“It was the first period. We went to the nearby tank and saw hundreds of painted storks!” says BV Gundappa, with a glint in his eye. Fondly called Gundappa Meshtru (Master), he is a high school science teacher in Nagavalli, Tumkur, spreading his love for nature and wildlife across several villages in Tumkur and beyond.
1. How did you get interested in wildlife?
Around 1986, I was working at Sanur, near Karkala in Udupi District. We started a science club in 1989-90, which I wanted to inaugurate with a butterfly collection. On my suggestion, our students collected different species of butterflies, moths, caterpillars, and various insects, from a small hillock outside our school, and stuck them onto a board. Our chief guest, Dr. Prabhakar Achar of Bhuvanendra College, was surprised by this huge collection. In his inaugural address, he asked the children to conserve them, instead of collecting them. It was he who kindled the spirit of conservation in us, and there has been no looking back.
Later, Bhuvanendra Nature Club invited me to participate in a three-day nature camp at Seetanadi. There, I learnt bird-watching under the guidance of two amazing birders and naturalists, who were doctors from Mangalore’s Wenlock Hospital. It laid the foundation for what I have continued since then. I used to bird-watch at Aane Kere, Seegadi Kere and other tanks in Karkala on Sundays and holidays: sometimes with students, sometimes alone.
In the house I was staying at, the owners had hung a pair of binoculars. I would stare at it longingly whenever I went there to watch TV. I finally bought it from them, paying INR 900-1000 for my first pair of binoculars. I bought an SLR camera as well, and thus began my journey of watching and photographing birds.
2. Your interest in wildlife is not limited to birds, isn’t it?
Of course not. The same Bhuvanendra Nature Club had organised a two-day workshop on butterflies, by naturalist S. Karthikeyan. He informed us about various books on butterflies, including the one by Blyth and Winter. Dr. Achar lent me a BNHS brochure that described around 20 species of butterflies. I requested our drawing teacher to re-create the same for me, with my photocopy of the brochure and a colour plate for reference. I then familiarised myself with those 20 species, and in fact, became more keen on butterflies than birds!
3. How and when did you get associated with Wildlife Aware Nature Club (WANC)?
I got married in 1995. Karkala was quite far from my hometown near Sira. Hence, I took a transfer to Nagavalli in Tumkur District. I wanted to continue watching birds and butterflies, and so, Dr. Achar gave me the address of WANC, a local club in Tumkur. Ever since, I have been an active member of WANC.
4. How did the Slender Loris enter your world of birds and butterflies?
It was 1996. I was teaching biology to Class-8 students of a Kannada medium school on a Saturday morning. The lesson was about wildlife, and endangered species like the tiger, elephant, Nilgiri Tahr and Slender Loris. I described the kaadu paapa (Slender Loris), and said that it is an endangered animal that is rare, and not easily seen.
One of the boys said: “Sir, there are quite a few Slender Lorises in our village.”
Gundappa: “Have you seen them?”
“Yes Sir, I saw them this very morning.”
“In our school compound, on the ballari jaali (Prosopis juliflora).“
“Really? How many?”
Our school didn’t have a concrete compound wall, but had a bio-fence of lantana and ballari jaali. After class, I went with my student and his friend, and indeed, there the lorises were, all four of them! They were lying atop the canopy, possibly basking in the December winter sun. I was surprised and thrilled with my first ever sighting of the Slender Loris in the wild! I took the rest of the students to see these primates. In the evening, I returned with my friends from WANC, and we saw the lorises in the same area.
It occurred to me that if there were four lorises right there, there must be more in the village. On enquiring with students of classes 9 and 10, nearly 30% of them, most of whom lived near fields, reported having seen the loris. I began asking parents and local farmers, and gathered more information on where lorises were seen.
5. How have you been spreading awareness about the Slender Loris?
Apart from engaging with school kids and WANC programmes, we have also installed a board. Let me narrate the story behind the board. In 1999, we had invited Prof. Madhav Gadgil for WANC’s decennial celebrations. He invited me to a three-day biodiversity workshop in Karkala, where it was decided to have a biodiversity strategy and action plan. In 2001-02, a state level KBSAP (Karnataka Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan) workshop was held in our school. Prof. Madhav Gadgil, Harish Bhat, local politicians, teachers from 80 schools across the state, representatives from science organisations like KRVP (Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat), and others participated. It was decided to conduct thematic studies. We chose freshwater fish, wetlands, medicinal plants, and a school biodiversity register, involving our school teachers and students, local resource persons like farmers, traditional healers, shepherds, cowherds and fishermen. We won the first prize for medicinal plants and wetlands, and the second prize in the other two categories, with a total prize money of INR. 10,000.
We purchased a few books for INR. 1,500, and used the remaining amount to prepare posters, brochures etc. Additionally, WANC put up a 4’ x 6’ board on the state highway, with information about the loris. It became so popular that commuters began visiting our school, wanting us to show them the animals! We had to educate them that we don’t “keep” lorises in our school, but they could look for them in fields or in the village outskirts.
Students from other schools within 8-10 kms radius also visited us, gaining knowledge and awareness about the loris. All of them would inform us about loris sightings. In fact, some of them would even catch them to show us the animal – a practice we slowly and successfully discouraged.
6. Why do you specifically target children to spread awareness?
It is a bit difficult to engage with adults and to conduct outreach programmes in different places, whereas we can speak to children from 20 to 30 villages, all at once, in a classroom. They carry the message of conservation back with them, to their families and villages. We make them aware of environmental concerns, and they develop an attitude of caring for the Slender Loris, wanting to save and conserve it.
7. What about threats to the Slender Loris?
Students and the public began informing us about mishaps as well. Some of the electric lines used for submerged borewells in fields used to pass between bushes and trees, and across fences and streams. Lorises moving across canopies were getting electrocuted. Then there was the state highway, nearly 19 years old, and in a bad state. Only bikes plied on that road at night, and the last bus would pass by at around 8 pm. When they began widening the road, lorry traffic increased, especially at night. Lorises began to be killed.
8. How do you treat injured Slender Lorises?
With the awareness about lorises, every now and then, children bring us lorises that were attacked by crows or owls; the birds would have pecked the lorises’ eyes, head or other body parts, wounding them. The local vet administers medicine, and if needed, bandages it. We keep the animal with us for a couple of days and release it when there are good signs of healing and recovery. Some lorises that are very badly injured do not survive.
9. Is there any anecdote you’d like to share about your quest of the Slender Loris?
In the past, WWF used to conduct student orientation programmes, with students from across schools participating in plays, poster sessions etc. In 1998-99, one of our students, Subramanya, delivered a speech on the Slender Loris, for which we had prepared slides with photographs of the animal, and also of locations where they were sighted. He was selected at the district level seminar in Tumkur, and went on to the state level seminar in Bangalore. We finally went to Bhopal for the national level seminar, where although we did not win any prize, my students and I gained a rich experience.
But while preparing for the state level seminar, I lost the box of 14 slides in a bus, en route to Nagavalli. It was hard to replace those slides in a short time and so, in search of that box, I went back to the bus, which was on its way back from Kunigal. My search took me to a flower vendor at Gulur bus stand, from where I headed to Kunigal to the home of a young boy and his mother, who ran a hotel there. The little green box was safely parked in their cupboard!
However, I had already planned for a backup. The day I lost the slides, I checked with Class 10 students, and one of the girls shyly indicated that she had seen lorises. But she couldn’t bring herself to say anything more, because she had seen them while answering nature’s call. Her friend spoke on her behalf, and we headed to the village outskirts. It was January, and much like my first sighting, the lorises were high up in the tree. This time, there were six! With the help of a few kids, I brought a couple of them to school, photographed them for the slides, and released them. Thus, we had two sets of slides: the old lost-and-found set and the new one with great images.
10. How did you learn about more systematic studies about the loris?
Scientists like Dr. Sindhu Radhakrishna and Dr. HN Kumara have surveyed and studied the loris here, and from them, we learnt how to observe lorises at night. Two students from Kolkata studied the Slender Loris in Kunigal and Nagavalli for one of their MSc paper presentations, under the guidance of Dr. Mewa Singh from University of Mysore. Along with them, we estimated around 60-65 lorises then, in a span of five days, in an area of 5 sq.km. We also began observing breeding seasons, after we began sighting lorises with young ones.
11. According to your observations, what do you think supports such a good population of the Slender Loris in Tumkur taluk?
We have seen lorises in Kunigal taluk, the southern parts of Gubbi taluk, Devarayanadurga State Forest, and surrounding villages of Tumkur taluk. Here, the rainfall is higher than in the other taluks. The vegetation is good, consisting mostly of pongamia, bamboo, soapnut and banyan. There is also thick vegetation around streams. From what I understand, these habitat conditions allow the Slender Loris to thrive. In 2016, there has been one sighting reported from Kalpataru College of Tiptur taluk.
12. What is your current role in WANC?
I am the chairman of WANC now, which has around 20 core members, all of whom have worked in different areas and have varied experience and expertise. We have prepared checklists of 385 species of birds, over 130 species of butterflies, over 37 species of freshwater fish, and around 18 species of amphibians. I have photographed over 800 species of flora in our district.
Since 1998, we have maintained records of the number of birds visiting the Kaggaladu heronry near Sira, along with the number of nests, chicks, and other data, between January and June each year. We have made presentations to the locals, taken them to Kokkare Bellur and even got the Kokkare Bellur folks to visit Kaggaladu. We have also worked with the Karnataka Forest Department towards getting the Jayamangali Blackbuck area and Thimmalapura Forest declared as a Conservation Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary respectively.