During the lockdown, Eric, our fauna specialist, wrote a monograph

Indian Eagle Owl chick in full intimidatory display

The seed of the idea to publish a photographic guide to the Owls of India was born in September 2019, when Saravanan Janikiraman and I were invited to partake in a photographic exhibition of Owls held at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad in Bangalore. The result and text and photographs by Saravanan were shared with my friends, some of whom are serious ornithologists. They found the draft rather rudimentary, and suggested that I lead the process that will impact on interested naturalists/wildlife biologists. As soon as I began to take interest, the whole exercise morphed, becoming a budding monograph on the Owls of South Asia and not only India. In the meantime, Saravanan began collecting photographs from all his contacts and a trend emerged: first of the kind of photographs of Owl sub-species, growth patterns, behaviour etc. All this took the greater part of the latter part of 2019 and beginning of 2020. Then the COVID lockdown was imposed and I couldn’t get out of my home for about two months, so I began intensive data mining and writing. Pitchandikulam’s network got the Editor of Journal of Threatened Taxa interested in publishing the monograph. The draft manuscript and photographs have been shared with him, and once travel is possible in a couple of months, we will be able to meet Saravanan (co-author) and the Editor of JoTT and get this over with and done. Another feather in the cap for Auroville science? Saravanan’s work can be accessed at http://www.ogaclicks.com

Computer class at Nadukuppam Government school

IMG20190103123724.jpgIn October 2018 Nadukuppam finally started a computer lab in the school which, till now, had a computer room with no computers! It was made possible by our friends and well-wishers, the 11th-grade students from B.D Somani

International School in Mumbai. The school’s principal, Mr.Gardener has been bringing students with him for field visits to Nadukuppam school for a decade now. The students, with help and guidance from their teachers and the principal, fundraised 3.25 lakh
rupees to provide the Nadukuppam school with 9, brand new computers.

Pitchandikulam IT professionals are now holding weekly classes for soft-ware and hard-ware at the school for over 100 children from 6th to 11th grades, to complement daily classes from the teachers. The problem is, there are often 6 kids using a single computer.

We are now hoping to raise funds for 10 more computers with the support of well-wishers.make the classes more efficient.

LiveBoat

floating-island-biomatrix-water021Pitchandikulam continues to be deeply involved in the seemingly impossible task of trying to clean the polluted waterways of Chennai. Michael Shaw who now lives most of the time at Pitchandikulam with his wife Gail in the Findhorn House, brings a lifetime of engineering experience in resolving polluted water problems.

Pitchandikulam, with Michael and Galen of Biomatrix Water, Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust and the Adyar Poonga team are in the process of launching the project LiveBoat. Three research Biomatrix Floating Islands will be performance tested for treatment of polluted water in the Adyar River. Professional water quality testing equipment is being shipped from Scotland along with the Islands.

Biomatrix Floating Islands incorporate indigenous plants with roots and artificial dynamic media columns in the water, which promote the growth of beneficial biofilms that treat the water through the continuous process of breakdown of long-chain organic molecules. Bacterial processes also treat nitrogen and phosphorous and the result is the creation of a self-sufficient ecosystem that enhances aquatic life, and reduces the availability of resources for pathogens, algae, lemma and invasive weeds to proliferate.

website : www.biomatrixwater.com

Meeting a super-granny

Super granyThe Nadukuppam Education Program supported by QSA and the Australian Government, through an ANCP project headed by Lourdes, is going well.

Striving to create new ways for children to engage with their surroundings and create a sense of reverence in their hearts about their traditions and land, 8 children of the 8th grade at Nadukuppam school interviewed a 79-year-old superwoman, a granny from their village, named Rajamal.

Super grany rasathiBorn in the year 1939, she arrived at Nadukuppam, as a 12-year-old bride, came of age at 13 and had the first of her 4 children at age 14. She works tirelessly, cultivating her land that expanded from one acre to 5 acres over time, works as a daily wage laborer and somehow finds time to sell cattle milk and soft grass brooms that she makes herself in the village market. Having lived her life witnessing a huge amount of changes, this robust, spry superwoman has a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share. When the children inquired about her staple diet, they were surprised to learn that the rice they now ate daily was not traditionally cultivated in their village and was in-fact a rare delicacy reserved for the rich. Organically cultivated millets such as finger millet (Ragi) and barnyard millet (Kuthiravali in Tamil) were the commonly consumed grains along with germinated palm tree seeds, palm jaggery, foraged greens, crabs, fish and toddy (delicious, slightly fermented sap from the palm tree).The dependency on the market for food was very low, and during periods of hardship, receiving help from the village people or going to bed on an empty stomach wasn’t unknown to her either. She also spoke about there being two ponds in the village from where everyone accessed water for all uses and it surprised the kids a bit as they had grown up considering pond water to be contaminated and unsafe for consumption.

Based on what she described, it was also clear that a deep spirit of community and a graceful, interdependence amongst the village folk existed. She described how several children in a large joint family were raised together and often taken care of by the whole community. There were no qualms around even breastfeeding someone else’s infant baby! These close-knit ties provided the village with a much-needed sense of warmth and harmony.

Upon being asked about the access to health care and the transportation available in those days. The granny simply explained that the closest hospital accessible in those days was the one in Pondicherry and the only way to get there (due to the lack of motor vehicles and broad, tar/cement roads) was by walking 40 km or by bullock cart. This meant that traditional, herbal medicines were the norm and the worst disease people could contract was Chickenpox!

Finally, a question, that couldn’t go unasked in the age of television and smart phones was what were the forms of entertainment back in the old days?

At which point the granny chuckled as she regaled stories of the ancient cinema theatre one could frequent for evening shows of black and white films. The community gatherings in the evenings were also a source of engagement that was precious. Then, when the first black and white television came to the village in the late ’80s, the norm of paying 50 paise every Sunday evening to watch shows was formed. It is also worth noting that the need for constant entertainment was not a requirement in those times and that the availability of electricity, electronic gadgets along with the internet have vastly changed the pace and content of the present-day life.

As she spoke of the changes that have occurred over time in her village, she noted that despite having lived relatively “primitive” lives, she and her contemporaries are healthier and do not ail from any of the “modern” diseases the proceeding generations seem to have. It also came to light how the government interventions, such as introduction of pesticides in the 1950s, banning of Palm Toddy and replacing it with hard liquor and introducing modern medication, appeared to have detrimental effects instead of positive ones. The number of alcoholics in the community has increased greatly and cropping up of new diseases such as diabetes and blood-pressure irregularities are now common.

As the children reflected on the interview, they realized that while they were being taught about pollution and sustainability, our lovely grandmother and the generation she belonged to had spent most of their lives living in harmony with their surroundings. The nuances of the situation were also not missed by their young minds as they realized the complexity they now had to navigate as modern technology progresses at a dizzying pace.

The children at Nadukuppam are now left with the question: what do we, as individuals and a community want to see happen in this village and in the world?

Pitchandikulam-Deepam Special needs school collaboration

DSCN4143-1000x500.jpgSince its creation, Pitchandikulam has been creating vibrant and inventive education programs for children of all ages. Now, 15 years after the creation of the Nadukuppam Environment Education Center, we are collaborating our efforts with Deepam School, a Kuilapalayam based education center for children with special needs, to create a field outreach center in Nadukuppam.

Started in the year 1992, in a playground under tamarind trees, where afternoon sessions three times a week of physiotherapy, play and handicrafts (with delicious snacks to boot!) were given to children suffering mainly from polio and mental challenges.

After the successful eradication of Polio over the years, the focus shifted to children/youth with autism, hearing/sight/speech impairments and other special needs and the afternoon classes evolved into a well-rounded, lively center.

Here individuals from 20 villages from in and around Auroville are provided everything from basic health care to occupational, speech and physiotherapy sessions to support their growth into vibrant individuals who are empowered to create the life they desire.

The organization, true to its name, has been spreading light, love, and joy through its work for 25 years now.
Now, instead of bussing children all the way to Auroville from out far off villages there has been a decision to use the infrastructure Pitchandikulam has created and create a learning center there. Two young ladies from the Nadukuppam area have been trained at Deepam, over the last five months and the first classes will start at the Nadukuppam field center in late January.

The new school will be adjacent to the indigenous plant/tree nursery run by the women’s group.

Adyar Poonga Education

adyarDuring the years 2006/07/08 when the Adyar Poonga was being created in Chennai, Pitchandikulam had developed a vibrant education program involving 20 schools in the immediate vicinity of the Eco-park. After the park was opened the priority moved towards nurturing the restoration processes of the creek and estuary and the human footfall was kept to a minimum.

In February 2018, with the support of the Goethe Institute and Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust, Pitchandikulam formed a team of dedicated Environment Educators in Adyar Poonga Eco-park to bring back the vision of exposing children to the natural environment around them and instill a sense of curiosity and passion regarding the state of the planet. They are currently working regularly with children from the age of 11-13 years old in 8 schools following various curriculums, from Montessori to low-income government schools to explore a variety of environment-related topics through holistic, hands-on, experience-based learning. They also provide creatively designed activity-based manuals for teachers to incorporate into the curriculum.

adyar educationUpon receiving requests from the schools, they have also created a program for young children between 6-9 years of age-Young Explorers, to inculcate a sense of comfort with nature many urban children may lack in their lives. For instance, it is difficult to show live snakes (it is illegal to catch them). So, we obtained shed skins from the Madras Snake Park, put them throughout the Poonga and the children learned to find them and identify the species.

So far, they have worked with more than 1,600 children and have observed a growing curiosity amongst them, as well as a sharpening in observation and deduction skills and an increased level of compassion and comfort with the fellow inhabitants of this planet (insects and critters to be specific). There is also an increase in curiosity amongst children regarding the subjects of botany and zoology.

They are currently preparing to launch a 3-year program for children of 11-13 years of age, where participants shall be encouraged to interact with their surroundings; meet visionaries and implementers of urban environmental solutions. They will hopefully plan and execute their own projects with support from the environment educators and the school.

The program we developed 10 years ago of urban rural school children exchange is also being reactivated with vigor. Nadukuppam school children regularly visit the Poonga and in the near future will visit our lake restoration project at Siruseri in the outskirts of Chennai. Children from Chennai schools and fishing hamlets are again visiting Pitchandikulam and Nadukuppam.

The idea is to expand the circle of perception amongst children for them to be aware of the Place they live in and to see the price at which their current lifestyle is available to them.

Visit to Keystone Foundation, Nilgiri Hills

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!

The Women’s Centre at Nadukuppam is officially open!

Lucy, our new volunteer, from Bristol, England

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.

Stringing flowers for the pooja
Stringing flowers for the pooja

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.

Field Notes: Roxburgh’s Ground Orchid

IMG_20170313_0002 copy
Roxburgh’s Ground Orchid, by Eric Ramanujam

ROXBURGH’S HABENARIA OR GROUND ORCHID
HABENARIA ROXBURGHII

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.

Further reading:

Misra, S. (2004). Orchids of Orissa. BSMPS, Dehra Dun.

Reddy, Ch.S., K.N. Reddy, C. Pattanaik & V.s. Raju (2006). Ethnobotanical Observations on some Endemic Plants of Eastern Ghats, India. Ethnobotanical Leaflets 10: 82 – 91.

4th Indian Biodiversity Conference, Pondicherry University, 2017

We are pleased to have been partners of the recently concluded Indian Biodiversity Conference, which was held over three days in Pondicherry University from 10th-12th March, 2017.

It is the largest get together of scientists, conservationists, environmentalists, civil society groups and local communities in India.

Three members of the team were closely involved:

  1. Bubesh presented the camera trap study of the mammals in Pitchandikulam Forest
  2. Lourdes presented alternative educational methods in environmental education – a case study from the Kazhuveli bioregion
  3. 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:

Taxa # of Species # of Families
Mammals 20 12
Birds 85 27
Reptiles 35 10
Amphibians 15 5
Butterflies 58 5

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.

Update

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."
 Lourdes Epinal