Gavi

08/02/2014

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minus the smog and plus Julie Andrews, this might be Austria

2 January 2014.

The way Gavi was described to me elicited the mental image of a Sound-of-Music-y über-pastoral setting in India with green hills of endless meadows. Like Austria but with elephants. Sporadically throughout our little side trip to Cochin, Magesh would tell me about how we were going next to this place that was a truly beautiful place in India. He really wanted to go there. We even watched a movie (in the car we had hired in Cochin) that took place in Gavi. In reality we had not been scheduled to be coming here at all, but due to the denial at Mullakkady, here we are on the road to Gavi. Magesh’s wish is granted.

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Tea plantation between Thekkady and Gavi. The tea I bought there was “dust tea”–pretty much standard issue for domestic use. The good stuff gets sold abroad.

Situated a bit south of Periyar, Gavi will be the lowest latitude that I reach (‘bout 9.4375 N) on this trip. Magesh, Arun and I are getting tossed a bit in the back of the Jeep that Sanjayakumar has graciously provided to us, along with the most bad-ass breakneck driver to date—and we are doing some serious moving. But oops—what’s this smell? The thin plastic bag holding the sambar for our lunch has been compromised and its contents is spilling down Arun’s leg. And sambar is not the most flattering decoration for one’s trousers. But the driver finds some cord to tie the bag shut and we are back on the road.  It has the feel of a less-serious collection day from the start, and we’re just going to grab whatever fishes we can get at a couple of stops along the way.

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This dude could drive a Jeep and throw a net.

At stop #1 our driver strips down to his bikini briefs, and it turns out that he is the most expert of anyone yet at getting the cast net to make a huge round spread every time. With his skills at collecting fish, Arun and Magesh can work on the trap nets, stream measurements, and tissue sampling while Dr. Mani concentrates on photography. The division of labor works out nicely, and we get through the sampling and have our lunch back in the Jeep pretty swiftly, compared to past days.

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Magesh: “I’m a Gavi boy”

Then a bit of sightseeing at Gavi. Despite its reputation as a site where one can view nature, this is another landscape that has been pretty dramatically altered by humans. Shola grasslands are natural to the area—it’s a biome that takes over where the conditions favor grasslands over forest, and this usually means drier. However, someone (cough—the Brits—cough) figured out that imported eucalyptus actually do pretty well under these climatic conditions. And I guess they thought they were doing everyone a favor by putting forests of non-natives in where there would otherwise be stupid ol’ native grasslands. Sheesh. Their M.O. was pretty evident. It would be too much work to plant a whole forest, so what they did was plant their trees up along the ridgeline of the hills, so that their seeds would be able to disperse by gravity, thereby allowing these invaders to spread at maximal speed.

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The drill: pull off road, unload gear, sample/measure/photograph/process, eat, load gear, go.

There are two other highly invasive non-natives that are everywhere in India: Lantana camara (Verbenaceae) and Eupatorium glandulosum (Asteraceae). These shrubby weeds have spread through just about all reaches of India’s protected forests where they outcompete native plants and may be the main cause of extinction occurring in the Western Ghats today. Both species were there along the trail out to the Gavi overlook.

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The pipe carried fresh water from above the rock-wall dam to some users down the hill

There was time for one more sampling stop. This one was on a rather tiny creek that had been blocked by a small rock-and-mortar wall, and the upstream part (the stillwater side) was connected via a plastic pipe to some destination down the hill for the provision of fresh water. The site really didn’t look too promising at all—stagnant shallow pond above the dam and tiny flow below—but the sampling here turned up a new genus for us (Sophiocephalus), so we ended up spending a bit of time here before returning to Thekkady.

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Sophiocephalus.

Our motorcoach to Coimbatore was leaving Cumbum at 9:30 that evening, and we made it there with barely enough time for Mani to take me for a beer. The situation with alcohol in India is something I never quite figured out. My impression is that its consumption is highly discouraged and even considered by many as a sort of despicable activity that leads to the general spread of various forms of evil… and yet there is a lot of the stuff is consumed—evident by empty containers of hard liquor everywhere—and it is relatively easy to get. Outside of larger hotels (where a bar is expected), Indian watering holes are not set up in a way that would make it easy for a foreigner to find them. Moreover, these establishments are set up to protect the identity of their patrons, probably because of the enormous taboo surrounding drinking. This dingy place at the end of the road in Cumbum was not only unmarked (though I can’t comment about signage in Malayalam) but consisted of private rooms around a general courtyard space. A waiter took our orders, brought us snacks and our drinks and disappeared, so we could engage in our degenerate tipple without anyone seeing us. The Goa fruit (guava) that we were served there, though, were very nice.

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Dr. Mani takes pictures of other things besides fish (once in a while).

It was quite late when we arrived at the drop-off in Coimbatore. The taxi that Mani ordered to carry the four of us and all of our luggage to Bharathiar turned out to be a compact Mahindra, and it was only through our finely developed clowns-in-a-car skills that we succeeded in using that vehicle for the passage, at the end of which arose once again a fare dispute with the driver demanding a per-bag fee that wasn’t agreed upon at the outset.

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Another non-fish Mani masterpiece

I spent the rest of that night in the university’s International Guest House where I somehow managed to get some sleep before stepping into the role of official visiting scholar for a day. I probably had pleasant dreams of all the cool things I had seen over the past eleven days. Lucky I also had a set of clean clothes reserved for the occasion in my bag.

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and for the herpers, a Malabar Sarapam.

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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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