Saturday, 26 November 2011

Nature Orientation camp at Mydanahalli

Most schools arrange annual excursion for children in the name of Educational Tour. A series of temples, gardens and picnic spots are visited in the trip dominated by bus journey.  Precious wilderness areas en-route are vaguely ignored and never considered for a stop. But few schools plan exposure visits to wilderness areas- far and near.  TVS Academy runs one such school in Tumkur which categorically conducts exposure visits to their students. Starting from the tender fifth graders to tenth graders they have a fixed destination. The lower classes begin with a day’s visit and as the kids grow they are taken out for greater distance and duration. As the plan intends, the sixth graders are taken out within the district.  Every year the sixth grade comes here to study Grassland ecosystem. There couldn’t be a destination better than Mydanahalli for that purpose. 
Mydanahalli is close to Madhugiri and accessible by road. Mydanahalli grassland that was just a community grazing land was declared Community wildlife reserve once healthy populations of black bucks were reported from here.  A watch tower constructed by the forest Department in the late nineties was the only shelter for the visitors who stayed over night. The circular room which served as a rest place for the forest staff shoulders the watch tower. It has roof made of tiles and stands about twelve feet above the ground.
Now there is a suitable place to accommodate thirty students and few teachers. A hall measuring 15X25 has two rooms with attached bath rooms. The rooms have two cots each. There is a tiny kitchen that seems to have been built for the two watchers who stay to look after the site.
The team of thirty seven students and three teachers arrived on the noon of Dec  2010.  Manu accompanied the team to conduct the camp.  After a brief introduction the class was taken out for a Nature walk. The students were shown how to identify grass species and were asked to collect grass specimens

Children collecting grass specimen.
. Teams were assigned different directions to collection Grass and carry them back in the long envelope made out of drawing sheets specially made to collect plant specimen. Later they were made to lay out their collection upon a chart and enumerate the diversity in them.
The activity promoted observation and a healthy competition among the students. They not only learnt to identify grass but realized the diversity in them and the way they were distributed. After tea there were some games to encourage socializing among the students.  And in the night there were audio visual presentations on Grassland ecosystem and its importance.
The following day there was an early morning nature walk and after a solid breakfast the teams were taken out for an observation of Blackbucks. The students learnt to sit quietly at a place and observe black bucks. In the far distance there were several dozens of them and some even were mixed up with the cattle. The bucks were in fact very close to the herdsman, prompting the kids to stalk for a black buck.  However they were to be held back and encouraged to make observations through binoculars and take count of them.

Observing Black bucks

That evening Mr. Prasanna and Mr. Gundappa arrived to share new games with the kids. In the Audio Visual session they presented the story of the conservation of Black bucks at Mydanahalli. It was followed by a film show on Savannas and its animal life.
The third day was packed with more of  hands-on activities such as tracking animals, counting the cattle and assessing their pressure on the black buck population. Prasanna demonstrated the age old process of taking plaster cast of foot prints.

Children making notes of their observation.

There was a group discussion and role play regarding the issues related to Black buck conservation. Children content with high spirits to push through their view points until the camp culminated. It was a fruitful and memorable three days with a lot of learning experience for everybody in the camp.

Where Black bucks share home with Flamingoes

Any one interest in birds and has watched Shekar Dattatri’s documentary Point calimere-Little Kingdom by the Coast would definitely plan a trip to that place. I had Flamingoes on my wish-list of ‘birds to be seen’ since long. This place was one of the largest wintering grounds of the Greater Flamingoes and chances of spotting them were quite high. I planned a trip to experience the little heaven first-hand. After some hit and miss it got materialised last January.
Point Calimere Wildlife sanctuary lies on the Coromandel coast in Tamil Nadu and is virtually a miniature peninsula, protruding into the sea from the mainland. On one side you find the swamps because of its low altitude and on the other two sides you have the sea. It is one of the largest wintering grounds of Greater Flamingoes and plays host to thousands of migratory water birds. The dry scrub forests and the swampy grasslands by the sea are also home for the endangered Blackbuck, chital, Indian Wild pig, Jackal and blacknaped Hare.  It was notified as a sanctuary for the conservation of the Blackbuck as early as 1969. 
It lies in Nagapattinam district and is close to Rameshwaram, the town where Hindus believe that Lord Rama built a bridge to SriLanka. In fact Srilanka is just about 16 kms from here as a crow flies. The nearest small town is Vedaranyam which is poorly connected to the other major towns in Tamilnadu.  From Chennai, one must change buses at Thanjavur, Thiruturaipundi and Vedaranyam. The last leg of 10 kms to Kodikarai could be done in local transport.

Salt being loaded to be dispatched of to far off places.

Disturbed shoreline.

 Salt making is a prime occupation of many people and large swathes of coastal plains are converted into salt pans. These pans are flooded with sea water during the high tides and are allowed to evaporate in the hot sun. Salt pans are rich in crustaceans like shrimp sand crabs and attract a lot of birds. We took the suggestion of staff in the rest house and choose to go some bird watching near these salt pans early morning.  We saw large number of little stints, plovers, in their feeding frenzy and taking to air without any hint and performing acrobatics. 

A pair of Little ringed plovers.

There were many terns and gulls of different kinds but we were desperate to see the flamingo. As it got hotter we were about to give up our search for flamingoes while a man supposedly a guard with the Forest Department appeared. He enquired where we were from and what were we looking for. “Flamingoes”? He enthusiastically pointed towards the island in front of us where he had seen them some time ago. He borrowed our binoculars and gazed towards the sea and spotted a flamingo far, far away from us. All we could see was a spot of pink in the blue waters. We had to strain our eyes to perceive the shape of the flamingo.
The man suggested that we walk on the bund and if luck prevailed we could find more of them.  We walked briskly in that direction for more than a km. Suddenly a group of tall birds appeared to me in the distance. Our excitement went up by folds as we walked towards them. There were about 30 flamingoes, adults and juveniles feeding-we watched them for more than an hour. We also spotted a flock of bar tailed godwits and other birds like marsh sandpiper, red shanks, and green shanks.

A flock of Flamingoes.

After lunch we visited a place called Muniyappan Lake, the area around is supposedly a bird sanctuary. We were busy identifying some waders while a few blackbucks dashed from the background as though to draw our attention. This is one of the very few places where black bucks are so close to the sea. The Tamilnadu Forest department estimates their numbers to be around 150. 

An adult male buck in it's prime.

We trotted among the puddles and saw more groups of Black bucks. These seem to be adept at drinking saline water. In fact they are not very shy and seem quite tolerant to humans. One male casually stood unperturbed at less than 20 feet from us.
 In the far distance were a couple of dark brown horses racing across the mudflats with their tails streaming out behind them. The sanctuary has about 26 of these feral horses.
A walk towards the watch tower on the undisturbed beach becomes even worthier if you have the mind to appreciate some marine life. Snails and crabs and hermit crabs are in vast profusion. From the top of the tower it is an amazing view. The confluence of sea and the land is a breath taking sight. The bird’s eye view clearly shows the coastline changing its course by 90 degrees out right. 

Mudskipper seen during a low tide.

A lobster stranded on the shore.

The beautiful swampy grasslands transform into a different world in the evening light. A whole lot of wild flowers add color to the beauty of the grassland. We enjoyed spotting few more birds, Pacific Golden plovers, more Terns and Gulls, Little Ringed Plovers; whole lot of Larks and Doves, Blue tailed bee eaters and rosy starlings. 

A patch full of invasive species.

This tiny sanctuary in whatever way one looks at it is an area worthy of protection not just for its blackbucks or flamingoes but the sheer diversity it shelters. We went back to the rest house, pledged to come back to this beautiful place again. It was bye-bye Point Calimere early next morning.

Article by Deepika Prasad.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A day out in the adjoining village of a Black buck Sanctuary - 18th Sep. 2011

In the dry plains around Mydanahalli are small villages like Talekere, Id halli, Puruvara  and Hosalli which have communities that have really faced the brunt of the Black buck population.  With an inquisitive mind we went to meet the people and know the nitty-gritty of conservation of blackbucks.
We drove into a small village called Uttarahalli with some 160 house holds.  The adult population of about 565 was secular enough by all Indian standards to have more than a dozen castes among them-the Bovi, Vokkaliga, Kuruba, Bhajantri, Kumbara, Kuruba, Sunnadakallara Banajiga, Madivala, Golla and Lambanis- who traditionally had a nomadic existence. Uttarahalli was under the jurisdiction of Kudlapura Panchyath along with twelve such villages.

 Though Uttaralli was basically agrarian, there were potters, Sheep herders, Black smiths, lime stone burners and folk singers; a variety of occupations thrived here half a century ago. Today all occupations and traditional skills have become redundant.
Muthappa, a potter is the last in their generation to practice pottery. The pots he used to make have become non functional and is used only during rituals. As a result his son Ramesha has not taken the pains to learn the trait. He could not even manage to place the wheel in balance on its base as much like any stranger to the profession. 
Byra only has faint memory of his father’s looms outside the village that wove woolen blankets. No one in the village waits for sunnadakallamma anymore to burn rocks in a kiln to get lime stone for white wash. They simply go in for a factory-made distemper.
The holiday had kept most men relaxed in the village. Women were busy with their daily chores.  Most  activity seemed to be around the village tap.  Some of them were engaged in preparing the harvested pulses to be put on the road for drying.  A woman sat mixing red clayey soil into a fine paste right on the road. She had some alasandhe(Cow peas ) and was coating them with fine soil. The coated seeds are sun dried for a day or two and ground under a stone to get rid of the seed coat. With the seed coat goes the soil leaving behind finely polished cotyledons.
Some young men sat under the peepal tree cutting thupra leaves to a particular size to be rolled into beedies. The leaves collected in the forests of Bastar (Maharashtra and Madhyapradesh) region, the heartland of India are dried and transported this far. Here they are soaked in water and softened to enable rolling them into beedies. Leaves were being piled up together and cut into to small rectangles. Great care was taken not to waste a single millimeter of the leaf. An old metal plate, about the size of a visiting card and an equally old scissors were the only piece of machinery that the process involved.

A local rolling thupra leaves.

There were goats, cattle and a large number of very colorful cockerels strutting in pride all over the village. There were only four small shops that sold the essentials of the community. Two of them were also tea shops during the morning but sold alcohol by sun set. There were three auto rickshaws that shuttle between Pururava and Madugiri all day and serve as the last mode of transport into the village in every night.
There was an anganavadi, the govt. run child care centre and a Govt. Lower Primary School to which the teachers come regularly. There were couple of well to do farming families who owned multiple pump irrigation  and every thing seemed perfect with the community.  But as time passed one would come across more and more people   involved in the Beedi industry - no bar for age or sex.

 A vast majority in the village were seen squatting in the front porch with a small tray on their lap. Their fingers worked non stop until their self designated targets were reached. Often the targets were in thousands and were decided by the family requirements.  For some it is only a supplementary income and they rolled out a thousand beedies by the day. But families that were full time into this profession may roll up to two thousand every day. The entire family is involved in the long chain of process ranging from soaking the leaves in water to packing finished beedies in bundles of ten. The process involves a sequence of nine handlings- each that demands the skills of highly experienced and nimble fingers. The local beedi company owners come to the village twice a week to exchange raw material for finished goods leaving behind a paltry sum as the labor costs.

Young Sushma filling tobacco into the beedies.

The community which had a glorious life just a generation ago is now completely out of business. With their skills inherited for centuries become redundant the community struggles to eek out an existence. In fact almost all the families have some decent piece of land upon which they cultivated crops during every rainy season. 
While Murthy was filming village life, Manu listened to the personal experiences of the villagers with black bucks.

Murthy with the local kids.

Except for those who had the luxury of pump irrigation or barbed wire fencing the rest of the farmers had given up cultivation. They had repeatedly lost every single grain to the invading blackbucks year after year.

An adult male buck seen in the outskirts.

The cost of night watchman ship did not match the returns from the single ‘dry-land crop’ in a year. Very few people persisted with sowing ragi (figure millet) or groundnut. They showed us how the blackbucks had made their fields their home. Dozens of them were squatting in peace chewing cud in the heat of the noon. It wasn’t difficult to believe the sorrowful words of a lanky 50 plus Meenamma “it must have been at least ten years sir, since we sowed a seed.” She burst out in grief recollecting her past “we would sow 300 kilos of groundnuts every season; today we don’t even have a few seeds at home for the kids to eat.”
By the look of things it was clear that the situation of the conflict was grimmer than we believed. Was this conflict there all through history? What did the farmers do or how did they tolerate the onslaught on their crops? Why are the blackbucks doing this now?

Biodiversity survey at Jayamangali Blackbuck reserve: 6th and 7th August 2011

It was a long standing  job of updating the biodiversity assessment of Jayamangali Black buck reserve. Prasanna Kumar of WANC (Wildlife Aware Nature club) and his team from Tumkur had taken up the initiative of arranging the event. The first week-end of August was decided to be convenient for many volunteers.  

Participants arrived at Jayamangali Forest Guest house in two batches on the 6th Aug.
 By noon they were all in the field in small teams. Gundappa, Prasanna and Murthy lead the teams in different directions collecting plant specimen. Thejasvi, Guruprasad and Prithvi were photographing plants and the black buck. Manu stayed back at the base trying to place some of the already collected specimen. By lunch time the entire hall was filled with green leaves. Herbs, shrubs and grasses were all separately cataloged and tabulated. During the post lunch session the teams took newer transects and repeated the exercise. Specimens of the grass family were preserved in a herbarium for detailed identification.

Arranging plant specimen onto herbarium sheets.

  Arranging plant specimen onto herbarium sheets-2.  

In the night there were discussions regarding the conservation of blackbucks and Man Animal conflict in the region. Discussions were also regarding the increased conflict with the Sloth bear even in the district of Tumkur. Manu shared his observation and experiences of his friends working with Sloth bear conservation at Daroji in Bellary District.  He held a consultation about the Education materials useful in carrying out conservation of Sloth bears that he was developing with the local NGOs at Hospet.

The following day the teams were more relaxed as most of the work with regards to plants was over and took to bird watching. There were a bunch of school kids who had come on their bicycles all the way from Puruvara some ten kilometers away. Having given up cycling for long the task of pedaling up the pebbly dirt road appeared too tedious for us. But to any body’s astonishment there were only half the number of bicycles as compared to the number of boys. This meant that there was at least more than one rider for each of the bicycle. Two of the tyres had already gone flat. Our first question to them was what brought them here? Do they regularly use this place for recreation? The answer was really rewarding. It was their maiden venture. A shy boy tucking his head upon his shoulder affirmed that he was instigated by the black buck team that had come to their school.

We exchanged some goodies with them and sat them through for an interaction. They revealed a lot of issues pertaining to their daily lives and all the animals they come across in their routine. Murthy, Prasanna and Gunndappa kept on quizzing them to get some hint on the probable existence of poaching in the locality. But the innocent kids were indeed truthful and there didn’t seem to be any instances of poaching of black bucks.

Murthy and Mohan Rengan set out to nearby village to have some interaction with the local community. They had been to a nearby village and come back shocked at the state of the farmers. It seems that the villagers were all perturbed by the entry of their car into the village thinking that some Forest officials had come to conduct some enquiry.  But gradually they developed confidence and opened up.

Murthy who spoke to the villagers at length had noticed some great difference in the same characters that he had spoken to over a decade and a half ago. They had suffered a lot in their agricultural efforts in the recent past and had lost the ‘not at all bothered’ attitude about the black bucks. Every body appeared to be aware of the importance of wildlife and conservation but in the depth of their hearts they had something else to say. They were all thoroughly frustrated by the concurrent loss that they had undergone because of the black bucks. The repeated and varied approach to the Forest department had left behind disillusion and had made them feel that their battle was over. The apathy of the higher ups in the department was said to be because of the undecided state of the protected area. The blackbucks had ruined their lives.

The issue became a topic of debate for the rest of the day. After a post lunch game ride outside the sanctuary the teams set out on their journeys back home.

List of participants-
TVN Murthy , Prasanna Kumar D R, Gundappa B V, Mohen Rengan, Kumar, Mahesh, Hemanth, Guruprasad, Manu K, Prithvi K, Shankar Narayana. KP, Thejaswi Munishankerappa and Harish.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Workshops at the schools of Mysore District.

Sree Gangadhareswara High School, Konanooru, Nanjangud Taluk.
Date: 11-07-2011

            Sri. Viswanath, Head Master of the school along with their staff formally welcomed us and introduced us to the students. Around 100 students from all the 3 classes 8th 9th 10th were given to us for the full day workshop.
            We started off with introducing ourselves and about the program to the students. Students introduced themselves we got the details from students and a pre-test questionnaire was given to every student. WHO AM I game was played, since it was a small village and there was no power, power was expected in the afternoon session. We've distributed the booklet and poster among the students, asked them to study and given some exercises based on the booklet & poster. When the power resumed Mr. Mahesh has given the slide show and film show on Grasslands, Blackbuck and its co-habitants giving every bit of information to the students and clarifying all their doubts.

Children going through the study material.

            The post-test questionnaire was given to the students. The Blackbuck sticker and labels were distributed among the students. Sri. Viswanath gave the vote of thanks for the workshop.

Govt, High School, Dodda Kavalande, Nanjanagud Taluk.
Date : 11-07-2011

            The work shop started off with out much fan fare as the school was in the face of transferring powers between headmasters. It began with a pre test and an introductory talk by Mr. Manu. There was no power in the school till the post lunch session and we had to restore to the out door session. Even as the talk was underway it started to pour heavily and the entire crowd of a hundred and ten students had to be shifted to a classroom. The session briskly changed over to a simple game ‘Who am I?’ Students were assigned the names of an animal from the grass lands and he had to decipher himself through logical questions.

Manu addressing the students.

            In the post lunch session Mr. Kumar made his presentations with out slides or video clippings. His oral presentations made the students realize the mistakes the students had made in the pre test. Later on the students were involved in a group activity where the teams dealt with a pre determined topic, such as the reptiles, birds and mammals of the grassland, Human animal conflict and the Wildlife Act. During the valedictory, representatives of each of the ten teams had to present their opinions. This made a very interactive session in itself. With a post test the day was called off.

Workshops at the schools of Chamaraja Nagara.

J S S High School, Ummathooru, Ch Nagar Tq and Dist.
 Date: 06-07-2011
            Sri. Bhavani Shankar, Head Master of the school welcomed us and introduced us to the students. Around 125 students from VIII & IX class were assigned to us for the daylong workshop.
            We started off with introducing ourselves and about the program to the students. Firstly we collected their details and issued a pre-test questionnaire to all the students. WHO AM I game was played in the class room. Mr. Mahesh has given the slide show and film show on Grasslands, Blackbuck and its co-habitants giving every bit of information to the students and clarifying all their doubts. The booklet and the poster was issued to the students and we asked them to study, given some exercised based on the booklet and poster. Outdoor activities were;
o   Difference between a grass and a plant, difference between a grass blade and leaf.
o   To collect different species of grass in their campus.
o   To study the blackbuck material and poster and list out different birds, carnivores, herbivores and reptiles mentioned in the booklet.

Mahesh conducting outdoor activities.

            The post-test questionnaire was given to the students. The Blackbuck sticker and labels were distributed among the students. In a simple valedictory function Sri. Bhavani Shankar gave a vote of thanks for the workshop. In turn we too thanked  the Head Master and the staff for their co-operation all through.

Government P U College, Lokkanalli, Chamarajanagara Dist.
Date: 06-07-2011
It was a newly started PU college and the headmaster requested us to take up the Pre university students of both Science and Arts faculty. There was a very small portion of students representing the high school section. Soon after the inaugural function, the students were given the pre test and divided on the basis of science and Arts class.
While the Arts student sat through the audio visual the science students were in the out doors while the rains interrupted. We had to get to the indoors to continue the nature games.  The team got inter changed with the resource persons.

Mahesh presenting a slide show.

In the post lunch session the students were given the resource materials and activities were conducted based on them. The students worked in groups to find out answers to the questions given to the groups. In the small valedictory function chaired by the lecturer in-charge of the Nature club Mr. Kantharaju, the students presented their findings.

Our team with the student group.