Being Close to Nature (2): The Living Library

Guest Blog By: Sayam U. Chowdhury (Conservation Biologist)

The rivers that carry stories from the Himalayas silently spread their throbbing veins across the mangroves to take on new shapes and spirits in the face of the old weather beaten man, in the starchy yellow ‘saree’ of the newlywed, in the dreams of the ten year old and in the countless faces that live in the tide country. These untold tales of love, livelihood, life, bravery, laughter, tears and death of the Sundarbans are piled in the living library made of liquids and leaves. The fishermen, the crab hunters, the honey collectors, the woodcutters, the forest guards and the pirates: all have their own tales to tell attached to the forest ruled by the tiger and the tide, and flavored by salt and honey.

The immense tidal jungle is mosaicked with hundreds of green-islands in a puzzling labyrinth of winding creeks and rivers. As we travelled through one of these rivers, long lashes of opalescent mist rose from the dark green water at dawn and the river dolphins emerged from the river’s heart every now and then. It seemed as if the river breathed through these dark-grey creatures, and they conveyed a blind message of love to the mangroves every time they flushed. Perhaps this is why these cetaceans are called ‘river dolphins’ and when they vanish, the river dies.

I knew I had never been to that part of the Sundarbans, but as we sailed through certain narrow rivers, a strange sense of déjà vu engulfed me in its grasps reminding me of a summer before the last summer: the endless search for an elusive species called the Masked Finfoot (Heliopais personatus), a nocturnal ride on a ‘dingi’ during a storm, the smell, the salty sweat, the secret and the sorrow.

The elusive Masked Finfoot
The elusive Masked Finfoot

We headed south towards the estuary, where the rivers lighten their heavy hearts to the enormous ocean and the ocean dilutes bits of its salty tears with ‘mithapani’. I have been to the Sundarbans many times to watch and study birds, especially the forest ones. The quest was rather different this time; we searched for the rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper which was seen on the edge of the egg island in the early 1990s. We aimed to search all possible sites to find the species on newly accreted islands, formed by alluvial sand from the Gangetic plain and silt from the Bay of Bengal deposited through prevailing tides.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding ground
Spoon-billed Sandpiper

We landed on one of these islands, where tiger pugmarks (animal footprints) were printed on the loamy soft soil characteristic of this land, and like our emotions some ran deep into the softness whilst some shallow. And some took its own strange shapes swayed by the wind and wave. The tide was at its lowest ebb, there were no tourist vessels nearby, only two crab hunters with a small boat were visible on the horizon and their wooden crab trap-boxes pinned in a straight line one after another every few meters.

We walked through the silver-grey sand leaving the tangled wall of mangrove on one side and a field of golden grass on the other. A Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha) shrilled from the distant, not a single leaf waffled in the tender wind and suddenly a suppressed silence embraced us as if the legendary ‘Bon Bibi’ controlled all the biotic and abiotic elements around us, and we merely existed by the glory of her mercy. The daylight waned and the surreal sun immersed into the sea. Our excitement grew infused with fear,when we noticed fresh pugmarks on our way back to the boat; the tigers of this part of the Sundarbans are not trusted and there were rumors that one woodcutter was taken by a tiger a few days ago from the western block of the area.

One of these people of the tide country was Kalam. His suntanned body and face were further darkened by the constant contact with saline water. His twisted arm and stone-faced appearance made him inimitable amongst the other fishermen on the boat, anchored on the southern tip of Narikelbari of the Sundarbans. He looked familiar, resembling a character from a fiction I was reading recently. We asked him about his story with the sundari forest and with the spirit of the black and golden stripes.

Kalam - The Tiger Victim
Kalam – The Tiger Victim

“I was fishing with my brother in ‘poshchim’ (west) Sundarbans when I went deep into the forest looking for firewood when I stared right into blazing eyes of the tiger” says Kalam in reciting his ordeal. Not from the rear but running straight to him, the fearsome predator forced its canine into his right arm. Kalam’s brother heard his agonised scream and tried to save Kalam’s life, shouting and making noise to scare the tiger away. Fortunately for Kalam, the tiger released his prey and vanished into the jungle, leaving an enduring trauma and imprints of its jaws. Kalam wiped his eyes with his worn ‘gamcha’ as he was telling us his saga of life and death. He went back to that very precise moment when he perused death more closely than any of us. Unlike many epic stories, his connection with the forest didn’t go in vain; rather he became a part of the spiritual Sundarbans and breathed through the heart of its roots.

We couldn’t find the bird we were looking for and returned to the city to explore another life. Sundarbans; literally the beautiful forest will always be a special place for me; there is so much to say, so much that thrives in my veins and so much that will remain unsaid.

Meet my guest blogger, Sayam U. Chowdhury 🙂
Assistant Coordinator – Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, Birdlife International & Principal Investigator – Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
Sayam
This is Sayam’s second contribution as a guest blogger. Beautiful writing with pictures which speak a thousand words. He wrote an earlier piece ‘A Spring for the Spoons‘, do check it out. A dedicated person and conservation biologist making a difference in so many ways every single day.

A Note from Geetha:
My apologies for the recent delays in my posts. For the first time in years, been having a flurry of family activities visiting from afar and travelling very long distances to see more family. I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a wonderful and festive season ahead 🙂

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Being Close to Nature – A Spring for the Spoons

A Guest Blog by: Sayam U. Chowdhury 

The thin lines of melted water found their way to the sea by carving the thick white blanket of the Arctic ice, resembling an enormous atlas of a thousand crystal-like veins. The comb-shaped high hills at the horizon still had splits of snow at each depression between the rigid slopes, separating the dark-green and dull-brown mountain into blocks of newly emerged life.

Landscape2

The half frozen meandering rivers were gradually coming back to life in the presence of numerous ducks, mergansers, eiders and loons after the silent winter. These ancient inhabitants have faithfully returned to the tundra summer after summer to make love and reproduce. This lifetime view from the fully open window of the helicopter flying from Anadyr to Meinypil’gyno had unfolded a world of true wilderness that I have always craved to witness. It was not just a ride, it was much more – a quest to fulfill my dreams to contribute to saving a species, the one that I have been stalking for years back home thousands of miles away. After a 12-hours flight from Moscow to Anadyr and a 3-hours helicopter ride, I finally arrived at Meinypil’gyno in early June 2012. Meinypil’gyno is one of the remotest villages in the world, a small settlement on a long shingle of 50km spit in Chukotka peninsular at about 66° N 172° W, in Far East Russia.

As the helicopter landed in the heart of Meinypil’gyno, the snow that covered the village drifted up around the small houses. The whole village turned up, they say it’s a matter of great joy when a helicopter visits from the outside world, which can only fly in during the few and rare shiny days of spring and summer. Our Russian friends warmly greeted us with salted salmon and native drinks. Soon after, we sorted ourselves into small temperature-controlled cottages on the eastern side of the village, adjoining a firmly frozen river.

It was spring in the tundra, concealed under the snow for months – the dwarf Crowberry shrubs finally found a way to thrive over the harsh winter and suddenly there was sign of life everywhere. Fog-free days unveiled the mist over the mountain and the miasma over the ocean, enabling us to look for the browsing Brown Bear on the mountain slope and the spouting Grey Whale at the estuary. We got to see both while sitting on the gravel spit or with a cup of tea idling at the wooden balcony, taking advantage of the 24- hours daylight. The migration was at its peak, thousands of migratory waterbirds were flying over the tundra touching the ocean; we carefully checked for the odd American ones heading to Alaska.

A few of our team members had already seen the first Spoon-billed Sandpiper, feeding vigorously along the newly exposed mud of the Third river after travelling around 5,000 miles from Bangladesh or Myanmar via China or South Korea. Not seeing the bird at the first place, did not gripe me much as I was already overwhelmed with everything happening around us – the tough life of the Chukchess, the sincere wilderness, the magical land by the sea and the mountain; and our dedicated team fighting to save a species from extinction. As the spring slipped by, the sky and sea turned bright blue, the tundra turned into a carpet of flawless colors and the mountain at the distance turned into an aloft giant green monument.

The team at work
The team at work

By then, most of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers had arrived; we were keenly waiting for them to begin marking their territories, and establish pairs. Our days started at dawn with a brief breakfast and then walking along the tundra to find the singing and displaying Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We walked around 10 to 12 kms a day in the bitter cold and howling wind to locate their territories, we did take breaks in between, sometimes to catch our breath or to flee from a passerby bear and sometimes to have lunch with Russian chocolates sitting beside the blue-watered lake or on the pink dome of the mountain-dwelling wildflower called the Moss Campion.

After a few full days of constant search over the flat and bent tundra, I was finally able to see a pair of Spoon-billed Sandpiper just a few feet away! They looked different, the pale brownish-grey body now replaced with brilliant rusty reddish colorations, as if they reformed their outfits into a bright bridal appearance to attract each other just like us! After being close to these brilliant birds in Bangladesh, Myanmar and now in Russia, it felt like I have finally completed a great journey in my life and found the unicorn that I have always yearned for.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding ground
Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding ground

This expedition to the Russian Chukotka was one of the most challenging missions to collect a few of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs as very few chicks are currently surviving to adulthood, taking a small number of eggs from the wild will not have a great impact on the adult breeding population. These collected eggs will be hatched and reared in a special Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding facility, located in the UK.

The captive population, of around 30 or more birds collected in two seasons, will allow us to better understand the ecology of the species and how to conserve it in the wild. These birds will also be used to supplement the wild population if numbers fall too low to be sustainable. Equally they could be used to reintroduce the species if it goes extinct in the wild. Hopefully this will never be necessary!

For this sacred ambition we worked day and night, knowing the menace of being eaten by a bear or getting lost in the taciturn tundra – we repeatedly looked for the Spoon-billed Sandpipers and their eggs with profound passion. While searching for them, I saw the Sandhill Crane dancing over the golden hill, the Artic Hare feeding gracefully on ripe crowberries under the crimson sky, the Artic Fox cunningly intruding in the Vega Gull’s nesting colony utilizing the faint evening light and the Brown Bear preying on Salmon along the snow-melting stream. We did manage to collect several eggs and carried them back to Moscow in an incubator and then straight to the UK, where they are now spending their winter and summer days.

And thus our expedition to save a species ended with an enteral beginning. I then returned to Bangladesh with different dreams, hopes for a new era and a worn blue stone from the tundra. The imprints of the unfathomable wilderness will endure in me endlessly. Some say being close to unbroken-nature makes us stronger, enlightens us with the truth and others say it’s a pathway for self-discovery. I reckon, it’s a legacy towards freedom and we need to keep on fighting to save it for ourselves.

Meet my guest blogger, Sayam U. Chowdhury 🙂
Assistant Coordinator – Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, Birdlife International & Principal Investigator – Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
Sayam
Sayam is one of the best friends a Spoon-billed Sandpiper could ever have. Through the years, his dedication as a person and a conservation biologist to make a difference and save this amazing species is truly admirable. I got acquainted with Sayam through LinkedIn and later contacted him via Facebook. This is when I started my discovery of his work, his writing and beautiful nature photographs that simply capture the essence of the natural world. I feel very fortunate that he has kindly shared this special piece of writing with us. My sincere thanks!

Watch this video to learn more about the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project or LIKE them on Facebook

Photo Credits: Sayam U. Chowdhury

Life out of Balance: Is “Personal Conservation” the Answer?

Guest blog by Deniz Ortac

Every person who carries a feeling of deep compassion for nature has, at some point, had some sort of an insight. I had one as an early teenager when I watched a stunning documentary from 1982, called “Koyaanisqatsi”. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” originates from the Hopi language and means “Crazy Life” or “Life out of Balance”. The film’s fusion of image and sound spoke more than a thousand words, featuring the stark contrasts between natural beauty and human frenzy.

Since childhood I have always been in love with nature and more recently, through my partner’s work, have become a strong admirer of conservation efforts all around the world. The conservation industry is blessed with what other industries can only dream of – passionate and incredibly driven people with a deep urge to make a difference. Many conservation projects have gone to great lengths and have shown amazing successes in protecting some of the world’s most beautiful and valuable natural assets (and Geetha’s blog is a fantastic tribute to that!).

But many conservation projects, despite their important and truly inspirational work, focus on treating symptoms instead of underlying causes. Just like some charities have a vision of, one day, becoming redundant (because the issue they address has been resolved), wouldn’t it be the greatest achievement if conservation is also, one day, no longer needed? Why haven’t we achieved this yet? What are the invisible forces that seem to start a new fire for each one that has just been put out after a hard-fought, gruelling battle? What are conservationists ultimately up against?

I recently stumbled upon a quote (from the recent documentary with the title Planetary) that may shed some light:

“Today we have not only an ecological crisis; we also have a kind of story crisis. That is to say there is something very wrong about the way that we understand who we are and our relationship with the Earth.”

This resonated strongly with me and immediately reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten that we are part of this amazingly complex and interwoven system, and whatever harm we do to it, we ultimately do to ourselves. Technology and a seemingly vast abundance of resources have given us the illusion of being a separate entity; that we can somehow bend the laws of biophysics and get away with it. During a time when most people now live in cities, the causal link between our choices and their impact on the natural environment is becoming harder to recognise.

In my personal life, the story crisis is most evident in the reactions I get when speaking about this, even with the people close to me – friends and family. I am always conscious of that awkward moment when my counterpart suddenly stares at some invisible point above my head, with eyes clouded in a mixture of confusion and disinterest.

Yet it is clear to me that our ecological crisis cannot be solved without tackling our story crisis. For our story to change, conservation needs to engage a broader range of people and involve them in new ways that trigger personal reflection, ultimately shifting perceptions and consciousness. In essence, the task is to take the average consumer and turn them into “personal conservationists”. And this is about people like you and me; the choices we make every day. Ultimately, it is these simple choices that matter the most. Their impacts are real but occur too far away from us, and are therefore commonly ignored by our busy and preoccupied minds. Let’s be honest: nature, wildlife, and the environment more broadly, are not at the top of most people’s mind when, say, accepting a plastic bag in the supermarket which may end up in our oceans. Why? Because we have lost touch with nature and, perhaps more importantly, with ourselves. So the question I ask myself quite often is: How can we get our story right? How can we re-connect and become better at personal conservation?

Last year I had the opportunity to explore this question in more depth during a fellowship program at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership (CSL) in Sydney. Over the course of eight months, I was fortunate enough to meet 24 other fellows who had vastly different backgrounds but were grappling with similar types of questions. In weekly seminars featuring high-calibre guest speakers, and three residential retreats, we explored many aspects of creating change for a more sustainable place.

Part of the CSL program was a sustainability project to be undertaken by small groups. Our group chose to look at exactly that question – how can people re-connect to nature? It became clear to us pretty quickly that “immersion” was key – the idea that connection happens when people get repeated, meaningful and positive exposure.

Physically spending more time in nature would do a wealth of things to the story we tell ourselves and to the people close to us. Have you noticed how perception of time slows down in nature? Your body relaxes, your breathing deepens. Suddenly all your senses are engaged. You start listening to the sounds, taking in the smells and letting the eyes wander through the landscape in respectful awe. As you become more and more mindful, curiosity sets in. You start asking questions a child might ask. This is the mental zone in which nature connection happens and personal conservation gets activated.

RNP
Nature at its best (Photo by Deniz Ortac)

I am personally convinced that conservation has a big role to play in facilitating this sort of immersion approach. Citizen Science, for instance, is a great example for involving communities, not by “raising awareness” but by getting people involved in conservation while increasing their exposure to nature. True, Citizen Science is likely to attract people who are already tuned into nature. But if conservation can find ways to reach a broader range of people, then maybe, one day, we will have many more personal conservationists contributing to a world in which life on Earth is finally back in balance.

Meet my guest blogger, Deniz!

Deniz Ortac

Deniz is currently involved in multiple projects related to more sustainable transport options at Transport for NSW, and is also volunteering at Circular Economy Australia. Initially trained in Economics, he recently completed a Master of Environmental Management at the Institute of Environmental Studies (UNSW). He also completed a fellowship program at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership last year, after which he completed a conservation volunteer program on an African nature reserve.

Watch the full “Koyaanisqatsi” movie.