Deep in the heart of lion-tailed macaque country lie multiple hidden Myristica swamps. Rohan and I spent hours driving the (surprisingly) well-maintained roads, past faded signposts and countless towering arecanut plantations, past colourful houses and dry brown paddy fields, past patches of dry deciduous forest interspersed by cool, wet evergreen forests, until we finally reached a small sign by a dirt path. Torme. We took the path, the bike bumping along, sending spires of dust trailing behind us. It is very difficult to approach the villages surrounding swamps without drawing attention. If not for the fact that the bike is bright blue and definitely does not blend in, it’s the fact that I am wearing camo and carrying a 5 litre backpack with a sack of hazardous waste (thanks to water quality sampling) dangling off the side strap.
Naturally, an elderly man pokes his head out of his house and inquires as to our purpose there. We ask for directions to the swamp and he points down another dirt path that leads into his areca fields, clearly losing interest in us. The people in this village are used to mad scientists showing up in search of swamps – I am not the first to tread these forest paths nor will I likely be the last. We kick the bike into motion, weaving down the rocky path once more. The air cools slightly, an indicator that the forest is near. In most parts of this landscape, we can see the forest, but an imposing array of areca lies in between the road and the evergreen trees, a maze of sorts that we have to cross. Here, in Torme, the areca fields are busy. Workers on JCPs collect reddish soil (I have a sneaking suspicion this is coming from the forest but guard my tongue) and deposit it around the young areca trees, creating irrigation channels. Areca is a water intensive crop, placing it in direct conflict with swamps, which are often the source of water for areca fields in Uttara Kannada.
We park the bike in a vast clearing. A small patch of arecanut waves in the breeze, but the land around it is clear. The nearest worker informs us that they are going to plant more areca here. When I had visited Torme 6 months earlier, the clearing was much smaller. It was insignificant, in fact. The forest seemed far closer at that time. But now, the forest seems very far, barely visible behind the wall of arecanut. We grimly set off, each footstep taking us closer to this swamp on the edge of destruction.
I have a special fondness for Torme, which I had first visited in April 2022. The swamp itself falls along a gurgling stream, and it is quiet, peaceful, and cool, a clear contrast to the shifting landscape at its doorstep. A few Gymnacranthera canarica trees dot the swamp, fewer by far than many other swamps in the area, but still standing strong. Villagers used to worship at the base of a Gymnacranthera tree here, but over the past year, the tree weakened and was eventually cut down. With the final chop of the axe, the sacrality that protected Torme from degradation slipped away as well. The swamp was no longer worth protecting. When I entered Torme the first time, I could immediately sense the agitation. What trees remained were marked by human presence, branches chopped and roots wounded. The water flow was low and pipes abstracted water to the nearby village and fields. And the areca plantation that now stands tall was newly planted, greedily sucking up water that had once belonged only to the biodiversity and the village households. Such is the nature of land use change.
This time, Torme was even more degraded than before. Where the last visit I had climbed through a tangle of dense understory, clinging to tree branches to keep from slipping, the entry to the swamp was now open. A neat pile of chopped tree trunk lay by the opening, a stark reminder that humans are not always the heroes in the storyline of conservation. To my dismay, it is the tree that I used to lean against when I sat in Torme to evaluate the biodiversity around me. It used to tower high in the canopy, offering shade and holding water in between its arching roots. But now, its vast rooting system is torn up and the stream flows chaotically around, unsure of how to proceed now that the giant is removed from its path.
I place a hand on the logs, a silent goodbye to my old friend, and step further into the swamp. Broken reeds and fallen Pandanus indicates that people have traipsed through here before. I spot a few gaur hoofprints. A creature as big as a gaur can create a huge ripple in the delicate swamp ecosystem, but they belong here. Tiny frogs hop away from my feet. The krrrr-krrr-krrrr of a tree frog cuts through the trickling of the water. The wind rushes wsssha-wsssha-wssssha through the large-leaved trees and a sudden rustling in the thick undergrowth makes me still, watching out for movement. Wildlife still lives in Torme – barking deer, lion-tailed macaques, bonnet macaques, grey langurs, mouse deer, gaur, civets, giant squirrels, and even the occasional leopard have been recorded in this swamp. Rohan is slowly making his way up the swamp surveying for odonates. Damselflies and dragonflies serve as indicator species for swamp health, as they are impacted by even the tiniest shifts in water quality and habitat fragmentation. In Torme, I am sure they are scarce.
I set down my equipment and begin measuring water quality. I typically survey at three points – upstream, mid-stream, and downstream. I unwind and release the dissolved oxygen (DO) probe into the stream. It takes time to stabilize the reading, so I always set it up first. Then, I open the nitrates and phosphates test kits. These field kits are a lifesaver, else I would be transporting a cooler with water samples back to ATREE’s water and soil lab each week to test. The nitrates kit is first – it takes 5 minutes for the reaction to take place while the phosphate test takes 3 minutes. I set both up and start the timer, first nitrates, then phosphates. Next comes EC and pH, both measured using hand-held probes. I get the readings just as the timer goes off on the phosphate test. I take the reading and then rush to take the nitrates reading (I changed my timer alarm just for the sake of not losing my mind in field). Then, I check the DO probe and am pleased to note that the reading has stabilized. Five tests – check. I repack my bag and make my way to the next spot in the swamp.
A Malabar whistling thrush sings blithley as I test the water. I look around for this cheery musician and see a flash of its blue-black tail. This large thrush has been my companion in multiple swamps, and I whistle back at it, imitating its tuneful song. The thrush eyes me and then whistles back. We keep up our musical exchange until it is time to leave Torme. Rohan has collected his odonate data and is snapping photographs of the swamp and its condition. I pack up the equipment and we turn to depart.
Torme rustles desolately behind us and I wonder if my next visit to this swamp will be even more disheartening than this one.