January 25, 2010

Reptile Rendezvous

 By Rebecca Samuel.
 A young participant on the Reptile Biology Workshop '10!
 Madras Crocodile Bank

 Last weekend, while most of my friends were sleeping, facebooking or watching American Idol, I was wallowing in croc muck, wrapping pythons around my  neck, measuring baby turtles, and enjoying every minute.
I was a part of a group that would be staying at the Madras Crocodile Bank for three days to learn more about the fascinating reptiles housed there.

We reached there really early in the morning and slept for a couple of hours.
Now I don’t know about you … but when I’m staying at a Crocodile park with gharials, Caimans and muggers for neighbors … curiosity overtakes exhaustion quite rapidly.
I got out of bed, had a cold bath, slipped my sweatshirt on and went outside.

After breakfast, Soham, the assistant curator of MCBT took us round the whole park and told us about the different species, the breeding patterns, and their overly complicated scientific names.
We measured Batagur Kachuga hatchlings in the morning, after lunch we cleaned a croc pit and rescued fish from among the weeds and muck with our hands while two guys poured more slush over us!
That evening we learnt about turtle taxonomy and the names of the different parts of their shell.

After dinner, we walked through the park again … looked into the glinty eyes of the crocs and found, in my opinion the prettiest snake ever, the vine snake.

The next day, we got up at around 4 AM and went for a snake walk with the coolest people of all time …. The Irulas.The Irulas are basically snake catchers from in and around Tamil Nadu.
The four deadly snakes around there are the Kraits, Russels vipers, Sawscale vipers, and, of course, Cobras, together known as the Big 4.

The Government now allows the Irula to extract Venom from only one snake of each of the Big 4 every month.
We saw two Rat snakes, a Russels viper, and two Sawscale vipers.
After the walk, we had breakfast and nimbu paani and then watched Ally the alligator, Pintoo the salty, and a bunch of other crocs come when they were called, sit, lie down and even jump !! Soham had trained these crocs to respond to their name, and do a load of other awesome stuff as I just told you. They were also trained to respond to colour, yellow indicates positive commands, like come, sit, etc., while blue indicates negative commands like go into the water and such.
After the crocs showed us that their not just big ole’ rocks who have negligible intelligence, we went off to play redecorator with the Batagur Kachuga turtle’s pen.
We made erosion barriers by digging small trenches and placing logs in them. We planted grass and some plants as well.
That evening, we learnt the names of the different scales on a snake using live baby pythons for reference!!
Later on, after some more nimbu paani, we watched a documentary on gharials called
‘Crocodile Blues’ which was about the plight that gharials faced and their close shave with extinction.
The gharials are largely found in the Chambal River system and the Katernia Ghat system. As they are primarily riverine organisms, any harm caused to these two river systems has a drastic effect on the population of the gharials.The gharials were at one point close to extinction and their population was about 600. Breeding programs were started to save them. Thousands of gharials were released into the wild, but, unfortunately, they weren’t monitored so recently, when the gharial population was checked again, there were only 200 left and they were fast dying.

Scientists from all over were sent to India to help find out about and save the gharials from whatever it was that was harming them and causing them to die so rapidly.Tests were done, data was collected, but the reason for the drastic decrease of gharial population was unknown.
The industrialization happening on all sides was encroaching on the gharial’s habitat and threatening breeding patterns and was reducing the space that baby gharials needed to grow into healthy adult reptiles.The gharials have now become slightly more stable and are no longer in as critical danger as they once were.

While I was there, I realized that reptiles are by and large misunderstood.
Most people think snakes are really slimy and icky, but, on the contrary, they are really smooth, rubbery and satisfyingly wriggly when you hold them!!Another common thought is that crocs are absolutely dumb and have brains the size of peanuts and that they hardly move because they’re very stupid.They are actually very smart as I learnt from Soham’s behavioral enrichment!
They also don’t move a lot because they are conserving energy, kind of like the standby mode on laptops!!

This trip has taught me that, no matter what, we’re all part of the same planet; we all need the same air, same food, and (well, not the same food, but food nonetheless!!) a place to live and grow.

This trip has been truly enriching and an experience I won’t be able to forget even if I wanted to (not that I do, of course!).

To be a part of TGMP workshops, write to connect@gerrymartin.in

January 9, 2010

Young Naturalist Camps: Summer '10

 Over the last few years, I have found progressively more children interested in wildlife. The information that many of these already possess is impressive and a lot of them will be able to hold their own in a wildlife quiz contest. Many children are now often glued to wildlife channels and idolize the personalities that they see on screen, doing all the ‘cool stuff’ with various wild animals. Unfortunately, what children lack is the context that goes with knowing which is the biggest, fastest, smallest and (the hot favourite) most dangerous.

This year, your child has the chance to put some context to all that information and to be out in the field working hands-on with people who are established and experts. A handful of children will get the opportunity to attend two very unique workshops run by Gerry Martin.
Both these workshops will span five days and be completely experiential.

The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust

The first will be at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and focus on giving children a hands-on understanding of what it takes to work with wild animals in a captive setting. They will get immersed in the day-to-day running of the park as well as assist in research, husbandry and some veterinary aspects. The group will go out with the legendary Irula Snake Catchers who have been doing this for generations upon generations and are conceivably the best at what they do in the world. What they do is track and capture snakes for extraction of venom. There will be some work to do with the crocodiles as well- there always is with over two thousand crocodiles from 14 species at the park.

Dates: 5th to 9th April. (Depart from Bangalore on and overnight bus on 4th night and return on 10th morning)

• Working with staff on the maintenance of the animals
• Learning about husbandry and veterinary aspects
• Tracking with Irulas
• Learning basics in taxonomy and biostatistics
• Safety protocol while interacting with potentially dangerous animals
• Snakebite protocol
• Creating additional habitat for various species
• Have a whole lot of fun!
Accommodation and Logistics: Kids will stay in gender specific dormitories and sleep either on bunk beds or mattresses on the floor. There are attached bathrooms and meals are at a common dining area.
The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station

Founded in 2005 by Romulus Whitaker with the intension of studying and protecting king cobras and their habitat, the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station now is one of the leaders in king cobra research and conservation globally. In addition, it is also taking up new projects focusing on ecology of various species, community conservation, public education and awareness and more. ARRS is also the first to take on a radio telemetry study on any snake species in the country and the first to do so on king cobras in the world.

Children will now get to do all this! They will learn the skill of radio tracking, actually create study projects, learn field techniques in wildlife census, go out tracking, learn other outdoor survival skills and get a peek into the world of ecology!

Dates:12th to16th April (Depart from Bangalore on an overnight bus on the 11th night and return on 17th morning)

• Assist researchers in the field
• Stream exploration and ecology
• Canopy Access
• Building machaans
• Camera trapping, game tracking, pug mark moulding
• Radio telemetry

Accommodation and Logistics: Kids will sleep in tents in sleeping bags and on camping mats. Meals are at a common dining area and the bathrooms are permanent structures with hot and cold running water.

If you’d like to give your children this opportunity, please write in to gerry@gerrymartin.in OR 
                                                  call Gerry on +91 9845779666.

January 5, 2010

My experience at the Madras Crocodile Bank and Agumbe, India.


 I came to India with the firm intention of learning as much as I could about the herpetofauna of this amazing country. As a budding zoologist and wildlife filmmaker, I was keen to take part in ongoing research and saw this as a great opportunity to follow and promote the doings of dedicated scientists and conservationists.

I spent one month at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, situated 40km South of Chennai on the Coromandel Coast. As well as literally touching the beach, MCBT is an oasis of shade and green in what can sometimes be a hot climate. But the pleasant surroundings were bonus, as I was here to work with crocodiles. Although the volunteer program appeared to be non-existent at first, I quickly got used to the unpredictability of it all and understood that a proactive attitude would get me doing things. Thus, in addition to crocodile and turtle measurements, pen cleaning, crocodile catching, caiman lizard feeding (you’ll agree with me, not activities you do every day back home), I was able to set up food quality control and water temperature studies as well as help put together a series of talks for the Croc Bank to implement in the future. Not only did I learn interesting facts about the 14 different species kept here, but it got me chatting to the public and served as an invaluable educational tool. However, I’m not going to lie, there was also a lot of time off, which could be spent relaxing on the beach, visiting nearby Mahabalipuram or going on “snake walks” with  local Irula tribes men (a good opportunity to get close to India’s “big four” venomous snakes).

Through the Gerry Martin Project I came to learn about the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, the only permanent field base in India, and arranged to spend my second month there. Whether you’re into reptiles, birds, amphibians, mammals or insects, the forest surrounding ARRS is home to a stunning variety of wildlife you’ll never tire of. The station was initially set up to study one animal in particular, the King Cobra, and today volunteers regularly take part in the resulting radio telemetry project. I was trained to use the tracking equipment and was soon sent into the  field where I came within a few  meters of the
impressive creature feeding on an unfortunate  Malabar pitviper. Trekking through the rainforest all day was also a challenging but satisfying experience, and was certainly more my kind of scene. In such a place, possibilities for new projects are endless and so during my stay I helped map out a study site in a nearby areca plantation for future research on Flying lizards (Draco dussumieri) to be carried out. I also co-designed a project whose aim was to assess ant diversity within the ARRS grounds. Every now and again, the ARRS team led by Gowri Shankar, would be called out to a neighbouring village to remove an unwanted King Cobra from a barn or an attic (on one particular occasion I found myself on the same fragile roof as a 11 foot King Cobra!). Thanks to these captures, the telemetry project is in fact expanding with tracking devices being implanted in new individuals. Two days before I was due to leave Agumbe, a group of vets performed a smooth surgery on the beautiful male that had been captured on the roof.

As a photographer and filmmaker, Agumbe was a treasure trove of wild subjects and innovative shots, including green vine snakes, scorpions, barking deer, mongooses, flying lizards, more than fifty species of butterflies and countless frogs. For awesome scenery I just had to trek to Wanakabe falls, a 200 meter high waterfall that seems to simply topple of 
the edge of the Western Ghats, or catch an early ride to Kundadri temple situated on top of a hill and from which I witnessed a gorgeous sunrise.
It’s also the people that make the place and ARRS was no exception. I met many like-minded scientists, photographers, volunteers, etc with whom I could learn and share over a homemade biryani or sambar. All in all, ARRS was really worth the detour.

Jeremy Cusack,
University Of Bristol Alum.




Kings, Kestrels and Kundadri!

Agumbe Rainforest Research Station

By the end of March, Agumbe gets quite hot and dry. However, the rainforests in the valleys along small hill streams are still very pleasant and a lot of the wildlife begins to accumulate closer to the water. This is also the time when many species will start their courtship and mating to have progeny in time with the onset of the Monsoon. One elusive species in particular, becomes suddenly conspicuous!

The king cobra is worshipped in this region. This is probably the reason that Agumbe has arguably the highest density of king cobras in the country. The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) was initially set up to study and conserve the king cobra in the region. To date, ARRS personnel have removed over a hundred king cobras from potential conflict with humans and protected and monitored nests each year spreading awareness about this species and others that share this amazing habitat. ARRS also initiated and runs the first and only radio telemetry study on king cobras.

ARRS also conducts various other research projects and now also has a fully automatic weather station that will contribute data to meteorological and climate change studies.
The Gerry Martin Project is conducting a workshop on Reptile Conservation and Research using the king cobra as its focus but including all the aspects of the fieldwork that the Station is conducting.         
The group will leave Bangalore on an overnight bus to Agumbe on the 25th of March and begin a terrific experience. The focus of this workshop will be learning field techniques for the study of reptiles. In addition to the telemetry and the anecdotal data collection, we will learn about biostatistic field methods, some basic taxonomy and also get the chance to experience these animals in their wild settings.

We will get the chance to look around at night and learn about nocturnal species and their natural history. Early mornings will offer spectacular bird-watching prospects. We will also learn a little about stream ecology by simply observing the various interactions between the animals that live in and around it. 

We will get a chance to head out with the team from ARRS on the king cobra radio telemetry project and learn, first hand, about the methods and protocols that are used in the study. If we are fortunate enough, we will be able to accompany Gowrishankar, the Conservation Officer, on a snake rescue should there be one while we’re there.
To soak in some of the scenery, we will head up to Kundadri Betta one morning and enjoy a wonderful trek to the top and look over the the foot of the Western Ghats!
We will stay in tents and a dormitory, using sleeping bags and camp beading mats. The bathrooms are permanent structures with hot and cold running water and the food is nutritious and served at a common dining area at set times.

Workshop dates: 26th to 28th March '10

For those of you who are interested, please write in to gerry@gerrymartin.in. I hope I see you there!

January 1, 2010


Bringing Value To The Table!

Over the last decade, India seems to have become quite popular to visit. Some come by as tourists, spending a few days to a month at various destinations and take back experiences and memories. Others are here for the long term, working in India’s rapidly expanding corporate realm. To me, the most interesting group is the young ‘gap year student’ or ‘student volunteer’. There is a growing number of young folks who spend a month to a year working on various projects or at NGO facilities.

From interacting with a few volunteers, I realized that there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for them. Almost all of the volunteers took back good experiences and had a great time. They made new friends and grew their networks. However, many felt that their time here lacked purpose and didn’t feel a sense of achievement in the end. They also ‘would have liked’ more structure to their time here’. 

In addition to this, I also observed that most volunteer agencies charge quite a high fee to place volunteers at these destinations or facilities and don’t offer the volunteer much in return. In fact, the facilities don’t get paid all that much either. 

The Gerry Martin Project intends to correct this.  We are working hard to try and make the volunteer experience much more structured, also creating research projects for those interested. 

We are also building our activity base so that volunteers have much more to do at the places we put them. I think one of the most important changes we’re making is that we’re making things cheaper for the volunteer as well as a lot more beneficial to the facility. 

The biggest shift, however, is the perspective with which we are viewing volunteers now. They are no longer simply revenue generators who need to be ‘fit’ into some work or the other but ore a valuable resource base of skill, manpower and perspective. This realization has helped us take the time to get to know our volunteers better. We try to understand their skills and expectations and then create a structure to their time here, optimizing not only their learning but also the value that they bring to the table.

In particular is the work that we hope to achieve with students who come over with the view to build their experience bank before university or those that want to do projects for credits or curricular dissertations. We use our network of scientists and researchers to help design the project and in ideal cases, collaborate in the project. The intention is for this to result in publishable papers and notes. Our first project will start in July on Amphibians in Agumbe! We have been discussing and designing the project for the past couple of months and have brought the volunteer in touch with a researcher here to work together on this project. They plan to submit their paper by the end of 2010.

After a few initial hiccups, I think we’re ready to bring in many volunteers through 2010. We’ve got the facilities set with our collaborations with The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and The Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team. Through the year, we should be able to finalise collaborations with four or five other good facilities around the country.

In time, I’d like this to become an empowering process that enables organizations and individuals working in the field of wildlife and environmental conservation to continue the good work. 

IF you are interested in spending some time in our program, do write in to gerry@gerrymartin.in