I had wanted to take the Naturalists' Training Programme for a long time now,and kalyan emailed me the details of the course being offered at Jungle Lodges and Resorts' Bannerghatta National Park property, on March 24th to 26th, I was very keen, and even though two of our group of four--Mohan,and Amogh, both of whom had to work on the first day-- could not make it, decided to join. My friend Sanath Reddy, too, decided to register with me, and the two of us quite literally bumped our way over Bannerghatta Road and the diversion into what was little more than a cart-track, and reached Bannerghatta National Park at last.
We found a group gathered at the JLR resort; a total of 13 of us were registered for the course. Karthik the Chief Naturalist of JLR, used an innovative way of breaking the ice....he asked each of us to take the name of an animal or bird that shared the initial of our name, and then paired us off for five minutes to find out about each other...and then asked each of us to introduce his or her partner. This resulted in our getting to know everyone much better than we would have otherwise! The list of people, according to this method of nomenclature (not Linnaeus but Karthik!) was, in the alphabetical order of our names(not the animals!):
Amidst laughter, we settled down to the first session with Karthik, who introduced himself too...a versatile person, who has combined a long stint with WWF with a flair for photography and writing too, whose lifelong passion for wildlife and, in particular, birding, has had him giving these kind of courses for a long time now. He told us that since earlier course feedback had indicated a strong bias for birds, the course would concentrate on this field though we would briefly touch on mammals and the insect world.
He gave us a brief introduction to JLR and what they have been doing, and how they want to spread awareness of wildlife to everyone through these courses to train naturalists. Though there were several of us who were professional naturalists, the course would be equally useful to those of us who wanted to BE naturalists rather than work as naturalists; a better knowledge of how to spot wildlife and how to document our sightings would be beneficial to all of us. He then took us through an overview of the immense biodiversity that exists both in India, and in Karnataka.
He opened the session on birding with a quote from David Attenborough: that with humans sharing many of the attributes that we find in birds, and because of their paradoxical ability to both inhabit our everyday city world and to disappear, "with a clap of our hands", to their own world in the air and the trees, they are studied much more by human beings than other groups of animals. He talked of the sad state of affairs that exist in our education, where theory is all, and there is no practical introduction to the fascinating pursuit of bird-watching.
For the post-lunch session,he went on to elucidate many aspects of bird-watching,including how to identify birds by their shape and posture. Then we streamed out into the forest area, for our first nature trail. I cannot talk about the others, but I am a newcomer to bird-watching in this way, and it took me a while to get into the swing of it...and I was always a little diffident about whether I was right in my bird-spotting or not! But Karthik put us at our ease and told us that it was important to first sight the bird and then observe it as well as we could and then use the bird-books to identify it. He helped us in going to the right sections of the book and encouraged us to speak up about the identification, instead of doing the identification himself and preventing us from thinking for ourselves. This certainly made us more self-reliant in trying to spot the birds and get their names. We came trailing home through the dusk, well content with what we had learnt, and walked into the gates of the resort after having another look at the nilgai and spotted deer which were browsing at the edge of the lake nearby.
Karthik then introduced us to Mr Sadanand, an eminent botanist from Mysore, who held us spellbound with his account of how plants and trees behave in such a way that it is difficult not to ascribe intelligence to them. He talked of how human history and civilization have been shaped by plants...it was the domestication of some plants that changed Man from a hunter/gatherer to a settler. Without wood, grain and fibre, perhaps civilization would not have been as we know it today. After a fascinating lecture, Mr Sadanand promised to take us on a nature trail on the morrow where he would point out interesting plants and trees.
By this time, camaraderie had firmly set in and we all chattered like magpies as we went into dinner. The discovery, by some students who were looking out of one of the windows of the lecture-hall , of a purple sunbird's nest in the bamboo adjacent to it, gave us a project for the morrow, of capturing the sunbird family on film.
Early the next morning, we had tea/coffee and Marie biscuits, which was shared by the resident peacock,( whom I dubbed Mayur Marie to go with our group) and a session of affectionate antler-butting by the resident stag, we set off on the nature trail again. The weather was really lovely and Karthik gave us the first rule of wildlife-watching-- eyes and ears open, mouth shut. Of course, in the course of asking questions and exclaiming over the sights and sounds, we really didn't keep to this rule strictly; but Karthik forgave us our trespasses in view of our beginners' status and our enthusiasm! Mr Sadanand came along with us and opened our eyes to the world of medicinal and commercially-valuable herbs and small plants as well. For the first time, I saw what a sarasaparilla vine looked like and saw epiphytes and parasites which inhabit the plant world around us. We learnt amazing facts about symbiosis and how a huge Ficus tree and a tiny wasp needed each other to propogate themselves. We also did a stint of bird-watching...I cannot forget the breathtaking sight of a tree full of Rosy Starlings, and two Great Horned Owls sitting near each other on a rock the previous evening....
Post-breakfast, we discussed all that we had seen and learnt, and then we had a session on Bird Behaviour. Body Care Behaviour, Social Displays, and Feeding Behaviour...a lot of what we commonly see, and a lot that we don't usually observe, was talked about, with the help of really excellent slides. The hours just flew by!
Post lunch was our introduction to mammals, and we learnt of the grim picture that wildlife conservation presents today, with wildlife habitat shrinking alarmingly, and humans taking over more and more space. Karthik discussed the endangered mammals, and mentioned how it was critical to ensure that species did not disappear due to negligence and apathy. We then went on the van safari to see the carnivores and the herbivores, and though we were seeing animals which are so used to humans that one can really not call them wild, it was still fascinating. As we left for the safari, we watched two gaur locking their horns in combat. In fact, it seemed to be our day for watching conflict, for on the bear safari, two sloth bears were wrestling with each other; whether in earnest or in play, we could not tell. As we went through the carnivore area, two lioness and three lion cubs literally ambled up to take a look at us in our van...they would retreat if the van reversed, and run behind us as we moved forward! Who were the observers, and who were the observed? Roles seemed to be reversed!
Alas for us, the surging generator power had blown the lamp on the slide projector, so Karthik spread out some of the superb photographs he and his wife had taken over the years, and an animated discussion ensued that evening. Another session of bird-watching had me feel that maybe after all, I WAS developing the knack of this....! A superb sunset had some of us concentrating on that and some of us snapping the birds we saw.
On Sunday morning, we went off for our last nature trail of the course, and Karthik taught us some more about bird recognition and watching their behaviour and habitat as well. We came back for a lecture on Urban Wildlife....not as much of an oxymoron as one would think, for there is a world of wildlife around us even in the city, whether it is insects and butterflies or the birds that share our urban space with us.
We then had a discussion of why it was necessary that each of us turns proactive in trying to conserve wildlife; there is so much apathy, or downright anti-wildlife thinking in India that every bit counts. We have to spread the awareness that we are one amongs the many denizens on this planet, and the loss of one might endanger us all.
Karthik wound up the course with an excellent feedback session. Every participant had to speak up and say what s/he liked, and did not like, about the course...this made us all analyse our time there and articulate what we felt. Several of us stressed the need to involve children, and many valid suggestions were made. We were all unanimous in our appreciation of all that Karthik had done to open our eyes to wildlife in a way that we were not aware of before.
Having become quite good friends by this time, enough to have a lot of legs pulled and a variety of jokes cracked, we parted with expressions of goodwill; and I have started an egroup which everyone (not just our batch) who has gone through this course can join. This will ensure that we do not lose touch, and that hopefully, we will go out and make some difference to the wildlife conservation effort in our city, our state, and our country.
Thank you, Karthik and JLR, for a great opportunity to see ourselves in the perspective of all life that we share this fragile planet with! We look forward to the next level course!
sainath has put up a gallery of photographs on Flickr, and the URL is: