Wildlife

Thara Ticket at the (Probably) Thakara Theatre

There is a little shed on a tiny sliver of land jutting into the lake. I am no metallurgist, so excuse me if I take it to be made of tin, or thakaram as it is called in Tamil. That paints a nicer picture for the romantic in me, you see. This shed is unlike any other, or so I tell myself. It is an amphitheatre where such drama unfolds, the likes of which even Bollywood could not have seen. So pardon me for calling dibs on a permanent seat on the floor. The tharai ticket, as we Tamilians like to call it, used to be the cheapest ticket at the local cinema, typically on the floor, right in front of the screen, and affording the spectators (usually children) the simple pleasure of squatting, and the supreme luxury of erupting in a raucous jig at the slightest excuse. Sadly, this disappeared with the advent of multiplexes, aerated drinks, and airconditioning, not necessarily in that order.

Anyway, this little tin shed on the Powai Lake has played host to romances, tragedies, thrillers, mysteries, and everything in between, but with some serious twists. Firstly, the actors are not always human. And secondly, it is all spontaneous and impromptu, kind of like improvisational stand-up comedy – the blink-and-you-shall-miss kind of action that goes against the theatre norms of scripted films, re-runs, show-timings, and advertisements. The kind that one is unlikely to ever find on torrent sites and DC++. Lastly, it is always, always free (as in “free beer”).

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An osprey with its catch

As you may have surmised by now, I am a happy resident of a campus by the lake. And it is not just any old campus, mind you. I live inside the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay campus. And, consider myself privileged to stay here - a little haven within the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, a tiny island (metaphorically speaking) that is cut off from the city's concrete jungle, fumes, pollution, famed commutes, and crowds. It is nicely ensconced between the breathtaking (and crocodile infested) Powai lake on one side and a hillock worthy of picnics on the other. What is more, it shares borders with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) – borders and fences that the numerous wonderful residents of the park frequently disregard! There are even notices warning folks to not venture into certain areas that are prone to, say, a stray leopard that wandered in from its home adjoining the campus. During the rains, tracts transform into miniature rainforests, replete with leopards and langurs, pittas and pangolins, macaques and magpie robins. So in this case, the adage 'good fences make good neighbours' can be left to rust unburnished. For here, there is scope for osmosis, for the city's green lungs to breathe, for good neighbours to evolve and learn to co-exist. How much fun is a neighbour who does not visit, share, interact or borrow? How can a neighbour be good if there is no interaction? For good neighbours come into existence not when fences go up, but when walls crack, crumble and fall.

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India's Wild West

Legend has it that much impressed by the prayers of a pious monk, a Jain teacher granted him the wish that when the monk opened his eyes, whatever he looked at would be consumed by flames. When the monk opened his eyes, the land in front of him became desiccated. He happened to be somewhere in Kutch. The local lore and belief is that this is what happened - the land continues to burn once a year as a consequence of the wish granted to this monk, only to resurrect and become a grassland after the rains, year after year. There are many variants to this tale and nothing really adds up, but a place with folktales has much to offer.

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A herd of camels at Chari Dandh Wetland Reserve

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The Trials of Trail Life

"Ecology isn't rocket science. It's much more difficult!" - Steve Carpenter

I've been told many times over that I have a "bad-ass job". Isn't field research all about traveling to exotic parts of the planet, exploring spectacular wilderness areas, encountering the coolest organisms, and just basking in the glory of the natural world? It is, and I love what I do! But like the Bob Dylan song goes, "most of the time", it isn't. One has to put up with not having creature comforts for extended periods of time, frequently making do without even (what most would consider) basic necessities or amenities (imagine no phone or internet connectivity for weeks together, and you can forget hot water!), being away from family and friends, and dealing with field situations ain't always smooth-sailing.

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The Restaurant at the Edge of the Reef

"Island biogeography, I'm happy to report, is full of cheap thrills. Many of the world's gaudiest life forms, both plant and animal, occur on islands. There are giants, dwarfs, crossover artists, nonconformists of every sort. These improbable creatures inhabit the outlands, the detached and remote zones of landscape and imaginability, in fact, they give vivid biological definition to the very word "outlandish."" - David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo

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Your average tropical island

Islands around the world are special places for many reasons. With their unique floral and faunal compositions, and a high degree of endemism in species, they are live laboratories to watch evolution in action. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are no exception. They have a wealth of wildlife that is largely unexplored, not unlike parts of the vast coastline of mainland India. The rocky and sandy inter-tidal coasts, mangroves, coral reefs, and deep sea harbour multiple habitats for unusual creatures, all fascinating and beautiful. These habitats interact intimately with their organisms and are intricately connected with each other, frequently with cascading effects and unforeseen consequences on associated life. A walk on the beach is a lesson on life and adaptation. The mangroves are amphitheatres for waders, juvenile fish, and marine invertebrates, alike. The coral reefs are odes to diversity and complexity, and lessons on the fragility and interactivity of systems. The deep sea holds secrets and mysteries unsolved, as one ventures farther from the seashore. "Cheap thrills", as Quammen puts it, include the dolphins and dugongs, sharks and rays, tropical fish and marine invertebrates. This is an attempt to recollect some experiences from the islands, and hopefully introduce the uninitiated to some of these habitats and their creatures great and small.

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Ecological History in Six Questions

1. Why should I, as a scientist, study ecological history?

George Orwell makes a powerful statement in his book (1984), "Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future". One cannot help ponder over this, and be moved once realization dawns. At some level, it feels like a fairly obvious, even innocuous statement, but the more one mulls over it, the more dimensions get added. A mental debate later one figures out that the first half of the sentence is straightforward - the latter half is the tricky portion. Can this be a syllogism - if A = B and B = C, then A=C? If those who control the present control the past, and if those who control the past control the future, can it be that those who control the present control the future? Thought games apart, one can at least establish that there seems to be a complex relationship between the past, present, and future. What if we substitute "control" with "understand"? How about, "Those who understand the present, understand the past, and those who understand the past, understand the future"? That somehow does not sound right. Should the argument be flipped? Don't we need to understand the past to understand the present?

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Bombil Fry

"We are famous for our live crab", the restaurant manager proclaimed with a smile. "We show the crab to the client, before cooking it to perfection, however they wish", he added. I was at an Oriental speciality restaurant in posh south Bombay, for a survey I was conducting as part of a class project. Each of my classmates went to different regions of coastal India in an attempt to understand the current trends in seafood consumption in south India. We were trying to answer questions like: which are the seafood hotspots in the country, where is the seafood coming from, is there a broad pattern of customer preference for each region, how much of a 'locavore' is the average (sea)foodie, and what is on a typical menu at a restaurant serving seafood. And this was the third time I was encountering "live crab" in two days, incidentally at a restaurant serving south Asian cuisine. Was this a coincidence?

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At a popular seafood restaurant in Mumbai

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Of Tomistoma and Taxonomy ...

There is something strange about the way some creatures seem to court controversy for no apparent rhyme or reason. And there are those for whom controversy is a birthright. I think that taxonomists ought to categorically be classified under the latter set. The irony of this classification should not be missed. Please do not take me wrong, I have immense admiration for Linnaeus and his Systema Naturae; his academic descendants, however, are a mixed lot and can on occasion give one the heebie-jeebies. Take the class Aves, for instance. Some warblers, pipits, and larks have me tearing my hair apart, only to be topped off with random changes in nomenclature ever so often based on some obscure physical characteristic. Unfortunately, the Tomistoma or False Gharial is hounded by both controversy and taxonomists, for no apparent fault of its own.

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Here Be Dragons

This is a collection of lateral, dorsal, and ventral profiles, and other scientifically relevant photographs of different crocodilians. Some of the photographs were taken at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Center for Herpetology with specimens in captivity. Photographs from the wild are provided with location wherever possible. Please note that the images are fairly low resolution since I had to scale them to roughly a fifth of their size, primarily because bulky images take inordinately long to load. If there is any image you would like to use, please email me for a high resolution photograph.

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The Wildlife of IIT Bombay

I live inside the IIT Bombay campus. And, consider myself privileged to stay there - a little haven within the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, a tiny island (metaphorically speaking) that is cut off from the city's concrete jungle, fumes, pollution, famed commutes, and crowds. It is nicely ensconced between the breathtaking (and crocodile infested) Powai lake on one side and a hillock worthy of picnics on the other. What's more, it shares borders with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park - one that the numerous residents of the park frequently disregard! There are even notices warning folks to not venture into certain areas that are prone to, say, a stray leopard that wandered in from its home adjoining the campus :) During the rains, tracts transform into mini rainforests - replete with Rhesus Macaques and Grey Hornbills.

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An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with fish in its talons, breakfast at the Powai Lake ...

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