Periyar, Day 2

06/02/2014

1 January 2014.

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Elephas. Periyar Lake, Kerala.

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Elephas. Periyar Lake, Kerala

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Dense dry deciduous forest around the western part of Periyar Lake, Kerala.

Day Two in Periyar was much like the first as far as delays, confusion about permissions, and longish periods of waiting. The new year started out inauspiciously as we found that the gillnet we had set the previous night had ended up hopelessly snagged on a submerged tree, and there was no pulling it free. I’m proud to say that I managed to serve as more than another body in payload this morning by having my Swiss Army knife on hand, which we used to cut the line that was wrapped on the snag, and we were then able to pull from both sides of the cut thereby removing all of the net and leaving none in the lake. Abandoned gillnets continue to kill for decades, and in managing to extract the nylon web o’ death we dodged committing an act that would have been nothing short of tragic.

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Moving eastward Periyar cuts into some classic shola grasslands.

We packed our stuff from the rest house and went back to Thekkady. We met a field science colleague of Dr. Mani’s who had come to take part in interviews for a new ecology-related position in the Periyar management. He and his family were staying at the Inspection Bungalow. We met another group of university students/recent grads from the states who were there on holiday. It was probably a couple of hours later that we could load yet another vehicle and head to the marina where we would board a cutter for the Mullakkady Forest Guard Station. At the marina, our boat was blocked from departing as a trio of officials inspected our boat, recording lengths of just about every dimension conceivable. I’m not sure if this was to assess changes since the previous inspection or to confirm the boat’s identity, but it took another hour.

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The cutter we rode from the marina to Mullakkady. Periyar Lake, Kerala.

The boat ride was long and pleasant. We saw wildlife—elephants, a pig, an otter, several ungulates, lots of birds. Periyar is large enough to cut a watery swath through mostly dry deciduous forest on its west end through mostly shola on its eastern half, though not too much farther east from the lake we would get back into more forest. The rest of the passengers were uniformed forest guards who were heading out for their shift at the station. The Mullakkady arm is Periyar’s easternmost and extends into what looks like a deliciously large and undisturbed tract of forest lying to the east of Periyar Lake. In Dr. Mani’s plan we would have come here the previous morning and hiked out to sampling sites far upstream of where the Mullakady River flows into the lake. Yes, that would have been way cool. [Going out to the rest house was pretty great, too.]

But these remote sites in unspoiled wilderness would remain out of reach for us—at least on this trip. Out of reach for us today time-wise certainly, because we made it out to the Mullakkady station far too late even just to get out to the sites, let alone sample and return to the station before night falls and tigers and elephants take control of the forests. But even a sampling session for the next day was out of the question, as Dr. Mani would not receive the permission needed to get out into the forest for what would amount to a sightseeing excursion for my benefit. By the next nightfall we would need to be on a bus back to Coimbatore for my appointments at Bharathiar University—I’m giving a talk and meeting with the Vice Chancellor to discuss the possibility of an MOU with MiraCosta. It was disappointing not to be given the permission to trek into that part of the tiger reserve east of Mullakkady, but I can see that this was perfectly justifiable given the circumstances—we truly had too little time to do anything of value. I optimistically think that a research proposal with a more realistic timeline would have been given more consideration.

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Arun photographing sambar deer. Mullakkady Station, Periyar Lake, Kerala.

There seems to be a lot at Periyar that would be of interest to scientists of many stripes—population biologists, ecologists, conservation biologists, geologists—and there are adequate facilities here to house researchers safely. From what I’ve seen, there is a ready availability of personnel that are capable of providing the mandated escorts to field sites, and in almost every case these forest guards are also skilled guides with abundant knowledge of local flora and fauna, and they are also very willing to help out with fieldwork. The lack of any scientific equipment (including refrigeration) other than what one could carry in could be easily remedied with an influx of cash. It’s partly an absence of funding that prevents research from blossoming here, and with apparently little interest from the international scientific community in establishing well-equipped field research stations in places like Mullakkady this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. I think I’ve already mentioned earlier in this blog how India’s reputation for stratifying layer upon layer of maddening bureaucracy has squelched any interest from abroad, and it is tolerated by Indian scientists only for lack of an alternative way (other than for them to migrate out of country).

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Veranda outside dormitory. Mullakkady Station, Kerala.

Events being what they were, our only option was to return to Thekkady and get an early start the next day for sampling sites in Gavi. The boat ride back was long and uneventful, though the sun setting over Periyar Lake was kinda nice. It was well after dark when we pulled back into the same Inspection Bungalow where we had been so many times and waited so many hours, and where would now be spending this night. Arun and Magesh unpacked the vehicle and took dinner directly, while Dr. Mani and I would have to wait for Dr. Sanjayakumar, who would be stopping by the bungalow for dinner with us.

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Dry deciduous forest/Shola grassland ecotone. Mullakkady Station, Periyar Lake, Kerala.

Sanjayakumar is a VIP in the circles of India’s Reserve management. He is the one recognized for developing Parambikulam into a model of conservation management in India, and this is the main reason for his gaining his new prize, the directorship position at Periyar, which with its much larger and more cosmopolitan visitorship is of much greater importance than Parambikulam. I congratulated him on his successes in involving tribals in land stewardship, after which he invited me to go on a night patrol later that evening with anti-poaching guards. I was about to accept when the conversation took a different turn. We found out that a young fish ecologist from the Ashoka Trust in Bangalore had been given the task of putting together the poster of endangered and endemic fishes of Periyar. Krishnakumar (or as Sanjayakumar called him “this young kid”) was also in the process of describing a new fish species he had discovered within the boundaries of Periyar. This was a blow to Dr. Mani who is perhaps the senior fish ecologist in southern India and who had not been informed of any of these events. Mani was already smarting a bit for not having been invited to be on the interview panel for the hire that was going on at Periyar, and it was particularly painful that the task of creating the poster had not been offered to him, since he is the one who had made the spectacular posters for Parambikulam’s fishes as well as other reserves across the Western and Eastern Ghats. Mani’s photos are spectacular—he takes great pains to get high-resolution shots of live fishes with perfect lighting. Indeed, the Periyar poster of endangered and endemic fishes was nicely done, but the quality of fish shots was inferior to Dr. Mani’s photos.

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I watched this dude jump in the lake from the shore on the right side of the boat and swim to the shore on the left side of the boat. He was a lot faster in the water than I am.

The picture that unfolds here is a complex and messy one. India has its famous multi-layered systems and bureaucratic oversight that can be constricting and suffocating. Compared with other countries, there is a very miniscule pot of funding and opportunity for researchers like Dr. Mani, Arun, and the young hotshot from Bangalore. I think that Sanjayakumar has decided to spread these few opportunities somewhat equitably—some of the work goes to Dr. Mani, but the young rising stars also need a chance to sit under the sun. I see good intentions here rather than a snub, but still this was a bit of a harsh finish to a day that had already had its share of denials and disappointments. [I wasn’t bummed, though—the trip out to and back from Mullakkady alone yielded tons of great shots of elephants and sambar deer, and I was shocked to see how fast a wild pig could swim!]

I wonder what kinds of opportunities will be there for Arun when he completes his Ph.D.—this will happen no later than June 2014. I think that he could benefit tremendously from some postdoctoral experience in the States, but how does a community college instructor like me go about promoting even a very promising scholar, especially after being out of the research game for so long? I wonder how extensive are the lacunae in his foundational knowledge and if this would hinder his success as a candidate for a postdoc.

ImageThe greatest challenges of this India trip are the ones that will await me upon my return to the U.S.: help get Arun a postdoc and assist with the preparation of manuscripts out of Dr. Mani’s data.

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