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STUDENT SPEAK Studying the Cobra
Gowri Shankar’s interest in snakes motivated him to enrol as a visiting student at Indian Institute of Sciences Centre for Ecological Sciences, and pursue a PhD from the North Orissa University
Reptiles, especially snakes, have interested me for as long as I can remember. It would have been really easy had I pursued science, attended herpetology camps, volunteered with reptile parks and met people in the field, which most kids have access to these days. That was not to be. Lack of exposure and guidance led me to follow the mainstream. But when my passion got the better of me, I dropped it all. I joined the Madras Crocodile Bank and soon realised my forte was King Cobra. I worked on captive King Cobras there, and later worked on wild King Cobras at Agumbe.
While at Agumbe, I opted for a correspondence course in MSc Ecology, field work always took priority. Under Rom Whitaker’s guidance I collected data on wild king cobra nests, hatchlings, king cobra rescues and breeding biology. I teamed up for the pioneering king cobra radio telemetry project.
While looking for options for my PhD I came to the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES),Indian Institute of Science (IISc).The support and encouragement I receive here is incredible. I’ve enrolled as a visiting student under the guidance of Dr Kartik Shanker. He takes time to discuss, urges me to ramp up academically, offers lab space, and access to the library, and even allows me to attend regular classes. Faculty and fellow lab members are extremely supportive and even though I lack formal basics in ecology I’m able to catch up with their help.
Admission to CES is through an all India common entrance test. Research initiatives underway at CES include animal behaviour, evolutionary and socio-biology, community and habitat ecology, molecular genetics and conservation biology, large mammal and forest ecology and climate change. IISc also holds an open day every year where all departments open to the public to share their work offering an opportunity to interact and network. Their library is open to students all through the year for references.
My journey so far has been anything but conventional. But I have progressed. Today I have several scientific papers to my credit,been part of wildlife films for the National Geographic and Discovery Channels, completed my MSc and now have enrolled as a PhD candidate at North Orissa University under Dr S K Dutta. It still feels like I have just begun.

Gowri Shankar handling the King Cobra              

Gowri, along  with his wife Sharmila have started an environmental education camp site,  Kālinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology at Agumbe, where their focus is to open  doors of opportunity to people from varied backgrounds to learn scientific  tools of conservation through workshops and camps.

As told to Poonam Jain

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Voices…STORM, Level One.

After the success of two batches in January and March 2012 the third batch completed level one of the STORM (Scientific Training on Reptile Management) series of workshops. Students, professionals, researchers, snake rescuers and reptile enthusiasts made up the team and a common passion for snakes and reptiles set the tone.

Here’s the enthusiastic bunch…

 

From left to right:
Sitting: Vinod Krishna, Richa Vyas, Kausaer parvin, Shyam’s son, Kumara Swamy, Gowri
Standing front row: Ashwini, Prakash, Snake Shyam,Vinodh, Supreeth, Veeraraj, Prashanth, Shivakumar
Standing back row: Dr. Suraj, Balaji, Frank Benjamin, HPR Prasad, Prajwal, Anne mathias, Sharath, Raghavendra, Ramprasad sampath, Anuroop, Akshaeya Ashok.

 

…. And this is what they have to say:

 

” it was a fantastic workshop, very informative and useful for all levels irrespective of whether they had any prior knowledge or experience with snakes. I have been rescuing snakes for years now and though I knew some basics, I felt the information shared was very useful and did not seem repetitive. I however felt that we should be given an opportunity to handle a venomous snake during the workshop” — Frank Benjamin, snake rescuer, Valparai,TN.

 

“very informative, enjoyed the rescue calls and also learnt more about behavior of snakes”

Richa, Scientist

 

“The workshop was very well organized, it was a perfect blend of theory and practicals”— Anne Mathias, professional

 

“I learnt about Do’s and Dont’s while snake handling, which I think is very vital for this profession”Kausar, MBA

 

“very informative, gave me confidence to take it to the next level”Veeraraj, Entrepreneur

 

“working with the masters like Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam, it was an excellent experience. Learnt a lot about rescue and relocation and identification of snakes will become easier now”— Dr. Suraj, Doctor

 

“Liked the structure of the workshop, basics about snakes, the big 4,legal issues, first aid for snake bites, rescue & relocation, Snake Shyam was a celebrity to be with and loved the live rescue calls”Rangaprasad Sampth, Entrepreneur

 

” I gained good knowledge on Snake identification, scale counting particularly helped a lot”Prajwal, Software Engineer

 

“Excellent workshop! it helped me overcome the fear of snakes and I also got an idea how rescues can be done without causing any damage to the snake”Akshaeya Ashok, BSc Graduate

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STORM: Level Two  : Captive Management of Reptiles,  is scheduled for the 10th & 11th November 2012.

STORM: Level Three: Research Methodologies,  will happen at Agumbe from the 28th to 30th December 2012.

For more details check : https://pogirigowrishankar.wordpress.com/workshops-camps/

For registration please write to info@rainforestecology.com

A fresh batch of the STORM series will begin from January 2013.

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My Equine Journey – so far…


A question that I am frequently asked is, ‘what would I have been doing in life if not working with snakes?’ This is a very tough question for a person whose very essence of life is a deep urge to study  these critters. Although for several years I kept brushing it aside, the answer surfaced only recently. I realized that if not for snakes I would have certainly been working with horses. These tall charismatic creatures evoke a sense of awe every time I see them.

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. ~Winston Churchill

I am not sure when exactly my love for these animals was awakened but as far as my memory goes it must have been when I was around ten years old. We lived in a colony with clustered houses with a huge play area at the center. One morning, we found a pony that had lost its way and was loitering in our play ground. Its presence created mayhem and got every teenager and adventurous adult excited. Reins out of binding wire and a saddle out of bed spreads were made and the smartest guy with an adventurous reputation ‘attempted’ to mount it. The pony had its own plans and would not relent. While we kids watched in amusement, one by one everyone tried, unmindful of the stress the pony probably underwent.

The H for Horse figure that I had seen in charts was alive in front of my eyes and this scene triggered my liking for animals. By the time I was thirteen I had already started handling snakes and was involved in childish trading of beetles, chicks, insects, feathers and had almost negotiated with a cobbler to buy me a sloth bear for Rs.100!

Years later when I had started rescuing snakes for BSPCA I got a rescue call from the Government Veterinary Hospital.  After the rescue at the stable, the owner of the horses got chatting and on learning of my interest in horses offered to teach me to ride in exchange for my service. It was an exciting beginning and during the next three months I learnt to lunge and trot. But my calling in the field of herpetology was louder and I moved to Madras Crocodile Bank to work with crocodiles and king cobras. Horseback riding took a back seat while I moved steadily into building my herp career.

For years this interest of mine lay dormant. In October 2007 Renuka Prasad a champion rider of yester years visited Agumbe along with his friend. A casual chat about how great it would be to ride a horse in these rainforests brought along an offer to learn riding. Prasad offered to teach and invited me to visit him at the Bangalore Turf Club.

Prasad and his graceful gait

I diligently visited along with Sharmila who shared my liking for horses and wanted to ride too. It was our first visit to the Turf club and we marveled at its expanse. The sprawling land, well kept race tracks, numerous stables with magnificent equines could woo anybody. As we walked, huge giants strode past us leaving a cloud of dust on our faces and set our hearts racing; and the very next sight of them moving calmly to be washed and groomed got those very hearts melting. What were these creatures that got us so moving…we wondered!

Prasad has been riding for over twenty five years and has also won the Equestrian Championship at the club. Over the years, he has been training friends and has kept his connection with horses alive by being a regular at the club. He also fondly talks about his horse ride at Wellington where he was part of a mock fox hunting team. He very kindly offered both of us a ride that day. While it was not my first time, it certainly was Sharmila’s who struggled to get on one. She could not stop blushing to be atop so high while those very expressions concealed her fear of falling off. That day we came back feeling exhilarated. The plan was, Sharmila who was working in Bangalore then could learn and teach me when she joined me at Agumbe. However for many reasons this did not happen and my stint with horseback riding took a back seat once again.

Five years went by and I remained in Agumbe coming to Bangalore occasionally. My life was all about king cobras now and I was probably getting a little comfortable.  The quote ” “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got” seemed to apply aptly now. I picked the cue and decided it was time to move on. Sharmila and I moved back to Bangalore to begin the next phase of our lives. With this move I was now ready than ever to infuse life to that passion that I had always paused for other pursuits. I got back to riding in May 2010.

When I approached Prasad this time he propelled me with his infectious enthusiasm and enrolled me with Bangalore Amateur Riders Institute (BARI) at the Bangalore Turf Club. Entwined with BARI’s history and present is Mr.HariRam Singh.

The zealous Hariram Singh watches from atop, while Prasad and a young rider look on

A champion in show jumping and tent pegging of yore he still holds the national  record for clearing the highest jump with his horse. After retiring from the Army he has been training students since 1985 many of whom have brought home medals and glories from across the country and made BARI proud. The disciplinarian that he is, he plays by his own rules and ensures accord at the institute. His famous dialogue is “Don’t sit like a ‘aata ka bag ‘ (sack of flour)”. He is indeed the acid test that none can escape!

Horses at BARI are basically those that have retired from mainstream running or show jumping. For reasons unknown to me, horses are named in phrases, such as Popcorn, Daring Don, Eye Opener (pronounced as ‘Aiyappan’ by staff !), Ready to Challenge and Cardinal Rule etc. One would surely be amused to watch riders address each other by the name of the horses they rode than their actual names (E.g. Hey Popcorn how are you doing? Good morning Eye Opener! Etc). I started off with basic management and for three months I cleaned stables, which involved removing horse dung, wet hay, replacing the bedding, cleaning their hooves, grooming, saddling and then taking them for riding.

My knowledge about horses grew in bounds. Horses, having evolved over 55 million years ago, are among the first few animals that were domesticated by humans and are now widely bred; so much so that most horse breeds are domesticated except for the Przewalski’s Horse, that are considered as true wild horses.

A Przewalski's Horse Source: Wiki commons

Horses live by a fight-or-flight instinct with an average life expectancy of 25- 30 years.  They are trained for various purposes and at BTC are used for show jumping, dressage, racing, equestrian shows etc.

After a green signal from HariRam I moved on to learn lunging, which is the first step in learning how to ride. This requires the rider to sit atop the horse and move with it to imbibe the rhythm while the trainer moves the horse in a circle. It is truly a test of one’s stamina and strength. After two rounds of lunging it became apparent that I had to revamp my warm-up exercises, which I did conscientiously and for the next two months my understanding and appreciation grew further.

Learning to Trot

The milestones of riding are to start with lunging, moving on to trotting then cantering and finally galloping on a horse. Each of these stages involves unique techniques to be adopted but above all – unless the rider understands his horse he is as good as a novice. While Prasad says that the rider should always be in control of the horse, I beg to differ especially because with my experience I have found the horse is more aware of me being a newbie and he is in control of me. Time, training, understanding and experience may probably change my outlook someday. Six months went by and I enjoyed every moment.

Anybody who starts off riding always has an inherent itch or rather a crouching fear somewhere deep down about falling off the horse. Once one falls he either bounces back or just quits! I was no quitter, so the urge to fall and bounce back was haunting me every day I rode. Sometimes I laughed about it and at other times made macho comments of wanting to fall soon. Finally it did happen and was an experience by itself. Falling off a six footer, looking up at the towering figure and the sound of its hooves next to your ear is no easy meal to digest. Thanks to Hariram’s bellow to jump back on, that overwhelming feeling was brushed out before it could take root as fear in my mind.

But on the 14th of Jan 2010 something else awaited me and it proved to be a day to remember! I mounted Cardinal Rule; the horse that I always felt had a moody temperament. He had minutes ago bucked a rider and was running loose. I was to mount him after that. I mounted him and rode for a short distance when he bucked me down; unrelentingly I mounted back and thought I had him under control. But he had other plans and he bucked again landing me hard on my butt and injuring by back. I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance and was told that I had a compression at the L3-L4 region of my spine. I was to be under bed rest for at least three weeks and was not to travel for the next one month.

I had just about moved on from learning how to lunge and trot to canter when this accident seemed to bring the next big break to my horse riding endeavor. And as I write this I have just completed one month under house and bed arrest; though I feel it is a costly fall, my urge to get back is bigger than my fear.

Awaiting my next come back..

Much against the wishes of my well-wishers I just might attempt to ride Cardinal Rule at least once to complete the chapter before I move on, on my break ridden journey of horseback riding!

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Edited by: Shweta Harish

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The month of December when winter sets in, dry leaves carpet the forest floor and trees stand naked stretching out their arms begging to be clothed in most parts of the country, the rain forests of the Western Ghats  stand apart and wear a totally different look.

Forests in Agumbe wear a different look

It is at this time of the year when rains have stopped, frogs have stopped singing their croaky notes, and when people  step out of their houses without umbrellas and rain coats at Agumbe. Agumbe, the Cherapunji of the South is truly a paradise on earth. It is in this paradise that I live in my own dreamy home. It is nestled amidst the thick wet rain forest two kilometers away from the main road where vehicles zoom past.

My house pops out in that setting surprising both the inmates of the forest as well as civilization happening to venture deep. The front yard is a huge open field fenced by forests at its fringes, and the back yard is an areca nut plantation now grown all wild and adopted back by the forest.

Rain gods had finally folded their wings and retreated with their overbearing clouds for the next six months.

Early sun rays warming up the forest

Trees, creepers, vines....fresh and green

Tall trees with arching canopies wore a new, fresh and inviting look; creepers and vines stretched their tentacles as far as they could reach, tiny grass and sprouting seedlings looked up with an enthusiastic grin. As if greeting a long lost friend everybody from the tiniest ant to the biggest cats looked up at the brightly shining sun. The forest was bustling with activity.

That afternoon I sat outside on the red oxide steps of my house basking in the warmth of the red roof tiles clearing accounts. As the cool breeze scented with the smell of wet wood brushed against my face, the seemingly silent forest amidst which I sat suddenly seemed to wake up. A family of langurs, who usually are busy foraging on fruits and leaves snorted out fearful grunts, birds sang in trembling notes, I could notice the commotion at the far end of the field. This cacophony I understood were undoubtedly alarm calls. Alarm calls are nature’s plan to make the runners run faster, be it the prey or the killer. I was now all ears and eyes and focused in that direction. Considering that I was in the home land of King Cobras my natural expectation was the same. I kept looking at the ground for any signs of movement. The sounds grew louder and my heart was racing but I calmed down, for I knew that nature reveals herself only to those who have patience. Every minute was weighing me down.

Just as the sounds grew louder, silently crept out the most beautiful, magnificent, ornamented creature—- it was a leopard.

A shiny golden haze studded with carbon spots walked the stage showing himself off.

I stood totally perplexed, bewildered, stunned and in total disbelief. The euphoria was just not containable. I stood motionless as if the time and my heart had frozen. Just 100m away from me was a creature all flesh and bones capable of reducing me into bones; he walked stealthily with the most majestic gait.

Considering that a leopard is an elusive and nocturnal animal that rarely come out in the open, his venture came as a delightful surprise. When at the middle of the field, he suddenly turned and looked straight into my eyes. I lost all strength and felt weak at my joints. That moment between us felt like reviving a long lost connection. The fear and excitement was tearing me apart. I stood still while he sat down scanning the surroundings. I could feel my heart pounding as he gently got up and lifting his rich coat and velvety tail walked away.

He retreated back into his home and the conch on the other end started to blow (for alarm calls follow him where ever he goes). The jungle returned back to normal, but not me. I had lost my self, I could not utter a word, I was not even sure if I even blinked,and felt like a worm wriggling devoid of bones. I lived a long cherished dream of sighting a leopard in the wild that afternoon.

A pull which brought me so close to nature only grew stronger with this experience.

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

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2004 – I was at cross roads: having to choose between academics and an offer to work in a King Cobra conservation project. Naturally, I chose the latter and in a week’s time was living in a rented house in Mangalore close to the Pilikula Biological Park.

Under Rom’s guidance I worked at the park for a year. I managed captive king cobras, monitored a wild King Cobra nest at Kudremukh and assisted in the filming of ‘The King and I’, a wildlife documentary made by Icon Films, BBC. By end 2004, Rom was on the look out for a piece of land in Agumbe to start a research station.

Collecting data from relatives of a king cobra bite victim (who died).

My journey into the kingdom of Kings had begun. I surveyed the length and breadth of all terrains in Karnataka where King Cobras were found – met with local snake handlers, visited families that had lost lives to King Cobra bites, interviewed doctors and medics about King Cobra bite cases, met local people from several villages to enumerate King Cobra sightings and learn about their perspective of this royal denizen of their lands. Armed with all this information and knowledge, we intently looked for a place around Agumbe and in December 2004 zeroed in on a 4.27 acre land at the edge of the forest with an old house, around 2km away from the village.

January 2005 – the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station was set up. Rom’s dream took shape and my dream of living in a rain forest was about to come true.

The old house in 2004, which is now the ARRS base

The old house was wrapped within folds of the forest. An areca plantation sprang out in the back yard and typical of all Malnad houses, a Tulsi plant in the front yard over looked a huge clear patch where paddy was once grown. Dark sooty walls stood grimly and crumbling roof tiles exposed gaps that served as a passage for clouds and mist to pass through. Being the home of a family that once supplied milk to all homes at Agumbe, every door, window, and the floor of the house smelled of milk. Electricity, water taps, telephone, mobile, the so called necessities of modern life were left behind 2km away at the village.

I plunged ahead into the adventure. I purchased utensils, groceries, candles, kerosene lamps, a blanket and the days rolled on. Exercise in mornings, fetching water from a stream behind the house, walking through dense pathways to procure daily needs from the village, cooking for myself,

Cooking under moonlight

exploring forests around, revelling in lost thoughts and sleeping under a blanket of mist typically made my day.

Critters galore, from beautifully coloured spiders, to noisy geckos and snakes were a common sight around the house. Mornings were filled with shrills of malabar horn bills, racket tailed drongos, great Indian black woodpeckers, sweet whistles of the malabar trogon, fairy blue bird and myriads of other birds. On one such evening while walking along the periphery of the property, a rustling sound caught my attention. I guessed it to be a huge snake and only hoped it would be a King and just as I had hoped I was rewarded with the first sighting of a King Cobra.

My first king cobra sighting at the base

It was a great feeling to stare into his eyes as he went by quite uncaring. Within a month’s time I bumped into another King drinking out from the same stream where I fetched water for myself. I was dumbstruck and this encounter made it very clear that I was indeed treading their land. I now understood why Rom often called this place the homeland of  King Cobras! Apart from the King, the forest teemed with other wildlife too. I sighted my first leopard sitting in the front yard! Sambar deer, mouse deer, barking deer, gaurs, wild dogs, malabar giant squirrels, slender loris and langurs were regular visitors.

We were after all in Agumbe to study and learn more about the King Cobra! So within a week’s time I reached out to people through King Cobra rescues.

Bullet, 1981 model : My companion!

It was quite another challenge to travel on a Bullet with a snake hook and a snake bag and convince people about our good intentions of conservation.While most people welcomed me with a smile they suspected viciousness and malice behind my back, as happens with any new stranger in a closely knit village! I persisted without any prejudice and reached out all the more and delivered talks in schools, colleges, local resource groups, self help groups, participated in village forest committee meetings, and interacted and conducted open air video shows with a television and a projector at the remotest of villages. A sense of acceptance came in when a school student who attended my talk prevented his parents from destroying a King Cobra nest and informed me about it.

Interacting with people after a king cobra video show on a television

That year I got to observe three King Cobra nests, rescued twenty King Cobras and by the end of that year was invited to people’s homes for festivals, poojas and family events. I felt I had arrived.

But what was to arrive next was the biggest surprise of all…..the Monsoon! It struck by end May and with it brought in a total makeover to my life style.

Monsoon meant, no sun and relentless downpour for months....

It poured for days together, roofs leaked, my bullet started to rust and I could hardly see anything three feet ahead of me! The strident sounds of the cicadas and birds were lost to the rattling noise of relentless downpour, croaking of frogs, and sloshing sounds of my own foot steps marching through foot deep water. Fresh life bloomed everywhere, mushrooms, orchids, and fungus! Like a phoenix, leeches seemed to rise from the dead and spread out like a live carpet. With 99% humidity and absolutely no sun, nothing would dry. Fungus started to grow on walls, clothes, groceries, my cherished photographs and my own body! Rom still recalls and jokes about how he caught me drying my Boxer shots over a gas stove and burnt it! Cooking was a disaster with vegetables rotting soon, groceries becoming damp, salt almost turning liquid and eggs spoilt. Experiences became my teachers and they slowly taught me to make fire with fire wood, purchase only what was necessary for the day’s cooking, parcel my white clothes to Bangalore, use salt, snuff and castor oil to combat leeches and plan ahead to keep things dry. Once I learned these lessons, things seemed a little easier.

Once monsoon receded, we started renovating the old house

The make shift room that was my abode for six months during renovation

Life moved on with each day being an adventure and after a year Prashanth joined me as base supervisor and also assisted me in my work with King Cobras.

Prashanth assisting me with a king cobra hatchling

Suresha, the cook....at our first kitchen!

I started to concentrate more on research, education and public relations with the forest department and villagers.

Rom and me at our first office

ARRS started to grow with Rom’s prize money from the Whitley Fund for Nature and his most valuable guidance.

Fresh engraved stone acknowledging support from the Whitely Fund for Nature

Over the next four years, three cottages were constructed, an office, library and lab took shape, a jeep was purchased, the world’s first radio telemetry study on King Cobras began, research projects not just on king cobras but amphibians, climate monitoring studies, plants, an organic garden and several education programs were started, a weather station was installed, volunteers and visitors started to pour in and ARRS slowly started to make a mark of its own.

ARRS as it is today. Our first jeep is seen in the background

Thus has been my journey so far with ARRS. My reward are all those experiences that helped me grow, people’s acceptance and confidence and the growth of ARRS. I continue to be a consultant at ARRS and look forward to more research and action at the research station!

Much has changed over the years (since all the ‘firsts’) and to know how ARRS looks now and what is happening there, do visit : http://www.agumberainforest.com.

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar | Edited by : Shweta Harish

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This blog was in the offing for a while and is finally seeing the light of day. I would like to start off with a declaration that all posts will be a coordinated effort by Sharmila, my wife and me to reach out to all of you.

Please feel free to candidly share your comments, views and suggestions.

The road to wisdom?-Well, it’s plain and simple to express:
Err and err and err again
but less and less and less.
– Piet Hein, Danish inventor and poet.

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