Saturday, February 24, 2007

Birds and Elephants at Topslip

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.



Ragland said...

Hi Sam,

When I got your mail announcing the Census, I was longing to join the counting brigade. Due to my previous committments I couldnt do so. However going through the Census story, I got a great feeling as though I was also there. Cheers. Ragi

Jonathan Erdman said...

Very cool.

Thanks, Sam.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jonathan and Ragland. next time I'll try to get the word out a bit earlier but you know what our government departments can be like! I don't blame them either, for the work that they do, the Forest Dept. is really overworked but one hopes that someday they will be able to work according to plan too...

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam, I missed it this time, couldn't get away from work, but I remember what it was like!

It is pretty difficult to spot anything in kariyan shola, a pretty dense forest. I still remember the remains of 2 preys, the fresh pug marks of leopard/tiger (with cubs in tow) (?) in the sands of a dry stream and the smell of putrifying flesh very close (means we might have easily become that in the next few days) and the excitement of just walking through the forest. I sometimes wonder, if I am not lucky to be alive still!!!

Unknown said...

Paru, I think you guys discovered the joys of Topslip some time before I did. We were concentrating on the survey activity at Mudumalai in those days.

Karian Shola is still doing well tho it's a bit too close to the main camp for comfort - too many casual trekkers wandering through.

Anonymous said...

yea, Sam, it was pretty exciting. I was the only lady in about 90 volunteers!! We were there for almost 3 days. The second day night, we wrangled a deal with the forest dept guys to let us stay over in the watch tower inside kariyan shola. we had to get there by 6 in the evening, beyond that we couldnt walk the forest. So we were there sharp 6 and stayed overnight. It was an amazing experience. The whole forest was like a christmas tree, millions of fireflies lighting up the whole area. On the way to the watchtower, we saw a huge stag guy and 2 girls by his side, he so magestic and proud (And to think we did not see a miniscule soul during the census time.) looking at us so suspeciously. Then we saw fresh bear droppings, really steaming. That made us really hurry towards the watchtower, not exactly wanting an encounter in the falling darkness!!

And the skies, wow, what a sight. I had to look hard to identify the very familiar constellations. Billions of stars, like if you put out your hand, you could collect a bunch of them for keepsake!!!

In the early hours before dawn, between two and four, we could hear the animals, even a tiger calling from far. But could hardly make out any of them, despite the fireflies.

Experience of a lifetime, I really miss my leisure. I can hardly plan anything now. Dont like it much. I have to get away sometime. Wondering when!!!!


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