Nikethana reports on our recent team trip to the inspirational Keystone Foundation in the Nilgiris, Western Tamil Nadu. From May 20 to 23rd 2017, 25 people – 12 women from the Nadukuppam Women’s Enterprises and 13 members of the Pitchandikulam Team (and three of their children!) – visited Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu. Keystone Foundation has been working for more than 20 years in the Nilgiris with indigenous communities on eco-development initiatives. The Foundation’s work has been concentrated in the areas of apiculture, micro-enterprise development, non-timber forest produce, land & water management, revival of traditional agriculture and other issues concerning indigenous communities.
The trip was incredibly inspiring, with the team spending a day in Ooty visiting the Botanical Gardens and the Flower show, followed by a visit to the Greene Shop and Place to Bee, a slow food restaurant, both running under Last Forest Enterprises, a marketing initiative of Keystone.
The next day, we left on jeeps into the hills to visit Bangalapadigai Center, a production unit of Last Forest where a local Irula women’s group collects non-timber forest material for a fair price from the communities around and creates value added products like Amla candy and chips, Shikakai powders, silk cotton bedding, beeswax balms and candles, and coffee powder. It was a wonderful exchange between our Nadukuppam women and the women from this unit, each sharing about the benefits and challenges of their work and lives.
On our last day with Keystone, we spent the morning at the Foundation’s base, exploring the work and chatting with the staff. In the morning, in a collaboration with Eco Femme, a social enterprise in Auroville, the women from Pitchandikulam team and Nadukuppam spent an hour with the Keystone women staff discussing sustainable menstruation.
Simultaneously, some of the other Pitchandikulam staff helped with some hands on work in Keystone – digging a mini-dam for Keystone’s rain water harvesting expansion initiative and planted some trees in the campus!
The morning continued with the team going on a tour around the offices, exploring various aspects of Keystone’s work on conservation and livelihoods, research into water, biodiversity and human-wildlife interaction, community health and wellness, the indigenous peoples program, and the work on community newsletter (Nilgiri Seemai Sudhi) and Community Radio (Radio Kotagiri 90.4 MHz) that links the various indigenous communities in the region.
The afternoon saw the group making a brief visit to Coonoor exploring Sims Park. The day ended with a wonderful sunset walk up the slope on the Keystone campus.
A reflection circle after dinner with two of Keystone founder directors Sneh and Pratim, and Abhishek (a Keystone team member who completed our December Ecovillage Design Education course) saw a conversation about further collaborations and exchanges between the two organizations.
The People and Nature Fund hosted by Keystone made it possible for our women’s group to go this exposure visit. We thank Keystone Foundation and its members for their warm hospitality and generosity in time and resources!
Our volunteer Lucy Garrett reports on the long-awaited official opening of the Common Facilities Centre, the new hub for rural women’s enterprise in Nadukuppam.
“Monday 24th April was a special day: the inauguration of the Common Facilities Centre (CFC), owned by a federation of village women in Nadukuppam. The Federation is a group of enterprises creating a range of products – herbal medicines and foods, nursery plants, spirulina products, herbal veterinary care – and with the help of the Tamil Nadu Government, Pitchandikulam and the QSA, they now own a piece of land and a building from which to run their productions, and manage all their work. The CFC is adjacent to the new forest – a 35 acre forest garden planted ten years ago, a thriving forest pharmacy that provides important raw materials for all the enterprises. What makes the space special is that the women now feel a real sense of ownership; it is up to them how they will use the building and surrounding land.
A group of us travelled out on Sunday afternoon to help with preparations for the event. When we arrived in the afternoon there was a sense of excitement in the air. We found the women’s groups sat together around a huge pile of flowers their fingers moving deftly in meditation as they thread the flowers onto strings ready for tomorrows Pooja. I spent a good 20 minutes sat with them trying to learn how they knotted the flowers but to no avail; my fingers refused to perfect the weave. Joss Brooks explained the change that he has witnessed in the past 6 months to year; previously the different groups didn’t talk much among themselves, now they do, a movement towards sharing resources, and illustrated by the collective action we witnessed in the preparations for the inauguration.
We filled the bus with chairs, furniture and information boards and took them over to the CFC building for unloading. The enterprise groups arrived and swept over the entire building, scrubbing away every last bit of dirt and washing the floors and shelves. Collectively we moved over the surrounding land, painstakingly removing all the large stones and raking all the leaves into neat piles.
Some local men arrived on a bullock cart carrying two banana plants bearing heavy loads of fruit. These were strung up on either side of the house porch as a symbol of prosperity and strong community. As it was explained to me, banana trees grow more banana trees so if you have many it is a good sign of healthy long lived community that will foster and grow more over time.
A beautiful shade awning arrived alongside fairy lights which were strung along the roof of the building. Preparations were nearly complete! I climbed to the roof to take in the sun setting behind the palms and rice fields. Below me I watched two ladies stuffing an oversized pair of trousers and shirt with hay. It is customary for this ‘scarecrow’ to be ignited at midnight and then carried around the full perimeter of the building whilst on fire. This ritual is to keep out bad spirits, and most importantly must be completely by a very drunk individual – the drunkenness prevents the bad spirits from entering them!
The CFC is a place where new initiatives can be incubated and the central operations hub where existing enterprises are managed. For example, for medicinal products and herbal foods, plants are collected in fields and hedgerows in the adjacent forest, and brought to the site. Once at the site they are processed; pummelled, steamed, bleached, ground, powdered and bottled until they are ready to sell at local markets by the group.
Belongings and furniture should not be moved into a house until after the opening Pooja had taken place so the building echoed as you moved around it and the enterprise products were not yet in the building. Final Pooja decorations also had to be completed after the midnight ceremony, so we were all in for a sleepless night, especially the women’s enterprise groups that spent the whole night preparing a delicious South Indian feast for breakfast.
We assembled bleary eyed for the Pooja at 6am. A beautiful mandala had been created in front of the house and flowers hung from the door. The air was thick with the smell of jasmine attached to neatly plaited hair. With no particular sense of urgency things began to happen; the priest arrived alongside more and more villagers, the women in immaculate saris and the men in white dhoti.
A complex array of fruit, incense, flowers and ritual objects were arranged in front of the priest as people piled into the house to watch the Pooja. A female cow and her calf arrived outside the house, their faces painted and strings of yellow feathers hanging from their necks. Cows are considered a symbol of prosperity. After the front and rear of each cow was blessed with a handful of flower petals the cows were both tugged up the front step and into the house. The mother was clearly more accustomed to this than the calf.
The Pooja continued until a fire was lit inside the house and smoke began to fill every crevasse of the building. I have no idea how so many people could stand to stay in the smoke for so long, but the priest assured us that it was good for our lungs.
The Pooja was finished with the final traditional act; the boiling of a pan of milk inside the house. If the milk boils over then it is a good omen that will bring prosperity. We crowded around to watch the milk boil over the wood fire together. As soon as it had boiled it was time to tuck into a delicious South Indian breakfast.
Now the Pooja has been completed, the CFC is fully ready for the groups, who will begin by moving all their stock and equipment into the building. The next chapter will be the planting of the garden; thousands of medicinal plants will be grown in this area, mostly sourced from the plant nursery enterprise, and ready to grow when the rains come.”
ROXBURGH’S HABENARIA OR GROUND ORCHID
This is a small, rarely seen small (25 – 35cm tall) orchid – over all my excursions in the region I have seen it only once at the lip of a ravine in Kurumpuram Reserve forest – and at that time I did not know it was an orchid until a friend pointed out its salient features. Its IUCN status is not known, but it finds mention in Appendix II of CITES. Interestingly of the 1,295 species of orchids in the country all are included in Appendix II of CITES, except for the ten species of Paphiopedilum and Renanthera imschootiana, which find prominent mention in Appendix 1. Some may not realise the ramifications of this document: it simply means that if anyone is accused of collecting wild orchids of any species in the wild and possessing them privately and / or without proper documentation they are liable for arrest and prosecution.
It is quite a rare orchid and it would be an interesting exercise to find out its IUCN conservation status, but until date its official status remains DD (Data Deficient) which is the most dangerous category of all as it may disappear simply because its threatened status if any remains unknown and hence cannot be part of any policy which can push for its protection – a sad fate faced by many species of living beings.
Its rarity can be simply fathomed by its range not being clear. Wikipedia mentions that it is “Endemic to the South Deccan” . Way back in 2004 it is said to be recorded in Orissa. In 2006 it was recorded in the Eastern Ghats, Vishakapatnam, Dharmapuri Disrict and Salem and was interestingly used for snake bite – as the authors put it:
“10 – 15 tubers are crushed with 2 – 3 g each pepper and garlic.
The extract is given orally in snake bite by Konda Reddies of Khammam District”.
Whether the guy given the extract lived or died is not mentioned.
There are beautiful images of this orchid at Talakona Forest in Andhra Pradesh (a wet deciduous forest visited by Bubesh and me, and where our associate S.R. Ganesh of Madras Snake Park has discovered a new species of frog with Bubesh’s help, Tharalu in Karnataka in 2014 and even in nearby Tiruvanamalai in 2015 .
All this goes to show how far back we are in addressing conservation concerns, in particular about a little studied taxon and how far we yet have to go in conserving nature and ourselves.
Bubesh presented the camera trap study of the mammals in Pitchandikulam Forest
Lourdes presented alternative educational methods in environmental education – a case study from the Kazhuveli bioregion
Parvathi represented women’s groups and their eco-products at a stall throughout the conference
In addition to his own research, Bubesh was one of the national coordinators of the conference. He was also coordinator of a national wildlife photography competition, and judge for both the photography contest and a drawing competition that was held in schools in and around Pondicherry.
In the wildlife photography competition, 250 photographs were received from across India. The top three were selected, along with five more commendations.
Presence and Status of Mammals in Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville
Bubesh gave a paper on the ongoing research into the biodiversity of Pitchandikulam: Status of Mammalian Fauna is a Man-Made Forest Plantation in Auroville, India. The presentation discussed the presence and status of mammals in the study area – which species are present, how many there are, and which systematic methodology was used.
Overall, richness of the fauna in our mature forest in Pitchandikulam, Auroville is as follows, with 213 species documented so far:
# of Species
# of Families
Additional data was collected during a camera-trap study, which was published in the abstract book of the conference. A total of ten species belonging to eight families were recorded, and 137 photographs were obtained from three camera traps over 37 days.
Note: an article and photographs from the research will be published here on the blog in a few weeks.
Bubesh’s paper has been awarded Second Prize at the National Seminar of the 4th Indian Biodiversity Congress!
Environmental Education – an ecological, problem-based learning method
Lourdes presented the paper at the conference: Environmental Education using alternative educational methods in rural schools in Tamil Nadu: a case study from the Kazhuveli bioregion. His presentation detailed our activities in alternative education, how we are using these methods to impart knowledge of ecological issues in 14 schools in the Marakkanam block, Tamil Nadu.
This was a grass-roots presentation about our child-centred education method, explaining what we do on the ground with communities and how we use environmental education in an hands-on manner – giving snapshots of fifty ecological classroom projects chosen by the children (eg ponds, the Kazhuveli bioregion, water bodies, trash etc).
Lourdes also spoke about school-based environmental activism in Pudupakkam, a village whose palm trees were being cut down by villagers and being sold as firewood for brick kilns. The children took it on as a topic, examining the trees and their history, collecting songs about the trees, talking to elders and creating a public drama for the whole village. The effect was clear: the village’s palm trees are no longer being cut down.
He also discussed the model environment centre at the government high school in Nadukuppam, where we have been working for many years.
Some drawings from Pondicherry school students exhibited at the conference
"If every school uses this method, not just for environment but for any subject, the children will not forget what they have learnt for their entire life."
Nine years ago when we gave the concept master plan of the Adyar Wetland Park to our client the government of Tamilnadu we didn’t know quite what we were getting into. All I knew was that we had been given an opportunity to nurture a change, to help protect and restore a sixty-acre patch of the planet in the middle of a huge community of ten million people. We signed a contract and played a pretty hard game.
We have moved a few steps down the path. There are 19 different dragon and damsel flies and a painted stork has been seen. Fungi of many colours and the sight of the white-bellied sea eagle is common. Let’s not kid ourselves: it was tough being chained to the Public Works Department rates and standards. It was a battle with a system that doesn’t understand that plans can evolve, change, but it’s also been an experience of working with many dedicated, impressive government officers as well as some immovable monumental bureaucratic egos and thousands of citizens craving for the transformation of the city landscape.
The Pitchandikulam team is still there helping to maintain the park and now we have extended our responsibility to another 300 acres of the Adyar estuary.
A community in harmony, well-grounded, will show tendencies in its practices of a much larger longer term plan. It seems often these days that knee-jerk surgery is more the order of the day. It is not exactly the 100 year plan that we dream of, but we will try .
Living in the beautiful forest that we have planted in Auroville, never would I have imagined spending more than a fleeting visit to the mayhem of Chennai. In the early morning in Chennai , it is a train or a jet plane and mostly crows that wake you and not the myriad sounds of a waking diversity that greets us in Pitchandikulam.
But this search for gold amongst the garbage is the challenge. When you look up into the wide sky of the wetland and thousands of fruit bats fly between you and the emerging stars and because of how we have created the protected space, one only hears the frogs you rejoice in the sink of silence that is here and hope that it helps some residents of the vast city to see and then work towards a healthier future for their environment .
It has been a hope that the people around the wetland would see it as their jewel, the place where not just the rainwater flows but they flow there also. To know of its healthiness would be a boon while struggling with the challenges of the city. To walk along the wetland’s peaceful paths would help heal the damage that this massive urbanization creates. It would help to remember where we come from and guide us to work towards the day when the banks of the Adyar can watch the peaceful river flow again.
One of the most popular activities at Pitchandikulam Forest is our weekly nature and birdwatching walk, on Fridays at 4pm. The man pointing our attention upwards through the forest canopy the trees as we walk along is wildlife biologist Dr. Bubesh Guptha, and to celebrate his receiving the Smt.S.P. Sarojini Memorial Young Scientist Award (2017), we decided to interview him to find out more about the man in the tiger top.
“ I can’t exactly say that I always knew that I wanted to be a biologist. I did my BSc in Botany, but I didn’t have an ambition to be a scientist or a botanist. During my degree, I was more interested in folk dancing – back in 2001 I got the state level second prize for Tamil folk dance! So after my degree, I wasn’t planning to continue on a postgraduate degree, but to get a job of some kind. Suddenly one of my teachers approached me about a place on a Masters in Wildlife Biology. When I joined, I didn’t even have any basic knowledge about wildlife.
We had to take theory papers, follow seminars – the theory was very difficult for me. Playing cricket always took priority, even during exam times. Exams were about finishing as soon as possible so I could watch the cricket.
Nagarjunasagar Racer, photo: Bubesh Guptha
Sri Lankan Flying Snake, photo: Bubesh Guptha
In my MSc we had to compete a project. I told my supervisor I wanted to do my dissertation on snakes. I don’t know why I liked snakes so much, but I wanted to be a snake catcher, I thought it was crazy, something different in the field. I live in a rural area, and noone in my area is doing this kind of thing. I didn’t like birds – and my supervisor was a bird specialist. But it made sense to go with his area of expertise, and he suggested that I focus on the wetland birds in Pichavaram, and that we go on a three-week field trip. Research trips like this are very expensive – taking buses for 150km, going out on boats, food, accommodation. One day in Pichavaram, I was looking under a bridge for nests, and I fell on the molluscs in the water, scratching up my entire body. The shells in the water are like knives there. My supervisor started laughing. He said, “Bubesh, this is fieldwork. Only when you are full of blood, can you say that you are really doing fieldwork!”
Grey Pelican, photo: Bubesh Guptha
Jacana, photo: Bubesh Guptha
I needed some financial support, and my supervisor helped me to find some work in an animal research institute in Coimbatore as a project assistant in a wetland and wetland birds study. The institute, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, specialised in ornithology and biodiversity. I went to the interview, reading up on common water birds on the way down as I really didn’t know much about birds at all – only what I’d learnt in my three week field trip. Somehow I got the job.
The project was to go to all the wetlands in Tamil Nadu and to study the status of the wetlands and the status of the birds. I went there, took photographs, and in total covered 77 wetlands in 8 districts of Tamil Nadu. After finishing that project, I knew a lot more about water birds. It was only then that I realised the importance of biodiversity, because before that project I had no money and no equipment, and in this project, I got a very good camera, good binoculars, GPS, travelling allowance, daily allowance, unlimited food, accommodation, vehicle hire, and a fellowship. I thought to myself – why are the government spending so much money on one person? What is this biodiversity? After that I started reading books, watching seminars, attending conferences. This opened my eyes to what biodiversity is. For the first time, I could see that this was the future – the way to do real work, without worrying about travel expenses or anything like that. Also, I got the opportunity to take photographs, and I was given credit when it was published – I got publicity, credit, good salary – this was a great opportunity.
After the project finished, I found another job in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu at the Central Soil and Water Conversation Research and Training Institute in Ooty. The job was to undertake a fied survey on the afforested shola (South Indian grassland forest) and swamps in the Nilgiri district, as a junior research fellow. Because I already knew about the technical aspects of fieldwork, like collecting samples and using GPS, I got the job. Thanks to my previous job, I was the only one who had experience of this type of advanced technology.
I worked there for a year, and then I was called for a vacancy in forest-related biodiversity studies in Andhra Pradesh. At that time, I knew very little about forests. I knew about wetlands, and about swamps, but not forests. The job was as a biologist working in a biodiversity inventory in the Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve, the largest tiger reserve in India. That was my first forest job – a real forest, a tiger reserve. A big difference to working wiht water birds around villages or concentrating on plants, soil testing and so on in the shola. It was a big jump straight to tigers! I didn’t know much about wildlife then.
I worked there for two and a half years, but it was two days travel from my family, so I got homesick. Also I didn’t know how to speak Telugu. So I wanted to move nearer. Luckily I was called by the Nellapattu and Pulicat Bird Sanctuaries, for a job as wetlands bird specialist, much closer to home on the border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – only an hour from Chennai. That was a happy time, easy for me to come home for family festivals like Deepavali or Pongal. I could enjoy my wildlife and my family life, it was perfect.
Lime butterfly, photo: Bubesh Guptha
Red Pierrot butterfly, photo: Bubesh Guptha
We conducted awareness camps and surveys. I learned enough Telugu to communicate with the forest staff and local children. The sanctuaries are controlled by the Conservator of Forests in Tirupati, part of the Andhra Pradesh Department of Forests, and soon I was being asked to help in other locations like the Sri Venkadeshwara National Park.
I spent two and a half years working there, in the different sanctuaries and national parks. Then the Forest Department had some financial issues, so although I was happy, I needed to do find some more work. I joined the Wildlife Institue of India, the biggest in the country, in Uttarkhand in the Himalayas, as research personnel in the All India Tiger Monitoring Project. I’d already worked with tigers, so I felt very comfortable working there, and they were happy with me.
And that time, I started to publish in some journals. The first two or three papers were a difficult experience: I didn’t know how to do analyses, how to write in that academic style. The papers were full of reviews and comments: the first one I got back from the journal was fully red with comments! So I asked for help from scientists I knew, and eventually my first paper was published in 2010, then the next paper and then the next. To date, I have 65 papers published, and 7 books.
After that project finished, again I joined the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department and used what I’d learnt in the Wildlife Institue of India. The government of India had declared the area of the national park as a biosphere reserve. I was a wildlife biologist there, working with snakes, reptiles, amphibians and different mammals. We found so many new records – new species sighted for the first time in India, like the Sri Lankan flying snake.. We also sighted a metallic tarantula, which was only the second sighting in India since its discovery in 1899.
I started my PhD in Zoology in Sri Venkateshwara University there (on the wetland birds of Nellapattu and Pulicat sanctuaries), and got married in Pondicherry, so I wanted to find some wildlife work nearby. That is when I joined Pitchandikulam Forest, Auroville. I came here to work with snakes, and was brought in for Pitchandikulam’s snake venom extraction project in the area around Marakkanam. In addition to that, my work here involves butterfly studies, bird studies, and working in biodiversity educations.
We train teachers, students, government civil servants and we have carried out surveys on snakes, birds and mammals. We have published five papers in journals and conferences using research in Pitchandikulam Forest.
I have full research freedom here – this is not at all a nine to five job. Whatever I want to do – research, education, awareness camps, I can do.
I have received awards for my work – in photography, wildlife research, biodiversity, and was nominated for the Rajiv Gandhi Wildlife Conservation Award in Delhi. This month I have received the national Young Scientist of the Year award, and 2014 I received Best Presentation Award at the Indian Biodiversity Congress.
My dream is to become one of top biodiversity experts in India, that whatever happens in India, they should call me first! I need to do more research, publish more, so that everyone will know who I am! „
Home to one of India’s largest and most important mangrove ecosystems, Pichavaram in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu has long mesmerised visitors with its spectacular maze of narrow waterways and overhanging mangroves.
The art department at Pitchandikulam is delighted to have helped design and create an interpretation centre on the site, on commission from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.
The project consisted of two parts:
an interpretation centre, with over a dozen artworks and a permanent exhibition on the biodiversity of the mangrove ecosystem
a nature trail aimed at schoolchildren and tourists with nine carved stone pillars and seven kadappu stone slabs with oil paintings and information on local birds, marine life and distinctive botanical features such as the Rhizophora species of mangrove trees.
Over a dozen artworks were made for the mangrove interpretation centre, including a beautiful sea turtle who now takes pride of place hanging from the ceiling, and a complex five foot painted sculpture of a rhizophora mangrove tree, complete with roots.
Some of the artworks in our workshop being prepared
The artworks installed in Pichavaram at the Mangrove Interpretation Centre
Who exactly lives in Pitchandikulam Forest? We’ve met (we’re pretty sure) all the human inhabitants, but what about our mammal brethren? Starting in August and armed with a barrage of cameras, our research team set out to conduct the first camera trap study in our area of Tamil Nadu, in order to better understand which species are currently living here with us.
A camera trap system is especially useful for estimating populations of nocturnal, more ‘shy’ mammals. As in every forest ecosystem, the wildlife population is constantly changing from one day to the next, and so the first step in order to estimate best where to put the cameras was to conduct a sign survey – walking the forest in search of evidence like pellets, footprints and droppings. The team readily identified the presence of carnivores such as mongoose, civet cat and jungle cat, and the cameras were soon set up on trees 50cm from the ground, pointing at the most promising areas.
Three camera traps were operational for 24 hours a day over a period of 37 days, and they took 137 photographs.
Below is a table of the ten species we identified. The most common species recorded was the Asian Palm Civet (40.9 %) followed by the Small Indian Civet (16.8%), Grey mongoose (10.9%), Indian Crested Porcupine (8.8%), Jungle Cat (8%), Black naped Hare (6.6 %), Chital (4.4%). The Golden Jackal and Bonnet Macaque were captured twice (1.5%).
Most excitingly, we recorded on camera a Rusty-Spotted Cat (prionailurus rubiginosus), which is in the “Near Threatened” category on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is the first time that this mammal has been sighted on the Coromandel Coast.
Results of the ten species documented are as follows, with the number of recorded sightings over the survey period on the left:
Schedule II Part II
Schedule II Part I
Schedule II Part II
Rusty- Spotted Cat
Schedule I Part I
Schedule II Part II
Indian Crested Porcupine
Schedule II Part I
Black Naped Hare
Asian Palm Civet
Schedule II Part II
Small Indian Civet
Schedule II Part II
We are interested to talk to interested people to help with wildlife and botanical documentation and surveying. If you would like to know more about our work or volunteer for one of our forthcoming projects, please get in touch with Dr Bubesh Guptha.
The full paper is now published as: A photographic record of the Rusty-spotted Cat Prionailurus rubiginosus (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in a forest plantation on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, India, M. Bubesh Guptha & M. Eric Ramanujam, Journal of Threatened Taxa, 26 May 2017 | Vol. 9| No. 5 | Pp. 10242–10245
A striking name for a striking creature, the generic etymology has mythical roots: in the ‘Hellenica’ it is the name of one of two brothers, one lord of Gambreum, the other Palae. Another character too bears the same name, the Eretrian who entertained Xenophon, writer of the ‘Anabasis’. In the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ it is the name of a Corinthian commander. The specific name is in allusion to its gangly gait and slender form. In lay man’s terms it is also known as the Wandering Violin Mantis due to its body shape, Ornate Mantis and Indian Rose Mantis.
This is one of the most bizarre looking mantises of which there are about 2,400 species belonging to 15 families and 430 genera. All mantises, which are closely related to termites and cockroaches (not stick insects or grasshoppers which bear a superficial resemblance), have triangular heads with bulging eyes supported by flexible necks. Their forelegs are greatly enlarged and adapted for catching and gripping insect prey, though some of the larger species will feed on small lizards, tree frogs and any other prey they can overcome. Their upright posture, while remaining stationary with forearms folded, gives the impression that they are praying. Females are larger than males and often practice sexual cannibalism, eating their mates after / during copulation. In the 1962 novel ‘Island’, Aldous Huxley reflected on the philosophical observation of death watching the mating ritual of a pair of violin mantises.
The Violin Mantis is characterized by extremely slender limbs with large appendages. Unlike other mantises it is not particularly aggressive and can often be found in groups without unnecessary cannibalism. Only the smaller male can fly. After mating the female deposits its eggs in an ‘ootheca’ (a type of egg mass containing many eggs and surrounded by foam which hardens into a tough casing for protection). The incubation period varies according to temperature and humidity, though the average duration is about 50 days. The male develops into an adult after 7 moultings, while the female develops after 8. The average lifespan is about 12 months.
To say the Mantis does not confirm to norms would be an understatement – its face alone would lead the uninitiated to believe that either it is a creature from outer space or something vile. All its other behavioural patterns too tend towards this ‘branding’ and it is not surprising that one Tamil name for it is ‘Saithan Kuthirai’, meaning the Devil’s Horse which is similar I believe to parts of Latin America and Mediterranean Europe. And these superstitions are not confined to the afore mentioned countries: African Bushmen, who should know better than their civilized bretheren, are careful never to touch a mantis as they fear the insect’s magical powers. In Japan seeing a mantis can be an omen of death. There are so many more beliefs that I cannot even dream of listing them here. But there is also the flip side of the coin: as the resting posture and hand position of the Mantis superficially resembles respect for God in prayer, Christians believe that the Mantis symbolises spirituality and piety and finding a Mantis in your house means angels are watching over you; Muslims believe that the Mantis always faces the holy city of Mecca.
Principal Investigator (Faunistics), Pitchandikulam Forest
Pitchandikulam’s latest building rises eight meters above the forest floor, carried by the trunk and embraced by the branches of an old tree.
My name is Anaïs Schendekehl, a Weltwärts volunteer in Pitchandikulam Forest since August 2016. For me living in a tree-house is a childhood dream, one of these dreams that you have for so long that you don´t even know any more when you started having it and so far away you somehowunconsciously assume it would always just remain like that: a dream.
Almost one year ago I had to answer the question “What do you definitely want to do in Auroville?” for my volunteering application and I remember feeling somehow ridiculous when I answered that I always wanted to built and live in a tree house. I had absolutely no idea how this could be done! However somehow I felt if it wasn’t gonna happen in Auroville, it would never happen!
Surprisingly from the moment this wish was written down things just kept falling into place – like unconsciously grabbing my climbing gear during last minute packing – a friend telling me about Auroville’s tree house community that has planned on constructing five hundred tree houses all around the world by 2026 – and finding an amazingly grown tree right next to Pitchandikulam’s newly renovated community kitchen that was literally asking for a treehouse.
What was challenging was the question of finance and ideas varied from crowdfunding over starting activities to paying it off by renting. In the end Joss’s attitude of “If you really do a project that comes from the heart the money will somehow come to you!” was the last push to get the ball rolling.
First of all the wood needed to be sourced from the forest get cut into planks and beams. Already the following week the construction could start and I was happy to leave the office and join the treehouse gang: Luke and the amazing team from the Treehouse Community, Auroville. First steps were to set up ropes to safely operate in the tree and lift up beams and trunks for the first platform and the staircase. I quickly realised that building a treehouse requires a really good team work and coordination between the “ground team” that prepares the materials and sends up whatever materials are needed for the “hanging team” to safely operate at the top. The efficient workflow these guys have is really impressive and shows their knowledge and experience. Getting the floor to be straight and fixing the wood safely without hurting the tree require a lot of know-how. Moreover, a good imagination and abstract thinking capacities are necessary to build around and integrate the natural forms.
It was amazing to see how the huge piles of planks and pillars were slowly disappearing as the first platform was step by step getting reachable via the staircase while simultaneously the second platform evolved from carrying belts to a first skeleton and then became the floor of the house. Every day we could reach higher into the tree and after an amazing three weeks of work I couldn’t believe finding myself standing on top of the roof structure already starting to cover it with the traditionally woven coconut palm leafs. I remember how I enjoyed the sun and the cooling breeze up there while joking with the guys in sheer amazement of what we had created.
Since the treehouse is finished it has turned into a highly requested accommodation. Most of the participants of the ecovillage design education course (EDE) spent a night there. Experiences varied from deep and restorative sleep with dreams of being Peter Pan in Wonderland to adventurous encounters with local wildlife.
Now that the course is finished it will be my accommodation until coming August. Finally, I get to spend a night in the house of my dreams.