A River Runs Through It

The distinct nests of the Crematogaster ants, like oddly shaped footballs suspended precariously from the edge of a branch or jutted between two, remind me that I am in a familiar landscape. They’re quite rare to come by in the central Indian highlands where I now stay. These pagoda nests, as they are called, stand out starkly up in the trees. They are called pagoda nests because their papery roof-like structures made from wood pulp appear to be piled one above the other, like a pagoda temple – an adaptation used by the Western Ghat species of Crematogaster ants to drain off the rain.

I’m looking at a forest that is seven years older since I last saw it – and it looks beautiful – the hills that roll in front of me are straddled with lianas embracing their host trees, and the fruiting of figs has brought together the most iconic of this forest’s species together. The smell of the forest is the only thing that hasn’t changed in all these years – it is still indescribable but remains unforgettable and yearning.

The familiar faces of people that run Kulgi Nature Camp and the familiar traces of trees around this camp bring back some distant memories. Kulgi is situated in Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, a part of the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. There are very few changes in Kulgi Nature Camp – much of the camp remains exactly the same, bearing the same colour even. The conference hall retains its beautiful wooden walls, but is completely transformed from the inside to a well equipped air-conditioned conference hall which looks nothing like what it was before. Kulgi still remains in a network shadow region – no mobile phones work here, and that has probably kept the essence of a truly wild nature camp alive. And then there are the ever prancing squirrels, chital, and other wildlife of Kulgi that reminds you of where you are.

When I had first heard the loud, resonating, metallic laughter of the Malabar Giant Squirrel, it was hard to recognize it as a sound made by a rodent. It reverberates all across the hills and is the sound of this landscape – to hear them sing to you again is as good a gift as is seeing them frolicking in the high canopy. Over the years, I notice that their population has increased – they’re more common now than they were seven years ago – I don’t mean that they were uncommon or rare earlier, but to see about three or four in one glance seemed quite easy this time than before. We saw several of them chasing one another, feeding on curious things on trees (not all fruits, some were also nibbling on stems) – but mostly we heard their calls echo deep in the ravines.

We are here to meet likeminded folks from the institution I work in, The Corbett Foundation, and to be mentored in the lay of the forests from Dr A J T Johnsingh and Dr Asad Rahmani, two eminent naturalists of India. Dr Johnsingh sings when he speaks of the forests – and I listen as if I were listening to a Narnian flute. Dr Rahmani orchestrates the ways of a biologist – and I listen as if I were listening to a canticle. We came to learn to read nature in a language that is unwritten, but can be interpreted by those who’ve been out trying to communicate with it.

Dandeli’s inherent richness has always been close to me. Having come here three times before, once as a student of Bachelor of Science, once as a Master’s, and once as a volunteer for a tiger ungulate prey-density estimation study, I had scoured these hillsides on my knees and elbows (because I kept falling, and crawling was the only way to pass through Calamus rotang), and got bitten and stung by the most nefarious of invertebrates – the infamous ticks and the painful paper wasps – nefarious, but also my most favourite – and fell in love with this landscape that defines the northern Western Ghats.

Being in a network shadow region, the only place for you to make a phone call is on a watchtower looking over one of the many valleys of Dandeli. It is a ten minute, gently uphill walk to the watchtower which is somewhat of a meeting place for strangers – tourists, forest department staff, and locals come here to make calls. On the way lies a waterhole that is visited by elephants. A larger-than-life painting of a leopard, and of a melanistic leopard standing boldly, its golden eyes staring into the actual forests beyond, is erected at the watchtower.

We made dutiful trips to this watchtower – every walk on this road revealed something new. Once I saw a male Malabar Grey Hornbill, a Western Ghats endemic, trying to woo a female by offering her a nuptial gift of a fig from the tree they were sitting on. I stood not fifteen feet from them, and saw him offer five times. On the next he gobbled it himself in the way of a hornbill, by ducking his head backwards to toss it once and then gulp it down whole. The female moved on, and he followed her. A pair of White-bellied Woodpecker flew across the hills in their broken flight when I walked under a tree they were probing. A Malabar Barbet knocked on his copper bell in a continuous monotone, and a pair of Sambar ran from under the skeletal remains of the deciduous trees on the opposite hill when I approached the watchtower.

We also saw fresh elephant dung on the road, and on asking an elderly man if it belonged to wild elephants, he was sure in his reply – it was wild, and he picked up the lump and carried it with him. We found elephant dung twice on this road – perhaps we were unlucky to not have seen this solo elephant – perhaps we were lucky. About 64 elephants are said to inhabit this tiger reserve, looked after by the management with utmost priority for their conservation.

Around the last bend on this road, right before reaching the watchtower is a tree that bears curious scratches that go twenty feet up the trunk. The going-up and coming-down claw marks are quite distinct and could only be the work of a sloth bear, if not a human. My delight in seeing these marks was especially profound since my first ever sighting of a sloth bear was in Dandeli while I was on a transect – I recalled this experience in To each his own  fear. It was also exciting because I was here to present our work on understanding sloth bear-human conflict in the Kanha Pench Landscape in Central India.

The Forest Department has undertaken enormous efforts in the last few years to bring Dandeli-Anshi in the forefront – not only for tourism, but also for the conservation of this landscape. A beautiful presentation by the Mr Srinivasulu, the Field Director, about this landscape is published online.

The rumours of the melanistic leopard, popularly called a black panther, were always around. We made a dusty ride of the reserve to explore the forest with a hope of seeing a leopard, but weren’t lucky to see anything through the dense tropical forests. Mr Srinivasulu informed us that 14% of leopards they camera trapped in 2014 showed different variations of melanism (for more details, read this paper). There is no surprise in telling that I saw none of the black panthers, but to be assured of its presence through proclamations of my colleagues sighting one was heartening (although a little envious!).

On a morning nature walk we stumbled upon the pugmarks of a leopard that had walked nearly a kilometre on this track, probably a day or two ago, not half a kilometre from Kulgi Nature Camp. A night before, I remember hearing alarm calls of Chital from behind the tents. This nature trail, created by the Forest Department exclusively to experience the mixed deciduous forest of Dandeli is an easy but an adventurous walk – halfway on the trail is a waterhole surrounded by tall trees, and by the edge of this drying waterhole we found the dung of an elephant. This dung wasn’t there the day before when we had made a short visit.

I had fervently documented all that I had seen seven years ago (read here), and was delighted to see some of them again. Ants in particular, the Leptogenys, the Crematogaster, the fiery Weaver Ants Oecophylla smargdina that had formed extended colonies spread over entire trees, the effervescent golden-backed ants (Camponotus cf sericeus), and arboreal Polyrhachis and Cataulacus were all a warm sight. What particularly piqued my interest was the high density of the Yellow Crazy Ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes (read about this ant here). I don’t remember seeing this ant in Kulgi seven years ago, maybe I had not noticed them then. This ant, capable of forming super-colonies and threatening the ground-dwelling invertebrate diversity, was the most common species of ant around Kulgi Nature Camp – an indicator of a disturbed habitat. I had proposed a study on the distribution and behaviour of this ant farther north in the Sahyadri closer to Mumbai and Pune cities – and it will be worth considering their distribution all the way down south to Dandeli, and perhaps even further below. What would be interesting to see, after genetic analysis, is whether they belong to different races or belong to one giant super-colony.

To see the signs of most of these animals, whether elephants or ants, and all the things in-between, regularly wandering about the area gives me hope. Dandeli-Anshi landscape is said to have many small hamlets spread over its entire protected area – and living with the wildlife, although with several intrinsic inconvenience of its own, is worthy of note if not celebration.

One of the outstanding things undertaken actively by the government was to do exactly this: to celebrate the connection of the people with the wilderness of the Western Ghats – an important but lesser known birthplace of many prominent rivers.

A river runs through Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve, and it has a name: Kali. This forest is an important catchment of Kali River, a gorgeous river with dark green waters around which the life – human and wild alike – breathes, pulsates, procreates and celebrates as one. A lifeline of a sort for the agrarian communities but with six major dams for hydroelectricity on its already short course of 184 km.

The Forest Department along with noted photographers and filmmakers documented and released a 23 minute film highlighting the landscape that is shaped by Kali Nadi, its spiritual connection with the people of this land, and of the wildlife to which this river is a mother. 

It is available for a modest Rs. 100 at souvenir shops, and can also be viewed on YouTube.

The documentary has won several awards and came to the notice of policymakers – and Kali, a river barely visible from space, was suddenly in the forefront.

On the release of the film, Deccan Herald reported on August 3, 2015 that the government was considering renaming Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve after Kali.

In December 2015, this reserve was officially renamed as Kali Tiger Reserve, after the river that is the heart of this landscape.

This literary change may seem little, but many will see this protected area now not just as a reserve for wildlife, but as a measure to conserve a vital resource that nourishes all life. To me this little change can have a profound emotional and practical significance for its conservation. The more the people know of the priceless value of conserving a river, the more people will believe in conserving a certain stretch of land.

We treaded this river for several kilometres watching Malabar Pied Hornbills gliding above the emerald waters, gazing at forests so thick that no light passed through them, and listening to insects so loud that no other sound would have been louder. To feel the rushing of the river splashing on your face, to drink its waters of the purest form was because of a protected area, and this was a tribute to a river which it deserved from the very beginning.

Nobody claims to have created a river, neither was the river reborn per se, nor was it newly discovered, but it struck a chord – a little nerve that will, I earnestly hope, make us think twice before damming and threatening an entire ecosystem that sustains human and wild life without prejudice.

Kali Tiger Reserve is still young, and faces many challenges ahead – forest fires are common especially in the adjoining territorial forest divisions; over 30 to 40 tigers are said to be present in the 2200 sq km landscape of Dandeli-Anshi-Sharavati valley-Khanapur complex (source) and 64 elephants in Kali alone – monitoring them in this hilly terrain is a daunting task; human settlements are spread over a vast area of the reserve; and hunting is still a menace. Fortunately, all of these concerns are being addressed by the Forest Department, and they’re leaving no stone unturned in tackling them.

It was a pleasure to be amidst the woodlands of Kali once again with experienced naturalists sharing the enthusiasm and concern of conserving India’s natural heritage.

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A River Runs Through It is also the name of a novel by Norman Maclean

The Modern Day Falconer

by Robin Churchill

When I first held Sugar in hand, I was surprised by how heavy she felt – heavy for a bird of that size (think of Shikra found in the Indian subcontinent). She was a Gyr – Saker falcon hybrid, being trained by Robin. That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve been infatuated with falconry, an ancient form of art where man and bird become one. I don’t call it domestication – the bird that sits on the hand of his or her trainer is not domesticated – it is a rare form of art where a wild bird bonds with a human but remains wild in its heart. As a modern-day falconer, Robin helps chase bird populations which are a menace and a hazard in industrial environs, and falcons are the ultimate weapons – far more efficient than using guns – to keep them away.

I’ve had very limited experience with falcons – wild as well as trained – and reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine has made me realize a big gap in my own experiences of the wild. Here, Robin gives a glimpse of his adventures with his companion Shaq.

Baker wrote these words 50 years ago: “The tiercel peregrine hurled down wind and rose on a gusting surge of birds. As the wave broke upward he stabbed down through the heart of it, so that the pulse died and the birds dropped back into the snow. A woodpigeon flew on with the hawk, limp and fluttering in the gin-trap of his foot, spilling red feathers and slow blood” – and Robin recounts his experiences of falconry which sounds surprisingly similar to Baker’s, even today.

In Robin’s words...

Shaq was bred on the West coast of Canada and arrived as a 3-month old sometime in mid-summer. At this point, humans were completely new to him, so the first step was going through a process called "manning." There are a number of different opinions on this subject - on exactly how you should approach it. The goal of the process is to tame the bird so humans and all the other unnatural stimulation the bird will receive are a non-issue in everyday life.
Shaq and Robin
Having worked as for a wildlife management company in Canada that specializes in the use of falconry to deter nuisance wildlife, I've seen my fair share of amazing wild interactions. However, what probably hooked me on the sport more than anything was Shaq, a Gyr/Barbary falcon hybrid.
In those days (a much-less experienced falconer), I subscribed to the "overwhelm the bird with everything you got" method – he sat on a perch in the middle of my kitchen with people and dogs around all the time.

Throughout the process, your aim is to get the falcon to the point where hunger overcomes fear. This does not mean falconers starve their birds - a common misconception. Each falconer takes special care to ensure this doesn't happen by spending countless hours with the bird, building a relationship of trust. When that level of trust finally allows for the falcon to eat food offered by the falconer, the real training begins. The falcon’s body weight is monitored multiple times daily to provide an indication of the bird's hunger level. A fat bird simply will not perform.
Shaq - a Gyr-Barbary Falcon
Starting with full meals from the glove of the falconer, you quickly want to switch the main food source from hand to lure. The small leather lure is used as the main tool for retrieving a falcon that hasn't succeeded in catching its quarry and becomes the most important tool. From here your goal is to: 1. improve the flying skill of the falcon 2. build up the flight muscles of the falcon and 3. introduce the falcon to quarry. In Shaq's particular case I chose to achieve 1 and 2 through the use of a kite. By tying his lure to the kite line and sending the kite up into the sky, I was quickly able to teach Shaq to go higher and higher in the sky, improving his flight and fitness.
Sugar - a Gyr-Saker Falcon. 2010.
Why is this important? Falcons hunt in such a way that typically requires them to take a high pitch. That is, they rely on high position in the sky for the ability to seek out prey that could be miles away, as well as being able to stoop and hit prey that can be potentially twice their size. For a high-flying falcon to be successful with a falconer, and provide the falconer with the greatest show on earth, this high pitch is very important. With enough muscle and flying experience from the kite, Shaq was quickly able to learn about quarry. 
Sugar gazing at Robin. Her keen dark eyes crowned by distinct orbital ridges, and a hooked beak
made her an efficient hunter - and an avid learner. 2010.
Racing pigeons can be a very important tool for falconers training falcons. They teach the bird how to properly position themselves in the sky to be successful. Even the best falcons have a hard time catching racing pigeons, when they miss, they go higher and straighter up to have a better shot the next time they get the opportunity. In the early stages I would throw maybe 2-3 racing pigeons for Shaq to get him hooked, followed by a common pigeon that he could easily catch - positive reinforcing the pigeon hunt. This quickly escalated to 3-4 pigeons when he had enough muscle to sustain that amount of flying (stooping 1500 ft and re-mounting isn't easy!). By this time he had learned the game enough that if a racing pigeon made any mistakes, it would be caught. He was regularly flying 1000-1500 ft up a few times a day.

[Note: Hunting in Canada is legal under specific terms and conditions. The author is a resident of Canada and a licensed falconer, and shares his experiences from his homeland.]
A wild Merlin hunts a Savannah Sparrow in the Carolinas of Manitoulin Islands, Ontario, Canada. 2010.
There truly is nothing on this Earth as amazing as a falcon’s stoop. The speed and acceleration at which they come barreling towards the ground at is actually indescribable. Words do not do it justice. I was privy to this amazing feat multiple times nearly every single day and could not get enough of it. While flying and catching bagged quarry (pigeons that I serve him) is incredibly entertaining, I knew the real fun would come hunting wild quarry. Living where I do in Ontario, the only real option for Shaq was ducks. When Shaq switched to catching ducks, the real fun began.
A pair of Mallard ducks in one of the quaint little lakes in Ontario. 2010.
A typical hunt scenario for a falcon like Shaq goes like this: 1. find a suitable sized (smaller the better, surrounded by land) pond with ducks in it. Be careful of the surroundings as you can hardly ever predict where the chase will happen (power lines, roads, buildings, fences are all issues). 2. Get a safe distance away from the pond - you don't want to scare the ducks away with the commotion involved with letting the falcon go 3. Let the falcon go 4. Wait until the falcon is in position then rush the pond as fast as you can (with no regard for human safety) screaming and carrying on like an idiot to get the ducks to leave. 5. Watch the stoop and wait for a cloud of feathers at the end of it!

The best stories I have of Shaq always involve wild falcons coming in to ruin a hunt. A few particular stories stick out in my mind. While hunting Shaq in Ottawa we chose a small stream next to a horse farm to hunt. There were probably 20 ducks in the stream, with a fair number of obstacles around. Our plan was to get the ducks to flush away from the obstacles and out over the horse pasture. Easier said than done. Ducks (and any birds for that matter) somehow become incredibly intelligent when a falcon is around. For those of you who have no experience with falconry - believe me when I tell you, most birds are not easy to catch. They are way smarter than they show humans - think ducks in a park. These particular ducks, knowing a falcon was about to hit one of them at over 100 mph, decided their best defence was to fly low along the stream and not over the pasture. This didn't stop Shaq from chasing them down the stream full speed, what did stop him was a wild female Peregrine falcon that wanted a piece of the action. She too came right in behind the ducks trying her best to knock one down. All of this occurred maybe 30 ft in front of me!

Once both falcons had decided they lost, they switched their attention to each other. Watching a dog fight 100 ft off the ground between two strong falcons is quite a sight. The female peregrine was nearly twice Shaq's size. Shaq flew at 550 grams, that Peregrine was likely in the neighbourhood of 900 grams. This certainly didn't deter Shaq from trying to chase her away from "his" spot. After about 5 solid minutes of both birds trying to hit one another, the female Peregrine decided it was enough for her and flew off. I called Shaq down with the lure and he was panting like a dog from all the effort exerted. If anything, he got his exercise for the day!

Another time I was flying Shaq near the abandoned airport that I often used to train falcons at. On this particular day I was going to go serve him a bagged duck. I was determined to serve him the duck when he was climbing hard, to teach him that good things happen when he is really pumping to gain more altitude. I personally have a hard time with being greedy when training a falcon - that is, I will sometimes hold out for something better than originally planned - rather than just teach the simple lesson I set out to teach. Of course, that happened on this day. He was climbing incredibly hard and I could've served him on multiple occasions but didn't, I wanted to see how high he was going to go! The issue with this is that you risk serving him after he's quit climbing and just coasting around way up there, not teaching him anything useful. My greed wasn't a fault this time. Just before I wasn't able to see him any more (usually north of 1500') I was able to serve the duck while he was still working at it! Now the second issue when using bagged ducks, is that they don't all fly as well as you would like them. Sometimes they come out of the launcher and fly 10' and give up!
A Peregrine, this one from the Greater Rann of Kutch in India, takes to wing. It flew over a Greylag Geese, almost twice
its size, making it uneasy enough to flap its wings and later fly in the opposite direction of the Peregrine's.
Again, on this day, I got lucky, and got a really strong flier. The duck took off fast and was climbing hard straight downwind of Shaq's position. When he winged over into the stoop the duck was already 25' up off the ground and moving. I lost sight of Shaq because of the angle he was coming down at so I knew to immediately switch focus to the duck, I picked Shaq up when I heard him sizzling through the sky (Yes - you can actually hear them cutting through the wind). He was moving faster than I had ever seen him move and the stoop took longer than usual due to his higher-than-normal position.

When he finally hit the duck, it was directly in the back of the head, killing it on impact. Now, that typically would have made my day, but I got a bonus this particular time. A wild tiercel Peregrine came stooping out of the heavens right behind Shaq and drilled the duck before it even managed to hit the ground! By the time the duck hit the ground, both falcons were coming in hot to claim their prize.

Knowing the danger another raptor can present, I immediately started sprinting towards them. The two falcons were wrestling each other on the ground when I got there, but the wild bird took off as soon as I arrived. Shaq, no worse for wear, hopped onto the duck and finished his daily meal. What a rush!

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About the Author: Robin Churchill

Robin is a graduate from University of Western Ontario, and a Biologist at Predator Bird Services, Canada. He’s an expert falconer, and has conducted research on the distribution and abundance of submerged aquatic vegetation and dreissenid mussels in the inner Long Point Bay, Lake Erie. He’s an avid ethical hunter, trainer of dogs, and a fierce conservationist; prefers to spend time in the wild, and is rare to find on social media. His work has been showcased here.
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This work is © Robin Churchill and has been published with his permission. All the views expressed in this article are that of the author. No part of this article can be used without prior permission of the author. Please write to me for more information.