Sunday, August 24, 2014

Temple Run!

The main temple complex of Angkor Wat
I needed a break. Break from what? I didn't know. I just wanted to do something new. That prompted me and Bhagya to buy return tickets for Cambodia and think of nothing else. On a shoe string budget we reached Siem Reap with 10 days at hand. We were happy just to sit and do nothing for the next 10 days. Pretending that the world didn't matter to us we hired two bicycles for a dollar each and cycled the 7 km to the main temple complex of Angkor Wat. We took a side road less traveled. The road passes through lovely old growth rain forest. There were artists workshops tucked away on the side of the road. We took our time to ride through the lovely but empty forest! Very little bird activity around us. No flutter in the canopy. No singing bird in the brush.

Only when we reached the main temple complex did we find out that the ticket center is 5km back towards the city. The check post was located in such a way that we couldn't even get a peek at the worlds largest temple complex!

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
 We had used half of the first day just riding here so we decided to take the rest of the day to ride back and start our Angkor Experience the next day. On the way back we entered a dirt road into the forest and chanced upon a sculptors workshop. There were over fifteen people working. The owner/teacher offered us a tour of his workshop and explained what was being done. He and his students (Mostly teenager and many women) carve wood into Angkorean sculptures. It was a very humbling experience because here in the middle of the forest we were witnessing the revival of an art that the Khmer Rouge tried its best to annihilate. The feel of the place was an ordinary one. People came in did their job of carving beautiful sculptures. We asked about some of the completed piece and the quoted price was 10,000 USD!

Bhagya at the South Gate of Angkor Thom
 We spent the next two days just cycling around the 100 sq km 'campus' of the Angkor. It was hot and humid all the time. The sun would blaze from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. We hadn't really accounted for the 1USD per liter of water that we needed to buy. But then it was a small price to pay for a great wandering experience in one of the worlds greatest wonders.

One of the hundreds of temples scattered over the 3000 sq km of the Angkor landscape.
 My village, in India, where my parents live and spent part of my childhood holidays is at Ajanta. The largest Buddhists cave monastery in the world. Carved over 2000 years ago, this Buddhist civilization was later replaced by a Hindu civilization. Here in Cambodia I was witnessing a similar process. The The Khamer Ankor empire built this large Hindu civilization over 1500 years ago. This is the largest Hindu temple complex anywhere in the world. And about 800 years ago this civilization was replaced by a Buddhist civilization. The people did not change, just their beliefs. During our time of wandering through these temples we kept seeing a hording about the upcoming Angkor Empire Marathon. The registrations had closed but we wanted to run. Cycling through these temples was one of the most amazing thing I had done and I couldn't wait to imagine how it would be to run a long distance race though this maze of mysteries.

The forest reclaiming what was theirs
 There were many serious runners already in the temple complex. People were trying to acclimatize to the heat and the humidity. Watching them practice just got our adrenalin high. We wanted to be part of this event. I couldn't imagine watching it from the side line. So we landed at the hotel that was hosting the race official. We spoke to anyone who would listen. Finally we got the word that if people didn't turn up to pick up their race kit by 8:30 the night before the race then we could participate. we waited hours for the clock to hit 8:30. We were handed our kits and we were to run the 10K the next morning at 6:00 am!
Marathon participants on their acclimatization run
At the starting line Bhagya was a little nervous. Even at 6:00 am it was hotter and humid than our comfort limit. It was clear that hydration was going to be the key. Bhagya and I separated once the race started. I headed out with the lead group. I was carrying an injury and hadn't trained in 6 months. Three kilometers into the race I had the leader still in sight and about 20 runners between us. That got me greedy. I paced up and decided to atleast be among the top 10 by the 5K mark. I did, I was 9th at the half way mark and every one around me seemed similar to me in pace. I teamed up with a Japanese runner. We ran together for the next two kilometers until we passed the main temple of Ankor Thom. This is when he started to slow down and I had to break the partnership. Although I gain a place and moved up to 8th. I knew I lost a good ally and we could have helped each other pace in the end. However, his pace was slowing and I would risk loosing my tempo. So I left. The last 3K were lonely. The streets were lined with international tourists and Cambodian. The elephant riders, tuk-tuk drivers, cyclist and vendors. But I was missing the company of a running buddy. I crossed the finish line in a respectable 47:54min in 8th place. Thats when I felt I had ignored the hydration and pushed too hard. My legs began to seize and even walking became difficult. Thanks to the organizers there were ample sports drinks and plan water for all. After two sports drinks I felt better. I had used two other ice cold water on my face to cool me down. Then I started walking back to the runners route. The full marathon and half marathon runners had begun to finish. I walked back a couple of hundred meters when I saw Bhagya on her way to the finish line. I ran the last 200m with her to the finish. There was a big cheers for her from the crowed at the finish line. She had cut down 5 min on her previous 10K timing.
Bhagya and I at the finsh line

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A road trip across Mongolia

I was in the South Gobi province of Mongolia working with Jens karlsson and Gustaf Samelius on a project to safe guard livestock stocking corrals from snow leopards and wolves. Jens has more experience fencing out large carnivores than any other wildlife biologist that I know.
A fence that we build around Burran's corral in the Gobi Desert. The dark soil is actually a meter deep goat poop!
The details of the project aside, but I was really excited about this trip to Mongolia because this was in spring, in April, the season for bird migrations. Our very first afternoon in the Gobi Desert and had the sky filling up with migrating geese and ducks. The most majestic flocks I have ever seen. A few thousand at the least.
Jens, Burran and Burran's kid
Working on building fences was new for me. My first experience with Civil engineering. I didn't get any better with because I had one eye on passing birds.
Burran shows Jens the petroglyphs near his corral. Its a horseman with bow and arrow hunting what appears to be a male red-deer.

Petroglyphs of red deer are common in the Gobi, alongside that of ibex, snow leopards and wolves. The petroglyphs of red deer indicate that the Gobi was not so dry always. It had the red-deer which occupies relatively wetter areas. No red deer in the gobi any more.
Cashmere goats. The cashmere industry in the west drives life in the remote gobi desert. Herders depend on the cashmere goats for a living. The killing of these goats by snow leopards and wolves is economic blow. Herders kill these predators to keep the damage low. 
The idea of building fences around livestock corral is to keep the livestock killing by carnivores to the minimum. Thus removing the herders motivation for killing the predator. Of course we will have to follow-up with the herders to make sure that support carnivore conservation.
The first thing that comes to mind when we hear Mongolia is Chinggis Khan and horses.
I haven't been so fortunate to be able to ride horses in the Gobi but should I get a chance I would rather do it bare-back. The Mongolian saddles are made of wood and extremely hard. 
Watering a horse
 Gobi has a lot of livestock; goat, sheep, horses, camels, cattle. They all depend on these wells which are barely a thirty or forty feet deep. These well were dug up during the communism time. Now, with the big mines (coal and copper) digger has led to a lowering of ground water table in the region threatening this age-old form of life.
The dog form the west
I spent the winter of 2011-12 in the Gobi. One evening this dog just walked up to me and started playing, When I inquired around the herders said that he just walked up from the one day and has been hanging around. He guarded my camp that winter. This time I was happy to see that the dog had adopted a neighboring herder. He was delighted to see me. So was I. After an hours play he led me to this well.
A white wagtail. There is a good chance that this guy flew in from India only a couple of hours ago. Well he must have left a while ago but reached only now.
A ger
Life in the desert is simple. A hut, a couple of motor-cycles for herding goats, and jeep to move camps. Notice the solar power and the satellite antenna for television. 

Off-roading in the grassland seems like fun but not for the ecology of the region. Its fun because it is negotiable and offers a long view 

After we were done putting up two trial fences we were ready to get back to Ulan Baatar and head back to India. Call it a stroke of luck, but we did not get seats on the flight from Ovoot to Ulaan Baatar. The good news was that we would be driving all the way from Gurvantes, which is near the Chinese border in the south, to Ulan Baatar. A drive of 900km and estimated time was two days!

As we drove north the grass became greener
 Miji and Sumbee drove the entire distance. The big russian van was the ideal vehicle for such a journey. Of course the Mongolians would disagree because they prefer the LandRover.
Miji and the big Russian van
The road was littered with Isabaline Shrikes and Voles and feeding on them were the Upland Buzzards. I never imagined that a land could support so many raptors. The sky was full of Black Vultures, the pastures laden with buzzard, the occasional falcon flew across flocks of larks and the eagles were perched on the electric poles. The migration was in full swing. Even small ponds were full of Swans and Geese and Gulls.
Desert gave way to tar roads
For wildlife, the mud roads of the desert were great. We saw a few herds of Black-tailed Gazzelle. A lone spoonbill stranded in the sand. 
Herders on their horse with wood pole lasso. This is the traditional way of livestock herding. 
The modern Mongolian herder use motor bikes!
I am not sure what that JCB is doing in the pasture

The scenery changed rapidly as we approached Ulan Baatar

Ulan Baatar holds a juxtaposition of the old communist/Soviet grandeur and modern western briskness with its Braodway Pizzas 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Scorpiops spitiensis: A new species of scorpion from Spiti, Himachal Pradesh

Scorpiops spitiensis (Photo from Zambre et al. 2014) The spitians have always known of a scorpion that inhibits their houses and livestock sheds. It lives a almost completely subterranean life. Thus they are mainly sighted when demolishing an old building or digging rocky areas for new buildings. Some of us who have worked here often thought that this was a yet undescribed species.It was June 2011 when I went to Spiti with Mayank Kohli and Ashwin Vishwanathan that we got to collecting a few specimens. Thanks to our friends Amod Zambre, Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap who are experts of the taxonomy of scorpions and spiders our scorpion turned out to be a species new to science. The specimens have been deposited in the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai. The original paper describing the species can be found here.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Desert Ice

Horses grazing in the pastures around Tost mountains in the Gobi desert

Of course life in deserts revolves around the oases and waterholes. Almost every animal and bird has to visit one of these for a drink. However, the cold deserts of the Trans-Himalayan region tend to be a little different. The animals here depend on the snow in winter and glacier and snow melts in summer for their water requirements.

Gobi desert

The Gobi desert in Mongolia is a weird mix of both! Summer temperatures here reach a maximum of 35 Degrees Celcius and winters freeze at 25 degrees below zero. Come summer, life revolves around waterholes and oases which are the only source of water. As winter approaches these sources of water freeze over and a new source of water is delivered: snow! Although most animals here are adapted to the a desert life, there little requirement for water is met through eating snow.

This year was different. I arrived in the Gobi on the 28th October. The autumn was giving way to winter. This year the winter was predicted to hit hard and hit early. But something didn't go as predicted. The snow never arrived. Well into November and all life still revolved around waterholes; some natural, others man-made. As the cold hardened the smaller and more exposed of the waterholes started to freeze. The few that still had water were attracting more and more visitors. Some of us decided to spend time at these waterholes and observe what came there during the day. We were not equipped to spend nights out in the cold so we ignore the nights.

Asiatic ibex searching for water

We picked a waterhole near our camp. It was a busy place. Right at first light a large herd of about forty ibex ware at it. This waterhole had started also started to freeze over but a small gap in the ice allowed them access to water. But a small opening meant that only one animal could drink at one time. There was a long waiting for the young and smaller ibex. They had to also maintain a vigil for wolves and snow leopards.

The birds had it tough too. Since the sun rise birds kept flocking in and out of the small valley where the waterhole is tucked in. They too took turns but it worked quicker for them. A flock of passerines or partridges would come in the sand next to the waterhole, a few quick bill fulls of water and they would fly off. I saw more species of birds at this water hole in day than what I had seen in two months of field work!

Chukar partridge

And just around mid-day it happened. A single medium sized bird flew into the valley and instead of heading to the waterhole, it perched about thirty meters from it on a boulder. It was dull grayish-brownish. Once it was on the boulder it was hard for me to see it clearly. A few minutes later three common redpolls (Carduelis flammea), a very small finch like bird, came and dived straight for the waterhole. And the mystery bird which was perched on the rock a little distance away dived after them but missed. The redpolls scattered away but the mystery bird had chosen its prey and kept close in hot pursuit. At first it was like a two fighter planes locked in combat. They flew fast and turned rapidly. Soon the smaller bird changed strategy. It tried to gain height over the bird in pursuit. Now they were just hovering at the same spot going higher and higher. It was like to choppers battling it out. As they moved higher in the sky their silluettes became smaller and just before they would disappear they smaller bird dived fast and disappear. The mystery bird returned to its perch. This time I got a better look and later identified it as the Northern shrike (Lanius excubitor). In the days that followed we often saw peregrine and saker falcons, golden eagles ambushing their prey at this waterhole.

Redpoll eating ice to get water

And one day without warning the waterhole froze over completely. We would see ibex come to it and turn back without quenching their thirst. A few days later a colleague found a healthy looking ibex female lying dead only a few meters from the frozen waterhole. There were no external injuries. Its health didn't suggest any disease either. It seemed like she had died of thirst. I was left wondering how far she had traveled in the hope of water. And then her hopes shattered so hard that she died right there, perhaps more out of disappointment than out of thirst.

Mongolian ground jay