My First night in the wild

Whoever said that city folks don’t have superstitions, hasn’t really grown up in cities. In the concrete jungle, we have our own share of myths and old wives tales. Growing up us, the children are taught to be wary of strangers, of the night and all the sounds that come with it. Granted these aren’t vehement as some, they actually make sense most of the time but their impact on the psyche is often so deep that even after growing up there always remains an unease you feel walking back home late one night with no familiar sound to keep you company. Then we pause at every stray sound and walk a bit faster when we fail to make out its source because in our mind all the stories come flooding back to life and all the nameless horrors that go bump in the night we see them lurking just beyond the corner of our sight. Safe to say we are not all the brave in the cities.
For the people who have been to the wild, they always remember fondly the sights even if most of them hardly ever seen anything. However, only a very precious few could ever recount all the sounds they had heard. My story concerns with the ones who make these sounds, especially in the night. Those who wander in the forest after night would clearly remember how the night comes alive in the wild. Hundreds of sounds go on all around one, enough to overwhelm or even unnerve an unwary wanderer. The singers of night are a varied bunch, piercing whistle you can hardly hear are the bats locating their prey in the night, more understandable ones are frogs, dozens of them calling from trees, waterholes and any other place they feel safe from then there are more unreal sounds in the wild too. A low whistle, train and even chainsaw, sounds which clearly have no business being in the forest at night. Most of these sounds are insect-made, particularly by insects of family Gryllidae and Tettiigonidae; crickets and katydids. The male sings a mating song which is unique for a species and is only recognized by the conspecific female who then finds the singing male (an ingenious evolutionary adaptation to prevent interbreeding, females can only clearly listen to the song of the male of same species, like in room full of loud people you have ears only for your own partner.)
Their body size prevents them from communicating at lower sound frequencies and hence katydids sing on frequencies that are usually beyond human hearing range leading to an effect that they produce most unnerving of sounds which could sound anything from a crying child (Hexacentrus sp) to a chainsaw (Mecopoda elongata) to a low whistling (Onomarchus sp) which for us who choose to study them is source of endless pleasure. Katydids are primarily forest creatures, also found in undisturbed grassland, extremely picky in their singing, a katydid won’t call if it’s disturbed too often, if it’s too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold or even in too bright light(Lang et al 2006), which makes them a nightmare really to study in lab. Their body size and loudness of song depend upon their food and level of disturbance to their homes and since they are extremely sensitive to changes in their habitat katydids can serve as an indicator of their ecosystem’s health. A katydid in the process of singing is the most beautiful creature in the world, they sing by rubbing their wings against each other.
It rubs the right wing over left to-and-fro at mind-boggling speeds of anywhere between 7000 to 12000 times in a second (number of times they make rub their wings in a second gives us roughly the frequency of their call) in a manner similar to playing guitar where you pluck individual strings with a hard-surfaced pick, the sound made from the rubbing is tuned and amplified by the mirror before it spreads out into the surroundings . A viewer can only barely make out the movement of wings against each other.
To avoid competition between different species these creatures have followed a number of adaptations that they sing in different time of the year, some call at different times of night, other calls from different parts of the forest or even different heights within the same patch of vegetation all have been distinctly studied and documented. Unlike us, they’re even polite enough to stop calling if males of some other species sing too nearby. When I chose katydids as the subject for my Ph.D. I had a little idea of how this would change me. In I had worked on tree crickets (Oecanthus sp.) and did a little work at night in what passed for wilderness around Delhi. So going in I had no idea except the fact that it would require me to work in the forest. My teacher joked about how to teach swimming in the army they push the trainee in deepest part of the pool and how it was similar to my case where I on my first trip, went to Hoollongapar Gibbon Wildlife sanctuary, a 20 km2 patch of rainforest in Assam surrounded by tea gardens and villages on all sides and still a habitat for three families of elephants and of only Indian apes, the Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock), gibbons are curious beings even by standard of apes. They’re the only apes to be monogamous, a gibbon mates for life and a group of gibbons consist of mama and papa gibbons and two to four of their children. The dawn in Hoollongapar was greeted by howling calls of Gibbons warning off trespassers and dusk ended with callers of night coming out of their perches and sing, the towering giants of the namesake Hollong trees (Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) had the canopy so dense that even in afternoon you’d hardly ever feel the sun on your face. The first night there, it was an assault to my senses, the sharp clean air was acid to my city-bred lungs, the pitch black of night had me all but blinded and the sounds… oh! The sounds! It’s a humbling experience for your ears, being in the forest. It was September when I first went there, the monsoon was all but done though rains in Assam are a fickle thing, one moment the sky would be blue, the sun would be shining like clouds have no business here and a moment later it’d be raining and when it rained it poured! The water chills you to the bone and even after rain disappears the lingering chill and mist would turn the jungle into something right out of a fairytale so humidity never went below the ninety percent mark; leeches were in plenty and mosquitoes larger than anything I had ever seen happily feasted on me every night I was there. Once the sun sets and calling for the night starts, it was my job to locate a singer, record it, it was easier said than done really. The largest katydids are 13 cm in length and exceedingly rare, most of the time a katydid is somewhere between three to five cm, it would be singing right under my nose and I won’t find it until my teacher actually point it out for me. Not only because their small size but also because katydids are the masters of camouflage in the animal kingdom and when inactive during the day suspend themselves like leaves from branches.
Once spotted, I had to stand there and wait for the singer to sing at peace before beginning to record them, a frustrating task for body and mind; to wait sitting on haunches in bushes or beside them on the track with a red-light trained on a katydid willing it to start singing because you had disturbed it once already when in joy of finally locating one you had its perch shook and now you have to wait until the katydid feels safe enough to sing again if it hadn’t altogether decided to fly away; I had waited once for an hour before giving up on a particularly stubborn one, katydids, as I said are picky about their singing. By the end of a week, I found eight different species occurring together in that small patch, there could be possibly more which would be found when looked more extensively. I keep going back again to the same place and have never found the same katydids singing twice, the last trip brought the final count to 12, 12 species all occupying the same habitat with little or no competition! A lesson about sharing if there ever was one! In the weeks I spent there one by one all the fear the darkness held for me since boyhood disappeared to the point that even in the city now when I happen to hear an unfamiliar sound I usually find myself going towards it rather than away. I grew calmer, learned to have more patience (an occupational requirement one must have in order to record them.) and to a certain extent got rid of the false notion of human supremacy to nature. By being blind in the dark I had my eyes opened to the glory of nature. The sad part, however, is that forest is still being encroached upon by tea-gardens and villagers, illegal logging every once in a while reduces the already too little area to worse; who knows how long the forest or their night singers would stay there for someone to look for them or listen to their songs. One may ask as cynics often do, why should we protect these insects? Katydids and crickets don’t produce commercial products, they don’t pollinate flowers, and they’re not nearly as charismatic as Tigers or Elephants to appeal to the masses so as to generate funds for their protection so in light of conservation these insects are as good as useless! To them I only say this; I spent the most memorable night of my life, my first night in a jungle stumbling from one tree to another looking for singers I could hear clearly but hardly see. That experience only made me realize that all I knew about nature, forests, and ecosystems was nothing, nothing compared to the experience I had in that single night. Conservation can’t be done in isolation, one cannot simply protect one species and let other go to oblivion, Nature doesn’t work like that. We’re all joined together, sometimes in a manner, we cannot even begin to comprehend. In Gibbon Sanctuary people don’t yet realize truly the treasure trove of nature they’re surrounded with. Things might be changing but not speedily enough, perhaps not today or in a year or five but someday they might realize the only question would it be too late to do anything by then? How long before we realize that this must stop? A saying in Hoollongapar goes like this “the louder sings a katydid, rowdier would the river flow” to an untrained mind this would sound like superstitions often heard among villagers but to one with slightest of ecology to their training would understand that the saying illustrates the close bond these insects share with their surroundings. The health of the forest depends on the availability of water hence the flow of the river and katydid can only sing as loud as healthy his (I say his because in katydids only males usually sing) home is. It’s not hence an overstatement when I say every person should spend a night in jungle at least once in their lifetimes; not the assisted, pseudo-safari that passes for it these days, but to be truly in the jungle alone or at least so they must feel surrounded by darkness of the wild and by songs of the unseen night singers just to understand their place in the scheme of things.


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