Field Girl: Gap Year Week 45

In the days leading up to the Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) annual meet I read, after long delay, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. Continue reading “Field Girl: Gap Year Week 45”

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On Top of the World: Gap Year Week 40

Most things in Spiti have reached their peak. They have a sign to prove it. Continue reading “On Top of the World: Gap Year Week 40”

Diving Deep: Gap Year Week 19

I’m not in Singapore anymore. Two weeks ago, I said good-bye to my parents at the airportand left for Sri Lanka. I will admit a certain lack of novelty in the destination: this is my second time in the country this gap year, after a weeklong family holiday back in June. Continue reading “Diving Deep: Gap Year Week 19”

Tales of Shieldtails

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Shieldtails are primitive burrowing snakes found mostly in southern India and Sri Lanka, with only one species ever reported elsewhere – from the Eastern Ghats, on the other side of India. So named because of their flattened tail – resembling, you guessed it, a shield – we spotted this still-unidentified individual on a cool, leech-infested morning in the Western Ghats.

Continue reading “Tales of Shieldtails”

Portrait of a Gaur

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Indian gaurs are the largest bovine in the world. Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, they are only surpassed in weight by rhinoceroses, hippopotami, elephants, and giraffes. Overhunting has threatened them through much of their south-east Asian range, however, notably in Vietnam and Cambodia.

In protected areas, they flourish – and can indeed coexist with humans, if not disturbed; this individual regularly fed some fifty meters from tea workers in the Western Ghats. It’s not a consistent trend, however – that same area records a death per year from gaurs not noticed in the dark by people wandering off the roadside.

Being able to observe them in their natural habitat is nevertheless a privilege – they hold a dignified air about them, a firmness in intent, and sometimes an almost-human confidence in their glinting eyes.

Of Seeds

So this summer I had the good fortune of spending ten days in the Western Ghats, as my absence from this blog might have indicated. Specifically, I was in a town called Valparai – famous for its lion-tailed macaques, elephants, and hornbills. But what I was doing there actually had nothing to do with any of those things.

What I was doing was seeds.

Valparai is a hotchpotch of coffee plantations, tea estates, eucalyptus – and immensely valuable primary and secondary rainforest, though as is the pattern worldwide, the latter two are growing more and more steadily into a fragmented minority. And therein lies the key: fragments. As in patches, unconnected stands of trees, broken up even further with roads that are in themselves an even greater danger for inhabiting wildlife.

Fragments have a tendency to degrade even faster due to a phenomenon known as the edge effect. It’s simple math: large areas of forest have a smaller perimeter than the same am area broken up by roads and plantations and the like. So therefore, those broken up areas have even more of their edges exposed to the sun and the wind and the rain. In most rain forests, the edges are composed of hardy buffer trees that thrive on such conditions. But when a road exposes an edge in the interior of the forest, the buffer trees are no longer present. At best, a host of hardy invasives spring up in the newly formed clearing. At worst, or perhaps anyways, trees used to the dark, cool forest interior are exposed to the outside for the first time.

And that’s far from the only resulting complication. Animals residing in separate areas of forest can no longer breed, due to the slight issue of a giant highway separating them. Precious genetic diversity is lost in the process, and interbreeding amongst the small, isolated populations remaining reduces it further. Extinction can often result from simply that alone.

So all very happy stuff for the future of our planet. But sarcasm aside, there is actually good news, at least as far as Valparai is concerned. There, an organization known as the Nature Conservation Foundation is working to restore these fragments.

That’s where I came in. For ten days, I helped out with this project in what ways I could – and while my accomplishments were minimal, I nevertheless got the chance to see the bare bones of one of the most (over)used words in wildlife: conservation.

Here, it came down to seeds.

The first part of the process is collection. Year round, they go to various places – coffee plantation trails, the roads lining the edges of fragments, and the like – and look for seeds. What they want is native trees. And by collecting a variety of seeds in different seasons, they ensure they get future plants capable of withstanding an array of conditions.

I assisted with collecting, grossly misidentifying most trees and avoiding leeches (which I have to say I really don’t miss in mammal-poor Singapore). Our yields varied – from jackfruit to figs – and once we had returned, then came the next part: planting.

This is a seed of Heritera, with wings that have since decayed into a skeleton, creatingly a beautifully fragile piece of artwork.
This is a seed of Heritera, with wings that have since decayed into a skeleton, creatingly a beautifully fragile piece of artwork.

Which is exactly how it sounds. The seeds, once obtained, have to be grown into viable saplings at least a meter high; they have to be protected from squirrels and the raiding monkeys; weeding has to occur frequently to ensure they aren’t out-competed by any others – it’s a lot of work. All this occurs in the Nursery (capital letter courtesy of moi), which is the hub for restoration activities.

Once the saplings are appropriately large, they’re moved out of the Nursery to a nearby plot to harden – to get used to the outside environment, to survive without care like in a real forest. And after that – well, after that comes what makes it worth it.

Once a year, come June and July, the work really begins. Obtaining land from one of the surrounding coffee or tea estates, they take hardened saplings (which are usually one or two years old by now) in their thousands aaaand plant them. They select them based on what they can withstand – water-loving trees for swampy conditions, high-altitude trees for hilltop locations, and so on – thus maximizing their chances of survival. With enough luck and a little weeding, a few years later they have a thriving secondary rainforest where previously was sometimes nothing, or perhaps just Eucalyptus. These ‘new forests’ provide corridors between fragments, restore the health of old fragments, and generally take a step closer to making the place something what it was like a few hundred years ago – healthy, thriving rainforest, largely devoid of humans.

And it all starts with this.

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Jackfruit, fig, Palaqium – botany experts, any other familiar cotyledons?

 All photographs were taken and edited on a smartphone.

The World’s Saddest Dolphins

Me: Are whales endangered?
Mother: Yes.
Me: They’re my favorite animal!
Literally, that’s how I fell in love with whales. Driving in the car, a passing conversation– bam.
(In my defense, I was probably five then. The prosecution, however, will likely add that I am still in love with them eight years later so that’s not really an absolving fact.)
I saw my first cetaceans in New Zealand as spurts of water from a helicopter. Then, up close, I saw sperm whales diving deep into the ocean. They splashed everyone gathered at the railing as their tails flicked down, and I promptly hurried inside.
I saw blue whales in Sri Lanka. They were–
Ok, fine. I lied to you. I saw my first cetaceans in Ocean Park, Hong Kong, in the form of captive bottlenose dolphins. I loved them. I loved watching them. They were just, frankly, very, very cool. But I never really counted them, though, when I listed all the whales I’d seen. They were more of an addendum– yeah, I saw dolphins in captivity, but that doesn’t count. Because that’s not their natural habitat. Those dolphins were wrenched from the sea. They live in chlorinated pools. They are played with by tourists. Those are not “real” dolphins. They live, breathe, chatter, but they are not “real”.
A few years ago, I went back to see the show. It had changed significantly. The seals were given protracted appearances and the voiceovers were done in Cantonese. The dolphins jumped high and dove low and pleased the audience but not me. There was a distinct sense of artificiality about the whole thing. Around a year later, ACRES’s (Animal Concerns Research and Education Society) World’s Saddest Dolphins campaign was launched. By then, I had already vowed never to see cetaceans in captivity again but that sealed it. In seventh grade, I wrote a persuasive essay about whales, and made a video in accompaniment, but I was still shocked by the number of people who went to see the dolphins, and regarded it as something fun, something cool.
For my eleventh birthday, my mother asked me whether I wanted to ‘play’ with the dolphins for my party. My answer was an empathetic no, further solidified by having recently watched The Cove. We went to a theme park instead.
What’s your answer?