Scapegoat Mountain

Scapegoat Mountain

 -John Eickert

There was a time when I was compelled to stand atop each and every mountain, to satisfy my curiosity, and find out what it looked like from up there. Of course, there are more mountains and then more mountaintops than there are days. It took me a while to catch on to this. I remember the day when I learned this lesson.

I backpacked deep into a remote wild area of west central Montana- high in the Rocky Mountains. I planned on gaining a summit after a long approach hike and returning home in less than three days. The hike in went well. The second day saw me to the summit just after noon. I sat and rested, surrounded by more mountaintops than I could ever stand atop. While I enjoyed the lofty view, clouds rolled in. I started down and it started to rain. I was no longer able to see the route down. Despite map and compass, I kept dead-ending above sheer rock cliffs. Several of these I attempted to down climb, but they were either too wet or too steep. The afternoon wore on and night was now just hours away. The rain did not let up. The temperature began to drop. If I could not find my way soon, it would be a long cold night on the mountain. I thought about my dry tent and warm sleeping bag in the green meadow below.

I scrambled down another narrow rock gulley. It ended at another cliff face, but I had gotten lower this time. I could glimpse my tent. Gazing around I saw a mountain goat. The North American mountain goat, Oreamnos americanus, is about one meter at the shoulder, stocky, shaggy, near all white, and considered the best climber in these mountains. I stared at the animal and he stared at me. “How do I get out of here?” I asked. The black horned shiny-eyed goat turned and clambered up the gulley I just came down. I followed back up.

At the top of the gulley, I looked around. The shaggy wet goat was standing near the end of an east running ridge. I was certain the ridge would not lead down, but trailed after the goat anyway. I had nothing to lose. When I made it to the end of the ridge, the goat was gone. I stared into the swirling clouds around me, but could see nothing due to the relentless rain and gathering dusk. Some rocks clattered down the mountain to my left. I glanced and thought I saw a shaggy white rump. I scrambled to the spot. It appeared familiar. Despite the full conditions, I now remembered how to get down. I was where I needed to be. I was lucky. In less than two hours, I was in my tent, happy, dry, and eating dinner.

Sometimes events take on a meaning, which is beyond commonplace. The name of the mountain I summited on that three day trip was Scapegoat Mountain!

( Photograph of the North American mountain goat, Oreamnos americanus by Derrick Ditchburn )

Burning Issues



 -Shivani Thakur

Tiger deaths have brought their cause to the forefront. But their poor cousins, the Lions are not given a second thought. The total wipe out of tigers from Sariska tiger reserve and falling numbers in Ranthambore Tiger reserve definitely demand attention. Yet the Lions cannot be ignored. Other than lions in Africa the only other abode of lions in the whole world is Asia. In Asia they exist in Gir (Gujarat) in India.

At the turn of this century, In 1901 The Nawab of Junagadh invited Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, to his State for hunting in Gir. But a local daily reported that this visit would result in certain damage. So the viceroy asked the Nawab to give protection to this species, which was fast losing its presence. And this was the beginning of efforts to protect them.

Whereas the tiger is killed for its bones, skin and nails; the lions are being killed for appropriating their protected habitat. The Gir lions are slightly smaller than their African counterparts who have larger manes .The only abode of Asiatic lions is Gir .The Gir is a dry deciduous forest with savannah grassland ideal place for lions to survive. Due to effort started by the Nawab and also efforts by the State Government, lion population had reached a record height in 2005. This had caused a concern for officials as this had resulted in lot of in breeding. The genetic disfigurement made the officials realize that there was a need to relocate them. A programme was started to trans locate them in Madhya Pradesh which had similar flora and fauna. But this failed as the lions were unable to adjust and the resettlement could not continue.

But besides this the lions in Gir were facing more threats in their own sanctuary. A lot of killings have been reported recently. The population of lions had increased from 205 in 1979 to 359 in 2005, but the recent deaths have again drawn attention to the vulnerability of this last population of Asiatic lions. The sanctuary has not only a road passing through it but there is also a railway line running through it. The lions have started receding to the inner confines of the forests due to all the disturbances. Another cause of deaths is due to poisoning or electrocuting by local villagers. The villagers graze their cattle in the reserve forests which is strictly lion territory. The domestic livestock is an easy prey. The villagers take revenge by electrocuting or poisoning or digging wells where lions fall and die.

This negative human intervention if not stopped can be controlled. But now a problem has risen which even man cannot control and that is the intense monsoon. Gir is a dry forest but lately has experienced lot of rains resulting in unrestrained growth of trees. Lack of sunlight has caused the forest to be humid, making the lions to be susceptible to pneumonia and other infections. Mr. G.A.Patel a member of the National Wildlife Board of India says that to save the lions they have started to limit the number of trains passing through the sanctuary but the humid weather along with killings by humans is still a deterrent in their efforts.

The lions do not have a shiny coat as beautiful as the tiger or have parts of body, which could fetch a price, but they are part of our rich bio-diversity. They cannot be allowed to go extinct like the Indian Cheetah. The majestic beast called the king of the jungle is at our mercy. And in spite of not being the prized animal we still are capable of destroying it. We keep forgetting that this earth is not just ours but a place where we live with the rest of species who also play major role in our existence.

 ( Photograph of a lioness roaming the coastal area of Diu -by Ashima Narain appeared in Frontline Magazine )

Common Birds of India

Large Green Barbet.( Megalaima zeylonica)

Large Green Barbet.( Megalaima zeylonica)

 -Ragoo Rao

More people will have heard a familiar of this bird than seen them, for they are very well camouflaged with green bodies with the head neck and breast brown streaked white. A patch of pale orange colored naked skin around the eyes. These birds are very vocal and when one calls another answers from another distant tree. This keeps on going for a long time.

These birds are widely distributed in both forested and urban areas. These are familiar around parks and can be seen when they hang on to leafless branches and forage for insects under the bark. These birds are fruit eaters too and they are fond of figs of all varieties. Both sexes have the same coloration and it is quite difficult to separate the sexes.

During nesting season, which is during March to June, these birds can be noticed renovating a hole in a dead tree. Sometimes they excavate their own hole in the trees, specially on the lower side of the trunks. Both sexes share the nest building and all other domestic chores.

Eggs are dull white and about 3 to 4 eggs are laid per clutch. The parent birds can be seen busily feeding the chicks as the chicks are very voracious and grow very fast. A lovely bird with a call that is typical of jungles and urban parks.

( Photograph of large green barbett by Ragoo Rao)

Did You Know ?

Warbling starlings startle linguists

Warbling starlings startle linguists

Starlings startle linguists

Warblers wow language pundits

Could starlings learn to speak?

Work on the language ability of starlings, at the University of California at La Jolla has questioned an assumption that humans are a ‘superior’ species, says S.Ananthanaryanan.

Scientists have found that starlings are able to learn to distinguish grammatical forms in sequences of birdsong, a capability not suspected in animals.

The common thread in the grammars of all the languages of the world had forced the hypothesis that humans have an in-born a ‘language acquiring’ ability. “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the "human essence," the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man”, says Noam Chomsky, American Linguist and pioneer in the field.

Grammar and context

The pre-Chomsky view of language was that it consisted of a collection of phrases and sentences, which users would memorise and use when relevant. The more communicative would be the ones with the greater store of phrases and sentences, while the less endowed would be limited in their ability to talk or to understand. This, in fact, is very basic communication, the kind of language used when soldiers drill, to assign knobs to start or stop a machine or even to train animals. This kind of communication is said to use a ‘finite state’ grammar.

But when it comes to programming computers, for instance, there is need for a method of composing finite commands into complex procedures. The same set of symbols, again need to fit into other sets of symbols, so that a phrase could occur in more than one ‘context’. These rules are called ‘generative grammars' or ‘context-free grammars’. These are many times more complex than the ‘finite state’ grammars, which is found in almost all non-human communication, of cats, insects chimpanzees, whales, elephants.

It is this quality, of units of meaning being embedded within another unit of meaning, referred to as ‘recursive’ structure, that was found to characterize human speech. An example would be: “This is the house that Jack built.” The portion in italics is the complement of ‘This is’. Now this (italics) part can be transferred to play the same role in another sentence: ”This is the malt”, to give this sentence: “This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built” Now the portion in italics is saying not ‘what this is’ but is telling us ‘where the malt lay’.

This quality of parts of a sentence being able to refer to the whole sentence enables uses of such languages construct sentences that they have never heard before. And it is this quality that enables human babies to ‘work out’ the rules of grammar and become fully communicative long before they could have heard more than a fraction of the constructions that they are able to use.


The field of linguistics studies the rules and relations between words and how languages evolve. Linguists began to see that patterns could rapidly be seen to exist for all languages. A trained linguist could, once she had checked out the pattern in a few sentences of an unknown language, even detect an error of grammar in that foreign tongue. The way these patterns exist for all languages and the way a baby could rapidly pick even two or three different languages at the same time led to the belief that a ‘universal grammar’ was ‘wired’ into humans. And that this did not happen in non-humans, which is why no other species exhibits speech.

Starlings are different

Scientists in University of California have now experimentally found that starlings, and perhaps other songbirds, can recognize recursive grammars. The experiment used phrases with just 2 ‘words’, the rattle (R) and the warble (W), which occur is starling birdsong. A typical ‘finite state structure would be : RWRWRW. A longer phrase than that would then be: RWRWRWRW, one ‘RW’ has been attached to the end of earlier phrase.

But in the ‘context-free’ form, a phrase would be: RRRWWW or WWWRRR. Here, if a longer phrase is to be created, like: RRRRWWWW, it is really a case of inserting the ‘RW”, shown in bold, into the middle of the phrase. The question was whether starlings could tell the difference between fixed-state compositions and context-free ones.

The starlings were trained, through operand conditioning, which is how we train a dog, to peck when they heard one form, but not the other. The snatches used were of varying length, but always with one or the other structure. It took a long time, but finally the birds were able to tell clearly which form had been played.

The conclusion is that even if there is a ‘universal grammar’ wired in, it is not humans alone have the ability to use complexity in sounds to compose sentences!

[The writer can be contacted at:]

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She is falling

She's falling.

She, who shade gave and fruits bore,

For the greedy ones who wanted more

Is in a thud, landing.


She's falling.

What we can't, for us she in the sun makes.

But we ungrateful with a stroke of the axe,

Her are killing.....


She's falling.

Tears roll down my cheeks; helpless I'm watching

Her avian refugees in the skies go screeching.

 And Earth's seething.


She's falling.

She, in who nestled many a beautiful creature;

She, who piously did her companions nurture,

Her fall's appalling!


She fell.

But with it to her murderers sounded death knell.

For later, Nature rebuked. Rains stopped and dry went the well

And man saw hell...


She fell.

But taught the foolish man

To 'live and let live'.

And in his life span ‘Take' later, but first 'give'.....


© 2006 Vidya Venkat.

(This poem is part of her first book of poems "Voice of an Anonymous Poet" currently under publication from Writer's Workshop, Kolkata. )

Story Of The Month

Human Elephant Conflict - An environmental Tragedy –Part II

Human Elephant Conflict - An environmental Tragedy –Part II

-Ankur Chaturvedi

Elephants are big, and they are nomads. The huge physical structure of the elephant demands a massive diet, up to 250 kgs daily plus huge quantities of water, which essentially dictates that it cannot remain stationery in one patch of forest; else it will degrade the forest, and eat itself out of its home. Elephants, therefore, follow ancient migratory routes, generally 1-3 km long corridors, which link elephant habitats.

Moreover, the forests have become too fragmented even to support the 300-odd elephants, thus the elephants are compelled to move through tea gardens, villages and agricultural fields killing more than 60 persons annually. In contrast to the figures for north Bengal , only 30 to 40 deaths are caused by human-elephant conflict in southern India , even though the elephant population is more than 20 times the Wild elephant population of North Bengal .

Elephant migration is dictated by ancient instincts; only the forest it knew is now tea gardens. Traumatized and starved, it marauders crops that come in its way, occasionally killing angry, helpless people protecting their homes and livelihood.

Another major lure for the elephants is the liquor. At times, elephants only come to the labour lines to have their fill of hadia , the rice beer brewed extensively by the tribal population of the Tea gardens in the area. A tipsy elephant is no means better off than his human counterpart. The loss to life and property caused by these few dipsomaniac rogues is much more than that caused by elephants in herds.

The mobile squads of the forest department assigned to the task of alleviating the HEC are under equipped, under staffed and untrained. One thing that they don't lack is courage and conviction. It is not easy to herd wild elephants from inhabited areas with a risk of attacks from not only the wild animals but also the bereaved human population. Unfortunately, despite their commendable dedication, the approach of the squad is not proactive. Their activities are confined to chasing away the wild herds as and when they venture out of the forests. In most cases they end up driving them from one human habitation to another till the elephants themselves choose the return to the forests at daybreak. Even the means used by them are no lees cruel. The sight of mammoth bodies riddled with splinter from 12 bore gunshots is horrendous.

A well-trained volunteer group in every Village/Tea Garden can minimize the detrimental effects of HEC. The volunteer group at Dam Dim Tea Estate has been very effective. The loss of life and property in this particular estate has been minimized despite its location on a migration corridor.

Another major contributor to HEC is the lack of socio-economic development in the area. The virtues of conservation cannot be explained to an empty stomach. A large number of people enter the forests illegally to collect firewood, Graze cattle and at times even hunt, thus denuding the forests. Allure of these shortcuts to economic prosperity gets amplified with the lack of other avenues for progress. The organisations involved with socio-economic development schemes can be effective conduits for spreading environmental awareness.

The long-term solution lies in providing a corridor for the Elephants to migrate between habitats. The option of using the vast tracts under Tea Plantations remains untapped. Elephants do not eat tea leaves and also avoid walking through the bushes, normally walking across the footpaths. They do cause extensive damage to shade trees which can easily be avoided by planting some specific species in these corridors. I believe a study was carried out to map the corridor, but like so many other conservation schemes in our country, has not been a priority for further progress.

A few days back while driving along the highway across the Gorumara Wild life Sanctuary, a villager waved to stop me. My inquisitive glance was met by shouts ofMaha Kaal , Maha Kaal. As I shifted my gaze to the road ahead, I saw a huge Elephant standing right next to the road. An elephant on the road was an ordinary sight in these parts, what intrigued me was “Maha Kaal”. The villagers were referring to the Elephant as Maha Kaal. As per Hindu mythology,Maha Kal is the lord of Death. In view of the wide spread destruction cased by the wild herds, it was not difficult for me to rationalise this new label. The burning issue is- Can we allow this transformation ofGanesh into Maha Kaal ?

Ankur Chaturvedi

Dam Dim Tea Estate

Tata Tea Limited PO- Dam Dim

Jalpaiguri WB- 735209

Update in 2018

Watch our short film on human elephant conflict at the link

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