Here we are again.

The end of a year. The last leaf in 2021. If you are wondering where the months went by, you are not alone. Despite the weekly schedules, the monthly excel sheets and the constant Nature inFocus Contest reminders and announcements, we are equally flummoxed by December's arrival.

If there is one word that could aptly summarise 2021, that would be resilience. Through a devastating second wave of the pandemic, followed by large-scale vaccination drives, we heard stories of resilience, grit and hope. We are grateful for the timely scientific advancements, and we are ever grateful to the frontliners who haven't had it easy in what feels like a long time now. Most of all, we are grateful for our community of photographers and contributors who showed us resilience by example and kept the Nature inFocus portal as busy as it has always been.

Moments of introspection by the River Sharda, fascinating details on animal courtship rituals, some croak studio vibes, the bizarre world of spider hunting tricks and an insightful conversation with a leading herpetologist—we shared it all and then some. Here are our favourite stories of the year 2021!

As we warily step into the new year, our resolution remains the same—to continue to encourage conversations and spark interest about the natural world.

Here is to a healthy and peaceful 2022!

The Many Worlds Of River Sharda

Rekha Warrier

I had never known a place whose name is an onomatopoeia, until we arrived in Boom. It is a speck of a town located on the banks of the Sharda river, north of Tanakpur, in Uttarakhand, India. In the early part of the twentieth century, the British logged the magnificent Sal forests that draped the hills in the area. The logged trees would then be dropped into the river off the high river banks from where they would make their way to saw mills downstream. The incessant booming sound of trees falling into the river is what gave the town its rather unusual name. Across the river, on its eastern bank, was Nepal. That evening, for the first time in my life, I set eyes on foreign soil. A sparsely wooded land with a few thatched homes, a rooster, some children, and a dog revealed themselves. Everything seemed to be marked by the passage of reams of time, except for the frolicking children, who stared back at us for a moment before fluttering away into the woods.

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The Sharda river near Chuka. The river forms the international border between India and Nepal (on the far bank). Anglers float the river in winter looking for Golden Mahseer. Photograph: Rohini Mann

How A Ladakhi Village Came Together To Keep Leopards And Wolves Away From Livestock

Rigzen Dorjay

Livestock killings by wild predators such as Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) and Tibetan Wolf (Canis lupus filchneri) cause unprecedented losses for local herders. In return, wild predators are met with retaliatory killing by the affected communities. These negative human-wildlife interactions end up being harmful to both people and wildlife.

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A wary Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) seems intrigued by something it sees. Wolves prefer flatter regions than the Snow Leopards. For this reason, wolves usually run their prey down, whilst Snow Leopards are primarily known to be ambush predators. Sumdo village and its surrounding areas are good habitats for both species of wild predators. Photograph: Rigzen Dorjay

A Wild Sheep Chase

Udayan Rao Pawar

It was a cold, frosty morning at the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve in Kyrgyzstan. I had stepped out to answer nature’s call, unaware of the most beautiful scene that was about to unfold before me. As the sun’s rays lit up the snow-clad peaks, there, on a ridge directly above where I was, appeared the most magnificent Tien Shan Argali. Standing proudly erect with its head held high and its rich breeding pelage with swollen white neck ruff glowing in the golden light of the dawn. I sat mesmerised for a while. This was exactly the scene I had cherished to capture for so long, my dream shot. A trophy hunter would have raised his Weatherby or Remington on him to shoot below his withers, instead, I ran back to the camp to fetch my Canon. By the time I returned, the Argali (Mongolian word for ram) had disappeared. I rushed after him, but on cresting the ridge he had melted away into the undulating grassy plains and was nowhere to be seen.

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Argalis are gregarious, living in single-sex herds which come together during the winter rut. The adult males prefer to inhabit the rich lower meadows, while the females and young seek the safety of the higher rocky cliffs. A herd of Tien Shan Argali, with the males in breeding pelage, from the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve in Kyrgyzstan. Photograph: Udayan Rao Pawar

Decoding Dholes: 10 Things You Should Know

Arjun Srivathsa

The Dhole or the Asiatic Wild Dog is a formidable predator of the Indian jungle. Those of us who have seen this fantastic beast in the wild and are familiar with its habits can vouch for the strong emotion that it evokes. But how did the Dhole get its name? It is not fully clear. Its Latin name Cuon alpinus loosely translates to the "dog-like animal from the mountains." Although commonly referred to as a "wild dog," the Dhole is not a true dog. Its closest relatives are the painted dogs of Africa and the bush dogs of South America. The word Dhole' itself may be a misnomer derived from thola, the Kannada word for wolf.

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"The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the Dhole as an Endangered' species. In other words, India's wild dogs are not faring all that well. While we do not have exact population counts, experts believe there may be 4000-10,000 Dholes left in the wild, with only 1000-2000 adult individuals capable of reproducing (alphas)." Photograph: Vedansh Pandey

Indian Wildlife’s Perilous Dog Problem

Team Nature inFocus

It is estimated that there are 60 million dogs in India, of which 35 million are free-ranging/feral dogs or as we urban folk refer to them – stray dogs. These dogs are highly dependent on human-provided food, but in rural areas and spaces in and around wildlife reserves, where there is a larger population of wildlife, feral dogs have ample opportunities to hunt wildlife and interact with them on multiple levels. A 2017 study highlighted how dogs have reportedly attacked 80 species, of which 31 are listed as Threatened on the IUCN Red list, including four Critically Endangered species. Most of the attacks were carried out by packs of dogs, and 45 per cent of these attacks lead to the death of the prey. Nearly 48 per cent of the incidents were reported in and around wildlife protected areas.

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Indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, the Nilgai or Bluebull is ubiquitous across northern India, and overabundant populations grazing in agricultural fields are a common sight. Though people consider the Nilgai as sacred, the conflict between Nilgais and farmers is on the rise. Here, a pack of feral dogs chases an adult away from a field, in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Photograph: Ashish Dalela

Varad Giri: Moulding The Future Of Indian Herpetology

Nikhil Sreekandan

Having discussed geckos, frogs and caecilians (a group of limbless, vermiform or serpentine amphibians) for about an hour, over the phone, I asked Varad Giri what he thinks has been the biggest highlight of his career. In response, he narrated the following anecdote.

"I conduct these training programmes where I take people out to the forest. In Amboli, there is a lizard called the Hemidactylus house gecko. I used to see them all the time; they are one of the commonest house geckos. Aur sab logon ko mein bolta hoon (To everyone I used to say), this is Hemidactylus brooki. Ek din kya ho gaya, maine sab bachhon ko bola ki abhi kya karte hain, ek individual pakdo, uska photograph lelo aur uski taxonomy, species identify karo (One day what happened was that I told a group of kids who were attending the training programme to catch an individual and identify the taxonomy and species). After two hours, they come and say, ‘Hey Varad, this is not matching with anything’. I was so confident that I asked them to recheck. But it turned out to be a new species. This incident made me plant my feet back on the floor. The species was eventually named Hemidactylus varadgirii."

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"Varad Giri is a herpetologist whose work has resulted in the description of two new genera and 56 new species of amphibians and reptiles from the Western Ghats in India." Photograph: Ganesh Tak

Tune In For A Frog Orchestra!

Nature Conservation Foundation

With more than 400 species of amphibians, and about 50 per cent of them endemic, India has an incredible diversity occupying a wide range of habitats – from streams to the tree canopies. The Anamalai Hills, south of the Palghat Gap, is an important hotspot within the Western Ghats for frog diversity. Most of the frogs found in the rainforests here are endemic species, restricted to a narrow distribution range, making them vulnerable to habitat loss and disturbance, climate change, and other environmental changes.

Note: Best viewed on desktop/laptops. Not compatible with mobile/tablets.

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Created as part of a set of nature education outreach materials for the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), the interactive poster is the result of a collaborative effort, with photographs and audio incorporated into an illustration by Ishaan Patil.

Notes From Nongkhyllem And A Khasi Folktale

Biang La Nam Syiem

It was early May in the subtropical hill forests of the Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary and Reserve Forest. I was on my last week of fieldwork for my postgraduate dissertation, studying a forest bird assemblage on the northern slopes of Meghalaya, my home state in northeast India. My work was to understand how different guilds of birds (groups of birds with similar forms, diets and habits) were affected by vegetation in and around the Nongkhyllem reserve. To that end, almost every morning for a little over three hours after sunrise, I was recording the different birds that I saw or heard and taking measurements of the surrounding vegetation for another three hours.

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"The hooleng (Western Hoolock Gibbon) had been calling since morning, and we had spotted a family group earlier—two males and one female. We came across them as we neared one of our vegetation plots. They were unaware of our presence, and we were unaware of theirs. As we were unpacking equipment, the troupe broke out into their loud haunting howls and startled us out of our wits." Photograph by Varun R. Goswami, under the CC BY-NC-ND license

The Extraordinary Tricks Of Spiders

Jithesh Pai

When we hear or read the word ‘spider’, the first thing that comes to mind is the Marvel superhero Spider-Man. But when we see spiders in real life, our immediate reaction is to be creeped out by these multi-legged crawlers, mostly because of the many myths that surround them. If you are one among them, here is a spider appreciation article that you must read and if you are not one to be creeped out by spiders, well, you will love to read this.

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"This web-building spider looks like a ladybird beetle, with bright colours that warn the birds about their toxicity. Of course, they are called ladybird-mimicking spiders." Photograph: Jithesh Pai

A Mixtape From The Forests Of Central India

Pooja Choksi & Siddharth Biniwale 

Studying the auditory dimension of a forest is a data-intensive, scientific undertaking, but it is also an absolute pleasure to eavesdrop on a host of melodious and some not-so melodious vocalising species. Just like one does with a camera trap, we leave out acoustic recorders in the forest to record all frequencies between 0 to 24000 Hz, which include vocalising species audible and inaudible to humans. When we retrieve our acoustic recorders, we're always excited to hear what awaits us in these recorded soundscapes. From finding oneself smack in the middle of a drama unfolding in the form of a possible tiger or leopard hunt to experiencing the Common Hawk-Cuckoo season in full swing, these acoustic delights remain hidden in gobs of data and jump out at us as we carefully analyse the data.

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"According to folklore, the Common Hawk-Cuckoo is considered a messenger of the monsoon, notifying farmers to start ploughing their fields and sowing their seeds." Photograph: Rohidas Revankar

Captivating Courtship Rituals From The Animal Kingdom

Team Nature inFocus

The animal world is driven by purpose. Every action is driven by a dogged determination to achieve one of three things – to stay alive, to eat, to procreate. One might think that of the three, staying alive and eating to stay alive might be more important, but, given that numerous species give up food entirely for long periods and almost die trying to find a mate, it is safe to say that reproduction comes first. And the sheer variety of methods they use to find a partner and then fight to win the right to mate are just off the charts. The drama and excesses of their courtship and mating rituals can put all the traditional romantic overtures of the human world to shame.

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"Come breeding season, male Lesser Flamingos are ready to hit the dance floor to find a potential mate. Well, to be fair, they dance throughout the year in preparation and increase the frequency during the breeding season." Photograph: Hira Punjabi

Snow Leopard Lodge: In The Abode Of The Grey Ghost

Team Nature inFocus 

Not so long ago, the very notion of venturing into Snow Leopard country in search of the magnificent cat had seemed like a lost cause. The boundless scale of Snow Leopard country combined with the elusiveness of the cat made it one of the most difficult animals to track in the wild. But that all changed dramatically in the past 20 years or so. Unlike the increasingly isolated Protected Areas found in the rest of India, which are becoming islands within a sea of humans, Ladakh, with its vast swathes of wilderness and tiny human populations, reverses the situation. There is much to explore outside the limits of Ladakh’s Hemis National Park—all of the Ladakh–Transhimalayas is essentially a wildlife sanctuary.

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The Snow Leopard has a whitish-grey coat with dark grey and black rosettes, enabling them to camouflage exceptionally well against their rocky surroundings. Photograph: Surya Ramachandran