First Step

First Step

-John Eickert

Philosophers say that any adventure, across the city or across the world, begins with the first step. I disagree. I think it begins well before that, with a dream of something wished for and then the commitment to go. The will subsequently drives the feet to action. Therefore, the intention of an adventure precedes those first few steps of the actual event. Maybe this is simple, but then maybe this is complicated.


Tomorrow Elizabeth and I set out for an adventure. We both wish to see the Himal again and have the chance to ride elephant in search of tiger. We will step from our home in Montana to Seattle, then Taipei, Bangkok and finally Kathmandu. Ah, but what is the intention. Perhaps it is nothing more than the excited beating of the heart or even the need to develop our personal existent thereby expanding the thirst for new. Surely there is more to life than the every day?


This morning I rose from bed and realized I was a different person. My heart felt warm and light. There was an air to kitchen conversation, senses heightened. How will it go? What will we see? What dangers lay ahead? Will anyone miss us while we are gone? Will the cat notice we are gone will she care? This conspiracy of questions enhances our lives and changes our outlook. Every moment takes on new importance. Simple tasks take on greater meaning. The cycle of daily life is broken. The heart beats at a new tempo.


So much ‘out of the ordinary’ lies ahead. We have been to Nepal before, but how has it changed, how have we changed? We hope to spend time at Bardia and Chitwan. We should see rhinoceros and deer, but will we have luck with tiger and leopard? Elizabeth has never ridden an elephant, will she like it or become motion sick? If we travel on to Tibet, how many new buildings will there be in Lhasa to shadow the ancient ones? When at Rongbuk, will the sun shine and grant expansive views to the north face of Everest or will the mountains be moody and the accommodations freezing? Will our trek in the Annapurna’s be under friendly skies or will we hurry from place to place.



This unknown, the stepping out of the normal day and into a grand game of chance is what I am trying to relate. It is a good feeling, a happy feeling. I wonder how many of you have experienced this feeling. I wonder how many of you are waiting for some time in the future when the ‘time is right.’ It is all too easy to just plan, too easy to not go. This is unfortunate. Adventure is everywhere. 



We had originally hoped to visit India on this trip, but with Susan in Austria and the price of airfare rising, we will wait for another time and another chance for the heart to beat and the senses to rise. 


( Photograph of rhino in Chitwan National Park, SusanSharma) 




See the trailer of a film shot mostly in Chitwan National Park by clicking here



Amazing Facts About Wildlife

Symbiosis is like “Outsourcing”

Symbiosis is like “Outsourcing”

Some organisms entrust even basic living functions to other creatures to perform on their behalf, says S.Ananthanaryanan.


Organisations that find some activity to be outside their own core area of expertise often engage an external agency to take it over. Examples are security, sanitation, courier services – agencies that arrange for these services thrive because many prosperous companies provide them with good income to take care of these onerous essentials of their own business. In time, the mother industry cannot do without the service provider and the provider also does well, thanks to the former.




It is quite like the symbiotic relationship between living organisms. The word usually refers to the relation between organisms that live in intimate contact, with each receiving life sustaining support from the other.


A classic example of symbiosis is of the Egyptian Plower and the crocodile. A number of parasites, insects, or bits of decaying meat, too small for the crocodile to deal with, infest the crocodile’s mouth. In the interest of cleaning its mouth of this potentially harmful contamination, the crocodile patiently allows the Plower free access to its fearsome

 Mouth, and the bird feeds on the insects and cleans the crocodile’s teeth. The bird finds ample food and is always content that no predator dare approach its feeding area.


More familiar examples are of the bacteria that live in our digestive tract. They find a safe and comfortable dwelling and they pay the rent by myriad roles in the digestion of food, beyond the capacity of the juices and enzymes that the body itself produces.


Extreme case


But the most startling case of an organism having specialized to such an extent that its very basic living functions are performed by other organisms that live in its body is the instance of the marine worm, Olavius algarvensis, reported in Nature this week.


Olavius is about 3 cms long and lives in oxygen-deficient sediments in the Mediterranean an in the East Pacific ocean. The interesting thing is that it has evolved to have no mouth, no digestive tract and no anus. It derives its energy and eliminates body waste through the action of a community of different bacteria that live just below its skin, as it moves up an down in the oxygen starved and slightly oxygenated slime at the bottom of the ocean.


Another interesting thing is that this class of worm and this kind of symbiosis has not been studied so far, because the bacteria cannot be cultured outside their natural environment, which is under the host-worm’s skin. It is recently that molecular and genetic methods of studying the bacteria have been able to shed light on the mechanisms in action.


The Sulphur cycle


Normal life forms, like we see on the surface of the earth, consume carbon and oxygen and excrete and exhale oxides. While the body processes work by oxidizing carbon, different processes, based on plant life and photo synthesis, reduce the oxides and replenish the stock of food for organisms. Related processes have also created the store of petroleum reserves which man-made processes are now consuming.



In the case of the Olavius worm, there are two broad classes of bacteria – one sulphur reducing and the other sulphur oxidizing. Through the methane and hydrogen sulphide gasses in the sea-floor ooze, the bacteria provide the worm with carbon-based energy tokens, called ATP, to enable muscles to work or cells to grow, at the sulphur oxidising site, while the products (like sulphates) get rejuvenated (to sulphides) at the sulphur reduction site.

With both consumption and supply mechanisms located right under its skin, the Olavius worm has no need for mouth, intestines, anus, sewage, the rain cycle, and so on, like all of us!

[The writer can be contacted at]



Burning Issues


Wings of Fantasy

-Shivani Thakur


Usually warning bells are sounded for larger and distinct species of animals.  Smaller and lesser-known species are ignored.  In a country of over a billion,  every species of animal and plant is fighting a losing battle.  And if I asked you a question as to when was the last time you saw a butterfly in your garden or a public park, you would draw a blank on your face.  Along with other animals /birds, butterflies are too jostling for space.  India's butterfly population is dwindling fast. And the culprits are humans.


India has over thousand of species of butterflies.  Among them the Atlas moth of Khasi Hills, Copper Butterfly, Swallowtail, Purple Emperor, Bhutan Glory and Malabar are the exotic and endangered.  The atlas moth is on the brink of extinction. For an insect species that is beautiful, very few know about their role in pollination. According to wildlife conservationist Mike Pandey they are second largest pollinators in the world after the honeybees. The economic value of pollination by butterflies to agriculture is $ 200 billion dollars per year. A fall in their population can adversely affect agriculture as it has happened in the US.



 The major factors responsible for their dwindling population are smuggling, habitat loss and use of pesticides.  The butterfly collectors feed the butterfly smuggling. In the name of farm bred, butterflies are smuggled all over the world to collectors.  They are smuggled in suitcases or envelopes to Japan, Germany, Hong Kong, UK, and Singapore etc. In states like Himachal, N-East states, Uttranchal many a times children are paid Rs 150 per day to catch them.  For every perfect one at least a thousand are thrown away because of damaged wings.  To make matters worse all these deals are done on the Internet making it difficult to trace the offenders.


According to R.S.Prashant butterflies and moths are placed in Schedule I of Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The absence of cyber laws makes it easier for poachers to trade.


The use of pesticides like Aldrin, Endosulfan, DDT and Malathion affect butterflies and humans.  Butterflies are fragile insects and any tiny change in their environment reflects on their breeding and growth.  The less use of pesticides and increase in green cover can help their survival. Natural gardens instead of perfect ones can help them immensely.  Smuggling can be stopped if more stringent measures are taken at the time of checking.  A lot of help can come from collectors who instead of framing these exotic species in their drawing rooms let them roam about in their natural environs.


 The state governments have started pitching in.  Himachal Pradesh is all set to have a butterfly garden in selected areas like Kufri, Pong wetland and Kullu.  Once the study is completed the project would be handed over to an NGO.  A detailed study of type of plants that are source of food and nectar for insects will be done and encouraged to grow more of those types for their growth.  The annual migration from plains like Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and western UP takes place in spring.  Once there, they feed on nectar of spring flowers and vegetation in the mountains.  With such efforts from the government and people fragile creatures like butterflies can flit freely all over and find a place permanent place in our hearts.




(Photograph of Atlas  Moth By Jayant Deshpande)




Common Birds of India

Jungle Crow. (Corvus macrohynchos )

Jungle Crow. (Corvus macrohynchos )

-Ragoo Rao


This month the bird selected for our column is the Jungle crow. It may seem a little frivolous trying to introduce the crow, which everyone knows as a raucous bird and sometimes even considered a nuisance. What I'm trying to highlight is " the lesser known aspect" of the crow. The most unglamorous bird to study is the Crow, but if one starts to really try to know about the crow, it sure surprises with its superb intelligence and adaptability to various vagaries of life. Presuming that this part of the crow might trigger some attention towards this bird I decided to go ahead. 


Every creature is a marvel and a masterpiece of nature's evolutionary process and everything has a niche in the fabric of life on this planet. Otherwise, it would not have been there.


A noisy, raucous jet black bird with a heavy bill and a crooked cockeyed look is the Jungle crow. It's other cousin the House crow, which is smaller and not as glistening in it's colour and grayish neck and body parts. The Jungle Crow as the name suggests is mainly restricted to the Jungles through out the country. Some do make their presence felt in urban areas also. These birds are more robust and are seen in pairs most of the time. Both sexes are alike and there is no marked difference except for their build, which can be noticed only if one is studying a pair and does close observations. The female is slightly slender.


The Jungle crow is endowed with a marvellous intelligence and learns a lot of survival skills with experience.  Perhaps the crows are the most intelligent of the birds. Under study programs the crows have been noticed to untie the toughest knots tied to get at any food placed inside a bag or container. They have been even noticed to draw up a string and get the food tied to the end of a string and hung from a branch. Crows have the uncanny ability to open lids of boxes and also unbolt window hooks to get at anything.  I have myself tried all this and whatever was already observed by others were proven beyond my doubts by these amazing survivors.


Crows are omnivorous and also highly opportunistic in their food habits. They eat anything from food grains to the most infected meat also. Their digestive juices are so well adapted, whatever infected and maggot-ridden piece of flesh that would have been fatal to some life, the crow relishes that as though it was a delicacy, and go unscathed.


In jungles this crow is both an ally and a giveaway to any nature photographer. The presence of crows in a group in a jungle often leads us to a carcass hidden by a predator. The predator, which will always be close to the hidden carcass, also uses the crow as an alarm against intruders. So the best thing to do is not to follow crows in predator infested jungles. These birds always perch on trees and keep a close observation on the activities of other animals around.


In the urban areas these birds are useful scavengers, as they will feed on anything right from kitchen garbage to dead rodents.


These birds follow other nesting birds and locate their nests and wait for a chance to get at their young or eggs. They play the role assigned to them by nature to the fullest efficiency.  Nesting season is chiefly March to May in Northern India and December to April in the southern part. The nest is a untidy mass of twigs and lined with soft dry grass and feathers. 3 to 5 pale blue-green eggs are laid which are slightly blotched with brown speckles. Both the parents share all domestic chores. The Koel also lay their eggs here and these crows play the foster parents role.  Perhaps the koel is the only bird, which outsmarts a Crow in this aspect.


Whether these crows form a life long bond is not yet proven. These marvellous birds also have a good vocabulary and various vocalizations for different communications.

We better start admiring this bird and try to know more about their life.



On a trail of the Ganga -PART V


On a trail of the Ganga -PART V


 -Saraswati Kavula


My next stop was at Harsil, which is a small village some 25 kms down from the Gangotri, a very quite and laid back place, normally preferred by campers and people who look for some time away from the “madding crowds”. On the bus from Gangotri to Harsil, my fellow passenger Bhargav narrated me the story of how the Gangotri temple was built by the Raja of Nepal in 1815, “before this temple, there was nothing in this region”. Slowly, the visitors started increasing in numbers. “It was in the last twenty years that the place got congested and also the Glacier began to get affected”, remarked a local CID officer, working at Harsil. He didn’t wish for his name to be mentioned. I chanced to meet him, on my way to the riverside, when I passed through a small inner lane, and on seeing a traditional house, I stopped. The resident was the CID man who was on deputation to Uttaranchal.


“I come from Lucknow, but I have been here a long time’. The CID officer told me, I was surprised, ‘this is such a quite place, what work do you have here?’ ‘This is the inner line limit, and is on the Chinese border, so we conduct joint exercises with the Border Security Forces”. I asked if I could look around the house, to which he agreed. ‘There don’t seem to be many of these traditional houses left now, I see mostly the modern concrete structures everywhere and somehow, they seem out of place in this region. They surely seem unnatural and are almost like eyesores!’ I remarked. My host agreed, ‘these traditional houses were built with wood and since this is an earthquake prone area, this sort of construction agreed with this region’. ‘Isn’t the concrete construction, bad for this region, I mean, it is unsafe in the case of earthquakes no?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, that is true, but since the Uttaranchal state has been reinstated, there has been a ban on logging, thus, more and more houses and new buildings are being made with RCC concrete structures’. One cannot say what has reduced the forest cover, the locals constructing their homes with wood, or the clearing of forests to make new hotels, apple orchards, and of course the blasting of the mountain side for construction of projects.


Our talk turned towards the future of the Glacier. My host agreed, ‘there has been an affect on the glacier, and on the water flow in the Ganga too.’ I remembered the bus passenger Bhargav’s words, ‘I don’t think the Ganga will ever dry up, the place from which it comes out is a ‘shakti sthal’ (place of divine powers), that will never loose its power.’ I mentioned this to the CID man. ‘Why, the glacier has been receding, since 1962 the Glacier has receded by nearly 1.25 kms. If we do not recognise the problem, then we are blind. Right now, in Pauri District there is a shortage of water, people are being supplied water in tankers. The District Commissioner has refused to stay in Pauri town. Tomorrow, it will be the same fate in other parts of Uttaranchal’. I told him that people including scientists sometimes dismiss ‘global warming’ as a fear psychosis. He disagreed, I have been living in these areas for so many years, earlier, the summer temperatures in the 80’s never crossed 18 degree Celsius, and today they are touching 24 degrees. There has been hardly any snowfall for 4-5 years, but last year in 2005, it snowed continuously for one whole month from 16 January. There was 10 feet snow; we never saw so much snow here.’


The guide books speak about the legend of an English man, Wilson, on how he had built the bridge across the Ganga near Mukhba village (3kms from Harsil) and the villagers were too scared to get on the bridge and he hopped on to his horse and trotted up and down the bridge to allay their fears. As I asked details on this, my host smiled, ‘Wilson was running away from the British government, he sought refuge with the local Raja and asked him for some land. The Raja told him to take which ever part of the land he wants. Wilson came here and started logging timber. The river was a good way for him to send the logs. That is how most of the Deodhar forests got logged and taken away. Thanks to his initiative, timber logging and smuggling thrived in these areas. But of course, potatoes and apples grown in this region are his contribution. He was the one who introduced them in this region. But see today, most forest is being cut by the local people to make apple orchards. It is illegal, but then there is poverty too. Most of the time, they are pawns in the hands of the big traders. Ten years ago, if you had come here, you could have seen thick forests, all around, the way you see on this side, (he pointed to one mountain) today it is all gone. Only a few places it sustained due to the efforts of the local forest department’.


I walked back through to the village square, though Harsil is a remote village, many things are available that tourists demand – colas, mineral water, Chinese, continental food you name it, you have it. I asked my hotel owner, ‘you have so much fresh water here, why do you sell all these colas and packaged water, isn’t all this adding to the trash in your area and destroying nature?’

‘What to do? Five years ago, if you came here, there was neither cold drink, nor packaged water available here.  But the tourists are always demanding, they ask all these things, which are in fact, difficult to be transported up here. So, for business sakes, we are forced to keep them here’. And the grassland near the riverside was littered with loads of plastic bottles, carry bags, packaging wrappers. The mules were eating leftovers from the trash. I was reminded of the numerous animals in my city which die everyday, consuming hazardous waste materials along with the food in the trash bins. That day may not be far off here too.


There were some travellers from my city, fattened with prosperity, they did not wish to tax their bodies, and preferred to stop their visit at Gangotri. I assured them that there is nothing much for them to “see” at Gomukh. They felt happy on hearing that, ‘why trouble the body and travel 40kms?’ The head of the group, who was a grain and clothes merchant from Hyderabad, asked the hotel manager, ‘how can people live here, in this cold climate and without any sort of “comforts”? The hotel man replied, ‘well sir, here even if a man earns 100 rupees a month, he will enjoy his four cups of tea in a day, eat to his heart’s content, is able to work hard and stay fit and gets a peaceful nights’ sleep. And if he doesn’t have money, his neighbours will feed him. I am sure that doesn’t happen in your big city’. To which, our big businessman did not have an answer.


(Photographs Saraswati Kavula)


( To be continued)


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