Looking at a tract of forests, I hardly believed that this was once an open, degraded patch of land reminiscent of a rainforest that stretched beyond the mountains. The photographs we saw, and the photographs we took, showed a stark contrast: in the beginning, it was a bramble of invasive herbs and shrubs, suffocating native trees and forbidding their growth. Fifteen years on, a canopy of tall trees races skywards in a thunderstorm-like profusion, chasing the heights their ancestors once achieved in another age. What began as a story of lost faith appeared to be rising in hope, and the plot of the story we missed in between, of upheaval and invasion, resurrection and renewal – a crucial mass of any story – we were fortunate to listen to from the caretakers who helped revive this story.
|The forest, to the left, was restored 15 years ago to create a contiguous patch of corridor joining the rainforests beyond.|
The stalwarts have now passed the quill to nature, and this fragment which borders a road on one side and rows of tea plantations on the other, now writes for itself. A small signage alerts us that this story we are witness to is as much of wild animals as it is of the trees, and an ant tells me that she, as much as the elephant, has a claim to this story, a revival of a lost book.
The plains burn hot under soles. After losing count of the coconut orchards on the plains of Palghat, we zip across NH 209 as the tall terraces of the Western Ghats loom distantly in the southern horizon. Like titans, dark and brooding whose heads are held up high, they grow in stature for every mile we cover. It was long ago that I strained my neck to look up to a mountain demanding respect and awe, praise and prayer. In these mountains lies a story whose dimensions are beyond our comprehension; a story being written by forces of nature that we cannot entirely understand.
|Approaching the Elephant Hills of the southern Western Ghats.|
The strata of the Elephant Hills are distinct. If it were a book, it would be written in at least five different volumes, each covering a multitude of stories that cannot be read in one lifetime. The only way to browse through this book is a two-lane road which wearily guides us through it. It first climbs through the mixed deciduous forests of the foothills, slowly rising, meter-per-meter, to the semi-evergreen pockets of river-carved slopes where the air begins to cool down, at which point it passes through the sheer cliffs where the grass is grazed by the Nilgiri Tahr, to the gentle slopes of evergreen forests that deepen the shadows, gradually giving way to the tall-canopied, blue-green hued rainforests that crown the mountains. It goes all the way beyond the frost-line that forbids tree-growth and nurtures nimble grass strands on the precipice. If it were a book, it would be an epic of unproportionable scale.
Man made his first mark in this book more than a hundred years ago, although his presence in the book was made more than a thousand years ago when tribal communities settled in these natural galleries. Today, every volume of this ancient book is marked, in an insoluble ink, by man. Perhaps the most significant mark was left by timber fellers and then by pioneering planters of coffee and tea, creating a mosaic of land-use patterns never before seen in the book. And as a black strip was drawn across its pages for our ease of traversing, we introduced many more stories, exotic as well as anthropogenic, mending the great epic for our desires.
|The mountains are like books, every page written by its residents -|
human and non-human alike.
Every time you pass through this black strip, you will be witness to a history lost in present era, in the form of fragments and remnants of rainforests – the original story – amidst a sea of tea plantations – the new story – witnessing the endemic and threatened wildlife – the original storytellers – who, out of necessity or reluctance that I cannot tell, traverse through the new story to get to the old story where they try to continue their writings. I still wonder how this book holds and not fall apart.
There are now three distinct parts of the old story: degraded, restored or under restoration, and undisturbed forests which retain most of its natural finesse and are more-or-less pristine. The new-age human writers are trying to hold together the old story by keeping the cord of the book strong: by restoring degraded forests, connecting isolated fragments, and strengthening the remnants. On the other hand, they are also working to combine the old story with the new, by reinstating the faith among people for the original writers, and, in a world where natural revival is but a little bud on a large tree, are the binders of the old and the new story.
|Cullenia exarillata, a mighty rainforest tree amidst a rather disturbed forest fragment.|
Rainforests hard to describe. You see them in different perspectives from different angles. You will perceive it differently than I do. You would describe it differently if you were standing in the middle of it and your description would be different if you were viewing it from the skies. You would call it something in the day, something else in the night. It would be described differently by smells, sounds, textures, colours, and emotions. A rainforest is as much Kafka as it is Tolkien, it is Leopold as it is Thoreau. Perhaps the words of John Keats in an Ode to a Nightingale capture the essence of rainforests although written in a distantly-related context:
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild
- John Keats, Ode to a nightingale, 1819.
Standing in the middle of the old and the new pages, I was overwhelmed by the forces that drive this story. When I looked up, I saw a Malabar giant squirrel feeding on jackfruit, dislodging seeds to the ground where they would begin own story. By a dense strand of trees, a troop of lion-tailed macaques and another of Nilgiri langurs catapulted from one tender branch to another. Beyond the valley, a flock of hornbills fed on inconspicuous fruits, allowing the seedlings to see a wider world. Every morning, a pair of Malabar Whistling Thrush would sing notes from their ancient scriptures, recited even today after thousands of years and more.
|The story-tellers of the undergrowth. Clockwise: Epipogium roseum, a Tachinid, a Stratiomyid, |
a tiger beetle (Jansenia venus), and a Rhagionid.
The most secretive of writers lurked in the undergrowth. A weevil that once laid an egg in Litsea stocksii when it was blooming has now grown into a nail-sized grub, encased in the empty shell of the seed, its story cut short by that of the weevil. And there was Epipogium roseum, an orchid with its own unique story of living a saprophytic life on the rich rainforest floor. And there were flies – the Tachinids with their rapturous attention to parasitize the leaf-munching Scarab beetles, the Stratiomyids with their efficiency of churning leaf litter to nourishing humus, the Rhagionids – the oldest recorded Brachyceran flies of Gondwanaland (Mostovski and Jarzembowski, 2000) – hunting along the understorey forests, and the high-altitude tiger beetles, Jansenia venus, formed some of the many understorey storytellers of a rainforests.
|Clockwise: Trap-jaw ant (Anochetus cf obscurior), Golden wood ant (Polyrhachis alluadata), Diacamma sp., |
and Jerdon's jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator)
Then there were, among the most beautiful of rainforest residents, the golden wood ant (Polyrhachis allaudata), which went about exploring trees and leaves, grass and ground. The rare trap-jaw ant (Anochetus cf obscurior), with its trap-like jaws that are kept open and snapped shut while catching prey, are something of a specialty of rainforests. Among the leaves was a scout of Diacamma ants running in-tandem to find food – collecting tales of their adventures of hunting, and there were Jerdon’s jumping ant (Harpegnathos slatator) – the most inquisitive of ants – whose curiosity is as keen as that of a myrmecologist’s, wandering as lone rangers up a tree or down a forest floor exploring nooks and crevasses. All of them, from ants to elephants, moss to trees, individually and as a community, are scribbling stories in a language compiled in a book by nature.
And there were others who’re writing their own tangential stories. The most persuasive of all were the bracken fern (Pteridium sp) which spread as wildfire after a fire has devoured a tract of land. It expands its flame-like leaves in a toxic green conflagration, rendering the land useless for grazers, browsers, and challenges the revival. It can also be seen along disturbed forest edges, seemingly in low numbers but in an ever-frenzy state of temperament. Lantana camara, Eupatorium, and Wedelia are among other exotic invasive shrubs. Perhaps the most intriguing of stories is of silver oak (Grevillea robusta), umbrella tree (Maesopsis eminii) and Eucalyptus spp., all of them introduced intentionally; silver oak to provide sparse shade to the tea plantations, umbrella tree to provide dense shade to coffee plantations, and Eucalyptus to be used as fuelwood for plantation colonies. Among these, the umbrella tree found its way into the diet of a number of wild species, from hornbills to langurs to ants, and have since dispersed across the landscape as missionaries.
|Top: Tea plantations overlooking the rainforests beyond.|
Bottom: A view from under coffee plantations.
In all this, the story of coffee and tea is something of a hallmark. When timber felling began in this landscape, a pioneering colonialist envisaged the hills and plateaus as a site for tea and coffee. A planter was then tasked with the plantation of coffee, for which the forest floor had to be wiped clean – a beetle that infested a seed, then, looked minuscule to the scale of damage done to the rainforests. Another was assigned with clearing entire hillsides to plant rows of tea and to replace the native trees with silver oaks.
Alternating between a cup of the most delicious coffee and chai, I faced the unscrupulous diner’s dilemma. This n-player game theory envisages the predicament of diners who decide to split the check equally among everyone so that the expenses remain relatively low compared to what it would be if they were eating alone. Some decide to order an expensive dish because the cost of the dish would be smaller for the person ordering it, however, cumulatively, they all will end up paying a certain additional amount. Logically, this means that they are getting by worse at the cost of one or two expensive dishes than they would have had they all ordered a cheaper meal. In other words, they all ended up paying an extra amount which lightened their pockets even when they mostly ate cheaper food.
In an ecological perspective, this dilemma can be viewed as thus: there are only two items at the table, coffee and tea, and their purchasing cost is the damage they do to an already threatened ecosystem. A group of friends are sitting by the table thinking whether to order tea or coffee. Coffee-drinkers say that coffee is a cheaper option because it grows under the canopy of trees, making its expense on the ecosystem lesser than tea which grows only under a sparse canopy. The tea-drinkers argue that coffee also requires clearing of the forest understorey, making what looks like a rainforest from top to be devoid of any natural regeneration below. In essence, both come at a significant cost, putting them in a dilemma. No matter what they drink, there are going to be repercussions. What would they order? I call this a drinker’s dilemma, and thought for long as I sipped my choice of drink, wondering if it had any impact on the ecosystem I was learning to revive and conserve.
|Left: A profile of tea plantation showing sparse tree cover and undergrowth.|
Right: A profile of coffee plantation with a canopy cover of umbrella tree (Maesopsis eminii) and sparse undergrowth.
Fortunately, there are trade-offs. If the coffee or tea they order comes from an old plantation site, if native trees cover is retained, if it is grown organically, if the planters ensure no further spread of plantations or destruction of existing rainforests and contribute to wildlife conservation, the coffee or tea they drink would have little, if not zero, impact on present day ecosystems if we exclude the historic expense to the rainforests.
|Worth a cup: what appears to be an out-of-place herd of gaur is actually at home socialising and feeding in the undergrowth |
of an organic tea plantation site, with a man trying to keep his cattle from venturing too close to them.
There is a leeway to promote organic coffee and tea under the Rainforest Alliance. There are instances of private planter companies engaging in restoration, conservation, and human-wildlife conflict mitigation, all of which, or in part, make coffee as well as tea less expensive on the ecosystem. With this, the drinker’s dilemma of whether to go for coffee or tea can be resolved, what remains is the perpetual coffee versus tea debate which no game theory can fix!
While exploring and learning the intricacies of restoration from the stalwarts of India’s rainforest restorers, we came to realise that a site of restoration never reaches the scale of an undisturbed site. This has a lot to do with abiotic dynamics as it has to do with the biotic community that replaces the original. Think about it like this; could you, if you erased a chapter from your book, rewrite it word-to-word again?
In this ancient book, hidden in the cloud forests, there are still stories to be found – as much as they are to be conserved – whose narrative yet remains unknown. The one I narrate here is of an ant in the corner of a tea estate. Brachyponera is an inconspicuous, small black ant in the subfamily Ponerinae. About six species have been recorded in India so far, with one, B. luteipes, documented in Tamil Nadu (Bharti et al, 2016).
As is my wont, any insect would distract me even in the most interesting of conversations, and a worker Brachyponera that scampered between my feet was no exception. I found it rather curiously shaped: it was longer and stouter than the cosmopolitan black crazy ant (Paratrechina longicornis) or the wood-dwelling white-footed ghost ant (Technomyrmex albipes). The fellow I was looking at also had a rather prominent, large head.
|Brachyponera sp., carrying "something" in its mouth.|
After closer inspection I realised that it was carrying something in its mandibles, perhaps transporting food or pupa from one location to another. I then tapped gently on the ant and instead of finding one dead ant – I apologise for doing so, but the ant was unhurt and the tap was to gently loosen what she was carrying – it transformed into two ants scampering on the ground. Losing my focus on the conversation which continued with me crouching on the floor, I sought another ant to tap – and it, too, transformed into two! And then third. Three ants turned to six. All these individual ants had a normal-sized head. Surely it wasn’t food that they were carrying, neither pupa or a recently metamorphosed ant – since these would have been lying stationary. Were they, then, piggy-backing another fellow ant? It was implausible, but not too far-fetched.
Ten years ago, Guenard and Silverman (2011) also observed this piggy-backing behaviour in a closely related species of this ant, Asian needle ant (B. chinensis), a native of south-east Asia, and titled it ‘tandem carrying’. This behaviour, the authors later studied, was earlier recorded from Japan in 1988, however it remained unknown until as recently as 2011 when their findings were published.
|Tandem carrying: a worker 'carrier' ant gives a ride to its companion to the site of food. The rider attains an up-side-down|
foetal position so that it can be carried safely (and comfortably?) by the carrier.
Tandem carrying is one of the strategies of foraging observed only in Brachyponera. Other, more common, ways are solitary foraging, as observed in Jerdon’s jumping ant; tandem running, as observed in some Diacamma sp.; group foraging, as observed in Pharaoh ants (Monomorium pharaonis), the small red ants we see commonly in kitchens; and mass foraging, observed in army ants (Aenictus sp.) as they go about in large numbers scouting for food. Tandem carrying is quite a tender-hearted strategy of foraging, and the term probably comes from ‘tandem babywearing’ – a convenient way parents strap babies by the belly to carry them around. A worker ant does exactly that, except that instead of carrying babies, they carry their sisters!
This strategy, the study showed, works like this: if a lone forager comes across a food item that is too large for it to carry, it traverses back to its nest. That of our ant was located between rocks, hidden under leaf litter. It communicates with its sisters and then gives a ride to one. It is not known how they do it, but the rider attains a ‘foetal’ position and is lifted by the carrier in its mandibles, exactly in a way it would transport pupa – up-side-down. The carrier, who is familiar with the pheromone trail leading to the food item, carries the rider to the spot. The rider alights, probably thanks its companion, and they both get to work.
|Brachyponera ants towing a large-sized earthworm to their nest. The rider alights, and helps the carrier in carrying food.|
The argument for this strategy is that it conserves the energy of one ant at the expense of another. While the total sum of energy saved would be higher than if both the ants were to scout for food, the carrier ant must suffer greater energy loss – perhaps even at the cost of its life – than the rider. If this is just a mathematical strategy of energy conservation used by the ants after millions of years of trial-and-error, then there is no reason why it would not be adopted by other species. But, if I stretch the narrative a bit more, this shows altruistic behaviour by the carrier, at an expense of its energy, to not only conserve its rider’s energy but also collectively of the entire colony’s. If so, then this is yet another example of genetically-induced sentience among what we commonly – and often incorrectly – consider lower lifeforms.
The tandem carrying behaviour has been noted in Japan in B. nakasujii and in USA in B. chinensis, and this happens to be a first for India, but questions remain on the identity of the ant. Dr Guenard, the co-discoverer of this foraging strategy, told me that Brachyponera is a complex genus requiring detailed observations to identify the species, hence any guesses at this ant from Tamil Nadu will remain obscure for now. He also said that tandem carrying might actually be common in this genus.
|On the nature of daylight - a coffee plantation is often used by elephants as corridors.|
Only a few seconds before this photograph was clicked, a lone tusker passed under the morning haze.
This ant, among many others, hints at the magnificence of the rainforests, that their narrative is as much a part of the landscape as that of their counterparts, the elephants, and how little we know about them. There are pages to be added, new narratives to be explored, and it appears to be a perpetual book of nature that gets rewritten, reworded, often torn or renewed.
|Seeds of evergreen tree species rescued from roadsides and given a chance to prosper in rainforest nurseries.|
Clockwise: Elaeocarpus tuberculatus, E. serratus, Litsea stocksii, and Diospyros nilgirica.
To find that there is a book on revival being compiled, seed-per-seed, hectare-per-hectare, in harmonious co-existence between man and nature, is a hope that this grand epic earnestly needs. With leech-socks or without, in boots or in chappals, in heat as in rain, nature requires as much of restoration as it does of conservation, for we can only conserve so much, but restore so much more.