It’s a small world


We have been home now for more than four months, and as a blogger, nature and wildlife photographer, the shelter in place restrictions have been excruciating. The great outdoor was always my comfort zone, and now being confined within the home has forced me to reflect on the work I was doing and explore ways to enhance it.

The whole world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and Nepal is also affected by the great disruption. The spread of the virus was supposedly being controlled by the lockdown, but now it seems otherwise. The total number of cases and fatalities in Nepal continue to rise.

With all assignments and projects probably cancelled for the rest of the year, I fell back on macro photography, which was what got me started into capturing images of nature and wildlife in the first place back in 2008. It was time to challenge myself again.

And where better than the small patch of greenery outside my home in Kathmandu. It is alive with insects, arthropods, reptiles of various shapes and sizes walking, hopping, buzzing, fluttering, and flying around under the monsoon sky. The patch is bursting with life, especially during the rainy months.

Many people recoil at the sight of insects and spiders, and we are culturally hardwired to regard them as being harmful. Some of you might get goosebumps and a chills down the spine even thinking about them. I share this feeling when it comes to leeches, I admit, but insects and other critters in the garden form a complex urban ecosystem. The very fact that they are still around means we have not completely obliterated them with chemicals of mass destruction like insecticides.

Charismatic mammals like tigers, pandas and rhinos get all the attention in nature programs. The smaller members of the animal kingdom tend to disappear underfoot. But when we talk about conservation, forests, and wildlife, we have to include everything in it, because they are all inherently interlinked. Even the tiniest insects are part of a larger whole in nature, each of them contributing in their small way to biodiversity and the health of nature. The aphid is as important as the bat, if not more. And we are not even talking about microscopic organisms that cannot even be seen with the human eye.

And as the COVID-pandemic has shown, we ignore nature at our own peril. The spread of zoonotic infections is happening because of modern industrial society ignoring and destroying the natural world. The biosphere is being sterilised with urban sprawl, monoculture crops, or plantations. Factory farms are mass producing meat, and there are 25 billion broiler chicken worldwide at any given time. Chicken bones will be the lasting legacy of the anthropocene era.

"Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar," says agronomist Bradley Miller.

Nature at home

Lockdown mornings in Kathmandu start early for me as I am awoken by the kooo–ooooo kooo–oooooo song of the Asian Koel that perches on the Persian Lilac tree nearby. This bird has been visiting this neighbourhood every March to April, and makes its presence known far and wide.

You must have heard of the cuckoo that was geo-tagged and followed on its annual 12,000km migration from southern Africa, across the Arabian Sea, the Indian Subcontinent, and through most of Asia to its breeding ground in Mongolia – the longest bird migration ever recorded. I don’t know where our Koel migrates from.

These mornings the song of the Asian Koel is often overlapped by the Oriental Magpie Robin’s long symphonies from a treetop which opens up the dawn into a beautiful brand new day. Because of the lack of traffic till recently, the cacophony of vehicle horns, machines, loud music, construction nearby was replaced by an all-day silence – broken only by bird songs. And if you hear them, you can also see them.

With the first rays of the sun hitting the dew-moist flowers, Honey Bees are out busily buzzing about. A soft and moist breeze pushes through the Holy Basil, disrupting tiny Sweat Bees from landing on the small flowers – they navigate to land on the swaying stamens while pollen sticks to their tiny hair (scopae) and then rides to the next flower to pollinate it, a process repeated over and over.

As I sit nearby observing their daily rituals, a parasitoid Spider Hunting Wasp (an insect whose larvae live as parasites which eventually kill their hostslands on the ground, and moves around from one shaded area to the other searching for prey and ultimately making its way to my thigh before flying away.

A moment later it is dragging a paralyzed spider towards its burrow in the nearby grass patch. The parasitoid wasp will lay its egg on the abdomen of the spider, and the larvae will feed on the spider as it grows.

While I explore this magnificient macro world, the life cycle of insects become even more interesting, and I realise how human disturbance can hamper a species, which in turn can affect the food chain.

This is also the season for butterflies, and they are flapping about in force. I observe a caterpillar constructing a cocoon cage before going into the pupa incarnation of its metamorphosis. The constructed cage looks very elaborate, and this was my second time seeing such a structure after almost six years. As I slowly get accustomed to the patterns in the foliage with daily observations, I notice more life forms and in their small worlds.

Documentation through video also became a priority during the lockdown. I stumble upon a jumping spider, and this became a moment for the next two days of seeing the world from its perspective. I started filming it from the instant it emerged from a dead leaf where it was sheltering, scanning around for prey, and strutting around gingerly.

It felt like I was filming a character following a script, but this actor absconded on the third day and thus my film script for this character stayed incomplete. Documenting nature is difficult when you are filming on your subject's terms and conditions, not yours. This is how it is supposed to be, should be and, how I like it to be.

As I look around the garden for other bugs to take portraits of, I am surprised to find so many species of spiders in such a small area. One of them is a tiny orb-weaving spider, making its web. The engineering instinct with which it instinctively wove the flimsy silk into the web with its hind legs was fascinating.

While the small world can take up all my attention, from time to time I look up at the nearby tree for the tsee-tsee notes of the Oriental White-eyes making a hopping flight from another tree in the distance. The bird cautiously jumps from one branch to the other, browsing through the countless flower buds for nectar, and also dining on hapless insects that are also trying to do the same.

Common Tailorbirds also frequent my tree to feed, and sing at the top of their voices cheeup-cheeup-cheeup before vanishing again. They must be taking a strand of leaf to weave into a nest that they are meticulously crafting on another nearby tree. Far in the distance, the Koel is once more calling for a mate, but has been hard to spot after May when it seems to have moved on. It could on its way to Mongolia after its brief stopover.

The days close with flocks of parakeets streaking across the sky like fighter bombers, to their nesting tree. They are always on the same flight path, in formation on an eastweard heading and announcing their passage with loud self-important squawks.

They seem to be proliferating. Ichangu and Nagarjun have resident Slaty Headed Parakeets, and on the eastern edges of Kathmandu Valley there are Rose-Ringed Parakeets along with Alexandrine Parakeets.

Seeing new birds around where I live is encouraging. The decrease in noise level along with fewer people moving around during the lockdown has made it possible to notice them. I was able to spot a Grey Treepie, Blue-throated Barbet, Spotted Dove, and more Red-vented Bulbuls in the past months – birds that were relatively rare before.

Then there are the many species of bees, hornets and wasps, damselflies and butterflies. There are insects that amazingly walk on water, so light that they keep afloat through surface tension. The dragonflies on their jagged flight plans swoop down to take a sip of water while airborne, creating tiny ripples on the water from the propwash.

And at night, the Black-spined Toads are up and about croaking loudly, hoping that there are some eager females within earshot. They navigate their way through the maze of potted plants on the porch, and then hop away in search of a pond to plop into.

The male Garden Lizards appear in the early morning sun to greet the sun, and showing off their crimson head and black throats to attract females who seem to go for that kind of pigment. A ground Skink pokes its body out from a crack in the rock wall to bask in the warm sun, and I take a closeup look at the guy since I had not seen him in such proximity in my location.

The monsoon is also the Slug season, and they are making their ultra-slow locomotion across the green patch, and if it has rained overnight they seem to want to climb the wall of the house for no explicable reason. Sometimes the sun comes up before they are where they want to go, and they dry up, their dessicated bodies falling down to the grass below. There used to be lots of Ground Beetle larvae that loved to hunt and feast on slugs when we were kids, but it is rare to seem them these days.

As the day comes to a close, there are many variants of moths that are attracted by the fluorescent light in the porch. The sheer number of moth species is staggering, a vastness and richness of wing patterns that is much more than I ever expected. By this time, our resident Barred Owlet is up and about. After being hungry all day, it is in a hurry to feed and is giving a wild shriek from its perch on an electric pole on the street.

Despite becoming more and more a concrete jungle, Kathmandu still has hidden small worlds where wild life clings on to patches of nature. It just needs a keen observer to find them, and to get the reassurance that despite everything they are going about their business in a human-dominated world.

Long-distance travel is still not on the agenda even though the lockdown has eased. And even if all restrictions are lifted, it may still not be advisable yet to get on a crowded bus to the starting poist of a trek on the Valley rim.

The best option for now is to bike up to Ichangu, Nagarjun or Shivapuri which are the closest really wild places from the city. The transition from the urban jungle to a natural one can be quite sudden. One moment you are biking past provision stores with garlands of gaudy plastic wrapped crackers hanging outside, and the next you are inside a forest where large drops of water are falling from the leaves to the undergrowth.

Along the way, there is a White-throated Kingfisher flying to a branch overlooking a small stream, patiently waiting for a frog or fish to appear on its radar. Nearby, more Oriental White-eyes are raising a chorus from a tree.

Far in the distance, in between the Nepal Alder trees there are a bunch of  White-crested Laughing Thrush making their presence known. A Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler is singing at the top of his voice from the top of another Alder, so loud that it is drowning out other birdcalls. The Warblers are also out, singing and flying around nearby pines.

Just then, I notice a pair of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters flying around chasing and catching insects in mid-air while a Verditer Flycatcher watches their antics from a nearby tree. Ichangu has always been a birder’s haunt because of the promximity of Nagarjun forest, but like all other places, it is also being built up.

The last time I was here for birding, I was infatuated by the insects and used my macro lens, while the birds observed me, circling above, seemingly bemused by what I was doing on all fours on the foret floor.

I had read about how aggressive a Black Drongo can get to protect its nest, and true to the stereotype, one of these silky black fork-tailed birds aggressively chased a kite away from its nesting area. The Kite was surprised by the sheer din the little fellow made, and decided to glide away down the slope.

There are lots of flybys in Ichangu. The Golden Oriole, Blue-throated Barbet, Blue Magpies, Grey Treepie are all doing a constnat flypast from my vantage point. But I am here today to record insects with my closeup lens, and I will leave the birds for another day. It is better to concentrate on one subject at a time, and trying to cover everything decreases the chances of documenting either subject.

Macro photography is a genre of photography where your subjects are tiny, either natural or man-made and anyone with basic photographic gear, or these days even with a mobile phone, can get up close and personal with a subject. I use a Sony APSC camera with a prime lens paired with a lens adaptor and an improvised diffuser.

No equipment is adequate, and one always feels like a gear upgrade will make a picture technically better. But, take it from me, equipment is secondary. The biggest asset needed in this genre of nature photography is patience and respect for nature.

While exploring small worlds with or without a camera, the main point is that these small critters are important in the balance of the nature. As Jonas Salk, an American medical researcher, and virologist puts It: “If all insects were to disappear from the earth within 50 years, all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth within 50 years, all life on earth would flourish.”

Photographing bigger animals also follows the same principle. The understanding about us encroaching the territory of a subject and how far we should take that hospitality should be controlled by strict ethical guidelines on ourselves not hamper the subject's way of life. It does not matter if you want to document nature or just want to be around nature, it is always important to know what you are amongst, so that the experience and the goal of conserving nature reverberates around you.

As I write about my experience during the lockdown, reminiscing the past assignments and adventures in the wilderness is the motivating factor to look forward to similar experiences in the future. From Sagarmatha National Park to Rara National Park and, Gaurishankar Conservation Area to Annapurna Conservation Area, you realise that Nepal’s natural diversity is richer than anywhere else in the world.

From 156m to 5,416m elevation, the range of flora and fauna I was able to see has had its appreciation in the What I Saw segment of my PrakritiNepal blog. There are some memorable sightings that left me spellbound, as I grinned to myself with happiness at being given that opportunity to witness nature in such a wild and pristine state.

Moments like seeing a Mountain Weasel running in a meadow at an altitude of 4,470m and being able to take a picture of it gave me a high that lasted days. Photographing and documenting the flora and fauna in sub-zero temperatures in the mountains to super humid and hot Tarai jungles have their own stories -- filled with emotions from joy to anger, disappointment, frustration to the excitement, tear, anxiety.

The art of patience has been mastered even more through these experiences as I keep myself content to what nature can show me, and not disturb its sanctity. There were times when I was just able to enjoy the sightings of various mammals and birds and not have enough time to be able to photograph them, but the happiness I got from was more intense than the ones I was able to photograph.

The visual memory that runs later in the mind is a lesson on what I should do next time to avoid a mistake, and also a reminder that sometimes it is better observing the species and not be too focused on clicking away. As my journey of visual documentation continues, I am even more excited to find out what the future holds. I am also nervous with the thought that in my quest to see and document the flora and fauna of Nepal, the country’s rapid development is happening at the cost of nature and perhaps the extinction of species we did not even know existed.

Ecological disasters happen in many countries that are too focused on economic progress, and which disregard the welfare of nature and humans that need to coexist. Lessons should be learned from the developed nations and the impact their development had on nature globally. They have already made the mistakes, that we can learn from.

The new decade of the 2020s has started on a disastrous note with the global pandemic. It has many lessons for us about ignoring nature, and about taking nature for granted. But the lockdown has also slowed us down, and given us time to ponder our place in the cosmos, and give the natural Earth a chance to regenerate.

Before the pandemic, the major issues were climate change, deforestation, pollution, forest fire, the extinction of species. Those anthropogenic crises are still there, and the longer we wait, more species will have become extinct and the health of human societies will also be more precarious.

As the protected areas, forests, grasslands are cleared for farming, cattles, airports, and other infrastructure tear through the mountains and valleys, money and greed seem to be winning over conservation. The changes that this brings will cause longterm damage to the global environment that will affect future generations.

We need more voices to speak up for nature, which cannot speak for itself. Those voices need to be amplified and communicated. We need to share it so that it sparks inspiration and spreads the message of conservation. Documenting the nature’s mysterious treasures through photography freezes time so we see the evolutionary changes that have made species to look like and behave as they do today. And they are still changing – millions of years from now they will look and behave differently.

Documenting the flora and fauna for all these years has been a passion for me. It has grown constantly stronger to a point where it is getting more priority than my job that helps fund this side of my work. We all have people who have inspired us when we were children. With me, it was the long outdoors walks with my parents and later by my Thulo Mama (Uncle) who taught me about different plants and the web of life that bound them to other species.

My mountain bike adventures around the Kathmandu Valley and beyond have also allowed me to observe that Nepal’s biodiversity is even richer and more varied than what we learn about in books. I am not a biologist, and photography is self-taught but I have not let that stop me. I have tried to make up for the gap in my knowledge with reading and research, and then blogging about it. I started the site because of the frustration that there was no website dedicated to visual references to the floral and fauna diversity of Nepal.

I would end up navigating scores of websites of other countries with a similar range of climate and vegetation as our own, as well as search for names and details of what I found. Thanks to the Internet it is all there, but it is painstaking work.

The visual medium is the most effective in communication, and I found that visitors of the blog, students and the general public, respond to these stirking images. Especially because the close-ups allow them to see things they would not with their naked eyes. This is just a small indivudal contribution, but there are better endowed agencies of the government and other research organisations that can spread the knowledge even more widely.

If we do not start talking about nature, wildlife and conservation with young Nepalis, we should not expect much from them when they grow up – whether they are civil servants or contractors owning excavators. The problem with humans is that unless we get to see and know about fellow species with which we share this planet, the compassion will fade away.

Showing the future generations a degraded environment along with animal footprints and to start the sentence with "there used to be a time when ... used to roam ... grow ... fly ... flow ... swim ..." is a reality no one wants to face.

Ajay Narsingh Rana is a nature and wildlife photographer and blogger, wilderness first responder and rural first aid trainer.