Monday, May 20, 2013

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

 Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats
— Part one of a six part series on my recent sojourn into this unique part of India.
The plan started early last month. Over tea, I could not help but turn around when I heard my colleagues say ‘Seshadri’. It turned out they were planning for a trip along the Eastern Ghats of India for some work on heronries and to see a potential field site for a doctoral thesis. They were planning to book tickets on the Seshadri Express of the great Indian Railways. I asked if I too could join them. Yes I know. It was utterly shameless. So the deal was done over tea itself and tickets were booked for Allwin, Prashanth, Vikram, Giridhar, Dr. Ganesh and myself in the next half hour. None of us except may be Giri and Vikram—who were organizing the field visit seemed to have much of a clue on what to expect or where to go. The deal was to leave on a Monday afternoon and return the following Monday afternoon. In between, it was hectic travelling overnight and through the day. The locations did not make any sense. Not much was known about the Eastern Ghats anyways. Not even its boundary has been definitively marked. Forget points-man knowledge of the places we would be visiting.  Over the next couple of days, several other train tickets were booked and cancelled and all of us were busy checking if the berth got confirmed. I, for one, have felt booking tickets on IRCTC is more difficult than executing a Phd thesis. 

Fast forward a fortnight. We managed to reach the railway station on time and board the ‘Seshadri Express’ which came 2 hours late. The dirty train of ‘Indian Railways’ was as dirty as it can get. A maintenance guy sweeping the floor with a WWF logo and Panda on the handle caught our attention. His minion came up and wanted one of us to fill in a questionnaire form. He only wanted our name and contact, did not want to tick any of the services they had been designated to do! Anyways, it was done.  Lots of food kept coming by and we did have something or the other. Conversations ranged from railways to conservation and pretty much everything under the sun. Tea, we realized, was a hard commodity to get. No one drank tea in the hot weather I suppose. Buttermilk was an obvious alternative choice. Dinner at the godly abode of the other ‘Seshadri’ at Tirupati hills marked the coming to an end of a rather un-eventful day of the journey. 

A map depicting the entire journey
Day 1: Uppalapadu and Kolleru
Morning came early for us. The train was late and for us, the later the better. At about 430 am, we got off at Vijayawada and instantly began searching for tea. Groggy eyed, we went to the Andhra Pradesh’s state milk parlor. Five cups of tea came. They tasted as if it was 2 days old and smelt of Almonds. The man serving us told it was Almond (Badam) Tea. I think it was left over Badam Milk mixed with left over tea. We hit the bus stand and reached Guntur in one hour, put our luggage in a cloak room and then took an auto straight to Uppalapadu Sanctuary. This place is unique in many ways. It’s a small village with a lake and a few trees. Historically, several birds like Spot Billed Pelicans and Painted Storks would build their nests on it. Historically too, the people around it would chop the trees for fuel wood or some such thing. Off late, a few platforms have been erected on which birds nest and bring up young. We reached the place, had our customary tea at a local shack and reached the wetland. It was already hot at about 7 am. About a thousand Spot Billed Pelicans greeted us. While some were feeding in water, many others were on the platforms with their fledglings.  We continued watching those birds, not losing any time to perform the morning ablutions.

A panorama view of the sanctuary from the watch tower.
Uppalapadu, I am told has a bit of history attached to it. Both ecological and political. Undoubtedly, there is conflict too. In the past, as many as 10,000 birds supposedly nested on the trees. Gradually, the trees were felled and the number of birds reduced. Also, the birds used the same part of water to feed which was also being used by the villagers for drinking and other such domestic purposes. There is also a school bang in the middle of the heronry in an island of sorts. I am sure the noise from the nesting birds would drown the noise made by the school kids. 

A cattle egret was breeding there too!

Whereabouts circa 2000, a local MLA was called for a meeting with people. People wanted to cut the trees on which birds nest and use it. The MLA apparently said NO. No cutting of anything and went off. People actually stopped felling it seems. In an attempt to bring the historical number of birds back, someone came up with this idea of putting platforms. They are basically 20 ft long wooden poles with three storey’s, 5-10 ft diameter made of wood steel mesh. Broadest at the base and narrowest on top. About 20 such things have been erected in the lake. The bund has been pitched with stone and 2-3 islands made in the centre and planted with trees. The big lake has been divided into three zones. One for the birds to nest, another for them to feed and remainder for people use. The part where birds roost was rich in nutrients and was as green as a crocodile’s eye. The one they feed in was slightly better and the last one seemed pure enough for domestic use. Water comes from the River Krishna. 

Platforms on which pelicans were nesting

I wonder who gave the idea but the pelicans seem to have taken to it like fish takes to water. Over 200 pelicans were seen nesting on the platforms and several had more than 3 fledglings. Painted storks, however, were pushed out to the outer edge where they nest on Prosopis trees. I also suspect that people stock fish in the tank for their use. If one sees it with a broad perspective, the sanctuary is a sort of semi-captive support program. Platforms provide nesting ground, fish stock provides food. The birds breed like mad. 

Pelicans and Painted Storks in the tank

While all this brings back the BIG number of birds, I would suspect there are several problems with this, ecologically speaking that is. First, providing nest boxes and supplement of food has proven to be having negative effects on birds, especially in the temperate region. Second, the ease with which the pelicans have taken to the platforms would be a very valid reason to say “Oh, the birds take to platforms, cut all trees, use it for timber and put platforms for the birds!” Both these possibilities will affect the long term persistence of the population. Both of it may not happen but no one really knows. There is a need to understand what is happening in this managed population of birds. 

A lot of pelicans!

With the problems people face about birds dirtying the water with their droppings, I have a conceited view. The very first sight that greeted us at the wetland was a man taking a morning dump. The bund of the tank was littered with dumps, even on the way to the school. People don’t seem to have issues in using the water they themselves take a dump in but don’t want the birds to do the same!. May be I am over simplifying things but I really fail to see the point. Another issue we noticed was a bunch of stray mongrel attempting to catch the birds. Through the 2-3 hours we spent there, the dogs kept chasing the birds. I am sure one of their attempts would end up being successful. 

Free ranging dogs are a big threat to wildlife.

With the outing done and a quick count of birds taken, we headed off to another wetland called ‘Kolleru’. We hit Guntur, had a quick brunch, picked up our luggage and reached Vijayawada. From there, we were to head to a smaller town called ‘Elluru’. The bus stands in this part of the country were unique. They had a big complex and it pretty much had everything. Internet parlor, saloon, food, water, dormitory and lodge.  We also saw, for the first time, water being sold to be filled into our own bottles. A liter of cold water costs 3 bucks! We did not fill up though.
The trip to Elluru had some misadventure. While some of us were having the Himachal Pradesh’s Apple Juice, others went to relieve themselves. We had taken tickets on a Luxury Bus. As we were seeing, the driver got in and the bus started. Vikram ran to tell him to stop for a few mins. We were not fluent in Telugu and relied on him for much of the stuff. The driver just took off!. We then boarded another bus and that fellow too was about to start when he saw our tickets and did not allow us inside. The tickets were for the earlier bus and that alone. We could not travel in the next bus. While Giri and Vikram got off to go find out, the bus started. A good 20 mins were lost in the resolving of tickets. Prashanth and Dr Ganesh hurriedly got off the bus. As the bus left the stand, Vikram realized his stuff was still in the bus and was luckily able to stop and take things off. We then had to board another bus. The Supervisor of the bus called the Luxury bus fellow and asked demanded how he left without his passengers! He was advised to stop and wait for us and we were asked to change over to that bus. None of it happened though. We reached Elluru bang at 12 noon and the hot sun took a toll on us by the time we walked half a km to the nearest lodge.
We checked into a hep 3 star AC room at the Grand Arya. It was a surprise to find such a nice place in a small town! Having ordered tea, we had to spend the next one hour for all of us to freshen up. The food too was upstairs and we spent the noon taking time off. Evening, we headed to Kolleru. It was a long 20 km journey which took an hour ended and we got down from the bus. We were supposed to walk up to the tank. But if we did that, the sun would have gone. We tried flagging down an auto, he sped away and stopped at a workshop. We chased him down and asked if he would come. He agreed and we reached Kolleru as the sun was going down. 

A picture postcard sunset greeted us!
Kolleru is one of the largest wetlands in the country. It gets flooded when it rains and if not, is a marsh. Scores of fish ponds have been made and fish and shrimp culture is practiced. A lot of politics too is involved. The late YSR congress brought in an overnight ban on the fish culture and destroyed the vote bank of an opposing party. People, none the less are angry. Dr Subbu tells me that pesticide use was a main reason for pelican numbers to dwindle. Another reason would be the felling of all the Palmyra Trees on which the birds would nest. With the fading light, the ugly artificial platforms caught our eye. The whole lake was dotted with it. A quick count resulted in more than a 100. About half of them were un-occupied. Some genius seems to have taken the idea from Uppalapadu and put it everywhere. 
Over crowded platforms!
We saw several cattle herders with buffalo. One fellow took us to be forest officials and started out a rant on how they took over his (illegal) fish pond and how it also took over the road they had made from their money to access the ponds. It took Vikram and Giri some bit of sweet talk to convince them that we were just bird watchers!
Getting back into the same auto that was waiting, we reached the Grand Arya after a long bus ride and after having food in a family restaurant which resembled a Bar than a hotel with dim blue neon lights! Another round of tea followed and we headed to catch the bus to Visakhapatnam. We had booked it earlier that day and it was scheduled to arrive at about 2250. We kept waiting for the bus. Half hour became forty five, one, one and half and two hours passed with no sign of the bus. The controller of buses had no clue what happened to the bus. The driver was not reachable. Some number was given to us and that poor fellow kept receiving calls from us at 12 in the night!. We had lost all hopes of the bus coming and almost got into a fight with the controller when the bus arrived. After the long day, we wanted to sleep. But No. Things would not go the way we wanted. Some movie was being played in the bus. Full volume. I could not bear to watch the terrible movie and dozed off. Next day was Visakhapatnam.
To be continued...


  1. Those platforms are brilliant! Thanks for that, really interesting!

    Hope someone can get rid of those stray dogs tho' :-(

  2. Really unique and informative...