Ah, 2020! What can we say?

Like many of you, we stepped into this year with our own set of plans for Nature inFocus – the stories we were going to share, the places we would take you along to, and all the wildlife we would see together. Then March rolled in and took the rest of the calendar to the cleaners – this would be a year unlike any other. Like the rest of the world, we packed our computers, cleared our offices and turned our dining tables, couches and pillows into temporary workstations. Over incessant WhatsApp chats, we devised up a new plan, setting aside some stories for a hopeful future, and working on others to fuel the hope of the present.

The show did go on, and if you ask us, we would name every one of our stories as showstoppers. Coming up with a list of select few stories was an arduous task. But before we do that we would like to appreciate the hard work of our contributors, who even through these difficult times kept the space alive with some excellent, thought-provoking reads.

Purple Frogs and Malabar Tree Toads. A dash of water conservation and a pinch of truth when it comes to our renewable energy projects. The beauty of wetlands and a glimpse of life in the middle of nowhere. Some virtual reality in Arunachal Pradesh and some ‘actual-reality’ about the mammals who received the short end of the pandemic. A nuanced look at human-animal conflicts as we head to the Indo-Nepal border and then stop by the Himalayas – we have it all, and a whole lot more.

Here is our must-read list for the year 2020.

The Purple Frog's Race Against Time

Sandeep Das & Dhanuparan

In Hindu mythology, the story of the venerable Asura king, Maha-Bali, and the Vamana avatar of Vishnu who steps on the king’s head to push him down to Pa-tala is well-known. As per legend, the king returns once every year to visit his citizens, which is celebrated as the festival of Onam in the southern state of Kerala. In the Kerala-stretch of the Western Ghats, there is a frog species that emerges once every year from the underworld like the great Maha-Bali – the Purple Frog. 

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After Purple Frogs mate, the female frog piggybacks the male frog to rock crevices in the bed of fast-flowing streams for laying eggs. Photograph: Sandeep Das & Dhanuparan

Photographing The Birds Of India's Wetlands

Team Nature inFocus

If there is some upside to the pandemic, that would be people paying more attention to the natural world. Across countries, citizens seem to be noticing the inhabitants of the world around them, especially the winged creatures that greet them outside their windows. A cursory glance at the posts under #BackyardBirdPhotography seems like the only affirmation one needs – that there are indeed more birds around. Sadly, that's not true.

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A flock of Greater Flamingos in Sarkhej, an industrial hub situated near the Sabarmati river in western Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Photograph: Ravi Patel

All You Need To Know About Bats

Nikhil Sreekandan

Ever since the premature implication of bats as the source of COVID-19, they have received an unprecedented amount of media attention worldwide. People who've never noticed bats before are now caught up in a whirlwind of emotions, curious to know more about them, and at the same time, scared and worried about their very existence.

A recent report by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on the discovery of bat coronaviruses (BtCoV) in two species of South Asian bats got misconstrued by the national and international media to the extent that a group of 64 chiropterologists (one who studies bats), scientists, and conservationists from six Asian nations released a joint-statement to counter the misinformation and paranoia that was spreading like wildfire. 

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Leschenault's Rousettes (Rousettus leschenaultii) are among the cutest of bats, especially the infants. This particular colony had a lot of babies being nursed by their mothers, and the place smelt like milk powder! Photograph: Seshadri KS

Understanding Rivers And Their Less Privileged Denizens

Nikhil Sreekandan interviews Nachiket Kelkar

"River animals include humans, and river humans include animals. The line between them is artificial and thin, the stories of loss, similar." 

Nachiket Kelkar concludes in his writeup for The Hindu, where he tackles the complex relationship between Ganga's fishermen and its riverine animals. The writer in me can't help but gush at the lyrical prose and the ease with which Kelkar puts across the intricacies of this human-animal alliance. If not for the pandemic and the fact that he has his PhD thesis submission looming, I would have met him in person for this interview. Instead, we had to stick to email correspondence. 

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Nachiket Kelkar (left) studies riverine capture fisheries and Ganges River Dolphins, along with many related issues, in the Gangetic plains. Photograph: Tadamichi Morisaka

Not Really Green Or Clean

Aathira Perinchery

Increasing global temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels, glacier melts, species extinctions, sea level rises, abnormal weather patterns: climate change and its repercussions are among the most pressing issues countries are rushing to address. One solution has been to curb the use of fossil fuels and switch over to cleaner and greener energy sources such as wind, water and sunlight. As many as 193 nations have undertaken this through the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). India's commitments under the SDG will see it install 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by the year 2022. That amounts to more than half of India's existing capacity. 

It sounds simple enough. Just install infrastructure – wind farms, large solar panel networks (including rooftop solar), dams over rivers – and make sustainable energy available for all. But science has revealed that biodiversity doesn't always benefit from renewable energy. Renewable energy projects impact both wildlife and wildlands directly and indirectly. Moreover, the locations of power plants matter. A recent study finds that India is among the regions in the world that have the highest proportion of renewable energy facilities coming up in important conservation areas. 

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"Renewable energy projects impact both wildlife and wildlands directly and indirectly." A Small Hydropower Project (SHP) in the Western Ghats, Karnataka. Photograph: Kalyan Varma

No Country For Elephants

Avijan Saha

Originating from the Himachal range in Nepal, the Mechi river forms the boundary between Nepal and India. Far in the east, River Sankosh rises in Bhutan and flows through India along the state borders of West Bengal and Assam. In the area stretching between these two rivers lies the Eastern Dooars Elephant Reserve (EDER), 1659sq.km. of forests interspersed with tea gardens and farmland. River Teesta flows through the reserve, dividing it into two regions, Terai on the left and Dooars on the right. Situated in West Bengal, the reserve's elephant zones are distributed within the districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and Alipurduar. The area is so vast that it houses six different protected areas: Mahananda WLS, Chapramari WLS, Jaldapara National Park, Gorumara National Park, Buxa Tiger Reserve and Jayanti Tiger Reserve. 

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"It is clear that the management of human-elephant interactions in the Indo-Nepal border needs the preparation and implementation of a joint action plan by both governing bodies." A herd of elephants crossing the Indo-Nepal border. Photograph: Avijan Saha

Rambling Along The Rimen River

Biang La Nam Syiem

5 January, 2019: It was a clear starlit winter sky, the dying campfire providing the only source of light—an orange glow that did little to disturb the constellations visible overhead. Eight of us were atop a large rock overlooking the Photwar river, at a section called Umthlong. It was the first night of a five-day trip to Wah Rimen (wah means river in Khasi), one of the lesser rivers that drain the southern ridges of Meghalaya. We were a mix of people, mostly from Shillong, who shared an enthusiasm for nature and the outdoors. There was Zorba, Banshan and Banjop who were established river-paddlers, Ban and Wallam, two local youths from nearby villages who worked as grassroots conservationists, and Duwaki, Ezra and I who were ecologists. A good two months of planning had gone into this exploratory river-paddling and biodiversity trip, and it was finally underway. 

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Paddling down the Rimen river on packrafts. Photograph: Biang La Nam Syiem

The Malabar Tree Toad Dilemma

Nikhil Sreekandan

"Neevu yaaru? Enu madta idira? (Who are you? What are you doing?)" Before they could muster a response, two double-barrel guns poked inside from either side of the jeep.

It was raining heavily in Hosanagara, Shimoga on that day in June, 2006. Having spent close to three hours in the forest, six tired scientists sat huddled together, water dripping from their rain gear, a few of them with their headlamps still strapped on, as their jeep plied down the slippery roads along the Western Ghats. Gururaja KV, who was pursuing his post-doctorate in environmental sciences at the time, was a part of the team responsible for mapping the amphibian diversity in the Sharavathi River Basin in relation to a cumulative impact study of developmental activities in the area by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). 

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Discovered in 1876 by scientist Albert Gunther, the Malabar Tree Toad (Pedostibes tuberculosus) is a species endemic to the Western Ghats. Photograph: Sandip Patel

Evolve Back Coorg: Living A Planter's Best Life

Nikhil Sreekandan

In the early twentieth century, working as a ranger in charge of South Canara and Coorg districts, a young Emmanuel Ramapuram fell in love with the abundant nature and unique Kodava culture of Coorg. Alas, a severe attack of malaria saw him return to his hometown of Pala in Kottayam, Kerala and he was not permitted to return to Coorg. But this only made his yearning stronger, and in the year 1926, Mr Ramapuram returned to purchase the Chikkanahalli (small village) estate in Siddapura from Mr Percy Glover Tipping of Consolidated Coffee Estates Ltd.

Close to a century later, the House of Ramapuram has seen four generations of coffee and spice planters. Under the shade of giant Rosewoods and Terminalias, the 300-acre estate produces close to 100 tonnes of robusta coffee and black pepper every year. But today, this blessed land on the banks of the Cauvery river is also a luxury holiday destination, opening its doors for us to step seamlessly into the life of a planter or rather just the laidback bits of it.

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Enjoy luxurious seclusion amidst the natural abundance of a coffee plantation at the Chikkanahalli estate in Siddapura. Photograph: Radha Rangarajan

Arunachal Virtual Archive

Ram Alluri

Arunachal Virtual Archive is a project that was started by Ram Alluri in 2018. This project introduced Virtual Reality (VR) as a nature education module for the indigenous youth living around Pakke Tiger Reserve, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh.  

The project involved filming many common and some rare and important species using 360 cameras, and viewing these videos using VR headsets to make the experience immersive and interactive, something that isn’t possible with traditional video formats.  

Watch the video .

The film by Ram Alluri showcases how the 'Arunachal Virtual Archive' project succeeded in bringing virtual reality nature education to the indigenous youth of Arunachal Pradesh

The Brown Bears Of Kargil

Niazul Hassan Khan

The muted colours of its titanic jagged mountains, contrasted by the turquoise blue rivers that snake through its valleys, and the alpine forests which add just the right amount of pop; the Himalayas are a genuine treat for your eyes. Whilst you are here, it is impossible not to be brimming with compassion and affection for nature.

Hailing from the small town of Kargil in Ladakh, my desire to become a biologist was sparked during my time at the GGM Science College in Jammu. My batchmates and I were on a street adjacent to the District Forest Office of Kargil when we saw some forest officials scurrying into the building, with a Snow Leopard in a cage. At first, we were wonderstruck to see such a bewitchingly beautiful animal for the first time. But the spell broke soon and we were pulled back to reality as the forest officials scrambled to save the injured animal, which passed on eventually. 

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"Akin to the rest of the world, post-lockdown sightings of wild animals has increased in Kargil as well. Reports of bear sightings have come in from new locations: Lato, Kaksar, Chanigund, Hundarman, Shakar-Chiktan, Goma Kargil and surprisingly from Nubra Valley of Leh." Photograph: Niazul Hassan Khan

Around A Tree Buttress & Around A Fallen Log

Nature Conservation Foundation

Large trees in rainforests often have buttresses – extended trunks that morph into roots –which provide the trees additional support along steep slopes or soft muddy forest floors. And, on and among the buttresses, in the forest understorey, an abundance of plants and animals flourish. This beautiful artwork by Sartaj Ghuman showcases the life around the buttress of a tree in the rainforests of the Anamalai Hills. As you scroll down this illustration, the flora and fauna that live around the buttress will present themselves one after the other, and what’s more, you can hear some of their calls too! 

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When a large tree falls, the log becomes a rich source of food. The nutrients in the wood are broken down by decomposers: fungi, millipedes, woodlice, termites and other organisms. Many plants, adapted to low light, thrive in these surroundings. This beautiful artwork by Sartaj Ghuman showcases life around a fallen log in the rainforests of Anamalai. As you scroll down this illustration, the animals and plants that live on and around the microhabitats created by these rotting logs present themselves to you.

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Artwork by Sartaj Ghuman