Kutch: the invisible wilderness

The salt-sprinkled chocolate browns of the estuarine mudflats are criss-crossed by the prints of carbon-black tyres. The wind is crisp, and the recurring whoop-whoop-whoop of the enormous ghostly wind turbines is ubiquitous, occasionally punctuated by sounds of trucks that trod on the pathless mudflats to reach the nearest salt port. On this truck-trodden path, we look for signs of a particular bird that blends well with the grey-brown landscape, the MacQueen’s Bustard, a rare winter migrant. It is nowhere to be found, but along sparse grasses, pale green in colour, are tracks of various birds imprinted on a layer of fine, seemingly frozen crust of sand. One of which belongs to this bird. The smaller tracks belong to, we think, Desert Warblers; those small, hypersensitive brown birds seen probing the grass strands for tiny morsels during early winters. The largest of all, the three-toed prints, belong to the Common Crane, we acknowledge without a doubt. We saw them graze in a small flock under the blades of the turbines on our way.
The three-toed footprints of the MacQueen's Bustard amidst a riot of several others
This Bustard’s footprints stand out starkly from the tracks of other birds; they are three-toed, short and stout, pressed together closely around a singular round pad, their feet placed squarely one in front of the other. We scan through binoculars for the owner of this particular set of footprints, and spot a pair of chinkara sprinting over this vast landscape, away from the noisy saltpans. It is nowhere to be found.
The Common Crane, a tall, high-flying bird on the mudflats dotted with wind turbines and sewed with electricity lines
This estuarine mudflat is dug-up, bisected, piled over, and dotted by saltpans, roads, salt heaps, and wind turbines, and amidst this cacophony of human activities are birds – resident and migratory alike – hundreds of birds feeding, roosting, breeding, and surviving. The largest of waterbirds, the pelicans and storks, and the smallest, the waders and the ducks, feed alongside in these vast shallow pools. They vehemently avoid saltpans with high salt content, and prefer waters with a profusion of algal growth; they’re more common towards the periphery of the pans where scant, weak mangroves cling onto the soft estuarine mud, where oysters still grow aplenty, and fishes like mudskippers perforate the banks with their burrows.

The Jakhau region of Kutch is unique, it is a mosaic of various kinds of ecosystems – estuarine mudflats, mangroves, oyster belts, and even saltpans which some consider wetlands but I fail to see why (saltpans are man-made waterbodies replacing the original wetland ecosystems), as well as grasslands with patches of scrub and mounds of sand that appear like dunes. It is a plethora of all sorts of flatlands one can imagine, teeming with life.
Grasslands and other flatlands are largely considered as wastelands, with a very few exceptions
such as the Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar, Gujarat which were protected in time
Yet with all its vastness and the wildlife it supports, this flatland has been given a rather unwarranted label: wasteland. And Kutch, the largest district of the state of Gujarat, has been acknowledged in official records as having the largest area of wastelands (36% of Gujarat’s wastelands; 17% of its own total area), dominated mostly by dense scrub and open scrub areas. Even before the identity of these flatlands was established scientifically, it was baptized as land open for exploitation, and the residents of this wilderness inadvertently became invisible.

The greening of the gold

The 1854 map of Kutch and the Runn compiled by Lieut. Col. Sir A Burnes, Lieut. A D Taylor, and Lieut. Grieve shows the region in two distinct stretches; to the south is an undulating terrain crisscrossed by a network of rivers flowing from north and meeting the Gulf of Kutch in the south. A large swathe of area to the north and east is shown in horizontal, shaded lines resembling the utter flatness of this region, the Rann, and sandwiched between these two lies the Banni Grasslands, then spelled as the Bunnee – with a description that is hard to read – “a tract of grassland [...] wells of drinkable water and covered with [...].”

This detailed map encompassed everything that existed 160 years ago, and becomes an interesting piece of history to compare with the current geography of the region. The map depicts a very large area of the Rann as a barren flatland. Save for little islands amidst this saline land, nothing is shown to exist here. It was considered a salt desert, an inland sea that spilled into the Arabian eons ago, fast expanding its boundaries to devour all the fertile black soils of the south.

Around 1877, Tiwari (1999) writes, Prosopis juliflora was originally introduced in India to check the encroaching desert sands and as a tool in the country’s regreening efforts. [...] In the late 1930s, it was planted in certain areas around the Navlakhi fort in Morvi State, adjoining Kutch. [...] In the 1950s, under a scheme to check the Little Rann desert from spreading, about 3000 acres of Prosopis were planted annually on the edges of the Rann. Interestingly, the Forest Department considered the cattle here to be their ally because by eating the Prosopis pods, they helped to spread the plant further in the vast expanses of the Rann.
The Indian Wild Ass, an endemic Equus subspecies, feeds on the desert grass of the Little Rann of Kutch
as Prosopis, in the background, slowly reclaim the deserts
A native of South America, Prosopis juliflora is spread widely in Kutch. It is spider-like in appearance with branches spreading ever outward like the legs of a spider, and contain small prickly spines hidden beneath a lush-green down of compound leaves. Its trunk is typically short; its pods, a pale yellow, are always easily approachable for anyone to pluck and eat.

Prosopis has now taken over much of Kutch’s natural flatlands, greening the gold, displacing many of the ecosystem’s original inhabitants, and pushing some to the verge of extinction. It is perhaps a coincidence that much of Kutch’s wastelands have been demarked as dense scrub and open scrub areas – typical transformations from flatlands to scrublands brought about by Prosopis.

The wild grass

The Banni, the grassland of fair sands, is perhaps the most affected. Covering an area of 3847 sq km, Banni is famed for its grasses – the tallest ones are as tall as a person’s hip, it is flat save for areas with undulating sand dunes. In some places, such as at Chhari Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve which sits at the edge of Banni and the Rann, the sand gives way for rocky hillocks and hard saline mud.

I stood at the edge of a Castor farm that abutted the wild Banni. The sun rose low over this farmland built on sands – with crops of jowar (sorghum) sprouting from seemingly moisture-less grounds. A line of trees with leaves a light shade of green grew along the edge of the farm. We scanned these Salvadora persica trees for a rather unique winter visitor of Kutch – the Grey Hypocolius.
The pollen of the wild grass flying in the wind in one of the encroached-upon
grassland habitats of Banni
The wild grass was ripe where we stood, its long inflorescence a light shade of pink. A little shake and its sack of anthers would spill into the air and float aimlessly – some would reach the stigma of a neighbouring inflorescence, some would fall to the earth and be food for other organisms. This simple, anemophilous form of spreading of grasses worked successfully for Banni.

The animals of this region adapted to this habitat: desert gerbils fed on grass grains, nilgai and chinkara fed on wild as well as cultivated varieties of grasses, and the hunters of the herbivores, the desert fox, jackal, and the wolf followed them. However, since no trees grew in this region, this efficient ecosystem was dubbed a wasteland, and agriculture, industries, and other developmental activities encroached upon its sands.
A Greater Short-toed Lark, a victim of the high-tension wires running across the mudflats of  the inland mangroves of Kutch
From much of the area, especially along the boundaries of Banni, the natural flora and fauna has vanished. The recent maps of Kutch and the Rann are quite different from the 1854 map and 1877 predictions: the area under civilization has spread more rapidly into the Rann than the opposite which was predicted. The desertification of human civilization ran over the vastness, and Prosopis, which was meant to stop the run of the Rann into civilization, aided us in claiming the salt deserts.
The Indian desert gerbil is the subject of several studies on effects of pesticide compounds on its health.
A common resident of the sandy areas of Kutch, it lives in a group building a network of tunnels.
When alarmed, it lies flat on  the ground (second photo) and makes a throbbing, vibrating sound
to alarm its companions of danger.
The chinkara, the blackbuck, the fox and the wolf, all retreated into small pockets of flatlands. Only desert gerbils can be seen peeking from the multi-tunnelled network of burrows near farms where they live in groups consuming the dangerous pesticides.

The beginning of the fall of grasslands

But the demise of the flatlands, and grasslands in particular, began long before. The most enigmatic cats of India is said to have once roamed the grasslands of Gujarat. However, although no concrete evidence exists that suggests the presence of the Asiatic cheetah in Kutch, Divyabhanusinh (1995) mentions records of the Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) from Kutch region, one from 1839 observed by Postans, and another in 1872 by Stoliczka – both these records, although unclear about the locality and the exact identity of the animal (as leopards are often mistakenly identified as cheetahs), signify a decline in the ecosystem health of Kutch and the surrounding grasslands that began much before the introduction of Prosopis and before it was labelled wasteland.
The female and a sub-adult blackbuck pronging through the grasslands of Velavadar, with no one to chase them
The current plan of reintroduction of the cheetah in India’s grasslands is put on hold. It is being looked upon by some as a makeover for an invisible wilderness by introducing an enigmatic species, some look at it from an economic perspective, while some from an ecologically unproductive point of view. Ranjitsinh (2010) has concluded his views of the reintroduction process in the best possible way:

“The venture must be viewed not simply as an introduction of a species, however charismatic it may be, but as an endeavour to better manage and restore some of our most valuable yet most neglected ecosystems and the species dependent upon them.”
Down to the basics, conservationists yearn to brand grasslands in any way possible for their existence. Yet it is not the only way one could save this invisible wilderness. Perhaps, by focusing on the introduction of an exotic species of cat, we’re ignoring the existing wildlife of the region. One in particular could use our undivided attention if we’re to prevent it from following the demise of the Asiatic cheetah.

The golden bird in peril

I first heard of the Great Indian Bustard in a poem I read in school, Maldhok it was called. I remember it vaguely, it describes this bird and its poetic courtship display, but I don’t recollect it talking about how endangered it is. After school, though, I was oblivious to it until I took keen interest in wildlife and conservation, but it was in the back of my mind, and always has been. I had not seen it until that day when we stood at the edge of a farmland with people striving to protect this species from extinction.
Two Great Indian Bustards in their part-scrub, part-grassland habitat
There, nearly a quarter mile away under the shadow of Ber (Ziziphus sp.) were two Great Indian Birds sauntering in the midday sun. The hot air rising from the ground obscured them a little, but this large bird with its white neck, black cape and bronzed wings was distinctly clear in the vanishing landscape.

Their habitat looked quite unlike any most of us associate wildlife with; it was full of brambles, thorny, dusty, dried shrubs under a dull grey sky. Whatever stood taller than five feet was skeleton-like. It almost seemed barren, unproductive, and ready for exploitation.
A Ziziphus sp., full of Ber fruits, one of the important parts of a Bustard's diet
This scrub forest, which was declared a Protected Area called the Kutch Bustard Sanctuary, is the only stronghold of the Great Indian Bustard in the Kutch region. An estimated 30 bustards live in and around this sanctuary. It is 2 sq km in area.

The Corbett Foundation’s report The Last Call to Save Indian Bustard in Kutch, Gujarat, India (2012) mentions:

“[...] the breeding grounds of [Great Indian] Bustards in Abdasa taluka of Kutch, once considered quite safe in Gujarat, have been lost to industrial infrastructure and conversion to agricultural fields. Several hectares of ‘Waste Land’ (kharabo – as categorized in the Government Records) that is actually good Bustard habitat has been encroached upon by local farmers for agricultural purposes. Unknowingly, the habitat of these rare birds is being taken away from them.”
Most of these birds risk their lives by living outside the Protected Area, often to feed and even breed in private and revenue lands. Threats from mechanized farming, cattle grazing, as well as feral dogs further weaken the existing recovery plans for this species which lays only one egg a year. It is perhaps the most endangered species of India living in the most threatened ecosystem, and yet it is invisible to most of us. Just the way the poem Maldhok vanished from most and probably all records of Marathi literature with mockery for its English name, I fear so will this bird.
Bustards walking against the silhouette of large trees in the background of a mix of Acacia nilotica and
  Prosopis juliflora scrubland in the background
The two lone bachelor Great Indian Bustards were looked upon with wonder and awe – with all the adjectives I can fathom – tears even, for we could see but do nothing.

One lifetime is not enough to fully understand even one species of an animal or a plant – but it is enough to wipe out its existence. I believe our generation is witnessing, albeit unknowingly, the most massive extinction that ever took place in one lifetime. Unfortunately, this extinction is followed by, or preceded by, the destruction of entire ecosystems. Any possibilities of saving – or bringing back – a species are now becoming virtually impossible. Even if a species is brought back from extinction, we just don’t have the space for them to roam free.

As entire ecosystems are threatened, we’re unwillingly entering a phase I call the dead-end conservation: we have all the technical and scientific know-how of what to do to save a species or an ecosystem, but no political will to do it.

Species such as the Great Indian Bustard are not even represented on many of the information generating and disseminating websites, which represent some of the less threatened – but threatened nonetheless – animals.

One reason for this could be that a country like India could not celebrate – or cash-in – on the bustard as it did with the charismatic tiger. Second, could be because nobody really connected with this bird of grasslands, like they do with the tiger or the lion. In case of the bustard, both these reasons, unfortunately, hold true.

Great Indian Bustard’s extinction will not be a result of a complicated history it shared with humans: hunting, agriculture, development. It is rooted in the most basic fact, that we are calling its habitat a wasteland: this is probably something we won’t find in most of the animals that became extinct in the last century.
Grasslands are like miniature forests, supporting a variety of animals, from little beetles to ungulates to carnivores
The grassland is not just a flatland. It is a living, breathing, prosperous ecosystem that is probably the most resilient of all, self-reliant of all, and unique if not as rich as the rainforests; for it can withstand extremes of the climates – drought and flood, fire and frost. Every individual here counts: grass, lark, lizard, beetle, and contributes to this ecosystem’s functioning – much like that of any other – but it is so profound here, in the dust, where water is often scarce, that every cluster of grass that blossoms and spreads its pollen is the most hopeful thing to witness.

Very few grassland areas are now protected solely as grassland ecosystems, while most were brought under cultivation or, ironically, reforestation. The entirety of grasslands, however, vanished when the cheetah became extinct, and if the Great Indian Bustard is not protected, it will be a symbolic demise of any grassland ecosystem of India.

The golden carpet

Conservationists now believe that salvation is the only way for protection. Save whatever you can, in whatever numbers you can. The Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar, Gujarat, is 34 sq km in area, a fraction of the vast grassland of Saurashtra in the district of Bhavnagar along the Gulf of Khambhat.
The blackbuck, under whose aegis the grasslands of Velavadar are protected,
is a flagship antelope species of India's grasslands
It is a large swathe of flatland dominated by grasses nigh knee-high tall, with the estuary of the Gulf of Khambhat covering much of its southern area. Herds of blackbucks are seen sprinting and pronging along its grasslands, with the tall nilgai seen strolling and feeding on Ber. It is known for its conservation management for blackbucks, nilgai, grasses, and also the Indian wolf and the lesser florican. It is said to be the world’s largest roosting site of several species of harriers.
A scattered herd of nilgai in vastness of Velavadar's grasslands
From certain areas it looks like a vast, open, endless golden carpet in the early morning rays. But up closer, or way above from space, you will see that it is fenced from all sides by Prosopis. It is the national park’s management that has kept Prosopis at bay, had it not been protected, quite simply, it would have been run over by Prosopis, affecting the wildlife of the region beyond repair.
A bachelor herd of blackbucks, comprising of sub-adults and non-territorial males graze in the grasslands of Velavadar
It is here that you’ll see the spiral horns of blackbucks wreathed in a cloud of grass; a fast running grazer which was once chased by the now extinct Asiatic cheetah, they are the flagship species of Velavadar’s grasslands, and share an intricate albeit subtle bond with the grasses by feeding on them, spreading their seeds, and providing manure. The jungle cats, the hyena, the Bengal monitor, all of them call this their home. The wolves of Velavadar are secretive, and are rarely ever sighted during dawn and dusk, but just knowing that this enigmatic and probably the most threatened carnivore of India walks here as I do fills my mind with their primeval howls.
A full moon over the grasslands, and the wolves would be on a hunt
Why can we not look at grasslands as a wild, untamed land the way we look at forests? Just like forests, grasslands form various niches, each occupied by a unique type of grass or herb, unique sets of invertebrates, as well as large mammals. Grasslands may appear like monocultures from above, but are filled with animals that hunt at night, graze by day, and form herds and packs and defend their territories with might. It is a forest in itself. Where are we lacking in our understanding, I wondered, as a full moon rose above the sea of grass, and bathed everything with its silver light.

Of what was once pure

One such area which I now lament for is the Chhari Dhand Conservation Reserve, an 80 sq km lake in the desert that I visited in February 2012. Now, as then, it was teeming with birdlife in its deep waters, but along its edges to the south, which once also teemed with desert and wetland birds, the hooves of cattle have trampled a vast ground to dust.

Near the watchtower built to observe birds, a large cowshed is built, and several cattle now bathe and swim and feed along the lush shores of this lake. The egrets and the waders, the desert wheatears and the larks, all have forsaken this place, which is now teeming with piles of dung left under the sun to rot.Only a handful of flies savour the moist dung piles which have polluted this place for as far as one can see.

The Kankrej breed of cattle of Kutch on their way to the pasture lands
Cattle provide one of the most important livelihoods for the people of Kutch, an occupation adopted centuries before by the tribal nomadic communities of the region, and grasslands the inevitable source of nourishment. It is not cattle grazing that has put Kutch’s invisible wilderness in peril, many conservationists maintain, but the excess of it has compounded to its destruction.
A boma-like temporary settlement of the semi-nomadic Maldhari tribe of Kutch in the Banni grasslannds
Up north in Banni, large herds of cattle can be seen loitering around wetlands, with birds such as flamingos and cranes feeding a few yards away. The problems arose when grazing areas shrank under the pressure from agriculture and industrialization, when cattle competed against wildlife for space, food, and a place to rest.

Chhari Dhand’s southern shore is won over by livestock. Its dung now numbers more than birds seen in the area. I was especially surprised to see so much of dung, a priceless resource of nourishment and fuel, being left to rot; my first thought went to insects; why were there none of them to be found? The season was right; it was humid and not so cold for insects to hibernate. A number of them should have been visiting to feed and breed in. Where were the dung flies, the dung beetles?
The southern shore of Chhari Dhand is littered by undegraded dung, increasing the toxicity of the soil where no plant can grow
Our experts at The Corbett Foundation shared a very curious paper on the impact of ivermectin, a deworming drug used in cattle, on the dung beetle populations of Japan (Iwasa et al 2007). This drug is ejected through faeces of treated cattle since it is not metabolized, which if used by dung beetles to lay eggs, affects their brood size and adult emergence. It could perhaps be the reason for seeing no dung beetles at Chhari Dhand, but this is just a speculation.

However, if it is true, the concentrated piles of dung will take longer to decompose and degrade, drastically increasing the fertility of the ground so much that it becomes toxic for any plant to take root; as put forth by the authors: “The elimination of dung-decomposing insects, which help to return nutrients to the soil, may lead to important consequences in pasture ecosystems, as undegraded dung pats increase, fouling the grassland and reducing available grazing area.
The rose-like pugmark of a striped hyena, a lesser known resident of Kutch's flatlands
Every ecosystem has its own issues. We perhaps cannot rank which requires more protection than the other. The focus on all kinds of flatlands is not because it has more issues than others – it is because it is more neglected than others, perhaps more than freshwater ecosystems. Its wildlife is at much at risk as that of any other, but we don’t know who calls grasslands homes, why do they need protection as much as the tiger or the lion.

The shrinking little desert

The fact remains that as forests are shrinking, so are grasslands. I was especially amazed at the flatness of Kutch in the Little Rann, a smaller part of the Rann shrinking rapidly from urbanization. A large swathe of over 4954 sq km, the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch is perhaps the flattest region in India.
A pair of Indian wild ass in the vastness of the Little Rann of Kutch
The soil of Rann is saline, brown, flaky, cracked, treeless, and vast. It is a saline desert where only a few hardy species of grasses and other plants can survive. The other ubiquitous plant whose roots sought this soil is Prosopis. One peculiar subspecies of an Equus that lives nowhere else on the planet is found here, Equus hemionus khur, the India wild ass.
A lone Indian wild ass sprinting through the vast salt desert, with a layer of Prosopis reflecting like a dark cloud in the mirage
With a curious look on its face, the Indian wild ass is the shade of the land it lives on, dusted along the edges and corners of its figure in powdery white. Its ears are always held up while looking at you, and its mane, a line of short, trimmed dark brown hair are held upright on its neck.

When you look at them, you don’t think that they’re out of place. Almost all Equus species adapted to vast plains. The Khur, as it is locally called, is much at home here in this arid region, feeding on the scant grasses and Prosopis pods. The grasses that grow here during monsoon when much of the Rann is pooled by the water from Gulf of Kutch, sustains all the life of this region. Cranes, in their hundreds, feed on the grains and seeds and invertebrates. Vast stretches of ground can be seen ploughed by cranes using their feet and beaks.
A family of Common Cranes along the wetlands of the Little Rann of Kutch
The Rann has several inlets of saline water from the Gulf, created artificially by the saltpan workers. These inlets serve as rich feeding grounds for birds like flamingos, ducks and geese, storks and cranes, and the ones that hunt other birds: the falcons and eagles.

I met a Peregrine Falcon, the fastest of birds, for the first time in the Little Rann, while it sat on a milestone besides a small estuary one cold November morning basking under the rising sun. This bird of prey is the king of open air and open plains, as much as it is of sheer cliffs of the Western Ghats. The one that sat close to us was probably courting the one that sat far behind it. And as I crouched behind the lens to capture every bit of its sinewy beauty, it shuffled its wings, and took to the air and vanished into the sky that strangely matched its colour.
The Peregrine Falcon takes to wing
A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and far off, said J A Baker (1967) who studied the Peregrine Falcon for over ten years, but he also added: “Now it has gone. The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals.”

Glowing still

The falcon and the bustard. The wolf and the hyena. The crane and the vulture. They’ve all remained invisible to us not because they’re shaped differently or coloured wrongly, but because we chose not to see them. We have cursed them with invisibility, much like how we choose to ignore the things we don’t understand.
The sun shines over Naliya grasslands one winter evening, a prime Bustard habitat under peril
The flatlands of Kutch – the grasslands and the scrublands, the salt lakes and the mudflats have their own uniqueness, their own identity, their own names in ancient cultures. They are dressed in different kinds of plants, roamed on by different kinds of birds and animals.

They are not wastelands. They are home, as much to the wildlife that lives here as to human communities that sustain a living here.

And, in Baker’s words, it is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.

Hampi: Written in Stone

The rotund rock formations can take the form of the most bizarre shapes when viewed through a layer of hot air rising from the sandy gravel on the banks of Tungabhadra. We stood at the northern bank of the river, on an island called Virupapuragadde, awaiting the ferry that would take us to the ruins of the capital of the Vijayanagara Kingdom, Hampi. It was hot, and Laxmi, the sacred elephant of the Virupaksha temple, was being bathed by her mahout as a horde of tourists photographed her from all sides. Under a stony pillared mandapa built five hundred years ago on the bank of the river sat women who offered their hair in grief, as an honour to the departed.

On the eastern side of the bank children jumped into the river from boulders resembling elephant humps, and played in the quieter regions of the rive as River Terns glided overhead, scouring the waters for fish.
The Tungabhadra River and the landscape of Hampi
A day earlier, we arrived on the northern shore of Tungabhadra through banana and sugarcane crops planted on rich black soils surrounded by giant ochre rocks that piled high one upon the other in some places, and which in the evening sunlight turned to gold. These golden rocks are the hallmark of Hampi, on which mankind has written in stone its rich cultural and natural history.

Hampi is an ancient city dating to 1 or 2 century AD, but its cultural glory was at its peak during early 1300s when the Vijayanagara city was formed by the Sangama brothers with Hampi as its capital (Vasudevan and Muralidhar, 2015). The cultural height of this city was at its peak during the era of King Krishna Devaraya, who ruled the Vijayanagara Kingdom for two decades; some consider his reign as the epitome of the glory of the empire when many wars were won, and history written in stone.
The fertile plains of Hampi amidst the ocher stone hills; the dwelling place of the Monkey King
Even more ancient is its association with Ramayana, where the north of Hampi is the location of the Monkey Kingdom Kishkindha, ruled by Sugriva, and the Anjandari Parvata, the speculated birthplace of Lord Hanumana. It is said that this area formed the southern edge of the ancient Dandaka forest that extended from the Vindhyan Range of mountains to the River Tungabhadra where Rama and Sita wandered in exile. Within this forest lay the Dandaka Kingdom, said to be reined by Rakshasas, the demons, whose king, Ravana, abducted Sita. Lord Rama had come to the Kishkindha Kingdom in search of Sita, where he received assistance from Hanuman. [Source] [Much of this is inconclusive, as many records have no accounts of the Dandaka forest touching the River Tungabhadra as far as the Kishkindha Kingdom in Hampi].

The history of this place therefore speaks volumes – from the mythology of the (Valmiki) Ramayana written in 5 to 1 BCE [Source] when the ancient Indian forests of Dandaka existed, to the empire of Vijayanagara (1300 to 1400 AD) known for its taming of elephants and trade with foreign empires, to the present day (2015 CE) when we look back and marvel at all that existed. Perhaps the only link between these three extended time periods could be explained by the flora and fauna described in them: who were the rakshasa, the narsimha, the vanara, the yali, the makara, and if all of these are mythical, do they symbolise anything that ever lived? Was there a kingdom of monkeys, did the Bear King live here, was this land once home to the tigers, did wild elephants ever roam these lands?
The Prasanna Virupaksha temple, the abode of the bats
The reek of guano inside the 14th century Prasanna Virupaksha temple was strong. Only a moment earlier, we asked our guide Vikram that we wanted to see bats – and as we came to a stop alongside this temple, he said this is exactly where you’ll find them! This ancient temple, now popularly called the Underground Vishnu temple, shares its architectural intricacies with many other temples around: stone pillared with many aisles, and a corridor that leads deep inside into darkness. Much of the temple was filled with ankle-deep water, and although its waters reflected the dark roof of the temple, we thought it would be filled with the guano ever since bats had colonized it. But we had to see who dwells inside this holy temple after the idol was taken away.

In the back of the temple there is a small opening which takes you to the middle passage, which further leads inside into the garhbagriha cloaked in utter darkness. And in and out of it fly the silent-winged, broad eared bats – the Schneider’s Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros speoris). These small, insect-hunting bats found only in India and Sri Lanka, are common inhabitants of the temples of Hampi, and are perhaps the oldest residents of this temple today.
The Schneider's Leaf-nosed Bat prefer rock shelters over forests - an important ecosystem for these mammals is Hampi
We are not sure how many inhabit the city of Hampi, or for how long they’ve been around; in fact most visitors remain oblivious to their presence, or feel disgusted at the smell and sight of them – but they’re not parasites damaging what our ancestors built – they are eating insects such as mosquitoes – thousands and millions of them every night – and keeping their numbers in check. The ones that lived in the natural caves of Hampi much before it rose to become a city, and in manmade stone walls chiselled out of stone, are missing from the records, but still clinging onto those very same stones.

No bats are carved on Hampi’s stones, but its walls have several stories to tell: tales of tiger and leopard hunts, taming of horses, camels, and elephants, and creatures that sadly today exist only in stone in this ancient city.
View from Anjandri Parvata; the river Tungabhadra bisects Hampi into two historically significant parts
We climbed the Anjanadri Parvata in dizzying noon heat, and gazed upon the idol of Lord Hanumana which appeared a lot like an infant moorti of the lord – and then stood at the edge of the hill to look upon the southern landscape. The horizon was spilled with boulders of every shape and size, forming either blunt or pointed hilltops, their skin tanned bronze by the sun. The Tungabhadra formed a wide bed of lush green plantations hugging from all sides: rice, banana, sugarcane, coconut; and she occupied only a fraction of her once vast fertile plains as she steadily carried herself towards east. The Virupaksha temple, a tall grandeur and the main complex of Hampi, is barely visible in the vast landscape. It is here that culture and nature converged, and led to an everlasting impression on mankind.

It was a masterpiece of unnatural beauty and splendour, sterile yet fertile, empty yet occupied, Martian yet Earthly. It is said that the rocks of Hampi are the bare bones of our planet visible to the naked eye, giant granite monoliths that crumbled as they aged under forces of sun, water and wind [Source].
The wall of Hazara Ramachandra temple depicts soldiers practicing, and horses and elephants training for war
Hampi is as beautiful up close as it is from a hilltop, its pillars and its walls that form giant temples are carved with stories of a forgotten past. The Hazara Ramachandra temple, so called because of the depictions of relief sculptures of Rama in the Ramayana narrative (Vasudevan and Muralidhar, 2015), depicts series of several stories: of warriors practicing, of horses being tamed and presented to the king, and elephants pulled, rode upon, and trained for war. The depiction of taming of animals such as horses, which were brought in from Persia, are worthy of note, but more worthy are the depictions of the domestication of elephants.
An elephant in chains; a method still in use to break down wild elephants during the taming process
I did not come across records of where the Vijayanagara Kingdom acquired elephants – were they around when the kingdom was in its prime? Or were they captured from the Western Ghats that are not too far from Hampi? The only reference to elephants is that of King Devaraya II, who was titled Gajaventegara, the hunter of elephants. Kuntar (2012) states that he was an expert at hunting elephants, however Chopra, Ravindran and Subramanian (2003), as quoted in Wikipedia, said that it could also mean a metaphor for his “victories against enemies who were as strong as elephants” [Source].

We can only speculate whether wild elephants existed around this landscape or not – the historical range of Asiatic Elephants however suggests that they did, and could have been the source population of domestic elephants as well. They fought wars, transported rocks and kings, and pulled chariots. No wild elephants roam these lands anymore; Lakshmi is probably the only domestic elephant that lives here in the Virupaksha temple. The closest range of wild elephants today lies towards the west, in the Uttara Kannada district.

The most intriguing sculptures besides the mythical beasts are that of hunts: men wearing turbans sitting on the backs of elephants or horses hunting tigers and leopards with spears. This depiction of tigers, horses, and elephants all together are unlikely to be borrowed arts, they were probably inspired by first-hand experiences of hunters in the countryside of Hampi.
The hunt of the tiger
An interesting rock art on Mahanavami dibba is that of a male tiger attacking a domestic elephant, with a man standing under the elephant stabbing the tiger’s stomach, and another man on a horse, probably a king or a prince, spearing the tiger on its shoulders. It is unclear if it was a staged artwork or the depiction of an actual hunt narrated by a hunter, but there are several relics showing men on elephants or horses hunting large cats that could only mean tigers.
The hunt of the leopard
We came across another such artwork where two men are in a forest on foot, one with a spear, and one with a a spear stabbing a cat that perhaps represents a leopard. And of these three giants – the elephant, tiger, and leopard – of an era gone by, only leopards seem to have remained amidst Hampi’s rocks. Steve, who runs Bobby “One Love” Guest House and Restaurant, saw a leopard a few months ago towards the north of the Virupapuragadde sitting amongst rocks, and watched him dissolve into the stony blanket as soon as he was spotted.

Hunting was apparently common in the Vijayanagara Kingdom, tigers and leopards were hunted for sport with spears, and deer were hunted for food. Walls of ancient temples tell stories of hunters with bows and arrows hunting deer. A series depicting hunting is preserved well on one of the sides of the Mahanavami dibba. Carved on the bottom slab of the wall, it shows (from left to right), a hunter with a bow and arrow shooting a chital, two people carrying the shikar on a pole, and another party attacking another herd of chital.
Domestic animals, the elephants, horses, and camels being trained; and the wild: the tiger and the deer being hunted
Men hunting deer are a common feature of stone art, we saw a depiction of what appears to be a pig (most likely a wild boar) cowering from a hunter as a herd of chital dashes into the forests. The hunter however appears to have killed a deer just above the boar. I wondered why they would show a boar in a hunt scene, for it is considered holy. The boar depicted on the royal emblem of the Vijayanagara Kingdom stands for Lord Vishnu’s third avatar Varaha – a boar – who pulled the earth out of the water when Hiranyakasha hid it deep under the ocean.
A carving depicting a hunt in the woods: deer, boar, and probably a canid running through a  forest
The most iconic of all stone-carved temples is the Vitthala temple, standing alone in its own temple complex with an intricately carved stone chariot being pulled by two elephants resting in front of it. We explored this complex as the October sun baked the ground beneath our feet, and dust settled on our skin.
A nondescript, idol-less temple in the Vitthala complex: dark sanctum sanctorum are an ideal roosting site of bats
We walked towards the northern door of the Vitthala temple where an old Plumeria tree stands, and towards the southern end of the complex is an empty temple with a flat roof. Inside it was complete darkness, and a small roost of another species of bat, the Lesser Mouse-tailed Bat (Rhinopoma hardwickii) dwelt here.
The Lesser Mouse-tailed Bat, another resident of Hampi's temples
A rather small species with large eyes and a peculiar mouse-like tail, these insectivorous bats occupy similar niches as the Schneider’s Leaf-nosed bats. The temple they roost in is seldom visited by tourists, this deep and dark space is their sanctum sanctorum.

Many of these temples are adopted abodes of wildlife. Amidst the clamour of wars in the mid 1500s, an Italian visitor Caesar Freedericci is quoted by Kuntar (2012) as remarking, “the town had become desolute [sic] and buildings in it had become hide-outs for wild animals”. This is perhaps the only reference to the wildlife that existed during the time of the Vijayanagara Kingdom.

On our way back to Bobby “one love”, we saw a flock of ruby-red Red Avadavats mixed with the dark-browns of Scaly-breasted Munias pecking the ripe heads of rice. In the morning, was saw a Red-vented Bulbul fledgling being looked after by its parents, a mother Baya Weaver dehusking rice and feeding the white grain to her fledgling, and Silverbills, Bee-eaters, Kingfishers and Drongos hunting among the stone hills. A number of rock agamas, a lizard that lives only on rocks, chased one another among large boulders. Were these some of the only remaining resilient species that now called Hampi home?
A mother Baya Weaver feeds her hatchling with ripe rice
Vikram, our guide during our stay at Hampi, informed us that only recently a leopard was captured and moved away from the locality by the Forest Department because it was a potential danger to people. The only signs we saw of leopards were the nail collars worn around the neck of pet dogs. Sloth bears, although now uncommon, have been spotted by people, snakes such as cobras, vipers and sand boas are also commonly found around Hampi. Other species of bats such as the Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus), Indian pipistrelle (Pipistrellus coromandra), and Leschenault’s rosuette (Rousettus leschenaulti), are recorded from Hampi.

The fingers that chiselled these rocks, which have preserved parts of their kingdom for eternity, perhaps overlooked these common forms of wildlife which, I think, they thought would linger on long after the era of the kings had ended. Perhaps their cultural value was negligible; perhaps they were far too common to be worthy of being carved in stone.
A fish carved on an otherwise plain wall near the elephant stable
This life today is hidden under the extravagance of Hampi’s tourism that has rerouted and reformed and reshaped Hampi’s relationship with nature. And we’re increasingly seeing a shifting of the baseline of the ecology of Hampi: from the time when elephants and tigers roamed these lands, to today, where they can only be admired in stone. My thoughts kept going back to how things would have been then.

Hampi forms an excellent example of what is called the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Described first by Pauly (1995) for the natural fish stocks, Pauly wrote;

“This syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result onbiously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points [...] for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.”
We reminisce Hampi’s manmade past, with no reflection on what has been lost ecologically. Our awe tilts more towards the economic history of the region, with little or no consideration for its ecological history. This kind of Shifting Baseline Syndrome that we suffer from is aptly classified as “generational amnesia, where knowledge extinction occurs because younger generations are not aware of past biological conditions” by Papworth, Rist, Coas, and Milner-Gulland (2008) in their beautiful study Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation.
Lord Krishna dancing on Kaliya, a cobra (a dark morph of the Indian Cobra?) that was taught a lesson for troubling people
The current conservation measures of Hampi lie in the mitigation of man-animal conflict with the scant wildlife that still clings to its rocks – leopards, sloth bears, wild boars, snakes. This does not translate into bringing the lost glory of Hampi back – its rocks now lie empty for most parts – no longer do they feel the warm soles of mammals resting on them like they once used to.
The scrub forest habitat of Daroji Bear Sanctuary
Over 30 kilometers from Hampi is the Daroji Bear Sanctuary (see management plan here), a small, 82.72 sq. km. wide sanctuary carved out of rocks and stones. It is particularly famous for its conservation of sloth bears. Most of these bears are rescues, which are fed with jaggery, bananas, honey, and other sweets daily. Two men, one armed with a stick and another with a vessel climb up the flat platform-like boulders and spread the sweet brew onto the rocks daily. The man with a stick in hand is in-charge of making enough noise to inform any prowling bears of their presence. As the day progresses, bears, mongoose, peacocks, spurfowls, and wild boars come out to cherish this free treat that they’re feeding on since Daroji came into existence in 1994.

Daroji is a scrub forest with relatively good tree cover compared to the heartland of Hampi. Leopards take shelter in this protected area as well, perhaps feeding on the resident bonnet macaque and southern plains langur. Although most of its sloth bear population is habituated to the free diet provided by humans, there are several wild individuals that rarely ever wander out during the hot afternoon hours.

I find Hampi and Daroji to be two peaks of the same mountain. They share the exact same habitat, are thinly populated, and can hold a large population of wildlife – not only of sloth bears and leopards, but also, perhaps, of tigers if not elephants.
A lone, plump sloth bear feeding on the Karadikallu gudda
The conservation choices of Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary are peculiar, they are a combination of ex situ conservation measures (artificial feeding) in an in situ conservation model (in their natural habitat), a rare method that works well for bears whose populations are decreasing throughout their distribution range. From an ecological point-of-view, Daroji is a highly unstable colony of sloth bears, since bears are solitary animals and converge only when food is abundantly available.

How does this relate to the Shifting Baseline Syndrome?

Shri Jambunatha temple is located a little farther from Hampi, about 5 km from the city of Hospete, on a hill called Jambhunathanahalli. Jambhunatha is the King of Bears, the son of Brahma, and is depicted as a sloth bear (read the history on Wikipedia). Jabhunathanhalli literally means the dwelling place of the King of the Bears.

Daroji Bear Sanctuary was perceived to be a place for the conservation of sloth bears with several measures undertaken to give them a safe haven and reduce anthropogenic pressure upon the protected area. The historical link of the surviving, or rather thriving, populations of sloth bears with that of the 15th century temple of Jambhunatha, or with the hill upon which the King of Bears dwelt, is hard to overlook. Perhaps it was deemed that sloth bears needed protection because the King of Bears dwelt here, or perhaps the ancient civilization dubbed this hill so because many bears already dwelt in that region.
Modernization of agriculture, loss and defragmentation of habitats are major causes of the loss of biodiversity
What, then, of the tiger that was hunted for sport; or that of the elephant trained for labour? What of the Great Indian Bustard that were recorded in this region until recently but are now locally extinct [Source], and are critically endangered and on the verge of extinction solely because of man’s activities?
The Peninsular Rock Agama, Psammophilus dorsalis; one of the resilient ones of Hampi
We have now reduced the biodiversity of Hampi to only those animals that can eke out a living in a human dominated landscape. Walking through the ancient temples of Hampi, we feel a strong presence of men roaming through those empty stone-walled temples over 500 years ago. But if you look a little closer, Hampi’s history offers glimpses of its natural riches too, which will remain written in stone for another several hundred years for everyone to see the glorious years of yore now but a memory.
The sunset over Hampi's horizon is always spectacular, as spectacular as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago
We sat on the shoulder of a rock in the evening sun wondering if we could spot something as we scanned the large hills glowing in gold around us – would a leopard be peering at us, or a family of bears patiently watching us from a cave – but all we heard was a group of visitors singing in unison to the setting sun.

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Further reading:
Vasudevan, C. S.; Muralidhar, Melukote N. (2015). Hampi world heritage area. Itagi Nagaraja Prakashana
Kuntar, Mohan. (2012). A glimpse of Hampi. Sri Venkatrshwars Toys Centre Hampi
Pauly, Daniel. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. TREE. 10(10). pp. 430
Papworth, S. K.; Rist, J.; Coad, L.; and Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2008). Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation. Conservation Letters. 2(2009). pp. 93–100
Kiran, M. N. (n.a.). Management plan for Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary 2011-12 to 2015-16. Karnataka Forest Department
Baskaran, Theodore. (2015). In the land of bears. Frontline. Retrieved from: http://www.frontline.in/environment/wild-life/in-the-land-of-bears/article7809510.ece

Barefoot Notes: Of Fleeting Glimpses and Lingering Thoughts

We rode on the most slumber-inducing roads of Kanha Tiger Reserve, cloaked in ancient Sal trees from above and clasped from below by an ephemeral mattress of post-monsoon understory herbs. The stillness of the night lingered on as if it would never let the sun rise over this piece of land, and a pale mist clung to the undergrowth until the warmth of the sun scattered it into bits and pieces. The mist that arose from the crystal waters of Sonder Lake formed communities of rising mist, and slowly drifted landwards, from where they rose higher and mingled into an azure sky.

This was a new day. The park was thrown open for tourists after three months of quiescence, and like a newborn baby bird covered in a protective cover of its down feathers, it looked back at us with its thousand and more eyes, in the shape and form of birds, mammals, lizards, and insects, as we arrived in olive-green gypsies to witness this rebirth.
A Gaur "toddler" looks curiously at us while his younger cousin, who is perhaps oblivious to humans, keeps his mother busy.

The ground was wet from the previous evening’s rain, and the grass tall and green. The sound of tyres churning small sandstones as we traversed inside the park was the only man-made sound amidst the clamour of birds and crickets.A pair of a cow Gaur and her suckling greeted us at the Owrai meadows – the cow regurgitating the tender grass, and the calf feeding on her milk – both their tails swayed uniformly like pendulums, keeping flies at bay. They stood here for well over 20 minutes until the calf decided to join his elder and younger cousins in the herd. As they moved out into the Owrai meadows, the alpha emerged from the lee side of the road where he was busy stripping barks from trees, and once they were all off the track, we moved on underneath an arch of Sal forest.
Sunlight creeps in from the minarets of Sal trees on a cold hazy blue October morning.
The forest always seems to lull me to sleep whenever I pass through in a vehicle – a habit my friends find irksome – but that sleep, which many of us have experienced but felt too embarrassed to speak about – is the best kind of slumber— short-lived, but ever so refreshing. That slumber is different: you’re more at ease, more relaxed, and with your eyes closed you feel the forest move past you – you hear the trees whispering in your ears, you hear them rustle, sigh and sway, you hear the chirps of birds, the chirrups of insects, and when you pass over a small stream you hear it murmur and you smell its sweet earthly scent, and when you pass through the meadows you feel the crisp breeze and hear a subtle squall. It is only my eyes that remain shut, I tell them.

The dreamy paths took us through glen and glade, and skeleton trees, and those adorned in heart-shaped leaves, and those sprinkled with dew. They swept past us like distant but warm-hearted strangers, stronger and wiser than you and I.

Then down a narrow bridge built over a small stream we met someone who had a hint of the movement of the famed cat of Kanha. We decided to wait. The forest girded the path a little too tightly; its bamboo blades caressed us or tried to get close to us whenever they could. Do they miss the human touch, I wondered. These were young grasses full of youth and tenderness – with their culms thinner than toddlers’ arms; they were probably less than half a decade old.
A magnificent Bamboo grove in the making; one which perhaps gives the tiger its stripes.
When the silence, rather the stillness of anticipation grew too tense, we decided to move. Just as the gypsy raced to climb up the dell, a gentle movement in the young bamboo grove caught our attention, and the sound of footsteps-that-do-not-whisper suddenly led us to a blaze of colour—striped in gold and black with a belly dusted in powder-white, and a face war-painted and calm. A Bengal Tiger – the supreme predator of Kanha’s wilderness whose shadow enshrines all that live here – emerged from the thickets, and stretched his head to take a sniff of the overhanging bamboo blades.
Tiger in the thickets.
The blaring crackles of langurs and shrieks of birds.

The tiger headed towards us as though we were invisible to him. He walked as if nothing stood in front of him and his path: his resolve was that of an emperor, his gait was that of a prince, and his sense of purpose that of a lover. We reversed up the slope now, and a train of gypsies that were behind us moved backwards in unison.
His meditative way of identifying the scent perhaps left behind by a tigress.
He decided to suddenly sit square just beside the path, and rolled over like a frolicking dog would, and scratched in the ground, sniffed, and started walking again. He did so because he was looking for someone, and left a reply where a previous passerby had left her message: with his scent.
His flehmen response to better identify the scent:
mammals grin in a typical fashion to allow the scent to enter their vomeronasal organ.
Then he sniffed another blade of an overhanging bamboo frond, grimaced, and exposed his teeth to inhale the subtle traces of the tigress he was looking for. His flehmen reaction was quite bold, and he stood like this for a few seconds dissecting the cues in the scent of the tigress, then turned about, raised his tail, and spurted two sprays of urine that misted in the bamboo thicket.
He sits to rub his scent on the edge of the slope.
He then resumed his gait for a few yards and decided to sit upon the edge of the slope as we moved further backwards. The early sun shone from behind him, and his colossal muscles embellished his already larger-than-life stature, casting shifting shadows on the golden landscape streaked by dark stripes. Here he sat for a few seconds, rubbing his under parts onto the ground to leave his scent, and then moved ahead.
...and squats to leave some more scent behind where a passing-by tigress left hers.
Then he assumed an unlikely posture, one not refined enough for a king – he squatted, and instead of doing his business, he urinated, scratched the ground, sniffed, and moved ahead again. We parked several yards away from the road we thought he’d take, and he walked through our predicted path looking about and sniffing around.
A fleeting glimpse.
And then our eyes met. He looked straight at me; unfortunately my eyes were hidden behind the lens. That was the calmest expression I’ve ever seen on a tiger’s face.

This calmness, for me, signified a trust in humanity: a trust in living in harmony, a plea to let him be. It signified an unfinished story that haunts all tigers and humans alike: a malady of human-tiger interaction that always nudges us at the back of our minds, an afterthought of who’s after whom – and why, an aftertaste of the backlash that arises from the attacks, that leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. And in that moment I thought sorrowfully that man will never let the tiger be.
An effective way of communicating, "I'm the one you're looking for".
The tiger did what a tiger does. Perhaps he was a lover, a seeker, and this meeting taught us a lot about his life in the wilderness – and I saw why a tiger is called the king of the jungle – a portrayal I would be more at ease with than Kipling’s Sher Khan, the man-eater, but deep down inside me I know that a tiger is a species that is struggling to survive, trying to eke out a living in a human-dominated landscape, and taking what he can with him into the forests. This is something different than his larger-than-life portrayal most of us admire him for.
And he looked back and forth ever in search of the tiger scent that only he could detect.
The interactions between man and tiger were always volatile, and they will remain so forever if we are to refrain from fencing them inside Protected Areas that are meant to be porous. But if a tiger is caged, we defeat nature’s very purpose of intermingling. The tiger will find his mate, but his cubs will be born in a prison. As I looked at this tiger, I was reminded of this terrible future where tigers survive but they’re a product of man’s obsession to tame nature. But on that day, oddly, it seemed as though he was just thanking me for his space.
A chance meet that turned into lingering thoughts.
We followed silently as he walked in front of us – doing what a tiger does – and disappeared on a path forbidden for humans, and we saw the golden blaze dissolve into the lemon greens. And I thanked him for his time.