Sunday, November 15, 2015

AirBnB in Jordan

AirBnB in Jordan: Cave Edition - The Gazelle


It was late in the evening, and none of us had a working phone. Because we were traveling in Jordan, phone credit that normally lasted three months was eaten up in 32 seconds. The weather was getting cold, and we had no idea where we were and what we were going to do.
“Guys, I think I am out of balance,” said Miha as we exited a highway somewhere on our way to Petra.
“Just ask somebody where Little Petra is,” said Abhi.
Little Petra was where our AirBnB host had directed us over the phone, before our call was interrupted by the silence of deficient phone credit. 
When we stopped the car and started questioning random pedestrians, everyone told us something different. Most agreed that Little Petra was a hotel. This did not square with our original plan, however, because our host was supposed to be a man living in a cave.
Two weeks earlier, I had walked in on my friend Miha looking at an AirBnB listing for a cave. We had been swayed by the novel idea of living in the mountains of Jordan, as well as the host’s claims to have decent Wi-Fi, so we booked it.
Now that we were driving down a highway in Jordan, however, we were beginning to doubt our plan.
So we did what most people would do: We continued on straight, hoping to see a miraculous sign pointing us to the right place. And there it was — a board showing the directions to Little Petra.
From the expression on Max’s face, I could read the following words: “Guys, I have no idea where we are, but I am not willing to sleep in one car with the three of you, and I also don’t want to die tonight.” So we continued. It was 11 p.m. when we arrived at a dead end of only mountains and desert. I think all of us, at that moment, had lost hope.
Suddenly, a sharp light illuminated our side windows, and we looked over to see an old, pink SUV rolling to a stop next to us. Max put his window down, and a stranger with a big smile on his face repeated the phrase that we had been hearing at least 50 times a day:
“Welcome to Jordan!”
A few minutes later, we were in our host’s car somewhere in the mountains. In addition to the four of us, there were two strangers sitting in the back.
“Sprichts du Deutsch?” Ghassab, our host, addressed Max.
Though Max had been working on a project that required him to take a pledge of silence for the day, Ghassab did not give up. For 15 minutes, he continued his monologue in German as Max occasionally nodded or smiled.
“You know, my friends, you did not call me. I was waiting for you the whole day,” Ghassab explained.
“We are sorry, Ghassab, but we could not reach you on the phone and then we ran out of balance,” Miha tried to excuse us.
“Don’t worry, my friends. It’s OK. You can come anytime, in the evening or in the morning. Doesn’t matter,” Ghassab was trying to cheer us up a little bit, since he probably sensed that things had not gone according to plan for us.
At this moment, however, a strange noise came from the back of the car and we suddenly stopped.
“Oh, what is it now?” I thought. When we got out of the car, my fear materialized — a flat tire. “Great, we’re in the middle of mountains surrounded by desert without water or food.”
That thought suddenly made my other fears, including my future major declaration and recent midterms, seem much less relevant.
“How far is the cave?” I asked Ghassab.
Ghassab pointed at the big rock next to us. “It is right here, my friend.” 
Ghassab opened the door and let us in. Though it looked like a big mushroom from the outside, the cave’s interior was really welcoming and appealing.
“This cave is thousands of years old. We built only the fourth wall,” said Ghassab proudly.
The two other strangers, a French woman and a Jordanian man, came out of the car and introduced themselves while Ghassab lit a gas lamp and began making us tea. 
We spoke a bit as we got comfortable, listening to Ghassab explain how he inherited the cave from his Bedouin family. He pointed out the lights across the border with Israel, which we could see due to our cave’s proximity. 
The atmosphere was perfect. After six hours of traveling, we felt we deserved the most beautiful view in the world.
“You know, I studied in Germany when I was younger,” he told us. “I had to learn the language perfectly in one year, otherwise I would not be able to stay there.”
Later, I went for a short walk and climbed a nearby peak. Sitting on the edge of the cliff, surrounded by darkness, I could only see Israel in the distance. There was something about the atmosphere that made me uncomfortable, and it took me a while to realize that it was the silence. 
As I was listening to it, I was struck by the realization that I had not heard real silence for a very long time. There was nothing. No air-conditioning blowing in my room, no people chatting in the library or in the quiet rooms. It was real silence.
Since it was warm outside, we decided to sleep outside the cave that night. I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to the most beautiful sky I have ever seen — pink-blue and with a spread of stars. 
When I entered the cave in the morning, Ghassab looked at me and said something in surprised Arabic. I suddenly got scared that I had inadvertently done something inappropriate.
“You have a round face and you are blonde,” he explained. “You look exactly like my daughter’s friend from Europe. Are you him?”
“No, I don’t think I am him. And I don’t think I am blond,” I said.
“No, no, my friend, you are blond. Jordanians girls will really like you. You go to Amman and you will get a lot of girls,” Ghassab insisted.
Miha, Abhi and Max joined us in the cave for breakfast. Ghassab offered us some hummus, bread, donkey milk and what he called camel eggs.
“I brought camel eggs only for you — look how big they are. I also had to milk a donkey this morning!” he said.
“So, is donkey milk healthy?” I asked.
“Very healthy, my friend. Look at me. You will be strong like me,” Ghassab reassured us. “You know my friend, I am a psychic. I can tell you about your future.” 
“Ok, go ahead. Try me.” 
“Take an egg. I will tell you based on the inside of an egg,” he said.
I did not hesitate and started peeling the egg, sprinkling some salt on the top and digging at the soft white surface with a small spoon. As soon as the yolk appeared, Ghassab sighed. He then glanced at me with a pitying expression that made him look like he had just swallowed something very sour. My heart started to pound.
“Well? What does it mean?” I asked impatiently.
“Oh no, my friend.” He sighed again.
“Ok, what is it?” I joked. “Am I going to die soon?” 
“No, my friend. You know. You and ladies, it is not that positive. You are friends, but no more,” he predicted.
Meanwhile, Abhi was opening his egg. Ghassab looked at him and said: “But you, my friend, you are going to have many girls!”
I didn’t like my prediction, so I attempted to open another egg. However, Ghassab stopped me and said, “Only one egg a day my friend — no more.”
After the breakfast we started discussing our origins. Miha said he was from Slovenia. I followed by saying that I come from Slovakia.
“Oh, Slovakia! You know this word Slovak – it is where everybody comes from,” he said to us.
Miha tried correcting him. “Ghassab, the word is Slavic, not Slovak — ” 
“Yes, Slovak. Slovenians come from Slovakia. Everybody from Europe comes from Slovakia,” he insisted. While Miha helplessly struggled to accept his new origin, I was suddenly very proud of my country.
We packed to leave, but there remained one problem – the flat tire. After saying goodbye to the cave, we had to wait 20 minutes for another SUV to pick us up. Then we sat in the back of the trunk for the most wild and dangerous ride of our lives since Ferrari World opened. 
Staying in a cave with Ghassab had been an extraordinary experience. I would definitely do it again for the silence in the mountains — trust me, you haven’t heard such silence before — the view and, last but not least, Ghassab himself.
All photos courtesy of Peter Hadvab. Peter Hadvab is a contributing writing. Email him at

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Changing relationships between farmers and heronries

The state of Tamil Nadu in South India
has had a long history of creating and
managing water bodies, especially in the
plains. (The general term ‘water body’
has been used in this note to avoid con-
fusion resulting from the use of terms
like ‘tanks’, ‘ponds’, ‘wetlands’, ‘lakes’,
etc. in administrative parlance.) This is
attributed largely to the spatial and tem-
poral variance of rainfall distribution in
the state, which is concentrated over the
months of October to December during
the northeast monsoon, and June to Sep-
tember during the southwest monsoon
Estimates suggest that there are about
39,200 irrigation water bodies in the
state which serve various purposes such
as irrigation, domestic and livestock use,
fishing, groundwater recharge and flood
2–4. Started in the 1960s, foreshore
planting by the Tamil Nadu Forest De-
partment on some of the water bodies
was crucial in the creation of a number
of heronries in the state
5. A ‘heronry’ is a
general term that refers to nesting colo-
nies of waterbirds like storks, egrets,
herons, cormorants, etc.
6. Consequently,
some of the heronries were declared as
bird (wildlife) sanctuaries, with a work-
ing arrangement between the Tamil Nadu
Forest Department and Public Works
Department or Rural Development and
Panchayat Raj Department on aspects of
ownership, management and protection.
This eliminated traditional practices like
desilting of the tank, fishing, firewood
collection, grazing by the locals, etc.
which were earlier regulated by a combi-
nation of self-regulation and prudence as
well as customary rules. Interestingly, all
the 14 bird sanctuaries of the state are
water bodies, and with the exception of
one bird sanctuary in the western district
of Erode, the others are located on or

near the east coast and are a part of a
system of interconnected water bodies.

One of the most well-known bird sanc-
tuaries of the state is the Vedanthangal–
Karikili (thangal = shallow wetland),
which is situated at a distance of approxi-
mately 85 km south of Chennai. The
water body is part of the Lower Palar
Anaicut system and is a nesting ground
for nearly 17 species of waterbirds
Vedanthangal is often cited as an example
of community-led conservation, as is the
Koonthankulam–Kadankulam (kulam =
tank) bird sanctuary in Tirunelveli dis-
5,7. The bird droppings that enrich the
waters of Vedanthangal–Karikili and
Koonthankulam–Kadankulam are stated
to have served as organic enrichment for
the intensive paddy–horticulture cultiva-
tion in the landscape (Table 1). Systems
to manage the inflow and outflow of
water were evolved by the local zamin-
dar (landlord) in consultation with the
community, and the marginalized sec-
tions within the community were vested
with the responsibility of maintaining the
water body. The zamindar spearheaded
the protection of birds by punishing
hunters and poachers and incentivizing
the households which protected them.
Likewise, a landlord in Koonthankulam
played the role of a custodian of birds,
by incentivizing protection efforts. Over
time, this evolved into a local tradition
with the people desisting from engaging
in activities detrimental to birds. In both
cases, the villages came to be defined by
the birds. Farmers and local communities
around many of the sanctuaries used the
arrival of birds as one of the key indica-
tors to monitor local climate, and this in
many instances assumed the character of
‘divinity’. The association between local
communities, water bodies and birds was

symbiotic with the use of agricultural
fields for foraging by birds and the use of
guano-rich silt from the water body as

Interactions with the farmers of the
state’s delta region, however, suggest
that there is a need to re-examine the no-
tion of this symbiotic association. For in-
stance, farmers reported that the presence
of birds during the initial phases of
paddy cultivation, especially before the
crop is transplanted, leads to crop dam-
age. They address this issue by creating
noise using ingenious solutions such as
the use of cassette tapes. In various parts
of the world migrant waterfowl, includ-
ing ducks, geese, coots and cranes have
been reported to damage crops like rice,
corn, wheat and soybean by feeding,
trampling and grazing
8,9. While Gole10
reports crop damage by Bar-headed
goose to the winter crops in India, man-
aging rice cultivation by flooding rice
fields after harvesting and use of effi-
cient agronomic practices and equipment
can benefit the birds and at the same time
prevent crop losses
11. On the flip side,
the presence of birds in the agricultural
areas attracts poachers and hunters,
which results in conflicts with the Forest

While the agrarian tradition of
Koonthankulam has remained more or
less the same over the last many years, in
Vedanthangal–Karikili there has been a
marked change in land use in recent
years. Due to its proximity to the city of
Chennai and speculative land transac-
tions, agriculture has ceased to be of sig-
nificance around the water body. Large
tracts of temporary and permanent fallow
lands typify the landscape, and the resi-
dent communities wish to capitalize upon
the presence of the birds to create ‘green

Table 1. Details regarding two important bird sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu


Bird sanctuary




(sq. km)


No. of nesting
waterbird species


Major crops cultivated
around the BS

Paddy, gingelly, groundnut, finger millet,

Paddy, groundnut, cotton, banana, vegetables




townships’. As the irrigation service of
the water body becomes redundant, the
guano-enriched water is perceived to be
a problem.

Water bodies that continue to be of
significance to agriculture with large
ayacuts (area under agriculture) such as
Vaduvoor and Karaivetti, are under regu-
lar maintenance by the Public Works
Department, while in contrast, water
bodies with lower service to farmers
such as Udayamarthandapuram or Vet-
tangudi are accorded low priority. Con-
sequently, they are characterized by
silting of feeder tanks and embankments,
derelict sluices and seepage. Agarwal
and Narain
12 contend that the deteriora-
tion of tanks began soon after independ-
ence as they were brought under the
Public Works Department that was un-
aware of existing indigenous systems of
managing them, besides inadequate fund-
ing for maintenance. Discussions with
farmer groups and the Panchayats, espe-
cially in Kanchipuram and Ramana-
thapuram districts indicate that this was
one of the many corollaries of the social
reform movement in Tamil Nadu. Water
bodies are valued and protected by local
communities for their ecosystem ser-
vices, especially irrigation, and when the
management is local or perceived to be
inclusive in its approach
13. A change in
the management, especially to a system
that is seen to exclude local communities
and their interests may undermine the
intangible ecosystem services provided
by the water body.

With specific reference to bird sanctu-
aries, contamination of water with large
quantities of bird excreta, sediments and
agricultural chemicals run-off results in
high biochemical oxygen demand,
thereby degrading water quality and re-
ducing aquatic diversity, including native
fish species
14. The bird sanctuaries were
observed to be infested with invasive fish
species such as Tilapia (
) and Giant African Catfish
Clarias gariepinus), which are capable
of surviving in unfavourable environ-
mental conditions
15. The Giant African
Catfish not only decimates other aquatic

fauna, it is also not the food for any of
the birds due to its large size (R. J. R.
Daniels, pers. commun.). Tilapia, which
was introduced in Tamil Nadu to ensure
the availability of low-cost animal pro-
tein, was found to be widely represented
in nearly all the bird sanctuaries. The
cessation of fishing leases and permis-
sions granted by the state departments
has further intensified this problem. In
bird sanctuaries that are part of the
Lower Cauvery basin such as Karaivetti
and Udayamarthandapuram, the major
problem is the loss of area of the water
body due to the extensive growth of
weeds like
Eichhornia crassipes and
Ipomoea carnea. In Ramanathapuram
district, water bodies such as Kanjiranku-
lam and Chitirangudi are overrun by
Prosopis juliflora and the planted Acacia
, aggravating the existing water

Evidently, the issue of managing the
bird sanctuaries is rather complex not
only due to changing scenarios within
the landscape, but also because of the in-
volvement of multiple line departments
in protecting and managing the water
bodies. Also, the much celebrated sym-
biotic relationship between local com-
munities and birds in Tamil Nadu needs
to be revalidated and contextualized for
the current time-period. Based on the
validation, management systems and
processes need to be evolved as the state
embarks on a mission of ensuring the
wise use of wetlands, which is the key
tenet of the Ramsar Convention on Wet-
lands, 1971.

6. Urfi, A. J., The Painted Stork: Ecology
and Conservation
, Springer Science &
Business Media, New York, 2011, p. 163.

7. Krishnan, M., The Vedanthangal Sanctu-
ary for Water – Birds
, The Madras State
Forest Department, Madras, 1960, p. 25.

8. Hunt, R. A. and Bell, J. G., In Bird Con-
trol Seminars Proceedings, 1973, Paper
104, pp. 85–101;

9. Cleary, E. C., In Prevention and Control
of Wildlife Damage
(eds Hyngstrom, S.
E., Timm, R. M. and Larson, G. E.), Uni-
versity of Nebraska Cooperative Exten-
sion Service, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA,
1994, pp. El39–El55;

10. Gole, P., Aquila, 1982, 89, 141–149.

11. Stafford, J. D., Kaminski, R. M. and
Reinecke, K. J.,
Waterbirds, 2010,

33(sp1), 133–150.

12. Agarwal, A. and Narain, S. (eds),

Wisdom: Rise, Fall, and Potential of
India’s Traditional Water Harvesting
, Center for Science and Envi-
ronment, New Delhi, 1997.

13. Mitsch, W. J. and Gosselink, J. G., Ecol.
, 2000, 35(1), 25–33.

14. Tilman, D., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA,
96(11), 5995–6000.

15. Ganie, M. A., Bhat, M. D., Khan, M. I.,
Parveen, M., Balkhi, M. H. and Malla,
M. A.,
J. Ecol. Nat. Environ., 2013,
5(10), 310–317.


17. Care Earth Trust, Wetland Action Plan –
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, Tamil
Nadu Forest Department, 2014, p. 113.

18. Care Earth Trust, Wetland Action Plan –
Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, Tamil
Nadu Forest Department, 2014, p. 186.

anonymous reviewers for their comments.
This note is based on an assignment awarded
to Care Earth Trust by the Tamil Nadu Biodi-
versity Conservation and Greening Project of
the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to evolve
Wetland Action Plans for 11 bird sanctuaries
of the state.

Avantika Bhaskar and Jayshree Vencate-
san* are in Care Earth Trust, #5, Shri
Nivas, 21st Street, Thillaiganga Nagar,
Chennai 600 061, India.






Balachandran, S., Asokan, R. and Sri-
dharan, S.,
J. Earth Syst. Sci., 2006,
115(3), 349–362.

Palanisami, K. and Easter, K. W.,
Irrigation in the 21st Century – What
? Discovery Publishing House, New
Delhi, 2000, p. 189.

Palanisami, K. and Meinzen-Dick, R.,
Irrig. Drain. Syst., 2001, 15(2), 173–195.
Sakthivadivel, R., Gomathinayagam, P.
and Shah, T.,
Econ. Polit. Wkly., 2004,
XXXIX(31), 3521–3526.

Subramanya, S., Indian Birds, 2005,
1(6), 126–140.



Sunday, November 8, 2015

One of my favourite places

One of the most charming places close to home is RV, with the most charming people in it as well.

One of those charming people is Shantharam, and I was delighted to find this in the papers.

Green Valley of Learning - The New Indian Express

V Shantaram, director of the Institute of Bird Studies & Natural History
The munificent shade provided by the banyan tree could function as the classroom. There is no teacher to guide or shout instructions. There aren’t any books, and no rules. The subject of study is all around—perched on trees, camouflaged in the foliage, some preening themselves while others are screeching and cooing. This is the campus of the Institute of Bird Studies & Natural History, a bird sanctuary in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. Both fall under the aegis of Rishi Valley School.
Aligning itself with founder Jiddu Krishnamurti’s ideology of compassion towards all living beings with his observations on birds, animals and nature being well documented, a six-month correspondence course in ornithology was introduced in 1997, much before the institute was set up in 1999.
“The course is open to people from any background. Although professionals in ecology and conservation are taking advantage of it, the course has attracted a lot of retired people and housewives who are pursuing it as a hobby,” says V Shantaram, director of the institute.  
For students, the Rishi Valley School campus is a practical learning ground with its huge tree cover, bird life and other forms of biodiversity. “Krishnamurti planned to develop a world university, but it fell through. Rishi Valley School was started in 1930 in this remote place with barren surroundings except for a centuries-old banyan tree. Tree plantation followed, gaining momentum in the 80s when the revenue department handed over 150 acres of land to the school on lease for afforestation. With an additional habitat of a percolation point that provided rainwater harvesting, bird life on the campus began to grow,” explains Shantaram.
So what came first, the institute or the bird sanctuary? “The latter,” says Shantaram, the credit for which goes to S Rangaswami, naturalist, author and educator at Rishi Valley School. “In the late 90s, Rangaswami found a dramatic increase in the bird life and decided to conduct a survey. He invited people from other places, which is when I came there,” says Shantaram. “From the 70-80 species found here in 1977, we were able to list 150 species, probably due to the positive changes in the habitat. In 1991, Rishi Valley School was declared a bird preserve.”
The bird preserve may not have become the Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History had Rangaswami decided to move on after authoring his book, Birds of Rishi Valley and Regeneration of their Habitats, in 1994. He introduced a correspondence course in ornithology.
The reins of running the institute was later handed over to Shantaram. “Rangaswami invited me to join and I came here in 1978 as the resident ornithologist. From the 175 species when his book was written, the number has grown to 230, which I have documented,” says Shantaram.
The correspondence course is of six months, with students welcome to come to the institute and observe birds as part of the practical component. Shantaram also teaches at the main school. “Students who are 17 and above can join. Once an eight-year-old boy got through the course, while our oldest student was an 80-year-old lady,” he says.
Students have to answer a question paper after the first three months and another at the end of the course, after which they get a certificate. The course fee is “a minimum donation of `1,000. Upon feedback from students and others, the course syllabus is always up for revision,” says Shantaram. The institute’s mascot is the yellow-throated bulbul, “which is special to south India and is listed as ‘threatened’. We keep seeing it here regularly,” he says.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Evolution in front of our eyes

Greater than the sum of its parts | The Economist

LIKE some people who might rather not admit it, wolves faced with a scarcity of potential sexual partners are not beneath lowering their standards. It was desperation of this sort, biologists reckon, that led dwindling wolf populations in southern Ontario to begin, a century or two ago, breeding widely with dogs and coyotes. The clearance of forests for farming, together with the deliberate persecution which wolves often suffer at the hand of man, had made life tough for the species. That same forest clearance, though, both permitted coyotes to spread from their prairie homeland into areas hitherto exclusively lupine, and brought the dogs that accompanied the farmers into the mix.
Interbreeding between animal species usually leads to offspring less vigorous than either parent—if they survive at all. But the combination of wolf, coyote and dog DNA that resulted from this reproductive necessity generated an exception. The consequence has been booming numbers of an extraordinarily fit new animal (see picture) spreading through the eastern part of North America. Some call this creature the eastern coyote. Others, though, have dubbed it the “coywolf”. Whatever name it goes by, Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, reckons it now numbers in the millions.
The mixing of genes that has created the coywolf has been more rapid, pervasive and transformational than many once thought. Javier Monzón, who worked until recently at Stony Brook University in New York state (he is now at Pepperdine University, in California) studied the genetic make-up of 437 of the animals, in ten north-eastern states plus Ontario. He worked out that, though coyote DNA dominates, a tenth of the average coywolf’s genetic material is dog and a quarter is wolf.
The DNA from both wolves and dogs (the latter mostly large breeds, like Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds), brings big advantages, says Dr Kays. At 25kg or more, many coywolves have twice the heft of purebred coyotes. With larger jaws, more muscle and faster legs, individual coywolves can take down small deer. A pack of them can even kill a moose.
Coyotes dislike hunting in forests. Wolves prefer it. Interbreeding has produced an animal skilled at catching prey in both open terrain and densely wooded areas, says Dr Kays. And even their cries blend those of their ancestors. The first part of a howl resembles a wolf’s (with a deep pitch), but this then turns into a higher-pitched, coyote-like yipping.
The animal’s range has encompassed America’s entire north-east, urban areas included, for at least a decade, and is continuing to expand in the south-east following coywolves’ arrival there half a century ago. This is astonishing. Purebred coyotes never managed to establish themselves east of the prairies. Wolves were killed off in eastern forests long ago. But by combining their DNA, the two have given rise to an animal that is able to spread into a vast and otherwise uninhabitable territory. Indeed, coywolves are now living even in large cities, like Boston, Washington and New York. According to Chris Nagy of the Gotham Coyote Project, which studies them in New York, the Big Apple already has about 20, and numbers are rising.
Even wilier
Some speculate that this adaptability to city life is because coywolves’ dog DNA has made them more tolerant of people and noise, perhaps counteracting the genetic material from wolves—an animal that dislikes humans. And interbreeding may have helped coywolves urbanise in another way, too, by broadening the animals’ diet. Having versatile tastes is handy for city living. Coywolves eat pumpkins, watermelons and other garden produce, as well as discarded food. They also eat rodents and other smallish mammals. Many lawns and parks are kept clear of thick underbrush, so catching squirrels and pets is easy. Cats are typically eaten skull and all, with clues left only in the droppings.
Thanks to this bounty, an urban coywolf need occupy only half the territory it would require in the countryside. And getting into town is easy. Railways provide corridors that make the trip simple for animals as well as people.
Surviving once there, though, requires a low profile. As well as having small territories, coywolves have adjusted to city life by becoming nocturnal. They have also learned the Highway Code, looking both ways before they cross a road. Dr Kays marvels at this “amazing contemporary evolution story that’s happening right underneath our nose”.
Whether the coywolf actually has evolved into a distinct species is debated. Jonathan Way, who works in Massachusetts for the National Park Service, claims in a forthcoming paper that it has. He thinks its morphological and genetic divergence from its ancestors is sufficient to qualify. But many disagree. One common definition of a species is a population that will not interbreed with outsiders. Since coywolves continue to mate with dogs and wolves, the argument goes, they are therefore not a species. But, given the way coywolves came into existence, that definition would mean wolves and coyotes should not be considered different species either—and that does not even begin to address whether domestic dogs are a species, or just an aberrant form of wolf.
In reality, “species” is a concept invented by human beings. And, as this argument shows, that concept is not clear-cut. What the example of the coywolf does demonstrate, though, is that evolution is not the simple process of one species branching into many that the textbooks might have you believe. Indeed, recent genetic research has discovered that even Homo sapiens is partly a product of hybridisation. Modern Europeans carry Neanderthal genes, and modern East Asians the genes of a newly recognised type of early man called the Denisovans. Exactly how this happened is unclear. But maybe, as with the wolves of southern Ontario, it was the only way that some of the early settlers of those areas could get a date.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Charm of Sinnadorai's Bungalow | The Pollachi Papyrus

The Charm of Sinnadorai's Bungalow | The Pollachi Papyrus

The Charm of Sinnadorai's Bungalow | The Pollachi Papyrus

It was Hot and sultry in Madras. Our son was home on summer vacations, and I was away from home with long days at work. A family getaway beckoned, and it was then I thought of The Sinnadorai’s Bungalow, Valparai. I had to be in Coimbatore on work, and with a mere 3 hours of drive from the city, it was an added bonus. Decisions were made with rare family unanimity and speed, as we set on our journey towards Valparai. A breezy drive through the rustic villages of Pollachi and the scenic 40 hair pin bends after Aliyar brings us to Iyerpadi on the Pollachi – Valparai main road.valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
The “Sinnadorai’s Bungalow” was well signposted as we sheepishly followed the boards, descending into the heart of the tea country here. Every hill was covered with tea and the ubiquitous Silver Oak trees. We finally arrived at the bungalow, and my excitement grew as the mist gusted across the driveway. Bulbuls chirped in the trees, spotted doves cooed and squirrels ran across! It was like arriving in Paradise – I could get used to this, I thought. The most enamored of the lot, surprisingly, was my son, who at this point thinks a tea plantation job is a good career option!
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Credits – Sinnadorai’s Bungalow
Greeted with a several-course hot lunch, which we downed with great gusto, we sat in the lunch room, and the skies opened up. It was such a wonderful start to the holiday – a perfect wind down to sit and watch the rain, as the delightful thought of being here crossed my mind.
valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
Credits – Ambika Chandrasekar
The Sinnadorai’s bungalow dates back to 1929, one of the earliest residences of the area, part of the Paralai estate of Parry Agro plantations. We stayed in the room called Sullivan with a lovely view down the valley. Tea estates have long been considered “green deserts” which are seemingly green, but not really supporting a thriving ecosystem. With acres and acres of plantations that are not going to vanish, conservationists here are now working to develop these environments into a more diverse landscapes.
valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
The bedroom at the Bungalow | Credits – Sinnadorai’s Bungalow
The cast of characters at the Bungalow:
Thavam - the night watch here, reminded me of a lighthouse keeper in a PD James mystery set in a remote corner of the British Isles. With his gum boots and quiet air, he keeps vigilant for Gaur, wild dogs and leopards. With a calm presence, he pointed out the Gaur to us every morning.
Indian Gaur
Indian Gaur | Credits – Ambika Chandrasekhar
Murugan - the Man Friday of the Bungalow assisted us on our walks. He loves the forest here and has a wonderful positive air to him. With a ready smile and an earnest enthusiasm, he filled us in on the ecological history of the place.
valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
The Restaurant at the Bungalow | Credits – Sinnadorai’s Bungalow
Ashirvad - the cook has a special magical touch to his dishes – with his coconut soufflés and caramel puddings being the most irresistible. He and Rani together worked the kitchen as they planned and executed their menus. Rani’s tomato chutney was a favourite of ours too and we consumed vast quantities of it, with everything, including the toast!
Uma - the housekeeper accommodated our laggard, malingering ways with cheer and efficiency – I think we were late for every meal! Panchavarnam was her cheerful assistant, and her spry, slight frame could be seen through the windows as she went about sweeping and cleaning up.
Birds and Wildlife:
Malabar Whistling Thrush
Malabar Whistling Thrush | Credits – Harishvara Venkat
The resident Malabar Whistling Thrush entertained us every morning and evening with its shrill melancholic whistles. Another neighbour who loved those earthworms was the Orange headed Thrush. The Early morning walk was rewarded with an encounter with a ruddy mongoose ambling across the path. A Green forest lizard would regularly sun itself on the stone driveway, keeping a wary eye on us. The Spotted Doves were also in plenty, waddling across our paths, reluctant to fly until we were real close. They cooed to each other through the day. The days were filled with butterflies and the nights with moths, of various sizes shapes and colours.
“But all of this faded into the background that one morning , when we saw the Great Indian Hornbill family.”
Murugan had taken us on a walk into the neighbouring coffee plantation with the hope that we would see them. Our walks skirted the thick patches of shola forest that separated the estates, and served as refuge for the wild animals by day. Our continued existence depended on their wellness, and I sent out a silent thanks to NCF and all those wonderful bodies working hard to preserve them. Some heavy swooshing in the trees and I saw a pair of Malabar Grey hornbills.
grey hornbill male
Malabar Grey Hornbill | Credits – Keerthana Balaji
My luck (which is usually abysmal with wildlife) was not so bad I thought. And there it was! From a sudden movement of a branch, which i assumed to be a langur, emerged a yellow casque! “It was the Great Indian Hornbill! The magnificent bird was right in the middle of the tree, and we waited patiently, fixating our eyes on that bright yellow casque.”Murugan in a low tone said “It is a juvenile. The parents are probably around.” Sure enough there was a harsh call, so loud, it must have been heard in the next estate.
valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
Great Pied Hornbill | Credits – Prakash Ramakrishnan
“With a whoosh that would put Batman to shame, the parent hornbills appeared on the scene! What a sight it was!”
They moved from tree to tree, in search of fruits, putting on an incredible show with the majestic display of their wingspan. As we returned to our rooms, we had a run of the whole house for our entire stay, and sprawled ourselves across the library with book choices from Pamuk and Amitav Ghosh to Bhagat and Collins. It was quite a luxury I admit and a bonus of travelling off – season.
valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
Credits – Ambika Chandrasekhar
We spent that last week of July, walking, birding, reading, eating and sleeping. The sunsets here are spectacular on the days when there were no clouds in the horizon, and the bungalow was well located to enjoy the beautiful skies and the layers of hills and mountains, each with different depths and shades.
valparai, pollachi, resorts, responsible travel, sinnadorais, property review, colonial bungalow, parry agro, tea bungalows, gaur, great pied hornbill, papyrus,
The view of Grasshills from Sinnadorai’s | Credits – Harishvara Venkat
It was time to leave, but not before we had a last look at the Grass Hills. It was a clear, sunny day, and the hills were revealed. The Shola grasslands could be seen in the distance and with that gorgeous spectacle, our splendid holidays came to an end.