Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009.

Last few years has been extremely good in many sense as I am able to pursue several objectives from the Wildlife Headquarters, but this has slowed down my past records as a prolific writer and paper producer. I am receiving requests for some very old papers (from 1970s time) which I find difficult to locate and oblige the request. Therefore, I am thinking of using my blog to give a list of papers I have produced, and as and when possible, produce abstracts or full papers for use by fresh students, so that they don’t spend time in rediscovering things which are already discovered. Rather, they should refine the existing knowledge, and start where it has ended somewhere for some reason. Some biographical narrations, told as a radio-talk or on some such other occasion, are still very relevant for biodiversity conservation or orienting a student or just a child for biodiversity study. I am indeed lucky as I was not very late when I started. This reminds me of experiences and first lessons besides a wetland near our home.

My Fellow wetlanders ! I am lucky to have been born in the holy town of Puri. It is still dotted with a large number of ponds of various sizes, though their qualitative degradation is very evident these days. One such pond, the Ma’jena’ Ga’dia’, was on a piece of land that belonged to Lord Jagannath. We were not bothered about pollution or quality of its water at that time. It was very dear to a large number of families apart from the Lord who used its water when He remained on the Grand Road during the car festival every year.

This pond is very intimately linked to my childhood. It provided me the first lessons on wetland – the nursery of life. I have watched the molluscs moving at their proverbial snail-speed, --- the dragon flies of various kinds busy in getting their food or in their nuptial flights, --- the water scorpions with quick short moves, --- the earthworm getting into its burrow and exuding out tiny globules of fine humus, --- the fish fingerlings surfacing to gulp-in tiny pieces of cooked and mashed rice, --- the cormorant vanishing underwater for a time long enough to test a child’s patience but surfacing back with a fish in its bill, --- the pied king fisher remaining still in the air and finally dropping down into water to come up with a fish, --- the egret, patiently watching to pick up a fish or prawn from shallow water, and ----as the night falls, the frogs with their croaking sound in the darkness of the night reminding the sighting of a water snake earlier during the day—--- a recall that was thrill enough to generate a shiver in the spines to quietly pull the bed-cover and hide the face inside ---- as if I was then very safe from all the evils of the world.

The next day, ---- forgetting about the snake or the danger of drowning inside, I spend hours in the pond learning to swim--, first with an air-pillow and then without it. Here in the Ma’jena’ Ga’dia’ I have caught my first fish with a rod, --- trapped the returning fish after the rains and ---- learnt the first lessons in fish-migration, ---- and have brought lilies for worship called Khudurukuni Puja during Sunday evenings of the month Bha’drab. I have reluctantly thrown a part of the delicious Cha’nda Chakata’ into water on Kumar Purnima evening and collected snails to throw on our thatched house ---- not realising then that it attracted owl in the night which also killed rats moving on the thatch. I have watched the maid-servant skillfully selecting and picking up edible spinach and tiny mushrooms from the shore of the Ma’jena’ Ga’dia’. Here, I have perfected the physics lesson on how best to throw a thin-flat-stone so that it skids farthest and ahead of others on the water surface, and I have created circular waves with stones thrown into water and have watched the waves spreading out to melt away in the shore. Later, as a student of biology I have collected here microscopic to macroscopic algae and a variety of insects to get an edge over my peers in the college.

Thus, the Ma’jena’ Ga’dia’ was not only the nursery of life for the diversity of a thousands of living forms, but the citadel for lessons in natural history of aquatic animals and properties of a standing water body that shaped my childhood and the early studentship. These lessons remained imprinted in me until I took up serious research on aquatic animals later in my life after completing a general post-graduation degree in Zoology.

During my field work on crocodiles in the Mahanadi, Chambal and the estuaries, I observed the ecological relationships with the Freshwater Turtles, the wetland birds, the gangetic dolphin, the otters, the water monitors, the mangroves and the sea turtles. During this time the necessity arose to study various animal tracks on the riverbanks. It was necessary to interpret tracks and find types and sizes of animals at the water edge. The tracks included those that emerged out of water and those that returned back to water. And, there were tracks of small hard-shelled turtles that emerged from the river and ended below some rock for over-wintering. The snake tracks were of various widths to give clue to their gigantic size and possible species. The snakes come from the hills of famous Padmatola in Mahanadi Ranges to drink water from the river. Only occasionally were there tracks of elephants that crossed the river and the pugmarks of tiger and leopards which came to quench their thirst.

As I look back from this stage of the journey in my life, I can only say this much that ‘for a successful career in field research with animals, it is the best approach to start from a wetland.’ If we start from water or the edge of water, we can diversify our work on biodiversities from water on to the land. In fact, “wetland conservation” is the key to success in conservation of other life-supporting ecosystems on land as well as in water.

Wetlands are unique ecosystems of watersheds. Their uniqueness in hydrology, soils and vegetation comes due to the cycling of nutrients under energy of the sun. “Wetlands” are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, and including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.

Depending on area and location wetlands play a significant role in flood-control, sedimentation and nutrient recycling. When rivers overflow, wetlands help to absorb and slow floodwaters. This prevents damage and loss to property and life. They also absorb excess nutrients, sediments and even the pollutants before these reach rivers.

Wetlands are shrinking or disappearing. India has signed the RAMSAR Convention to protect waterfowls in wetlands, and have created a network of wetland sanctuaries by launching the crocodile and turtle conservation schemes, but the new concern is for maintaining a ground supply of drinking water to which the survival of mankind is linked.

Nurseries of life are the mother of all great civilisations. Civilisations have started, developed and flourished on riverbanks, and sometimes fought-over and disappeared to give way to new civilisations. Great towns of the world have flourished over the advantages derived from wetlands. Alternately, the impoverishment in quality of life can be linked to the loss of quality and character in wetlands. The fate of Yamuna for Delhi or Ganges for Allahabad and Kanpur are the often-cited illustrations. These are warnings to all other similarly located towns.

As Prof. M. S. Swaminathan has said, the complex schemes for rice production in Burma, Thailand, Java and the Mekong basin are illustrations of the association between human communities and wetlands. The disappearance of wetlands is profoundly changing the microclimate of localities and generating concern for human survival. There is a strong link between rise in local temperature and the disappearance of wetlands. Let’s preserve the nurseries of life against the growth of concrete jungles.

My first childhood lessons in swimming were the last, but a man can never forget his swimming lessons. In fact it helped me later in life to remain afloat and steer to the bank during my studies in the rivers Mahanadi and Chambal. At this stage of my life, irrespective of the questions of survival of human cultures and civilisations, I only wish that let the world continue to have some good and clean wetlands to sustain nurseries of life and offer scope for children to learn their first lessons in natural history observation.