2 Dec 2014

Live Experience : Expedition in the Wild with Gerry Martin in Dodamarg, Maharashtra, India

This was destined for me I think. Few months back I had a fight with a colleague of mine regarding conservation of tigers. He ridiculed me by saying 'you are not doing anything for them as well, so stop showing these false concerns and let them die'. That day I kept wondering where and how should I begin my journey of conservation and actually have some credibility to reflect my love towards nature and wildlife. Few days later the bells rang when I came across The Gerry Martin Project and without even a blink I confirmed my slot for this expedition 'Looking for Leopards' in Dodamarg Maharashtra, near the border of Goa. Few other friends also joined, so we were 4 Me, Ryetika, Divya and Muthu who travelled from Hyderabad for Mapusa, Goa on 20th Feb evening.

The Project is to conserve a 4000 acres forest which is full of wildlife, but recently due to private acquisitions and other profitable plantations causing monoculture, these are all in a threat. Gerry Martin through his friend have a 100 acre under him but for rest of the forest the task is to build a field station, create an inventory of Wildlife in the area and use that to get attention of the government and increase awareness among local people to not sell their land but use it to preserve the Wild and also earn money through eco-tourism.

This expedition was part of series of expeditions to be done for this Project with the focus of identifying mammals in the area. The last expedition focused on reptiles and next will be on insects etc. The expedition was led by Sumanth who is a herpetologist plus a nature lover along with the well known Gerry Martin himself.

The expedition

On 21st noon we reached the forest, got acquainted to other nature lovers (16 more) and without any wait started exploring the area around the camp site to search marks of wildlife. First marks to be studied were of animal's Poop. We found one; a dried poo of only grass remains indicated a herbivore and its size made a close guess of it being a porcupine. Another Poop with lot of crab stings and legs means a carnivore and the size indicated towards Wild cat. Later we found a skeletal backbone of a small mammal and some interesting egg-plate pits on ground which are death traps of Antlion larvae.

Small pits by Antilion Larvaes
Spine of a small vertebre
We then came back to set-up our tents and have lunch. Post lunch and some rest Sumanth lead us to the upside of the river stream to identify some good places to set camera traps. The stream had little water flowing as this was the other end of the year post monsoon and it was the only source of water for the wildlife in that area, so setting up camera traps along the route sounded very logical. After climbing a complex rock, we found a dead ottor there, seemed like natural death and it was rotting and smelly. A good place to setup a bait and trap but it was tricky using a wooden log over the stream that we tried to stabilize using some rocks. We continued on the rocks to eventually reach a natural pond of water just beneath a waterfall. The pond was result of continuous degradation of the rock below over which the water fell for thousands of years. After some rest there we returned to set-up another trap, this time with fruit bait to attract a herbivore. We also found a discarded skin of a snake which Gerry confirmed later it was of the 'Flyingsnake'. We returned to camp to get ready for the night walk uphill post dinner. That was too interesting, lead by Gerry himself we were walking very silently through the trail (to remain silent was little tough from me but it had plenty of reasons behind it, so I remained numb). We spotted a nocturnal bird (I don't remember the species). It was a smart technique to hold your torch close to temple to get light reflected from the animal's eyes. There we found few pugmarks of Langurs and also Indian Gaur, the largest of Bovinae species. On the top we found another snake's skin, this time of spitting cobra (I wonder how Gerry was able to identify them just looking at the scales). Gerry then took our attention to calls of collaredscops Owl and then later we were all instructed to turn off our torches to listen carefully to calls of Langurs for mating. Stepping forward we saw a number of centipedes rushing to their burrows as you torch on them and now the first live species of a snake that Gerry handled as expert. This was a small snake 'bandedkukri', a non-venomous, shy and nocturnal snake. We then kept for another half mile but couldn't find any signs of wildlife, just a few Geckos. So we set-up our final camera trap and came back to tent.

My tent buddy Muthu
Day-2 early morning we started to collect our traps. Bait-1 of the smelly sardine fish that we set near the dead ottor was gone. We were very happy that we actually must have got something on that camera. Bait-2 was intact, so no results expected from it. We came back for our breakfast but were disappointed that the camera couldn't capture any signs as we verified. Post breakfast we headed again to same trails, this time to set-up five camera traps with sardine bait along the stream. We first reached the pool where everyone jumped for a natural bath. It was my first natural water swim but I remained close to shore as it was atleast a 20-25 feet deep pool. I went deeper later after gaining some confidence.

After the bath we started trailing back to set-up the traps on possible animal trails. This time I was handling all setting-up of baits which was a tough and smelly task that others avoided. I wanted to go little off the stream but the threat of ticks cancelled my plans as I saw a live example of one of our companions, Chandani with her sore legs due to ticks that bit her 4 months ago!

Water Pool
After setting all baits at possible animal trails we were back to camp and had our lunch. Now we just sat silently in the woods for hours alongside the stream with our feet in water to enjoy our moments of inertia. To avoid dehydration we didn’t do any explorations in the afternoon. The plan was to leave in evening for another location in jeeps where supposedly more traces of Wildlife could be witnessed. At around 5 we left for trilokghat around 10Kms from our camp. That was grassland and seemed an appropriate place to spot some wilderness. I had a binocular handy but couldn't find anything.


Some fresh poop of Gaur gave some confidence. It was already dark now so we turned off our jeeps and started our exploration on foot. The idea was to reach a possible water pool in the area and wait silently there for the mammals to arrive for their quench in that hot weather. But sadly the hot weather wiped off the pools to dryness so we kept wandering for a while to search for any signs, with our torches close to the temples. No signs, we decided to head to another location, which was also dried up. Seems all wildlife now was gone close to a water stream at a distance of 3-4hrs on foot. Disappointed we started back to our camp. We spotted few more geckos and a scorpion but not many mammals. One thing I learnt in all this, search for wildlife and your efforts to conserve it demands a lot of patience. Back to camp, among the calls of orange frogs we had another dinner together. Away from any chatter I sat beside Gerry to listen to his NatGeo's experiences and with Sumanth to understand handling of snakes and their projects.

I Spotted some pug marks
The truths of Media

The game of ratings that adds the dramatics to everything these channels show became so obvious to me. The heroism attached to Bear grylls for surviving in Wild as Gerry said 'Why u eat a raw snake, bloody cook it and eat' and that of Steve Irwin who played around with crocs. Though not all media die for ratings like BBC but the fears of snakes and Alligators that impounds general human tendency to kill any of the species or live in their threat is not justified at all. And I remember the Snake Shyam from Mysore another proclaimed hero. A really good friend of Gerry and Sumanth but a drastically ignorant person with 300+ snakes caged at his home, overgrown by his self pride of snake handling. Sumanth told me about the instance they visited him few months back and rescue a king cobra that he bottled in a coke bottle.

Me with Gerry Martin
All abuse for that perfect click

I was shocked to listen how snakes are refrigerated to make so as to get them slow for a perfect photo putting their lives at cost. And when a photographer puts a shield between the bird and its nest to get that perfect click of bird hovering to feed its chicks in the nest and at times professional photographers taking help of zoo animals. All that sounded so cheap and sick to me. There was off course tales of some serious photographers as well who patiently wait for years and in extreme conditions for that perfect click. And Gerry added to it about his first time ever clicking cobra laying eggs which he could not capitalize over.

Dealing things in a scientific manner

Whether the case of man-eater tigress in UP or the ever-growing conflicts of humans vs. wild animals. About rescue of snakes and disposing them to forest, or the ever-growing populations of rats and dogs in cities, the upcoming breeds of dogs for domestication and the brutal attitude of Wild dogs when they hunt. Gerry and Sumanth's perspective remained so scientific and logical that changed my entire perspective and answered these ever striking questions to me.

Story of consensus and the remaining Tigers

A 3 week consensus and we come up with the figure of remaining tigers in India, sounds so out of place. So what's the fuzz, it’s all anxiousness to be created to raise funds on a business model.Actually that fund reaches for conservation of tigers then its justified, but it never does. Also Sumanth highlighted how data's are extrapolated to get to figure of wildlife existing in area and at times impossible to get the exact counts.

The unknowns I learnt
  • The 2041 mission to save Antarctic when the international treaty expired and how Robert Swann the Pole walker is heading it. The E-base in Antarctica.
  • The Pench national park in Madhya Pradesh and Chandini's efforts of school adoptions in close by villages.
  • The smartness of elephants, adapting by not allowing their tusks to grow as they know the reason of their hunt now.
  • The Bandipur National park and its vast wildlife. The nature retreat expeditions.
  • The Agumbe forest field station that Gerry helped Romulus Whitaker to establish.
  • 5 types of Civets found in India
  • The various types of Lizards. Salamanders and newts as environment's health indicators.
  • Truth behind Shivaji and the Monitor lizard at battle of Sinhagad. It's impossible, but maybe an incomplete story.
  • The sick Indian movie media to propagate feeding milks to snakes eventually leading to so many snake deaths post nag panchami every year due to force feeds.
  • Difference between a poison and venom. Venom has to reach your blood stream. You can drink and digest venom and not die as its just protein. All snakes are venomous, not poisonous.
The snake bite story of country

There are 50000 killer snake bites in India each year but they all affect the poor working in farmlands so never catch the light. Gerry martin efforts to develop anti-venoms, educate local doctors for their administration, educating people to deal with the bites (by not sucking the blood!) and also developing locally effective anti-venoms co-working with various medical organizations. Also he unveiled the business of snake rescues thriving on people's fears, the local techniques being applied in villages (that work at times accounted to the dry-bites or bites by non-venomous snakes).

Apart from above I learnt plenty of stuff in all those 3 days and those talk sessions, not easy to put down completely here.

The Asian Paradise flycatcher

Day-3 early morning I got a glance of the most beautiful bird I saw in my life. That was not in my dictionary till now and after I saw it, the beauty of the bird just filled me with so much emotions, I can actually give my entire life to save the habitat of this beautiful little angel. I followed it closely till it vanished. Gerry showed some photos that he clicked of it a day before.


Why this all has to be done

India's Flora and Fauna stands as diverse as the entire continent of Africa, owing to its really diverse landscape, the Himalayas, the cold desert of Ladakh, the river delta called Sundarbans, the grasslands of Kaziranga, the Thar dessert, the plateau of deccan, the eastern and western ghats, the coastline alongside the Indian ocean and the caves in Meghalaya. And we owe this big responsibility to sustain it.

Gerry put it over a bigger purview and a great perspective he gave: 'I do not conserve for Wild animals, or for anyone else. I am doing all this for myself. What will you do when there is a something broken in your home, you will fix it. That's what I am doing, for my home Earth. I don't have any other option.' 

What are your views for ongoing wildlife conservation projects for different endangered species?How these are useful and beneficial for the society?

Please share personal experience at your nearest/visited National parks, wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, biodiversity parks, wildlife conservation projects etc. What are your suggestions to make the efforts more effective?

(Written by Gaganpreet Singh, a passionate adventurer and nature lover, working with Microsoft as a Software Engineer. He is also associated with a social initiative 'Joy of Reading' )



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