Not-an-ape, and other notes from a biodiversity noob

I was about to be taught a lesson or seven. And how.

Words by Karthik Natarajan

What’s that? Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam.

Arshiya is pointing at a macaque. “What is that?” She asks. “Not an ape,” I say. Outwardly shameless, inwardly appalled by my lack of knowledge.

I was about to be taught a lesson or seven. And how.

In my cab on the way to the bus station, I am excited. I haven’t taken a bus in years. At the bus station, there is over-sweetened tea and biscuits. I have, clearly, over-packed. Arshiya and Vivek have, obviously, done this before.

We finally make it to the forests. I wonder about the logistics of being stuck past 6PM in the protected area; those thoughts are rubbished by the barking deer we spot. Peeyush spots a whole bunch of birds: to me, all of them belong to the Not-A-Crow species. Clearly, I need to learn more.

We get to the field station and walk to the nearest village. We meet Sannarangegowda, our man in and from the region. He and Arshiya discuss our plans for the next few days and the work that needs doing. I am just glad we aren’t moving and that there is the field Aeropress coffee. The Parle-G is something of an on-road tradition.

We are introduced to the process of coffee procurement. Arshiya and Sannarangegowda talk about their experiences and how others controlled prices through informal loans and the impact Black Baza is making with simple guidelines and training.

On our first day, we meet Achukkegowda. He tells us about his son, his early days of his life in the forest and how they were settled here. He was proud that he was one of the first to grow coffee in BR Hills.

He had stories of life was before they were settled and when they were a nomadic group living off the forests. He mentions the Soliga way of controlled forest fires. “But now, since the department has stopped us for doing so, we find the fires more random and damaging.” The ‘benki,’ as he calls it, is the Soliga way of keeping the Lantana in check and the insects out.

At Achukkegowda’s abode. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam.

Then there’s the way they speak about the forests. For Sannarangegowda, “half our crops were taken by the animals.” For Konuregowda: “we took half of what we grew, and the other half went to the forest.” I marvel at their understanding of the forest ecosystem. They don’t look at it as impersonal lands from which to profit. They treat it as a complex ecosystem that they have to thrive within.

We drive to a clearing with houses. Behind that is Ramesha’s coffee farm. His lands have the nicest forest cover we have seen on this trip. Arshiya cringes each time she sees a silver oak tree. Sannarangegowda has an exhaustive list of how many silver oaks are on each of the farms we work with, and the number of trees of the native species. He refers to the notes he has on each of the farms we pass by.

In the early days of coffee growing, because they had seen silver oaks on the larger plantations, they started felling the older trees to replace them with the silver oaks, Konuregowda said. Only much later were they told of the damage this had done to the delicate balance that is the forest. Silver oaks are not all bad; they are favoured by a certain insect species that is good for the forests, they also help with the growth of pepper on their trunks. Since they grow really fast, and are non-native, their wood supplements the farmers income. I desperately need something to ‘fix’ here. I wasn’t ready for my perspective to be it.

I desperately need something to ‘fix’ here. I’m not ready for my perspective to be it.

We pass by Nanjegowda’s farm. He has just gotten a piece of land where he has planted saplings only last year. He collected coffee seeds from animal droppings over months to build his nursery. He says most villages have done that as an economical way of getting into coffee. Peeyush spots a ‘not-a-crow’, hiding adeptly in the greenery. We try to look for it. The village kids are amused by the three adults trying to spot things in the trees.

Peeyush’s list of birds/squirrels and other not-humans spotted. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria.
Peeyush, Vivek, and Arshiya continue to spot birds and squirrels. I stick to my not-human species classification.

Arshiya brings up elephant attacks. To the city-dweller in me, my tryst with the elephants has been limited to temples and stories. I had always assumed these majestic creatures to be docile. That night, we hear that a baby elephant has broken the compound wall of our field station. Apparently, an older and younger elephant had wandered into the neighbours’ field.

I try to process the fact that these intelligent, docile creatures of lore are a regular threat to those living in the forests. “A lot of work is being done to reduce these incidents but she says it is frustrating on how little it takes to undo all this work. The minute an official, or an important visitor is inconvenienced, we regress back to our old attack-everything ways,” Arshiya says. I question everything. At what point would I have given up, moved back to my familiar comforts? I have more respect for those who persist.

As we walk up the BRT temple hill before our last night here, we are passed by visitors from villages around who come there to the temple but really are just there for the photo with the hills and the clouds. My people.

I question everything.

Lantana has crept into every discussion we had had in the past 2 days. It is a fence and ornamental species that spread through the hills. We have walked past thickets where tigers have said to have been stuck for days because they couldn’t free themselves of these bushes. Forest grounds that grow nothing but lantana, a species poisonous to the local insects and animals, rendering the land useless of the forest ecosystem. The British introduced it as a way of keeping animals outside of their fields. We have since been trying to get the species out of the forests since.

Arshiya and Peeyush discuss the grassland peaks that were once bright green but now have the lantana encroaching them. Vivek is busy trying to put together the whole story in photographs.

We walk up to the temple amidst a crowd of temple visitors. The others disappointed that the temples were being renovated. I see the ever familiar, but completely out of place earth moving equipment laying on the temple land. We walk past it into the park with the most spectacular view of the region.

Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam.

The elephants hit closer to the village at night, and you can see the villagers bursting fireworks, drumming to the best of their skills, trying to scare them away from the fields. Half of me wants to witness the spectacle, but saner heads prevail.

As we sit with the fireworks and commotion in the back, we talk about the relationship the settlements have with the forest. The nuance of being biodiversity-friendly and yet being profitable enough for the farmers to feel strong enough about converting to less harmful practices. There is a lot of work being done by the LAMPS society with honey and other forest produce procurement. Coffee hasn’t found too many such sources of organized help, we are told.

The discussion quickly moves on to spotting otters in the wild. All of them have stories. The spotting is almost as a badge of honour amongst wildlife enthusiasts. There are no equivalents for the joy their faces show recalling their spotting.

On our way back, we spot an otter swimming in the river. We stop the car for about an hour to observe it with awe and pride. The driver is amazed at four adults running up and down a bridge trying to find something in the water.

Not-a-fish. Definitely not a fish.

Otter-spotting on the Kaveri. Photo: Vivek Muthuramalingam.
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