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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Camp Life at Beyt Dwarka

Marine camps are conducted by Centre for Environment Education (CEE) Sundarvan at Beyt Dwarka, an island on the western most tip of Gujarat. Beyt stands for an island in Gujarati. Beyt Dwarka is 27.4 sq. km. island of mainly scrub vegetation surrounded by a bounty of marine shore biodiversity. It experiences tropical maritime climate. Storms and cyclones are a part of Beyt life in monsoon. While summers are characterized by scorching heat which starts by the end of February, winters during the months of November, December and January are full of tempestuous winds.

The tents for the camps are raised on a long stretch of sand at the end of the island called Dunny point. Dwarka, even though separated from Kutch by the Arabian Sea, was better connected historically to Kutch than Saurashtra, as the fishermen and traders used the sea route to reach Beyt. Hence people of Beyt Dwarka speak Kutchi which is a dialect of Gujarati. In Kutchi language, a heap of sand is called ‘Duno’ and over the period of time, this stretch of sandy land started being called Dunny point. This stretch of land forms its own separate island as it separates out even from Beyt by the sea during highest of tides on New moon and full moon days.

Basic tents made up of gunny bags are raised by making structure of long and strong bamboos to stand the wind. There are about 10 tents. Right after the tents, there are separate toilets cabins, made with gunny bags again, for girls and boys. Toilets are made by fixing commode in sand using sandbags and make-shift septic tank. There are no bathrooms. The sea functions as bathroom.

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Tents for the participants
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Kitchen and dining space

Camps start from the end of November and usually continue till the end of February. These are the best months as the temperatures are tolerable as compared to the scorching heat of summers and stormy winds of monsoon. The sea water is clear and the shores host an array of migratory birds during these months. Batches after batches of students of schools, colleges and universities, science clubs, sports clubs and families arrive in the camps. A typical batch spends 2.5 days at the camp.

 Arrival is usually arranged by Sundarvan which is to board a ferry from Okha, a nearby town in coastal Gujarat. Most groups are lucky enough to see dolphins while they arrive at Beyt in the morning. They are greeted with basic vegetarian breakfast and tea. If the batch is of younger students, they are given bournvita as well. It is difficult to get milk at Beyt and hence milk powder is preferred. After coming, they rest for a while and then based on the time of high tide, are made to bathe in sea water. As soon as they arrive, they are given clear instructions on the basic rules of the camp. Then through next two and half days, they are taken for reef walks, bird watching and plant diversity trek to Hanuman dandi, games on the beach, sessions on adaptations of marine biodiversity, tides and ebbs, waves and star-gazing. Campfire is lit on one of the nights. At sunsets and sunrises, yoga and meditation are conducted.

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Beach cleaning exercise done by the students of Mahatma Gandhi International School
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Students of Mahatma Gandhi International School learning about mangroves
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Visually challenged girls of Pragnachakshu Mahila Seva Kunj learning about Rock Oysters
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Preparing checklist on the last day of a batch

Reef walks are conducted in the inter-tidal zone, the zone between the highest and lowest tide, when the tide is at its lowest. Beaches to most participants mean sun and sand. But here at the walk, they see the bouquet of life-forms exposed by the receding tide. Marine creatures like Carpet anemone, Sea-cucumber, and Flatworms are mostly new to the participants and organisms like starfishes and octopus are fascinating as these are often only have been seen by them on TV or studied in text-books.

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A live shell
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Flatworm
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Carpet anemone
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Octopus
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Species of Cushion starfish
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Sea Cucumber, the vulture of the sea world

We commonly see birds like Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata), Western Reef egret (Egretta gularis) , Grey heron (Ardea cinerea), Gulls (Larus spp), Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Sand plovers (Charadrius spp), Crab plover (Dromas ardeola)  and other small and big waders. What we see on field is discussed in detail during the talks on adaptations of different animals to adapt to the marine life, beaks and feet of birds customized to hunt and feed on the platter of the sea food, how the tides and ebbs affect the life of the creatures that live on the sea-shore or the inter-tidal zone and how the climate change affects the sea life. Students are often amazed to find the connections that everything is linked and that deforestation is equally damaging to the seas as it is to the land.

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Sand plovers and Terek sandpiper
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Oriental darter
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Ruddy turnstone, commonly seen wader near camp-site
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Grey heron

Participants show their creativity in making sand-castles, some of them are inspired to write beautiful poetries and some love to sketch and paint. Once in the water, it becomes difficult for the instructors to pull them out after the swim! At camp-fire, we all sing, some of them dance, and we laugh at some great and some poor jokes, recite poetry, perform skits and mimicry and in all enjoy each others’ company.

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A fort and a fortress. Entry only through tunnel. Creativity by the student members of Narmada Nigam Community Science Center
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Up so high!

The activities are hence a mix of knowledge-based sessions, physical activities such as treks and exercises and fun at games and campfire. Being away from civilization and a life away from social media, students realize the importance of friends. The basic life at the camp makes them understand the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Kids often go back with the understanding for core human values, dignity of labour, respect for each living being and survival with bare essentials.

The camp activities and facilities are designed in such a way as to give the most basic survival training to the participants of the camp. Here, one has to wash their own dishes, share toilets, eat the most basic food and live without electricity. While drinking water is provided from filtered drinking water (using Reverse Osmosis) cans brought from the mainland Okha, the nearest town or from Beyt, this water is strictly for drinking purpose only. Washing face, brushing and bathing is not allowed using this water. At Beyt, one has to make friends with salty water and sand. You brush your teeth with salty water of the sea, bathe in sea and whenever you want to sprinkle water on your face, you rush to the shore and use the sea water. Sand is going to make its home in everything you possess. Your clothes, pouches, watches, books, mattresses, sleeping bags, phone crevices and even in your headphones. Not to mention how close friends your body and sand will become. You eventually start smelling of the sea and tasting of salt. Soaps will not foam and hence you will eventually give up bringing a bucketful of sea water and trying to bathe someplace private. For instructors, there are VIP tents. The only difference is they get their own toilet, which is a relief as participants stay only for two and half days but instructors stay on for weeks and many a times for months altogether.

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Tent of the instructors. There are two tents in this. One on the left was my home during my days at Marine camps.

Life at Beyt Dwarka, even though full of hardships is made memorable with the care of fellow colleagues, friendships, beautiful and mesmerizing rising and setting sun and ever powerful and welcoming sea. The shore life never disappoints you. Each batch of students is different and more often than not, instructors end up getting attached. More philosophical beings say that one should look at the batches as one looks through binoculars. You watch and focus, but not click as on does in a camera. Let them pass. By the end of camps, the instructors, too, go back wiser, kinder and more patient and hoping to return for the next season for new picture and awaiting new adventures.

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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.