27 August, 2012

Save Our Snakes

The following appears in the Annual Directory of the neighbourhood of Kovai Gardens Association in Kovaipudur, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

Sankes are some of the most gorgeous creatures of the natural world and have taken millions of years to evolve and fill their ecological niche.  It would be a disaster for humans if snakes are brought to the point of extinction despite all the scientific and ethical reasons for their conservation.  Snakes form an integral part of our ecosystem—both as predator and prey—and have a very important role to play in pest control.  The media are happy to publicise and sensationalise cases of snakebite but tend to ignore the larger picture: that snakes are a major factor in keeping agricultural pests (especially rodents) at bay.  The alternate to eating food that is riddled with toxic chemicals and pesticides is to leave these magnificient creatures alone and let them perform their natural duties and work as nature intended.

Snakes are found everywhere: in the forests and deserts, in villages, in towns and cities, in water and on land.  Some snakes like the ornate flying snake of Asia have even conquered the domain of the sky: gliding from tree to tree!  The only reason we don't see them so often is that they do an amazing job staying out of our way.  The occasional times we do cross paths, it is best to stay as far away as possible without causing them any distress and let them remove themselves to safety.  They want to avoid confrontation even more than you do: imagine encountering someone more than 5 feet tall when you're relegated to crawling a few millimetres off the ground.  Snakes bite only as a last resort, for their personal safety, so it does well for us to go about our daily activities with some consideration for the reptiles that share our lives: do not put your hands and feet into nooks, crannies, under rocks and bushes, or other places you can't see into, and always watch where you are treading when you walk, especially so in the dark.  Simple, isn't it?

Out of the over 270 species of snakes in India, the bite of only 4 of these is deadly to humans, yet snakes continue to be violently persecuted in most parts of our country.  Despite being the symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, it seems that most of us are happy to worship the idol and kill the first live snake we see.  Another reason to avoid killing snakes is to stay out of legal trouble.  Snakes are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and warrant a non-bailable arrest.  Depending on the species of snake killed, one will be sentenced by the Schedule under which it comes under.  For example, in the eyes of the law, killing a python is equal to having killed/hunted a tiger or elephant, all of which are protected by their Schedule I classification.

If you do encounter a snake within the confines of your home or workplace, don't try to chase/beat/scare/kill it.  A majority of snake bites occur during these times.  Call your local snake rescue expert (or the fire department/police) who can safely capture the snake and release or relocate it into its natural habitat.

Those living in and around Kovaipudur can call Arthur Steele at 934 483 3274, S.R.J. Arul at 934 410 1111 or Dhaval Momaya at 989 444 3871.

Those living in and around rest of Coimbatore can call K. Ratish at 978 733 2814 or Sabri at 951 992 6729.

Compiled by Dhaval Momaya, N. Lakshminarayan (WCS India) and Arthur Steele.

04 June, 2012

Just spent the last two hours on the phone trying to convince two dozen veterinarians to euthanise a stray dog hit by a car and most of them said that was "not possible" point blank and hung up.  None were willing even if I agreed to pay a premium on their fee and offered to pick them up and drop them back.  Frustration was growing into anger.  One of the vets could make out my displeasure despite my best efforts at being polite, so he justified his refusal by saying he didn't work with strays because they weren't vaccinated and he didn't want to "catch anything" in case he got bitten.  He advised me to stay clear of strays too.  Watch out animal lovers of Coimbatore: veterinary whores abound.

25 April, 2012


I was walking the dog this evening, in the wilderness outside my village where the land is gently undulating and covered with knee-length grass with rows of thorny scrub in the depressions. The weather was great for a walk; the sun mildly shining through a curtain of thin cloud. As I walked, I could smell the fragrance of tulsi as my feet crushed some plants that were spread out among the grass. The resident locals of the village and neighbouring villages had already collected most of the year's wild tulsi harvest in February, but these were new saplings that had come up with the summer showers, I imagine.

It was nearly dusk when the dog suddenly jumped backwards and pricked up her ears, her nose to the ground, twitching away trying to smell the life out of something that was obscured to me. As I tried to get closer to see better she kept pushing me away and growling at whatever it is she was looking at. I finally managed to pull her back and hold her and saw that she had stumbled across a small Russell's viper (Daboia russelli) lying quietly in the grass. Such are the times when I mentally slap my forehead for being too lazy to bring the camera out on the walks, but the point I want to drive home in this little essay is that time and again, I've witnessed my dog being defensive when she encounters a live venomous snake. This has previously happened four times with Russell's vipers in our yard at home, more than half a dozen times with the spectacled cobras (again, in our yard) and once with a saw-scaled viper that we encountered on a similar walk years ago. On occasions when she finds a live non-venomous snake (she's managed to find three wolf snakes, two green vine snakes, countless rat snakes, and once, even a cat snake), she merely attracts our attention to the snake and goes her way doing what she was originally doing. No growling, no ears upright, no straight tail, nothing. (She even let a green vine snake live in our curry leaf tree for a whole year after pointing it out to us.) I wonder how she knows the venomous ones from the non-venomous. Can she smell the venom in their venom sacs? I sure would love to know.

04 November, 2011

Morning in the Mountains

It's been just about five years now since I shot this picture in the Siruvani hills of Coimbatore.  I've put it up on my flickr stream, my website, various online photography fora and whatnots, but no one has ever noticed it.  No one has ever said, "Woah, wait a minute, I know that from somewhere."  I guess nature/landscape photographers today don't know their art history like they used to.  Or that this was a lousy execution at trying to copy a great romantic landscape painting.  Meh.  Anyway, on its fifth anniversary, here is why I personally like it.

Caspar Friedrich: Morning in the Mountains (1821-23?)

01 August, 2011

Form over Content? Blasphemy! (?)

I followed a friend's link to this page on Blake Andrews' blog and was a little miffed that the winner of the Form vs Content poll (in a photograph) was, in fact, form. Iconic images of our times immediately jumped to my mind (man blocking tank in Tiananmen, little Vietnamese girl running from her village being napalm'd, the recent picture of a couple kissing during the Vancouver riots, McCurry's Afghan girl, ...), but before I could mentally send a flurry of vile words in some of the choicest language I know to all the voters, my brain hammered sense into me. The above pictures, iconic though they may be, aren't 'great' images. When it comes to the great, the buck stops at Monsieur Cartier-Bresson. Aquila from 1952; Behind St. Lazare station, Paris; Brasserie Lipp 1969; are all 'everyday' images with only the photographer's composition elevating them to greatness. Even many of Ansel Adams' works are these 'everyday' images (Jeffrey's Pine and Church in Mexico come to mind immediately).

Continuing with this train of thought, I realised that painters can get away with getting truly captivating scenes of everyday sights whereas photographers have to work quite hard at finding that something 'extra' that really catapults the image. (Of course, painters do have the harder job in the first place by nature of their work.) I can't find a finer example of this than Johannes Vermeer's "Street in Delft". A true masterpiece which in photograph form would simply be relegated to the 'good' pile. I would put Albrecht Durer's "Large Turf", Vermeer's (again) "View of Delft" and Correggio's "Portrait of a Man" in the same pile as masterpieces with no amazing/awesome/stupendous shit happening in them. I'm sure I could come up with a tonne of other stuff that support the form argument if I cared to run more web searches, but I don't, so there.

Johannes Vermeer Van Delft - Street in Delft
Can you picture yourself caught staring at the brick-work if this were a photograph?

Damn, I wish I could paint like that.

28 May, 2011

Temple elephants

I first saw an elephant at age seven. It was a temple elephant (from the Perur temple) that was taken house to house, and it was visiting ours. The idea was to donate some money to the temple, give the elephant a banana or sugarcane, and receive the blessings of lord Ganesha. I was a little scared but was mostly astounded by the animal's size, and I still remember looking into her eyes and wondering what she was thinking. When she dropped a load of dung right outside our gates, all the village kids immediately set upon trampling it with their bare feet because it was said to increase your intelligence! My next interaction with another temple elephant happened much later in Vellore during 2008. I handed her a banana and a five-rupee coin. She ate the banana and stretched out her trunk to hand the coin over to her mahout. When the mahout reached out to take the coin from her, she swiped it back. She did this three more times before the mahout lost his patience and shouted at her, and then she obliged.

02 May, 2011

Packing for multi-day hikes

Lots of folk have shown interest in the way I pack and have switched to a similar style with personal changes. For future seekers of backpacking wisdom, I thought I'd write a few lines (very considerate of me, no?). Nothing I have to say is "mine" so to speak: it has all been amalgamated from veteran hikers, backpacking.net boards and the weirdos at Red Chilli Adventure in Rishikesh (running for cover).

Packing is always about sorting and compartmentalisation. When on a hike, you need to pack so that things that are most essential for survival are on you as much as possible so that you can survive with some level of comfort in case you lose most of your gear. (Simple, no? ;) Without further ado, here's the deal.

* My pockets have two folding pocket knives (one for rough work, one with a sharp blade, a Photon flashlight and a flattened and shortened roll of toilet paper wrapped in plastic (great to use as a bandage, tinder to start fire in the wet, napkin and you know what else).

* Hip-pouch: Bic lighter (I can't have enough of these: they light up even after being dunked underwater for a few hours!), 1xAAA-torch, map, one sachet of Electral and P&S camera go into a hip-pouch looped through my belt. That way all this stuff goes where I go. Always.

* Waist pouch: contains notepad+pencil, compass, 2xAA torch, 3xAAA headlamp, water-proof firestarting kit (basically a film cannister with camphor, matches and striker), hand sanitizer, a small tape measure, more sachets of Electral, energy bars, extra pair of shoelaces, band-aids, 2 days' worth of essential medicines and an extra pair of prescription glasses. I like these tinted so they double as sunglasses.

* Daypack: My daypack is a 14-litre backpack that has lots of water bottles (I like to re-use soda bottles: they don't weigh much and don't cost much), 1-litre aluminium mug (to boil water/make tea/coffee/instant noodles), machete, sun hat, wool cap, gloves and jacket/poncho, clean underwear and hand-towel in a tupperware box (for waterproofing), first-aid kit, (use a different kit for daily medicines if you need them) and 600g of instant noodles. Daypack goes into big backpack.

* Big backpack: A generic 70-litre internal frame backpack. Carries the daypack, 10C sleeping bag (with warm and dry clothes on I've been comfortable sleeping in -6 C with this; pretty sure it'll go colder still with a hot water bottle inside and/or a liner), sleeping pad (gets tied outside the backpack if I'm carrying a tent), 2.5L aluminium cookpot with handle, woodstove, spatula, 1L steel thermos flask, change of clothes if preferred, a small repair kit (multitool, duct-tape, hot-melt glue), more water, food, some paracord, toiletries, floaters and a bath towel. (The last three are on the outside pockets for easy reach in case, like me, you like stopping for a dip at streams/lakes en route. I have a carabiner attached to a D-ring on the main straps so I can attach my main wide-mouth "drinking water bottle" to it.

Now, when it comes to backpacking food, I love rice (150g per person per meal YMMV). One can have only so many meals of instant noodles. Rice is easy to carry, easy to cook, makes a tasty and nutritious meal, is cheap, I could go on and on. Some cooking oil, a few veggies and you're all set. Among the veggies I carry, I'm partial to carrots, potatoes and onions because they have little water content hence are light to carry and they keep for quite a few days. I have another little tupperware box that has small film cannisters with spices and other condiments. Cashew nuts and groundnuts are also good to carry - both as a snack and to add to rice or other dishes. Dehydrated dessicated coconut is another thing that I love to carry.

Snacks carried are usually groundnut chikkis (kadlai burfi: toffees made with groundnuts and jaggery). Biscuits leave me dehydrated and thirsty. Dehydrated fruit is also great.

As far as possible, I like to cook on a small open fire. Despite all the claims from manufacturers of ultralight cooking gear, wood is usually the most eco-friendly method of cooking and personal heating even. Add a couple of green twigs into the fire and the smoke will also drive insects away. Not to mention the food tastes great. Except if you're hiking above the treeline, I don't see why one should ever have to use a manufactured fuel to cook with. The inputs and energies needed for its making and transportation are way more than a few twigs and fallen branches needed to run a small woodstove or fire-in-a-pit. All rules regarding responsible use of fire apply here. If you don't know, look it up. And use common sense.

Now, all you folks from the western world will be wondering about my water purification method. It's boiling. Doesn't cost anything, doesn't weigh anything. :)

Weight of Daypack + Backpack (with food) for a 6-day hike is usually around 16 kg. I usually carry at least 6L of water for the first day so it comes to around 22 kg. All that without much being spent on "ultralight" hiking gear.

03 September, 2010

Whose lake is it anyway?

Coimbatore, the third largest city of Tamil Nadu is situated on the banks of the river Noyyal and has a network of natural and man-made wetlands interconnected to each other and the river Noyyal dating back to 1200 AD. Some of these are under the authority of the Public Works Department, while 8 lakes that fall under the Coimbatore Corporation limits have recently been leased by the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation from the PWD. Traditionally, these lakes were sources of fresh water for domestic and agricultural use but in recent years due to rapid urbanisation they are being used only by marginalised people living in the vicinity for domestic use, as grazing grounds for subsistence herders, by farmers for irrigation seasonally and also for fishing. They still play a very important role in regulating the water levels in the Noyyal and preventing floods during excess rains in the city apart from underground aquifier recharge. Due to the unregulated and unsustainable extraction of groundwater in the city in recent years, their roles as water-table rechargers is one of the most important today. These wetlands and their drains are also serving as ad-hoc sewage drains (untreated domestic and industrial effluents) resulting in moderate to heavy pollution levels.

Anthropogenic uses apart, these lakes are also used by resident and migratory birds throughout the year. Large congregations (>300 individuals) of Threatened birds like the Spot-billed Pelican and Near Threatened birds like the Painted Stork regularly use these lakes for feeding, breeding, roosting and nesting. A study conducted jointly by researchers from SACON, Bharathiar University and PSG College of Arts and Science from June 2004 to September 2006 reports 116 species of birds using the Singanallur Tank alone.

In a public meeting held on 14th August 2010 at the Coimbatore Collectorate with attendance of the Mayor of Coimbatore Corporation, District Collector of Coimbatore and Commissioner - Coimbatore Corporation, a presentation was made by Scott Wilson India Pvt Ltd and Almondz Global Securities Ltd that proposed privatisation of the eight lakes that fall in the city limits (Narsampathy, Krishnampathy, Selvampathy, Kumaraswamy, Selvachinthamani, Coimbatore big tank, Valankulam and Singanallur) along with a rejuvenation proposal. Also proposed under this Build-Operate-Transfer scheme are construction projects like urban health resorts and spas, food courts, water theme parks, aquarium, planetarium, bird park, etc., in and around the wetlands.

It is questionable in the first place for the Corporation to even consider privatisation of a common public resource that is essential to the livelihood of many marginalised people. It also seems ill-advised to hand over the 'rejuvenation' and maintenance of these wetlands - crucial wildlife habitat and ecologically fragile and valuable areas - to a private corporation with no history of such successful projects without any public or governmental checks and balances. Some of the proposed 'rejuvenation' activities include draining, dredging and desilting of the wetlands to increase water storage capacities. This will destroy the aquatic fauna and flora, disturb the migratory birds and result in the transformation of the wetland from an ecosystem to a sterile water storage tank. Furthermore, the large construction projects proposed will have to rely on huge footfalls to be commercially viable, well beyond the carrying capacity of these wetlands, putting immense pressure on the ecosystem and the biodiversity it harbours and will contribute to irreversible damage, not just in terms of ecology, but even economy as the two are one and the same.

Tanks, Lakes and Wetlands of Coimbatore City

Just a Google map outlining Coimbatore's water bodies: artificial and natural. I used to treat the wetlands of Coimbatore simply as places one had to go to watch water birds. That view has changed and different feelings have emerged since it came to light in a public meeting that our dear city administration is planning to auction off the rights to eight of our lakes to private corporations who will do all they can to sterilise the lakes of all life and then charge the good citizens of Coimbatore (and others who happen to drop by) an entry fee to see the 'beautiful' bird park (just one of the mega construction projects they've proposed) after they've driven away all the natural, wild, migratory and threatened bird life from them (to say nothing of the plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, insects, spiders and small mammals). If only I could huff and puff and blow them away.

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07 May, 2010

Do you like the thing that holds you back?

Would you like to be on a leash, for instance? (BDSM jokes apart!). Isn't it amazing how human society and its norms change the behaviour of animals—dogs especially? Everyone's come across the dog who is overjoyed on seeing its 'owner' reach for the leash: that could only mean it's walky time! The leash, made for the very purpose of restricting freedom of movement, sends a dog into a fit of joy and hard tail-wagging because it means freedom from the restricted environs of its home. But while the dog is free to do what it wants to at home, on the leash its movement is quite restricted and dependent on the person in control of that leash. Yet, it chooses the leash over freedom at home. So do we. Governments, institutions and the society at large, almost always give individuals the leash treatment. One step forward and five back. Some petty allowances here and there in exchange for taking away some really important rights. And we're usually happy and thankful for this.