Post trip write up - Wildlife observatory trip to Agumbe on March 28 - 30

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Wildlife Observation Trip – A write-up by Rangarathnam.

    India is a snake; so wrote Ed Yourdon in his book 'The decline and the fall of the American Programmer'. Comparing India to a snake, he says that the country has different constituents some of which are far removed from others and there are some others which are close by but moving in opposite directions. To the author of this write-up at least, sighting of snakes had not been a rarity. Both on Chennai and Bangalore roads, I have seen snakes some meters away, particularly after a heavy rainfall. But fortunately the snake and me were moving in opposite directions, or at least tangentially and we have chosen to ignore each others' presence as if by a covenant. So when the invitation was out announcing the trip to Agumbe, the interesting part was the possibility of encountering a snake in a controlled but not captive environment and I signed up. I also followed it up by attending Gowrishankar's presentation at the TP event and so was all set up for the trip, to extend my 'basic' understanding that there are only venomous poisonous snakes and non-venomous poisonous snakes. (If you are left wondering at the previous statement, start with the premise 'snakes are poisonous'; then add the fact that 'snakes can be venomous or non-venomous'.)

Photograph by Basumitra Basu

    On 27th evening around 9PM, as I was nearing the KSRTC bus stand in Bangalore, Dinesh called me up and said that they had crossed KR Puram. I also got an SMS with the registration number of the bus to Agumbe, so I moved in and located the bus. Saravanan identified me as co-trip member and introduced himself. Gowrishankar, the host himself was also there and just as I finished myself introducing myself to him, others trooped in. We dumped our backpacks in the luggage compartment and settled down in the rear half of the bus, wholly allocated for our team. The bus itself was comfortable, but the latter half of the journey was marred by too many speed-breakers. We reached Shivamogga's impressive bus terminus before dawn and at 6AM were having tea at Thirthahalli. In another twenty minutes we reached the spot where we had to disembark. From this point the journey was by three vans, on the jeep track to the Kalinga Center, our destination.

Photograph by Basumitra Basu

    Sonu received us at the center and gave us an overview of the place, the location as well as a list of dos and don'ts to be observed while camping. Hot breakfast followed and soon we were out into the open. The Centre itself is an exquisitely beautiful place, set in a slightly depressed ground formation, with the forest all around and a cluster of ramrod straight areca-nut trees that must have been planted at least seventy years ago, growing up to reach the sky. With the dense foliage of the tall trees growing all around providing a green cover, we could hear the incessant chatter and twitter of the birds all around. The variety of the butterflies that flitted about the grounds was wonderful. The first specimen that got our focused and undivided attention was a flying draco, that was scaling up an areca-nut tree nearby. Soon we spotted another on yet another tree and Gowrishankar joined us to explain the mechanics of dtdp (draco-to-draco protocol). An amazing display of the dewlaps of the dracos followed, to be captured to satisfy the cavernous appetite of our cameras. We browsed around the grounds for some more time and then Sonu led us on a trail walk. Starting with the pond on the edge of the property, getting an eyeful of the dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and tadpoles, we slowly made our way through the thicket of bushes. It was an enjoyable walk, though it was a bit warm and we saw exotic trees, flowers and insects. Leading and clearing the way with his snake tonk, Sonu couldn't find any snake however and soon the circuitous trail led us back to our lunch.
Photograph by Dr.Ashok
    A simple but satisfying fare for lunch and we settled around the wooden table for the workshop on snakes. It was a pleasant surprise for me, to see the slough of a snake being put up for study. Since I had opted out of natural sciences group just to avoid dissecting frogs, this was a welcome option for me and slowly enthusiasm for the task started surging from within me. Still I was very circumspect even handling the skin and I let others do it. The exercise given was to identify the specie of the snake that had shed this particular skin. Resources available, two books full of photographs and detailed description of the snakes as well as two copies of 'schematic', something like an illustrated parts catalog of a snake, if I may be permitted to borrow terminologies from another discipline. We split into two groups and shared the two sets of resources to come up with the identification. Looking at the diagram, the first task was to familiarize with the scale patterns and their names. Occular meant eyes (remember binocular), so preoccular referred to the scales before eyes; labial meant lips ( answer provided by Gowri), familiar to linguists and so on. Thus we were able to make sense of all the Latin lip-twisters mentioned in the diagram, that they referred to the locus(ha! Isn't that Latin) of the scales with reference to the sense-organs of the snake. Moving down the body we were able to identify what the ventral and sub-caudal scales meant and how to count them. Once we established the logic it was time to do arithmetic and returning officers at polling booths would have been astonished at our ability to come up with different numbers every recount. The book said that some species could have a count of between 15 to 17 scales and some team member took it to mean that we can apply it to the different counts we can come up with for the same specimen! After all this breathtaking exercise at pattern-matching with LKG enthusiasm we were sure that one of the names we threw up would get an instant nod of appreciative approval from Gowri. But he had the right pin to prick our bubble and asked us to match the lengths of the object specimen and the target. We had matched a 50cm snake with a 50inch slough. A weak protest that this was possibly because, they had changed from FPS units to CGS units couldn't cut ice with Gowri, and we went back to babbling about identification. Luckily I had Manick and Ashok in our group and second time around, they identified the slough as shed by the Indian Rat Snake. So the point was truly driven home that we should start by observing and recording physical characteristics even before analyzing biological characteristics. A systematic  procedure would be to identify all the observables about the specimen, record the values and then proceed with identification. Somewhat tangentially though, we may note that Sherlock Holmes, had he been present, would have insisted that we scrape some mud off the boots and note the probability of this specimen to be found in this geographical area as an indicator for identification. Somebody at the end of the exercise, raised a doubt whether the snake will come back after us, now that we had handled its slough. Gowri answered that snakes usually come back to the same place to shed their skin, but don't go behind the skins or the persons who removed them.
Photograph by Rangarathnam

    Time for outdoor activity again and Sonu led us to a stream after tea. After enjoying wading, swimming, thrashing about in the water as was each one's wont, we were back at the Centre to see the stars come out one by one soon. Some people trekked to a vantage point nearby for stargazing. Gowri announced a nocturnal expedition, which he himself led and most people joined in. I retired for the night and learnt the next day that they had brought back a pit viper as a result of that expedition. The last lamp was switched off, as soon as I decided to hit the bed (actually there is only one lamp on battery power between 6 and 10PM and an extra one during dinner time as there is no electricity at the centre).

Photograph by Saharanaman

    Day two- I awoke at 5AM and others soon started appearing outside their tents. It was decided to go watch sunrise from a vantage point but it did not get off to a start even at 6AM. So that meant clambering up a steep cliff-face. Dinesh and Manick helped me quite a bit in the climb, but soon we saw that the Sun was about to pop out of the distant hill-top any second. We stationed ourselves as best as we could and captured the sunrise. Others then moved on to peak of the hill, but I decided to stay where I was. It was a glorious place with the most exotic of the birds flying all around and even my untrained eye was able to distinguish a lot of varieties. But they were too fast and too far away to be captured even on a 50x zoom bridge camera. We returned back to the camp by a slightly different route which was a cinch to negotiate.

     Time to breakfast and then it was time for a photo session with the viper brought back from the previous day. Sonu slowly coaxed it out of its housing and it came and lay lazily surveying its surroundings that included a grasshopper. But soon it started slithering away in one quick movement, but Sonu was ready where it was heading and ensured that it neatly went back into its bottle. The session with the viper over, Sonu led us on a canopy walk. The trail lay completely under the tall trees, without a hint of direct sunlight. Starting from a stream, we wended our way up the footholds offered by the water's action of trickling down the mountain. Gained quite some height by cutting through the thicket of bushes, taking in the wonderful sight of mammoth trees with buttress roots, creepers, symbiotic plants, insects butterflies and so on. Akaanksha of the Centre thought she sighted a snake, but if it was there it would not budge out of its resting place. Sonu leading the way with his tonk, paused a lot to provide extensive explanations to our team, which followed him in a single file,before bringing us back to the waiting lunch.

    After lunch, some preferred to go the stream, while others stayed back, so that we could start on a visit to the Kundadri Hills by 3.30PM. The transportation that was to take us was a bit late in the coming, so we decided to walk a bit and meet them coming in. In the process we sighted a few birds perching on the tree tops by the side of the jeep track. Soon we were on our way and reached the Kundadri Hills. There is a Jain temple, a small but impressive structure on top and the view of the surrounding plains and the distant hills was fascinating. Apparently the temple is dedicated to Parshvanath Thirtankara and Sadhana went around sharing details about the Jain order to the small, interested group that gathered around her. We stayed at the place to watch the sunset. The substratum of all sounds is silence and it is wonderful how the moment of sunset makes this manifest as all the twitter and chatter around seem to progressively subside as the Sun slowly sinks over the undulating mountains yonder.
Photograph by Sahasranaman

    Back at the camp, it was Manick with a session on Astronomy who held the center stage, by popular demand. With a pair of binoculars, he enabled everybody to see for himself, the glory of heavenly objects. The list of such objects included the nebula in the constellation of Orion. Sahas setting up his tripod was able to get a decent picture of Jupiter's moons. Dinesh was unperturbed by all this activity and with single minded devotion chased all the bugs that crossed his field of vision.

    Day three – I again woke up at 5AM, but decided to give the sunrise trip a skip, even though it was by the easier path. I decided to focus on the flowers and butterflies on the grounds the richness of which was truly marvelous. Meanwhile a whole group gathered under the areca-nut trees waiting to get a picture of the dracos in flight. One of them flew too early, but the other refused to oblige for a long time. At last he did and some got a fascinating picture of the flight. That meant time for breakfast, and breakfast meant time for another workshop. The first part of the workshop was an exercise in analyzing tiger populations. Given several maps, we were able to extract details about historic tiger population, current tiger population, the types of geography they inhabit, the country borders across which they span and lastly some of the actual and potential reasons for their dwindling numbers. It was a pity to note that the number of countries that gave shelter to tigers have diminished from 27 to 12. The next part of the workshop was about first-aid, specifically with respect to snake-bites. It came out that the fabled tourniquet is no longer held as a viable mechanism in handling snake-bite incidents. The importance of keeping the received wisdom updated thus emphasized, we learnt all the issues pertaining to handling the bite victim. The next interesting revelation was about the nature of venom itself; it is deadly only when it enters the blood stream; taken orally a healthy alimentary canal should not be subject to any adverse effects (but don' try it!!). Thus we were able to get a better perspective on the snakes, and enhance our knowledge which until then could be encapsulated in a single word – poisonous.

    Lunch served next, and it was time to part company from our gracious hosts, whose stimulus ensured that we exercised our brains, feelings and feet to the fullest measure. Thank you, Gowrishankar, Sonu, Akaanksha, Ashwini, Prashant and Sujan.

    A single minibus was our transportation out of the Centre. A problem is what presents itself, a challenge is how you take it and an opportunity is what you make out of it. Finding that the return journey from Agumbe to Banglore was hampered by the lack of availability of tickets, our organizer, Navaneeth, had booked tickets from Sringeri to Bangalore. That meant we had the option of spending a few hours at Sringeri. The very friendly bus driver and his kid daughter safely took us over the 25km distance to the Sringeri bus terminus. Prakash with his Kannada speaking skills, enabled us to deposit our baggage in the cloak room and then the bus dropped us at the Saradambal Temple, managed under the auspices of Sringeri Sankar Mutt. We moved on to the banks of the Tunga river, where fishes accept feed from visitors and spent quite some time there. After visiting the sanctum of the temple and looking around and hobnobbing with a pair of elephants that made their way across the river bridge, we moved over to a restaurant across the road. The organizers sprang a pleasant surprise, by arranging a cake and concomitant celebrations to mark Manick's birthday. Incidentally they had sprung the same surprise on me as soon as we had boarded the bus to Agumbe at Bangalore. Completing an early dinner, we walked back to the Sringeri bus terminus, reclaimed our baggage and boarded the 8.30PM trip to Bangalore.
Photograph by Rangarathnam
    Yet another trip, yet another cluster of new friends, yet another opportunity to cement old friendships, yet another folder of interesting pictures, yet another opportunity to hone our photographic skills and yet another bunch of memories to recall and savor for ever.

    Thank you everybody, it was a well-spent three days.

Agumbe: living with snakes and cicadas- A write up by Basumitra Basu

It was a warm early afternoon. As I walked towards the small group of trekkers in front of Higginbotham's in Chennai Central, I was looking for a familiar face. I couldn't find any, but still asked "CTC ?". Someone said "Yes" enthusiastically and there starts the journey to Agumbe. We were 18, mostly men, in the team going from Chennai, with few of them whom I met earlier. I said "Hello" to some of them. As we settled in the train, people started conversing with others. Soon the discussion became animated and loud, proof that we were having a good time. I have noticed this also in earlier treks and trips with CTC. There is little time and effort needed to break the ice. You simply come on board.

Everyone had such enthusiastic conversations, sometimes swapping places to ensure we link up with everyone, that 6 hour journey to Bangalore never felt too long. We ate dinner in train and arrived at Bangalore Station at around 9:30 PM to board a comfortable KSRTC bus to Agumbe at the Bus Terminal nearby. 4 others joined us here for the trip. Reclining seats in the bus were so inviting after a tiring day and it didn't take me long to go to sleep.

Photograph by DineshKumar

It was pre-dawn when we stopped at a Bus Station for a short break. I got down and took a look around. It was lightly misty and with the sun yet to rise, there was a chill in the wind. We resumed journey again and soon dark green forests and hills started appearing out of the window. Before much wait we arrived at Agumbe, got down from the bus and were welcomed by none other than Gowri Shankar, Founder of Kalinga Center for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE) and one of the leading herpetologists of India. Our jungle camp was about to start.

After a short drive and a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the camp inside jungle and the first look was impressive. It was set in the middle of an areca nut cultivation, surrounded by thick forest. A small stream flowed through one side, which I guessed would be swift during the rains. There was a large arena in the middle, with thatched roof, used for dining as well as meeting area, with a small library, baggage storage and wash basin on one side. A well maintained toilet block lied at a corner of the camp. Small clusters of tents were pitched at several places within the camp in a very natural setting. Here you could touch nature and everyone was eager to discover it.

Soon after a cup of hot coffee and a very tasty breakfast, we had our briefing from Gowri Shankar about does and don'ts of the nature camp and the way of life here. There was no Electricity or Internet and mobile phones won’t work. Dining and Toilet area were lighted using a battery during the evening and the camp retires by 10 PM. We also met the few staff, Researchers and Volunteers at the Camp.

Photograph by Ashok
Our first encounter was with an amazing lizard called Draco (Draco dussumieri), commonly called Southern Flying Lizard. There were quite a few of them, climbing the tall areca nut trees in the camp. As they climbed, they flared their dewlap, a bright yellow skin below the neck, to impress or frighten another Draco climbing up a nearby tree. When they approach the top, they spread their ‘wing’, a thin skin attached to the sides of their body and then jump from there, gliding several meters to another tree, showing off their colorful underbelly. We were absolutely thrilled to witness this again and again.

After observing the Dracos and the beautiful birds around the camp for a while, it was time for a jungle walk. Led by Sonu, a researcher at the camp, we followed a trail inside the forest along a small stream, to discover nature. There were many colorful butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, particularly near water. Rainforest was also home to very wide varieties of trees and climbers. There were orchids growing on tree branches and strangulating figs growing around tall trees, eventually killing the supporting tree itself. When we came back to the camp, very tired, we were glad that hot lunch was ready and waiting for us. The camp serves authentic local food from Malnad region and it was simple but interesting spread. Food tastes its best when we are hungry and this was another proof of that!

In the afternoon, it was time for a snake workshop conducted by Gowri. We were taught about method of finding out scale count and identify scale pattern of the head and how to use these information to identify a species. Hands on exercises were interesting: we were divided into four groups and given 2 separate snake skin shedding to identify the species. After lots of discussions each group came up with their own answer. But, unfortunately, none were correct! Well, we are beginners, you see!

Serious work over and after lazing around the camp for a while we headed to the forest pool. It was about 30 minutes walk along a small stream and we arrived at a place where the stream has turned into a pool with a very gentle slope. This was surrounded by dark evergreen trees, some reflected on the still waters of the pool. The environment was mesmerizing. Some of us jumped in the water right away, frolicking around to the heart's content. It was absolutely refreshing. But, sitting at the edge of the pool taking in the beauty of the lake and listening to the numerous birds' call was also very satisfying- it fills your soul.

Before it became dark, we identified our tents. Each tent sleeps two and was sealed from all sides, so no fear of a snake or insect bite while sleeping. The dining hall was the center of all actions in the camp. In-between the hikes in the forest, whenever we used to find time, we would huddle in that place for a chat and some laughter. Often, Gowri Shankar, as well as Sonu and other interns will join us sharing their experiences about the flora and fauna there. Ashwini was a researcher studying Dragonflies and Damselflies. Akaanksha was there for 2 weeks, volunteering at the camp.

It was late afternoon and as the sun started tilting to the west, we hiked up the jungle road for a few miles to reach a small hill. Though it was covered with shrubs, climbing up to the top was not so difficult, as the bushes were not very dense. We got a panoramic view of the distant hills from there, all covered in a dark green canopy. Evening was approaching and the hills were falling silent slowly. Soon the sun turned into a bright orange ball and went down behind the hill below, painting the sky in many hues of orange, red and yellow. It was almost dark when we arrived back at the camp. The long walks during these trips were always filled with interesting conversations, knowing each other and making the foundation of new friendships.

Dinner was served by 8:30 PM and we had sumptuous chicken curry made in Malnad style and some other tasty dishes. It was absolutely wonderful that two interns at the camp, prepared all the Rotis served for dinner for all of us. The Interns always used to help bring food from kitchen and set up the buffet. We were touched by their whole-hearted involvement in the camp. We could contribute by washing our plates after having a meal and keeping the toilet clean by removing our shoes every time before going in. These little displays of care make you feel always at home there.

After dinner, we had one of the most exciting part of this trip- night-walk through rainforest armed with a torch, looking for snakes and other animals, while respecting their natural behaviour. There was an eerie feeling as we walked quietly, in single file, leaving the camp behind. Thought of someone watching me from few meters away, even though I can't see it, sends a chill through the spine. We spotted few toads and insects and heard some nocturnal birds calling as we were walking slowly, scanning every inch around us. Suddenly, someone spotted a snake on a tree. It was less than a meter long, lying on a small branch, probably hunting for a pray. Gowri said that it appeared to be a Malabar Pit Viper, but he wanted to make some close observation. It was really exciting to spot a venomous snake in its natural habitat and our day was made.

Walking for some more time, I spotted a blue scorpion about 2 inches long. With the torch shinning, it froze for some time, allowing us to take a close look. It was a moon-less sky, covered with countless numbers of stars. Coming to an open area we looked up. With the help from the knowledgeable amongst us, we could easily identify the Planets, Stars and Constellations shinning above us. It was fun to be able to identify directions in the complete darkness just by looking at the sky. After a while we walked back to the camp, carefully watching every step. By the time I hit bed, I was tired to the core. It had been a hard day and an eventful one. I slept like a log.

Next morning I woke up to the long and melodious call of Malabar Whistling Thrush. There was a cacophony of calls of many other birds coming from the trees around the camp, but the call of the Thrush was unmistakable, containing many notes and varying pitch like music and very long. As I came out from the Tent, I felt the slight chill of the morning. There were 2 Thrushes. One was somewhere behind my tent and another in the hill ahead, little away. I took a short walk out of the camp. Sun was yet to come out to the valley. It was misty and lively with bird calls and the omnipresent noise from the Cicadas and Crickets, as I smelt the forest in the chilled air. As everyone got up and gathered at the huddle, the camp started buzzing again. We joined for the breakfast, fervently discussing yesterday's experiences.

We spent the morning taking a long trek through the forest. Learning how a Camera Trap was installed and operated was exciting. We saw how the trees in rainforest fight for their share of sunlight and when a large tree falls, how its space gets occupied by other trees. We saw some really tall trees with huge buttress roots supporting them. One among us could even spot a snake. But before others could arrive to see, it had vanished under some rocks.

In the afternoon, we drove to nearby Kundadri Hill to visit a Jain Temple several hundred years old. This was on top of a rocky hill overlooking the plains below and panoramic view of the forest and the cultivation from there was breathtaking. After a while, we climbed down over the rocks and positioned ourselves on the west, facing the setting Sun. It was a clear sky and Orange hue of the sun slowly covered the sky. As the sun was going down like a ball of fire, behind the hills, the surroundings fell silent. Flocks of birds were flying homewards. Some of us were busy chatting and some were just enjoying the serene environment. It was getting dark and we started walking down to the cars to go back to the camp.

Photograph by me, this became my favourite from the trip.

Back in the camp it was some more conversation and a long session of star gazing, taking advantage of the clear sky. It was some enlightenment and lot of fun indeed. After dinner, we had a walk around the camp in search of nocturnal animals. As we scrutinized every bit of the ground, we could spot some colourful toads and insects.

Next morning, I got up again to the call of Whistling Thrush and dressed up quickly as we had planned to go out to see sunrise. After about 6-7 people gathered, we started hiking to a nearby hill. It was moderately difficult, as the hill side was covered with small rocks and gravels. If not careful, you can skid or topple easily. As we were climbing up, the eastern sky was getting brighter. Below we could see the rolling hills, with the valleys covered in mist, almost till the horizon, the ridges and peaks peeping out through the mist like crests of waves. Soon the sun came out from behind the hill, like a ball of fire, covering the sky with a mild tinge of orange-red. Except the birds chirping in the bushes and trees around us, entire hill was silent. Slowly, the rays of morning sun filled the valleys, passing through the mists and painting them orange. We stood there awestruck looking at the beauty of the surrounding that was slowly unfolding. It was an intimate encounter with nature. We sat there for a while, enjoying the beauty of the moment and started talking about life and happiness. Our perspectives were changing.

We walked back to the camp, as sun was getting warmer. After breakfast we had a workshop conducted by Gowri on Tiger and their conservation. We learned about different species of Tigers and their habitats. It was sad to know that quite a few species of Tigers have already become extinct and so many countries have lost their tiger population completely! Sessions with Gowri was always fun, as we could digress and ask him questions about nature and he tried to answer those to our satisfaction. 

Photograph by Shyam Sundar

After the workshop, followed by lunch, it was time to pack up. We had spent three wonderful days in the lap of nature and in the company of some wonderful people. It was indeed a privilege to be able to spend so much time with with Gowri and learn from him about nature in general and snakes in particular. All of us hoped to come back again to hear more of snake stories and jungle lore.

Next morning, as we bid goodbye to each other, there was a tinge of sadness. It felt, as if we knew each others for a long time. May be we are truly ourselves only when we go back to nature and live as part of it, realize how small we are in the scheme of the things, respect each other for what we are and help with whatever we can. That is when we become humane. May be we will meet another day, in another forest, to celebrate life.



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