December 22. Summary: visited Siruvani Falls on outskirts of Coimbatore (under the Tamil Nadu Forest Department), then went to Bharathiar University and had a tour of Dr. Mani’s lab. Loaded a rented 4X4 and traveled through Palakkad to Siruvani Reservoir (unrelated to Siruvani Falls) in a Kerala Reserve Forest. Arrived at Patiyar well after dark.

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Mr. Arun Kumar, Siruvani Falls, Tamil Nadu Forest near Coimbatore city.

Arun picked me up at the hotel and we made a run in taxi up to Siruvani Falls a recreation area just outside of Coimbatore city. These are falls on the “Siruvani River” which is really a stream draining the eastern slope of the Siruvani Hills (Western Ghats). I made the mistake of presuming that this was the same Siruvani River of the lake we would be visiting later, which is also named the Siruvani, but it is a different watershed though both eventually flow into the Bhavani and later into the Koveri River that drains into the Bay of Bengal. While these falls pale in comparison to later spots we’d see, there were a couple of observations that I can share.

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Wild elephant dung, Siruvani Falls picnic and bathing area, Tamil Nadu Forest near Coimbatore city.

This is a reserve no more than 30 km outside of the city, and yet there are wild elephants. No, I didn’t see any, but there was plenty of evidence in the form of wild elephant shit. Arun tells me that the elephants move into the area where they eat plants, destroy bamboo and then leave.  The man from whom we are hiring the jeep works in a project relating to elephant conservation.

The measures of protection for the area (I’m not sure if it’s a reserve—check later) are pretty remarkable. It’s a pay-to-enter site, which is a bit surprising from my angle, since it turns out it’s only a half-kilometer hike to get to the falls, but people go to have picnics and to dip their feet (or more) in some shallow pools that have been constructed—not under any falls, but in an easily accessible spot close to the falls viewing site. Entering the site is much like entering the secure area of an airport. Bags are searched and bodies frisked, though what they are looking for is not weapons or explosives but rather plastic that might be left as trash. Also disallowed are any form of soaps or shampoos, because people had been using the pools as a bathing area with the result of habitat degradation.

There is a community living in what may be the buffer zone, and while they  have been involved in the development of the site it is not the principal steward of the reserve—that would be the Tamil Nadu Department of Forestry.

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The back of the Jeep (actually a Mahindra 4X4) was totally packed, so we piled more stuff on top of the seated grad students, while the driver and his international guest rode comfortably in front.

We got a late start out of Bharathiar to head to our first real field collection/sampling site, the reserve surrounding the Siruvani reservoir in Kerala, and in a heavily loaded 4X4 with Dr. Mani driving we navigated our way out of Coimbatore to Palakkad and then north into Siruvani. The total distance was not that great, but traffic in inhabited areas is very heavy, and in the spaces in between inhabited areas, the two-lane road is shared by passenger cars, trucks (some are jumbo-sized), farm vehicles, and oxen-pulled haywagons. It seemed almost merciful that those distances between towns were so short, though one realizes how mercilessly dense the population is here that so little space between dense population centers.  The relatively short distance traveled just getting to the boundary of the buffer zone—I’d say around 70 km (check later)—took all of three hours. Poor Arun and Magesh were crammed in the back seat with a water barrel between them and luggage on their laps. I carried Dr. Mani’s camera bag on my lap in the passenger seat.

There were four checkpoints to cross between the buffer zone boundary and the Siruvani guest house. The first required some sweet-talking and rank-pulling negotiation on Dr. Mani’s part to be allowed across. Technically no entry is allowed past five o’clock, but there’s a reason he’s called “Sir.” At the second checkpoint there was a sign saying something like “Absolutely no entry,” and starting with the third checkpoint the guard hardly even bothered to check who we were. From checkpoint #4 onward, there was wildlife to be spotted: an Indian Gaur (a very large bovid), two mouse deer, a barking deer, a mongoose, a leopard (yes. A fucking leopard!), a leopard cat. (No, you can’t be jealous yet)

Patiyar is the name of the Siruvani Guest House. It is owned by the Kerala Department of Irrigation and is situated on the end of a headlands jutting into the lake. It was dark when we got in, and when the next morning I woke up to the trumpeting of tusker elephants fighting in the distance, and this view. Yes, now be very jealous. A stay at Patiyar is very difficult to arrange, even for Dr. Mani. It is typically used to host high-level officials who are on holiday.

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The view of Siruvani Reservoir from the terrace at Patiyar in the Siruvani Forest, Kerala.

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Doing my best to document the events of my trip, which are shaping up as a continual procession of extraordinary experiences.

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Arrival in India

29/12/2013

21 December. Summary. Arrived in Bangalore at 1:55 am and had to wait in the transit area for several hours before flying onwards to Coimbatore at 9:30. Met at airport by Dr. Mani and Mr. Arunkumar and taken via taxi to the ARS hotel. Took a brief walk in the neighborhood of the hotel, then fell asleep in the early afternoon. Woken by Arun at 6:00 pm and met Mr. Magesh. Arun called at ~8:00 to inform me that Dr. Mani would not be able to make our dinner engagement, so I took dinner at Sri Arivee hotel next door. There’s nothing terribly interesting to report today, so I’ll talk about air quality.

It used to be that the Los Angeles basin was persistently nestled under a blanket of yuck. I know smog. I grew up in it. Flying in or driving down from the mountains meant penetrating the soft, purple dome.

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This was the view from my window seat for the entire flight from Bangalore to Coimbatore. Looking straight down you could barely see through to the fields and towns.

Flying out of Bangalore at 9:30 am I saw something that I haven’t seen since the 1980s. We emerged from a layer of haze into clear blue skies, and the stratification—that inversion layer—was both remarkable because of its sharpness and the extreme contrast between the air below and above and nostalgic, though not in an especially good way.

As I expected, the air quality in Coimbatore is very poor. I suspect that it’s a combination of cooking and waste-burning fires, vehicular exhaust, and coal combustion for energy, but a mixture of gases and aerosols is definitely being trapped within the lowest layer of the atmosphere by thermal/density stratification. There was very little wind in the city and at first I had some discomfort in my eyes and lungs. But we would be leaving the city the next day, I was very, very tired after the long flight (leaving Thursday morning and arriving Saturday).

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At street level in Coimbatore air is clear enough, though there is a much “richer chemistry” than what I have become accustomed to since my days in LA in the 70s and 80s.

I suspect that the smog-producing practices here are the same as elsewhere in the tropics—the Amazon, for instance. The difference is that the population of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (the two states that I flew over) is a thousand times more dense than the state of Loreto in Perú. Even so, there were bad air days in Iquitos as well, but here I suspect that it is the norm, with reprieves occurring only from rain.

My plan—the implementation of which is already underway—is to meet the wild lands of southern India.  There’s a lot that’s paradoxical of a country with a population of over a billion people and yet home to one of the named “hottest hot spots” for conservation priorities. Myers et al. (2000) identified sites based on such things as richness and density of endemic plant species and vertebrate species and percent of extent of primary vegetation. In the Western Ghats region (including Sri Lanka) there are 12,450 km2 of primary vegetation remaining out of an original extent of 182,500 km2. That’s 6.8 percent. All of that 12,450 km2 is within the boundaries of protected reserves or national parks, which means that there are no wild lands in southern India except in the reserves.

The way things look on the map is that most of these protected areas are rather small and overall the reserve system is highly fragmented, except in the Nilgiri Hills area where a bunch of reserves and parks are strung together to form the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. That’s where I’m going.

My contact in India will be Dr. Mani of Bharathiar University in Coimbatore. He is a prominent fish biologist, whose name I got off the “Fishes of the Western Ghats” posters that I googled up as I was starting to plan this trip. The idea was simple: if you want to see really nice stuff, follow the guy who knows the freshwater fishes. I emailed him to ask if he had a grad student I could pay to take me to some of the collection sites for his research, and the response was basically “Heck, I’ll take you around myself!” Bonus.

So for the next couple of weeks there will be a couple of older dudes (and maybe a grad student or two in tow—you know, to carry the luggage) tooling around in some remote-looking stretches of the last remaining wild lands in southern India. We’ll be collecting fish, identifying plants and insects, pulling leeches out of our socks, and maybe swimming under waterfalls along the way.

But right now I’m in the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt washing down unlimited free pretzels with unlimited but rather warm beer. I plan to sleep the whole flight to Bangalore.