“Is this a class or a fish market?”

On 27th December 2014, a pleasant Sunday morning in Mumbai, I decided to join a friend for his field work. This is a little unusual. When I say field, I and many of the people I know, usually imagine it as some kind of forest-studying animals. This friend counts the number of boats arriving at Sasoon Dock, which will enable him to determine the fish stock coming in the fishing boats. So I joined him at Sasoon Dock. I must warn you that there aren’t going to be any pictures on this post as photographing is not allowed on the dock. To say that the fishing dock is a chaos is an understatement. Sasoon Dock is one of the busiest docks of the city and was built in 1875 (quite old, huh!) by a gentleman named Albert Abdullah David Sasoon (and hence the name).

“Sassoon Dock
What a place!
So many fishes!
So crowded!”

It was 7 AM in the morning and the fisher folk were already up and about, making sure their stock got sold fastest and in maximum price. There was just so much diversity of fishes in their baskets. Fishes, crabs, prawns, stingrays. I was lucky enough to see a hammer-headed shark (unlucky for the shark because it was dead). Walking around the dock seems like a challenge to your whole existence (No, this is not an exaggeration. Try walking on the edge of the dock with hardly 6 inches space to place your foot while a super pissed fisher woman pushes you because you aren’t walking fast enough while balancing yourself and trying not to fall off in the water).

While I tried walking in a place where it seemed impossible to accommodate a fly, the local fisher people gave me passing looks of anger, amusement, pity, ridicule and disbelief. The entire one hour at Sasoon dock seemed like a second just passed. I was so numb by so much chaos but was enjoying every second of it. Not to mention, the smell was mind numbing as well. Especially for me as I have never eaten fish in my life, except once when a well-meaning aunty in Kerala fed me fish trying to convince me that it was a vegetable. (I smelled of fishes for good two hours after I had said good-bye to the place. I like to believe that I stopped smelling of fish after that).

Having never ever been to any fishing market, I never quite understood the feeling when the teachers in the class used to yell at us naughty students in the class, the statement “Is this a class or a fish market?”. Teachers, take a bow. Sasoon dock felt like I was an ant in this giant world. With all this, the friend, walking ahead of me (totally comfortable with chaos and adept at walking amidst busy and angry fisher folk) explaining different types of fishing techniques, fishing nets, fishing boats, etc. while I tried keeping up with his pace, understanding what all he said, asking him too many questions (some inappropriate for the place, i.e. “Isn’t it illegal to fish XYZ fishes?”).

While walking, we kept talking, my mind struggling to concentrate between staying alive and grasping all the knowledge that my friend had to offer. Once I almost bumped into an 8-9 ft long and narrow lorry carrying fishes that an old man was pushing amidst the crowd, but an attentive young fisherman held my hand, fairly amused at my inattentiveness, his friends laughing at my expense. The floor of the dock was all wet (obviously) and the water was pushing its way through my sandals and my socks; wetting my feet.

The walk lead to a beautiful open place where we could stand peacefully, watching the open sea that gives us bounty of fishes to eat and livelihoods to so many people who brave the storms to go out in the waters to bring us food.

We stumbled upon a chai-wallah (Tea seller) and stood sipping the tea watching Gulls and Terns foraging in the open seas along with the men in boats, both communities aiming at the same goal: catch the most. The morning scene was beautiful. On one side, there was a busy chaotic fish market selling fishes and a part of the dock which was comparatively new, was relatively empty, fishermen standing in small groups, chatting, discussing their day to day lives and enjoying the morning sunlight. Mumbai had a pleasant weather compared to cold Ahmedabad. Mornings gave a feeling of chill but failed to trap us in sweaters (thankfully!) Eventually said goodbye to the dock, carrying with me lot of memories and fish smell.

Turtles, Gharials and Dacoits of Chambal

An experience of my first visit to the beautiful Chambal which was to become my field site for first six months of 2016.

When one talks about Chambal, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is Phoolan Devi*. The famed dacoit, the savior of the downtrodden who emerged strong despite of many crimes perpetrated on her, Phoolan and ravines of Chambal are almost inseparable. Before joining Turtle Survival Alliance, all I knew about the river Chambal was Phoolan Devi and Gharials. Chambal is one of the major tributaries of the river Yamuna. It flows through three states of India, viz. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

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The sandbanks and ravines of Chambal

In my case, it all started with a desire to work on turtles and tortoises. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought turtles would bring me to Chambal. I Joined Turtle Survival Alliance-India Program in October 2015. Little did I know that this river would be a home to some of the most beautiful, yet little-known,  species of the world.

A view of Chambal from the boat

My first visit to Chambal was a long 6 hours drive from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. We were traveling to our field site, a small village named Garhaita, on the banks of river Chambal. Our group consisted of 5 people, including me. The drive from Lucknow was a long and tiring one, but the conversation with my colleagues kept it interesting. As we neared Chambal, the landscape changed. The famous Chambal ‘ghati’** started becoming visible. The expanse of water and the yellowish golden sand! We decided to take a break and got down at a bridge to have a look at the river. Because of the river being home to some of the most threatened animals of the world, the entire river is declared as a Protected Area named National Chambal (tri-state) Sanctuary covering the entire stretch, from its origin in Madhya Pradesh, flowing into Rajasthan then back to Madhya Pradesh and to its confluence with Yamuna In Uttar Pradesh, giving the animals much needed protection.

Humans and animals peacefully coexisting

As soon as we got down, hardly a minute had passed, and we could see turtles surfacing up the water! In a very short span of time, we saw five turtles of two different species, Tent turtle (Pangshura species) and Indian softshell (Nilssonia gangeticus)! My past experience was working on all herpetofauna (Amphibians and reptiles) except turtles. So all I could make out was a turtle surfacing while my colleagues kept throwing names like no big deal. “Oh there is (Batagur) dhongoka” “Oh look at that huge (Nilssonia) gangetica” and I marveled at their knowledge!

An Indian-tent turtle seen from the bridge

Cursing myself for my rotten luck as I couldn’t take any photos (my camera had given up and stopped working), I merely watched the turtles, craving to capture the amazing sightings they were giving us. Engrossed in turtles, I almost jumped when I heard a colleague exclaim “there, dolphin”. And there it was! A Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) swimming away, surfacing every few minutes to breathe. We also saw Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) and Muggers (Crocodylus palustris). I had seen Gharials in the zoos before. But seeing a Gharial in its own territory where it is the king of the waters is a sight to behold! A full grown adult Gharial male can grow upto 20 feet (which is 4 times my length).And when an adult Gharial moves in the water, it is grace personified. So swift and smooth is its movement that one almost thinks that it is moving without putting any effort to it. Here Muggers and Gharials live side by side. Chambal is a treasure trove for herpetologists. Not only it has two of the three crocodilians of India, Chambal also has 8 species of turtles and many species of snakes in the scrubs along its banks. On the river, one can sight Red-crowned roofed turtles (Batagur kachuga), Three-striped roofed turtle (Batagur dhongoka) and Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra indica) to name a few. The sand banks and the small sand islands in the river is a critical nesting habitat of rare birds like Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis) and Black-bellied terns (Sterna acuticauda). It was wildlife galore in the water! Never had I seen a river which offered such a treat to the eyes.

A beautiful Gharial majestically swimming

Having heard a lot about the dacoits of the Chambal ravines, I was wondering whether we would encounter any of them. I had pictured dacoits trotting off on their horses with their old-fashioned rifles (all thanks to watching the Bollywood movie ‘Sholay’ numerous times) coming down from some far off hills to loot people. But of course there were no more dacoits left in Chambal. Phoolan Devi was murdered and rest of them either surrendered to the police or stopped operating. It was quite disappointing to find out that the dacoits of Chambal, when existed, always traveled, looted and carried out their activities on foot, unlike my ‘Sholay#’ imagination.

I have stood on many bridges before, pondered about life, have watched numerous sunsets, watched fishermen busy collecting their catch, shared a few romantic conversations, watched birds on the banks of the rivers and flying above, but never have I seen a river which has so much life in that small stretch of water. Unlike river Ganga, Yamuna and Narmada, Chambal is not worshipped. It doesn’t fall under the category of ‘river Goddess’, and probably that is the very reason why it has been so clean. Not many people burn their dead on its banks, they do not worship her, do not put all the ‘religious’ discard here. (Almost) untouched by humans, Chambal remains one of the cleanest rivers of the country.

While on the bridge, I wondered how long is it going to stay the same? If not polluted, the threats of sand-mining and poaching still remains. Gharials and some of the species of turtles like the Red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) and the three-striped roofed turtles (Batagur dhongoka) are the indicators of the clean water and healthy river ecosystem. And these are the ones facing major threat from loss of their nesting habitat owing to sand-mining as they need sand dunes for nesting.

A Gharial basks at the base of a bridge

Chambal was to be my field site for coming months and here I was stationed since January 2016 till June 2016. Chambal amazes me with such sightings. And when I see entire sandbanks being cleared in a matter of merely 5 days, I wonder how long? Where will all the turtles and Gharials go for nesting? Where will the waders probe for insects? Where will the skimmers nest? What about the black-bellied tern? With these thoughts I sign off. I shall write about the amazing bird diversity that Chambal offers in a coming few days. For that, stay tuned!

A glimpse of bird diversity of Chambal

*Phoolan Devi: Also known as a bandit queen of India, she was a dacoit and later a Member of Parliament.

**Ghati is a Hindi term for a ravine. Also valley sometimes.

#Sholay Trivia: The village Ramgadh shown in the movie Sholay was actually a fictional village (obviously. Didn’t you read the disclaimer? Any resemblance to person or place is…blah blah). Incidentally, there is a village named Ramgadh along the banks of river Chambal which was also plagued by dacoits, like many other villages along this river.

Croaking Ambanaad

I came to Kerala first time in May 2010. I was a Masters’ student doing Wildlife Biology. My subject being one of those which can’t be studied in the classrooms, I was looking for opportunities for field work for summer internship. A little search led me to Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning aka FERAL (the organization though worked mainly on wild animals :D) I was to work in the southern Western Ghats, in a place called Ambanaad Estate. This estate falls in Kollum district of Kerala in the region called Aryankavu. In the nearby area, dense forests of Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, Thenmala Forest Reserve, Ranni and Konni Reserve Forests and Achankovil Reserve Forests are located which makes it one of the best places for wildlife.

Roughly 500m above sea level, Ambanaad estate has rubber as major plantation followed by some coffee and tea at higher elevations. We had been given a field station to stay which was once a medical clinic. Right behind my field station was a beautiful hill which had mixed patches of grass and montane forests (Shola vegetation). I shared the field station with two ladies and two guys who worked on vegetation sampling and large mammal monitoring, and seven field assistants who helped us all with our respective tasks. My task here was to study amphibians and reptiles.

A view from the field site

Neither of the researchers, including me was from Kerala and didn’t know Malayalam but the field assistants even though native to Tamil Nadu knew the language which helped us communicate with local people of the estate. Living under one roof gave us opportunity to know each other better. The atmosphere remained cordial. All the other researchers being senior to me, helped me understand field work better and the field assistants always helped me on the field. The field assistant who always accompanied me was Sathish. Extremely jolly by nature, he taught me to how to climb and overcome the tough terrains of Southern Western Ghats, played pranks, called me Kovilpatti Veeralaxmi* (because I always carried an aruvaal, a sickle-shaped weapon that the tribals use to cut grasses or bamboos or small trees on the field) and even tried teaching me Kalaripayattu (a form of Indian martial art).

Now you know why he called me Kovilapatti Veeralakshmi!
Now you know why he called me Kovilapatti Veeralakshmi!
Sathish teaching me Kalariyapttu
Sathish teaching me Kalariyapttu

Every morning after having tea and breakfast together, we used to disperse for our respective field sites. While others used to go for vegetation sampling and large mammal monitoring in different parts of estates, I and Sathish used to go and look for frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, turtles, etc. and record the data. After field work, we used to have fun clicking pictures of all the animals and plants that we came across- butterflies, dragonflies, bugs, beetles, millipedes, scorpions, wild flowers, interesting plants, etc.

As the time passed, my checklist of frogs kept getting longer. The best of the sightings was that of the Purple frog, the relic species whose closest relatives lie in Seychelles! Learning behaviour of the frogs, snakes camouflaged in the leaf litter, tarantulas basking on the tree bark after a good rain, scorpions scurrying on the road, Rat snakes in combat for the territories are some of the best memories of my field work in Ambanaad. Everyday there was something new to learn. We named the streams after the animals found there, eg. the Rhacophorus stream, the damselfly stream, etc!

The Purple Frog
The Purple Frog

Ambanaad being at such an elevation and surrounded by forests remained cool and pleasant in terms of weather. The place never received mobile connectivity. To make mobile phone calls one needed to walk some distance to the higher elevation be able to connect to the mobile network. The mobile phones were instead used as alarm clocks! Not to forget the peace and quiet that lack of connectivity from human-dominated landscapes can give you. The field station not being designed for the purpose of human residence lacked proper water supply. We had to keep a few buckets of water stored for use and had to go to the nearest stream to bathe. The bathes always ended up us walking up to streams dirty and returning back a little less dirty, all thanks to the shrubs, bushes and muddy pathways on our return journey. The only difference bathing did to us was the amount of dirt that we carried! Bathing was a chore and we avoided it as much as possible until someone revolted to our stench 😀

Ambanaad had become my home and the experience taught me a lot. The experience was made special all thanks to the forests, beautiful misty view every morning, perfect work, so many frogs, great field station, and funny and caring field assistant and great colleagues and supervisor. The month passed quickly and soon I had to return back to my college in Tamil Nadu. But the experience made such an impact that I returned back for my Masters’ dissertation a year and a half later about which I have another story to tell!

To this day, Ambanaad remains one of my favorite places and I feel that it is one of the most beautiful places I have been to. Not only the estate, but I am totally in love with Kerala’s scenic beauty and biodiversity. Some day I will be there. May be for a real long time!

*Veeralakshmi: A woman from Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu who revolted against inhuman treatment against Dalits by the local Police Force.