Friday, November 30, 2007

It's a Bison!

The Indian Gaur (Bos gaurus)


One September morning, I woke up to find huge hoof prints in the wet mud all over the garden. It looked like an animal had gone on a rampage or was involved in a skirmish with some other. The veteran gardener in his wisdom offered that the hoof marks belonged to ‘jungli gaay’. A bit of investigation and asking around suggested that indeed “bison” might have paid visit the night before!  A late-night vigil from the “makeshift machaan” of the balcony helped establish a herd – a male, few females, some juveniles and a calf - on the golf course across our bungalow in Wellington's Staff College. The young ones were grazing while the patriarch watched over contentedly chewing the cud. It was unusual to see them this close to the College and human habitation almost giving credence to the talk that a panther had been chasing a bison calf (but that is another story)! Even from a distance of 30 meters, the silhouette of the bull was imposing - the hunched back packed with brute strength held together on incongruously spindly legs.

Bison are a relatively common sight amidst tea plantations in and around Coonoor, but they do not seem to bother the tea pickers who continue working nonchalantly with them close by. Golfers at the Wellington Gymkhana Club have also had their share of sightings of the mammal and yet we know so little about these creatures! “Bison kill without being provoked”, “Bison are aggressive and gore humans to death” – this kind of vilification goes against the grain of its very nature. You’ll be surprised to know that the bison is actually a shy and timid animal - one that prefers to avoid human contact. But given its bulk of a tonnage and the fact that it might itself perceive threat upon encounter with man, would it be wrong in defending itself with all its might? In fact, fear of these mammals is unfounded if you are to believe a local Coonoor-ian, who has this to say about the creatures: “My mother (who has grown up in Coonoor) says that as children they used to chase bison the way we may drive away cows”!

Nevertheless, the sight of a solitary bull can indeed be a heart-stopper. What a powerful mien it has with the ridge on its back and the huge dewlap (loose fold of skin under the throat) at the front! You can identify a bison unmistakably by its white stocking-ed feet and the light grey patch on the forehead contrasting the black-brown of the body.

The Gaur or the Indian bison, as they are popularly known, are legion in the Nilgiris and unique in that they fall between the two stools of being wild (like the elephants) and stray (like cattle). The label “bison” is bit of a misnomer, for the gaur actually belongs to the family of wild oxen, and therefore is closer to cattle than to its American namesake.

Essentially, animals of the deciduous forests and scrub vegetation, bison are constantly migrating from place to place and don’t mark their territory nor know any boundary. Peculiar to the Nilgiri woodlands, these bovine creatures fall in the shadow region of the jungles and human habitation. Unlike sanctuaries or national parks where forests are contiguous with sharply defined boundaries and peripheries, the Coonoor Forest Range has blocks of reserve forests interspersed with civilization. M.S. Parthiban, forest ranger, Coonoor, enlightens: “Here there is no clear cut separation between agricultural land and forest area, so there is an overlap of bison population with humans. In the last decade, bison have adapted themselves well and are more comfortable co-existing with people.”

In many ways, bison are like elephants. For one, they live in matriarchal herds (on an average a mixed herd has eight animals, but herds are known to reach a figure of 40) and like the lone tuskers, bison bulls are given to wandering alone. Secondly, like elephants, bison are herbivores. They graze and feed on leaves and barks of certain trees during the daytime and in the evening, but unlike elephants they do not go raiding crops at night. Mr. A C Soundarrajan, life member of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, who has aided a three-year study on the ecology and habits of bison in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, says: “Compared to elephants, bison are docile creatures.” He should know for he was caught in a cordon of a 40-strong herd snorting and watching his every move and got out without a scratch to tell the tale!

Where there are bison in the wild, tigers are not far behind. Tigers are enemy number one but when hunting bison they are circumspect and prefer to hamstring them instead of going for the jugular. Panthers, on the other hand do not dare to mess around with bison in herds or even a lone bull, but may attack a stray calf. Mr. Parthiban is quick to mention though that bison deaths in Coonoor range have been mainly due to slipping over hill slopes. Bison are also extremely vulnerable to cattle-borne diseases such as foot mouth disease and rinderpest. Mr. Soundarrajan recalls the time, way back in 1968, when rinderpest had almost decimated bison population in the South. Thankfully, 12 years after the epidemic it had limped back to a decent number.

India has the highest population of gaurs and according to a 2002-statistic their numbers ranged between 23,000 and 34,000. But with shrinking habitats their numbers are dwindling and bison figure in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red Data list of threatened species. In the Nilgiris, they are largely concentrated in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (numbering 9000 – 12,000); elsewhere there is a staggered population in grasslands, swamp patches and around tea estates. Bandishola Reserve in Coonoor is a haven for bison.

Hunting bison is strictly prohibited as per Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; unfortunately, the ground reality is something else. In the forests bordering Kerala, the animals are poached for their meat, which is then peddled as a delicacy at a premium. No animal, it seems, is spared man’s avarice.

This article was published in The Local, a popular news-magazine published from Nilgiris.  

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wild Wellington

Wellington is a hilltown between Coonoor and Ooty in Nilgiris (Tamil nadu)
No one day in the hills is the same as another. Each day brings new surprises and Wellington is full of them. One day the sun shines splendidly and benedictory upon us; the birds play with gay abandon in the garden. Then suddenly, the next day, you wake up to an unusual quiet, not disquiet, more of suspended animation with the mist hanging in the air in the distant valley and creeping stealthily into the garden. There is silence everywhere, even the birds wait and watch in great anticipation, as it were, the nature’s game of hide-n-seek. It is a moment of meditation.

Then there are days of downpour when the skies open up and there is unwelcome wetness all around. The garden that seemed to glow in health just the other day wears a washed out look. Some flowers droop under the weight of raindrops and some are literally nipped in the bud. The lawns become slushy, the roots rot, and fungus takes over the foliage. The ground too seems to open up with all that water-logging. Trees keel over and toads and frogs come out in the open, unfortunately, to get squashed under vehicles. The subterranean termites take wings and swarm out clouding the skyline; they flit and flap for few hours before they fall dead littering the surroundings with their lace wings.

The next morning there are unexpected visitors – an extended family of raucous jungle crows (unexpected, because, though this place is bristling with birdlife, jungle crows are birds of the countryside and do not visit the backyard regularly). They come to partake of the feast of the termite larvae that are being flushed out by the rains.

And when it promises to be just another day with the maid in the kitchen, son at school and husband in the College, all at once, all hell breaks loose. The domestic who has gone to pick up spinach leaves from the vegetable patch confronts a snake curled up behind the kitchen door leading to the backyard. A slim slimy chap regally uncoils to its full length of two metres and disappears into the weedy outgrowth on the fence wall. Since then of course, one has been spotting this blackish-olive green-pale yellow creature (perhaps, a rat snake, but it is difficult to identify a snake!) with some regularity adding to the adventure of our stay. The gardener, an institution of sorts in the DSSC, vouches for its harmlessness and we are glad to have a “wild” resident among us.

Other NatGeo-like episodes keep unfolding from time to time. Monkeys come in a gang stealthily dodging pet dogs and humans to create mischief and havoc. The gory sight of a tom cat spiriting away a baby squirrel from under our noses and gobbling it up in a single morsel leaves us with a sinking feeling for the rest of the day. But such is life!

Even with all this out-of-the-ordinary action (for the city-slickers) almost on a daily basis, I was little prepared for what confronted me one September Saturday. As I threw open the balcony doors to greet the morning and breathe the cool mountain air, I saw the usually neatly-trimmed lawns trampled upon mercilessly. A closer look revealed whopper of hoof prints in the wet mud all over the garden. It looked like an animal had gone on a rampage running helter-skelter either trying to get out of the garden or involved in a skirmish with some other. Playing Sherlock Holmes we deduced that such large and deep pugs could only belong to a bison. There is a breach in the garden hedge which the bison must have vaulted across. Though bulky, weighing up to a ton, bison are surprisingly nimble-footed and can jump five feet high in the air. The veteran gardener seconded that these were signs of bison. Admittedly, many golfers have seen herds on the Golf Course at some point of time, but few can boast of them in the backyard! 

And then I heard about the panther attack on a herd of bison on the Golf Greens. After a tussle, the signs of which showed clearly on the Birdie Hole of the Golf course - the pugmarks and the hoof prints - the panther had made away with a calf, the remains of which were spotted by the Golfers, just two bungalows down our lane, the next morning! Panther sightings have been noted by villagers and local people around from time to time. But so far, due to the thick forest cover, thanks to the Cantonment efforts, harmony prevails between the wild animals and man here. It is one thing to read about such things in newspapers and media; completely another to experience it, to have a close encounter first hand.

The next day, after a late-night outing as we were heading home, we saw two bison behind our bungalow in the glare of car headlights. That night I decided to stay on a vigil. The duplex balcony provided the perfect machaan for a night watch. I saw few black blobs on the golf course near the college building; a peek through the binoculars (the college is lit up at night so that it is not pitch dark) established their silhouettes and I could make out a herd of eight, one patriarch, few juveniles, and even a calf. Normally, the herd wouldn't dare to stay  so close to human habitation but this once it must have found the refuge among humans a safer bet in order to deter the predator. The young ones were grazing while the patriarch sat contentedly watching over its flock. The night was still except for the opera of chirping crickets and croaking tree frogs.   

I checked on the herd again after an hour or so and it was still there. When I woke up again towards dawn the brood had thinned out and by morning there was no sign of the herd except for the spoors over the patch.
That is when I realized that we had not come from one city to another, from Mumbai to Wellington, but from one world to another. In Mumbai, we were amidst civilization, in a sea of humanity. We knew that there was a jungle out there somewhere, in a distant reality, where wild animals roamed free. But here, we are in the middle of a jungle, we are the intruders, the outsiders – desperately trying to be secure in our trappings of home and hearth. These appurtenances of comfort lull us into false security during the day, but come night time, and the blinds fall away leaving us to confront the stark darkness of a different reality.

Wonder what surprises and adventures await us tomorrow!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Good Earth

In Mumbai, we of the high-rise apartments buy soil by the kilos that have more pebbles than loam; we shell out money too, for saplings, which in a place like Wellington grow wild and free! If natural resources be wealth, then the people of metros such as Mumbai are truly deprived. Their material wealth cannot buy them the joy of a green world or the good earth of countryside.

Everybody loves greenery and wants their fair share of it. Then, if you are in an apartment in a city, you convert your balcony into a greenhouse or terrace garden with potted plants. Why, even in chawls or match-box flats of cities, the balcony ledges are dangerously laced with pots sporting the common “money plant” (pothos ivy is money plant only in India and the origin of the local nomenclature is quite a mystery)  or another regular, the syngonium – hanging like a Damocles sword over unsuspecting passers by! One mention in the newspapers was truly remarkable. A tenant in a lower middle-class locality with little resources but lots of ideas had made a veritable garden, ingenuously, by placing potted tin cans and plastic packs one on top of another, like a pack of cards, to make a mountain of verdure. An innovative live installation, if there was any. Plants, you see, can find their own place in the sun!

Container gardening is fun, no doubt. Every morning you can monitor the milestones the arrival of a new shoot, leaf or bud. You pinch, prune, pluck and goad the plant into taking shape of your design. Or if you so desire, just let it grow wild, a mini forest in your verandah. The plant growth is controlled, literally, under your thumb. You can even go a step further like this bureaucrat who loved trees, but who lived in a flat in a polluted suburb of Mumbai with little space for a garden. He made his plants his trees. He took up bonsai. Bonsai is a not just stunting plant development; it is a fine art not unlike painting or writing. It is not just splashing of colours or stringing together of words; there is a method, a technique to it, and above all, there is the consideration of aesthetics. 

Gardening, as a hobby or an art form, is one of a kind. Plants are a wealth that actually multiplies even as it divides. Where can you find such a miracle that by chipping away the parent tree or by making “cuttings” you generate more offsprings? And the parent tree is none the less for it; on the contrary, it helps the tree flourish further. No asset on this earth can compare in richness to these greenbacks!

Some enterprising people have cashed on exactly this attribute of plants to make money. A “plant boutique” in South Mumbai called Crimson Fern peddles the common variety of houseplants such as dracaenas, coleus, cacti, crotons, and fittonias, albeit with a difference. The containers that house them are its USP. Striking porcelain pots, ceramic cups, odd-shaped mugs, urns, chalices, glass bowls, wicker baskets, bamboo hollows and cane trellises help create table-top masterpieces, great as gift items. Likewise, a place like Leebon Nursery in Wellington flourishes by hacking at its capital and compounding its interest!  This is the ultimate business idea, as far as I am concerned. (I know what I am going to do when I settle down in life.)


But there is no joy as gardening in an open expanse of land, which a place like Wellington offers. Flowers and foliage, for which one may give an arm and a leg in the city, grow wild here. Rock ferns, bracken ferns and many other enchanting varieties of ferns abound here in the nooks and crannies of hillsides near wet streams. According to a local expert, the impatiens or balsams are endemic to this region and grow in the wild in the Western Sholas. In the College, I have witnessed garden nasturtiums discarded by gardeners growing on garbage heaps glowing with health. Its blood red, turmeric yellow and orange flowers are a reminder, a living testimony, of the resilience of plants. And yet, what can be said of man’s persistent efforts to suppress this overriding survival instinct of plants to the point of destroying ecosystems irrevocably?

We city folks have almost forgotten what it means for plants and trees to grow in the wild by natural pollination through birds and bees, wind and water, without interventional care and feeding. Though Wellington is not a representation of the quintessential Nilgiris Biosphere, it is an interesting crucible to study how ecosystems change –for better or for worse – when man interferes with the natural habitat.  

Black-eye susan growing wild 

Nasturtiums, invasive but useful. Flowers and leaves are edible and can be used in salads.