Thursday, July 9, 2009

Revisiting Surla

Its that time of the year again. When it rains...and the forests of Chorla Ghats respond. Everything changes. Endless layers of slate gray clouds form over thick dense forests and incessant sheets of rain come crashing down on us feeble beings. Yes its that time of the year again when nature lovers and herpetologists alike done their gum boots and rainwear and go wildlife watching out in the rains.
We chose Surla.817 meters above sea level, Goa’s remotest village and a hotspot for herps, i.e. reptiles and amphibians. Having surveyed the area 7 years ago as part of a project on Man-Reptile interactions, this was familiar territory. And yet I knew things must have changed now! Being part of the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary the forests that surrounded Surla were typical of the Western Ghats landscape and thus a repository of an array of biodiversity.
9.00 pm on a night devoid of any stars so far as the rainclouds seemed to have taken over. Kishore drops us in the middle of nowhere at Dhavlemandnecho Sado and heads for home for a hot water bath. Standing in knee-deep water, our headlights illuminate the chocolate brown forest floor and the wet green forests seem to herald our arrival. Vaibhav flashes his trademark smile and I grin back in return-we’re back. Armed with huge umbrellas, a snake hook, bags, and the works and a gap of 7 long years seem like a lifetime away from this place.
As cascading sheets of water thrash our rainwear, we drain out all the noises and listen in awe at the innumerable calls of frogs that seemed to fill the misty air of Dhavlemandnecho Sado almost as if to welcome our arrival. Mycrohilids, Indiranas and Philatus I say to myself, bothering little to go to the species level and yet keen to view some of the elusive species in these parts, including the now famous Malabar Gliding Frog, which I had first reported from this area to the wildlife community of Goa!
With every passing moment, we uncover species after species of herps some of which are new to our eyes and need expert identifications. Scanning the forest floor, amidst leaf litter and at eye level amongst branches and shrubs, we for once abandon our formal survey techniques and enjoy the rains and its subjects. Looking at an ‘Indirana’ species of frog camouflaged on a laterite plateau we wonder whether this is an addition to the existing checklist or not, while my subject quietly gives me the slip and moves away!
With Vaibhav by my side and the Rain God as my inspiration we wade across puddles, squat amongst flowing streams and climb rock faces to search for herps .Its been over 3 hours now and we are not finished. Juggling between an umbrella, a white LED Maglite and my trusted Canon SLR,I have managed to freeze images of herps in this side of the wilderness. But amongst frogs, lizards and 3 species of snakes (including the Pied belly shieldtail and the Travancore Wolf snake) we’ve found plastic, broken glass bottles, empty gutka packets and discarded food plates…remnants of a stark reality-all is not well at Surla. With crowds of visitors coming from Karnataka as well as Goa in search of a picnic spot and local liquor on weekends to revel in the rains, the unique habitats of the picturesque village of Surla are deteriorating at a fast pace. In fact some of the damage done is irreversible as far as niche habitats are concerned and even in the darkness of the night we see areas where visitors have lit fires and in the process burnt trees and undergrowth, littered in small caves and under large tree canopies and left their marks on rock faces and streams. It is regretful that we do not realize the importance of specialized habitats like these and conserve them for posterity!
Yet all is not lost. With help from the Vivekanand Environment Awareness brigade, local youth are creating awareness in a small way. The Goa Forest Department too seems to be helping this initiative and I hope this brings about a change before it is too late.
And this is true for every wilderness area in the state. As responsible citizens we all need to understand that visiting any forests whether for adventure or study or just fun, is acceptable only when minimal impact is done to the area and this is a social responsibility of us all. The sooner we realize this the better this would be for us all as well as for our wild habitats that span across the state.
As we head back, crossing gushing streams and peeping inside a cave, a sambhar calls in the valley below even as a combination of mist and fog assault our vision in a patch of thick undergrowth of mixed moist deciduous forest. It is 1.35 in the night. With each passing second we are convinced that this is a special place and needs to be conserved. With a commitment to return once again and to spread awareness about Surla’s forests, we trudge along the offbeat path and into the village where an anxious Kishore transports us back to civilization once again.

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