The First Long Flight

Phapha sat on the dashboard of the car, clueless of where he was going. He sat in a position that meant he was exhausted, scared, and unsure of what had happened and would happen. When the car came to a halt, he made no move. He was picked up by two hands cupping his wings, and was placed carefully on the table. He wore the fully-adorned plumage of myriad shades of blues, with subtle hues of crimson sprinkled on the brown-streaked neck – the shades and hues typical of the elegant Neelkanth, the Indian Roller, Coracias benghalensis. The only noticeable characters were a shorter-than-usual tail, and yellow gape flanges typical of a fledgling – a teenager of the birdlife – whose curiosity is greater than fear, and who’s more eager to spread wings than stay nestled.

He sat in the same manner when he arrived – the pose he retained until he found a suitable place to perch upon – and looked at us intently as we observed him for any injury. He appeared healthy but incapable of flight: several of his primaries were missing, and a black mass, probably the result of burning, seemed to have damaged further down to the sheath that covers a new feather. As I made a box, in which he spent most of his nights, he sat and made my bag his perch – where he sat for more than half of his stay. The box was completely open from a side and a branch, inserted near the lower-bottom frame of the box – served as a comfortable perch. After a few drops of glucose, he sat inside for the rest of the day and into the night.

The summer mornings are pleasant until the sun rises four fingers high. Phapha stirred before I did on his first morning, and hopped and sat on my bag again. I decided to venture out into the verandah, wondering what could possibly be the best food for this little bird. Phapha had not eaten in more than a day, and I was getting worried.

The Indian Roller is a common bird of the Indian countryside – more at home in the vast expanses of scrub and grassland habitats than dense forests – where they perch on the edge of plantations or commonly on electric wires and scan the ground for insects. The name, Indian Roller, comes from its habit of rolling midair during courtship display. Their dance – which begins around March and is a common sight in the central Indian skies – is a spectacle worth watching. The males fly up high in the sky, and roll back down as if on a swing, like a trapeze artist, calling out to the spectators – usually a female perched somewhere in his vision – in a rather shrill, bark-like, call.

Their breeding season begins with such dances, and mating occurs shortly afterwards as days become hotter. I consider this time unusual for breeding, especially for birds that rely so much on open spaces for food, but the rollers seem to have adapted to this season by nesting inside tree cavities. How they tirelessly feed their chicks in this hot season I cannot fathom, and I had a glimpse of it when Phapha came to us.

Phapha was born on an ancient Banyan tree in a quaint little village in central India. His parents had made home in a hollow in one of the many of the tree’s arms. Phapha might have had the best memories of the place – a tree as wide as a playground for a small bird to play on, surrounded by houses and agricultural fields which must have served as an endless source of food. I wondered what his first glimpse outside the hollow beheld – did he see the tree as the playground, and houses where food hid? He must have jumped off his perch, and stumbled upon the thinner branches of the tree when he thought his time to explore had come. Sometime during his solo adventures he must have fallen into the hands of children playing around; a moment that changed his life completely.

A kid held the end of a rope that was tied to Phapha’s legs, and the children were sitting and playing with this young bird when my friends intervened, but the only intervention sought from the elders around was that the children are children, let them play and then they will leave him, they said. Phapha’s rescue was bought for a sum of five rupees, and he was taken from them, untied, and kept on the dashboard of the car. I was quite unaware of what befell this young bird until I heard the complete story. Why was the bird not put up back up the tree, where his parents would have been waiting? What should have been told to the kids, who had no clue that tying the bird is harmful for it? But Phapha was here, over a hundred kilometers from his home, clueless of where he was, and he was hungry.

Studies by Sivakumaran and Thiyagesan (2003) on the ecology of the Indian Roller have shown their preference towards beetles (Coleoptera), grasshoppers (Orthoptera), and then members of Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera; they are also known to eat reptiles such as lizards and small snakes. When I walked among the shriveled grasses on Phapha’s first morning, I pondered over what he could possibly eat – and his potential food hopped right off my path and sat on a grass blade – a grasshopper. Catching grasshoppers is not an easy task. Although you see them everywhere, getting close to them and having to use your fingers to grab them requires a lot of patience, and skill. Both of which I lacked severely. I caught eight of them of the thirty or so I tried, and brought them back to where Phapha sat on his favourite perch.

To my delight, he ate them all in no time – but that meant that I had to catch more. And to catch more I had to persuade more people to help me catch more grasshoppers with me. We devised a small bamboo-framed triangular net called phapha net, to catch grasshoppers. In that day we fed Phapha with eighty grasshoppers of varying sizes – from less than an inch to over two in length. Catching grasshoppers, called phapha in Baigani (a dialect spoken by Baiga tribes of central India), became a morning and evening exercise, and thus he came to be named Phapha himself, partly also because he hopped like one wherever he went.

On the morning of the next day, I saw a small pellet lying outside his box, comprising all the indigestible parts of the grasshoppers he gobbled up whole – and in it were remains of legs, wings, and assorted unintelligible parts. I found it difficult to select beetles to feed him, since some are unpalatable even though they appear edible, and this made me think about Sivakumaran and Thiyagesan’s paper which shows beetle parts as a major component of a roller’s pellet. Although there is no doubt that beetles are a part of their diet, I think they do not contribute significantly to their diet, one of the reason being that beetles are rather small, and difficult to spot when the birds perch up high. Or, that beetle parts are mostly hard and indigestible, and hence appear more commonly in pellets than other insects.

I kept a track of how many grasshoppers Phapha ate, and at times, when we could manage to catch as much as a hundred, he ate as many in a day. Slowly, however, we grew tired of catching grasshoppers in the day, and I substituted his diet with raw chicken. This showed some interesting facets of Phapha.

By the end of a week, Phapha had become accustomed to be eating from my hand – and would hop closer to me whenever I sat on the bed, making a shrill kree-kree sound when he was hungry and I was around. On a fine Sunday morning as I sat to read Jeff Corwin’s 100 heartbeats: the race to save Earth’s most endangered species, Phapha who was sitting on his favourite perch hopped and landed on my shoulder, and made it to my head, and sat there watching out the window. His gaze fell on everything that flew past his eyesight. I was reading about the Heath Hen that became extinct in the Americas, and of the success of bringing Bald Eagles a step back from the valley of extinction. Later that day, I read these words (quoting Jeff Corwin): “…we keep it alive because we should. We do it because we take responsibility for this bird’s plight. We do it because we are responsible for its plight”. (pp 32).

My thoughts went back to Phapha and at countless other animals caught from the wild, and tied, and toyed with.  I felt a deep sense of regret when I looked back at Phapha; his life that seemed to have faded from his eyesight without his knowledge. That he, although untied and uncaged, was living within four walls of a human habitat separated by a glass that kept him from venturing out. Rescuing an animal is easier said than done, but it is easier – far more easier – than rehabilitating it.

I faced an ethical conundrum. Rescuing an animal hurt by humans is ethical, but if the animal is injured by a natural cause, I think it is unjustifiable. Had Phapha been a victim of a mongoose or a snake attack, rescuing him would have meant hurting the mongoose or the snake that had every right to do what they’re evolved to do. However, rescuing Phapha from humans with intentions to use it for mere entertainment seemed the most ethical thing to do, as ethical as rescuing a leopard that fell in the well. My heart went out to the elders who said that the kids are just playing with it – would they be so casual if they found a tiger playing with theirs – I wondered, but shrugged at that thought, for it is too inhuman, too sensitive, too cruel to think of. What of Phapha then, I ask.

Phapha’s plight is but a symbol of what millions of birds go through when they are cramped in cages, even in bottles, to be sold as displays, toys, or used for superstitious rituals. But Phapha made me think of the ethics of rescues – his rescue is justified because he was in danger from humans, but had he been put up back on the tree, his parents would have accepted him, and fed him – but he would have never been away from harm, since the kids knew where he came from. His rescue was also highly doubtful because we were unsure of whether he would survive such a shock. During his initial days, I kept observing his primaries – he had lost four of them from the root – to see signs of their growth, but all I saw was a black smoldered spot that appeared as though his feather would never grow back. He started losing several of his other primaries and tail feathers, but he always ate plenty.

He did not take liking to chicken at first – he was accustomed to the jumping, crunchy grasshoppers than the slimy, dead, wet chicken pieces, but he slowly developed a taste for it. Whenever he was done eating, he would vigorously shake his head if I offered more. Sometimes when I came back with a few morsels, he would shake his head when he saw me entering the room – signaling me that I’m full, or saying no, not chicken again!

To reduce his dependency on us, we decided to open an empty, large room, and rested his box near the window. He now had a large space to explore, safer than he would have been without wings in the open. I stopped offering him food from hand, and instead threw it around him for him to catch. And he gobbled phaphas, and ate chicken, and puked pellets and shat all over the room. I kept a track of his lost primaries every two-to-three days, but they looked like lifeless little holes. It was quite discouraging really, that after more than a week Phapha was as helpless as he was when rescued. Many of the people remained discouraged, and questioned the ethics of sacrificing grasshoppers for one bird’s survival; that he would never fly again, and the best for him was to release him and let the nature take its course. I relented partly, because a bird in a cage is as good as a bird dead – Phapha’s fate was sealed when he was captured first. I kept him and his box outside my window under a banana tree, and he quickly came out and sat on top of the box. I sat a few yards away. Phapha made no move, but then he slowly started hopping about in the undergrowth – but he could never reach to any branch of a tree around. Deciding that he was not ready for the outside world yet, he was back in his room, eating phaphas and chicken.

By this time Phapha had eaten more than 500 of grasshoppers, some put the figure between 800 and a thousand.

[If this number is related to the number of grasshoppers eaten by rollers in agricultural fields, they seem to be very efficient at removing grasshoppers from fields, and are as much a farmer’s friend as an earthworm. In my expeditions of keeping a stock of grasshoppers, I also came to realise that grasshopper poop – which appears like tiny pellets pointed at two ends – can be a great source of fertilizer which can be derived by feeding grasshoppers with weeds in agricultural fields (but that’s another topic).]

But by then people were fed up with me more than with Phapha, since he demanded a lot of them, and the cruel nautappa, the season of extreme heat and humidity in central India, was at its peak, making hunting for grasshoppers an exhausting task. After a few more days, albeit being pessimistic, I decided to release him again. And in deciding his fate I somehow declared myself god. Who am I to decide this for him – not once but twice – what if he required more time to recover?

On the morning of June 4, fourteen days after Phapha first came to us, I happened to check his primaries after several days – and I saw all the stubs sprouting little folded, wrinkled, deep-blue feathers – like first leaves of spring. I was overjoyed. What prompted me to check I know not. Over the next few days, I observed he was able to maneuver sophisticatedly while reaching out to catch grasshoppers on the floor; he was able to see them from over five-to-six feet away, chase after them if they hopped off, and would perch gracefully on the arm of the bed. His chuckling voice (sounds as chhuckk-chhuckk) – typical of the adults – and his practice of bill-up laughter displays became frequent.

I started feeding him more of chicken than grasshoppers because it became physically nearly impossible to find so many for him – and I wonder how parent rollers manage to feed their chicks in this oppressive heat –, and by June 11, he flew well around the room, but he wasn’t able to sustain his flight for long, neither could he fly up the table if he sat on the floor eating.

My early days with Phapha were divided into the time I had to feed him, which I calculated at every two hours from 7 or 8 AM to 6 PM, with a 3 hour long break during the hot afternoons. He had become quite accustomed to this timing, and when he started flying a little, I made his feeding time irregular. I would infrequently enter the room, and whenever I did I would let grasshoppers all around for him to find and eat, and forced him to keep changing his positions in the room for a little exercise.

We received our first monsoon rains on June 14. It poured sweetly all afternoon, and calmed the weather by several degrees. Winged termites and ants, velvet mites, and tiger beetles left their earthly homes to venture out in the open. Grasses sprouted, and the life of monsoon spun into action.

Phapha, by then, was excellent at flying short distances. On June 17, he flew all around the room without crashing into anything or taking a pause, but most elegant was the way he landed – by carefully flapping his wings with his eyes set on the perch, stretching his feet, and grabbing onto the arm of the bed.

Phapha seemed to be ready for the wild, for he often sat near the window more than ever, and on June 20, exactly after a month from he was rescued, Phapha’s box was kept atop an old Palash tree. This spot was in a secondary forest, away from any village. Several other trees stood around, and green grass grew at their feet, rich with bouncing grasshoppers. The morning we decided to release him was cold and it was drizzling. After placing the box on the tree, Phapha immediately came out and sat on the platform created by one of the box’s flaps. And he sat there for an entire five minutes, chuckling and looking around at other birds flying by. We sat a few yards from him. And as the sun shone behind him, and into my eyes, Phapha took his first long flight, away from those who tied him, away from those who released him, and disappeared behind a vast treeline overshadowed by monsoon clouds. And he never looked back.

The Endless Forest Effect

The road wound around shoulders of a number of mountains, past terraced fields ripe with wheat, and dived into valleys where bridges could not be built, and from this mountaintop to that it went, offering vistas of the Shivalik – the outer mountain range of the Himalaya –, where scars of landslides are seen everywhere, and only a handful shrubs take hold of the crumbling crowns of these ancient monuments. We stopped on the arm of a mountain that protruded into a gentle slope, at the last village on the mountain, for a meeting and a little ceremony of distributing solar lanterns to the residents of Amotha, 1290m from the mean sea level.
Amotha Village lies under the crown of one of the Shivalik mountains
Standing atop the edge of this Shivalik, I took a deep breath and inadvertently closed my eyes. The sun shone gently to my east, and a distant rumble of clouds rolled over beyond the mountain, coming from the way of the snow-clad Himalaya that lay further north.
a path cutting through the mountain-side; and a fraction of Amotha's rich biodiversity
From top right - Purple Sapphire, Blue Rock Thrush, Pied Bushchat
Earlier I espied a Purple Sapphire basking on a little herb on a small landslide south of the village, a Dark Clouded Yellow gliding gently over a bunch of asters, and a Blue Rock Thrush, Pied Bushchat, and a Himalayan Bulbul, all singing from their respective perches alongside a narrow path on the edge of the mountain slope – perhaps of the coming storm, or of the golden light that changes hues as one approaches, or simply to find a mate to spend the storm in shelter with.
Landscape from Amotha Village - the interface between the village boundary and the forests is distinct
And then I felt something that one feels only when you’re unbound – that you’re in the right place at the right time – here is where you were meant to be, and there you were, soaking in the moment with that realization. And then I saw in a blue tinge as I opened my eyes – the vast forest stretching southwards for as far and I could see – for eons, if one were to walk through it.

Only a day ago, I was in the most polluted city of India trying to find a place to sit before I boarded the train. The traffic across the street roared from sunrise to sundown. This city lies several hundred miles south of where I stood on that mountain, and the thought of chocking on pollution crept over my mind like the storm – dark and menacing – as I stood on the edge. A foreboding realization loomed over my unbound thoughts, cascading over the beautiful imagery that my senses helped built, that this forest that stretches for eons in front of you is actually an illusion – that it is fenced – that this feeling is nothing but forewarning of the end.

We crept back to where we came from as the sky darkened, and went down the valley looking at the pale-purple Kachnar flowers, and trees laden with innumerable orchids, ferns, and a shy pair of Himalayan Goral (Naemorhedus goral), a wild mountain goat. The Dabka River emerges from these high passes, and flows through the mysterious forests of Sitavani that is full of myths and legends. From the mountains the river is seen cloaked in a pale green glow emanating from the handsome Sal trees in bloom. They resemble little flecks of pale snow, only that they are scented in the subtlest of fragrance no man can describe.
Sal trees hugging the large expanse of Dabka River under the shadow of Shivalik Ranges
The Shivalik foothills are clad in Sal trees, and here you can see the tallest order of them stretching as far as you can see. It is only at the edge of wheatfields that you see them finished. Along the shore of the rivers, they seem to stop, and bow in a gentle curve that appears to be protecting and praying to the river. In afterthought, they hug the river but do exactly the opposite with human settlements – they loom if they are not standing straight, and appear distant and tortured if not angry.

The Dabka River is a small river by local geographical standards, but its vast shore of pale-pink stone, and its shroud of pale-green forests harbours a world as the world should be – with Great Indian Hornbills gliding in its canopies, elephant parades crossing over from the mountain pass, and leopards and tigers calling this Sita’s forest their abode. If I say that this world is a world as it should be, it is only here, surrounded by monocultures of rice and wheat, that it exists. And for most it is considered an unforgiving place to live in.
A mountain village with terraced fields viewed from Adalikhal
The life in the mountains is full of struggle, many maintain. And most who say this have seldom climbed a mountain. Life here is tough, and in this toughness is born the will to live. The people of the Himalaya are as much a part of the landscape as the trees and the tiger. Lt. Col. Edward James Corbett, whose Gurney House in Kaladhungi now remains open as a museum, recognized this in his hunting sojourns, but he remains celebrated more for hunting of maneaters and killing of guiltless tigers. The link between the people and the forest is recognised in Corbett’s My India he wrote after bidding farewell to India – in its very title – a book he dedicated to the “simple, honest, brave, loyal, hard-working souls whose daily prayer to God [...]”, and “[…] people, who are admittedly poor, and who are often described as ‘India’s starving millions’, among whom I have lived and whom I love […]”.
The Valley of Mandal River as viewed from Malai Khan, a Van Gujjar Khatta
In the deep forests on the outer fringe of Corbett Tiger Reserve, we met Fatima and her sister waiting for the bus – a floral-designed bandana covered their head, and they shone out like flowers in their pink-and-blue salwar-kameez. We were travelling from the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary when Kuber suggested a stopover for a glass of milk on the way to Rathuadhab in the northern corner of the reserve. Fatima and her sister soon vanished up a steep slope as we approached and a giant mastiff buff in colour and built barked relentlessly as if we committed the gravest sin of visiting. He soon received a slap on his back from Fatima’s sister, and was tied behind the house made of mud and wood. The house is situated on a small protrusion on the mountain. A pathway carved by elephants runs barely a few yards from the house. A corrugated, half-burnt and lifeless solar lantern hangs on the outside of the window which offers the most spectacular sight of the Mandal River valley, a river under the shadow of the Garhwal Himalaya. Fatima’s khatta is called Malai Khan, and she is Van Gujjar, the child of the mountain whose feet are as nimble on the mountains as that of the mountain goat’s, and her eyes as bright as the morning sun. Her grandmother offered us a glass of milk thick in cream, and we were soon on our way back just so that the mastiff would calm down.

Van Gujjar are one of the earliest settlers of these forests – earliest because no other communities live a semi-nomadic life in this landscape anymore – and also the most latest – latest because they chose to live a life in here, surrounded by trees and elephants, and leopards and tiger that often visit their homes. They ride horses, and trade milk and milk-products, and maintain cattle numbering in hundreds. Anthropologists, wildlife biologists, and several other knowledge seekers will tell you tales of these people, but hardly anyone would tell you that they chose forests over concrete. In Fatima’s mind, this is the playground, the school, the life to lead. Her mind knows it, as do her feet. For her, the world is a forest, fenceless and endless.
A Greater Yellownape Woodpecker explores the stump of a dead tree for grubs
I lived with a bunch of wonderful people a few miles from Malai Khan, in the Valley of Mandal River where it curves and broadens in its expanse, called Rathuadhab. Ramparts of an old walking bridge stand in the middle of this gentle river like a gateway to an ancient kingdom. The valley is cloaked by Sal and Silver Oak, and White-crested Laughing Thrush, Plum-headed Parakeets, Red-billed Blue Magpies, and Asian Paradise Flycatchers, along with Himalayan Flameback and Greater Yellow-naped Woodpeckers and a variety of bulbuls call this forest home.
A Pied Kingfisher dances in the shadow of Garhwal Himalaya along Mandal River
Signs of elephants on the road and the valley are common here, as are Sambar, Barking Deer, and leopards. Life in the river is abundant, and the River Lapwings, Crested, Pied, White-throated and Small Blue Kingfishers reign over the waters.
The endless forests of Garhwal; Sindoori tree in the foreground
This area is a primary forest with minimal impact of humans. Except for a little bit of lopping and cutting, the only major human recognition here is the road. By the measure of the road, I would call it endless as it seemed to pass through the rich untouched forests far and wide. A visit to the Mundiapani Forest Rest house said otherwise.

A tree stripped of its bark and bent over itself stands at the junction of the road that leads towards the rest house. Built in 1903, it primarily served as a rest house for adventure seekers – mostly elephant-riding trophy hunters. The house is built on a flat hill surrounded by a small valley, and is fenced on all the sides using electric wires which are now defunct. Inside this simple, and the most beautiful, rest house is a book that told me more about the endlessness of the forest than any man could. I randomly shuffled through a few pages in the few minutes I spent there. I’m providing below an excerpt of entries in the guestbook that date back to 1923. I’ve classified them into three classes based on the year and tone of entries:

[Words in square brackets are mine]

Class 1: This is when trophy hunting was a prime sport; and although tigers were the prized catch, species of deer and birds were also commonly hunted alongside. You will notice a sense of pride or satisfaction amongst the hunters, either for bagging a kill or for being more-or-less content with the number of animals shot. The last tiger of this hunting block was shot somewhere between 1935 and 45.

1935: Shot one tiger measuring 9 feet 9 inch and one female Sambhar
1935: Thanks very much, shot 1 Kakar [=Barking Deer]
1936: Many grateful thanks. Shot 1 Kakar
1936: Thanks very much for kind permission. Shot Kakars and pheasant
1945: Thanks for Banglaoo shot only four Kakars and 10 Coocks only
1946: Shot 3 Kakars and 16 pheasants only [Probably Kalij Pheasants]
Class 2: By early 1950s the tone changes into something more of disappointment and resentment. This sudden shift is evidently the result of relentless trophy hunting – one of the major causes of emptying forests by a rate unmatched by nature’s pace of regeneration.

1959: No shooting
1960: No game
1961: For full 10 days made all the efforts for tiger but without avail
1962: Hardly a block to consider for shikar [=game/hunt]
Class 3: I could not find the end of Class 2, so I jumped a few decades and found a complete shift in the attitudes of the people visiting this rest house. Was it because of the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, or a result of hopelessness in finding shikar? Perhaps it is both, since the Act came into force only when it was realised that India’s wildlife was being extirpated relentlessly.

1970: Between two jeeps and several hundred kilometers the total result was 6 pheasants. Neither Sambhar nor Kakar were spotted by me or any member of my party
1998: October will be disappointing for bird watching for which we had primarily come
2009: It’s a zero polluted place where there is peaceful atmosphere created by nature
2009: The place is ossam [awesome], have a beautiful nature and animals. The feel of the cottage was realy [really] adventurous, But the deficiencies only of light (electricity) which is essential for the family (children) […] [Signed as] I love nature
A 1935 entry of the hunt of a tiger and a Sambar by a certain person with his friends
The shift from Class 1 to 3, spanning 80 years, were surprisingly distinct. Why was there such marked shift in people’s thinking, especially of Class 3? Was it because hunting was banned, and that forced people to take up binoculars and just relax with nature? Was it because they became so busy earning money in the cities that all they wanted to do here was relax, and not bother about hunting? – this is remarkably evident in the last two entries I mentioned above.

Or was it because of an increased awareness amongst people – enlightenment about ethics and respect for wildlife, or was it simply a realization that forests and its wildlife are depleting? That it is not endless?
The Sal forest on the way to Amotha; near Amgadi
Forests are viewed as deep and dark places where evil lurks. This view was especially strong during Colonial India, and thus hunting and taming of wilderness areas was justified. Corbett’s hunting tales could also be read on the same lines although he maintained a scientific approach towards finding out the reason of tigers and leopards becoming maneaters. Perhaps people were inspired to become hunters after him, and although he played a crucial role in advocating conservation in his later years, a league of wilderness tamers was born. Today, the Mundiapani forest has no tigers in it, although there is no reason why it hasn’t been repopulated again. Perhaps the scars of ruthless hunting are still fresh, or perhaps the tigers know that it is a lost ground.
The map of Corbett Tiger Reserve at the Rathuadhab Forest Rest House
This is a vast country, and it is only in a handful few places in India that you will sense the endlessness of the forests. In the back of my mind, I always think of the cities, and wonder how I ended up there than here. We drove several hundred miles through Marchula and around Mohan, and followed Ramganga River to enter the Pauri Garhwal, and on from Palain River to Lansdowne, through some of the most ethereal Mix-deciduous Sal and Himalayan subtropical pine forests.
A pair of Yellow-throated Martens obscured by the thickets; and the Indian Rat Snake that escaped death
We were to witness a tussle between a pair of Yellow-throated Martens and an Indian Rat Snake that stood around a bend in the road, but they were disturbed by the sudden appearance of our vehicle and the martens went up the hill, and away from our sight. The snake, slowly relaxing, went in the exact opposite direction – downhill.
A Himalayan (or Bar-tailed) Treecreeper scampering over the pine tree near Lansdowne (Uttarakhand)
A pair of Himalayan Treecreeper was out hunting, climbing and abseiling with ease on the pine trunks. Every time I saw them they had a little morsel of an insect in their beaks. They are one of the few animals that live their entire life in these subtropical pines.
The Chir Pine of the Himalayan Subtropical Pine Forest - the abode of the treecreeper
The scent of the pines still lingers in my mind, and these fairy birds dancing in the evening glow of the light, and the cool thin air that gently touches your skin, and the echoless valleys fill me with awe. What spell this place has on me I know not. The innate will to be amongst these trees, where I know I wouldn’t last a few days, surges every time I’m here. This is not paradise, unless you decide to lock yourself up in a fancy resort in a quaint tourist town. Attacks of tigers and leopards, and of elephants and other herbivores raiding crops are, if infrequent, as common as they were during Corbett’s times. Landslides and men disappearing into the woods never to return happen here more than on television, and ancient trees sing here songs unsung, if only you were to listen.
Terraced mountains overshadowed by the seemingly endless forests
In this landscape I felt that forests in their entirety will never vanish, the mountains will protect them, and the rivers will guide them, but the vastness and endlessness associated with it will. We’re cornering wilderness without even an idea of what cornered wilderness can do. We only have a plain idea of what a cornered wolf or a tiger is capable of. We’re fencing wilderness without even a thought that we’re caging ourselves. And we live with an illusion that there is still enough for everyone – enough oxygen and water – the basics of a forest. We’ve created an illusion that our resources are endless.

We suffer from what I call the Endless Forest Effect.

Interestingly it is not affecting humanity significantly, but has already affected wildlife.

I stood on the western Shore of Kosi River on the day I arrived in Corbett Tiger Reserve, and looked on in the dense forests that lie beyond. A large Indian Flapshell Turtle came to the surface of the water for air in a circle of Golden Mahseer swimming in the undercurrents. An endless line of resorts and cottages dotted the shoreline I stood on. A road cut through the forests a little inland, and further beyond the forests continued over the hills that would appear to a bystander as an illusionary endless forest.
The sun rises from behind the heart of Corbett Tiger Reserve's mountains with Kosi River in the foreground
A century ago, this spot I stood on acted as a corridor for the wildlife, and especially elephants, to migrate eastwards in the lowlands of Terai Arc landscape. I imagined parades of elephants crossing the nimble flowing Kosi, drinking its waters as they passed on, and climbed the last of the Shivalik hills before reaching the plains.
A pair of tamed elephants returning tourists after an elephant safari inside the reserve
And as I gazed into the distance, I saw two tamed elephants carrying a load of tourists perched atop crossing these waters. Both of them took a pause in elephant-knee-deep waters to drink through it, and swayed left and right as they crossed over to the resort-side of the river. They were to stand by the roadside for another load of tourists to go piggybacking on their backs. I watched them standing here munching on sugarcane leaves, and I wondered if they remember their identity – did they remember the sojourns of their ancestors from the Himalaya to the lowlands? Have they seen their wild cousins do so?

And I wondered if elephants consider these forests endless.