Don't drink the water in India.

Don’t drink the water in India.

This is the post that will sit at the top of the Communing with Artifice page for a good long while. I’ll start by recapping the previous sixteen posts of this India blog sequence. You can link directly to the specific post that you want to read. The actual blog post follows below the list.

1) Warm-up post—did this in the Lufthansa Business Class lounge in Frankfurt.

2) Arrival—mostly just me whining about how bad the air quality was. Little did I know that back home they were dealing with the worst smog in decades.

3) A little excursion to a site near Coimbatore, and then our trip out to the Siruvani Forest Reserve.

4) Sampling day one at Siruvani—I’m getting to see the routine. There’s also a bit of discussion of the tribal people (Mudugar) and their relationship with the rest of India.

5) More sampling at Siruvani and onwards to Silent Valley National Park (Christmas Eve 2013). Some notes on driving in India are here as well.

6) Silent Valley National Park and onwards to Anamalais Tiger Reserve/Topslip. Sidebar discussion today is on activism that works, but the epilogue is more sobering.

7) Sampling day one at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. Sidebar commentary is about the use of English in conversations and the role of social status.

8) Sampling day two at Parambikulam at a site that is just upstream of a proposed hydroelectric project, similar to the one that was defeated at Silent Valley.

9) Travel day—return to Coimbatore and then the bus ride to Cochin. A short visit with the Chief Conservator of Tamil Nadu forests leaves me impressed.

10) Touristy visits to Kerala Backwaters and hunting for fishing nets in Fort Cochin.

11) One really bad haircut, our return to Coimbatore, and the bus trip to Cumbum.

12) Periyar day one. Lots of waiting around to get into the Tiger Reserve (New Year’s Eve 2013).

13) Periyar day two. Whirlwind boat ride to and from Mulakkady Station on the far end of Lake Periyar (nearest some real wilderness). Meeting with Sanjayakumar, director of Periyar Tiger Reserve.

14) Gavi and our return to Coimbatore. Lots of photos and some words about India and its relationship with alcohol.

15) Meeting Bharathiar University faculty, my talk to students, my meeting with the Vice Chancellor. More cultural notes from a guy who has no interest in culture.

16) Travel and two days of sampling in Wayanad Reserve Forest. Catfishes, marauding monkeys, and… toddy!

My last day in India was filled with activity, though nothing happened that was particularly blog-worthy. I shared two nice meals with Mani’s family. Arun and Magesh took me to a modern shopping mall in the middle of Coimbatore to do some last minute gift purchases—which were very few and modest as I had basically no money and there was little that I wanted to take back with me. We did make a stop at a roadside cart for some of that non-fermented palm juice, which I liked a whole lot more than the toddy I had sampled up at Wayanad. The guy hands you a palm leaf for a bowl, and then extracts the pulp from a ripe palm fruit directly into the leaf-bowl—sweet gelatinous endosperm with a slightly bitter integument—and then ladles a cup and a half of the non-fermented palm phloem. Drink the juice, eat the pulp, and it comes with refills of the juice.

After goodbyes I made it out of Coimbatore no prob, but checking in for my international flight at the Bangalore airport, I was advised of a prob. My checked bag could not be put through directly to LA, so I would need to collect my luggage in Shanghai and re-check it for the trans-Pacific leg. But I didn’t have a VISA for China, and therefore I would not be able to clear customs in Shanghai, and I might be detained or—at best—given a chance to purchase a transit VISA to complete my trip home. The word detained resonated in a moment of slow-motion action. How much would it suck for me to be stuck in China? It didn’t seem right, and yet both the management of Singapore Air and the experts of the Bangalore airport seemed to be deeply concerned for my situation.

In reality, China does not expect people to get a VISA for transit through the country—you get a permit to stay for as long as 72 hours, provided that you can show a plane ticket for a destination outside of China. Totally reasonable, and I don’t know why the Bangalore personnel was so clueless about this.

In the days following my arrival in LA, I was under a tsunami of classes to prep, trip photos to sort and edit, blog entries to tidy up and post. There was a delay when my photo editing software finally crapped out (and in replacing it I went from version 6 to version 12) and these last couple (since Gavi) were delayed by a period in which I couldn’t locate my folder with the photos.

Dr. Mani and son Ezhil

Dr. Mani and son Ezhil

I owe a special thanks to Dr. Mani–he was very kind to arrange to spend nearly all of his holiday on this multi-stop research junket in the Western Ghats. I look forward to assisting in whatever way I can with the data crunching as well as with the development of the scholars in his laboratory. In the wake of my first visit to India I have new friends and new collaborators with whom I intend to maintain contact for the foreseeable future.

I came to India wanting to observe the balance between conservation of biodiversity/remnants of primary habitat and the superdense human population of southern India. Really it can hardly be called a “balance,” because the pressure is all exerted from the human side and it’s only because of either state or federal fiat that wildlands continue to exist at all here. Hurrah for government—enough wild space has been protected to allow the Western Ghats’ designation as a top-ten biodiversity hotspot by UNESCO.

Mr. Magesh and Mr. Arun Kumar

At the same time, this same government could do more to encourage international research within the country and to provide resources to Indian scientists to allow for their own research and to science educators to bring the country up to speed in basic science (as it already is in areas of applied science and technology).  I have already communicated these impressions in earlier posts.


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.


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…


…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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.