed amidst the general tree-genocide that humans perpetrate on a daily basis, which makes me think: Can we find, in our religious texts, a tangible link to protecting our forests and their denizens? Maybe that’s the only hope for our conservation efforts, as man seems more susceptible to the fear of the hereafter, today be damned!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Tigress and 2000 humans

Two front page articles in HT on 2nd November appeared side-by-side: one about the tigress in Maharashtra's Chandrapur District, who has allegedly killed 7 people, and is now on death row, and the other about the fight for justice by the Godhra victims. The inference - kill 2000 people, and go scot free, or at worst, land up with a life-sentence, which can still be appealed against. You killed on ideological grounds, you killed with official connivance, you killed in retaliation.
The hapless tigress killed because she was hungry, she killed to feed her cubs, she killed humans as they had felled the forests where her prey roamed. In the new order of things, her guardians are the Forest Department. What is their response? Shoot her at sight, says the Wildlife Warden. He is impotent against the pillage of forests, he is impotent against the blatant encroachment of forest land, he is impotent against poachers and those who poison the animals. So, how does he regain his manhood? Easy - do what the Brit officers did during the Raj to feel powerful - shoot a tiger, or a bunch of them, or better still a tigress. What better way to gain the accolades of land grabbers, the timber mafia, the poisoners and the poachers?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Le roi est mort - the king is dead!

The very concept of a Zoo in today's space age of entertainment is medieval and in a perverse manner, primordial. The recent death of the lonely lion, Amar, in Mumbai's reprehensibly maintained zoo is further testimony of our inability to understand and care for nature's beings. Once you see a lion in the wild ( the above picture is of Ramzana, a wild lioness in the Gir National Park), you will feel ashamed to visit a zoo, and see the king languish.
Let us first wonder whether there is a need for a Zoo in the first place. The theory proposed by our governing bodies is that we need to showcase the animals to people, especially children and the underprivileged. It is not like they don't have other forms of entertainment, like the 100 channels on television, cricket, movies, our innumerable cultural and religious festivities, and so on. Can we justify and continue to perpetuate a crime against innocent wild animals, which are captured and separated from their homes for the sake of entertainment? One justification I was given is that not everyone can afford to go to wildlife sanctuaries to see the animals in their natural habitat. Does a zoo exist only because of our economic backwardness? The very fact that prosperous, developed western countries have zoos is proof of the flaw in this argument.I am sure there are many in our country who cannot afford to see the many historical or natural wonders of our country - the Taj Mahal or the famed Sun temple of Konark. Should we then relocate these monuments to Mumbai as the poor ‘janata’ of Mumbai cannot travel the distance?
How many of us have taken the time to visit art galleries, or have taken our children to the Museum? Have we ever admired the menacing gargoyle's adorning the CST building? Mumbai has a full fledged National Park within its municipal limits – one needn’t go far to be in the thick of the jungle, but a miniscule percentage of urban residents bother to visit it. Our city truly has much to offer, and a terrible zoo needn’t be part of the itinerary.Cramped cages littered with excrement, emaciated animals living a desultory existence, ruing their fate, insensitive visitors teasing the animals – the conditions for animals are inhuman. The authorities need to improve the pathetic conditions, and definitely stop getting any more animals to the Zoo. Wild animals belong in the wild, and if at all they need to be in captivity, it needs to be in a rescue centre for rehabilitation, and not as a vulgar spectacle in a filthy zoo.
Expanding and modernizing the zoo is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, and an insult to proud creatures of the wild. The money would be better spent in securing the future of our magnificent forests, which are being decimated at an alarming rate. Let us ring the death knell on zoos, and not their inhabitants.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

׀׀‘Ganeshotsav, Pudhchya Varshi Lavkar Yeoo Naka’׀׀

Dear Ganesha,
Today is Ganesh Chaturthi, and my humble obeisance to you, lord. You have always been my favourite deity with whom I have shared many confidences, and I need to speak my mind about something that has been disturbing me.
I welcome your advent every year, and my mind races back to my childhood, when the Ganesh Chaturthi meant a lot of fun - everybody at home pitching in to sculpt a rough clay idol, scouring the neighbourhod to pluck specified flowers and ‘durva’ grass for the ‘puja’, gorging on home-made ‘modaks’, and finally bidding farewell by immersing the clay idol in a nearby well.
Of late, I feel a strange dread when I contemplate the onset of the Ganeshotsav. First come the extortionists – goons from every kerbside ‘mandal’ donning a religious mantle, and persuading you to part with the moolah for their obscene displays of devotion. Any refusal to sponsor them is followed by thinly-veiled threats, and lots of muscle-flexing. Shopkeepers who don’t toe the line are threatened with disruption of business, and thus the mandals’ kitties swell.
They then use your money to light up vast swathes of the city, a brazen misuse of a scarce resource – electricity.
Last summer, I remember suffering through several hours of load-shedding in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, and my whining about the heat was met with scorn by the locals. They squarely blamed Mumbai and her wasteful ways for their daily power woes, revealing that even farmers could operate their pumps only for brief periods during the day, while Mumbai blazes under a trillion hoardings and a billion ‘mandals’.
Ganesha, people have been complaining that, in recent years, their prayers are not being heard. I know that you are not to blame, it’s your worsening deafness that is the problem. All that exposure to mega-decibel noise can turn an adder deaf, what with colossal speakers belting out remixed ‘aartis’ in discordant voices with no trace of devotion. The plethora of processions follow, with their own mobile bands cloning the Safri Duo, preceded by pelvis-thrusting dancers more suited to a South-American Carnival. To add some bonus decibels, there’s the incessant honking on already narrow roads, further constricted by invasive pandals whose blatant encroachment leaves me speechless. Any residual tatters of your sensitive ear-drums which may have survived this onslaught are vapourised by the unending strings of firecrackers set off at any self-respecting ‘mandal’.
Ganesha, my eyes hurt during the Ganeshotsav – imagine being subject to the not-so-pretty mugs of ‘leaders’ of every hue and colour staring down at you from every street-corner, ‘welcoming’ all Ganesh devotees to their fiefdoms. Such is their megalomania that their images dwarf yours, and very often, you occupy an insignificant corner in these mammoth cut-outs. Talk about playing God!
My dear Lord, did you know that your festival sounds the death knell for millions of fish and other aquatic life in our water bodies? Your idols, made of insoluble Plaster-of-Paris, and painted with toxic colours laden with heavy metals, find their way into every water body, from modest wells to the vast sea. They don’t disintegrate fast, but their toxic paints leach out to choke fish, and piscine holocausts are a regular feature. Your broken idols, mauled and mutilated, litter the riverbeds and ocean floors, forming pernicious reefs over the years. I always thought elephants love water, but little did I know that an adorable elephant-faced God would end up poisoning those very waters!
My omniscient Lord, a friend mentioned in jest that you quietly take a sabbatical during Ganeshotsav, and probably flee to Afghanistan to avoid all the chaos! Jokes apart, for the sake of your hearing and my eyesight, for the sake of the fish and the ponds, for God’s sake, could you please accept my entreaties, and not come too soon next year?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Salman's sentence

As ardent nature-lovers, we were justifiably pleased to note that the long arm of the law had finally nabbed Salman, the deer-hunter. His sentence, however, with due respect to our honourable courts, has set us thinking on whether justice could be better served by a combination of conventional and alternate punishments. Our penal code is a relic of the Raj , and most laws have not seen fresh air in several decades. Considering the sorry state of wildlife, and the impoverished state of conservation programmes, why can we not utilise this opportunity to bail our wildlife resources out of the doldrums? Even if Salman were to spend fifty years in jail, instead of the five that he has been sentenced to, it is debatable wheter it would make an iota of difference to crimes against wildlife. Instead, the sentence could be split in a more productive manner. Here are some suggestions:
1. Let him spend a year or two in jail, as the correctional element has its merits, and gives him lots of time to think, ruminate about his follies, and perhaps, regret his actions.
2. Fine him heavily - media reports indicate that nearly 300 crores of rupees ride on him, so a fine of even 50 crores is something he can easily cough up. Set up a joint committe of dedicated NGO's and the Forest department, and utilise this corpus for wildlife protection. Buy guns, uniforms and good shoes for forest guards, who are our foot soldiers against wildlife crimes. Recruit more guards, and give them decent accomodation. Develop the villages around key wildlife areas, so that the locals are sympathetic towards conservation, and are not waging a quiet war on the forests. Build fences around vulnerable forest areas, and provide better patrolling facilities.
3. Get Salman to do a year's community service with the Bishnoi. With the inevitable glare of the media following Salman, the Bishnoi's commitment and approach towards conservation will hog lots of airtime, and can sensitise the entire nation, if not the world, towards wildlife issues. The Bishnoi will greatly benefit, as the local administration will be in the limelight, and this can catalyse all sorts of dormant government schemes which have been slumbering for eons.
Justice can take many forms, but in this version, there may be no losers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


In a metropolis like Mumbai, where the Premier Padmini cab seems primitive, take a look – you can still encounter a blast from the past, the humble bullock cart. Not carrying farm produce, mind you – they are pulling small oil tanks, supplying petroleum products like kerosene and lubricants. What could be more incongruous than to see the names of high-profile oil companies emblazoned across these tanks, even as they are being moved by emaciated cattle?
We encountered three such carts on the roads yesterday, all of them drawn by weak bulls, struggling to negotiate the Mumbai traffic. Their sedate pace changed to a strained trot whenever they received a few sharp whips – I even witnessed one of the owners reaching down to squeeze an ageing bull’s testicles to push him into a higher gear. One can fathom a farmer using draught animals to keep his overheads down, but multinational oil companies using animals for transport, that too in cities where several other transport options exist, seems really pathetic.
It looks as though these companies, some of them dubbed as the ‘Navratnas’ or nine-gems of the Public Sector, will not shy from exploiting animals to rationalize distribution costs. If they feign ignorance about this final leg of the transport chain, one starts to smell the stuff exiting from the rear ends of these very bulls.
Just as the poor camels on our beaches got some respite from the courts, can we not ban other animals from our roads? In the chaotic rough-and-tumble of Mumbai’s mean streets, why do we need a veritable roadshow of animals, from bullocks to donkeys to elephants?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tadoba - the 20-point formula

1. Take a beautiful expanse of deciduous forest, full of lakes and springs, and home to a rich array of wildlife.


2. Create a coal-mining township next to it, full of earth movers, dust columns, smokestacks, and spewing tons of carbon into the air.
3. Populate it with thousands of people, and allow them to expand their presence in all directions, with their demands for food, water and sanitation.
4. Build a tarred road right through the thick of the jungle to allow these people to travel to neighbouring towns for their needs.

5. Dam the available river to create a reservoir to supply water for the teeming millions.

6. In the process, kill the river ecosystem, and all the creatures dependent on it.

7. Condense the forest area by chopping off the trees, and level the land for agriculture - many mouths to feed, remember?

8.Realise that there is a valuable supply of timber in the forest, and declare it a protected area.

9.Succumb to public demand for escape from their dreary urban sprawls, and create dwellings and facilities inside the forest for recreation.

10. Allow mad mobs in their diesel-spewing vehicles to zip through the forest, to 'spot' the wildlife, and generally have a picnic.

11. Highlight the presence of the Tiger in the forest, and direct people towards their lairs.

12. Allow as many vehicles as possible into the forest, even 200 at a time, to 'enjoy' the safari.

13. Turn a blind eye to vehicles honking, playing 'jingle bells' on their reverse horns, racing their engines, and to their occupants screaming and yelling, yes - all this and more, barely 15 metres away from a tigress and her cubs drinking at a waterhole.

14. Allow two-way traffic on narrow tracks, causing noisy traffic jams at a prime tiger area like Bhanuskindi, where tigers resting in a stream are made to move off by passengers getting off their vehicles for a closer look.

15. Allow all vehicles to ply on the park roads, whether they are overloaded, diesel-spewers or non-roadworthy.

16. Appoint a system of local tribal guides to accompany each vehicle, except that instead of providing opportunities to the tribals, appoint relatives and associates of the Forest Department staff as guides, and to hell with the tribals.

17. Allow a noisy canteen to function in the core area, right next to the Tadoba Lake, the lifeline for animals. Call it a plastic-free zone, i.e. where you can freely dispose off your plastic.

18. Create a residential colony for the Forest Department staff right next to this lake, in the core area, wherein untreated sewage can be released - such a big lake, who cares if a few hundred litres of sewage gets dumped into it daily? Pigs eat faeces, and wild boars are pigs, right?

19. Strictly enforce the timings of entry and exit from the park, but give a couple of hours leeway for those who wish to linger - you can't ask people to rush off, can you?

20.Bemoan the fact that wildlife habitats are shrinking, the tiger is going extinct, and what can the Forest Department do with its limited resources, whine, whine, groan, ..................

Monday, May 7, 2007

bedroom birds

Nature never ceases to amaze. In the thick of our concrete jungle, hemmed in by multistorey eyesores, one stumbles across birds which eke out a living amidst the sparse tree cover. Not just crows and pigeons, but some species which generally are forest dwellers. In a small fringe of trees outside my bedroom window, I spot several species of birds, and some rather serendipitously. I was reviewing my pics shot in February on my digicam, and what I had assumed to be the usual Eurasian Golden Oriole

turned out, on closer scrutiny, to be a Black-naped Oriole, a fairly uncommon find in Mumbai. I have, on occasion,
been misled in my attempts to discover a new species ( which desire resides below the surface in all birdwatchers, truth be told), and my excited mail to BNHS regarding a really unusual spotting of a new lorikeet variety, perhaps Loriculus subramaniamensis, received a rather banal reply: I has spied an African lovebird, a poor escaped caged avian much fancied by misguided bird-'lovers'. I despaired for its survival, what with Mumbai's antipathy towards 'outsiders', but was pleasantly surprised to spot the chap a few weeks later, now calling out in an unmistakable Mumbai accent. This truly is a city of opportunity, and it feels nice to know that once in a while, the initiative is seized, not by man, but by one of the other unsung disenfranch-ised denizens of our city. And in the same spirit, I welcome to my bedroom all those who are interested
( males needn't bother) in learning about the birds, and the bees if you may.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

corbett reveals

After having been to more than 20 wildlife sanctuaries and National parks in the country, we have come to the conclusion that Corbett is in a league of its own: the variety of habitats the park affords is amazing, and therefore, the biodiversity is staggering. Most people flock to Corbett to see the tiger- after spending a couple of hours inside the forest, they say that they did not see 'anything'. .

The forest was teeming with wildlife, yet tourists sought only the majestic tiger, and it seemed like the rest of the birds and animals were creatures of a lesser God.

We saw an animal so endangered, that the Park Warden equated our sighting to seeing a thousand tigers- an animal called the Mainland Serow, a type of mountain goat-antelope. Couldn't take any pics, though, as the Serow was up a steep slope, concealed in a scrub thicket.

A family of rambunctious, smooth otters swam upstream, merrily devouring the fresh water fishes abounding in the Ramganga river. There was a laggard amongst the juvenile otters and the squeals by his imploring mother otter still reverberate in our ears.

We gawked at the highly endangered Gangetic Gharial who was basking in the glorious sun on the banks, obviously satiated, as he gave a cold shoulder to the noisy otters.

The sighting of two flocks of Great Slaty woodpeckers was a lucky one for us, as these birds are so rare that any birder would give an arm and a leg to spot them. We feasted our eyes on a herd of at least five hundred spotted deer grazing in the plains along the reservoir, giving company to five hog deer which, unfortunately, are highly endangered.

We spotted a crested serpent eagle hastily dropping a half-eaten green keelback snake, and then waiting patiently for our jeep to move ahead so that she could resume her meal in peace (piece-meal?).

On several occasions,we came across an interesting sequence - a herd of elephants would turn their backs to us upon a primitive, silent, infra-sound command by their matriarch.The matriarch would then advance toward us pesky tourists to check out our nuisance value while the rest of them would obediently wait and remain stationary.

Only after the matriarch verified our bonafides as curious but non-threatening tourists would they resume their incessant chomping.

The unforgettable sight of a herd of elephants submerging themselves in the depths of a pool in the river, their trunks resembling periscopes , will remain etched in our memory forever. A young, calf, battling the gushing torrent, lost his nerve mid-stream and was at risk of being swept away by the current. We were relieved to see his mother and aunt instinctively go after him, buttress him and finally shepherd him to the safety of the bank.

Such unforgettable scenes are enacted in the jungle everyday and yet tourists seek only the inimitable tiger. Needless to say, the tiger epitomises the Indian jungle but must all other creatures ,big and small be ignored?

One needs to just open one's eyes to the riches that the forest offers, and the experience can be deeply fulfilling.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

elephantine beggars

I am back from Corbett where i have seen herds of elephants displaying far greater family values than seen in our present day human families. It hurts to see the mighty elephant
begging for food and pleading for his mahout's livelihood on the streets of Mumbai.
If camels can be banned from entering the city and there are restrictions on pony rides why is the elephant persecuted by us.
Is there no law to prevent them from being used in circuses? I saw at least 4 of them tied outside a tent in Karjat,off Mumbai, yesterday. With over 80 TV channels and 8 radio channels and a multitude of cinema halls do we still need ANIMALS in a circus for entertainment.
Y do we need a new zoo in Borilvilli? A few arguments bandied for Zoos are that the poor who cant afford to go to sanctuaries to watch wild animals can see them in a cage or in their 'natural surrounding' akin to the Singapore Zoo.
By the same logic since the poor cant see the Taj Mahal or the Meenakshi temple, why don't we shift these world heritage sites to Mumbai.
Yesterday i saw an elephant begging in the crowded lane outside Chembur Station.It was jostling with vendors,shoppers,bullock carts and automotive in all shapes and sizes.
She was probably a matriarch, used to navigating dense forests but she was all at sea in this concrete jungle where no human being in his or her right sense would venture unless their life was at stake.
If you guys have any reason to agree with my plea on behalf of elephant please help with suggestions and ideas.
I wrote to Maneka Gandhi and she says that we should get a lawyer to file a PIL.
Please let me know what the average Mumbaikar like me can do to prevent the elephant from torturing itself in the sweltering heat of our tarred roads,from the air and noise pollution of Mumbai.

elephants begging in mumbai

if camels r barred from the city,pony rides are restricted why is the mighty elephant begging on the streets of mumbai .