30 December. Got a haircut. And a shave. And a head massage. And an eyebrow/’stache trim.

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On the road back to Coimbatore.

Caught a bus to Coimbatore and met back up with Dr. Mani.

Caught another bus to Cumbum (pronounced “Come, bum.”) From there we will have Jeep transport to Thekkady and Periyar.

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Really? You’re taking a pic now?

And that is all.

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Kerala Backwaters. It goes on like this for a lifetime.

29 December. Kerala Backwaters/Fort Cochin.

While all of our collection sites to date have been in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, we have been in the hills—the Western Ghats. On the Kerala coast there is an enormous network of lagoons and canals similar to the American Bayou but much larger, as it is fed by several major river drainages and spreads for hundreds of miles both north and south of Cochin—the Kerala Backwaters. This is an internationally known tourist destination, and the thing to do here is to hire a houseboat with six or seven of your friends and go on a multi-day cruise, dining on seafood and enjoying long hours of relaxing on the boat’s shaded prow and watching the scenery.

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Cap’n Arun at the helm.

I’ll admit that when I first made the plan to visit Cochin I had a ridiculous idea of what the Kerala Backwaters would be like. I knew I wouldn’t have time for a long cruise, and the whole notion of dolce far niente isn’t all that appealing to me anyways. But for some stupid reason I had expected that there would be some unspoiled nature close by. Maybe it’s because I had been to Louisiana and was stuck on the idea of riding the canals of the Indian bayou into some wildlands within a day or so of Cochin. But now having actually been in India for a week I knew how impossible this romanticized, Cajun-flavored vision was.

Kerala’s population is about 33.4 million (roughly that of Canada), and its area (including waterways) is just a bit bigger than Maryland. This is 860 humans per square kilometer, and for India that’s only around mid-range as far as density of inhabitants. Louisiana’s population density is over twenty times less—a paltry 40 humans per km2—so let’s face it, there will be no wildlands in coastal Kerala. These backwaters extend through an vast area that is just as totally inhabited and intensively used as the rest of the country.

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Sacks of rice loaded for transport through backwaters.

Through the hotel’s concierge, we booked a taxi to take us around for the day—3500 rupees for the driver and 4000 rupees for a two-hour boat tour from Aleppey. This was a lot of money by Coimbatore standards—but it was clear that in Cochin and outlying municipalities (for technically we were in Ernakulam) pricing was adjusted to take advantage of the generally greater wealth of foreigners, who were there in significant numbers. Since stepping off the plane in Coimbatore I had not seen a single Caucasian face—in over a week! Inland Tamil Nadu and the lesser-known reserves of the Western Ghats are evidently not heavily visited by international tourists, and according to Dr. Mani they are not heavily visited even by Indian nationals from the Hindi-speaking north. The throngs of humanity in Cochin streets, in contrast, had a handful of bodies that were strangely tall, unnaturally wide, or oddly pale, and I observed a couple of those bodies walk out into oncoming traffic because they had been looking in the wrong direction (I did this myself once or twice).

Actually 3500 rupees for the taxi seems downright cheap. That’s about 65 USD for all-day (9 am to after 10 pm) vehicle and driver, including back and forth to Aleppey (85 km each way) as well as little side trips to look for the fishing nets. The 4000 rupees for a short ride on the houseboat was more of a tourist-priced deal for the boat operator to make a bit more cash before his next big gaggle of passengers.

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Ferry from Fort Cochin to who-knows-where. We were on the next one out–second boat trip of the day.

But really anything more than an hour out and an hour back would have been too much. Another three days on the boat would be three days of pretty much the same scenery—endless canals beyond endless fields of rice or coconut or manioc. I could see how this might be enjoyable for some, and I could also see from the map that there was no significant breaks of pure nature in the highly human-tinged landscape—it was peaceful and pretty enough with lots of birds (though not a lot of diversity)… and not a whole lot to do. Two hours was just perfect, thanks.

The highlight of the Backwaters trip was Magesh’s demonstration of Badaga dance, which must originate from the Badaga tribe in the Ooty hills of Tamil Nadu though it’s now something that everyone in Tamil Nadu is totally into. The moves are pretty basic and also quite awesome. If I could practice a bit the four of us (Mani, Magesh, Arun and me) could do a closing dance montage for Dr. Mani’s fish video compilation. Upon returning to the dock I celebrated with a nice fish curry at a roadside restaurant.

Our taxi driver—who was actually a pretty cool guy—next took us to the market at Fort Cochin, where there was a place that he knew would have the nets we wanted. It turned out that what they had were just small plastic dip nets used by children to catch polliwogs. Oops—haha. I then proceeded to show no interest in any of the cultural or historically significant sites of Fort Cochin, so instead we decided to talk up the fishermen for advice on where cast nets could be bought.Image

At Fort Cochin the most accessible fishermen were the ones operating the Cheena Vala or “Chinese fishing nets,” which are basically gigantic dip nets that operate from short piers on a cantilevered lower-and-lift mechanism in which a broad, flat, square net of about 10 meters on a side is counterbalanced by stones hanging from ropes. The net goes down into the water—which at the time was flowing from right to left as the tide was going out—left a few minutes and then lifted by manpower to harvest whatever fishies were unlucky enough to be swimming above the net at the time of the lift. A few unmanned ropes are there for tourists to participate in the lifting. Doing this over and over again must be really good for developing upper-body musculature, because it is dead easy to identify a fisherman from the rest of Indian males by his huge back and shoulders.

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With the ancient fisherdude at his home.

We found an ancient dude who had some extra cast nets at his home, but when we got there it turned out that his nets were enormous—like 3 meters radius—and the mesh size was too large to hold most of the little fishes we had been catching in the hillstreams of the Western Ghats.

At this point daylight was getting thin and still on our to-do list was a visit to a toddy shop and dip Ihara’s toes in the Indian Ocean. But just getting back to Cherai Beach—which was kind of on the north end of Ernakulam and really too out-of-the-way to be a good location for a two-night visit to Cochin (my bad—I booked this hotel without doing the proper research)—was a long way around unless we took the ferry across the harbor.

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On the ferry. Our car and driver in the foreground. Driver was pretty cool, but he probably wasn’t too happy with us when we complained about the fare.

Between the long cab rides and the long queue for the ferry we had plenty of time for ev bio lessons—one memorable topic we covered that day was sexual selection. Having Magesh join in slowed things down a bit but made them more entertaining. Species that are habitually monogamous are almost always sexually monomorphic (males and females looking similar), while polygamous animals will typically have males that are either large and intimidating compared with the females or a lot flashier and ornamented. “Monogamy” and “polygamy” were new terms (at least in English) for Magesh, so I explained them. “I think I like polygamy,” Magesh said with a giggle, “but polygamy for us is not available.” He followed that up with, “Monogamy is not available for us,” and Arun and I nearly busted ribs laughing.

Marriages in India are arranged through intense searches and painstaking negotiations between the parents of the betrothed-to-be. Sure, the offspring have a say in the matter and can theoretically decline a match, but Arun’s parents have been working for months interviewing the parents of promising daughter-in-law candidates and consulting horoscopes, all in the interest of identifying the very best spouse for their son and the very best mother for the grandchildren. It would be a very serious matter bordering on indignation for a child to refuse his parents’ selection. Guys like Arun and Magesh anticipate accepting the brides their parents choose for them, and until that happens it may seem like marriage and monogamy may as well be a distant dream.

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Cherai Beach at night. Soft surf, warm water, and lots and lots of people.

I’m not sure which ferry we took, but looking at the map now it would have made sense for us to take the Fort Cochin/Vypin ferry, as that would have put us on the same spit of land as Cherai Beach. But as I recall the boat ride and subsequent drive to Cherai were quite a bit longer than it would have been had we done this. I’m guessing that our ferry landed us on the mainland part of Ernakulam from which we trudged our way through heavy traffic all the way to Cherai, only to find the government-run toddy shops closed because it was Sunday. No problem—at that point I wasn’t really in the mood to drink large volumes of palm juice that is only weakly alcoholic and marginally hygienic. I rolled up my pants and waded shin deep into the surf of Cherai Beach. To me it was weird to feel beach water so tepid. It was also weird to share the beach with thousands of people after 10 pm–it was that late when we bailed out of the packed boardwalk area and headed back for beer and peanuts at the hotel bar.

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Brickmaking in Pollachi.

28 December. Today is the start of my holiday-within-my-holiday. A visit to India without ever seeing or touching the Indian Ocean seemed incomplete and in any case I wanted to visit coastal Kerala for at least a couple of days and maybe do some boat touring in its extensive estuarine systems, the most famous of which are the “Kerala Backwaters” accessed from Aleppey. The original plan was for me to do this part alone, but since there were some purchases that needed to be made in Cochin (new cast nets) and I could use some help negotiating my way around town, it made reasonably good sense for me to invite the scholars along. Dr. Mani would get a rest from playing tour operator, and I would have a nice opportunity to provide the ev bio instruction to Arun that he desired. Magesh is fluent in Malayalam, the language spoken in most of Kerala which is only marginally similar to Tamil.

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The driver of the truck (whose door is open) was passing a motorcycle when it had to steer left to avoid a collision with oncoming traffic–pushing the motorcycle off the road. The motorcycle came charging back, cut off the truck and stopping traffic in both directions, and proceeded to pick a fight with the driver.

India is either enriched by its extreme linguistic diversity or severely hampered by it. Neither of Tamil nor Mayalayam is remotely close to Hindi, which together with English is an “official” language of India. Hindi is spoken throughout most of the north, and by the greatest fraction of the nation’s well-over-a-billion-and-rising inhabitants. For a westerner, Hindi should be a bit easier to learn as it is part of the same Indo-European language family as English and Italian, while Tamil and Mayalayam belong from a totally different (Dravidian) language family. And while English is theoretically the unifying language of India, not everyone speaks it with fabulous fluency.

Along our route to Coimbatore from Topslip, we stop to visit with Dr. Rajeev Srivastava, Chief Conservator of Forests in Tamil Nadu and the friend in a high place whom Dr. Mani called a couple of nights before to gain entry into Topslip after hours. Actually we were passing through Pollachi when I noted a sign for the Chief Conservator’s office right there in town, and so Dr. Mani gave a quick call in to see if he was available for a social visit. He invited us to his home, which is in a well-appointed compound just off the main thoroughfare in Pollachi. Dr. Mani had maintained contact with Dr. Rajeev without meeting in person for the past 20 years.

Dr. Rajeev spoke in excellent English (which was, of course, used throughout this conversation), and we had a very nice visit. He had recently completed a Ph.D. in fire ecology, and he shared with us the highlights of his dissertation, an impressive tome of studies conducted in his spare time while he was working full-time in the capacity of a high-ranking forest official. His dissertation was legit, too—not just a manufactured degree to pad his CV. Forest fires stand to play a significant role in major ecological transitions that India will be seeing in the next fifty years as its climate becomes drier. Monsoon failure is projected to increase in frequency and severity, and the physical conditions determining dry deciduous woodland vs. shola grassland is likely to shift in favor of shola. Dr. Rajeev’s dissertation focuses specifically on fires in the woodland/shola ecotone. Academic pursuits with relevance to a pressing issue—how cool is that.

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Upon arriving in Coimbatore I had enough time to re-pack for Cochin, exchange some dollars for rupees, and catch a ride with Arun and Magesh to the pick-up point for our motorcoach to Cochin, which was also the office of Supaa (as in the way Indians pronounce “super”) Travel. Once securely on board and under way, Magesh went promptly to sleep while I gave Arun the first set of lessons using the back of some of my travel documents as a whiteboard.

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Pakoras–vegetable fritters–dipped in a tamarind-based chutney

For Arun’s lessons I tried to stick to areas that might bear some relevance to his work on Puntius under Dr. Mani’s direction. The essentials of cladistics. A basic rundown of phylogenetic relationships between major taxa of life. Current views on the phylogeny of fishes. As daylight faded we moved the discussion over to topics that were less dependent on visual aids, like the basics of allopatric speciation, and then as it became totally dark we bailed on the lesson and napped until our arrival in Ernakulam.

In the interest of not wanting to waste time going over material that he already knew, I told Arun to stop me if I ever got into an area that he was already knowledgeable—this never happened. The paradox I was seeing was that of a remarkable scholar—Arun has a comprehensive knowledge of Puntius morphology and ecology worthy of a Ph.D. candidate—who was also unfamiliar with fundamentals of evolutionary process and ecology that could be very important to his research.

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Arun, Magesh, and me

Arun recognizes that there are significant gaps in his knowledge base and is highly motivated to fill them. In the few, sporadic hours that we spent from here on through the rest of my time in India, he was fully engaged and learned the content well enough to teach it (using Tamil) to Magesh, whose English is not as strong and who was running a fever during the bus ride from Coimbatore to Ernakulam—I didn’t know about this until after our arrival.

Magesh’s physical condition has been deteriorating over the past week. When I first met him he was limping from a foot injury that he had just incurred in a motorbike accident. He was also suffering from gastric ulcers, and the irregular timing of our meals—around travel and field work—had been exacerbating his distress. I finally asked him about the meds he was taking for the ulcers, and his treatment was disturbingly (to me) old-school: a magnesium citrate suspension and a combo drug that paired a proton-pump inhibitor with an anti-psychotic, presumably to diminish stress. From my standpoint of casual knowledge of medicine I would guess that in a 28 year old ulcer patient with no history of drug use the cause would likely be bacterial and best treated with an antibiotic (in combination with the proton pump inhibitor and magnesium citrate that he was already taking). But Magesh had not been directed to take any antibiotic.

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Magesh in Aleppey, Kerala.

Now it just happened that I was carrying with me a 20-day supply of ciprofloxacin—a prescription that I had gotten just in case I found myself with traveler’s diarrhea. I had to request this from primary care doc, and he was glad to oblige, but he instructed me to leave the cipro with someone in India if I didn’t use it, because it’s a better class of antibiotic than what is available here. [By the way, having the cipro really saved me when I got some type of funkiness in Perú—probably from swallowing some water during one of my Amazon swims.]

So Jeff saves the day with his wonder-drug from the U.S., right? Well, not exactly. I did explain to Magesh the relationship between ulcers and Helicobacter pylori, and I gave him the cipro with instructions on how to take it (not with milk) and told him that once he starts he must continue the treatment for the entire 20-day period. But over the next day or two I would ask him if he started the treatment, and he would give an excuse of not knowing how the drug should be taken—with meals or on an empty stomach.

At that point the cipro might have helped Magesh in three ways: addressing the cause of his ulcers (assuming that it was bacterial), helping to heal his foot injury, and also possibly knocking down the cause of his fever, which I feared may have been bacterial having gained entry through the wound’s exposure to river water during the past week’s collecting trips. In fact, Magesh’s increasing reluctance to enter the water (because of his foot injury) was becoming a burden for Dr. Mani, who was counting on the two scholars for carrying out tasks, many of which required wading. It may have been the threat of not being allowed to continue with the fieldwork that finally induced Magesh to start taking the antibiotics a couple of days later. I have no idea if he completed the course as I directed or if there was ever any improvement in his ulcers.

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Fort Cochin, Kerala

Upon arriving in Ernakulam, we had a long and bumpy mototaxi ride to our hotel in the Cherai Beach area. There was a moment of tension when the driver decided he wanted an extra 50 rupees—450 instead of the previously agreed upon 400—because we had made him wait while we took dinner (the hotel’s restaurant was closed and they advised us that food would not be available on our arrival). I think Arun and Magesh felt that the driver was taking advantage of the foreigner in this party. Maybe he was, but 450 rupees is $8 plus change and it was very late. I did my best to wiggle my head in the correct way as if to say, “Everything’s cool” and paid the driver the extra 90 cents. The hotel itself was a pretty posh joint, and it even had its own wi-fi (it was there that I made the first couple of posts from India to this blog).

Parambikulam, day 2

18/01/2014

Over a week back stateside and between jet lag and the start of a new semester I’m still not even halfway through this chronicle. It’s getting a bit harder to sort out the details, but I’ll do my best.

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Kannimara. Possibly the oldest and largest teak tree in the world, spared from felling by allegedly spurting blood.

The second day of sampling at Parambikulam is practically stress-free. We get a decently early start on the morning’s collection but squeeze in a visit to the Kannimara, one of the largest teak trees in Asia and recognized with the Mahavriksha Puraskar (Giant Tree Award). This aboriginal tree is said to have escaped felling because it spurted blood when initially struck by the axe (or whatever tool was used), and it has since been worshipped as the “virgin tree” (roughly the translation of “Kannimara”). I’m left to presume that all of the other teak trees from Kannimara’s vintage were taken down for being less sanguine in xylem, and therefore all of the standing teaks we see today (all much smaller) are secondary growths from replantings and natural propagation from the replanted stock.

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Etroplus. The presence of native cichlids on the Indian subcontinent reminds us that this land mass broke off from the southeast coast of Africa–where these fishes’ closest relatives are centered–less than 100 million years ago.

Our first sampling of the day takes us out onto a stream in a different part of the reserve as yesterday, though the fish we sample are quite the same as what we have been collecting. Then we make two short stops before making our way to a sampling site that would turn out to be the most perfect of the places I visited on this trip.

One of the spots was on Turnakadavar Lake near the inflow from a water tunnel coming from another reservoir over 2.6 km distant. In the development of a reservoir project, it’s a common practice here to connect different watersheds with tunnels.  Within the boundaries of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve there are two reservoirs, Turnakadavar and Parambikulam, that are linked by this tunnel. I’m not entirely sure about the rationale for connecting these two watersheds, but I suspect that Turnakadavar is closer to the Palakkad Gap and is just a stop on the route connecting the larger water source of Parambikulam Lake to population centers like the city of Pollachi.

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Two species of mahseer. The one on the bottom has a more protruding mouth as well as a long barbel under its chin. These two are small, but mahseer grow large (some species to 20 kg) and were targeted by sport anglers during the period of British rule.

At Siruvani Lake—on the shores of which we stayed at Patiyar—there is a tunnel that carries reservoir water under Siruvani Mountain to the Tamil Nadu side where it serves as one of the important sources of domestic water for Coimbatore city. Water that would normally drain to the Arabian Sea on the Kerala side of the Ghats is being sent under the divide and into a watershed that normally drains into the Bay of Bengal. From the standpoint of supporting the needs of humanity, this type of alteration to the hydrology is perfectly sensible. The Tamil Nadu side is more arid being in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, and so if you can send water from the Kerala side where it is more abundant under the mountains to Tamil Nadu, well that just seems like a great idea.

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The “middle stretch” of the Western Ghats. The part I visited extended from Periyar (just out of view to the south) to Wayanad (just out of view to the north). The Western Ghats ecosystem actually extends across the strait and onto Sri Lanka in the south and northwards through the state of Karnataka and into Maharashtra.

From the standpoint of conservation, this is a disaster. On paper, the topography of the Western Ghats seems ideal for the study of species originations, particularly for the small hillstream fishes that we are sampling. On the Kerala side, there are a handful of distinct, major watersheds that drain directly into the Arabian Sea. On the Tamil Nadu side, almost all of the water flows into the Bhavani River, which joins the Cauvery River that empties into the Bay of Bengal to the east. Each watershed has dozens to hundreds of tributaries, many of which have perennial flow, thanks to the area’s climate and geology: two seasons of monsoon (and therefore no dry period of extreme duration) and impermeable bedrock underlying the red clay soils—i.e., plenty of water percolating through the soil and re-emerging when it hits the bedrock.

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As we were preparing lunch, someone noticed a large snake crossing the river and heading directly toward our site–either a king cobra or a sarapan (black rat snake). It ducked into a crevice in the bedrock, but nobody wanted to get too close to make the definitive ID.

Many of the hillstream fishes are adapted to small flows near the headwaters, and thus it may be unlikely if not impossible for them to migrate down to confluences with other drainages and then back up to the headwater habitats that they prefer. It’s reasonable enough to predict that these hillstream fish populations are genetically isolated from other similar fish populations, and this is precisely the condition of allopatry that leads to the eventual evolution of species differences between what are initially different populations of the same species. This type of geography strongly favors new species originations in a way that doesn’t happen in oceanic fishes, and it is for this reason that the majority of fish species in the world live in fresh water, despite the fact that their available habitat is not even a thousandth of what is available to saltwater fishes. The Western Ghats should be an ideal place to study the process of the origin of new species through allopatric speciation… if it were not for its long history of human disturbance.

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This is as close as I wanted to get. It turned out to be just the harmless colubrid. Darn.

But “absence of human disturbance” does not really exist in the Western Ghats. Even the deepest and most remote spots have all been touched by more human feet than tiger paws—this much is certain, but what is more difficult to estimate is how profound a mark has been left behind by the human traffic. For the hillstream fishes, the alteration of the hydrology have likely resulted in some gene flow between watersheds that would otherwise not be possible—migrations through tunnels or reservoirs are likely to have disrupted the process of speciation. To make matters worse, many of these fishes native to Indian hill streams are popular among aquarium hobbyists worldwide, and the value of rare and novelty species has generated a sizable commerce of fishes caught from the wild. This will have impacted the genetic structure of hillstream fish populations as collectors will have attempted to establish breeding populations of more valuable species in areas where they are not native.

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Sampling site on the Chalakudy River (or a tributary) downstream of the Turnakadavar Dam and upstream of the proposed Anakayam Hydroelectric Project

It is also entirely true that the vast majority of fish habitat in the hills of southern India has been lost to development for human use, and its water has been diverted into irrigation systems to serve tea plantations, rice paddies, and other croplands—resulting in unknowable extinctions of native and endemic species of fishes as well as other stream-dependent invertebrates and plants.

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All of this has been (an overly long) preamble or sidebar to a story emerging from one of the documents that we picked up from our chats with officials the previous morning. A new hydroelectric project is being planned for the Chalakudy River downstream from where we sampled in Parambikulam, and if the project goes through, an extensive area in the buffer zone southwest of the reserve would be flooded. The reservoir would not extend into the core area of the Parambikulam reserve, as that would break the rules prohibiting human exploitation within designated areas of critical tiger habitat… but it would come very close.

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Make-shift wood stove using the natural crevices of the local geology (basaltic bedrock, I think). Dr. Mani starts the preparation of a fresh sambar with the boiling of toori dal (medium-size yellow lentils).

As I mentioned before, our third collection site of the day is remarkable for its beauty. Our river—which is either the Chalakudy or a major tributary—weaves its way over a stream bed of rippled and contorted basalt and forming a vast spread of pools and mini cascades. This habitat supports big fish and little fish, frogs and snakes, birds and all of the mammal species that can be found in southern India. It’s highly protected but still subject to fish harvesting by tribals (as well as researchers). But sitting on a boulder in the middle of this stream bed, which is in the middle of the largest tract of protected forest that we have seen, I am about as distant as anyone can be from humanity—at least in the southern stretches of this very populous country.

Dr. Mani set up a make-shift wood-fire stove on the bank under the streamside trees, and we cooked sambar and fish (a Puntius carnaticus and several larger Garra)—rice, too, but we used the gas burner for that. There was a period of tenuous curiosity when a large snake—either a king cobra or a black rat snake (Pytius mycosa)—holed up in a crevice near our lunching site—it turned out to be a rat snake. We caught our first native cichlid (genus Etroplus), as well as two species of mahseer. It was a great afternoon at a great site and is the spot I hold in memory as my locus amoenus in India. I will be saddened when the rare remoteness of this location is sacrificed with the impoundment of the Chalakudy and creation of a reservoir just a mile downstream from here.

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Topslip is the part of Anamalai that is adjacent to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

26 December 2013. Summary: Spent morning negotiating the accommodations with officers at both Topslip and Parambikulam. Collected at two sites deep within the core area of Perambikulam in an area of no public access, with Selvan our accompanying forest official for the day. Today’s sites would be 1) a tributary of the Kuriarkurthi River way below the dam at Turnakadavar Reservoir, and 2) a slow stretch of the Kuriarkurthi itself in the same general area.

The Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Parambikulam Tiger Reserve together comprise a fairly large tract of protected area south of Coimbatore and detached from the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which includes the forests of Siruvani and Silent Valley. Anamalai is the part occurring within the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and it includes the Topslip Forest, which is where we stayed at the guest house. Parambikulam is the part within the state of Kerala. Each reserve has its own administration, paid for by the state in which it occurs. Research and collecting permits are issued by the state government, and while Dr. Mani has permission to collect in Kerala, his permit is not valid in Tamil Nadu. However, Dr. Mani is a big fish to the Topslip management because of his history there. He has spent a lot of time collecting at Topslip in the past, and he provided all of the fish specimens at the little natural history museum they keep at the visitor’s center.

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Preserved specimens of fishes collected by Dr. Mani and on display at the visitor’s center in the administration area of Topslip.

The gap between Anamalai/Parambikulam and the Siruvani/Nilgiri Hills to the north is a break in the Western Ghats called the Palakkad Gap, and this is a corridor for westerly air movement from the onshore flow coming off the Arabian Sea. Lower in elevation, it is also entirely under intensive use by human activity, including major routes of travel between the two states. Neither Anamalai nor Parambikulam can claim a large percent of cover by primary vegetation—being so close to the transportation corridor, this area has a long history of exploitation. During the period of British rule it was found to be ideally suited for the cultivation of teak, whose wood is highly valued for ship building. Native forest was cleared and replanted with teak, and even though timber harvest is no longer permitted, much of the landscape is teak monoculture with patches of bamboo. In time (it is hoped), native vegetation will slowly work its way back through competition and succession. Topslip was so named by the British because of its topography. Teak logs could be hauled up he hill and allowed to slide down into the Palakkad Gap—hence the name “top-slip.”

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I noticed a sign saying “Bridge out. Do not pass” and there were several broken planks.

Dr. Mani spent much of the morning putting out metaphorical fires: phone calls to the high official who reluctantly bent the rules in allowing us to enter after hours, placating the on-site rangers whose bosses were called to make the exception to what is otherwise a strictly enforced policy. We also didn’t have a place to stay for the next night—the guest house at Topslip was going to be occupied by a different group. We went to meet with the Topslip Ranger in his office–I sat in that meeting, presumably as a bit of leverage, as in, “We must provide some nice accommodations for our international guest.” That meeting transpired entirely in Tamil. On our way in to Parambikulam we made a stop to visit the District Forest Officer (DFO—a higher rank than Ranger) to see if there were strings that could be pulled to get us some lodging there. Again I was brought in—only this time the meeting was conducted in English.

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Dr. Mani tests his camera case for underwater photography after recording some observations made with snorkel/mask.

At this point I’m beginning to notice an intriguing pattern. Both of these officials were native speakers of Tamil with passable English skills. Somewhere in between the levels of Ranger and DFO was a switching point. English use is a demonstration of education and worldliness. Sometimes English is necessary, as when one of the players is not a Tamil speaker. But an Anglophonic conversation between two Tamil Nadu natives of status is like a staring contest, and having to switch over to Tamil language is like blinking. I wonder about the efficacy of this social code. Although I do not understand Tamil at all, it was evident that the conversation between Dr. Mani and the Ranger in Topslip was fluid and comfortable while the other seemed stilted by the socially imposed formality of using what is a second language for both parties. We had the same objective for both meetings—we needed to secure lodging for that evening and no quarters were available (officially) in either place. Both had the same outcome: nothing promised, but if a cancellation were to occur then we would get that space.

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A substantially sized turd with berries? It can only be bear shit, a.k.a. “nature’s fruitcake.”

It’s possible that my presence may have added to the impetus for speaking in English, but I do not believe that it was a major factor. In Dr. Mani’s many phone conversations he spoke either Tamil or English, and I was not party to those exchanges. When I asked him how he decided which language to use, his answer basically confirmed the model that I had been formulating, described above. What is the overall cost of this practice, in terms of effective communication? I suspect that communication is fine at the two ends of the hierarchy: the highest-ranking officials are likely to be very fluent in English, while workers in the lowest levels don’t even bother and just go about their business using their mother tongue. But in the many tiers of middle management where the English of one or both parties is imperfect, there is going to be some breakdown in communication resulting only from the conversants’ pride and unwillingness to switch over to a more comfortable language.

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Travancoria sp. This flat-bottomed, sucker-mouthed cyprinid holds tight to rocky bottoms in fast-flowing parts of the stream.

Corporations in India tend to organize personnel into many-tiered hierarchies, and position within a hierarchy is what defines status. An employee interacts with others as equals, subordinates, or superiors, and the authority of one’s superiors is accepted without question. As an academic Dr. Mani is outside of the forestry hierarchies, and over the course of 25 years of fieldwork he has established connections with high officials in forestry and wildlife as well as many long-tenured employees in the lower ranks—we spend a lot of time meeting and catching up with Dr. Mani’s old acquaintances at all levels. But it is having the friends in high places that has gotten us the favorable results of entry into Patiyar and Topslip after hours. Dr. Mani has played this angle twice already—with some implicit detriment to his credibility. Both delays were unforeseen and unavoidable (vehicle issues), but he tells me that from this point forward we will have no further trump cards to play.

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The second site along the Khuriarkurthi River, where I ate my first Puntius carnaticus and saw my first Great Indian Pied Hornbill.

It was getting close to noon that we picked up Selevan, a forest guard from the tribal community, to accompany us for the afternoon’s collection. Our route took us deep into the core area of Parambikulam well beyond the parts of the reserve that are available to tourists. Over a wooden bridge that was signed “unsafe bridge—do not cross” and alongside a stretch of river flowing over a chiseled bedrock of basalt, and further down we pulled up to a tiny tributary for the first of the afternoon’s collections. The spot had many of the same general fish forms as before—Garra, Rasbora, Puntius, Barilius, and loaches—but there were a couple of genera that we had not gotten at Siruvani. Danio is the same genus as zebrafish, which is one of the most important model organisms for developmental studies. Travancoria is a fast-water algae eater with a streamlined body and a strong sucker-mouth allowing it to hold tight to boulders in the fast-flowing runs that it prefers. And Tor, which is the fabled mahseer of sport-fishing fame. We only caught a couple of very small mahseer, but their presence indicates that this stream has perennial flow. We collected fish, recorded stream data, and Dr. Mani put on his snorkel and mask to conduct some observations and to test out the waterproof case that I brought him for his very expensive Canon DSLR. The case held its water-tight seal, but some moisture had been introduced inside the case by wet hands resulting in glass fogging and poor photo quality. No photo shoot of collected fishes today though as we were time-constrained.

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Puntius carnaticus sautéed in coconut oil and coated with fish-fry masala, salt, and wheat flour.

The second site was a wide, slow stretch of river and the team deployed a gill net while I tried to “sample” with a telescoping rod and reel that Dr. Mani kept in one of the many bags we hauled around. I didn’t have any luck, but the gill net yielded one fat Puntius carnaticus, which was dispatched, clipped for DNA, and then prepared for my special lunch.

Today’s lunch was prepared entirely in the field. Magesh cooked rice in a pressure pot over a gas flame, and he also prepared chicken curry from scratch. Well, almost from scratch. Chicken, vegetables (onions, green beans, carrots, potatoes), and masala. The Puntius was scaled, eviscerated, split, and the skin was scored. A “fish-fry masala” was mixed with salt and rubbed into the flesh, some flour was added, and this was fried in a dosa pan (basically a slightly concave crepe pan). Cyprinids (minnow family fish) aren’t considered food fish in the U.S., but this was really good.

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Great Indian Pied Hornbill. Photo by Manimekalan. Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

As afternoon stretched into evening, Arun and Magesh processed the fish we collected from the earlier site. A Great Indian Pied Hornbill alit on a tree across the river from us. Without binoculars, the bird was clearly visible but distant. With the super lenses on the cameras that Dr. Mani and Arun were carrying, however, it was possible to capture some nice detail, even without a tripod for adding stability on the long-distance shot. On the road back to camp, we got views of Spotted Deer, Gaur, Sambar Deer, mongoose, and civet cat.

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Spotted Deer. Photo by Manimekalan. Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

That evening Dr. Mani pulled out a couple of almost-cold beers from his backpack, and this was better than what we had taken to Siruvani. I ask Arun if I was meeting his expectations, and he confided that he had hoped to be learning from me. Maybe it’s a hierarchy thing—I was a professor, he was a student, so I supposed to profess while he absorbed the pearls of scientific knowledge spilling forth from my parotta-hole. To this point I had been on the receiving end of the learning, although this was mostly because I was reticent to take a lead role in teaching the Indian scholars about Indian natural history. But it was also becoming increasingly evident that both Arun and Magesh were a bit behind the curve in some foundational areas of ecology and evolutionary biology. I could contribute by helping to fill some of those gaps with lessons along the way. The problem with this idea was we were continually traveling under cramped conditions or working on the fish collections, and Dr. Mani kept the scholars busy at other times with cooking, equipment maintenance, loading/unloading of the vehicles. There was no opportunity for me to offer any substantive lessons to the scholars, though I did have abundant time in discussions with Dr. Mani.

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Indian Gaur. Photo by Manimekalan. Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

My proposed solution: after Parambikulam I was planning to take a couple of days to travel to Cochin by myself—to see and soak my toes in the Indian Ocean, eat some seafood, and take a backwaters tour. Why not invite the scholars along? They could enjoy a couple of days reprieve from heavy lifting, stay in a nice hotel, and take an opportunity for some more substantial biology lessons along the way.

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Camel procession on Xmas morning 2013 in Mukkali, portal to Silent Valley, Kerala.

December 25. We found an electronics shop not far from the guest house and bought a phone charger and put in enough juice so that Dr. Mani could advise Arun of situation. Jesus has a pretty large presence here, but not enough to shut things down today. There was a procession with three camels that came through town that was probably some kind of nativity reenactment.

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Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus. Native to Kerala but now found across the world’s tropics.

Feeling relieved at being back in contact with the world, Mani and I took a Jeep tour of Silent Valley with driver Mustafa. Just inside the buffer zone there is a sizeable village of tribal people, who are the buffer zone’s primary users. As a national park, the protection of Silent Valley’s core area extends to prohibition of use by tribals, unlike the state-managed tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. We drove through stretches of forest with black pepper vines ensheathing the trees and coffee growing in place of the understory. One of the restrictions of buffer zone use is a ban on the felling of trees, so the shade for the coffee and the support for the black pepper is provided by mostly native species of tree. Cultivation of plants like coffee and pepper is also not allowed, but these particular plantings pre-date establishment of the restrictions, so the tribals are allowed to continue to harvest this coffee and pepper as “forest products.” Also the use of pesticides is also prohibited in the buffer zone, so the products grown in reserve buffer zones are all certifiably “organic.” Not all of the trees were native. There were a few recently planted coconut palms in the outermost layer of the buffer zone. There were teak trees, which though a native species has had its range extended by active planting both during and after the period of British rule. There was a large jackfruit tree, which can be found as a “welcomed and permanent guest” across the world’s tropics but is native to the forests of southwestern India, i.e., exactly where we are.

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30 m watchtower at the end of the road into Silent Valley. This and the trail down to the Kundhi River bridge are the only places in the core area where foot traffic is permitted.

At the end of the road there is a 30 meter watch tower that evidently not too many people are willing to climb—we had the top platform to ourselves until we had our fill of the incredible view—360° of nothing but wild primary tropical evergreen forest, and this is not more than 30 km from the very dense human population that covers most of India’s surface. [but see epilogue below]

There’s no way to describe the insane majesty of this place. The video I took can’t capture how special of a place this is. But there’s a subtext to Silent Valley, and it is a very encouraging story on how the role of humans in conservation activism can make a huge difference.

Providing energy for India’s already huge and growing population and growing economy is obviously a huge challenge. Thermic energy from the combustion of coal is one of the two principal sources. Many newer plants are using cutting-edge methods to maximize the efficiency and minimize the pollution from coal combustion. With a large stock of coal, India will be powering its future growth for some years to come. But even with the imported German technology, coal still emits more carbon per kilojoule than other forms of fossil fuels. In recent years much of the “fully developed west” including the U.S. has managed to reduce its carbon emissions, largely by transitioning from primarily coal to primarily natural gas or (better) to carbon-neutral sources. Coal-dependent India and China are projected to be the major contributors to increases in atmospheric carbon for years to come as their economies continue to rise. Let’s hope that they are able to move rapidly over to cleaner and more sustainable sources.

The other major energy source is hydroelectric, and really—why not? This subcontinent is blessed with monsoonal precipitation that is mostly quite reliable, and the topography of much of the country contains large, narrow canyons carved by rivers out of the elevated highlands—perfect for the construction of dams that use of gravity to make electrical energy with no carbon emissions at all. It’s basically another natural resource available to the Indian population. The Western Ghats contain many reservoirs. Most—like Siruvani Dam—are used only for storing water for steady domestic water and irrigation, but larger projects are built for both storage and hydro-power.

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Kundhi (Kunthipuzha) River from the bridge at the end of the foot trail at Silent Valley National Park, Kerala.

The unfortunate consequence of damming rivers in this way is the disruption of natural riverine habitat. The stream bed and terrestrial systems on both faces of the canyon being flooded are lost. The flow pattern changes downstream of the impoundment—instead of fluctuating between running high and low, there is a steady flow through the canyon. I’m reminded here of our very own Grand Canyon, where ever since the construction of the Lake Powell dam upstream there has been an accumulation of bigger rocks and boulders that historically would get cleared downstream by flood periods.

It also cuts off any migration between upstream and downstream parts of the river. Maybe some downstream migration is possible if an upstream river fish were to swim through the lake and over the spillway (better that than through the turbines), but the reverse route would be impossible. This is a potential area for studies in population structure by scientists like Dr. Mani and Arun.

There are other losses as well. The one coming to mind and causing the greatest outcry from people is when waterfalls are lost. I can’t help but mention here the “Sete Quedas” (7 Falls) that were destroyed to make the enormous impoundment on the Rio Paraná in Brazil. I say “destroyed” and not just “flooded” because the rock masses creating these spectacular falls (bigger than Niagara and close to Iguaçú in awesomeness) were dynamited and reduced to underwater rubble in order to make the lake more easily navigable by large cargo ships. The sete quedas project obviously went through in spite of the protests. There’s a very sad note in this Brazilian story, in which a suspension bridge collapsed under the weight of dozens of people during a protest and resulted in loss of human life.

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Silent Valley is moist evergreen forest. Its core area is perhaps the best example of primary rain forest vegetation in the country.

If you google “Silent Valley” you’ll probably come up with older links to the news items arising from protests in the late 1970s and early 1980s by local environmentalists when the Kerala government wanted to impound the Kundhi River to create a source of hydroelectric power in Silent Valley. Only in this case the national government actually listened to the protesters and intervened.  The project was axed when Delhi stepped in (Indira Gandhi herself, actually) to create the national park at Silent Valley with the stipulation of absolutely no development or exploitation within the park’s core area—except for the Jeep tours to the watchtower, and this is only allowed for the purpose of generating revenue. Not even fuel wood collection by tribals is permitted.

So yeah, wow. Activism works. The protesters were mostly Kerala locals who knew of the park’s insane majesty who were also joined by conservation groups. If not for them this whole valley would be underwater and generating electricity for nearby cities. Moral of the story: ACTIVISM WORKS.

Nearby the watchtower there’s a short trail down to the Kundhi River bridge, which is impassible, but there are nice views along the way. Saw giant squirrels, Nilgiri Langurs, emerald doves, and a big tiger’s claw marks on a tree.

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A tiger marked its territory by leaving claw marks on a tree.

After the Jeep tour we met up with Arun, Magesh and Sabadi, the driver of our new vehicle, a much larger Mahindra 4X4. Returned to Coimbatore for a very brief stop and proceeded to Anamalai/Topslip. Before leaving Silent Valley Magesh was hit with a stick that was dropped on him from directly overhead by a woodpecker. Shortly afterward a racket-tailed drogo flew into view at close range.

Once again our entry to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve was well after hours, and Dr. Mani needed to pull out his little black book for a phone call to a high official in the Tamil Nadu Forest system—basically the boss of the boss of the forest guard’s boss—who granted our entry but also gave Dr. Mani a stern reprimand for asking for such exceptions to what are typical non-negotiable rules. We pulled into the guest house at Topslip for the night.

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Satellite view of Silent Valley, from Google Maps. It turns out that much of the land is actually denuded, though the parts visible from the watch tower are nicely covered with forest.

Epilogue. My enchantment with the panorama at Silent Valley is shattered after seeing this satellite image from Google Maps. It shows that while the parts of the hills that are visible from the watchtower are nicely covered with primary forest, much of the land that is not visible in my panorama shot is actually denuded. I understand that forest clearing to make space for illegal Cannabis crops has been a problem in this area.

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My second leech bite in two days. These terrestrial leeches hide in leaf litter and are heat-seeking, attaching to any warm-blooded thing that happens by. Messy but not dangerous, and I’m told that after a rain the leeches come out in full force. We were lucky to have dry weather.

December 24. Summary: checked out of Patiyar, ran the gill net, and collected in two spots just downstream and just upstream of the third check point. Had a near-miss on drive to Silent Valley, and we received some bad news upon our arrival: Arun and Magesh are sent back to Coimbatore to return the Jeep because the owner decided he needed it urgently. Took dinner and slept at Silent Valley Guest House.

After getting nothing in the gillnet, we checked out from Patiyar and drove down to where we had parked the car the previous day. Today’s sampling sites are just upstream and just downstream from the checkpoint so there was not a lot of hiking to do.  I was able to rinse off my dust in one of the pools, and yes the water was clear and clean—both Arun and Magesh had no issues drinking directly out of this stream, though I opted to stick with purified water—in my view, there is too much wildlife nearby, and I know about Giardia. I’m also quite determined to have formed stools throughout this trip.

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Garra stenorhyncus. from a side or a top view it looks like the mouth is on the top half of the fish’s face, as one would expect of a top-feeding fish…

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…but the real mouth is on the bottom of the fish. I’m not sure of the significance–adaptive or otherwise–for the horn-like structure that makes the “fake face”

The collection itself was an easy one—no long hikes through elephant-ridden leech havens (though I did manage to feed another leech today—that’s two bloody spots in my sneakers so far). We harvested mostly the same species here, with the addition of a couple of species of barb (genus Puntius), and maybe even a new occurrence for one of the Garra species (Indian algae eaters). Some of the Garra we saw were intriguing–some species had mottled brown/olive/tan blotches, others had tubercles on the head, and there is one (G. stenorhyncus, I believe) whose head is shaped in a way that makes the fish appear as a top-feeder with an undershot lower jaw, but this “lower jaw” is actually the fish’s nose and the real mouth is underneath just like other algae eaters. There was an abundance of the Indian trout (Barilius), and the forest officials who accompanied us to monitor our activities (and also to help) were delighted to take all of the Barilius we caught—I’ll bet they were quite tasty.

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The water was clean, fresh, and about 20°C.

From where we were in Siruvani it’s a relatively short jog over to Silent Valley National Park. However, short in distance does not translate into speed of travel. Roads in India seem to come in either the “dilapidated” and “extremely dilapidated” varieties, and when it comes to switchbacked mountain roads, the latter might actually be preferable, only for keeping things within a safe speed. Once we got into some better road on the climb to Silent Valley, Mani hit a turn a bit too fast and came close to rutting the vehicle against the uphill slope (i.e., a wall of rock) and then overcompensating we ended up going the other direction and planted the Mahindra at the edge of the downhill side. Mani was a bit shaken and very apologetic, but it was just a mistake. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic. Driving in India is unquestionably very difficult. You must anticipate the reactions (or lack of reactions) of other vehicles, pedestrians, livestock, and dogs and cats, while doing your best at avoiding pot-holes and slowing for omnipresent speed bumps. There’s always slower traffic to pass and faster cars that will pass you and cars coming in the other direction and passing each other, seemingly without acknowledging your head-on collision course—it is, of course acknowledged and skillfully calibrated so that collisions don’t happen (or happen at extremely low frequency compared with what you’d expect). Add to this the facts that most roads are either unmarked or identified in an alphabet that I can’t read (Tamil or Malayalam) and they drive on the other side of the road, and there is plenty of reason for me to decline any offers of driving here, and I’m perfectly happy to forgo making use of the international driver’s license that I had gotten specifically for this trip.

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It’s some kind of bird, right? Beyond Gallus gallus, my South Indian ornithology is a bit rusty. Nice photo by Manimekalan.

Upon arriving at Silent Valley we received notice that the owner of the Mahindra urgently needed his vehicle back, and there was no way to say no. It was after 11:00 pm that Magesh and Arun drove the vehicle back to Coimbatore to secure a new vehicle (with a driver) and return to meet us the next day. Dr. Mani stayed with me at the Inspection Bungalow and we would be taking a Jeep tour of Silent Valley the next morning until Arun and Magesh returned from Coimbatore.

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Elephant moat around Patiyar. One of the downsides of weighing 2000-5000 kg is the effect on jumping ability. A tiger would cross over this without even recognizing it as an obstacle. Elephants are far more common and would not recognize Patiyar’s brick walls as an obstacle.

Adding to the building frustration of the evening was the fact that Dr. Mani’s iPhone had a dead battery while his charging cable was en route to Coimbatore with Arun and Magesh. My Motorola was dead as well, and even though I had my iPhone with a full charge, swapping the SIM cards did not work–apparently mine is a “locked” phone that cannot be used with a different SIM card than one that is on my ATT account. We would have to wait until morning to find a shop that was open (on Christmas Day) where we could get enough charge on the phones for Mani to get in contact with Arun.

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The biggest challenge of Siruvani? Downing a full bottle of warm Black Knight. It’s the love child spawned from white-wine-in-a-box and Colt 45.

December 23. Summary: went to the tribal village to pick up two forest officials, then proceeded to the checkpoint and hiked in 2.5 km to site 1 where we collected with cast nets and trap nets and processed fish at the site. Site 2 was not too far upstream, and after collecting there and returning to Patiyar, we deployed a larger-mesh gill net in the reservoir below a small falls within walking distance of the guest house. Saw a Sambar Deer on walk back to Patiyar.

Today we sampled on a tributary down the road from Siruvani Dam, though it was not the tailwater of the dam itself. The two spots were what I would call a very tiny brook—that is, about 5-10 ft3/second with shallow runs and braids over boulders. Water temperature was right around 20°C. We collected with cast nets mostly, though a trap net was used below a bit of faster water in the first spot and a gill net was deployed at the second. I counted six species collected and there were also a handful of barbs occupying a bit of slack water, but they didn’t make it into the species count.

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Mudugar settlement in core area of Siruvani Reserve Forest, Kerala.

We first took the Jeep to a tribal village (Mudugar tribe) to pick up two Department of Forestry representatives/observers. “Tribals” (as they are called here) are ethnically, culturally, and socially isolated from the rest of India. They are allowed to keep to themselves, though some are moving out of the forests and into the towns and adopting something close to a 20th century life. With so many in India living on very little income, the tribal who self-transplants into mainstream India does not find himself as economic underclass, though I imagine that some prejudice persists. On the other hand I imagine there is also less economic incentive to move out of the tribal village as well, though the trappings of modern life—cell phones, motor bikes, slick Western clothing—is continually in their faces, not only from television but also from daily interaction with non-tribal India.

In the case of the Mudugar people, their home village is nicely appointed with solidly built and permanent concrete structures—much more posh than most living below the poverty line in modern Indian cities. This particular tribe had occupied an area of the forest that is presently under water due to the construction of Siruvani Dam. Establishing an acceptable new space for the tribals’ relocation was part of the government-directed mitigation. They are growing coconut palms and raising chickens within the core area of this ecological reserve—such activities are not permitted by anyone other than tribals, and they are also part-time stewards of the Siruvani reserve—though this is a much less significant role compared with the local control of the Yanayacu Reserve that I visited in Peru with Seth and Karen (see the Peru part of my blog).

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Ana virithi, or “elephant run away.” This inconspicuous and dangerous understory plant has leaves with such a strong irritant that even elephants are affected. Yes, if your name is Ana (or Anna), your name means “elephant” in the Tamil language.

Now with six humans in a small Jeep (actually a Mahindra) along with tons of equipment, we parked at the third checkpoint from which we had a 2.5 km hike to the first site with a large volume of equipment. Mani and his students made sure that I had only a light load while they (especially the grad students a.k.a. pack animals) bore significantly greater burdens.

I learned a few things on the hiking route. Ana virithi is an understory plant with a very strong irritant in its leaves and flowers. Its name comes from “ana” which is elephant and “virithi” which is “run away” (another name that we used more commonly is ana marthi, though nobody could tell me what “marthi” means). If even the thick-skinned elephant is subject to irritation by this inconspicuous bit of landscaping I was very careful about not touching it. The infamous forest leeches of Asian forests are there. They find their way onto your shoes (or between your toes if you’re not wearing shoes), but they are black and easy to spot and remove before they start to feed. If they do manage to escape your notice they take their meal and fall off, but the wound left behind continues to bleed for a bit, presumably due to the anticoagulant activity of the leech’s saliva (hirudin, I think, is the anesthetic and maybe it is also the anticoagulant). I learned that elephants, in addition to being noisy in the way they move through the forest, are also smelly. Magesh picked up the scent of nearby elephant and alerted me to be very cautious.

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A small-mesh drag net is placed below a fast run, then the rocks on the bottom are jostled manually to dislodge fishes that like to anchor and feed in these fast strecthes.

The sampling started with a quick survey/assessment of the fishes that are evident and their locations within the habitat: runs, riffles, etc. To me the most striking fish there was the Indian Trout, Barilius getensis, which from an angler’s eye view looked exactly like rainbow trout (though too small to make me wish I’d brought my fishing gear). Then a comprehensive collection was done with the net-based methods I mentioned earlier, and I’d say at least fifty fish were collected at each site. Dr. Mani then meticulously photographed each species using a digital SLR. A live fish was placed in a water-filled mini-aquarium (find a better word here), which was set atop a second tripod—yeah, we hauled in two tripods in addition to everything else. But I’m sure that his photos are the best around. He took several dozen shots of each fish from different angles, and we spent a lot of time coaxing the fish into the ideal position, preferably with fins maximally flared.

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Pectoral fin, pelvic fin, and a gram of flesh go into an Epi tube for DNA barcoding, and the rest of the fish is tagged and preserved.

Arun and Magesh were then put to work collecting samples for DNA barcoding (they are using the same COI partial sequence that we use in our BIO204 labs). A pectoral fin, a pelvic fin, and about a 1 cm3 sample of tissue was cut from the top half (epaxial, for you fish people) of the muscle. The rest of the fish was tagged and dropped into a formalin solution. On smaller fish that were large enough to fit into the 2 mL Epindorf tube, the whole fish was put in. This activity pressed on into the early afternoon, and after lunching they collected physical data on each collection point: depth, width, flow velocity, pH, dissolved oxygen. We then moved to a second site, perhaps 0.5-1 km downstream from the first site.

Walking back to Patiyar in the dark, we scanned the forest for eye-shine--reflection from our flashlights. I saw a Sambar deer with yellow eyes. [This image by Manimekalan is actually a young Indian Gaur from a different day.]

Walking back to Patiyar in the dark, we scanned the forest for eye-shine–reflection from our flashlights. I saw a Sambar deer with yellow eyes. [This image by Manimekalan is actually a young Indian Gaur from a different day.]

Pressed for time—not a good idea to be this far from the road after dark given the presence of leopards and tigers and elephants and king cobras—we collected, took DNA samples, stream data and returned back to the car.