Closer to Nature

There are countless ways of expressing the bond we share with the world around us. Not only visual, but also sensual – even silence is a medium of expression. I’ve been using words and photographs as a way to express what I see and feel for quite some time now, but there are countless – metaphorically – instances when I was witnessing a miracle of nature when the silence engulfed me and I was at loss for words, and those moments, although I cherish them for what they were, will never translate into something that I could write, or photograph.

I spent the last week by the beach trying to make sense of the world through the medium of numbers and figures – I was a part of a PRiMER course of Gubbi Labs here to learn statistics, mapping, scientific reasoning, and expressing – and at the end of the day I buried my feet in the sand watching the sun set over the horizon and dolphins leaping from the waves. Words swelled into my head like a hightide every time I walked on the beach, but I could not fathom them – it was as if they were caught off by the trawlers way before they reached the shores. And I left it at that.

I’m looking back at the year, as I did in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but there are no photographs this time to celebrate the passing year.

Over the last few years I wrote articles for students (and parents) for a small but a beautiful magazine, Twinkle Star – edited by The Hitavada in central India. These articles, however, became buried in the archives and went off the grid.

To celebrate the passing of 2016, I’m releasing this small e-book containing a number of articles written since 2013 on my favourite topics – from tiger beetles and snakes to issues concerning biodiversity conservation, to just celebrating the natural richness of our planet. Some are a story in themselves, some are drawn from personal experiences, and most are stand-alone articles written to provoke a creative thought and a positive attitude.

The pdf is uploaded on Google Drive, you can download/view this file.


The pdf is also uploaded on Slideshare.net, you will need to sign in/up to download this file.

I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Note: Sahyadrica will slow down in 2017 as I chase real life! However I will keep posting notes up here or on The Wild Yarn!

The Man v Wild Conundrum

There’s never been a time in history when a wild vertebrate did not kill a man or man did not kill a wild vertebrate. Not once for the last 15 million years since early humanoids roamed the planet. In fact, man killed more wild vertebrates than they killed us, and that is perhaps evident in us becoming the most successful species in spite of lacking claws and fangs.

Man has always been against the wild, always the rebel, always the one to straighten things out, to mend and to tame. If it did not suit him, he destroyed it, and if he liked it, he finished it off. And then we drifted off, slowly, from all things wild. Today, we believe that money plants (Epipremnum aureum) bring us wealth, but we don’t know that that inconspicuous little fly, lovingly called a tiger fly (Coenosia sp.), is sitting on its leaf to prey upon the other tiny insects that feed on this plant, and we bug-spray the plant, killing everything with it. That’s wildlife right there. We just wiped it out of existence from our house.

A new-era subtly dawned upon us, of human-wildlife conflict, when we perceived the wild as a threat to our property. They attacked our crops, our livestock, invaded our homes and lay our wood to decay, and they killed us. What’s interesting to note is that all this had been happening for countless years, but we started noticing it only recently. Man waged war on the wild. Killing the problem animals – from aphids to elephants, and side-by-side, hunted them just for sheer adventure, obliterating most of them, such as the wolves, rhinoceros, and the tiger – became the norm. Even sparrows were not spared in some parts of the world. A novel idea of creating refuges for the wildlife prevailed only in the last century, and areas were protected from the people to conserve the diminishing wildlife. Back then it wasn’t envisaged what an enclosed area – with porous boundaries – would do to people immediately living around it. Animals wandered off, plundered crops or hunted livestock or humans in their immediate vicinity. To counter this intense problem, we started compensating people for the loss.

To avenge the loss, they sprayed pesticides, they poisoned the animals, they set traps to catch the perpetrators, they used sticks and axes to hack them, and they burnt them alive. Here I must say that there is a reason why I started with man, came to we, and then to them. Man is when I encompass every human being from history, we is when I focus only on the people from the modern age, and them marks the demarcation of urban and the rural life. The urban us lost the contact with the wild that the rural them still deal with today from – to name a few – rice hoppers to snakes to tigers. They did this. A very sinister division appeared here between them and us.

Human-wildlife conflict is not a stand-alone entity. It is a part of the larger human-wildlife interaction where the focus on negative interactions outweighs the positive interactions. It is indeed an unsolvable conundrum in the field of conservation, because we often look for synthetic solutions where in fact we should be looking for organic solutions. Fencing, culling, translocating are synthetic, band-aid solutions that are not foolproof, whereas community-driven (solutions derived by the people for the people) models of dealing with negative interactions such village-managed livestock insurance for snow leopard conservation, are organic.

When a wild animal does attack a human, what happens is a flurry of emotions erupting from all sides: from the affected person’s community, the forest department, the conservationists, and the animal-lovers. There’s a lot of pressure, but the members of the community are generally tolerant, and with superb coordination from the government departments, they understand the consequences of sharing the space and time with wildlife.

What happens when the incidences repeat one-after-another is a different story. Common sense tells us to remove the problem animal from the area. 

What usually happens is this:
1.       Capture, confirm, and translocate: The forest department swings into action to capture the problem animal (only those involved in killing humans are captured, but there are instances of capturing entire herds of elephants that cause crop damage), once caught, it is then confirmed that it was indeed the problem animal, and then it is translocated to an entirely different landscape. But this is often like pushing the problem from your house to another’s and it doesn’t quite work well as this wonderful work for leopards shows.
2.       Capture, confirm, and re-release: In some instances releasing the same animal in the same locality has also resulted in increase in conflict as the same study shows. 
3.       Capture, confirm, and euthanize: One of the last resorts is euthanizing, for which, too, there are protocols, but whether killing is the solution is still not determined.
4.       Capture, confirm, and confine: Confining an animal is still practiced, however it is unethical and with the current state of infrastructure, a real torture for the animal. There are no rules that state that an animal can be jailed like a human being. In other words, we cannot dub an animal a criminal, but some are sent to zoos for pseudo-education of wildlife, hardly any are given a safe refuge in rescue facilities.

Then there is a last resort when the above four methods fail:
5.       Shoot at sight: This is often implemented in extreme cases, when the problem animal remains elusive, as this case from Murbad (Maharashtra) shows. Unfortunately it is confirmed if the animal was the problem animal only after it is killed. 

However, things can go wrong at any moment, and when they do, this is what it results into:
6.       Mob killing and vandalising: This is inevitable in certain situations, but it can occur at any point of time in the above five cases. It has happened time and again, in Gujarat and in Uttarakhand, when a trapped leopard, before being confirmed that it was a problem animal, was burnt alive by the mob; recently a leopard was beaten to death by the mob in Haryana during a rescue operation – which, in turn, led to decision of relocating the first ever leopard in Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi to Uttarakhand fearing a backlash similar to the one in Haryana.

The question is: how to tackle the sixth? It is a complex situation which cannot be confronted at the moment it happens. In such a situation, what can be done needs to be done before such a situation to prevent it, or after it has happened to subvert it.

Before:
A.      Awareness? Of course. We create awareness among people from all walks of lives – from urban residents living on the edge of forests, to forest-dependent communities; from young ones to the eldest. Awareness can be sensitisation, where the people are made aware of the wildlife of their area, and they can also be trained to avoid confrontations or informed about what to do and not to do during a confrontation.
B.      Community conflict management? A step beyond awareness. Empowering everyone mentioned above to mitigate conflict with wildlife – particularly when humans get hurt or are killed by wild animals – by developing a committee that watches over an area – such as the SMS-based alert system developed in Valparai in Tamil Nadu.
C.      Conflict stewards? A novel approach, which is linked with B is and similar to the example given above, can be used at a micro-level, focusing on one village at a time.
D.      Compensation? A practice that is currently being implemented across the country by the forest department and private organizations. This has worked in Corbett Tiger Reserve, where no cases of poisoning tigers which killed the livestock are reported since 1999, about time when the interim relief scheme picked pace in the reserve.

It often is not enough, and mob fury can result in spite of all these measures. What to do after, then?

After:
E.       Jail term? Perpetrators must be identified and punished as per the law.
F.       Branding criminal? Can a handful of perpetrators be held responsible for calling an entire village or a community criminal?

Once an event takes place as per 6, irrespective of what measures one takes, E and F must follow as per the law. The human perpetrators should be punished. What we must consider is whether we can dub an entire community or a village as criminal for this act. A mob does not work as a collective wisdom of many, it is ignited as a flicker of flame – all we need is one spark – and that spreads like wildfire, and in that heat of the moment, it multiplies the force which often comes out as rage. When it comes to human wildlife conflict, this rage is particularly focused on that certain individual or individuals, and not the species as a whole. In other words, we cannot simply call the entire community which resulted in lynching the wild animal during the rescue operation as criminal, exactly the way we do not see every wild animal as a problem for humans. For if we do so, not only do we undermine the entire species existing in that habitat, but undermine the existence of that entire ecosystem.

There are many issues at work in that instance when a wild animal is attacked by a mob – the temperament, the socio-economic status, the dissatisfaction with the concerned authorities, disconnection with nature, and also anthropomorphisation of that animal: dubbing it as a criminal or an outsider. All these combined are a potent mix to ignite mob fury. It is particularly the last two that overshadow everything else, as was the case of the killing of the leopard in Haryana.

Once a tiger wandered in a village nestled at the edge of Kanha Tiger Reserve and became trapped on the village side of a fence that separated it from the forest. It attracted a large crowd. Many went quite close to see what she was doing as she tired to dig through, climb up a tree, and paced to-and-fro. Many also tried to push her away from the village by simply walking up to her, but when the officials spun into action, and asked the crowd to scatter away, they resisted saying that the tiger will enter their house during the rescue operation. The fence was then removed in some places, allowing her to walk away, and the crowd faded.

One of the tigers of Kanha, now past his prime, had lost his territory to a younger male and had made his home close to a village where he often killed cattle for survival – this went on for several weeks as the officials kept him in check, then the depredations suddenly stopped, and it was realised that the tiger had disappeared. After several months he was seen, once again, back in another village, killing livestock. There had been no attacks on the people, which was fortunate and hence, perhaps, given the fact that compensation for livestock depredation is effective in this reserve, people tolerated this old male’s presence.

A similar case also took place in Bandhavgarh, when a male past his prime moved into a village after losing his territory to a younger male. He attracted a large gathering of people. With officials and guards on elephant at the tail of this tiger, there were no casualties recorded, and the tiger was, without tranquillisation, hurried back to the forests.

In all these cases there were no violent mob reactions. The case of Haryana being an exception, most cases involving lynching of the animal occurred because of the animal’s behaviour of preying on humans. In case of Haryana, the disconnection with nature could be considered as one of the driving reasons for the mob fury.

Many of us (only 30%) from cities can’t possibly imagine what they think when wild animals depredate their livestock and also regrettably kill their relatives. They always face challenges that nature casts at them which we conveniently solve. When a large predator strikes, the tolerance tips over, primal instincts take over.

What we as someone removed from their situation can do is try to understand the various dimensions of human-wildlife conflict, to name a few:
1.       Forest Department: They are so understaffed, they can’t be expected to regulate the mob as well as capture the animal; furthermore most non-Protected Area forest departments are not trained to rescue animals.
2.       Police: They are also often understaffed in rural and peri-urban areas, unfortunately they also lack infrastructure for mob control.
3.       Animal in question: Was it a problem animal which had already killed people or livestock? Was it a stray? It is important to know exactly why the lynching took place since this shows the mob’s state-of-mind, was it sheer hatred – or fear – of the stray animal, as was observed in Haryana, or was it anger towards the problem animal, as it happened in Gujarat.
4.       Local community: Communities vary greatly in their temperament from place to place, even from hamlet-to-hamlet within a village. Scenarios can turn violent irrespective of the animal in question, or the people in question and it is about time the department learnt from the past and took stringent anti-mob controls during a rescue operation.

A case to note here is that of a rescue of a tiger which had sought shelter inside a home in a village close to Kanha but outside the protected area. The forest department swung into action, tranquillised the tiger as it rested in the house, and carried it out on a stretcher and into the rescue vehicle. The crowd had swollen into thousands. The mob fury erupted not because the tiger posed any threat to the people, but because the tiger was not displayed to the public – vehicles were tumbled over, some even burnt, and it was only through the sheer force of the police that it was brought under control. The mob mentality cannot be deduced.

Animal-killers should be punished, vandals must be imprisoned, but efforts also need to be taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Attacking the perpetrators on social media, calling them names, is also a mob reaction, how-much-ever it sickens us to our core.

There is a reason why grassroots conservationists stay mum on such issues. This silence could perhaps be translated into hopelessness that they feel when the animal starts killing people and when an animal is surrounded by people, or it is born out of the countless instances of animals being put to death for their erratic behaviours, that raising a voice seems to only fall on deaf ears. No conservationist will recommend caging an animal either, neither putting it down. There are several instances of conservationists escaping the mob fury because of sheer luck during rescue operations. There are those who were not spared by the wild animals as well, as the case in Bengaluru when a leopard entered a school showed earlier this year, when a conservationist – a part of the rescue team – was attacked by the leopard being rescued. To quote him from this article in Firstpost (Feb 8, 2016): “the loss and conversion of the leopards’ natural habitat seems to be an important driver for this spotted cat to come into conflict with humans. A comprehensive plan, where leopard habitats that occur adjoining to cities and towns, needs to be drawn up for long-term leopard preservation in the country.”

Conflict is however more prevalent in the countryside, where carnivores injure as many as a hundred people or a thousand cattle every year (why is it that social media activists raise no voices over this, I wonder). It will be interesting to map mob reactions across the country which can highlight where intolerance among people towards wildlife is highest. Social surveys may also tell us who is disconnected or wants to be unplugged with nature, or if it is just discontent with the government’s management of wildlife. In Haryana, where a part of the Aravalis still harbour leopard populations, there have been as many as 8 cases of leopard deaths since 2008 hinting at a complete intolerance towards wildlife - particularly large carnivores - in the area. It means that only declaring protected areas in the Aravalis - the oldest and the most exploited of mountain ranges of India - is not enough, working with the local communities is also required to reduce the tensions.

When it comes to conflict, we cannot point fingers. There is no they and us, certainly not when it comes to our interactions with wildlife. Just because some of us stay away from wilderness, and visit it only when we wish to, doesn’t mean that we’re doing no harm to nature (in fact it is worse). We all are working against nature, you who, like me, are sitting on your laptop with your smartphone besides you, to the one who beat the leopard out of existence.

We should stop the blame game and own it. A collective wisdom may show us a way towards tolerating each other’s presence, even if we can’t yet find peaceful co-existence.

Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of Kanha Tiger Reserve

After fourteen long months since I wrote a report on insects and spiders of Kanha in August, a few of us (myself, Malay and Ankita of Resurrect, and Kedar Gore of The Corbett Foundation) got together to discuss on turning this into something much more than just a report, and we came up with a field guide – a handy book on common insects and spiders of Kanha Tiger Reserve.
Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of Kanha Tiger Reserve, now in stores.
For Europe (especially UK) it is available on NHBS: http://www.nhbs.com/title/212834/a-field-guide-to-insects-spiders-of-kanha-tiger-reserve

For USA it is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Insects-Spiders-Reserve/dp/8193208528/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1479010159&sr=8-1&keywords=insects+and+spiders+of+Kanha

But before you purchase this book, here’s something more about this book that you would like to know:

1.       It is a subject-specific book, but is not exhaustive. It covers 10 most common Orders of insects – from Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) to Neuroptera (lacewings), in detail, and 11 other insect Orders in the passing (such as mayflies and webspinners), with general notes on their behaviour, lifecycle, and ecology accompanied by photographs of some common and not-so-uncommon specimens (469 in total), along with brief descriptions of their behaviour or characters wherever it was possible to observe. Since spiders come in a single Order (Araneae), focus has been on families – this book covers 24 families of spiders (114 specimens) you are bound to come across on your wanderings. Apart from this, it has mentions of 9 non-insect arthropods and 9 non-spider arachnids.

2.       It is a region-specific book, but it is expandable. Although the book’s focus is on the 2000 odd square kilometres of Kanha – describing its ecosystem and how insects and spiders occupy it, it can also be used in other parts of central India – specifically those which also cover the sal and mixed deciduous and grassland-kind of ecosystems. It also showcases a study which can be replicated in other areas, such as the unique Satpuda Tiger Reserve up north-west and Pench down south-west.

3.       It has one section entirely on how to visually identify some common orders of insects from just looking at them or by taking a photograph – and is aimed for the novice. It covers 12 sketch-plates to help take the first step in identifying an insect – for example, if you’re confused between a butterfly and a moth, or a beetle and a bug, or a dragonfly and an owlfly, or with respect to spiders – between a jumping spider and a wolf spider, an orb weaver and a giant wood; you can refer to this section.

4.       It also focuses on some scientific technicalities of insects and spiders – more particularly their density and diversity, how they form their own communities – and why – and what role they play in Kanha’s ecosystem, and a ‘fun facts’ section on insects and spiders and their cool tricks.

5.       Finally, and again, it covers images which will aid in identification of 600 species of these invertebrates in Kanha.

This book, with a foreword by Shri J S Chauhan (IFS), then the Field Director of Kanha Tiger Reserve under whom many revolutionary projects of wildlife conservation were undertaken, was released at the hands of Shri Jitendra Agrawal (IFS), the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, and Shri Rajnish Singh, Assist. Conservator of Forests, in presence of the publishers, Resurrect Books (India), and the director Shri Kedar Gore and deputy director Dr Sharad Kumar of The Corbett Foundation.

If you’re keen on purchasing it, you can do it online, and if you’re visiting Kanha in the next few weeks, it will be made available at the souvenir shop at Mukki and Kisli as well.
The book in life (specifications on the link provided above)
And if you do make a purchase, do write to me about what you like about the book and what you do not. I consider this one as a work-in-progress – there is so much to learn, and it barely scratches the surface of the biodiversity of Kanha, but, as a beginning, I hope it serves its purpose in introducing you to the fascinating world of insects and spiders (in a central Indian context).

The Karvy Question

There is a shrub – an omnipresent one – on the gentle as well as steep slopes of the Western Ghats called Karvy (or Karvi), Strobilanthes callosus. It grows in dense thickets with its stems shooting straight up from the ground into a loosely held bunch. In summer they appear as a maze of bone-dry sticks which are collected by local communities to build walls – the sticks, being straight, are tied next to one another upon which a layer of mud and dung is plastered (these structures are very cool and very sustainable in their make). By late winter the leaves dry out, first developing warts, then turning yellow and orange, and then as they desiccate with rising temperatures they turn brown and crumble away.
A carpet of Karvy, Strobilanthes callosus, the one with dark green leaves predominates on one of the slopes in Sahyadris, the northern Western Ghats. September 2011.
It is between these two seasons that they’re at their best – their leaves are dark and large, crenate, and shaped roughly like a spearhead. Right at the onset of monsoons, the new leaves arise in a bunch, and slowly regain their spread over the Ghats. They look marvellous, whether bare or cloaked, giving the basalt slopes of the Ghats their own signatory patterns and colours. If you’re a trekker you’ve come across these industrious plants blocking the old path that leads to the fort – you will find them where no trees grow, and they often form a mosaic of light-and-dark hues of greens with the grasses forming their own patches in-between.
A path through a Karvy grove in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. December 2012.
They are mostly invisible for us. Their life is rather uneventful for the most part, if I may say so on behalf of the plant world. A few bugs, beetles, moths, and butterflies like the Southern Blue Oakleaf, are fond of munching on their leaves, some probably bore into their leaves and stems and roots. They are not visited by bees and butterflies, and are quite passive in their interaction with other living beings; introverts of the plant world, someone would say. But they’re crafty. Once in every eight years – that is nearly 2920 days – or about 3000 days, if we round it up – they show their true colours, envious colours, if I may again express the feelings of the plant world.

Every eight years, almost suddenly for those like me who don’t keep a count, they flaunt their most outlandish colours everywhere they’re present. Little green cone-like buds appear all the way on their straight nonchalant stems just after the first monsoon rains, which then turn to a soft pink, and as monsoon progresses bloom into purple-violet flowers, colouring the Ghats with their aura. Karvy is one of the plants called the plietesials – “plants that grow for a number of years, flower gregariously (synchronously), set seed and then die” (read more about it here). The other more common plietesial we know is bamboo, especially Bambusa bambos and Dendeocalamus strictus which flower anywhere between seven or fourteen or even fifty years.
Karvy blossom in 2016 being paid a visit by a diligent Indian honeybee (Apis dorsata).
Karvy belongs to the family Acanthaceae, and is one of the 450 species under the Strobilanthinae subfamily. The genus itself contains about 300 described species (Carine and Scotland 2002), with 116 recorded in India (Singh and Diwakar 2007), several of them, like Karvy, are endemic to India. It is a diverse taxa with some species that flower and fruit multiple times in their lifespan, such as plants like apple, cashew, rose, which are called polycarpic, and some that are monocarpic – they flower and fruit once and die, such as the ephemeral flora including rice and wheat and wild grasses which we see in abundance during monsoon and die after seeding. Karvy is therefore a monocarpic plietesial plant – the one which not only flowers only once in its lifetime but does so once every several years.

Me and my friend Alok, who’s a grass taxonomist, were on the lookout for something even rarer which we could not see when we came across groves of Karvy in bloom in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It felt like meeting an old friend after eight years – but of course, that old friend we had met in 2008 (when I had started this blog and had only mentioned Karvy in the passing!) was long dead: Karvy is a plant that, after mass seeding, dies off. Mass seeding is a phenomenon called ‘masting’ which is “the intermittent production of large seed crops by a population of plants … is most likely in long-lived plants, which are less affected by the costs of not reproducing in some years” (Kelly 1994, he characterised Strobilanthes as a “strict masting” plant). We were in fact meeting the sons and daughters of our plant-friend, and it was a pleasant meet.

On the way we also stumbled upon Alok’s professor, who posed a very indulgent question to the young PhD scholar – of course most of their conversation about the conflicting taxonomy of grasses – which I adore too, and actively identified at least one genus to Alok’s surprise – left me clueless, he spoke of “problem solving” as an objective that was by-and-large getting lost in research. Alok and I agreed, but that got me wondering about “problem solving” in my quest of finding things out.

Coming back to Karvy, it posed a few questions even though its taxonomy was quite clear, so was the fact that it flowered once every eight years, as did its cousin Strobilanthes sessilis (locally called Topli Karvi) which grows on even harder ground such as the tabletops of the northern Western Ghats, and other slightly distant cousin Mackenziea integrifolia (synonymised with Strobilanthes perfoliatus) which is found in the evergreen forests of the northern Western Ghats. S. sessilis flowers every eight/seven years and S. perfoliatus every – wait for it – eight/seven years too! Strobilanthes kunthianus which grows in the high altitude shola ecosystem of southern Western Ghats blooms every 12 years.
An Indian honeybee (Apis dorsata) visits Strobilanthes perfoliatus (= Mackenziea integrifolia) in Matheran.
December 2012.
The first question was: why eight, or seven or twelve years; why not every year, or every ten years; the second question was: why are all of them in the shade of violet, why not yellow or red; and the final question, which is actually an extension of the first and second: how do they manage to get pollinated from animals such as insects without being bothered about them for all these years, or, in other words, how do insects cope after the sudden surge in food production that lasts only for about 120 days, or, and lastly, does mass flowering of Karvy affect the biomass of insects?

This article is largely about pondering over rather than solving the problems posed by Karvy for being too crafty and stunning at the same time.

Kelly (1994) has summarised eight hypotheses for the phenomena of masting (do read the paper, it makes for a lovely read on plant ecology) based on pollination and dispersal by wind and animals, predator satiation (or destruction of crop to satisfy a herbivore’s hunger), accessory costs and large seed size (basically spending less on more production at once), and resource matching and environmental prediction which requires the plants to “match the varying resources available” under favourable conditions for reproduction and establishment (see Table 2 on page 468). Karvy’s (S. callosus) ecology is not clearly understood as its phylogeny. Its spread in the northern Western Ghats is of 500 km and more, and it is quite predominantly present across the escarpments wherever it is suitable to be considered ‘common’. There’s no doubt that Karvy is so eccentric because it is coded in its genes. Yet I wonder if the climate made it so – Karvy flowering periods of 2008 and 2016 do not seem to show any correlation to monsoon extreme events, it does however indicate a positive correlation with ‘normal’ rainfall. Unfortunately we do not have data for previous years’s flowering, but if we go back every eight years from 2016 and 2008 to 2000 to 1992 to 1984, it all coincides with what is considered normal rainfall (see the summer monsoon rainfall data here). Of course, this is a naïve assumption, but it hints at Strobilanthes playing to the hypothesis that resource matching and environmental prediction, based on monsoon in the Indian context, could determine the period it takes – that of about eight years, and it holds true for both S. callosus as well as S. sessilis. Things however probably play differently for S. perfoliatus, which, although it shares more-or-less the same ecosystem, last flowered en masse in 2012. Going back every eight years, it must have flowered in 2004, 1996, and 1988, and so on – all these years, too, received normal rainfall.
Sporadic flowering of Karvy in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary, photographed in October, 2011.
What’s interesting about Karvy’s lifecycle is that once fertilized, the seed capsule ripens slowly over prolonged dry and hot weather of winter and summer, and often they grow on the parent body with the onset of next monsoon – another phenomenon we’ll introduce here is vivipary, where the mother plant carries the sapling until it takes birth and then are shed down with the next year’s rain instead of directly shedding the seeds. That means we need to look at how the rainfall was in the year – excepting 2017 – 2009, 2001, 1993, and 1985 for S. callosus and S. sessilis; and 2013, 2005, 1997, and 1989 for S. perfoliatus, one year after the mass flowering episode. For the former two’s progeny, 2009 and 1985 were drought years, and for the latter, 1989 was a drought year. There is not enough inference from this, but it is worth considering the debate whether Strobilanthes requires more resources, especially water, to produce flowers and seeds and less to germinate them. It must be remembered that Karvy, although a strict masting plant, also has vagrants lurking here and there. A small patch of Karvy blossomed in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in 2011 and several patches in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in 2015. Every year Karvy undergoes sporadic flowering, but it is highly localised and not as significant as the periodic cycle of its masting.
The dense undergrowth of Topli Karvy (Strobilanthes sessilis) photographed on top of Sindola fort in
northern Western Ghats. August 2012.
Does it do it to protect itself from predation? Maybe, since the climate here is mostly hot and humid, not only are herbivores active throughout the year (I found the caterpillar of Southern Blue Oakleaf butterfly on a Karvy leaf in December of 2012), but infection by fungus and decomposition also threaten the tiny seeds of Karvy. Maybe the seeds of Karvy are too weak to support the initial growth of the sapling – and hence it is viviparous – and hence, periodic masting is more resourceful than yearly.
The adult (top) and the caterpillar (bottom) of Southern Blue Oakleaf, Kallima horsfieldii.
This butterfly is commonly seen in Karvy groves, and is its host plant. The
caterpillar was photographed on this Karvy leaf in December 2012.
Most studies on monocarpic plietesial plants have focused only around the plants – their relationship with the outer world has always looked at how it affected them, and not on how they affected it. Karvy probably affects others as much as its traits affects itself – and this is clear from the way it flowers in a peculiar colour.

Whenever I go on a nature walk, I make note of the colours of flowers, besides seeing insects and birds. These colours speak a lot about plants without them having to actually speak. The colours of wild species of flora are a result of a long evolutionary marathon – the flowering plants have been competing with one another for millions of years to attract something, or someone – besides looking pretty. Some have gone to the length of producing the most ethereal scents. They all call out to someone to, in literal sense, come to them. You know what I’m talking about: pollination. In the long evolutionary marathon, some created their own rules: some wanted to chase the wind, and they developed flowers with hanging anthers which, when shaken by the wind, carried themselves to land on the stigma of another flower, and came to be called anemophilous. Some chose insects as carriers, and came to be called entomophilous. Some preferred vertebrates, and came to be called zoophilus, of those who specialised with birds are called ornithophilous, and so on. Some removed themselves from the marathon and became self pollinated. Those that came to be pollinated by animals further led the race.

Colours are as important for flowers as signals are at crossroads, perhaps the metaphor is least poetic, but it is also a matter of life-and-death. The most common colours developed on the pollinator’s sense of vision. Birds, being sensitive to lights between green and red, are attracted to bright colours such as shades of red, and most bird-dependent plants bore those colours to attract them: Butea monosperma, Bombax ceiba, Woodfordia fructicosa, Helicteres isora – to name of few, are visited by many birds during their flowering season. [Read about the Palash tree I sat under for more]. It is yet not clear how the variation in colour affects birds: are they more attracted to Bombax ceiba for its crimson red – and voluptuousness – or are they more attracted to the flaming orange of Butea monosperma, do they get a better reward from B. ceiba or from Butea monosperma, we do not know.
A resin bee collecting pollen and also depositing some on the stigma of Abelmoschus flower.
In case of plants that became entomophilous, they developed in various shades of reds, yellows, and whites, and increasingly in the shades of violet. (I will be calling it violet or shades of, because getting into the complexity of purple-violet is beyond us; our eyes see purple and violet shades as one, and our computer screens show something else altogether). Most plants bear flowers with a little bit of violet mixed in, which can look purple or light pink, depending upon the shade, or mixed with whites and yellows. This is where things become interesting.
The flowers of Ceropegia vincaefolia, photographed in 2014 on a young Karvy in Sanjay Gandhi National Park,
act as traps for insects - their purple modified petals guide the insects inside where they remain
trapped until the flower is pollinated.
A study by Raine and Chittka (2007) showed that inexperienced bees showed “strong innate colour biases” to violet flowers. In their study the violet flowers were also most productive in providing the bees with nectar, whereas the blue flowers were less visited but they were also less productive. The authors conclude that “it is easy to imagine how strong innate colour preferences help guide naïve bees to find flowers on their first foraging trip away from the nest, as very few objects except flowers fall within the blue-violet colour range in a natural landscape”. The study tells us two things: they are attracted to flowers with violet shades more easily than others since they offered more rewards, which is why the plants adopted the shades of violet (or at least a little bit of it, in the form of varying concentrations of the anthocyanin pigment which gives several shades of red, purple, or blue depending upon the pH (read more here)) – this basically increased their chances of getting pollinated. Second, the violet colour developed merely to attract insects since most insects can see in UV, and weren’t more productive in terms of providing nectar and pollen to insects compared to the yellow or red flowers.

The case of Strobilanthes is that all the flowers of the three species fall in the shades of violet – some appear purple and some blue, but their colour is their ticket, whether they award the pollinator with pollen or nectar is a question we will answer shortly. I don’t think that after eight years, and, if we consider that on an average a worker bee lives for at least ten months, and a fly at least one month, which add up to 10 and 97 generations, respectively, they will remember Karvy’s blossoms. This may mean that insects, in some instances, are not innately attuned to follow a specific set of coloured flowers, it is not genetically programmed in them, but are attracted to the colour of the flowers because it shows up more brilliantly than other colours. The colour visuals signal them to come hither, and taste what’s on offer, because they stand out on in their UV spectrum. What if Strobilanthes petals were yellow? Yellow is a common colour in entomophilous plants, but I think it will then have to do with the award the yellow ones give – is it comparable to the award given by violet ones? In September, on the day we saw Karvy, there were 11 other plants with flowers: seven of them were in shades of violet, one was red, one white, and two yellow – of the two yellow one had a predominantly deep purple base of the petals.
This is a representative list of flowers in bloom alongside Karvy.
The predominance of flowers with violet-shade could only mean two things: violet flowers were rewarding than other coloured flowers, and hence was adopted by more species, or that they were less rewarding and hence were more eager to advertise the most easily perceptible colour to the UV-eyed insects.
An ant tumbles out of a Karvy flower as two more explore its insides. Photographed in August 2008.
What Strobilanthes tells us that they are quite rewarding – it might have to do with their gregarious flowering – but soon after the flowering season, the tribal peoples harvest the Karvy honey collected by the bees and is said to be quite expensive and tasty – this could be the measure of a good reward. The colour and the reward, both together, or either of the one, have made these species successful in attracting a large horde of insects to pollinate them, and get fertilized en masse in return, this has helped this group of plants of a long life in spite of reproducing only once every eight years.
A Lauxaniid fly laps up the anthers of Karvy as a very small crab spider lies in wait. September 2016.
Naturally, adorning an attractive colour and providing copious amounts of nectar and pollen will act like magnet. The insects feed on Karvy flowers in frenzy. I’ve seen flies in the family Syrphidae, Calliphoridae and Lauxaniidae, stingless bees, carpenter bees, and Indian honeybees (Apis dorsata) in the family Apidae, ants such as Paratrechina longicornis and Camponotus sp., and butterflies like Common Jezebel and Common Wanderer in the family Nymphalidae, and leaf beetles in the family Chrysomelidae positively feeding on Karvy flowers. I say positively, meaning they feed on pollen and nectar which is a positive sign that they also transfer it on to other flowers when they go around feeding. Even species of blister beetles (Mylabris sp.) munch on the petals of Karvy, although I am not sure if they do pollinate – here the strategy of mass grouping, exactly the way the deer herd together, must be at work.
A stingless bee cleans itself before taking off from the petal of Karvy after exploring its insides. September 2016.
Karvy’s pollination is not studied, but it is confirmed that Karvy is entomophilous. There are studies on its cousin S. kunthianus. Sharma and Kuriakose et al (2008) recorded Apis cerana indica as the major pollinator of this plant that flowers once in 12 years. Mohandass and Davidar (2014) showed Oriental White Eye as one of the [potential] pollinators as well. Anitha and Prasad (2007) quoting Matthew, said that bees such as Apis dorsata and A. cerana indica migrated whenever S. consanguinea was in mass bloom “to concentrate on its flowers for food”. If insects migrated for this purpose, what effect did Karvy flowering have on their lives? Just the way human population increased with an increase in food production, it is only natural to assume that their population would swell as well. This fact, although hard to measure, will be seen only in the next generation – mostly in October itself, or March, or the next onset of monsoon. Increase in population could also hint at an increase in diversity. And, if I stretch it further a bit, a good year for the birds as well. Generally speaking, the year the Karvy flowers can be considered a good year for local biodiversity.
A view from Sindola fort with the mountain on the left showing dark-green patch of Karvy mixed with lighter grasses.
The insects then also have to cope with the sudden fall in food resources – the year following Karvy’s blossom must be tiresome for them since they must then have to spend more time foraging. Would they think that something is amiss, or come to understand the anomaly that happened in 2008 and repeated itself again in 2016? Although it is less likely that there will be any memory or genetic imprint of Karvy’s mass flowering on them since only one or two generations experience it after a gap of 10 to over 97 generations, the no-strings-attached strategy of – excuse the term – “using” one another for services is only quite well known to humans, and it seems that Karvy and its pollinators share a similar relationship. Most animal-plant relationships have evolved in tandem, over several generations of trials and errors – and here’s Karvy that has done something completely out-of-the-box.
A Calliphorid fly fondles the antlers of Karvy. The tender translucent projection just under the fly's middle limb is the style with is strategically positioned for easy cross fertilization, and insects play an important role in depositing pollen.
August 2008.
In this instance, with the Karvy’s easy access to its pollen and nectar, and its strategic placement of stigma, the plant seems to have not only adopted a winning colour, but also a design which gives access to a number of insects which physically differ in their structure and feeding habits – some such as flies lap up, some such as butterflies use straws, some such as bees use a spatula, and ants just tumble in and out. This is unlike some flowers such as that of Lantana camara, an invasive to India whose flowers are accessible to those with a straw and a spatula and not those that like to lap it up. It is also unlike many orchids such as Vanda and Cottonia, which also use several shades of violet to attract bees. Both these plants have evolved over the years to depend mostly on insects using straws and spatulas. Karvy’s design is simplest to use and hence, probably, cost effective, allowing it to rest for eight years until the first-and-the-last massive bloom. In this instance, it is the plant that innately knows it will draw the insects to its UV conflagration.
A shrine in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary with a spread of Karvy (dark green) at the foothills of a sacred grove.
Next year, the scene will be different. As these plietesial plants die after eight years, they will soon decay and the new ones will rise from their ashes, like a phoenix, as will the questions that stump us.

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Carine, M. A. and Scotland, R. W. 2002. Classification of Strobilanthinae (Acanthaceae): trying to classify the unclassifiable?. Taxon. 51(2). pp. 259-279

Singh, R. K. and Diwakar, P. G. 2007. Gregarious flowering of Strobilanthes callosus Nees in western ghats. Indian Journal of Forestry. 30(4). pp. 553-555

Kelly, D. 1994. The evolutionary ecology of mast seeding. TREE. 9(12). pp. 465-470

Raine, N. E. and Chittka, L. 2007. The adaptive significance of sensory bias in a foraging context: floral colour preferences in the bumble bee Bombus terrestris. Plos one. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000556

Sharma, M. V., Kuriakose, G. and Shivanna, K. R. 2008. Reproductive strategies of Strobilanthes kunthianus, an endemic, semelparous species in the southern western ghats, India. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 157. pp. 155-163

Mohandass, D. and Davidar, Priya. 2014. Pollination biology of Nilgirianthus wightianus (Nees) Bremek. (Acanthaceae) in Upper Bhavani, Nilgiri mountains, southern India. International Journal of Advanced Biological Research. 4(1). P. 48-51

Anitha, K. and Prasad, S. N. 2007. Mass flowering and pollinators of Strobilanthes consanguinea in the western ghats, south India. Current Science. 92(12). pp. 1680

An Android-based Spider App for Common Spiders of India

The Corbett Foundation and Earthwatch Institute (India) have come up with an easy-to-use app called Spider Watch that looks at 50 common species of spiders belonging to 23 families found in India – whether you’re in a city, a garden, or a sanctuary – you’re likely to find them there. This app was made to facilitate on-field identification of common spiders of India, with an objective to bring these little tigers of the undergrowth to the forefront, and to inculcate further interest in them.

Just search for “Spider Watch” on Google Play store from your android phones, or follow this link.
Its usage is fairly simple. Here are some screenshots of the app:
This is the title page, of course.

Once you're through the app, you will come across such a page. The "play" symbol on the top left corner will run you through this page, or you can scroll down by yourself. The one with a magnifying glass symbol will take you to a new window showing thumbnails of all spider images which you can scroll through. The "i" symbol will provide information about the app, which is followed by "Share", and a "?" symbols which will show you how to navigate the app. In the top right corner, the "+" allows you to add details of your sightings about the spider image you're on, the icon next to it allows you to download the spider image, and the X allows you to exit the app. The vertical scroll allows you to increase/decrease the brightness, and the "V" takes you the the text below the image. The horizontal scroll bar at the very bottom allows you to shift through from one spider to another.

Once you scroll down from the image of the spider, you will come to this page which provides the basic information about the spider in question.

Scroll further below on the same page and you will come to this figure showing the typical eye-pattern of the Family the spider in question belongs to (in this case, Theridiidae). The key to identify up to Family-level is the arrangement of their eyes - and hence we decided to put it up on the app.

If you click the magnifying glass symbol on the top-left corner from any spider image, you will come to this page showing thumbnails of all the 50 spiders. Click on any spider image if you want to activate all the tabs which get hidden on this page.
If you have any queries, you can write straight to me or to the contact details provided on the (i) icon which is at the top of the icons on the left-middle corner.

Happy web surfing (pun intended)!