Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bees are on the menu for Chestnut Bee eaters

I get to see Chestnut Bee eaters on a daily basis, and what a sight these birds are. It’s quite a spectacle to see a slosh of colors acrobat the sky, catch flies.  Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) comprise their diet, with a marked bias towards honey bees. Little green Bee eaters (covered in earlier blog) are common across the country while Chestnut’s are confined to southern hills of Western Ghats to north eastern hills, and towards to south east Asia.   

Soligas: The Children of the Bamboo

The Soliga tribe are known to have immense knowledge about forest and traditional insight on conservation. I was reading that “……a study performed in 2008 looked at the Soliga claim that forest fires are in-fact beneficial for biodiversity. Generally, forest fires would be extinguished by the forest department using modern fire-suppression regimes. However, the Soligas claimed that natural fires are inherent part of the forest biome and extinguishing such fires leads to increased parasitic load. The above study looked at infections of Loranthus - a plant parasite - on Phyllanthus emblica (Amla) trees and found that fire indeed reduced the parasitic load on these trees and increased their survival. This example points to the importance of considering local, folk knowledge in any biodiversity conservation regime”. Must say it is quite interesting, I am reminded of Yellowstone Park fire (in USA) about two decades back, and how forest fire came to be looked from entirely new point of view.  

Soliga means ‘children of bamboo’ as they believe that their ancestors originated from bamboo. They   are nomadic people who live off forest produce like honey, berries and timber. They live in small shelters called pudus deep inside the dense forests of Western Ghats. Soligas worship Champaka tree (Michelia champaca), the magnificent tree called Dodda Sampige in local language. There are settlements in BR Hills and MM Hills wherein they are exposed to modern influences.  In 1979, Dr. H Sudarshan, a young idealist doctor, came to BR Hills to work with the Soliga tribes, and since then is helping the Soligas negotiate the influences and as also fighting for their rights and cause. I did meet him during the public discussion on Forest bill in 2006 in Bangalore.  The Soliga lifestyle of shifting cultivation, foraging and hunting harmoniously in tune with cycles of the forest till the forest rules came into effect and all economic activity including collecting firewood became illegal. Soligas faced immense hardship.   

Organizations like ATREE, the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) by Dr Sudarshan, the Soliga Abhivrudhi Sangha and the Karnataka Forest Department have played a significant role in livelihood enhancement of the Soligas and in rendering their help in biodiversity conservation in the Western Ghats. Soliga knowledge of the forests and their affinity with nature is sought to be conserved. I recently had the good fortune to visit a Soliga settlement in MM Hills. MM Hills is sad story of Lantana invasion, it has completely overwhelmed the forest. It’s quite a terrifying sight. Soligas who have a traditional expertise in bamboo related work are being trained to use lantana wood as substitute. I was gifted a keychain (I insisted on paying, and did make them take the money) made from lantana. Though it was exquisite piece of work but I was informed that wood quality is inferior to Wrightia tinctoria (Aale mara or ivory wood) -one used for famous Channapatna toys. Despite these it need be mentioned that the effort to find economical value to lantana has been a significant success and lantana wood do find its use in construction of chairs and beds. 

I went to Gorsana, a rather emaciated looking hamlet. Dhoduthusidha is the headman, he promptly said he has no much knowledge about songs but yes his wife sings Soligas songs during marriage ceremonies. His wife and few ladies with children were seen crowded around bangle seller, trying out colorful wares.    Dhoduthusidha called out for her, she showed extreme irritation as she answered still working her way through the bangles. Dhoduthusidha seemed to have got the cue “I don’t think she remembers those songs now” he said. He gave reference of an elderly woman in the neighborhood, who sings on all special occasions and is indeed repository of oral tradition. He said he had seen her singing ever since he could recall.  

Puttamma was bathing when we reached her hut she told us to wait. Outside a middle aged man was chiseling the wood.  Giriappa was creating sculpt of Nandi bull which he said he will donate to the temple. He was quite focused in his work and seemed to enjoy it. I could very well see the passion and the reason why they called themselves “children of bamboo”. The connection to nature was rather strong. A piece of wood in Giriappa’s hand was metamorphosing into a craft, unique in its sensibility. Puttamma was ready, and looked quite excited. Her excitement was compounded when she was asked to sing traditional song. She seemed keen, and promptly sang a marriage song. Sonnaamma who was sitting nearby couldn’t resist the temptation of joining. Next song (the video herein) was sung during powdering of ragi seeds “we don’t do it any more” she said “there isn’t any ragi to pound”. The song was based on interesting theme. It was imploring god who had gone away into the hills to come back. Now why did the god go away, I asked, very much curious. Well…he found the crowd in the temple too overbearing!! O how much I love these. There is so much fun here. Enjoy the video ( and the unique people called the Soligas… 

The threat of lantana: Lantana, Lantana camara to be specific, is one of the vicious plants around. It’s considered ten most invasive species in the world. The threat is real. What makes it worse is that these plant’s leaves are mildly toxic for animals while the flowers are preferred by butterflies and bees, and the berries are relished by birds. They bloom in abundance thus decimating the local species. I happen to attend a seminar sometime back wherein they showed the satellite pictures of lantana spread over the decades. It really is scary.   
Channapatna the toy town: I happen to be at Channapatna, the town known for toys made of wood. Toys from here have international market. They are even protected with Geographical Indicator tag. It was Tipu Sultan who got the artisans from Persia that set up this art form. The wood commonly used is Wrightia tinctoria tree, colloquially called Aale mara (ivory-wood) and lacquering it (lacquer comes from Sanskrit word laksha meaning "one hundred thousand). These toys are environment and child friendly.

from my scribble pad...
To negotiate
The myth sown in yesteryear’s slack noon
in the temple ground
has fermented
into conscience, bitter sweet froth
to negotiate sharp turns and dents  

Lightening in the rain
Do we recall the names
so easily settled on our lips
summoned and discarded.
Filial concerns on a stormy night  
cracks into flashes.
Comprehend the stillness
that envelops and keeps on. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Arctic skua: To spot a transequatorial kleptoparasitic migrant

Earlier this month on a bright Sunday morning this blogger had the good fortune to be part of a full day Pelagic Bird Survey organized by Cochin Natural History Society and KeralaBirder. We were a motley group of twenty odd people, after exchanging mandatory pleasantries and short inaugural speeches we were cruising along the historical coast of Arabian Sea. By noon we had ventured about 20 nautical miles. It was probably first of its kind experience for many in the group, sighting some of these never seen before pelagic birds added to the excitement (unfortunately for me I had taken anti vomiting tablet that left me drowsy, and quite disoriented…but to my credit I did stay awake and took some credible pictures). Taking pictures on wobbling boat of never-will-be-still birds was quite challenging, adding to the fact that I was carrying 70-300 manual lens!!
Back in the comfort of my shack I studied the pictures and to my surprise found Arctic skua (the lower pic i am not able to confirm clearly). Though a common bird, Arctic Skua is a rare sighting in this part of the world. A transequatorial migrant that breeds in the north of Eurasia and North America, and winters in south America through Africa and the coasts of Australia and new Zealand.  Also called Parasitic Jaeger, Arctic skua has a well-earned reputation as avian pirates, stealing much of their food from other birds. "Kleptoparasitism" is the term used for stealing food from other species, while "jaeger" is derived from the German "hunter." These are aggressive agile birds that attack in midair forcing their victims to drop their kills in flight, they are relentless in their pursuit sometimes even working as a team. Arctic skuas are true pelagic birds and live most of their lives at sea, and come ashore only to breed in the Arctic summer.
Palleyan tribes of Periyar wildlife sanctuary

Palleyan are the tribes that used to inhibit the deep forest that is now classified as Periyar wildlife sanctuary. They are honey hunters who also indulged in shifting cultivation. They speak a language that is almost Tamil. The story goes that during the construction of Mullaperiyar dam, in the noise and commotion that suddenly invaded their peaceful world the Palleyan saw signs of calamity befalling their clan, so they migrated en masse to deeper part while a section who came in contact with the outside world found work in the construction site (some converted to Christianity). This is the segment that settled in Kumily. As years passed, an accidental meeting in the forest of these fragmented community led to reunion. There are now about 2000 Palleyans and most are found around Kumily. I was in Kumily sometime back so visited the hamlet (kudi), quite coincidently Palleyan dance program was arranged.

I met the Kannikaran (named Mr. Aravi) who is supposed to head the clan. The Kannikaran is helped by Thalayari and Thandakaran. Aravi, a middle-aged man, also acts as the temple priest. The religious tradition seems to be very much influenced by Hinduism (even the bad references like mistreatment of widows). The main deity is Palleyankudi devi. The goddess is believed to have thousand eyes “ayiram kannu da aliu”. She also is “elaithu pallichi”-seven river goddess. The song says…

Elaithu pallichi
Elairum vilkar
Elnathi vanthu vanthar tharakame varai
Elnathi ootadathu chirumalayi varai

 (rough translation)

Seven river goddess
equivalent to seven thousand warrior
Seven river goddess forbearer of sacred hymns
Seven river goddess fountain of mountain life  
There is also a legend of woman who was abandoned by her brothers with a child. As the woman starved the child seem to have walked faraway (towards Tamil Nadu). The woman later converts to goddess with the child (the picture herein). Even now during festivals a Palleyan member is invited to adjacent Tamil Nadu village and treated as esteemed guest and bathed in turmeric water.   

 Aruvi happened to be the man who had partial record of vanishing oral tradition. He also uses his talent (he calls it god’s gift, I caught a shade of ego in his bearings or was it pride on his cultural inheritance?) and experience to add new lines. I took the picture of writings that is handed over orally for centuries, Aruvi has written it down. Some he sang, the one in the video here is a dirge (uploaded at He did mention that after death, the connection is cut with the living these lines are quite significant.

Nee thee ayi maari
Njan palluayi maari
Innikum ninakum
Oru bandham illa   

You have become fire
I have become milk
You and I
Have no connection

This translation of the song contained in the picture herein…it’s a song about couple going to market and the husband trying his best to convince his wife against buying!!!  

The land we are going to
The land we are going to
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
Where the cloths are sold
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
The land we are going to
The land we are going to
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
Where the anklets are sold
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
The land we are going to
The land we are going to
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
lame are you what use for you
Why buy these
Let’s go let’s go

The land we are going to
The land we are going to
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
Head of five villages is not my father
Rich woman is not my mother
Let’s go let’s go

The land we are going to
The land we are going to
Esdanakankani Esdanakankani
Villisundaram, Vellasundaram
Villikabbi, Sellaakaari
are all not my relatives
that youngster is not even my brother
Let’s go let’s go
Pick up your bag
let’s go from the market 
from my scribble pad...

The uncomprehending eyes
can but see the moments
that spill colours.
The mountain, the clouds, the trees
and i here
become one in the canvas
that spreads and spreads.

A damselfly’s connection with infinite 
is difficult to hide
endowed with subtlest blessing
disclosed in hasty presences.