When you have spent the past five months outdoors- jumping over slippery rocks for frogs, almost drowning in a river, walking next to a fresh tiger pugmark in the middle of the night, scrambling through thorny shrubbery that agile leeches use as convenient launch-pads for your neck, ears, armpits and what have you, plucking off the bloodsuckers, hoping the next green vine you hold on to is a vine and not a venomous Malabar pit viper, being ravished by mosquitoes, stretching out your palm for an exquisite forest cockroach to perch, being slightly tickled by a reticent pill millipede ambling over the open palm, marveling at the mucus trail left by a muscular-footed bathroom slug on your hand- then, even a week cooped up indoors in front of a computer screen can drive you towards great mental claustrophobia. And I have had four such weeks. So you can well imagine my joy at getting an opportunity to visit Walvan dam in the busy, 'if you are a Mumbaikar, you must have a bungalow here' city of Lonavala.
As a rule, I detest crowded touristy places with the banal 'waterfall, sunset point, boating in the lake, evening market' formula. Fortunately, Tata Power (own the Walvan dam) and in the usual Tata spirit have preserved a considerable volume of biodiversity in the region. Ex-situ breeding of the endangered Deccan Mahseer (Tor khudree) is carried out in the environs of the lake. They also run a wonderful nursery which stocks indigenous saplings of trees like Sita Ashok. Mr. Vivek Vishwasrao of Tata Power has been instrumental in developing and maintaining this ecological paradise even as land-sharks acquire and destroy large tracts of neighboring forest.
It was here, nestled amongst the Sahyadris, overlooking the Walvan reservoir, far far away from the twinkling lights of the city but closer to the glimmering stars that we spent the night. Armed with tents, sleeping bags, packets of food, we were determined to live the dream. A night outdoors with a bunch of strangers is exciting. More so, when some of them are certifiably as 'crazy' as you are. A bunch of dried twigs, grass and a dead cactus helped set up a warm crackling campfire as a delicious recipe of 'toast bread, melted cheese and smoked pepper' was developed over the flames. A campfire arouses a variety of human responses- some narrate eerie stories that are made spookier by unexplained noises of the night, some stare into the dancing flames and reminisce about lost love, some philosophize on the great mysteries of human existence, some debate god and destiny, some draw closer to the cute girl/guy they saw in the bus, some drink away to glory and wake up to a head-splitting hangover the next day and some…some set off in search of nocturnal critters.
Armed with a flashlight to navigate across a rocky lake bed, we set off then to explore the night. Our attention was soon focused upon hundreds of large black ants, swarming at the base of trees by the campsite. As a child, you are taught one simple rule regarding ants- Red ants bite, black ants are harmless. As a biologist, you realize that the rule is supremely flawed, but practical experience often serves to drive the point home. So, even as we marveled at the ants, an orange-backed Fungoid frog (Hylarana malabarica) hopped and hid itself in a hollow made by intertwining tree roots. This endemic frog is common in the Western Ghats and has a distinctive deep orange back with a thick black stripe running down from the eyes towards the feet, which are painted with spotches of pale white or yellow alternating with black. Overjoyed at the Fungoid frog's familiar face, I dropped down on all fours, pointing out the anuran to friends. Almost instantly, my palms were stung by the angry ants, outraged that an intruder dare step so close to their fellow antmates. Now I have been stung by ants and bees before, but the sharp needle-like pain of these bites was an extraordinary experience. The bite can best be described as five times more painful than a sharp needle jabbed into your skin, its intensity lasting for an excruciating 60 seconds. Jumping to my feet and banging into the overhead branches did little to numb the pain. One of these amazing critters (to their credit, they deliver a most painful bite to keep predators away) found its way into my t-shirt and I spent the following moments doing the Conga even as the ferocious fighter continued defending itself with cruel jabs at the weakest of spots. Finally, it made its way out of the garment, and respectfully, I contended myself with flicking it off suppressing the 'Crush the devil' emotion swelling inside. The stinging bite was surpassed the next morning at the pain of not photographing the little devils at night. For these nocturnal ants had all but disappeared in the light of the day. (Note to self: Revisit site with a copy of the 'On a Trail with Ants: A Handbook of te Ants of Peninsular India' by Ajay Narendra and Sunil Kumar.)
When the moon rose up, outshining the sparkly night gown of stars, and the lake was bathed in a shimmering golden glow of the heavens, we stumbled across another of Nature's wonders. The air was still that night, yet, ripples could be seen along a tiny shallow curve of the lake. Curious, we shone our torchlight into the gently troubled waters, to discover prick-points of reflected eyes darting around. A closer look revealed that the bevy of activity was being caused by dozens of shrimps! Shrimps are mostly nocturnal invertebrates and are known to feed on algae and decomposing material. They are 'filter feeders', that is, they feed on microscopic particles through paint-brush like structures on the first pair of legs. These delightful miniscule recyclers are responsible for keeping our water-bodies healthy. A further search may have revealed the reason behind the feeding frenzy, but as luck would have it, the shrimps kept moving away from the bright light of the torches, forcing us to retreat rather than disturb them further.
P.S: A special thanks to Gulbagh Gulati for allowing me to use his photographs for this post.
Ramblings on wildlife sharing spaces with non-wild humans