Wednesday, July 30, 2008

spotted a juvenile Indian bronzeback tree snake in a shrub at dusk, and gave me amazing shots for over 10 minutes, something which this species is never known to do ( it is one of the fastest snakes in the country) Diurnal and non venemous the Indian bronzeback tree snake is found across the country.

appreciating lesser known life forms

am updating from the field....and feels wierd, to squat amongst the mountains overlooking monsoonal waterfalls and green scapes and logging into this cyberspace...seem to be getting images of mating insects-tortoise bettles and angled castor butterflies and blue mormon butterflies and short horned grasshoppers, etc etc.

i am at 750msl and its pouring heavily out here in the mahdei search for the hill keelback continues in the streams around here...more on this later...for now it is but important to note the role of these lesser known creatures in the forest ecosystems and acknowledge their presence by way of appreciation and conservation. the need to conserve these creatures is as important as conserving the tiger or the elephant...and this is the essence of wildlife conservation in Goa and in India as well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chorla Ghats- a tragedy in the making.

It is perhaps one of the few motarable roads in Goa which starts from an altitude of about 70 meters above sea level and transcends to an altitude of 800 meters above sea level in a time span of just 30 minutes , offering breathtaking views of the Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary and the Proposed Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary, a reservoir of unimaginable beauty and of course an array of life forms include mammals, birds, reptiles and not to forget a varied diversity of flowering plants that seem to bloom all throughout the year.

No. This is not a fragment of imagination. This is the Chorla Ghats, a an area of exquisite wilderness that interestingly spans across the three states of Goa, Karnataka and represents the ridges of the Western Ghats topography. With peaks like Vagheri, panji Dongar and Lasni Temb, Kukmi Temb commanding the landscapes, the Chorla Ghats is a nature lovers delight, or rather was a nature lovers delight if I may put it that way.

Not till a long while ago, this region as part of the Mhadei Wildlife sanctuary was a safe corridor for large mammals like the transit tigers from Dandeli and Anshi forests and avian wonders like the Great pied Hornbills, Black eagles and the Paradise Flycatchers were a common sight on an early morning drive through these forests. It was declared as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International and was documented as one of the vital habitats of the Slender Loris, a rare primate which was reported from these parts.

But tragedy struck this panoramic region twice over, one with the commencement of the Mhadei Diversion project starting full swing in the Kankumbi area and thus giving a reason for large scale alteration of habitats in these forests. But while this work commenced, with the digging of canals and trenches, it is the upsurge in Heavy Traffic that has taken its toll on the wildlife in the Chorla Ghats.

With the illegal usage of this small road for the purpose of transportation of iron ore and Steel by mining companies and steel factories, the Chorla Ghats corridor is now burdened with the movement of over 200 plus trucks every single day, and has immediately produced drastic results on the ecology of the area.

The heavy trucks weighing often more than 30 tons and carrying mineral ore, metal and metal scrap trudge their way through these forests and have been responsible not only for road kills of lesser known fauna like civets, reptiles and even birdlife, they have contributed to a drastic rise in noise and dust pollution, that which has made sightings almost nil in these patches.

As far as I know this road is not meant to be for heavy commercial vehicles like mining trucks with loads and 10 tire lorries, and many believe that this is in fact a scheme of things to evade taxes (well that’s another story!) What I am single mindedly concerned about is the impacts this increase of traffic would have on the wildlife density and diversity in these parts that are already burdened with numerous other problems like monoculture plantations and poaching!

The small road that meandered its way is now repaired after a span of 4 years and even though many of the small bridges have weakened with the load of the illegal goods that are ferried across from one state to another, the authorities on both sides seem to be oblivious of the state of affairs in these parts

. While the Goan families that used this road to reach to Belgaum for their Marriage preparations have been reduced to a trickle, thanks to the rash and unsafe driving of heavy vehicles, the increase in heavy traffic is also having an effect on the agriculture produce in the village of Keri and the Cashew orchards that surround the Anjunem reservoir in a slow manner. The waters that the canals supply are now being used to wash trucks and are subjected to the industrial waste and ore being thrown in and around the canals that irrigate the villages of Keri, Parye and beyond.

That the cachment area of the Anjunem Reservoir is under immediate threat is not being realized by anybody for that matter, as when the wildlife gets affected, so will the tree cover. There are signs of degradation in many patches and no amount of human intervention would be able to revive what is lost in these forests of the Chorla Ghats. With the Surla River being threatened way ahead and the Ladkyacho falls being reduced year after year , the Haltar nallah on the verge of being lost to deforestation and the Mhadei project, the Chorla Ghats are doomed without any doubts. The call of the Slender would be silenced once and for all and the luminescent fungi would cease to glow come next June and July if matters remain the same and destruction continues unabated by one and all…

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shieldtail snakes

The Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary of Goa in particular and the Mahdei Bio region, that constitutes the proposed Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary of Karnataka is home to a diversity of lesser known herpetofauna, which includes the more glamorous Indian rock python and the King Cobra amongst snakes to the recently discovered Goan Caecilian amongst amphibians. With species like the Malabar Gliding frog, Indian Draco and Hump nose Pit viper being documented from these forests, has proved that this region is a haven for reptiles and amphibians that are characteristic of the Western Ghats rainforests.

This diversity is supported and sustained by the myriad of rivulets and streams that nurture the Mahdei bio region and is recognized as a Global Biodiversity hotspot.

But there still is a lacuna of knowledge about an array of species and those like the group of burrowing Shieldtail snakes, which are endemic to the Western Ghats of India feature chiefly amongst these species whose ecology and habitat preference is lest known merely from a few observations.

Shieldtail snakes are strictly forest species of burrowing snakes that are usually encountered under humus or leaf litter in dense forest habitats of the Western Ghats forests and are known to be highly elusive in most of their range. Encountered in thickly forested areas or on the fringes of forest habitats and open patches, Shieldtail snakes can be observed and studied only in the 4 months of monsoon period in the field, after which they burrow under the forest floor, sometimes even 2-3 feet in the soil. With a slender body and head region evolved to burrow beneath the soil, some species also have a tail that appears to have been cut in a slant manner like a shield, giving this family of snakes the name Shieldtails. That the exact reason of this evolved tail is still not known is a fact and needs to be studied to understand the behavior and ecology of this family of forest snakes.

Being inoffensive burrowing snakes, shieldtails are non venomous in nature and primarily feed on earthworms. They are nocturnal in nature and are known to forage on the forest floor at night in some cases, especially during heavy rain showers. The predators of these snakes include wild boar, birds and other species of snakes.

The documentation of 3 confirmed species viz. the Pied Belly Shieldtail (Melanophidium punctatum), the Large scaled Shieldtail ( Uropeltis macrolepis macrolepis) and the Elliot’s Shieldtail (Uropeltis ellioti) in the Mahdei wildlife sanctuary has given hope that more species of Shieldtail snakes can be found in these bio rich forests and await recognition and confirmation. Of the three, The Pied Belly Shieldtail ( Melanophidium punctatum) is a rare species and is known only from a few localities in the Western Ghats of India. With a recorded 30 plus species endemic to the Western Ghats of India, researchers working under the guidance of Rajendra Kerkar of the Mahdei Abhiyaan are confident that more species will be documented in due course of time. An attempt is thus being made to scientifically catalogue as well as photo document these lesser known snakes and create awareness about their ecology amongst the masses as well as the academic community.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In praise of the Hanuman Langur

The face peered through mixed foliage of broad leafed canopy vegetation and an entangled knot of Entada creeper, two dark eyes staring at me…the intruder in this patch of forest. I took a step backward to ease the situation, but one calculated leap, a long hoot and his familiar form melted into the magnificent trees that were his abode, followed by a troupe of half a dozen females and a few infants hanging on to dear life as their mamas and aunts ….from tree to tree in search of food and safety.

This was a usual day in the life of the Hanuman Langur (Semnopithecus entellus sp.), known as the ‘Common’ Langur by most of us who have walked the wilds, while ‘Vanar’ would be the appropriate word for it in amongst fellow Goans.

Being one of the more charismatic of mammals that has been worshipped and revered by Hindu Religion for centuries together, thanks to its linkages to Lord Hanuman, the Hanuman Langur is occurs throughout India and is found in almost all habitats including forests and urban settlements, and its ability to adapt and survive in diverse conditions from sea level to around 14,000 ft in the Himalayas speaks volumes of the adaptability of this species.

This medium common grayish silver primate with a black face has a body length of approx 60-75 centimeters and is a diurnal creature of the tree canopy as well as the terrestrial stratum and males weigh around 18 kilograms while females are smaller and weigh up to 11.5 kilograms.

Being primarily leaf eaters, Hanuman Langurs have adapted to almost all habitats due to their competence in adjusting to all food sources ranging from berries, flowers, left over food scraps, tender shoots of plants, fruits and sometimes even caterpillars and rotten meats. Their three chambered sacculated stomachs help them digest the toughest of low calorie leaves that difficult to digest for other mammal species. They possess 32 set of teeth like us humans, a keen sense of smell and have color vision thus making them more adaptive to all environs. With frontward pointing eyes that provide a great vision and a tail that helps balance while leaping from one tree to another, these primates have evolved significant survival tricks that help them survive in almost any conditions.

With a natural life span of 20 years and a gestation period of almost 160-200 days, the Hanuman Langur is found in troops averaging of 10-60 individuals and is lead by an Alpha male and multi female, adolescent males and other females which are called aunts and help raise the young. The behavior of a new Male leader to systematically eliminate every single infant sired by the previous Alpha male is well known in literature as well as science and is true to the core as is the fact that a males time with a troop is short lived…many a times just up to two years…after which they lead solitary lives.

The Hanuman Langurs are distributed across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma and Pakistan and are now being divided by scientists into different sub species thanks to detailed studies by primate experts on the same.

That the Hanuman Langur is now divided into the Himalayan grey Langur (Nepal and some of J and K), the Central Himalayan Langur (parts of Bhutan, China, Tibet and some parts of Eastern Himalayas), the Deccan Hanuman Langur (distributed in the north and northwest of the Deccan plateau), the Dark legged hanuman Langur (documented in the Kerala, some parts of Maharashtra and possibly Goa), is a scientific fact and needs to be looked upon with great importance. This is vital as we in Goa still do not know which sub species we have and would require detailed field observations, images and inputs from various foresters, nature lovers and wildlifers in the field.

But sadly, today this urban as well as forest dweller is coming with conflicts with humans all across Goa and there have been several cases where Langurs are shot with Air Rifles, poisoned or maimed due to their foraging habits for fruit and leaves in orchards as well as urban settlements. That the reverence and tolerance for this species is fast disappearing amongst the urban as well as rural village folk is disappearing is a hard fact and is indicative that this trend would continue to harm other species like civets, mongooses, snakes and other urban wildlife that has been a part of the Goan village landscape for ages.

Today with the rapid so called development of our state, species like the Hanuman Langur are being forced to beat a hasty retreat until one day they will no longer be able to hold ground and face local extinction in all their habitats across the state.

Documenting endemics- snakes of the Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary.

It has been a busy monsoon. Yes, even though the rains have been less than satisfactory in the coastal areas of Goa, up here in the realms of the Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary, it has been a downpour of sorts. At 800 meters above sea level, under almost 70 percent tree canopy and a distinct smell of some ethereal floral fragrance that I fail to identify, a fresh deluge brings me and my small expedition to a standstill. It’s been like this for a fortnight now and the rains have laid a carpet of greens on the wet forest floor that I tread on. Life seems to burst from every nook and cranny and large mammals like the Indian Gaur and the Sambhar have taken to the plateaus, as the irritation caused by the larger droplets of water seem to bother them…I note this even as I see a herd of Gaur head to a small clearing in the woods across the other side of the mountain, and I move closer to a Umbar tree in an eternal bid to shield my camera equipment for a while.

The monsoons turn the Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary into a haven for herpetofauna, and being involved in an ambitious project to catalogue this diversity has led to many field trips to various parts of this important protected area of Goa. This monsoons me and pals in the field, that include volunteers, fellow researchers and local guides have set ourselves a target to identify and photo document the endemic species of Snake diversity of this sanctuary and well, it has truly been an uphill task. With just over a month of heavy rainfall and the ever swelling waters of the Surla, Nanoda and Mahdei rivers and their tributaries, the going has been tough in terms of accessibility to some remote forest areas. But yes, the results have been astonishing, and I must admit that every senior herpetologist whose feedback I have received has marveled at the diversity of endemic snake species that this region supports. Yes, endemic species are those species that are confined to a particular region or area and are found nowhere else in the world, and hence have great ecological value!

Amongst burrowing snakes, the Beaked Worm snake (Grypotyhlops acutus), an endemic species to India featured first on our must see and document list, and rightly so…we cataloged quite a few specimens of the same, apart from documenting the elusive Pied belly Shieldtail (Melanophidium punctatum), the Elliot’s Shieldtail (Uropeltis ellioti) and the Large Scaled Shieldtail (Uropeltis macrolepis sp.) all endemic species to the country, all amongst the rich humus of the forest floor which serve as foraging grounds for these burrowing species in the monsoons as they feed exclusively on earthworms.

As we intensified our searches from day treks to night trails and more, we documented the familiar Whitaker’s Boa (Eryx whitakeri) in the cashew plantations that lined the sanctuary and also came across the fabled Montane trinket snake (Coelognathus helena monticollaris), in a small natural cave and was seen eating a bat at that!!

Our night searches coupled with trails alongside existing roads yielded some exciting results, and the Travancore Wolf Snake (Lycodon travancoricus) and the Beddome’s keelback were our main finds, and although we explored and looked for the magical Hill keelback, the search yielded little results. But the find of the fortnight was the rare and endemic Olive forest snake (Rhabdops olivaceus), a semi aquatic snake that has been earlier known from only 4-5 locations in the entire Western Ghats of India.
With heightened spirits and a fabulous forest to explore, the team was able to document the trinity of venomous species of forest snakes- the Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus) and the Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus gramineus), apart from the rare Striped Coral Snake ( Calliophis nigrescens) whose find under a moss covered rock made our faces glow even in the pouring rain.

But apart from these species, our eyes saw the other side of these forests too; especially areas where tree cover had dwindled and monoculture plantations had taken over, roads that intersected the sanctuary lay littered with plastic and rivers clogged with silt and other unmentionables. The beginning of an end as someone put it…and well we vowed not to let it happen as these forests were truly home to some of the most magnificent of living forms and their existence and ours too depended on the South west monsoons and the capability of these forests to retain and release the waters of the same to our rivers…a long equation for those who do not understand nature’s web of life.

For us though, the documentation continues, and as I get ready with my equipment to freeze another frame, amidst adjusting my leech socks and pondering about the possible location of another species, another shower sets in….

The Vazra Sakla Falls

The Vazra Sakla falls of the Chorla Ghats lie on the fringes of the Goa-maharashtra-karnataka borders and are one of the most distinguishing landmarks of the region. Cascading from a height of 143 meters and fed by the Haltar nullah the wate rs of these twin falls join the Valvanti river in Virdi village of Maharashtra. The Valvanti river then joins the Sakhali river and later meets the Mandovi, our Mother river.

The rock faces and cliffs that envelop the Vazra falls are also home and nesting grounds of the Long Billed vultures, an endangered species of vulture in Asia.

The Banded Ground Gecko.

The Banded Ground Gecko (Geckoella albofasciata) is an endemic species of gecko which has been documented from certain areas in the Mahdei Wildlife Sanctuary in North Goa. Earlier records of this species exist from Bhagvan Mahaveer Wildlife sanctuary and Mollem national park in South Goa and Amboli in Maharashtra.

The Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary is known for its diversity of herpetofauna and the Mahdei Bachao Abhiyaan is attempting to prepare a checklist of the same with the help of its members and researchers. This species of the Banded Ground Gecko has been documented by Nirmal Kulkarni during his forays into the wilderness of this rich bio diverse region of the Goan Sahyadris.

The Banded Ground Gecko is ground dwelling terrestrial gecko and has been documented on the leaf litter of the forest floor. Nocturnal in nature, some specimens have been sighted at dusk on earth cuttings and mud crevices in these parts.

While the banded ground gecko is distinguished in the field by its conspicuous yellow broad bands on the back and the heterogeneous pattern of the scales on the body, taxonomic identification of this species is done with the help of scale counts of the body, head and feet.

This species has so far been documented in the Mahdei wildlife sanctuary at altitudes ranging from 550 meters above sea level to 800 meters above sea level in varied habitats including village settlements, cashew and acacia plantations and also dense mixed moist deciduous and semi evergreen forests, the last of which are its actual niche habitats.

Insectivorous in nature in its feeding habits, the Banded Ground Gecko has been observed feeding on nocturnal moths and ants on the forest floor at night and is agile when alerted or alarmed.

The current threats documented for this species include human induced forest fires and alteration of niche habitats in certain areas of its existence.

Belonging to the Genus Geckoella, the closest resembling species of the Banded ground gecko is the Deccan ground gecko which is found in the forests of Bhimashankar Wildlife sanctuary, Phansad Wildlife sanctuary and other forests of Maharashtra.

The documentation of this species in the Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary has once again proved the rich diversity of the region.

It is felt that that there is a lacuna of our knowledge of the lizards of Goa, especially of the forest species and the existing checklists are either incomplete or based on mere observations by laypersons and have not been cataloged in a scientific manner. There is thus a need for a serious attempt to collate data on the same and create awareness of these lesser known marvels of the Goan Sahyadris, many of which like the banded ground gecko go unnoticed as far as the lay persons are concerned.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Devastation in Mahdei Bio region.
The devastation caused due to the so called development projects in the Mahdei Bio region is irreversible and is pushing mega fauna like the tiger, leopard and Indian gaur that use the region as a corriodor to the brink of local extinction. And whilst large mammals sightings have reduced drastically, lesser known fauna have not even be catalouged or documented in a proper manner in the region. the devastation caused by the Charavne irrigation project on the fringes of the mahdei wildlife sanctuary of Goa and that by the Virdi irrigation project of Maharashtra is massive in scale and by way of impacts too. Besides which the Mahdei Diversion and Damming project of the Karnataka state has already had its impacts felt in the forests of Kankumbi and beyond. there is an urgent need to voice opinions and conserve what remains of these forests of the Mahdei bio region that span the states of Goa-Karnataka-Maharashtra.

Rare Species of Snake documented in Mahdei Region

A rare species of snake – the ‘Olive Forest Snake’ (Rhabdops olivaceus) has been documented in the Chorla Ghats area of the Mahdei region of North Goa.

The Olive Forest Snake is a non-venomous semi-aquatic snake that is found in hill forests of the Western Ghats and is Endemic to India. Nocturnal in nature, the feeding habits and behavior of this species are poorly known and the range extension is also very sketchy.

An Olive brown colored snake with black spots along the body length, the Olive Forest Snake is a slender bodied snake with smooth scales and a thin tail. The specimen measured 11 inches in length and was found in leaf litter in broad daylight, in a mixed moist deciduous forest patch at 750 meters above sea level. The specimen was in good health condition and was observed to have recently shed its skin too.

Earlier records of this snake include only from very few localities in the Western Ghats- Wynad in Kerala, Kadur and Castle Rock in Karnataka and Koyna in Maharashtra. The find has been reported to the Indian Herpetological Society for information.

The find has added yet another species to the diversity list of Snake species in the Mahdei region. The snake was documented by a team of wildlife volunteers that included Rupesh Gaonkar , Sushma Gaonkar and others working under the guidance of Nirmal Kulkarni, herpetologist and researcher of the Mahdei region. The specimen was released into the wilds after scale count data, measurements and photo documentation was completed.

Malabar Gliding Frog
The Malabar Gliding frog is found in the entire peninsular India, in the Western Ghats and is endemic to this region. Records indicate its presence in south west Maharashtra, Goa Karnataka till southern Kerala and Tamil Nadu . Good sightings occur in forests of Amboli, Mollem and Mahdei regions.
The call of this species is very distinct and may be described as a loud series of tak-tak-tak and is amongst the first calls heard in the forests during the first onset of the monsoons.
Adult Malabar gliding frogs rest on leaves and under them in the day and are active at night.
There are reports that this species hibernates in the high tree canopy after the monsoons end as they are seen at eye level only during the monsoons when they are induced to mate in the tree canopy. The males create foam nests with the help of females who spawn in the nest and build the foam nest by holding leaves together on the tree. The leaves stay glued together due to the foam nest and are built over temporary or permanent water bodies in which the tadpoles later fall after 4-5 days and emerging tadpoles are bottom feeders for sometime. The foam nest contains approx 160-200 eggs.
The mating takes place for a period of approx 15 to 20 minutes and many males mount on a single female in a position called multiple amplexus. These frogs inhabit evergreen and semi evergreen forests that are now been destroyed in the name of development. This species is known as the flagship species amongst amphibian species of the Western Ghats by conservationists and amphibian specialists.
I have been observing Malabar gliding frogs for the last 5 years in the Mahdei region, documenting their habitats and mapping the same. Indications show that these species are losing their local habitats due to monoculture plantations and mass alterations in habitats due to burning and shifting cultivation, large scale forest clearing and development projects.

Chorla Ghats in imminent danger.
The Chorla Ghats forests which are part of the Mahdei Bio Region are in imminent danger from new threats and its habitats are being irreversibly damaged due to various reasons.
The main reason is the rapid increase in illegal heavy vehicular traffic that is using the newly constructed and repaired road that intersects the Ghats and connects Belgaum to Goa after crossing inter state borders of Goa-Maharashtra and Karnataka. The road, designed for small vehicles and passenger vehicles is being used by overloaded trucks and lorries carrying metal scrap, mining ore and steel due to which the road itself and the surrounding natural vegetation is under severe disturbance.
This is being done due to the gradual slope of the Ghats section which allows extra loading of trucks that get away due to non enforcement of law and excise restrictions in the region and hence prefer to use this road rather than the identified NH4A which has been designated for this type of traffic.
The illegal heavy traffic has also resulted in peoples inconvenience and safety and there is a growing demand from the villages of Chorla, Surla, Keri, Parye, etc and surrounding areas to curb this traffic which uses the road at night and disturb the tranquility as well as the health of people in the region. The rise in accidents and the risks for village settlements that are on the fringes of the constructed road are also high and are a cause of concern.
Besides which the movement of such traffic is resulting in spillage of ore and scrap metal in the forests on various occasions and is affecting the natural habitats and is consequential to damage of small vehicles and two wheelers, a fact that is being constantly highlighted by locals in the region. The non existence of helpline services, police patrols and non enforcement of excise rules in the Ghats section is being looked upon as a boon by transporters who are making the maximum advantage of this road whilst the local commuters are suffering from the same.
Besides which the Chorla Ghats, part of the Mahdei Wildlife sanctuary and important catchment area of the Anjunem reservoir is also being used as a dumping ground for illegal animal and chemical waste near the borders and in the Ghats section and needs serious attention from concerned authorities of the Government.
While the region has been acknowledged as a biodiversity hotspot by conservationists and an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International and Bombay Natural History Society in the past and also seen as a potential eco tourism hub, the need for protection and awareness amongst the masses is a necessity of the hour. That the forests that surround the Chorla Ghats are a wildlife corridor for mammals like the tiger, leopard, wild dog, sloth bear and Indian Gaur is proved and acknowledged by wildlife researchers in the past.
The repeated littering of plastic and non biodegradable waste by picnickers and tourists near the various monsoonal waterfalls and view spots has resulted in the place being plagued with rotting matter and plastic waste and wildlife ecologists are concerned about the fate of these forests due to the same.
The need to curb the heavy traffic and maintain this road for an easy access for small car owners and visitors through this picturesque spot is the need of the hour and urgent steps in this matter will help conserve this region from imminent danger.
Also the need to educate the locals as well as visitors about the natural heritage of Chorla Ghats and its biodiversity and culture is of utmost importance and needs to be addressed at all levels by Government agencies as well as by NGO’s working in the field of wildlife conservation.

Chorla Ghats- my home in the forests

this is my first entry, and well it's dedicated to my home in the forests of the Chorla Ghats, a part of the Mahdei Bio region and a recognized habitat for large mammals as well as lesser known species.
It is here that i grew up from an activist to a wildlife researcher and later as an ecologist...and continue to work in these forests for the conservation of habitats and their wild denizens.