Sunday, June 11, 2006

Can we afford to lose the Great Indian Bustard?

Bashtad, saar!” Allahbaksh’s downplayed guttural words brought me to an abrupt halt. Taking the telescope from him I pointed it in the direction of his gaze and after a few anxious moments, of squinting, through the eyepiece and twiddling the focusing ring, managed to crystallize a sharp image. An adult male Great Indian Bustard stood under a Morinda tree. Stretching to his full height he plucked ripe, black fruits from the lowest branches and swallowed them. A setting sun lit the bird in stark relief and through the scope I could see him very clearly. He walked around the tree as he fed. Once he stood for a couple of minutes behind the bole of the tree and peered around as though aware of our presence, waiting for us to move on. When we stood our ground in silence, he must have realized that we meant no harm and commenced to feed. Suddenly I realized there was a fox scampering around playfully beyond the bustard! It spun like a top after its tail, breaking away to dart hither and thither in meaningless abandon. Fun and frolic are not the privilege of man alone. Momentarily distracted by the bustard I looked away. When my eye rotated within the scope toward the fox, it had vanished. Meanwhile, the bustard, either sated or having consumed all fruit within reach, walked away leisurely towards the northeast boundary of the Rollapadu Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary.
This area was a ‘humped’ part of the gentle undulations of a flat-as-a-tabletop landscape and was a traditional displaying spot for male bustards. With inflated gular pouch and erected neck feathers the bird cocked his tail all the way over his back and began to strut in circles. I didn’t see any females but I was far away. He may have spied one or two on the other side of the hump and begun his act in silence. He did not utter the booming call that carries for half a kilometer. We watched him till the light began to fade and a red-headed merlin hawked swallows successfully in the gloaming. In two days we counted 3 bustards. One male and two females.
In the 1980s, when bustards were first sighted here and a sanctuary for them proclaimed, 35-40 birds had been sighted within the span of a few hours. Rollapadu was considered the best bustard habitat on the Deccan Plateau. More than half a dozen males could be seen displaying, from one vantage point! For a decade or so the young sanctuary was protected, managed and studied with zeal. Bustards were seen in good numbers. They bred and their nests faced the vagaries of success and failure. Above all, individual numbers did not decrease.
Total protection of the habitat also boosted populations of other denizens. Blackbuck increased by leaps and bounds. There are about 400-450 now. Wolves too increased, as must have other mammals like foxes and black-naped hare. In the resulting dynamic tussel for food and territory, subtle changes began to erode the ground from under the bustard’s feet. Species become extinct individual by individual. There are many theories about the causes of this debacle. Too many people and the resulting agricultural boom, too many blackbuck (as a result of total protection), widespread grazing within the sanctuary resulting in the increase of unpalatable vegetation for grasshoppers, the bustard’s prey and, clandestine poaching being some. Too, a slackening of guard by those entrusted with the care of this irreplaceable natural heritage and national treasure—for it is not found anywhere else in the world. They seem to have forgotten that protection is only the first step towards ensuring the survival of a threatened species, that active management is its logical corollary.
This is the situation across the entire reducing range of the great Indian bustard. Hanging by the thread of human apathy and negligence is a member of a family that evolved 40-50 million years ago, perfecting a way of life on the short grass plains and arid regions of India. From its stronghold in the Thar (where its populations have halved since the 80’s), across Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra and Karnataka the bustard is slowly but surely losing out. It has already vanished (exterminated by us) from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. The bustard is not ready to die yet. We are choking it to death.
The disappearance of any species from the face of the Earth is an irreversible tragedy whose finality cannot be emphasized enough. It’s a physical loss for the natural world, a broken link in the proverbial chain of life. Increasingly, almost singularly these days, extinction is a direct result of human activity. By perpetrating these tragic and callous acts we walk a one-way path that leads to the edge of a precipice from which there is no turning back.
Have you ever wondered what humanity is losing, beyond the physical impoverishment that the loss of a species brings to an ecosystem?
To me, the great Indian bustard is as important a part of this planet as is a tiger or a tiger beetle, a danaid eggfly or an earthworm churning soil, breathing life into mud. The extinction of each species diminishes me and negates my intelligence, as it does yours. The bustard stands for the well being of our grasslands and the myriads of life forms comprising that ecosystem. It strides through a landscape that gave character to my nation and my brotherhood. Gujar, Maldhari, Bishnoi.
In accepting its presence and rejoicing in its freedom, I can stand erect and be a part of the land that has sculpted the genes of our agrarian lifestyle. The bustard struts in a wilderness that cannot be found within the insular and limited activities of human societies. It beckons the one human character that soars above them—our unassailable spirit. We cannot survive the 22nd century successfully within the confines of our achievements alone. Our spirit yearns to walk with the bustard and to thrill at the jumping grasshoppers underfoot. To feel the wind’s caress as it bends a sea of grass heads till the eye can see. To ruminate at the ebb of day under a gently burning, purpling, blackening sky. For deep down we realize that the spirit of the land peoples our breath and ultimately strengthens our work. Its aroma is the only constant in our temporal world. It will not be denied.
Published in: Hornbill. 2001 (April-June): 24-26.

A tryst with Jerdon's Courser

Aitanna would hear none of it. He had to attend the wedding in the neighbouring village and the Kalivi Kodi would simply have to wait for another night. A hired truck waited ominously, ready to carry the wedding party and Aitanna away from Reddipalle. After some more cajoling, he said that the batteries of his miner’s lamp were discharged. We had four-celled torches. He couldn’t find the rattle that distracted the bird. We were willing to take that risk. As his resolve broke, I asked Richard to step out of the car and told Aitanna that he’d come all the way from England to see this bird. Would he have to return disappointed? Aitanna’s self-esteem would not allow that to happen.
Aitanna led us into the pitch-black night, warning us not to switch on lights or talk. Our pavement-friendly feet had problems negotiating invisible stones and sudden depressions. But the heart pounded with anticipation and eyes strained after the dancing torch beam that Aitanna flicked haphazardly here and there. Two hours of this and we were trudging hopelessly. Then it happened. The needle glinted in the haystack! Cursorius bitorquatus crouched on its long legs and stared at us with its abnormally large nocturnal eye. All our torches found their target. With bated breath we crept forward, afraid to blink lest the apparition vanish. A brilliant white supercilium separated its scalp from the face and neck and a double lined necklace adorned its chest. We stood transfixed. As Richard reached for his sketchpad, Aitanna, the conscientious forest guard, motioned us away. It took us a while to get back our breath, as we sat in silence, lost in thought. We had just seen the rarest bird in India, on one of the oldest geological real estate in the country, indeed the world. As I realized that this terrestrial endemic had survived here for more years than our imagination allows us to register—and now faced an uncertain future—time stood still.
First published in 1999 as: A tryst with Jerdon’s Courser Cursorius bitorquatus (Blyth). Newsletter for Birdwatchers. 39(6): 83-84.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Late night thoughts on listening to Rachmanninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto

Softer than air it starts. Stirring emotion ever so gently, leading me on into a labrynth of ecstasy. Some might opine that music reveals the heart of the composer or poetry the poet. That may be. It mayn't too. I believe that music, when it touches me, reveals not its maker but myself to myself. It reflects my traumas and on recognising them I am comforted into a peace which may be temporary, but it is fulfilling - like biting into a juicy jamun or inhaling the arresting aroma of a night jasmine.

I believe that true art, great art, is wrenched from the depth of suffering. Imagine, when you look deep enough inside you, pushing aside all the webs of acquired emotional detritus, there abides a terrible beauty at your core waiting to be rescued. Alas, most of us are dwarfs who are so bedazzled by its momentary sheen that we allow our useless accumulations to fall back, happy to feed upon that fleeting instance of bliss.

The burden of mortality becomes bearable under the light of such brilliant glimpses of introspection.