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Goa’s Heart-Lung System Is Alive And Well – By Philomena & Gilbert Lawrence
Wednesday - Mar 20, 2024
Every complex living organism has a heart-lung symbiotic system that keeps the various moving parts humming. Often, that system does such a good job that we take it for granted, sometimes even abusing it until it malfunctions. The mountains and rain forests of the Western Ghats Mountains serve as Goa’s heart-lung system. While most of the world’s rain forests are being rapidly decimated, a few forward-thinking regions have chosen instead to highlight the importance of the mountains by developing and promoting eco-tourism. Goa is such a region.

The Western Ghats Mountains, blessed with bountiful flora and fauna, divide the Konkan, Kanara, and Malabar coastal regions from the Deccan plateau. They stand taller than their eastern counterparts, which run parallel to the east coast of India. The section of the Western Ghats bordering Goa is known as the Sahyadri Mountains, which cover 600 kms (about 372 mi) of the 3,700 km (about 2,299 mi) range. It is noteworthy that the 1,500 species of native plants create a natural corridor for wildlife migration and crossbreeding; thus, the genetic artery of the area’s wildlife is kept intact.
 
The west coast of India is one of the few regions in the subcontinent devoid of arid land. In fact, the Western Ghats hold some of South Asia’s intact lowlands, where the morning mist touches down and carpets the rainforests. These Ghats can be considered Goa’s wild green heart -- a part of India’s biodiverse rain forest and complex ecological web. Tragically, most of the natives are unaware of this rich ecosystem.

The primal world is a veritable millennia time capsule of the subcontinent and home to a plethora of plant and animal wildlife. For example, Goa’s forests are teeming with 50 genera of mammals and 60 genera of reptiles. Its 350 species of butterflies, also known as “floating flowers,” are in reality insects and are diligently studied by entomologists. Nature’s arrangement of the mountains also serves a vital climate-related function. They form a barrier which prevents the moisture-laden South-East winds off the Indian Ocean from moving further eastwards and produce four months (June to September) of Goa’s eagerly-awaited monsoons, when thunder booms, and the network of swollen streams and rivers gives rise to rampaging currents. These are harnessed to irrigate the land and produce the staple and life-sustaining crop -- paddy. 
 
The mountains are the source of the headwaters for rivers that irrigate and feed the state. In addition to converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, the rainforests, aided by their nature preserves, bring together sun, seasons, and 3,000 mm (115 inches) of rainfall as well as inter-dependencies among and between plants and animals. The wildlife abounds throughout the mountain range and in seven Nature Reserves, including the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, which together occupy ten percent of the state’s land mass. In this green world, prismatic light filters through trees, providing visitors with prospects for spontaneous exuberance! Those who camp in the forest have ample opportunities to spot myriad stars and the Milky Way through gaps in the leafy canopy overhead.
               
There are large swaths of wildlife habitats which shelter an array of plant and animal life; each species lives harmoniously in its own ecological niche, a survival practice evolved over eons and often practiced by Indigenous communities. Goa is home to 570 bird species, according to the India Bird Directory, making it a vital member of India’s ornithological heritage, and providing visitors with plenty of “spark bird” opportunities to study flight patterns. The breeding sites and feeding grounds of various birdlife and other forms of wildlife are located in the mountain ranges which are drenched for four months annually by the full force of the monsoon winds and rains directly from the Arabian Sea. In the lush expanse, animals in camouflage blend in with their surroundings and stealthily snatch their prey. In this verdant world, trees provide nourishment and shelter for the animals as the cycle of life continues. In the forest nursery for newborn wildlife, mornings begin with the parents and recent arrivals greet each other with a “kiss of recognition” before feeding begins. The chicks have been patiently waiting, their beaks agape, for their parents’ return with food. For some animals, feeding is an all-day affair; for others, eating is confined to the cool hours of the morning and/or at dusk. Depending on an animal’s diet, the fruiting cycle of trees determines the course of that specie’s journey through the forests. Animals are pollinators; like farmers, they spread the seeds and fertilize the soil. In the process, they are fed and attain their Zen (happy place) in exchange for their invaluable services.
 
Photographers are in a unique position to document in real time the ecosystems of plant and animal life. The challenge lies are discovering something new. Capturing the natural world on film can be as beautiful a hobby as it is dangerous. Every day can be a struggle for safety and survival since both the animals and the photographers are often pushed beyond their comfort zone. Some birds tolerate an unobtrusive birder or photographer while others reveal themselves through song and rare glimpses. During breeding season, some birds develop new plumage to attract a mate, just as humans often swap their otherwise drab outfits for more flamboyant attire to gain the attention of potential partners. Birds are secretive and mysterious, and their behaviour is revealed only by ardent birders, whose obsession and challenges are to chronicle these avian mysteries even after several abortive attempts to spot them, let alone photograph them. Amateur birders may find it difficult to catch sight of the feathered creatures due to their habit of skulking among vegetation. Often, happenstance, time, patience, and a generous slice of good luck play an important role in being in the right place at the right time to record an elusive species. Birds communicate with each other through elaborate patterns of body language, behaviour, and vocal signals. Ideal locations for recording animal life include bird sanctuaries, butterfly preserves, spice plantations where more than 75 species of exotic birds live, and beaches which serve as breeding grounds for turtles. The Western Ghats provide endless opportunities for eco-tourism -- from romantic getaways to rugged off-the-radar treks, to bird sanctuaries for those aiming to get a “bird buzz."               
      
The natural world is conducive to developing new hobbies, including nature photography. The great outdoors provides perfect locations for taking pictures of animals, flowers and plants in regular and ultraviolet light, as well as photographing birds in continuous flight (ornitografia), and drone-photography. Skilled photographers practice bird calls, and amateur bird watchers are delighted to experience the ecstasy of listening to the morning thrilling of birds and the sound of slow-moving water. Bird calls or vocalization is similar to humans expressing a full range of emotions. Birds are individuals with emotions and personalities. The Ghats provide opportunities for close-up avian encounters and a chance to contribute to a valuable science. Incredible lengths of time are spent in patiently waiting and watching; at times it seems as if the process is one of “hurry-up and wait.” The beauty of the Ghats lies in their spectacular environments and restful quiet periods until nature springs into action. Studying the migration and behaviour of butterflies and birds could be a gratifying project suitable for an expert or researcher preparing a doctoral thesis. In comparison to Europe or America, Goa is in an enviable position -- the birds’ and butterflies’ flightpaths and food sources are protected within the mountain range, as well as free from fertilizers, insecticides, or pesticides invariably used on farmlands. In the past, wildlife habitats were preserved as a result of inaccessibility, awarding them sacred status, or lacing mythical stories around their locations.
         
Volunteers can play an important role in helping to set-up nesting boxes and preserve forest habitat. An ingenious birder, for example, invented a feeder-cum-photo booth to capture images of birds without quite literally “ruffling feathers.” Photographs celebrate the mystery and beauty of nature and give a voice to wildlife, some of which may be endangered. The secret is to spot something furry or feathered, and document their behaviour. How refreshing it would be to watch a video of animals frolicking in the drizzle to cool down. Like humans, they all hunker down in a downpour. Photographers turn into scientists, and scientists turn to photographers; and both ultimately turn into storytellers for small and large groups. A safe way to immerse oneself in ornithology is by hosting a birding festival and leading efforts to protect local bird habitat, as well as by sharing information on the migration of birds and butterflies. Goa is a coastal state, and it is important not to overlook birds that spend time in the water, as well as marshes which support a biodiversity of wildlife.
 
The steady rain and the warming temperatures create the perfect ecology for the amphibians that lie dormant in the dry vernal pools -- fleeting oasis on which forest wildlife depends. These ephemeral pools dry up in the summer, only to swell and surge to life again each monsoon, and with the arrival of the monsoons, the dormant wildlife springs into action. The frog’s distinct croak is one of the countless sounds that permeate the monsoon’s soundscape, and the forest’s nighttime opera broadcasts the choruses of birds in harmony with the whirrs and whines of insects -- native music makers sending their greetings wafting through the rain.
 
Environmentally conscious residents are aware of the impact off-shore oil drilling and wind-energy farms have on off-shore and on-shore birds respectively – their habitat, ecosystems, and behaviour. In addition, the replacement of native fruit trees with invasive shrubs or other trees has negatively impacted bird life. The pristine Ghats, given their protected status, empower many bird species to adjust more easily to the changing environment. While birds are resilient and can compensate for changes in their environment, they can only adapt to some extent. Avian migration and how climate change is affecting the seasons and the birds' migration are areas of increased concern and intense studies by scientists.
 
In North America and Europe, spring is arriving earlier each year, disrupting the timing of the birds’ migration, nesting, and offspring’s food supply. Caterpillars, mosquitoes, other insects, and fauna are similarly affected. Fortunately, there is a renaissance in ornithology because modern technology allows round-the-clock bird tracking, thereby expanding the field of Migratory Science. The space-based wildlife tracking system called ICARUS -- operational since 2020 -- has replaced the leg-banding method used in 1899 and has elevated the bird tracking system to a whole new level and science. This is important, given the steep decline in bird population and the extinction of some species. Migratory birds employ skills far beyond human abilities and current understanding. Wildlife has uncanny communication skills, and while much remains a mystery, there are some partial answers. The music of songbirds and its transmission to their offspring makes the songbirds uniquely suited to be test models for scientists to study vocalization and speech in humans. Bird conservationists need help with two procedures: placing tracking devices on the birds included in their study of avian migration, and identifying the areas along their pathway where the birds need the most protection. Other bird advocates can be involved in the Bird Genoscape Project, which maps genomes of various bird species and helps connect various species and different eco-systems. Entomologists are in their in-vivo lab in the Ghats.
 
Insects, too, are fascinating subjects and deserve in-depth study. Vegans and non-vegans alike find joy and passion in insect photography as a hobby, which calls for human sensibility and sensitivity. Insect portraiture lacks the charisma of megafaunas of Africa or of India’s tiger reserves, but the bugs’ alien glamor more than makes up for that deficiency. Besides, the diversity of birds and butterflies is reflected in the richness in plants as butterflies are specialized pollinators. Engaging in macro-photography of insects involves the use of a long modular camera, which permits being incredibly close to the subject and documenting the insects’ life cycles and habitats, as well as their intelligence and sociability. Fortunately, nature photographers are well versed in the rules established in the renowned “Guide for Ethical Photography.” They place great value on the welfare and safety of all wildlife -- birds, butterflies, and insects; consequently, the people behind the cameras use enormous caution and commonsense to avoid disturbing the creatures and their habitats.
 
In short, experiencing the Ghats up close and personal encourages spontaneity and playfulness, even provides instant gratification. The mountains offer a variety of terrain for almost everyone – solitude seekers, backpackers, and fearless trekkers. With our cooperation, Goa’s splendour and variety of life will endure as a mecca for vacationers for generations to come. Goa, particularly the Ghats, invites residents and visitors alike to carve out a portion of time to relax on her lush terrain, inhale deeply of her pure, invigorating air, develop an appreciation of the state’s amazing flora and fauna, advocate for their preservation, and leave with the resolution to return to this little piece of paradise. 
 
We hope this essay provides the readers with a vital framework of the GEM diaspora’s historical journey. As Shashi Tharoor wisely stated, “If you do not know where you have been, how do you know where you seek to go? History belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present.” A third of the recently published edition of the book (Fourth Edition) focuses on GEM Diasporas.

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