ANSWERED BY FLUTES
If you can for a brief moment or two shut your eyes....and then proceed to imagine a yellow bill playing upon a golden harp. The harp as the rays of sunrise shafting through a stand of Rubinia trees and the Blue whistling thrush as the musician nibbling at the strings. Or, instead, conjure the thrush as nature’s magical flautist, coutured in feathers and speckles that are Krishna-like in their dark blues. Flutey melodies emit in endless variations from its bill and tease the spreading blush of yet another day.
It is then and only then that you would have savoured the joys of waking early to a summery Manali morning and hearing the thrush. The bird is best known for its mellifluous, human-like whistling songs and calls. Ever heard a man walking along the Beas and whistling in a rush of joy and carefree abandon?
At the resort we were staying, thrushes delighted us with their antics. A restless fellow, the thrush would scamper about picking grubs from the lawns strewn with over-ripe apricots and festooned with low-hanging green apples. The thrush hopped on the boulders bejewelling the raging Beas, periodically wiping its bill in silvery waters. Alas, the 24 Andhra students who perished in those rapids had also fallen for the lure of the ‘boulder trap’. As water suddenly released from Larji dam and had rushed towards them in a Himalayan tsunami, some students fatally delayed their escape. I wish they had been as nimble as a thrush on the boulders.
MAR MAAT MUJHE, DAYA SE
A key defence of the Himalayan marmot is shyness and an ability to scurry into deep burrows at the first sign of danger or humans. This factor also explains why researchers find studying this creature no mean task. But given the food scarcity in its sparse habitat and the propensity of tourists to share a tidbit with these adorable creatures, marmots are fast becoming habitual beggars.
Sandip Singh, facility director with Fortis Hospital, Moradabad, succumbed to the lure of marmots while driving from Leh to Pangong lake. As Singh stopped his vehicle, a marmot came up to the door, stood up on its hind legs and asked for alms. Soon enough, another marmot joined the roadside ‘langar’. Singh and his two companions fed the marmots ‘shakkarparrahs’. The marmots would eat these quickly and advance towards the tourists for more. One marmot came within six inches of Singh and exhibited a very demanding, self-possessed air. An Army truck passed by, and the driver seeing the marmots with Singh, exclaimed: “Yeh to bahut bade bade chuhe hain!” The Army driver was reluctant to advance the matter further given the size of the “rats”, and thundered off.
A prey for the Snow leopard, marmots are increasingly under disturbance by tourists, who also litter their habitat and disturb their lives. Food scarcity drives nomads to poach marmots for fur and meat, and a reduced shyness of these creatures through overexposure to tourists can harm their well-being in years to come. Apart from this, human foods may not be good for their digestive tracts.
THE GREEN TOMBSTONES
Despite a ban on hunting, many Himachali shikaris continue to poach with impunity. Verdant jungles with ideal habitat for game birds and herbivores have gone silent. Most Himachali villages boast of a few guns at the very least. A favoured tactic is to mark the tree where game birds such as Red jungle-fowl and Kalij pheasants roost. As night falls, the poacher steals underneath the tree, shines a torch, fires one .12 bore shotgun cartridge and drops a few birds for the pot.
Chandigarh Golf Club president BS Gill ‘Gilli’ recently witnessed poaching first-hand at the Dagshai hills, about an hour’s drive from Chandigarh. A keen naturalist with an eye for birds, Gill had just stepped out of his cottage in the morning when he heard a shotgun. He saw a bird dash against the branches and tumble down from an oak tree. Gill rushed to the spot and saw a poacher armed with a shotgun pick up the bird, and on Gill asking him, declared it to be a ‘murgi’ (actually it was a male Kalij pheasant). The poacher calmly unzipped his tracksuit top, concealed the dead pheasant against his chest, and off he went with the shotgun in his hand like an innocent bank security guard footing it to duty!
Much the same indiscriminate massacre of wildlife is repeated across Himachal and officials admit jungles are being emptied. I befriended a veteran waiter at a resort short of Manali where we were staying recently. He pointed to the snow-capped and forested ridges flanking the resort and told me that once the dazzling Himalyan monal was to be found here. But his family, like some others in the area, had been chronic shikaris. The waiter’s family owned two shotguns. “There was once such an abundance of game that we would have wild meats five times a week for lunch and dinner,” he told me proudly.
But now, the song of these birds does not lilt through the deodars, no regal ‘kalgi’ is left to lend a Christmas tree bauble to the bare boughs, and plentiful perches are but haunted apartments. Stately trees turn into sombre, green tombstones for souls that have taken wing from perforated sheaves of feathers, blood and bone. The mountains are but mortuaries and eternal snows the white sheets that shroud the wild dead.