Showing posts with label fb. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fb. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Intraversion at Work

For the 30 odd years of my life I've been an introvert, a facet of my character that I have tried very consciously to run away from. Recently I was in Africa for work and that work involved meeting a number of unknown people and attempting to build relationships with them. I felt very tired in the evenings. Not physically, but emotionally. The entire hypersocial experience of adjusting to new coworkers in a new office, meeting new people and building relationships was tough for me as an introvert. And of course, I couldn't hide behind intraversion so I built up a bit of a facade of extraversion to keep at my work. And it's amazing that over the years, despite my strengths being reflection, introspection and contemplation, that I was intimidated by the fact that I was in a role that was individual than as part of a team. I should have been happy in a way, but somehow years of feigning extraversion seem to have done me in.

So yesterday when our Managing Director shared this video with me, I was excited. It was Susan Cain speaking about the power of introverts. I'm quite certain I'll pick up her book and read, but in the mean time, I can't deny that there are several points she made that were epiphanies for me and learnings that our most important institutions - schools and workplaces can learn from. At the very least for introverts, I hope it'll help you feel a lot more at ease with yourself.

A few thoughts that I think employers, teachers and individuals can ponder over, from this rather excellent talk:
  • Is your school or workplace architected for extroverts? Do introverts get safe opportunities to be by themselves, intute, impute, introspect, reflect and contemplate their work? Is there an unspoken taboo against introverted behaviour?
  • Do introverts face a natural disadvantage in the way your institution runs? Do they get routinely overlooked when it comes to leadership and career advancement? Across the leadership of your organisation, do you have enough introverts who are allowed to be that way?
  • Are the role models in your institution mostly extroverts? If there are introverts who have the freedom to be introverted, do people know their stories? What's the story of the introverts who do grow in your organisation? 
  • Do you bring in people in the image of the organisation itself - focussed on gregariousness and extraversion? Do you value quiet contemplation and individual work too? 
  • How individualised is your system? Individualisation isn't the same as being individualistic. Nor is it about devaluing the collective.
  • Does your institution have enough low-key environments that are inviting for introverts? Or do they have to 'fit in'?
  • As a leader do you allow ideas to run a life of their own, or do you stamp your personality on them? As a leader do you display empathy and step back from offering your opinions - preferring to reflect on occasion? This is an important question for corporate and educational leadership. Do conversations always have a logical end? Or are you willing to go back and reflect on things you may have learned or not totally understood?
  • Have you ever rejected a person who is quiet or introverted as not being a team player, or as someone who won't 'fit in'? How does your institution look at intraversion vis-a-vis your said or unsaid entry criteria?
  • Is there an unspoken assumption that all brainstorming, creative thinking and ideation needs to happen in groups? What examples do you have of people having a free rein to explore and express their ideas without being subject to groupthink?
  • Are magnetism and charisma the most valued leadership traits in your institution? As a leader do you expect your people to be able to sell their ideas vocally, or do you routinely investigate what they're upto and create an environment for them to succeed?
  • Do people need to win arguments or convince others to move forward with their ideas? If you're the person they're having to convince as a extroverted leader, how willing are you to set aside your own thinking and biases and let your people do their thing?
  • Would you consider anyone asking the questions I've just asked, to be anti what your organisation stands for? 
I'm sure there are other thoughts this talk provokes and I'll be sure to watch it a few more times for it all to sink in. This talk was amongst the most inspiring and liberating ones that I've heard this year. Susan Cain's been through her own journey of being an introverted public speaker - one that I've been on myself. She's developing an online course on 'Public speaking for introverts' and I've signed up for the updates on that - do so if you're interested. And if anything, I hope you're that much more empathetic to that introvert near you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Photoshop Tutorials to help you post process like a boss!

A few weeks back I published a set of tutorials to help you get started on Lightroom. I hope that those of you who do use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw found those tutorials useful. I've now created a set of Photoshop tutorials for you to learn how to use the most popular post-processing tool for photographers. Along with the Lightroom tutorials, these videos form two hours of instruction with real photographs from the field and should be a comprehensive starter pack for you to post process like a champ! Hopefully I can save you some money that you may have ended up spending on a post-processing course. You can use that cash to buy yourself some equipment or maybe fund a short trip!

The Tutorials

Like the previous tutorials, these videos are also part of a YouTube playlist and I've licensed them under a Creative Commons Attribution license. You'll find these videos most useful if you play them in high definition. That way you'll see the detail a lot better. Have fun!
  1. Introduction to the Photoshop interface
  2. Integrate Photoshop with RAW processing software
  3. Basic Adjustments in Photoshop
  4. Non Destructive Editing in Photoshop
  5. Use Soft Light to Enhance your Landscapes in Photoshop
  6. Straighten your horizon and Darken your Sky in Photoshop
  7. Reduce Noise on your Images using Photoshop Plugins
  8. Black and White Conversion in Photoshop
  9. Non Destructive Dodging and Burning in Photoshop
  10. Non Destructive Healing and Cloning in Photoshop
  11. Masking in Photoshop
  12. Sharpening Tools in Photoshop
  13. Create Frames and Copyright Marks in Photoshop
  14. Create Custom Actions to Automate your work in Photoshop

If you find these tutorials useful, then do share them with your friends and popularise the tutorials. While I don't intend for these videos to be a comprehensive dive into Photoshop, I hope they serve as a good introduction for people to feel familiar with the application and to get started. If no one ever had to attend a basic post-processing course, it'd make these tutorials immensely successful.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Adobe Lightroom made simple - post processing tutorials for beginners

When you're making pictures instead of taking pictures, the one thing that helps your execute great images is confidence in post processing. There's no substitute for getting the shot right in camera, but unfortunately the device isn't always the best at representing reality. Cameras lack the eye's dynamic range and also the ability to translate colours accurately. And every now and then we all make mistakes that we'd like the opportunity to correct after the fact. So, first things first, shoot in RAW - the amount of flexibility this gives you is quite awesome. Enough said about that.

Now you have the choice of using Lightroom/Aperture or Photoshop. The difference is a good $400 - at $123 retail, Lightroom 4 is a real steal given the amazing non-destructive editing it allows you to do. Can it do all that Photoshop does? Of course not. That said, there's a lot Lightroom can do which Photoshop can't. Managing your photos, tagging, organisation, printing workflows, tagging, branding are just some of those advantages of Lightroom. I guess it's a toss up between Lightroom and Aperture for the Mac. Given it's availability on multiple platforms and my current familiarity with it, I prefer the former. In today's blogpost, I'll introduce you to the basics of post processing in Lightroom 4 and save you a boatload of cash. This is not an exhaustive set of tutorials, but just enough to get you started. If there are more tutorials you want me to add, please let me know. One word of caution. I assume that you know how to use your camera and to read your histogram. I also hope you know the basics of picture controls such as saturation vs vibrance. If you have some of that covered, these tutorials will help you take your images to the next level.

The Tutorials

I've gone ahead and added all the videos to a playlist on YouTube - you can either play them on the site or off this post. I don't have much more to say - I hope the videos are useful!

  1. Introduction to Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw
  2. Import Pictures into Lightroom
  3. Basic Editing in Lightroom
  4. Removing Blemishes in Lightroom
  5. Work with brushes in Lightroom (and reduce wrinkles)
  6. Noise Reduction in Lightroom
  7. Hue, Saturation and Luminance Adjustments in Lightroom
  8. Black and White Processing in Lightroom
  9. Process Landscapes in Lightroom
  10. Sharpen Images in Lightroom
  11. Add a vignette to your image through Lightroom
  12. Split Toning in Lightroom
  13. Export your images from Lightroom

I look forward to hearing from you about the utility of these tutorials. My next aim is to create a series of tutorials on Photoshop and focus it on editing photographs. If there are specific topics you'd like me to cover there, just let me know. Thanks for being patient with my erratic posting.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why your community needs a license to share

Last weekend, I participated on a thread that caused me much angst. As someone who's participated in online communities for about 12 years now, I feel strongly about a sense of sharing. And yet I found my sensibilities challenged in this debate about sharing bird photographs under the creative commons license. Let me give you context. Indian Birds is a Facebook group with about 10,000 members. As the name indicates, most of the members are birders, quite a few being bird photographers. A few days back, the owner of the group made a suggestion - to make all postings to the group subject to the Creative Commons license. His intent was that all material and pictures posted on the group will be free:
  • to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • and to Remix — to adapt the work
The range of objections I heard to this seemingly well intentioned proposal made me think quite hard about the spirit of sharing on online communities. In effect, as a community manager it made me think about one more thing I'd like to consider - ownership and licensing. Before I get into the details of what this may mean for your new community, let me explain my stance first.

Full Disclosure

I have to be honest. I'm biased towards the Creative Commons licenses. If this changes your views about the value of this article, you may want to stop reading. I also must say that I'm not a supporter of Creative Commons because of some deep desire to be awesome. While I think it's about being nice, I think it's also very practical. It's very difficult for creative people to write proper licenses for their content. Now the moment you publish a piece of work, you automatically own the copyright to it. And yes in cases of photography and similar art work, you can also put up a notice that says:
"Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer."
This however is an untruth. Under the terms of fair use or fair dealing anyone can use your work in part for the purpose of education, criticism, commentary, reference and review. So, in that a statement like the one you see above isn't very useful and it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. You don't quite indicate the rights you're willing to give to your viewers and the rights you'd like to reserve for yourself. Now you can hire a lawyer to write all of this up for you, but that'll cost a heap of money. Instead, you can choose the Creative Commons licenses and select the rights you wish to reserve for your benefit. There are some great lawyers behind the Creative Commons system and your reserved rights are pretty air tight. But the bigger benefit is that you make your reservations quite explicit by making the rights you give away very clear. Of course there'll always be jerks who violate copyright, and the way to deal with them is no different from the "all rights reserved" world. So, that's my personal stance about Creative Commons - hopefully that sets the record straight.

Licensing community content

One of the things you want in a community that you set up for sharing, is people shouldn't sue each other for the simple act of using content from the community. Now communities are all about sharing. If you don't intend to share and to give other members the ability to benefit from your work, you shouldn't post to the community. If you participate on Indian Birds, you'll see that the majority content is photographs. It's perhaps 95% of the activity. The big question is - if you're unwilling to share, then why would you post a picture? For free publicity and marketing? I guess there are other opportunities for that. This is where some amount of legal protection is necessary. 

Now again you have two options. You can write your own license. This is what we've done for our internal community at ThoughtWorks. All content created by ThoughtWorkers on the community is the property of ThoughtWorks and for the benefit of ThoughtWorkers. So the question of suing each other doesn't arise. In our situation as a consulting firm, this approach makes sense. It may not make sense however for an externally facing community, especially one that's like Indian Birds. This is where an approach like Creative Commons comes in handy and saves you the trouble of writing a license for yourself.

FAQs and misgivings about the Creative Commons licenses

A few days back I watched a great episode of Chase Jarvis live. It was amazing how a well known commerical photographer like Chase promised to put his non-contractual work under the commons to make his commitment to sharing and his rights clear. The episode is very educational for photographers in particular to understand what it means to share their work online and the licensing that makes sense. That said, I realise that Creative Commons still isn't common vocabulary for a lot of people. In view of some of the objections that people raised to these licenses, I thought it might be worthwhile to dispel some of those myths and answer some questions.

I cannot sell any of my work if I apply Creative Commons licensing. If a community uses these licenses, I cannot participate for this reason.
This is incorrect. You can use any of the Creative Commons non commercial license to reserve rights to your work. If your community is also using one of these non commercial licenses, you can quite easily sell the work you share there and also other versions of the same work.

Once I use Creative Commons, I cannot revoke the license at a later stage
This is true, but do remember that this applies only to the version of the work you share under the license. So let's say, you share a low resolution image online and apply a Creative Commons license to it, it's only that picture that is permanently in the commons. The high resolution version and it's other derivatives stay unaffected.

Commercially viable and high quality artwork is never in the commons
Far from the truth. You've got to see the portfolios of Jonathan Worth, Kalyan Varma, Trey Ratcliff, John Harvey and others to know that. In addition, just do a search for Creative Commons photography on Flickr. The number of great photographs you'll see out there is just tremendous! 

If a community adopts Creative Commons licensing then violations become the responsibility of the community too
This depends on who owns the content. If the community is set up so the community itself owns the content, then yes it becomes the responsibility of the organisation running the community to take action against violations of copyright. However, if the community only requires members to post under a Creative Commons license while retaining their copyright, then the community has no liability to get into legal battles. As in any other situation, enforcing copyright is still the responsibility of the artist.

Why should anyone decide the licensing for my work?
You're right. No one should decide the licensing for your work. However if you post to a community you should be willing to share your work. In return for publicity, appreciation and social currency, you give some benefits to the members of the community. If the community adopts a Creative Commons license, this is to balance the rights of community members and copyright holders. In case you're unwilling to share your work, you can still decide to reserve all rights by not posting to the community!

If people want to use my work, why can't they just ask me?
This is usually unnecessary friction. Empirical evidence shows that most people don't ask, they just use your work, either under the terms of fair use or not. Instead, a clear statement that allows people to use your work with attribution under the terms you specify is far lower friction and gets you publicity that you may have not even imagined!

If I use a Creative Commons license, people can modify my work without permission.
You can very easily reserve this right by applying a no derivatives license. This stops people from remixing your work in case you're uncomfortable with it. If your community uses a Creative Commons license, you can speak to your community manager about this.

Why pre-empt the beautiful prospect of a friendship between user and an author/artist that could stem from a request to use a particular piece of work? Why make Creative Commons a middleman?
Sure, you could always argue against the commons this way. Let me tell you of a different perspective though. By virtue of the fact that all my work and this blog fall under the Creative Commons, I've received innumerable words of thanks from people who have just used my work in a presentation or as part of their day to day life. I was quite glad some months back, when a reader of my blog found some articles so useful that he fashioned them into a little ebook. He shared it with me under the Creative Commons license too! It was quite beautiful. Kalyan has a similar story which actually took his photography career to prime-time. So while you may lose one way of striking a relationship, you create several more ways to create this bond.

I'm not trying to make a watertight case for Creative Commons here. I'm sure there'll be more questions. The point I'm trying to make however, is more about the purpose of most online communities than about licensing itself. Licenses only serve to protect the rights of both community members and community authors. We need to ensure that authors still retain the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual property, while community members still benefit by using knowledge shared in that context. With this tension, Creative Commons feels like the simplest solution available to us community managers at this point. If things change anytime soon, I'll have something else to say!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tiger and other wildlife conservation in an anthropocentric world

A few months back, I'd written about a similar topic. The case I mentioned in that post is dragging its feet in the apex court. In the meanwhile, the court has placed a ban on tiger tourism in the core zones of all 41 of India's tiger reserves. Since the ban first came about in the month of July, the conservation community in India has stood divided between those pro-tourism and those against. While listening to the views and counter views, I've participated in a few debates and then pulled out. I needed time to gather my own thoughts on the subject. As a wildlife photographer or a naturalist or a conservationist, I'm an absolute novice compared to some of the big guns out there. So I guess, I'm entitled to take my time to think through an issue as grave as this. The question before the supreme court is one of whether they should allow tourism in its current form or not. The answer to that is pretty clear - not. With all due respect to the honourable court, the eventual answer isn't 'no tourism' either. I'll try to explain my thoughts later in the post. The question before the conservation community is a slightly bigger one. It's a question of identity and realism. I'd like to touch upon some of these issues in today's blogpost.

Divisiveness never helped a purpose

"...all roads can lead to conservation if the intentions and actions are right, and that people from all walks of life can contribute equally." - Shekhar Dattari
This month, Shekhar Dattari wrote a pretty interesting article about conservation. He argued quite rightly that no role in conservation is bigger or smaller than another. I'm not sure if it's me but I notice a huge amount of animosity in some sections of the conservation community towards others who maybe wholly or peripherally a part. For example, conservationists and naturalists seem to look down on photographers. Photographers look down on the general public. The general public looks down upon the forest department and forest dwellers. I like to believe that conservation is an orchestra - everyone plays their part. Sustainable conservation needs people from all walks of life - conservationists, activists, politicians, policy makers, the department, photographers and the common man. Why you may ask? In a country like India, the tiger is the smallest problem for politicians and policy makers to look at - let's be frank about this. Human beings are too short sighted to reconcile how the extinction of the tiger will lead to the crash of our ecosystem and eventually hit our water security. It's a fine scientific argument to pose to people and perhaps an item for long term education, but with 900 million Indians living at less than $2 a day, saving the tiger will never be a politician's priority. And the last I checked, tigers don't get to cast their own votes and even if they did, there's just 1700 of them! So for conservation to succeed, the tiger needs people to rally behind it. So the self-righteous attitude of 'certain people are bad for the tiger', needs to disappear in a hurry, or we'll see our tigers disappear before we can spell c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n.
"The tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated; as exterminated he will be, unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

Lets get off the moral high horse

I participate on a forum of naturalists - quite obvious given my love for natural history. Recently we discussed the discovery of a flock of vultures in a remote village bordering Karnataka's Raichur and Bellary districts. It was happy news except when one of us jumped on a line from the report and said "...kudos for keeping the location a secret (I think you have already given too much information for picture hunters to swoop in)". To this, Santosh Martin(the naturalist who originally discovered the vultures) responded, "Picture hunters for personal glorification will never be entertained as before. Moreover, picture hunters these days are more focussed on tiger areas... Bellary is too far for them."  To say the least I was hurt by the commentary. I'm an amateur wildlife photographer - and for the record, I detest trophy hunting. Somewhere the term 'picture hunter' made me feel that the two naturalists who used the term equated photographers with trophy hunters. Somewhere it felt that they looked down on photography as a way to appreciate and observe wildlife.

In his defence, Santosh responded to me and said, "Picture hunters are certainly different from responsible wildlife photographers.Wildlife photographers are those who employ their skill to interpret nature for the benefit of those millions who never get the chance to visit see the animals and birds in their natural habitat. They also try and document new species which have never been documented before." While I have immense respect for Santosh Martin as a naturalist, I believe this is the kind of thinking that's detrimental to conservation. A photographer need not document new species. A photographer need not reach millions. If a photographer can, through the observation of wildlife become an advocate for its conservation, that in itself is a big win! If a photographer can show his/ her friends fabulous photographs of a much photographed tigress and get those friends excited about nature, that's fabulous too. As nature lovers we seem to live in our own little bubble - believing that there's already tremendous support for the wilderness, given we already see so much media related to it! The truth is far from it. Bump into someone on the street and ask them if they know about vultures going extinct or what the Great Indian Bustard is. Look for the gaze of bewilderment and you'll know what I mean. We need to convert that guy - and unfortunately we can't do this from atop a moral high horse. I don't have a photography website or even a Facebook page for my photos. I make photographs for my own pleasure and to share with my friends and family. Over the last couple of years, I've got several of my friends thoughtful about nature - I can say this about everyone in my immediate team at work. I haven't reached millions and I have no desire to do so and yet I believe I've achieved a conservation victory of my own.

Running an inclusive conservation and tourism orchestra 

The fact that the Supreme Court now has this case pending before it, gives the conservation community an opportunity to appreciate the roles we all play to protect our wildlife. We can't be looking for ecocentric solutions to the problems of an anthropocentric world. For conservation to succeed, we need people to support it fully. So the solution that emerges needs to be win-win and this means a few trade-offs. I'm no expert, but if I had any authority, here's what I'd recommend:
  1. Let's ditch the pseudo-science: There's no correlation between tourism and tiger numbers. Simlipal has no tourism and yet has a healthy tiger population and while Sariska and Panna had great tourism, they lost all their tigers in 2005 due to lack of protection and improper monitoring and administration. On the other hand tigers have grown in numbers in Ranthambhore, Tadoba, Corbett, Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and other parks despite the heavy pressures of tourism. If anything, the only thing we can say with confidence is that tourism has no adverse or favourable impact on tiger numbers.
  2. Locals play a key role: Local people pay the heaviest cost for conservation. They usually lose ancestral land (albeit with decent compensation) and often get second class treatment to tigers and tourists. And when tigers kill their livestock, they have to go through a painful compensation process. If wild cattle ravages their crops, they hardly ever get compensated. In such circumstances, wildlife is like vermin to them - better dead than alive. To make conservation successful, locals need to have a stake. What incentives can they get for a healthy tiger population? What part of tourism profits can they share? Is there room for a community centric ecotourism model like Il Ngwesi in Kenya?
  3. Let's not impose human emotions on tigers: If we really care about tigers we need to stop humanising them. We should be concerned more about maintaining the sanctity of the forest than about how a tiger feels when there are people on an elephant beside it. We have no reason to believe that the tiger near the tourist elephant is a 'poor animal'. Let's remember that these are animals that could become invisible whenever they desire and the fact that we do see them indicates their possible tolerance towards us.
  4. Let's appreciate every stakeholder's context: Yes, we all need to operate with compassion and respect for the wilderness, but to be begrudging of others smacks of a holier-than-thou attitude. First time casual tourists need education. Yes, their noisy behaviour is often irritating and admittedly disturbs the sanctity of the forest - yet, the potential that one among them could possibly bat for the tiger in months to come, is a fair trade-off to live with. Wildlife photographers will want the best shot and go lengths for it. Yes, this may be irritating for naturalists and conservationists - but please understand the value of visual storytelling. That photo could be their way to get their family and friends inspired. There's nothing wrong in judging people, as long as you're willing to be judged yourself. The attitude amongst some naturalists and photographers seems to be that everyone; everyone but them, is a disturbance to wildlife. Nothing's further from the truth.
  5. Let's be ready to live with restrictions: This may seem odd coming from someone who is admittedly pro-tourism. I embrace the educational value of tourism but at the same time tourism can't be anti conservation. We need to have proper emission norms for safari vehicles that enter our parks. We need to decide by some form of established science the optimal number of safari vehicles that can ply at any given time without adversely affecting the ecosystem. We need guidelines for resorts that operate in and around national parks. We can't have another Kosi fiasco. We need tourism to be zero impact to the ecosystem - in that it gives back more than it takes from it. The ministry of environment and forests needs to create a scheme of equitable tourism that allows local communities to benefit and participate in tourism. This is the only way they're likely to help increase the forest cover is if the wilderness is worth more alive than dead.
  6. Let's not have double standards: Given our colonial history, we seem to have a sense of disdain for all things brown. So it irks us to see several brown people line up in jeeps to see a tiger cross the road. And yet, the same naturalists and photographers happily go to the Mara and see 60 vehicles line up for a cheetah and 40 vehicles surround a mating pair of lions and have nothing but great stuff to say about the place. The tiger is the proudest piece of our natural heritage and there's a certain beauty in the fact that 80% of the visitors to our national parks are Indians - as against what you may see in Africa. The fact that everyone from the prime minister to an ordinary country bumpkin can see the tiger for a nominal fee is something we should be proud of and strive to preserve. If we believe we appreciate and love nature, then let's play a role in helping others develop the same passion - instead of trying to judge those who may be less informed.

My intent here is not to take a dig at anyone. All I care about is that every person in this country has an opportunity to experience its rich natural heritage. I believe there's a nature lover in every one of us - our culture is one that inherently respects wildlife. You just need to take a good look at our mythology to believe me. I don't want to pre-judge anyone's intent, our wildlife could use every bit of support it gets in a country with huge population pressures and international poaching threats. I cannot bring myself to support a system where in a foreseeable future others will not have the opportunity to enjoy the privileges I've enjoyed in my life. Most importantly, I'd hope for the conservation community to stay together in its purpose.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Next big innovation for Enterprise Social Software - Simplicity

One of the things I remember reading about, early on in my enterprise 2.0/ social business journey was Andrew Mcafee's definition of what makes social software tick. He spoke of three characteristics - emergent, freeform and frictionless. Those definitions still ring true in my head. As I look at how enterprise social software matures it seems to be moving away from those characteristics quite a bit. To the extent, that enterprise social software loses the edge it promised to provide.

Do one thing and keep it simple

One of the features of consumer social software which in turn encourages enterprise use cases is the fact that most of these tools do one thing and they do it well. Take for example Twitter - 140 character status updates. Or Pinterest - create a digital pinboard. Or for that matter delicious - create a list of online, shareable bookmarks. Let's look at Path - share updates with your close friends. Each of these platforms keep things quite simple. One metaphor, really simple usage - so much so, that despite the fact that Twitter keeps its help hidden under an obscure menu, you don't miss the lack of instruction.

Enterprise social bloatware?

Compare this to a lot of the enterprise social software you see. Let's take for example - I have nothing against the platform; it's great. I just need a scapegoat. is a wiki, a blogging platform, a file repository, a discussion forum, a social bookmarking platform - all at the same time. And more! So, do I create a document or a discussion or a blogpost? If Sheena Iyengar taught me anything - more choice is not always a good thing. People like to stick with the status quo and not choose anything. Is that really what we want as a consequence of enterprise social software?

Let's be real

For a lot of us social media enthusiasts, life's a nice happy bubble. We hang out with other social media geeks, we network with them online, they sing its praises as we do and it seems the world has changed. Yes the world has changed, but only so much. For a large number of people and granted they may not be a majority, social media still isn't their bread and butter for communication. Complex social platforms that combine several features and numerous bells and whistles only scare them away. Think about it - if you're not social media savvy and you have to make a choice between a wiki, a status update, a blogpost and a discussion - what would you do? And what if you had to break through the most complex security system to access this platform when you can easily get to email on your Blackberry? (note I say Blackberry, not iPhone) Let's appreciate that there's a non-trivial audience size that fits this description and the only way social software wins is by being undisputedly easier and better.

Back to the basics

We need to rethink our strategy with social business platforms. We need simplicity - one metaphor, simple usage patterns. The more sophisticated we make the platforms, the more difficult the change, the more resistance the poorer the uptake. This is when people question change - if something isn't 10x better than the status quo, we naturally choose the status quo. Cisco seems to have thought this through with Cisco Webex Social by taking away superficial choices from content creation. Yammer's always been very good at this - they're a Twitter clone for the enterprise. I say that with great respect. Socialcast seems to be doing this right too. I can't say this however for the majority of the social business landscape. Let's remember the frictionless bit of McAfee's definition. I believe the future is bright, but not blingy. I fear that the focus for some social software giants is turning out to be bling, though. Please, for the sake of all we stand for - get back to the basics!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Loving them to death or providing a third eye? My views on 'Tiger Tourism'

I'm not a tiger expert like Valmik Thapar. I'm not an activist on the field like Vidya Athreya or Dharmendra Khandal either. I am not pretentious enough to consider myself an armchair tiger crusader either - unlike Diya Banerjee. I'm just another Indian who loves the natural history of this country to bits, especially the tiger. I've said this earlier, I'll say this again - there's nothing quite like seeing a tiger in the wild. To photograph it with a stable hand is something else. I have seen the lazy elegance of the lion. I've seen the feline grace of the leopard. There's something about the tiger though that sets it apart from its peninsular cousins. Is it the swagger of the beast - a gait that's quite contrary to its acquired fear of humans? Is it the tiger's beauty? Is it about how elusive it can be in the wild? I can't tell, though I know that to see tigers the wild has been amongst the best experiences of my life till date. I've rarely done anything cooler.

"A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated - as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

As I write this post, the Supreme Court of India is hearing a petition by Prayatna - a Bhopal based NGO led by prominent activist Ajay Dubey. The petition, amongst other things seeks to ban tiger tourism in the country as it exists today. The alternative they suggest is for tourism (read safaris) to happen in the fringes of the park, making the core zones of our tiger reserves 'inviolate'. The rationale behind this is that if traditional forest dwellers have left their ancestral land to give the tigers solitude and peace, how can tourists still have access to these woods? There are theories which state that the tiger cannot breed in the constant presence of humans and therefore tourists should stay out. After all the Sariska tigers have not bred successfully since their reintroduction in 2005 - a reason for this (probably) being the presence of villages in the forest. Tourism doesn't also bring too many benefits to local communities. Krithi Karanth's 2011 study titled 'Conservation Letters' revealed some startling statistics - local residents get less than 0.5% of the revenues from wildlife tourism. Even more startling is the revelation is that the park itself gets less than 5% of the revenues and close to 95% goes into private hands.

There's anecdotal evidence to say that the presence of tourists does disturb the tiger's life. I shot this tigress at Jim Corbett National Park - named after the legendary hunter turned conservationist. She's a beautiful female just separated from her mother, learning to live the solitary life of a tiger. Look at the picture carefully. Do you see how her tummy's gone well inside? Well, we were responsible for that. Let me explain. A day before I shot this picture, we'd gotten news of her presence in the Dhikala grasslands. We turned our vehicle around from where we were and headed there for a view. The news was right - she was there, stalking wild boar for a morning meal. We waited patiently for her to move across the grassland and grab her quarry, but alas that was not to be. Within minutes, tourist elephants ferrying tourists who wanted a 'closer view' invaded the grassland. The hunt was all over - the tigress stood no chance of making a kill in that commotion. When I saw her the next day (at the time of this photograph), she looked frail and hungry and a part of me regretted what had happened the previous day, though I wasn't directly responsible.

 So then, shouldn't we ban tourism? It seems to bring no benefits to the local community and it disturbs the tiger. If anything it seems to encroach on the tiger's last strongholds. As it turns out, my view is quite the opposite. The tiger is India's national animal. As Steve Winter would put it, the tiger is 'our bald eagle'. The beauty of tiger tourism in this country is in the fact that anyone with ₹500 ($9.17) can share a vehicle with other people and stand a chance to see the charismatic beast. People can't feel the desire to protect what they can't see or experience. If seeing a tiger in the wild becomes the privilege of just a handful of experts, it will probably mean an end to the love and passion several Indians feel for the beast and its protection. Last I checked, spreading the word was amongst the top few things one could do to save the tiger. When no one can see the tiger anymore, what word do you spread? That there's a mythical beast in the woods which incidentally we don't have access to anymore?

"Nobody will be interested in protecting something that they are not allowed to see or experience. Banning tourism in National Parks and sanctuaries will be disastrous for the tiger in particular, and an open invitation to poachers and the timber mafia." Belinda Wright

A few days back watchful tourists reported the presence of two suspicious youths in the core area of Tadoba Tiger Reserve. My friend Chirdeep wrote this rather sorrowful story of Maasti - the tiger with an amputated leg. The truth is that Maasti perhaps wouldn't even be alive today had it not been for a watchful wildlife enthusiast on safari. Tourism gives tiger conservation the third eye it woefully needs. In the current situation where patrolling is so ineffective that tigers get killed despite a red alert in the state, tourists end up being free watchdogs for the forest department. This is a service that we can't snub.

We can't wish away the issue of disturbance to tigers from tourists. That being said, we have to look at Tadoba and Ranthambhore - two of our most visited tiger reserves. Over the last year the tiger population at Tadoba has gone from 53 to 69. Ranthambhore has a baby boom despite the drones of tourists that visit the park. There's circumstantial evidence in Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and almost every other park that tigers are multiplying in the core zones despite tourism. Yes tourism needs regulation. Illegal constructions on the banks of the Kosi river need to stop. We need unhindered tiger corridors and if there are resorts that block this area, we need to bring them down. We need a strict clampdown on boorish behaviour in parks. Guides, mahouts and drivers need education to keep the interests of the animals first. We need to pay them well, so their livelihood isn't just dependent on the tips they collect in the seven months that the parks are open. As tourists we need to draw our own line of ethics. Do we want to do all it takes for that tiger sighting or are we willing to let go every now and then?

There's no point in slamming the elephant assisted tiger sightings of Central India - they are perhaps the most organised and well behaved viewing opportunities for tourists. Under the supervision of park rangers, the elephants ferry tourists four at a time for a five minute, regulated view of the tiger. The tiger is free to move into the woods and if it moves in too deep, the elephants don't pursue. The mahouts keep the tourists in check. The tourist safaris are a different kettle of fish though. The guides and drivers are too scared of losing their tip to admonish ill-mannered guests. While that is the reality of today's situation, every tourist in the wild has a responsibility to self regulate.

Last but certainly not the least the forest department needs to relieve the pressure of tourism by creating alternate opportunities for visitors. The buffer zone safari at Tadoba, the promotion of Magadhi and Khitauli in Bandhavgarh, responsible fringe tourism by resorts like Camp Forktail Creek are all steps in the right direction. The tourism industry also needs a fair bit of transparency. The opaque, fax based booking system at Dhikala and Corbett's forest rest houses needs to go. The nexus of the Kosi lodges and the forest booking clerks (read this report) needs to break and make way for responsible tourism. The agent dominated safari booking system at Ranthambhore needs to go - it needs transparency in booking zones and vehicles. The whimsical allotment of prime routes to the tourism mafia needs to stop. The more we can weed out corruption from the wildlife tourism infrastructure in this country, the more accessible we make it to the common man. And after all, we can't save the tiger if the common man doesn't care about it.
"Wildlife tourists carry cameras, not axes. They do not poach, do not submerge forests with dams... They are being unjustifiably blamed for killing tigers." Vishal Singh - TOFT

I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court acts wisely in its decision on the Prayatna case. Tourism when well regulated can be a great tool for conservation. I can't express in words how it has opened my mind and enriched my life. I hope this doesn't remain a privilege I speak of in the past tense. The next generation of Indians deserves to still enjoy our wilderness just as I have in the past few years.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

9 Days in Paradise - Leg 1, Nameri

It wasn’t going as I’d planned it. Sahana had dropped out of the trip at pretty much the last moment. This meant that we’d have just four people in our group to Nameri and Kaziranga as against the planned five. On the face of it, this didn’t seem much of an issue, except it hiked up the costs that we’d divided across five people. I like being meticulous in the way I plan, so this was a bit of a hiccup. As it turns out, some hiccups are for good reason.

Onward to Assam

So on 21st Feb - a day I’d been waiting for months, we set out on our journey. Raji picked me and Chirdeep up, we reached the airport well in time, met Sudhir over breakfast, got into our flight and then made an uneventful trip several hundred miles away to Guwahati. Our first stop was going to be Nameri Tiger Reserve - a quiet forest tucked away not very far from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Nameri is known to be a birdwatcher’s paradise and we’d planned to stay at the forest department’s Kanyaka Lodge. While the roads from Guwahati to Balipara were OK, the route from that point on was nothing but an absolute nightmare. We’d made quite a few stops on the way - a few times for lesser adjutant storks, and once for some tea at the NH52 Dhaba. So, after a five hour bone rattling drive, we made our way into the lodge and were able to stretch ourselves.

Rolling into Nameri

Nameri is not short of accommodation options despite the limited footfall it receives. Nameri Eco Camp is the most popular property in the neighbourhood and is run by the Mahseer Conservation Society in the region. I haven’t heard very good things about the Jia Bhorali resort (Email: / Mobile: 9435101614 / 9859262831), but I can’t believe it’ll be absolutely awful. We however couldn’t get accommodation in the Eco Camp, so we decided to go with the Kanyaka Forest Lodge which at Rs 800/- a night per room seemed like an absolute steal. Located right next to the 134 Eastern Planters unit which is part of the Indian Army’s Eco Task Force, the property is a good, no-frills wildlife enthusiast’s accommodation. Mr Sarat Sarma who runs the lodge on behalf of the forest department is a funny man who has limited knowledge about birds, but more than makes up for it with his enthusiasm. That first night, we slept really well - it’s funny to think how just sitting through a long flight and a long drive can tire you out.

Exploring the Wilderness

The next morning we were up early. The plan was to go rafting down the Jia Bhorali river. If you stay at the Kanyaka lodge, be sure to speak to Mr Sarma and have the boatmen either stay over at the lodge or come really early in the morning. The rafting point is about 10 kms away at a point called the 13th mile and an early start at 0630 AM gives you a good chance to spot birds. On that first day we were late, but the Jia Bhorali didn’t let us down. Ibisbill, Mallard, Ruddy Shelducks, Black Stork, Black Necked Stork, Pratincole… we found birds faster than we could call out their names. A part of me felt we were on a birding roller coaster. Be mindful though that rafting down the rapids is not an easy way to take photographs and while you’ll spot many birds on the way downstream, you’re quite likely to come back with no pictures.

Post the rafting trip and a pit stop for breakfast at the Potasali camp we set out on a forest trek with Meenaram Gogoi. At Nameri Tiger Reserve, birdwatchers need a permit to explore the trekking routes along its peripheries. You’re usually accompanied by an armed guard just in case you run into an aggressive elephant or bison. Now, it pays to have a guard who is a birdwatcher and knows the forest well. Meenaram Gogoi is one such man. From Kaziranga, he’s what you’ll call a born wildlifer. As the birds whizzed past on the canopy, he would operate without binoculars and help us identify exotic species that we hadn’t ever seen before. A little pied flycatcher flew by, as did a blue throated barbet. A streaked spiderhunter perched itself in an unusually high spot. As we went ahead redstarts and bulbuls dotted our path. A crested serpent eagle played hide and seek while a buzzard and a booted eagle soared high above us. You don’t expect to see this level of activity at 11am, but Nameri was truly a different kettle of fish.

As we trudged ahead and reached the Oubari camp, Meenaram started to get more alert. He had his mind on a more prized sighting - the white winged duck. You wouldn’t think of a duck being difficult to find, but these guys are shy and super elusive. They choose small ponds in the middle of the forest as their habitat and come noon, they go up on the trees and rest unless disturbed. We tiptoed to a haunt that Meenaram knew of. “Don’t talk, when I point out a location, look there without saying anything.” And that’s exactly what we did. As we approached the pond though, we startled an otter. The otter lunged into the water and off flew some of the most beautiful ducks I’ve ever seen. We’d seen the white winged duck, but had no chance of getting a photograph. Damn!

Over the next two days we spotted over a 100 bird species and trekked through some of the most beautiful woodlands you would have seen. Mr Sarma played eager host, Meenaram the astute guide and Jaykumar the caretaker was a wonderful cook who rustled up some simple, yet tasty food. If you’re a birdwatcher, then there’s nothing quite like birding in these evergreen forests. As we went down the Jia Bhorali for our last trip almost all of us felt that Nameri needs a lot more time than we had planned for it. Had we stayed longer and not had a hard stop to the trip, we could have come back with some pretty decent photographs. We didn’t, so I’m sure I’ll return there at some point to photograph the avifauna of the region. Until then, I’ll live with memories.

Travel Tips

Here are a few points that’ll help you plan your trip to Nameri:
  • To get to Nameri, you can hire a taxi at Guwahati airport for about 3600 INR.
  • To book Kanyaka Lodge, call Mr Sarat Sarma (the forester in charge) at +919435381990. He doesn’t operate by email but will mark out your name in his diary.
  • The ensuite rooms are 800 INR apiece, though for hot water you’ll need to share one of the common bathrooms. You can also opt for a deluxe room with a TV and that costs 1000 INR each night.
  • Food is usually simple and consists of local vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Jayakumar, the cook is quite obliging with requests and is usually willing to do what it takes to please you.
  • Rafting and trekking require separate permits and cost 280 INR and 320 INR respectively. Mr Sarma can help facilitate this.
  • The boatmen’s charge for the rafting trip is usually the bigger amount - 3240 INR for the trip. Each boat can accommodate upto 4 people. So in hindsight it wasn’t too bad that Sahana couldn’t make it. It helped all of us be together.
  • You’ll also need to hire a vehicle to carry your raft to the 13th mile and to pick you up from the end of the trip. This usually costs 1000 INR.
  • Apart from birding, there’s also the pygmy hog breeding center to help in the conservation of this endangered wild pig. Well worth a visit and I also saw some pretty interesting butterflies in the area.

I hope you visit Nameri soon - it was leg 1 of what’s been my most productive birding trip by far. Our next stop was Kaziranga - more about that in my next post. By the way, for this post and for this trip in general I tried using my iPhone as an alternate camera. I was quite pleased with the results in several cases. I'd love to know what you thought. So please, please, please - do share your feedback. I'm guessing you'll be able to make out the ones I shot with the phone, won't you?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Children are not childish - Education needs to give them credit

Yesterday Anvitha, a young schoolgirl and an avid birdwatcher reached out for help to rescue a black kite from what could have been a slow and painful death. I'll let you take a look at the two messages - one with her call for help and one with how she actually managed to gather people and eventually rescue the bird.

First message

Hi, just now while coming from school I saw a black Kite that was caught by a thread in a tree. What can be done to help it? The tree is quite high to climb and to cut the thread. Is there something I can do as my house is quite close to my school?

Second message

I went to that area where I saw the bird. The bird was still struggling. I asked help from my aunt who was near by and one of my teacher. We thought of climbing the tree and cutting the thread but the tree was too thin and long to climb. We took a stick to remove the string but the stick was short. Seeing us trying to help the bird many neighbors came and one of them brought a long stick and thread. We joined the 2 sticks. One of the bike riders seeing us stopped by and helped us. He was tall and so he stood on a long chair and tried removing the thread. We were holding a blanket to catch the bird if it falls down. The thread was cut and the bird fell on the ground. It hopped a few times and then flew away. At first it flew in the ground level and then was able to fly high. It was a memorable movement for me. I was happy to see the over whelming response from the neighbors. Many actually saw it but thought it was dead. After carefully seeing those innocent eyes blinking they came helping :). One of the things what I saw was - at first when i saw the kite while coming home, many black kites were trying to push the bird. Did they do that to help the bird?
Children are capable of wonderful things. Uncorrupted by our desire to compete, win, think way too far into the future - children are capable of demonstrating maturity, given half a chance. Anvitha herself is a passionate nature lover. Her knowledge of birds can put an adult like me to shame. Did this happen as a consequence of her school curriculum? I doubt it. Did it happen due to the right context and her own passion - I suspect so. Education needs to give children credit for the fact that they can choose their own paths. So should schools be more about creating context than imparting knowledge? Is knowledge really scarce in this world? If so, then how does Anvitha know so much about birds? Can you really bind down a kid's human ability to create, think, dream, be sensitive to curriculum alone? What role do parents play? These are important questions.

Kids don't surprise us - we just haven't given them a chance

"Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal. The reality, unfortunately, is a little different, and it has a lot to do with trust, or a lack of it."
- Adora Svitak

We often term kids as doing something 'beyond their years'. I believe that to be a truly discriminatory way of thinking. Yes, kids do need guidance. Yes they do need exposure and context setting. From that point on though, it's really about letting passion and the human desire to learn and create to set in. I love the fact that young Tom Suarez (above) got the opportunity to set up an App club in his school. That even if programming iOS apps wasn't part of curriculum his parents and school gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion. At 12 years old, he's a developer that's looking to expand his skills to program on both the iOS and Android platform. We have adults here who'd die for that opportunity. I'd really love for schools to give children this ability to try, fail, learn, succeed than to confine them to the realms of curriculum. For what it's worth, we adults have perhaps more to learn from them than we give them credit for.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Where's the Big Cat Trail going in 2012?

A bit early to speak of this, but I do have some tentative plans. The map below is indicative of my planned Summer 2012 trail. Now obviously, I can't do this by myself and I'll perhaps hold on for sometime to find people who want to join in. For now my plans are to do the first three destinations over weekends preceding the actual trail - so hopefully those should be easy ones for folks to join me on. More about this in a few months.

View Big Cat Trail 2012 in a larger map

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 5 - Jim Corbett National Park

There couldn't be a better way to end the big cat trail. While my photography form didn't hold it's own at Corbett, I can safely say that being in the Terai is the real deal when it comes to Indian forests. There's no other forest in the subcontinent that is home to 227 tigers, several thousand Asiatic elephants, 585 species of birds and more than 30 species of reptiles. In short, an extended stay at Corbett has to be a wildlifer's dream. Corbett does have it's ills, but let me blend them into my experience report.

Corbett is one of the most frustrating parks to book accommodation for. You'll be surprised that I say this, because a web search will yield several hotels around the park. The fact is that if you're serious about wildlife you want to stay away from the noisy boors who'll come to park for a drive because they have nothing better to do. Staying in one of the outside resorts means that you'll enter the forest with these people and each time you see a tiger, there'll be a mini traffic jam with people shouting like it's a fish market. So, most wildlife enthusiasts choose to stay at one of the several forest rest houses in the park - the most popular of these being Dhikala. Dhikala is about 49 kilometres from the Dhangari gate of Corbett Tiger Reserve and is in the thick of this magnificent jungle. Only residents at the rest house can drive through the safari routes here and getting accommodation is so tough that only enthusiasts take the trouble.

To tell you the fact, the reservation system is from the dark ages. You fax them a request months prior to your arrival. You keep calling them every day to follow up on your request. You then send them a demand draft when they confirm your booking (yes, even electronic transfers don't work). All this, and you now need to find a good safari jeep and a good driver. After all that trouble, I still wasn't able to get accommodation at Dhikala for both my nights and I ended up getting a night at Dhikala and a night at Bijrani, a rest house slightly more on the outside of the forest. Getting accommodation at Dhikala is truly an insider's job and in hindsight I recommend you take the services of either of the following folks to take the load off your head:

Dhikala is a great place for spotting wild elephants, hog deer, barking deer and a wide variety of birds in a really dense, forest. Tiger sightings are a matter of chance and more so here, given the dense cover they have. We almost missed the only sighting we had here and the tigress we stopped for was so offended by the fact that we'd blocked her route, that she lunged at us in a mock charge emitting a huge roar. Before we knew it, she'd lunged across the road and neither of the five cameras trained on her had an opportunity to get a photograph. A great sighting - one that left our hearts racing. In our one day at Dhikala, we ran into several elephant herds and saw several exotic birds. Before we'd even sampled the zone properly, we had to head out of the zone and check into our rest house at Bijrani.

The Bijrani rest house is quite old in itself. Established in 1928 as a hunting lodge for the British, it serves as an in forest accommodation for tourists. The zone however, is shared across both day visitors and lodge residents. This tends to make the zone quite noisy, despite the fact that your accommodation can get you several minutes of tranquility when at the rest house. Do remember that you can get out early each morning and stay back late each evening when all other vehicles are likely to be racing against time to reach the gate. Bijrani is also a comparatively drier zone which makes game spotting somewhat easier.

Now did we see a tiger at Bijrani? You bet we did - a young female who chose to sleep in a little cave in almost human fashion. It seemed to make no difference to her as the guides and visitors on the hillock above her made a huge ruckus about her presence. We left her fast asleep, only to come back in the afternoon to watch her lounging in her private pool after the long siesta.

I must put in a word for the elephant safaris at Corbett. In my view there's no better way to experience the forest. Remember that it's not the best perch for photography or to get the best sightings, given the elephant's always moving and that it's a lot slower than a safari vehicle. However, the ability to see the forest from the inside, on an all terrain animal is quite something. No gorge is too deep, no slope too steep. If you had to follow a tiger into the bush, the elephant's your best bet. It's also a great way to experience first hand how man and animal can be such good friends. The trust and understanding between the elephants and their mahouts (handlers) is something to see so you can believe. The mahouts also have really interesting tales to tell so even if you don't get great wildlife sightings, you can have a really entertaining ride through the thickets.

Anyways, Corbett was the last stop on the big cat trail this year. It's been quite amazing - we've spotted 49 big cats; 28 lions, 20 tigers, and 1 leopard. I think it's quite humbling to be stuck one short of a half century; nature's way of showing she's still in control. I am returning to Bangalore enriched by this experience. I've learned so much and I am more appreciative of this country's biodiversity than I was ever before. The big cat trail will be on the road again in the summer of next year and my plan is to visit the following parks:
  • Tadoba
  • Pench
  • Ranthambore
  • Corbett
  • Dudhwa
  • Sunderban
  • Kaziranga
While it's quite impossible to upload all my photographs from the big cat trail, I've put together a small selection of photographs here. As always, my work is under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 4 - Bandavgarh National Park

It's not often that you see 10 tigers and still retain a sense of disappointment. Happy as we are at the end of our Bandavgarh safaris, we see a huge scope for improvement with the tourism policies at this reserve. More on that in a bit. If you were ever in two minds about which Indian tiger reserve is likely to afford the best guarantee for tiger sightings, then it's got to be Bandavgarh. Why? Take a few factors into perspective. The Tala tourism zone is just about 102 sq km and has about 22 tigers in it. That gives you a tiger density of about one in every five sq kilometres. This apart, you can seek the assistance of the tracking elephants which when they find a tiger, will mark the spot where the tiger's resting and then take turns to transport you so you can view the tiger in it's natural habitat. Don't listen to what armchair conservationists may say in criticism of the tracking elephants. These animals do not interfere with the big cat's natural movement and make far less noise than safari vehicles. When observing secretive animals, using any intelligence and assistance is never a bad thing. Add to that the presence of some really bold tigers like Kankatti, B2 and the new and upcoming Bamera male, you have a heady mix for tiger sightings.

This being said, the park management needs to get it's act straight with it's tourism policies. Wildlife observation is a matter of luck and patience. Depending on the kind of wildlife you wish to observe, you'll need to invest time and energy to get the sightings you want. The park management has made this very difficult. They've divided the zone into four tracks - A,B,C and D. These tracks combine to make four 60 km routes (AC, CA, BD, DB) that safari vehicles have to complete whether they like it or not. When on safari, the prescriptive routes make it really difficult to stop even for a 5-10 minutes near an animal you wish to observe. I hate the Bandavgarh route system with a passion, if you haven't noticed already. The park management seems to be hearing the visitors though and there's talk of potential changes next year. The management plans to halve the number of vehicles allowed in the zone and double the safari prices. This'll ensure that we can reduce the disturbance for the animals and also keep the park revenues intact.

Now that's a lot of background information, so I'll keep the rest of the experience report short. We stayed at the White Tiger Forest Lodge of the MPTDC which in my view is just unbeatable, comfortable accommodation right by the edge of the forest. The air-conditioned and the air cooled rooms are equally comfortable and with all three meals included, the deal's a steal. In addition, you have some really hospitable staff who will do all it takes to make you happy. If you book the safaris from the lodge, then be sure to ask for Yadav as your driver. The gentleman has been at Bandavgarh for two decades and knows the park like the back of his hand. Most importantly, he's developed a great intuition for all of the park's tigers and can often guess with great accuracy the routes they're likely to take. You will of course need a good guide, but since that's really out of your control given the park's rotation system, you're well served if you have a knowledgeable driver.

We didn't have Yadav as our driver for the first drive, but we more than made up for it in the next two drives which had us bumping into 8 tigers in a day - my best tally ever. In the following drives we saw a tiger each, bringing our tally to 10 tigers in Bandavgarh. We didn't get the best photographs at the park given that we didn't have the opportunity to wait at most of the spots for long and if we'd found tigers resting we had to leave them before they got into a good photo position. I'm not complaining though - every moment you spend with this regal animal is an absolute privilege and something to cherish regardless of whether you get a photo or not.

I need to also put in a word for the Bandavgarh Interpretation Centre which is just near the Tala gate. It's a great showcase for this small, yet incredible park and has a great photo gallery on it's first floor. Bandavgarh is famous for tiger sightings but the interpretation centre is a good place to visit just to learn about the incredible biodiversity of the park and the things you should keep an eye out for. All in all, Bandavgarh gets high marks in my book (photos here) and the only reason it doesn't get a perfect 10 is because of the accursed route system. Hopefully that changes soon.

If you're visiting Bandavgarh, try seeking the help of MP Tourism to arrange your transfers, stay and safaris. The fact that we paid just about INR 7500 each for this awesome experience tells you how inexpensive they can make things for you.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 3 - Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

Ranthambore is my favourite park.", Gaurav reminded me as I spoke to him on the phone. Gaurav Athelye's a friend and runs Jungle Lore - a wildlife tourism outfit. He'd suggested to me that I should definitely visit Ranthambore and promised to help us organise the visit. Our big cat trail landed at the town of Jaipur on 4 May. A harrowingly long drive got us to the town of Sawai Madhopur, where we'd camp for the next two days for four drives into the forest.

Our hotel, the Hammir wasn't exactly in the lap of luxury. The fact that the AC wasn't working in the extreme heat when we arrived wasn't very comforting. That said, the hotel manager is quite willing to help guests out and help he did. I'd definitely recommend the hotel if you're backpacking and are looking for budget accommodation. I'm inclined to try the RTDC hotels or the Ranthambore Bagh the next time I go there, but I wouldn't recommend against the Hammir.

Our first drive was in the absolutely picture postcard - Zone 3. Mind you, Ranthambore is a huge forest (1400+ sq km), but the tiger reserve itself is only 392 sq km. To ensure minimal disruption to wildlife, the reserve is divided into 6 zones and the officials are quite strict to ensure that vehicles don't cross over. Zone 3 is truly a wildlifer's dream - we didn't see a tiger (clearly), but the quality of wildlife and bird sightings were to write home about. The zone's centerpiece, the Rajbaug lake attracts birds and animals alike. You could sit by it's edge for hours and never tire of the sight. Our drive ended with a sighting of T-28 (a.k.a the 'Star Male') in deep sleep at the hunting palace in the distance. Disappointing drive for tiger sightings, but full marks for everything else.

Our next drive was in Zone 2. Yet again pretty good bird sightings, but nothing out of the ordinary with mammals. Well, let me be fair. For a long time we kept listening to chitals, peacocks and sambars screaming their lungs off with warning calls. After an hour of investigation, we decided to probe further at a bush which we suspected was hosting a tiger. Our driver reversed the jeep into position. Saad, our naturalist cried out "Tiger!". Excited as we were, we squinted but couldn't see a thing. After much pointing and gesturing, we saw the stripes of a tiger as testimony. No, we weren't hallucinating. I have a photograph to prove it. Our second drive had gone by without seeing a tiger. Damn!

Our third and penultimate drive on 6th May morning was unusually dry. We had to go to Zone 1, a picturesque, hilly part of the park. Unfortunately for us, the forest chose to show us nothing that morning. For the most part, it was a long drive through the forest, with neither mammal nor bird sightings. I have so little to say about the morning, that Zone 1 remains my least favourite part of not just Ranthambore, but perhaps the entire trail. For some reason, Saad was very stressed that we hadn't seen a tiger. We didn't mind all that much, but it was going to be disappointing to leave without seeing the big cat in action.

Come afternoon, we decided that if we were really desperate to see a tiger, then that called for desperate measures. In India, when on important 'failure is not an option' kind of missions, we often wear a bandana on our heads. I got myself just that from a nearby handicrafts store. We couldn't let India's most famous tiger reserve let us go without some tiger photos. Our drive had an auspicious beginning- we were heading into zone 4, home to Machili, the world's most famous tigress.

Our drive however, was quite eventful until we reached the top of a hillocks that seemed to have way too much human activity. "There's got to be a tiger about.", said Saad. As we made our way to where everyone was looking, we saw a celebrity retinue of vehicles make their way to a better viewing spot. It was Priyanka Vadhra, daughter of one of our ex-prime ministers. That if course was secondary to the fact that we had spotted not one, but two tigers - together possibly to mate. On a second thought, it wasn't. You see, India has no dearth of very important people (VIPs) and people will go to all lengths to please them. So as it turns out, Priyanka and her family got the best viewing positions. Not that we has bad positions, but I wouldn't have complained about being in her jeep that day. As far as the tigers go, they were pretty relaxed even with so many human beings around them. They lazed around for a while, snuggled with one another for a few moments, took a few quick drinks of water and then were promptly on their way to enjoy each other's company in seclusion.

As we returned back to our hotel in readiness to hit the road, we talked about how awesome this sighting was. We'd heard no end of the quality of Ranthambore sightings and this one surely lived up to the mark. I personally thought that I'd just gotten a sampler of this wonderful, enigmatic forest - I've got to come back here next year to truly enjoy the forest for an extended duration of time.

If you wish to visit Ranthambore, remember that it's one of the most tourist friendly parks of the country. Finding accommodation is quite easy as is booking safaris. The only catch is that you're likely to get a different driver and a guide each drive unless you do something about it. Especially when you're new to a forest, you're better off having the same naturalist guiding you through all your drives. The way to do this is to ask your hotel or to contact a wildlife tourism outfit such as Jungle Lore. That apart, just enjoy the Ranthambore forest (photos here) and the several surprises it keeps throwing at you. As far as we are concerned, we're now heading to Delhi so we can get our connection to Bandavgarh, our next stop on the big cat trail.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Big Cat Trail, Leg 2 - Gir Forest National Park

If you've never seen lions in the wild, it's quite something to be less than six feet away from one. If you have seen lions in the wild, then to see them crouch, stalk and get into the hunt is like watching poetry in motion. The big cat trail made it's second stop at Gir. Sowmya, Pratima, Pradeep and Santosh had headed back to Bangalore. That left Sahana and me to make the long journey to Junagadh, so we could connect to the last home of the Asiatic Lions (Panthera Leo Persica). Our journey took longer than expected and the comfortable, air-conditioned drive from Junagadh to the Club Mahindra resort was just the thing that we needed to soothe our muscles.

The next morning we were on safari. Gir has a clearly demarcated tourism zone that has 8 separate routes. This is a small section of the 1412 sq km forest, and that affords the animals a really large inviolate area. Unabashedly so, we had our eyes set on lion sightings. I asked our guide Bali about lion sightings and he said, "I'll show you so many lions that by the end of your nine drives, you'll be tired of them!" I can't say I'm tired of lions, but having seen 28 of them, I can safely say my eyes have had their fill for this time.

There are a few things you should know about Gir. First, lion spottings are aplenty on route 6 and route 2. This is because these are tracker assisted routes. From what I hear, Sandeep Kumar - the deputy conservator of forests at Gir is a pro-tourism administrator. Not only has he been instrumental in doubling the daily permit quotas to enter the forest, he's also made a significant change to assure visitors of lion sightings.

Lions are social animals. Having brushed shoulders with the local Maldhari and Negro tribesmen, they've also become used to human presence. The local people are heavily involved in the conservation of this magnificent animal, which explains the evident disappearance of poaching and the continually rising population of big cats (411 in the last census). This being said, it's never easy to spot them, because lions like most cats, can relax in the shade for unto 16 hours a day. They go on the hunt or to patrol their territories mostly in the darkness of night. This means that your chances of spotting a lion by following pug marks or by driving down a route are quite slim. This is where the trackers come into play.

Gir's trackers are men from the local tribes who've grown up in the forest. They don't just know the forest like the back of their hands, they know the habits and haunts of the lions. With Gir being the last home for Asiatic lions, conservation efforts need to be more than just the usual stuff. The trackers do a 14 hour job in the forest, traveling on foot, motorbikes or bicycles to personally monitor the health of various lions in the forest. If a lion looks ill or needs medical attention, they'll inform a crew so they can get to the spot and help the beast. It's no wonder that Gir's male lions enjoy a long life despite their violent lives.

Coming back to route 6 and route 2, Sandeep Kumar has instructed the trackers to assist safari jeeps with sightings whenever possible, especially if the sighting doesn't interfere with the natural behaviour of the animal. Let me put this into some perspectives. We did four of our safaris on non tracker assisted routes and we ended up seeing two lions. On the remaining five safaris we saw 26 lions. I personally think this is a wonderful move from the forest department as long as visitors don't make a circus out of it.

The lions apart, Gir is home to over 300 leopards and the numerous warning calls we heard for this elusive beast is testimony to their invisible presence. We could only spot one though - perhaps that's a reason for us to return. Combine that with the several species of birds and the great sightings of Asian paradise flycatchers and several birds of prey, and Gir becomes truly a wildlifer's heaven.

If you want to visit Gir, consider staying at the Club Mahindra Safari Resort. It's not exactly close to the forest, but I must say their service has bowled me over. If you prefer staying closer to the forest, consider the Gir Birding Lodge or the government's Sinh Sadan guest house. The latter is quite difficult to get bookings for. You need to get through several phone calls to secure your spot. Safari bookings are usually through your hotel and it's useful to have hotel staff that understand your interests. Make sure you are vocal about what you want to see, so they can get you on the right routes. And by the way, don't be shy to walk around the buffer zone of the forest. You might just be surprised with some of the birds, animals and people you bump into!
Related Posts with Thumbnails