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The Chamgadarhs of Devbhoomi

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-05-2017 Livemint

Chamgadarh? Woh toh yahan nahi hote (Bats? You don’t find them here),” a villager said matter-of-factly. His friend added, on a more scientific note, “Yahan toh thand kaafi hoti hai. Thande ilaakon mein chamgadarh nahi hote (It gets quite cold here. you don’t find bats in cold places).”

I was in a quaint Garhwali village near Dehradun. I had already spent a week without getting any substantial information on bat sightings. It was late February but the light winter chill meant that bats were still not as active as expected.

This was my first time in Uttarakhand cataloguing the echolocation calls of bats to gain an insight into their natural history. Research on bats had earlier taken me to the Andaman Islands.

I looked at my field assistant, Zareef Khan—a hard-working Gujjar boy from the fringes of Rajaji National Park. He hadn’t seen a single bat since he started working with me. I wondered if he thought it would be easier to find a yeti.

Dwarfed by the hills, I looked around in awe and frustration; the undulating shrub-covered hills, the turquoise Song river, and the redstarts flitting on its stones seemed to be asking sarcastically, “Who on earth gave you this bright idea of studying bats in the Himalayas?”

Who wouldn’t want to study bats in Uttarakhand? It’s interesting in more ways than one. Uttarakhand has a great diversity of habitats which corresponds to the vast gradient of elevation. The foothills are dominated by sal forests, and as one goes higher, the vegetation changes—in ascending order—to forests of pine, oak mixed with rhododendrons, deodar, fir and spruce. Owing to its geographical position, Uttarakhand sits at a point where assemblages of species from Europe, the Far East and peninsular India meet.

A long-eared bat with its ears folded. When spread out, the ears are nearly as large as the bat’s body.

The most important reason, however, and one very few people know about, is that Uttarakhand is home to one of the rarest bats in India—the Peter’s Tube-nosed Bat (Harpiola grisea). It was first discovered in 1872 by German biologist W. Peters, thanks to a specimen collected by Captain Hutton in Jharipani (Jeripanee in colonial literature), near Mussoorie. But it was lost almost as soon as it was found.

There were few bat surveys in the 20th century in Uttarakhand and they all failed to find the Peter’s bat. Given that there had been no record of it for more than 100 years and that its habitat (especially in Mussoorie) had deteriorated, there were questions about whether the species was extinct. Then, in 2002, a team of scientists from the Zoological Survey of India rediscovered the Peter’s bat—not in Uttarakhand but across the country, in Mizoram. There have been no sightings since, and the Peter’s bat remains as enigmatic as ever. Its status is anybody’s guess.

A Leisler’s Bat.

It’s against this background that I set off to explore the hills of Garhwal to create an inventory of bats and their ultrasound—that is, species-specific calls. I started my work around Dehradun.

After a frustrating first week, my luck turned: My friend and researcher Bhaskar Bora’s local friends told him about a cave roughly 30km from Dehradun. We caught India’s largest insectivorous bat there—the Great Himalayan Leaf-nosed Bat (Hipposideros armiger). This bat has a thickset face and wears a grumpy expression, resembling that of a bull dog.

My mist net captures started netting better results due to a combination of gradually warming weather and increasing familiarity with the terrain. Zareef and I set up nets every night in the placid, shallow and secluded parts of the many rivers that flow into Dehradun.

The results were highly encouraging. In just five nights, we caught 15 species of bats; three-fourths of these were new to me (or “lifers”, as we call them in birding parlance). There were two interesting Eurasian species, the Common Noctule (Nyctalus noctula) and the Leisler’s Bat, or, simply, Lesser Noctule (Nyctalus leisleri). These are among the most common bats in Europe but here they can be found only in the Western Himalayas.

The Great Himalayan Leaf-nosed Bat.

On our last night of netting in Dehradun, we went to an isolated gorge about 30km east of the city. A Rock Eagle-Owl flew off angrily, disturbed by our presence. A Himalayan Palm Civet—inquisitive as ever—paused briefly to check what we were up to. I looked around at the steep slopes that surrounded us and whispered to Zareef that it seemed like a suitable habitat for free-tailed bats.

When Zareef and I checked our nets 15 minutes after dusk, we panicked. They were full of European Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida teniotis), a species that had only been reported from three other locations in India. Panic gave way to excitement as I learnt that this finding was the first record from the Western Himalayas.

These free-tailed bats are peculiar creatures, with ears that come up and ahead of the face. They have a shrew-like tail, and a characteristic, pungent, musky odour. They are the most docile of all bats to hold. The real fun, however, is in releasing them once the data has been collected.

A Himalayan whiskered bat.

Free-tailed Bats are the swifts of the bat world. Their long and pointed wings do not allow them to get enough lift for take-off if dropped from a height of 6ft. Even if you open your palm and coax them to fly, they will refuse to take off. The only way to make them fly is to throw them up in the air. In 4 hours, we had caught well over 30 —which meant more than 15 high-throw competitions between Zareef and me!

After our success in the foothills, we were ready to move to the next difficulty level, where the terrain was rough and rugged, and forests transformed into splendid combinations of oak, pine, rhododendron and deodar.

Honestly, Mussoorie is not quite the “Queen of the Hills” it used to be. Unrelenting development and boisterous tourists have taken a toll on this once harmonious town. Landour, however, I hold in high regard. There are still fragments of quality oak forest, more than half of which lie in the property of Woodstock School—and the school allowed me to work on their property, with great results. Landour also has some fine cafés and bakeries and you might even meet a bat or two while dining, as we did.

One evening, I was chatting with naturalist Virendra Singh Panwar, from the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, when we spotted a group of bats gliding gracefully and hawking moths, coming to rest on the windowsill of an uptown café. The manager remembered me from a previous dinner at the hotel, so he considered my request to be allowed to catch bats from their window. He did, however, ask us to wait until the guests left.

"Uttarakhand is home to one of the rarest bats in India—the Peter’s Tube-nosed Bat (‘Harpiola grisea’). It was first discovered in 1872 by German biologist W. Peters, thanks to a specimen collected by Captain Hutton in Jharipani. "-

It took only three sweeps with a modified butterfly net to catch one of the bats. It was an Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis).

The most tranquil part of Mussoorie lies roughly 10km west of Library Bazaar, on the road to Kempty Falls. This is the Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, the erstwhile home of two legends of Uttarakhand—Sir George Everest and the Himalayan quail. My expectations rose as soon as I reached it; a pair of flamboyant Long-tailed Broadbills was nesting on our doorstep. The same night we put up a mist net in an oak forest in Benog. We trapped until 1am and caught seven species, including the Eastern Barbastelle (Barbastella darjelingensis). Barbastelles are probably the oddest among the Old World evening bats. They are sooty-black and their ears face forward, just like our eyes.

Two weeks later, we cut across Devbhoomi, following the majestic Ganga and the furious Alaknanda to reach our destination. Mandal valley, situated at 1,600m in the lap of Kedarnath, is as idyllic as I had imagined. It’s the gateway to the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, where I spent my best days and nights trapping bats and watching wildlife. From 1,500-3,000m, we netted at various habitats, catching an assortment of common and rare bats.

The first breakthrough came when we noticed an unusual habitat at 2,500m. It was a clearing in a relatively undisturbed broadleaved forest and my intuition told me we might come across something interesting. We hadn’t caught anything until 11pm and the hoots of the Mountain Scops Owl were turning into a lullaby. Just as we decided to pack up, I spotted a tiny leaf-like object wriggling in the mist net and rushed to remove it. It was a small bat, densely covered in golden-yellow hair. Its tube-like, bifurcating nostrils gave away its identity. It was a Little Tube-nosed Bat (Murina aurata)—the first time it had been recorded in Uttarakhand, and also the first tube-nosed bat I had ever seen.

A mother Woolly Horseshoe Bat carrying pups.

We caught three other species of tube-nosed bats (but not the rare Peter’s Tube-nosed bat) in other parts of the state and all of them were new records for the Western Himalayas. These fascinating bats, forest dwellers, reflect the health of the forest.

The next night we finally caught my favourite bat. At 3,000m, we found a serene brook lined by rhododendrons at the intersection of sub-alpine forests and alpine meadows (bugyal). Just an hour earlier, we had startled the elusive Himalayan Musk Deer. We had also accidentally flushed out the cryptic Eurasian Woodcock while setting up our net. I knew luck was on our side that night.

At 9.30pm, we caught the much anticipated Long-eared Bat (Plecotus homochrous). This is the cutest bat I have had the privilege of seeing. Its beady eyes and large ears are nearly the size of its body.

I am often asked why I decided to study bats. One answer is that I wanted to avoid competition from other wildlife scientists. But the real answer is one that cannot be explained: It must be felt. It is the sense of exploration, of which Uttarakhand was a testimony. The hills, the darkness of the night and the inherent elusiveness of bats shrouded them in a three-layered veil. Five months and more than 30 species later, we managed to unravel some mysteries that will serve as baseline information for critical questions.

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