A grassland patch set afire often sees animals caught unawares. Read about a star tortoise that is rudely woken from its slumber.
One way to make ecological observations in the forest is by walking transect lines – fixed paths in a forest that an observer walks during a survey, recording direct sightings of animals along with the radial distance of sighting and the azimuth bearing. These transects can also be used to record some other ecological factors. Several of our volunteers often complain about how difficult it is to walk transect lines, especially in tough terrain – but let me tell you that marking one is even harder!
Dry deciduous forest © Harsha L
I remember one such tough day marking a line; we split ourselves into two teams, each with five people. One pulls a 50m long rope, the second helps in aligning the bearing of the line that is to be marked using a compass, the third handles a GPS, the fourth puts up metal boards and the fifth paints. At least two among us carry machetes to clear the vegetation (if required) just enough for two people to walk along the line one behind the other without making much noise.
Thanks to this elaborate exercise, the participants during the survey can focus on the job at hand – scanning for wildlife, mostly ungulates, while also watching out for carnivores and elephants – instead of wasting time and effort in finding their way through the 3.2 km of the line.
We were running late for marking lines that summer morning, as we had lots to walk and temperatures were soaring at 40 degrees C. As we slowly made our way through the deep forest, a large, rising cloud of smoke at a distance came into our view. We moved out of the canopied patch into an open space and it became very clear: a widespread grassland patch ahead was burning rapidly and the fire crackling up.
I remember it vividly: standing near the fire felt like being cooked inside a high-power oven. I could almost smell my skin burning. We immediately split up to be at a safe distance from the fire and began trying to put the fire out as best as we could.
A fire of this nature burns away large parts of the forest and exposes what is hidden: as I made my way away, I noticed several large boulders that had been concealed under tall grasses. Beneath one such stone, I spied something moving very slowly. I figured it right away as a Star Tortoise – its occurrence is common in this habitat. I suppose it was taking a nap before the heat became too much. The fire and sudden variation in the outside temperature probably alerted the reptile and it was preparing to leave the hideout and finding a cooler place, unaware that there was a bigger fire in the direction it was heading.
Watch the video here.
My teammates were successful in turning out some fires, but it was exhausting as we had to beat the burning grass with twigs bearing green leaves - the only tool available in the jungle. In a semi grassland habitat, finding trees with such twigs is also a challenge, especially in the dry season when most of the trees would lose their greens due to lack of moisture.
Luckily the tortoise escaped the heat and found refuge in an unburnt area where it hid, well camouflaged once again!
This was a protected reserve forest in one of the states in India where natural fires are rare but man-made fires are high. It is common for people here to set afire large forested areas during summer to let fresh grass grow and provide fodder for their cattle during the rains. Unfortunately, this fresh fodder comes at the cost of wildlife that depends on these grasslands.
Burnt forest due to forest fire © Harsha L
I have observed several grassland habitats dispersed as a part of diverse habitats which include dense forests with high tree density, moderate or open forests with lesser tree cover and dense scrub forests. Each habitat supports a unique biodiversity.
Besides the man-made burning, grasslands that are often treated as wastelands have all kinds of exotic species planted in them, thus reducing their unique ecological value. These habitats support many flagship species like the Great Indian Bustard, fox, wolves, etc and are excellent sinks that help build and conserve groundwater. Fires in the grasslands take a toll on many ground-nesting birds as well as small burrowing mammals, who are often caught unawares.
Humans often try to modify such habitats for various purposes, usually with very little understanding about them and at the cost of vital resources which have evolved over millions of years, only to be lost in a couple of seasons.
Written by Harsha Lakshminarayana