Written by Chandrima Home
Rules govern our lives as well as all of society. We humans love to anthropomorphize the natural world. We try to identify characters, behaviors in the natural world that are more human-like and anything happening out of the box is often considered “mad”. I personally like collecting such local trivia about species which are colloquially labeled as “mad”. What intrigues me are the reasons for which they are considered so, and if you ponder over it, it does sometimes shed light on the species ecology.
My first encounter with something “mad” in nature was Prosopis juliflora,a shrub or a small tree belonging to family Fabaceae (a kind of Mesquite) colloquially termed as “gandobawar” in Kutchi or the “mad” tree. An invasive in India, this tree definitely lives up to its name. My day in field would often end with my pulling out an inch long thorn from my new Woodland shoes with my Swiss knife! Well, one can definitely infer the state of those shoes by the end of my Masters dissertation field work. 🙂
The concept of “greening” the desert brought many exotic species to India. Species like Prosopis juliflora and Eucalyptus sp. have been planted in some of the driest areas. While walking along the Indira Gandhi Nahar in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, I was shocked to see huge stands of Eucalyptus, planted to vegetate the area around the canal.
Apparently, in the 1970s, seeds of Prosopis juliflora were air dropped in the Banni grasslands (Kutch), yet again to “green” the arid lands. The species has been responsible for converting vast grasslands, once prime land for grazing the famous “Banni” buffaloes, into Prosopis savannas. No doubt this tree became “mad” largely due to the notion of how some people wanted to view this landscape. But the plant has now not only been established in the lives of people but also the animals within this landscape. The pods of this tree are consumed by quite a wide variety of species. The locals say that the livestock apparently love chewing on the pods as they are sweet. They also mentioned that when livestock feed on these pods, their teeth get eroded much faster and ultimately they die of hunger.
I have found the Prosopis pods in the diet of Indian foxes as well as encountered them in jackal and porcupine faecal remains. In Kutch (Abdasa Taluk, Gujarat), permits were leased out for charcoal production from Prosopis. Producing the charcoal was an intensive process and the village peripheries would often be riddled with neatly cut circular heaps of Prosopis branches, being slowly cooked for the charcoal to form. The people also never cut the tree completely and the plant grows back with vigour with multiple stems emerging from the base.
This so called “mad tree” has been able to alter large tracts in the arid and semi-arid landscapes of Northwest India. But is it a “bane” or a “boon”? Maybe both! I realized that over a period of time, Prosopis juliflora have been able to percolate into the lives of both people and animals and eventually been accepted as a part of the system.
It was in Spiti (in Himachal Pradesh) that I encountered my second “mad” species. This time it was an unassuming grassland bird, the horned lark (Eremophilia alpestris). The walk up to the Chomoling pasture in July was a visual treat. The barley fields glistened in the afternoon sun and the butterflies amongst the colorful floral fare seemed to herald the summer in Spiti. The gradual ascent from Kibber village to the pasture was brimming with activity highlighting the importance of this small summer window for all life forms. The moment I reached the plateau, I was greeted by sharp trills. There were quite a few of the horned larks flying above,seeming agitated for a while, refusing to sit and give a glance.
After a couple of minutes of restlessness, they decided to go back to what they were doing earlier; gleaning the grass possibly for insects. The horned lark is colloquially termed as the “Ripjakolto” (Ripja means forest and kolto means mad) or the mad forest bird! This unusual name for the horned lark aroused my curiosity. However, my doubts were soon cleared by my field companion from the village who mentioned that this bird does not have a choice for places to nest. This “mad” forest bird nests at random sites on the ground providing us with some streak of ecological information that could be further looked into.
These so called “mad” species truly add a different flavor to our research! They enhance not just our understanding of the landscape but also enrich us with narratives of the place. Keep looking for such “madness” in your life!
About the author:
Chandrima Home joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2009. Her PhD research aims to understand the ecological and social dimensions of threats by free-ranging dogs in the Trans-Himalaya. Other than her keen interest in ecology, she loves baking, reading and travelling.