February 11, 2010

Red flags are hoisted. Now let's save the planet.

I find more people interested and even 'passionate' about wildlife today than ever before.Wildlife and nature photography is a widespread hobby and even career.There are children from the first grade onwards who want to grow up to be conservationists, biologists and field researchers

All this is very heartening and it provides me with a massive injection of hope that we might actually be able to make a difference in the much-proclaimed green battle. So, now there are tonnes of places that you can go to and watch wildlife on safari or trek. Companies offer tailor-made tours and experiences, there are vied-for Masters' level courses in Wildlife Biology and dedicated channels to nature and wildlife. The Internet provides all kinds of options from PDF files to interactive pages where we can learn more about the natural world and even discuss points and issues with experts.
Climate change and global warming are globally hoisted red flags.We know all about the effects of deforestation and pollution.Poaching and encroachment are scorned at and we separate our garbage. So, why is it so hard for us to simply get this planet back on track so that it doesn't collapse on top of us? Is it a bit strange that folks that know better continue to pollute, waste and exploit natural resources? Why do school kids not bother carrying a water bottle to school instead of using throw away plastic glasses? Why do bank statements come along with numerous other brochures, fliers and miscellaneous pieces of paper that get thrown away? Why do we allow eight to ten 1000Watt halogen bulbs to light up a billboard while we have shortages in electricity? I could go on till the cows come home after having grazed on heavy metal-filled grass.
I have a theory. It might be simplistic, but give it a thought.When I was a kid, I could cycle between school and home without worry.There'd be stopovers to catch fish at some pond or grab a game of football or cricket on the road with some friends. The 20-kilometer ride was filled with experiences. For a child who was always crazy about animals, there was always something happening. There were trees to be climbed everywhere, swimming was fine in most of the lakes in and around Bangalore and there was no black soot on our faces at the end of each day. Unless we experimented with fire.
My theory is that we refuse to take our planet seriously because we are not connected with it anymore.We hide from the rain, fear most animals (including rabbits as I've seen with visitors to my farm), don't notice a tree being torn down and couldn't care less about some remote forest that is being destroyed to allow a mine or road or 'Nature Resort'.There's not much else that we can expect. 
How can I say to a child that has never seen pelicans and painted storks in lakes around Bangalore that they are in terrible condition? Why bother cleaning up a lake when you never need to eat a fish from it? I believe that we have to get back to being a part of this planet. Even if it is a compartmentalized-on-weekends type of thing. It removes 'sacrifice', from the things we need to give up or stop. Children love it. Really.

The good news is that it's not too late.We don't live within a glass dome that processes air for us, yet.We can head out. Cycle on Sundays. Go pitch a tent out in the wilderness. Join a trek group. Take your kids fishing.Learn fishing. 
Buy a camera and photograph nature all around us. Simply connect.

Gerry Martin.

February 9, 2010

Sit. Up. Come. Stay.

 Teaching an old dinosaur new tricks, unlocks ancient animal secrets.
“Ally," young Soham Mukherjee beckons."Ally come," he coaxes. And Ally shows up, compliant and prompt. "Ally come" he repeats. And she presses forward as commanded. He spells out more instructions
to prove his student's competence. Ally dips lower and rests on the ground to Mukherjee's "sit"; she hoists her body as if doing a push up, when he says "up". Then he instructs her to "stay".With her head tilted up, she obeys motionlessly. The impeccable student performs flawlessly with a cute leap as her response to "jump". 

As the afternoon's open air sessions progress, a swarm of students watch from across a wall with plunging jaws and hisses of incredulity. The absolute and immediate adherence by Mukherjee's enthusiastic pupils could be classified as trivial amusingtricks. But for the fact that his students are a bask of crocodiles.Mukherjee, the assistant curator at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, (MCBT) Chennai that is home to over 2,000 crocodilians of 14 different species, takes time to introduce his trainees, which include sub-adults of five species - Ally the teacher's pet, is an American Alligator,Mik a Saltwater Crocodile, Thai and Komodo are Siamese Crocodiles, Abu is a Nile Crocodile and Pintoo is a Mugger Crocodile.
Mukherjee's lessons to these reptiles are also called Enrichment Training, which is part of Behavioural enrichment.To the baffled, he explains: "Animals in captivity can be extremely bored with nothing to do and so enrichment is essential to keep them happy and healthy. Environmental
enrichment typically includes providing a close-to-nature habitat (e.g. perches, logs, rocks, misting, waterfall, different smells, leaf litter, etc) to allow and encourage natural behaviour in the animals."
While "Training" or "Target Training" is part of behavioural enrichment that allows the animals to "do something" and gives them some relief from monotony, so teaching them to respond to these instructions "engages them physically and also keeps them mentally active", he says.He also points out that training the crocs is a valuable management aid. "Dangerous animals ike crocodiles go through a lot of stress while being restrained for any reasons like veterinary intervention. To make the process smooth, crocs can be trained to enter specially designed wooden crates with windows on the sides. These boxes are compact which does not allow turning around in any way. Once the crocodile goes in, you close the door and do all the necessary check-ups, administer medication, take samples for the lab, etc, with no safety issues and minimal stress to the animal. 
Also crocodiles can be trained to be 'desensitised', which means taking the animal's physical comfort to such a level that it ignores and tolerates almost all physical contact. Drawing blood samples, monitoring their health and diet becomes easy when they are desensitised." Mukherjee traces his journey back to a year ago, when he first started training the six crocodiles, which are around six years old. While a keen herpetologist, Mukherjee confesses to glaring scepticism when the idea was first mentioned to him by veteran German herpetologist Ralf Sommerlad, who has been involved in crocodilian biology and conservation for over three decades. Recounting his early lessons, he says that he started with 15-minute training sessions at 3pm with each crocodile from his training group.
"Crocodiles in general are quite shy. It's only with some behavioural conditioning [associates a particular activity, on completion of which animal gets a reward - usually food, fish or beef in this case] that
they become a bit bold. Young animals are warier. They probably see humans as predators and in a captive scenario, a source of food, nothing more.Winning trust of such animals is surely a bit tricky," he admits. The first chapter of the curriculum is to get the animals to recognise their names, he reveals. Mukherjee cites Ally's example: "I'd call out 'Ally' and then throw a piece of meat. After a couple of days, she'd wade to the water's edge every time I called her name. I use a stick with which I tap the crocs gently on their snout after each command is obeyed." This first achievement, which was Ally's response, got him excited and soon he began to be astounded by his reptilian students. "It's important that the training is done at the same time every day. And each animal would get only 15 minutes; this makes them look forward to the next day's
training. And it usually takes about five to six sessions to make them learn a command." "After some intense training days, they all had chosen their 'spots' where they would come and wait for the training.

There is no training on Mondays, and every Monday you could see them getting ready at around 3pm for the
training. This meant that they were enjoying the activity. And they could calculate time of day. More amazingly, they could also calculate day of the week," he says proudlyIt isn't just crocs that hate monotony, but even Mukherjee tries to keep his classes fresh. "I am always trying to innovate and see if the crocs will respond to new commands.So once we were through with regular target training commands
practised elsewhere in the world, I tried newer commands. Inspired by a YouTube video I taught Rambo a 45 year old Mugger Crocodile to open his mouth, and I also teach crocs to walk on a ramp, which gives them a bit of exercise."Handing out a report on his pupils, he says: "Ally is bold, but if she hears noise she'll go back. She's a good example for a desensitised croc. Pintoo learned a command by just watching me train Ally and I had never imagined that crocs could be so smart. Mik is a bit shy; it took me the longest to train her, about 15 sessions. Thai and Komodo would lunge out of the water suddenly and run in the exact same manner.
I currently train 26 crocodiles. Having a dog of my own, I feel that training crocodiles is much
easier than training a dog."
When asked if he has arrived at conclusions based on the responsiveness of the animals, Mukherjee answers that Alligators and Spectacled Caimans are highly intelligent and are fast learners, Nile Crocodiles are slightly more arrogant, winning trust with Dwarf Caimans is extremely difficult, and males are bolde than females. But each individual animal has its own personality. Since the trend of training crocodiles is relatively new,Mukherjee says that Internet doesn't necessary have a wealth of 'how to train crocodiles' resources and it was Sommerlad, who is currently involved in a crocodile conservation project in Kalimantan, Indonesia, who got him started with the Enrichment Training project.

Although Target Training of reptiles is new, he says that a heartening conclusion can be arrived at: Crocs of all species, ages and sizes can be trained. Mukherjee couldn't agree more: "I was so amazed by the fact that crocodiles assess their immediate environment so well and figure out a way in which they get the maximum benefit. Learning tricks that are completely unexpected and which sometimes include problem-solving skills disproves the age-old impression of them being highly instinctive animals." While Patrick Aust, director, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust acknowledges the benefits of the training, he also views it as a powerful tool to educate people about theseotherwise conceived-as-creepy reptiles. "It helps people understand that reptiles are very much like dogs and cats and they think and interact like us. And it helps educate people about animals that are misunderstood," he says. 

"Ally can respond to 10 commands," Mukherjee says like a proud father. Once Ally performs the commands and earns herself a piece of red meat. "Ally water," says Mukherjee gently tapping her snout with a bamboo stick. And she whips her tail before obediently lunging back into the water and wading to become a pair of attentive eyes.


February 1, 2010

Taking in the Monsoon!

Of Coracles and Cobras. 

From the beginning of June, Peninsular India starts coming alive. The air gets humid, there are showers every now and then and the small animal life gets ready to explode. By the middle of June, the Monsoon has set in and insects, amphibians and reptiles all come out. Numerous species time their offspring’s birth with the coming of the rains so that there is plenty to eat. Fresh shoots and leaves, countless insects and frogs become part of a very frenzied web for about two months.                                                                                
This heightened ecological dynamic is best experienced in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs along almost the entire Western Coast of India. These mountains form one of the 34 global Biodiversity Hotspots. With the coming of the rains, it becomes obvious why this region is so ecologically valuable to the planet.  

The Monsoon in the Western Ghats is my favourite time in my favourite place. So, to share this, I take a group of Nature enthusiasts on a trip through some of the best parts of the Ghats each year. This year, I will be escorting a group of people from the UK through what might be an experience of a lifetime for some of them at my favourite locations. 
We actually start on the East Coast at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/ Centre for Herpetology. Founded by Romulus (Rom) Whitaker over thirty years ago as a secure gene pool for all three Indian crocodile species. 

It has since evolved to be a flagship in herpetological research and conservation in the country. Here, we will get a chance to experience crocodiles, turtles and snakes first hand.
We will immerse ourselves in the work that is going on and contribute our services to learn in return. We will also get to interact with people who are at the helm in reptile conservation in India. 
While we are at the Croc Bank, we will also accompany the legendary Irula Tribesmen on their hunt for snakes for venom extraction. The Irula used to track and capture snakes for the skin industry until the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 put an end to all that. To continue their livelihood without losing the many generations' old skills that they had developed, they founded the Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative Society under Rom’s guidance.

 Today, some four hundred families go out into the fields around their villages and find four species of venomous snakes- the spectacled cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper- to bring back to the cooperative for venom extraction. Venom is extracted once a week from each snake for three weeks before the snake is released back into the wild, making this the most sustainable venom extraction centre in the world! The venom is used in the production of antivenom as well as medicines and medical research. 
After three days, soaking in all the learning and experience, we will board a train that will take us across the peninsular, almost due east to Mysore, where we will be picked up and driven to Hunsur, a town at the base of the Western Ghats in the state of Karnataka. 
While at Hunsur, the group will be briefed in safety protocol before a visit to the Nagarahole National Park in the hope of seeing some large game. This is one of the country’s best National Parks and boasts species such as tigers, elephants, gaur, leopard, sloth bear and numerous other smaller species. We will also go for a boat ride in the Ranganthittu Wildlife sanctuary to observe nesting birds as well as wild marsh crocodiles. We also stand a very good chance to spot wild otters here. 

Back at the camp in Hunsur, we will explore the lake and its surroundings and find numerous reptiles and amphibians. Checkered keelback water snakes (Xenochropus piscator) are obviously very common. However, there are also other interesting snake species like kraits (Bungarus caeruleus), vine snakes (Ahaetulla nasuta), rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa), spectacled cobras (Naja naja), Russell’s vipers (Daboia russelli) and many others. There are many geckos and other lizard species as well and we will see around twenty species of frogs here from coin sized Microhyla ornata to the pigeon-sized bull frogs (Hoplobatrachus crassus.) 
We can take the coracles out to do some night fishing and also get a chance to look at the diverse life in the lake from crabs and shrimp to giant carp and eels. Nighttime is also great to spot soft-shell turtles swimming in the lake. 
From here, we enter the true Ghats and head to The Agumbe Rainforest research Station.  Another facility founded by Rom, ARRS is only five years old. It was started with the intention of studying and conserving the king cobra in its natural habitat. ARRS now runs and supports many projects under its umbrella. There is pioneering ecological and behavioural work being conducted on the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). Other on going work includes ecological research on various reptiles and amphibians, morphological variation in Malabar pit vipers (Trimerusurus malabaricus), photographic inventory of all herpetofauna, birds, butterflies and small mammals and an educational outreach program.

While at the base, we will build skill in radio telemetry, learn some canopy access techniques, look for reptiles all around the base, visit a waterfall, join researchers in their fieldwork, get attacked by thousands of leeches, see some of the hundreds of reptile and amphibian species found in the region and explore a stream and the ecological bounty in and around it. 

We might even be fortunate enough to visit a king cobra nest if ARRS personnel find any this year and monitor and protect them. So far, ARRS has monitored and protected nests every year since its inception and ensured that over two hundred young have hatched safely.

Gowrishankar, the conservation officer at the base has also removed over a hundred king cobras from potentially dangerous situations in villages and towns nearby to release these snakes unharmed in adjoining forests. This has provided him with a platform from which to spread the word of conservation amongst the local communities around Agumbe. 
After three tremendous days at Agumbe, we will drive westward to the coastal town of Gokarna. Here, on the windward side of the Ghats, we will get a chance to rest and recover from the arduous experiences of the three previous locations. Still, Gokarna is on the coast and there is much to be seen and learnt here as well. We will be staying at a place called Ohm Beach and weather permitting, be able to snorkel, looking for sea snakes or simply look around nearby fields and forest patches around our resort. 

The last two days of this trip will be spent in Goa! At the Coconut Creek Resort, we will be able to relax but also do some of the touristy things like buy souvenirs, visit some tourist sites and simply lounge around. Again, we will not be without wildlife as Goa has numerous places that we can visit to observe wildlife. There are also reptiles and amphibians throughout the towns and even in the cities. 

If you are interested in visiting India for an experience like this, get in touch with Paul Smith at paul@partnershiptravel.co.uk.  

I hope I see you there!  
Gerry Martin