OF THE SAME FEATHER The Bombay Natural History Society is one of Aisaâ€™s largest naturalist groups
In this weekly series, we cover unusual groups. This week, Ketan Tanna profiles the naturalist tribe which thinks creepy crawlies are more evolved than human beings
Call them nuts, freaks or plain barking. It doesnâ€™t affect them. By now they are used to being pointed out at family weddings as the â€œkutta-billi loversâ€™â€™, the â€œManeka Gandhi chelasâ€™â€™ and so on. For them, the slithery, feathery world of lizards, snakes, frogs and owls is far more fascinating than the banal one of human beings with their EMIs and monogamy. The dull, cold touch of a snake does not repel. A frog is a potential Ph.D, an earthworm a fund of ecstasy, and an owl no ill omen but an object of solemn affection. This dedicated band of researchers and scientists at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is perfectly happy tramping through a bog or crouching for hours beneath a dripping tree in a dark forest waiting for a brand new species to swim into their ken.
For six years, until recently, Navi Mumbai resident Shubhalaxmi spent her nights in the heart of darkness at the Borivli National Park, spread over 9,000 green hectares. Rainy nights were particularly looked forward to. With the help of a lone assistant, she would drape a net over a tree or between two trees, light up the area with a generator and wait patiently for the moths to start flocking to the net. Some nights, the moths came in droves, on others, such as during the summer, the attendance was thin. Irrespective, Shubhalaxmi enjoyed every single nocturnal date with the wilderness.
Fondly called â€œPurgul Attaâ€ (Insect Auntie in Telugu) by her nephew, the 37-year-old moth-lover grew up in perfectly ordinary surroundings in Sion, with a storekeeper father and housewife mother. Despite rebukes from the latterâ€”â€œWhy donâ€™t you get a clean job? Be a teacher or work in a bank?â€™â€™â€”she pursued her passion by joining the BNHS and now works as manager of the Goregaon centre. She specialises in the Hawk and Emperor Mothsâ€”very little research has been done on moths in post-Independence Indiaâ€”and has managed so far to document 33 species of the Hawk Moth and three species of the Emperor Moth.
Moths were a mystifying enough flame to be attracted to but Varad B Giri had an even harder time convincing his family that reptiles and frogs were worthy subjects of study. Giri grew up in Ankali village near Belgaum and did his BSc in chemistry from Karad. So far so good. His priest father hoped that his academically inclined son would be a teacher. Then came the shocker: his son loved lizards and reptiles and was happier rooting in the forest than in the schoolroom. Over the years,
Giri has caught hundreds of snakes for research and been routinely bitten for his efforts.
He says, quite calmly, that he has no objection to being labelled â€˜loonyâ€™ because â€œto be passionate about something one has to be madâ€™â€™. The highlight of his career was the discovery of three new speciesâ€”a rare variety of frog and two caecilians (amphibia that resemble earthworms or snakes but unlike worms have jaws, teeth and sometimes scales, a remnant of their piscean past). â€œWhen people talk of legless amphibia in the future they will refer to our team. Our names will be immortalised in a way,â€™â€™ says Giri proudly, sitting at the Societyâ€™s headquarters at Hornbill House, in a room walled with glass jars of pickled lizards, snakes and a variety of suspended bio-diversity fit for the foulest witchesâ€™ brew. Founded in 1883 by the British who were overwhelmed by the tropical riches India had to offer, the BNHS is one of South Asiaâ€™s largest NGOs with over 5,000 members.
A floor above the coiled glass cages sits Asad R Rahmani, BNHS director. The 57-year-old is a name to reckon with in the world of Indian Bustards (a large, brown-and-white bird that lives in arid and semi-arid grasslands and is associated with dry open country). Rahmaniâ€™s father, a district judge in Uttar Pradesh, was keen that his son, who boasted a 96% intermediate score, should be a doctor or an engineer. Rahmaniâ€™s dreams were otherwise feathered and not only did he go on to study ornithology but chose to specialise in a bird with a name that sounds like a racist cuss word. He has written several books and articles and spends two weeks every month on the road crisscrossing the country. â€œEventually,â€™â€™ he grins, â€œmy father came around and the relatives who were kept in the dark about my career, were told what I was doing.â€™â€™
But Rahmani is a bachelor without the daily cares of tuition and childcare. When Girish Jathar, 29, decided to propose to Janhavi, a young doctor, he had to admit that neither did he have much of a bank balance nor was he likely to suddenly lay a nest egg. Considering that he wanted to devote his days to the study of the endangered Indian Owlet, money and fame were hardly likely to be fellow travellers. Luckily for him, Janhavi agreed to be one. For three years, Jathar has spent the better part of his day in the dry heat of the Toranmal Forest Reserve near Nandurbar, where the temperature often kisses 48 degrees, studying this small, stocky bird with heavily banded wings. â€œWhat was really interesting was the forest owlet,â€ he says. â€œThey are just like humans. When the female delivers, it is the male who brings the feed and provides for the little ones till they grow up and can hunt on their own.â€ Fuelled by similar passion, Deepak Apte took off on an all-India tour to study shells when he was just 16. Now 41, Apte has devoted his life to the study of sea shells and has been with the BNHS since 1994. Although he didnâ€™t grow up on the coast, he responded to the pull of sea even as a boy. The highlight of his vacations at an uncleâ€™s house in Alibaug was accompanying the fishermen on their trips to sea. His all-India tour started from Okha in Gujarat (where the sea starts) and ended at Kanyakumari. He took copious notes along the way and finally published a book on shells. TNN