31 January 2011

January Galavanting

Eish, it's been a while. The last couple of weeks have been madness. I finished at WWF almost exactly two weeks ago. Not long after that I rushed off to Jaipur to volunteer at the Jaipur Literature Festival run by Teamwork Productions (yes I'm advertising a little). My family's been going for a couple of years plus my mom works with Teamwork so I'd been hearing about it for a long time. It's a huge festival and it's built a great reputation for itself in the last few years. I was put in charge of the book signing area - madness. But all the chaos aside, every evening there were music performances and lots of chilling with friends who were there. All in all, a full week of hard work and moderate partying - exhausting. 

Once it was over on Tuesday night, Cara and I made a last minute plan to take a detour on the way home and go to Ranthambore National Park since we were so close. It's a really smooth journey from Jaipur to there; the nearest town, Sawai Madhopur is only around 20min driving distance from the park, although I suppose that's not really a good thing for the park. The plan was to go there, do 3 safaris, and go back to Delhi. The first afternoon drive wasn't too eventful in terms of wildlife, though our company was HIGHLY amusing, serious characters. Not necessarily a good thing but I'll rant about that later.

Before I say anything more about the safaris, I have to say that Ranthambore is my new favourite reserve in India. It's such a stunning place with such amazing landscapes, and the Ranthambore Fort and the associated architecture you see around the park makes it so unique. Had to find this picture off of google to show how beautiful the original fort gate near the entrance of the reserve is and the fact that it's thrown in the middle of these sheer cliffs and forest with a little stream running along the road and the odd palm and banyan trees thrown in:

And there's apparently this also, I wish we'd seen it:

Anyway, back to the game drives - initially they weren't too eventful. I've mentioned this before in a post about my experience at Corbett National Park earlier in the holidays, Back in the Homeland - what's always most exciting for me (after tiger sightings of course) is being in Indian forests. The landscapes are so different from what I know of African safaris, so is the wildlife, that more than anything, it's a learning experience. I'm completely out of my element in my own country's nature reserves. It's humbling though. Here's a few of Cara's pictures from the drives:

sambar deer

baby langur feeding
rose-ringed parakeets
indian tree pie
male sambar deer
And those are just the non-exciting photos. Drive 2 onwards is when the tiger sightings (stress on the plural) start. Having spent enough time with Cara, I've realised I have a tourist mindset when I go to a park in India - seeing a tiger is the priority. Much like the Big 5 are here in Africa. In my defence, it's the conservationist in me and not the tourist that's constantly craving for a sight of those stripes in the bush and I can't control it just yet. Judging by the fact that two years ago, I cried when I saw my first wild tiger, I think it'll be a while before the novelty wears off. There's absolutely nothing in the world that compares to seeing this majestic, iconic, endangered animal in the wild, in its natural habitat. Even if it's a far off glimpse of a flicking tail, I promise it just makes your heart race. There isn't an animal on the planet more awe-inspiring than the tiger. And that comes with the fact that there are only some 3200 of them left in the world, making it an even more touching experience to see one of 1411 of your country's national animal in the wild, in a tiger reserve. I'm getting a bit repetitive here, but I had to stress that it's not just another tourist attraction to tick off your list, it's life changing, for me at least. And now that I've built them up enough, we saw one tiger on the second drive and two on the third and last (possibly a leopard also but it was impossible to spot even with binocs so I'm not sure I even saw it). One thing I loved about the tiger spotting on the drives, something I've never really experienced much of before, is the amount that you rely on alarm calls to tell you if there's tigers around. Prior to our sightings there must've been at least 5 false alarms where we would sit and wait for almost 15 minutes just staring into the bush looking for movement while listening intently to alarm calls of spotted deer 'chital', langurs and peacocks. Sometimes it felt like some kind of con the guides use to get you excited about seeing a tiger, but sure enough it works beautifully and it's what led us to tiger 1 :) Of course there's also good old tracking that led us to tiger 2. And pure luck for tiger 3.

tiger 1 - spotted as it was drinking water
tiger 2 - followed tracks all the way along the road until we got to this absolute beauty
tiger 3 - total fluke of a sighting, just in time to see him perfectly as he crossed the road
tiger 3 - marking his territory after crossing the road
Tigers 2 and 3 may have just made my life complete. Now while this has been quite the warm and fuzzy post, and as much as I fell in love with Ranthambore's landscapes and wildlife, every visit (at least from what I've seen) to a wildlife reserve in India and every big sighting is bittersweet. Sure you get to see India's natural beauty at its best, but the mood is always dampened by two things, 1) how threatened these habitats and their animals are and 2) the insensitivity of the common man/tourist in India. It feels like an almost taboo thing to say but there is absolutely no environmental sensitivity, let alone civic sense in the general public and until that changes, nothing will. For one, tourists that come to the reserves are tooooootally clueless about nature and only come to see "the tiger" to the extent that if they don't see a tiger they start complaining saying things like "there are no tigers here, it's all fake, all they have is deer and trees". I want to go on a rant and swear at this kind of behaviour but I keep that side of myself to a minimum on my blog :P But it's the same thing wherever you go. And when they do get their tigers, they have NO understanding whatsoever of the fact that you're supposed to stay freaking quiet. What's worse is that the guides and drivers seem to be in on it and the encourage the rowdiness. It's so embarassing to see. You want to take in this amazing moment of seeing the animal and not disturbing it, but everybody around you is shouting and screaming and all the vehicles seem to want to get as close to the animal as possible. The photos below capture some of the madness, but minus the noise. It's really unbelievable and there's nothing more angering, it makes me feel seriously violent.

It's things like this that started me off on my interest in seriously reforming the face of Indian ecotourism. It has such a long way to go, it's sad to see. The saddest thing is that it's actually SO easy to correct disgusting sights like these. All it takes is a few reserve rules, a quick briefing to the tourists, a little discipline and compliant guides. At some point I'm probably going to get told off for constantly comparing India and South Africa, but from what I've seen, South Africa has got a brilliant ecotourism model that India could seriously learn from and I hope we do take some lessons from them. One simple thing that I've seen at Mabula and a couple of other reserves is the controlled Big 5 sightings. For any sightings of a Big 5 animal, only 2 or 3 vehicles at a time are allowed on the sighting, all the rest have to wait in line at a standby point some 200 metres away from the sighting. It's SO simple and there's minimal disturbance caused. The only problem is that it's done via radio communication which they don't seem to believe in in Indian reserves, I'm not yet sure why. Anyway, proper ecotourism management practices is an area I'm really interested in and it's sad to see my own country be so pathetic at it. Another simple one like I said, is to brief the guests before leaving for the drive - simple rules like keep quiet, turn off your cellphone, don't feed the birds, don't get out of the car, don't stand up, jump around and cause a scene, respect the bush - easy way to ensure a civil safari. They also need a limit on how many vehicles/tourists enter the park at a time. It really doesn't have to be so difficult. Anyway, I won't rant anymore, I do love my country and people but not in these situations. I do have a nice thing to say about management of drives at Ranthambore, there was one system that I liked a lot. The park is divided into 5 ones, before every drive, the guides pick out a zone number randomly from a draw. If they pick out zone 3 for instance, they're given a vehicle that's clearly marked "Z3" and for that safari, they must stick to zone 3. It's a great way of ensuring that sightings don't get crowded by every vehicle in the reserve.

the crowd around tiger 3

Anyway, this brings my personal tally to four tiger reserves (Kanha, Sundarbans, Corbett, Ranthambore) and 8 wild tigers. I am happy :)

Thank you Cara for the most amazing trip - BEST idea and fantastic pictures. Go look at her blog!

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18 January 2011

Mabula June 2009

As I mentioned in the post My 2009, in June 2009 I spent two weeks at Mabula Private Game Reserve for a little learning experience. Here's the full story. Because it and three lodges in Kruger were owned by the Indian company UB, (Vijay Mallya's group - the same ones who own the Royal Challengers Bangalore :P) my dad knew them, so for three years we went up to Mabula all the time. It's a private game reserve in Limpopo, a two hour drive from Johannesburg. Over three years, I made it my second home. Every time we went back I'd have game ranger and lodge staff friends greeting me. Mabula gave me my true love for the bush and desire to be a qualified game ranger/field guide and to know everything there is to know about the bushveld, whichever term you're comfortable with. Of course the ideal situation would've been to go up there and do the full FGASA course with Mark Stavrakis' academy but that didn't quite happen so I took what I got and did two weeks of an intership of sorts.

I spent most of my time at Mabula shadowing the game rangers. I sat in with them everyday as they took guests out on game drives, sometimes 5 a day - 6:30, 10, 1:30, 3:30 and 7:30. Each drive was a new experience. I got to see the Big 5 on many occasions, as well as see new things like water monitors and even a glimpse of an aardwolf, and as always, new birds. One of the best things was getting to meet new rangers everyday and sit with them for 3 hours on game drives, talking to them and learning from them. They ranged from trainees with just 8 weeks of experience (admittedly I fell in love with one or two :P) to veteran rangers with over 10 years at Mabula. The ranger I spent most of my time shadowing was DJ, also the curator of the lodge's reptile centre. I got to assist him with maintenance of the reptile centre as well as handling some of the animals and helping him with demonstrations. I learnt a lot from his game drives too. Every afternoon we'd go out with new guests trying to show them these elephants that would just never show up and instead just leave clues everywhere. From all the drives, I learnt a lot about tracking animals, especially the elephants.

The biggest bonus of my time at Mabula was in getting to work with the reserve management team. While I was there I spent time with Ann Turner and Nick Theron who run Mabula's Ground Hornbill Research and Conservation Project. They told me all about the project's history etc. and about the resident birds (sadly I never got to meet them). At the time, Ann was hosting Dan York, a professor from Hillsdale College, Michigan, and two of his students Emily and Jordan. They were doing genetic research on the hornbills at Mabula and some other populations around Limpopo that Nick had been working on. They were also looking at Mabula's 10 elephants and 28 rhino to assess the degree of inbreeding amongst them and to map out a family tree of the rhino. Being able to accompany them on that research was the best experience of my life. In winter, the reserve supplement the elephant, rhino and buffalo with extra food like pellets or lucerne, we took advantage of this and used the supplementing as a way of getting the elephant/rhino all in one place (though with the rhino it was more challenging since they're everywhere).

For the elephants, we first had to set out to find them with the reserve ecologist, Jock. Jock's practically raised this herd, they know his bakkie and they respect him so much it's scary. Once we found them and they caught a glimpse of the white bakkie, they came charging at us, knowing they'd be supplemented. To have enough time to lay out the pellets, we sped off into the bush to find a clearing, got off and spread out sacks of these pellets (also at high speed) and then got back onto the bakkie. In no time the herd of 10 came charging out of the bush, ready to be fed - such an exhilerating experience. After that point we just had to wait and watch them. Basically, since we were collecting dung samples, we had to keep an eye on which elephant was shitting when and where so that once they cleared off, we could go and pick up the dung and know which elephant it came from. Sometimes the elephants would come so close to the bakkie that I could've reached out and touch it. I have a video of the matriarch sticking her trunk out literally right in front of my face but it's too long to upload. There were also some great moments when the elephants came too close and Jock, on foot, stood right in front of them, shouting at them to back off. Jock is such a brilliant character. His interactions with the animals aside, he's got the mouth of a sailor and drives around the reserve with a beer in hand. I'd kill to have his life.

The rhino dung samples had already been collected before I got there, but they did the same with those too. For the rhino we also wanted to get tissue samples through biopsy darting with a couple of reserve vets. This was another awesome experience. We had a chart of all the rhinos we wanted samples from, including little photos and diagrams of ways to identify them and tell them apart from each other. Once we found our rhino, we darted it, waited for the dart to fall out, waited for the rhino to be far enough and then collected the dart and put the sample (if we were lucky enough to get one) in alcohol. My job was basically to spot the darts when they fell out - not easy when you've got to watch the rhino running off and see where the dart falls.

One of the coolest parts of working with Dan and co. was the day trip to the National Zoo in Pretoria. They had a lab there where we spent the day working on all the elephant and rhino samples and extracting the DNA from them. That was very cool to help out with and Emily and Jordan were great teachers.

(All these photos are Dan York's.)

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16 January 2011

"Working to bring conservation into focus, one image at a time"

This feels like the perfect follow-up to my earlier post on iLCP - the International League of Conservation Photographers. And so appropriate given the amount of documentaries I've been watching.

Do watch this 17 minute film about conservation photography. Once again I have to say, it's such an amazing concept.

Taken from the Conservation International blog.

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15 January 2011

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated"

I have to go on a couple of small rants about things I'm angry about today. It's going to be a bit of a random.

Firstly - one that I never got round to talking about. Last month, just before New Year's, my family and I were in Amritsar and decided while we were there to take a quick trip across the border into Pakistan. We went to Lahore for two days (definitely too short) just to see what the place is like. Sure enough, Pakistan is exactly like India except Islamic and a little more politically/socially complex. 'A little more' is an understatement of course. Anyway, India-Pakistan subjects are most certainly not of interest to me. I just need to make a quick point about something that disturbed me deeply.

On the evening that we were driving back to Amritsar, we first went to meet someone for tea at the Pearl Continental Hotel. The hotel's bad enough as it's got a tacky, commercial, flashy vibe - very Dubai-like. Attached to the hotel is a mini shopping mall, so we decided to browse while waiting, and this is where my main story is. Two of the shops (as far as I looked), were very proudly selling 'Shahtoosh' shawls and displaying them in their windows. Now I should apologise, because in my anger I got too worked up to find out if it was even real Shahtoosh, where/how they got it, their contact details, and all the things I probably should have done. But I did ask them if they knew that selling shahtoosh is banned and they claimed it's perfectly legal. Then I got told my by sister that I was being rude for no reason which sparked quite the fight but that's not part of my story.. It may well have been fake shahtoosh, but to show it off as a shawl that's illegally come from the endangered Tibetan Antelope is wrong and I'm contacting people about this... Raping our natural heritage in the name of luxury has really got to end. And in the name of pseudoscience like traditional medicine too for that matter.

As always, I'm also feeling particularly worked up about the stray animal situation in the subcontinent (and lots of other countries too). For once, it's a problem I can't blame humans for and one that hasn't got a simple, easy to implement solution. But the fact that around India, these animals are abused and hit by cars is one that can be blamed on humans and can fixed quite easily. Every time you drive around an Indian city, you're almost guaranteed to see a stray dog that's being shooed away and hit by some random guy for no good reason, or one that's horribly injured, or worse, dead on the side of the road. It is not pleasant to see so often and it's definitely not necessary suffering. Of course on the other hand, you do see dogs in markets that are given coats to wear during winter, food and water, or just simply dogs that are being petted by someone - that's heartwarming.

On that lighter note, do have a look at the website for Friendicoes SECA (and the Friendicoes blog) an organisation I've been hearing about since my school days when we'd organise donations of food, blankets and newspapers for the shelter. At that time when I was living in Delhi, I remember spending every weekend going from house to house in the hostel, collecting the week's newspapers from everyone. My mom used to shout at me for the pile as tall as me that would build up in the balcony. There was a stray dog called Dingo and her puppies who I semi-adopted, and I also remember being shouted at for spending hours sitting outside and combing ticks out of her fur when I should've been studying for exams. For years, all Friendicoes meant to me was the rescue vans that would come to the hostel every now and then either to treat the dogs or to pick up my newspapers. Finally, last year I went to the actual shelters in Delhi and Gurgaon to help out Cara. Around the office there are a few of their resident dogs who all have such strong personalities and touching stories, you can't help but fall in love with them. The shelter itself is not an easy place to visit. Inside are cages and cages of whimpering dogs and cats, baby macaques and abandoned pedigrees. Some have been so badly injured, even seeing them in recovery is too much to handle. They do the best they can to take care of them but it's such a difficult task. For those of you in Delhi please take the time to visit Friendicoes and contribute to their efforts. Adopt a Desi dog. While you're at it, also take a look at Wildlife SOS, Friendicoes' sister organisation headed by Kartick Satyanarayan

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12 January 2011

My 2009

Sitting in office on my last week in WWF listening once again to music in one ear and the Program Director, Sejal Worah's meetings and conversations in the other. Something about being able to hear her hiring tiger specialists for WWF-India excites me. At this point, this post is probably the last thing I should be doing. I should be finishing up the last project of my internship - research on Indian banks' guidelines for screening the projects that they finance, Equator Principles type of stuff, and work for Sejal herself :S But I really want to write this one right now for some reason, perhaps because with the new year, I'm in a reflective sort of mood. I guess this post's going to be a bit more personal than most...and long but I refuse to do it in more than one part because that's just an excuse for procrastination. I want to talk about 2009.

I was at the American International School of Johannesburg for three years. At the start of 2009, we were finally second semester seniors and it was possibly one of the best feelings in the world. The last part of high school goes by so quickly, especially in IB (international baccalaureate). The beginning of the year is crazy, it's all deadlines deadlines deadlines and do your oral exams. The best part was handing in my extended essay on 'whether South Africa's white shark cage diving industry is conditioning great white sharks'. Now that I look back on it and I'm learning more about South African conservation, it was a pretty basic topic, but in IB it was my pride and joy. I have to say, for the record, that I got an A for it. To be honest, I may as well have taken Ryan Johnson's paper (the link is at the bottom, have a look) and paraphrased it, but hey, at least I interviewed him too :P After school was over in May and I graduated, I was still unsure of where I was going to university. I had applied to 5 universities in the UK, of which  I would have loved to go to Edinburgh, and two in Canada, all for various environmental science/ecology courses. I got into maybe five of those but wasn't too keen on going to them. The plan was that I'd take a gap year and during that time I'd apply to the US too. I never was able to make a shortlist of US colleges and I hated the SATs so I'm glad that part of the plan never happened. I really had no idea what I wanted to do with myself or where, but having just graduated, I decided I was on holiday and refused to stress about it.

In June, I went off to Mabula for two weeks on a learning experience. I want to do this one justice, so it'll have to be a separate post. Needless to say it was one of the best experiences of my life :)

For all of August and September, I interned at the environmental division MSA, a consulting firm mostly for mines and mining prospecting rights and that kind of fun stuff. I've talked about this in another post and mentioned it as one of the most useful experiences. I learnt so much invaluable stuff at MSA, I got such a great insight into environmental law and the process of environmental impact assessments and clearance. I also got to meet and work with some great people. It was mostly office work and often admin, but like WWF, it was an amazing learning experience.

The months to follow were the most important I guess. After three years of being posted in Johannesburg, my dad was due to leave in late October 2009 and we were all moving back to Delhi. As a sort of goodbye to South Africa, we went on one last holiday to Cape Town. Two amazing things happened on that trip. One was that after two years of working on an extended essay on the topic, I finally got to go cage diving in Gansbaai. I'm not so sure yet about how I feel about the practice of chumming etc., but being in the water with a great white shark was one of the best moments of my life. You can watch them on TV and see footage of them breaching while hunting fur seals, you can watch Jaws, but nothing in the world gives you respect for the animal like seeing it in front of you can. Just seeing their silhouettes around the boat is thrilling enough but when you get in the cage and see this perfectly streamlined animal appear out of the murky water and swim past you so gracefully, nothing beats it. Not to mention having its tail whack the cage as it tries to get hold of the bait they use to lure it in. The great white shark is a truly impressive creature. Oh and I should also mention that we did the cage diving with Shark Diving Unlimited - Mike Rutzen's company. Mike Rutzen being the 'Sharkman' on TV who free dives with the great whites. He's such a cool guy and he's got a rock python :)

The other great thing that happened in Cape Town was that as a last minute, impromptu sort of plan, we decided to check out UCT just for the sake of it and meet a couple of people there. I really don't know how it happened, but the next thing I knew we decided it was the best option and we were sitting in Olympia Cafe in Kalk Bay and I was looking out the window picturing a life in Cape Town. Everything somehow fell into place perfectly and I'm so glad it did :) As it is, I really wasn't ready to leave South Africa just then.

Later that month, we left for India. For the months that followed, I had a LOT of free time. Enough that I nearly tried to create my own NGO. That's another one I'll save for another post though :) For the time that I wasn't awake every day at 5am dabbling in big ambitious plans, I helped out Cara a bit at Friendicoes, did a week at WWF, holidayed in Sri Lanka and visited the Sundarbans (no tigers sadly).

chital deer
a huge mugger crocodile

Anyway. I've rambled more than enough. Nothing like a Cape Sugarbird in Kirstenbosch to end a post.

Finding a Balance between White Shark Conservation and Recreational Safety (Ryan Johnson and Alison Kock's paper on page 45)

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10 January 2011

Sky to Ground 2: Kargil, Srinagar

Here's part two of Sky to Ground 1, the account of my family holiday in Kashmir.

Leg two of the trip was a drive from Leh to Kargil (where the conflict between India and Pakistan took place in 1999, along the Line of Control). It was a full day's drive through barren mountainous terrains. Along the way we stopped at a monastery (sorry, can't remember its name).

Aaand then we got a flat tire so I took the opportunity to play with rocks and teach the family about shale and cleavage.

That night we stopped at the national hydropower guesthouse in Kargil, right next to a huge river. The next morning we carried on driving through to Srinagar. At this point I should say for not just this leg of the trip, but the whole thing - mountain roads are terrifying. They're so narrow and yet so crowded with trucks, and there are so many times when you're so close to the edge and you look down and it's just a sheer Himalayan drop. Not pleasant.

the road cut that these sheep were jumping off of must've been some 8ft high
On the way into Srinagar, we stopped at Sonamarg, one of many glaciers in a valley, which was to be my first glacier. I'm saving that for part three though :)

For the rest of the time we were in Srinagar, there wasn't so much we could do since there was a strike (I would explain but I'm not remotely qualified to even attempt talking about Kashmiri politics), but we did get to do a boat ride on the Dal lake (I think I just found a lifer for the list while going through those photos :D) and go to the Shalimar and Mughal gardens.

And following our guide's recommendation, we drove out of the city and into the hills to the most beautiful river by the ruins of an old little temple where we sat for a couple of hours on the boulders, soaking up the sun, feet in the water :)

It's mostly because of the pictures that I took so long posting this one. There were a lot to choose from and these posts are anyway more about the photos than the content (I apologise for my appalling story-telling, I don't remember details anymore).

Finally it's done but part three is going to take really long now because it requires a bit of research. But it'll be worth it. It's something I've been wanting to write about for ages. Let's hope I remember the details :)

For my sister's sake I should add - when I copyright the photos with my name, they're not necessarily all taken by me, some of them probably should be accredited to her, Manveena Suri or my mum, Mani Suri. So when I put  my name on them, let's just say it means that they're the work of the Suri family?

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07 January 2011

Malcolm Holland

I stumbled across this a while ago whilst looking for some information on Whale Wars. He's always just quietly manning the bridge on the show, who would think Malcolm 'Mal' Holland is such a talented photographer?

These were just my favourites, but check the rest out at the official website of Malcolm Holland.

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