By Kadambari Deshpande
This is the second article of a two part series. If you haven’t read the first one yet, please click here.
I had noticed that emerging bats at dusk mostly preferred forest edges to forage. I had found an excellent site by the forest-reservoir boundary to record bat species. This location was also easily accessible from the highway and thus allowed for an easy escape in case of any emergency, such as elephants coming to the water.
As per our field routine, Shiju came in his jeep to pick me up in the late afternoon. We had quick milk-powder tea at the kada (tea-shop) nearby, and then reached the location before sunset. After finding a spot for the jeep to park, I connected the acoustic equipment, checked if the device was triggering properly, and if batteries were functioning well in these days of high humidity. As the sun set, the atmosphere turned from a dusk-orange to a deep blue. With the right-side earphone (for bat ultrasound) plugged into one ear to listen for bats, my other ear was open to listen to other sounds from the surroundings. As it got dark, Indian nightjars called from the nearby bushes. Cicadas were just calming down when the crickets took over, masking both the human-audible and ultrasonic worlds. It seemed a busy evening after many quiet ones, raising my hopes of sampling a higher activity of bats. And then, there was a sudden onset of down-sweeping calls – the high-flying (low frequency) free-tailed bats were out. Pipistrelles and other evening bats soon followed, nearly clouding out the sky (and the detector). A whole swarm of bats appeared in no time. With my detector getting crowded with bat sounds, I watched them prey on insects and sip water from the reservoir. Somewhere in between I heard high-frequency beep signals of forest-dwelling horseshoe bats. There was a bat mélange out there, a true relief after numerous silent nights!
The evening passed with the continuing ultrasonic cacophony in the earphone, contrasting with the silent human-audible environment, until I heard a very unfamiliar sound. It was not through my detector though. Shiju, who until now was quietly looking out for any sign of danger from the forest, also got startled. Both of us soon recognized that they were human whistles. Even after regularly checking with torch-lights, we had missed a truck that had appeared nearby – its engine had gone silent as it drove down. Just as I was preparing myself to abandon the night’s work, an auto-rickshaw and a car came rushing and parked right ahead, facing us head on. I could not see anyone inside these vehicles, but could see what was coming up. Without a second thought, I switched off the detector (which was recording the amazing data), wrapped everything up, and asked Shiju to have the jeep ready to leave the place. With Shiju driving away very fast, we hardly spoke until we were at least 5 kilometres away from the spot. There was something sinister and alarming about the way the vehicles had approached us. My eyes were glued to the rear-view mirror to see if we were being followed. As we reached a familiar turn…I heaved a sigh of relief. Luckily, we were not being followed, so we slowed down. I had no clue what was going on – except that something strange was looming – much like prey feel in a ‘landscape of fear’ with predators around. Shiju suspected that the site was a regular smuggling spot and we were unexpected visitors that day.
“It’s the same car Shiju, I recognize the number!” I screamed. The car unexpectedly appeared, chasing us at the turn. My heart began pounding very fast, and we sped up again. At the next fork in the road, instead of taking the usual route, we decided to take a small hill-road. We kept heading up until we found a spot to watch out for the car movement. With its dark glass windows still rolled up and big fog-lights on, the car was waiting for us at the fork!
For most of my fieldwork I had been alone, barring Shiju’s presence in the evenings. I had walked on roads with local spirit bars, littered with collapsed drunks, villagers crowding around the homes of local prostitutes, and suspicious looking goods-trucks regularly parked overnight near my house. By now I had seen a fair bit. But the experience of the car chasing us… left me horrified, and tears rolled down… as we waited quietly in that temporary safe spot.
Perhaps deciding it was worthless to stay for long, the car’s tires screeched as it reversed and it did not return for at least another hour that we waited. We drove down the hill from the other side, seemingly out of danger. The moment I returned to my senses, Shiju and I let our family members and his local friends know of the situation, in case of any further emergency. Shiju dropped me at my place and went back home taking a different road that night. I gulped down something from what I had cooked in the afternoon, and tried to lie down. I did not, even for a moment, want to think of the aftermath, if they had found us. I was shaken to the core. Throughout that night, I vigilantly peered out of the window that opened onto the highway. This experience, I thought, completely overshadowed any risk I may have ever perceived from wildlife in the protected forest.
It was almost becoming a routine to omit sampling at many interesting locations, given that bats and people both used secluded, dark places to ‘forage’ at night. There would almost always be something odd in the air. Once, the local atmosphere of suspicion forced me to leave the place of stay I was working from. This was the time when the two high-level reports of the Western Ghats expert panels were a hot topic in town. Through local hearsay, some neighbours had assumed that I was from one of the Western Ghats committee report teams. Otherwise, it did not make sense to them what I, a woman, would be doing at night in the forest, studying animals as strange as bats. People studied elephants or tigers or trees or something more obvious; studying bats was never heard of! With all this happening, I really needed a secure base to work from, to complete my study without worries.
It was not until I moved to Mohammad bhai’s house that I found a safe and peaceful place. I knew this settlement, but had never considered staying there. I had occasionally chatted about my work with some people there at Syeda’s kada, answering their unwaveringly curious questions. On knowing that I was effectively homeless, Mohammad and his family insisted that I stay in their settlement. This was the most welcoming feeling I had felt in a long time. Soon I was well settled there. They were appreciative and not judgmental of my work and routine. Thus far, they were the only people not to look at me with a difference, but instead with a sense of inclusion, which was unconditional. Living in this settlement helped me circumvent the hindrances of hooliganism and drunkenness in the surroundings.
With my mind now able to focus on work, bat calls began revealing many exciting patterns, of how species richness of bats changed from forests, teak forests, orchards, to rubber plantations, and in human settlements. Bats just needed the right mixture of habitats to persist and survive. My data recapitulated that acoustic sampling had a high potential in remotely knowing about the ecology of bats.
In this venture to understand bats remotely, the landscape had also helped me understand people closely. I internalized the fact that with the nature of my chosen work, I would have to face similar realities in any landscape I would work in.
Gradually, landscapes of fear started becoming landscapes of hope.
The author dedicates this article to the memory of the Late Mr. Syed, and his family, for their help and support.
About the author:
Kadambari Deshpande is a PhD student at ATREE and has been studying the ecology of bats in the Western Ghats. She is keenly interested in the sensory ecology of animals and relies on acoustic methods for much of her work. She has also been studying the perceptions of people about bats to understand the importance of local knowledge for bat conservation.