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The Secret Lives of Nonhumans by Ashni Dhawale

Social-distancing is a way of life when working as a wildlife biologist at a research station in the Western Ghats. An eagle’s-eye view of this landscape would reveal a blanket of native evergreen rainforest, with highly contrasting tea fields and housing clusters like many moth-eaten holes. It is evident that humans are the newcomers in this intricately complex, perfectly tuned, ancient ecosystem, where the purple frog leaves its underground burrow only once a year, wild dogs whistle and deer bark, and where the night is just as alive as the day.

Here, alien roads and vehicles block busy animals about their daily activities. Cable wires are ugly, flimsy modified tree branches meant for tight-roping across hollow stone blocks where humans hide tasty treats. A multi-purpose roof warms up quickly in the morning sun and is the perfect spot for a mid-morning nap while the reapers are soft to chew, making for quality nest material. And the false ceiling serves as a playground during the daylight hours only to become an arena for midnight showdowns between predator and prey.

This collection of photographs offers a glimpse into the lives of some of the nonhumans from around the research station, surrounding tea plantations and rainforest fragments:

A lion-tailed macaque rests for a moment, basking in the dawn light, before hurrying off in search for his first meal of the day. Lion-tailed macaques are adapted to evergreen rainforests, and have never, in evolutionary history, been known to leave their native habitat. Now, they must make do with remnant forest patches.

A lion-tailed macaque mother catches a quick nap while maintaining a firm grip on her twin infants. Twinning is a rare occurrence in lion-tailed macaques and this was my first record of surviving twins. These two are now quite famous, look out for their story on the upcoming BBC Primates series!

An alpha male scours the canopy for fruit with his one remaining eye. When I first began following his family-group, this male lion-tailed macaque was tending to a fresh eye-wound. At that time, he was one of two adult males in his troop, the other was older and entirely missing a nose. In a years’ time, the older male had died (of natural causes, presumably) and the one-eyed macaque had become alpha.

An impatient infant lion-tailed macaque can’t wait to get back to play. Juvenile lion-tailed macaques spend a large part of the day playing in large or small groups, or even alone. I am easily distracted from my formal data collection by these often-hilarious scenes.

A lion-tailed macaque mother uses a cable wire to cross between houses. This species is tree-dwelling and will often choose to remain elevated from the ground, where they are less vulnerable to predators. Where trees have been cleared, this mother travels a long distance using a cable wire while her infant holds on for dear life.

A black eagle swoops momentarily under the canopy, before disappearing once again. Alerted by the repetitive, guttural alarm calls made by the lion-tailed macaques, I turned to the direction in which they all looked: I first saw the large shadow cast by this raptor, as it flashed on the ground through the gaps in the canopy.

Clear view of a brown fish owl in the daytime. One of my favourite sounds is the low, resonating hoot-hooot of brown fish owls. A pair of them would often visit a tree behind the research station, calling in turn.

A crested serpent eagle dries its wings after a monsoon shower. In this landscape, it rains on-and-off for eight months in the year and in the monsoon months, the leeches reign. In these months, it is not uncommon to come home after a long day in the field, covered from head to toe with these mostly harmless blood-suckers.

A lucky sighting of a female Great Hornbill. Some days on field are luckier than others, especially ones when a hornbill chooses to fly by. An unmissable whooshing sound made by this large and beautiful bird’s wings announces both its arrival and departure.

A leopard waits out of reach of a wild dog pack, near a gaur carcass. It took us thirty minutes to realise that this leopard had been sitting on a tree right in front of us, while we watched the wild dogs feasting on the carcass.

A moment of truce between predator and prey. The wild dogs had chased the gaur into the adjacent tea plantations, perhaps in an attempt to isolate a few individuals. Amidst all the confusion, a gaur and wild dog found themselves sharing this unusual interaction.

A seasoned stripe-necked mongoose forages for grubs on the ground. When on field, the auburn colour of this mongoose’s coat never fails to catch my eye.

A jungle striped squirrel is surprised when a greater flameback woodpecker lands nearby. After the momentary shock, the squirrel carried on about its business and the woodpecker, finding nothing good to eat, flew away. Sometimes, it saddens me that humans will never have the privilege to share such close encounters with their wild neighbours.

An elephant walks through the tea plantation to get to the forest. I once watched an elephant scratch himself against a tree for a full 20 minutes. He rotated himself every which way so that every bit of his mud-covered hide was sandpapered by the bark, and I myself felt relieved of an imaginary itch.

A satiated forest lizard rests for a while at the doorstep of the research station. Just before the onset of the monsoon, multiple termite mounds erupt overnight, littering the floor next morning with their juicy lifeless bodies. An assortment of wildlife partakes in the feast, from colourful forest lizards and skinks to grey jungle fowl, and even sloth bears.

A wild boar naps in the research station backyard. There is always something exciting going on when it comes to the lives of nonhumans around us. One afternoon, while working at the research station, I heard a strange human-like snoring sound. Peeping out of the backdoor, I saw that this adult male boar had unearthed the grass to create a soft mud bed and was fast asleep.

A squirrel takes a mid-morning nap on the roof. This is the view from my window on most sunny mornings. I also, always, keep an ear out for squirrel alarm calls, that sometimes alert us to the presence of other interesting wildlife visiting the research station.

Sunrise over tea fields. While having a beauty of its own, tea fields have replaced vast tracts of native habitat in the Western Ghats. Bringing back these lost habitats is nearly impossible, making the protection of the remaining natural world all the more crucial. The next time you encounter some wildlife, either virtually or in real life, I urge you to consider the complex lives of these nonhumans, and how we humans have sealed their fate. -Ashni Dhawale

Follow Ashni's brilliant writing and photography here.


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