Institute of Bird Studies
The Institute is devoted to Bird Protection,
Rishi Valley Education Centre
Rishi Valley 517 352, Chittoor Dist., A.P.
Dr. Radhika Herzberger
Stephen Harding, B.Sc. D.Phil. (Oxon)
S. Rangaswami M.A., B.Sc., M.Ed.
V. Santharam M.Sc., Ph.D.
All posts are honorary. S. Rangaswami & S. Sridhar are authors of
S. Sridhar ARPS
Balakrishna Gowda M.Sc., Ph.D.
Mrs. Geetha Iyer B.Sc., M.Ed.
L. Shivalingaiah B.Com., D.P.T
"It is odd that we have so little relationship with nature, with insects and the leaping frog and the owl that hoots among the hills, calling to its mate. We never seem to have a feeling for all living things on earth."
- J. Krishnamurti
The experiment these authors refer to has been taking place in a remote corner of Andhra Pradesh, where a once-barren environment has been slowly regenerated. According to local lore, an abundant forest cover was lost when railroads lumbered through the region and numerous trees were felled to support their tracks and feed their steam engines. After many decades of overgrazing, along with the pressure of extensive groundnut farming, soil cover degraded and exposed underlying layers of granite throughout the valley and its surrounding hills. Now bare rock formations, sculpted by wind and rain, are landmarks that give the landscape a rugged beauty while standing as reminders of an overburdened ecology.
Generations of local residents, students and teachers have worked together to plant many lakhs of trees. They learned to build small check-dams and earthen bunds to conserve water, a very precious commodity in, Rayalseema. The check-dams and bunds prevent water from running off the land, allowing it to percolate into the earth, flowing through underground crevices, feeding trees and replenishing ground water. The result is that a one-hundred-and-fifty-acre hillside, which only a few years ago was bald, parched and degraded, is now covered with scrubland forest. A recently constructed percolation tank in a central catchment area has recharged wells for three miles downstream. All these measures have benefited local farmers, who with abundant water in their wells now grow paddy and tomatoes in the summer and border their farms with Jamun and Tamarind trees, grown from saplings donated by the school nursery/The campus now holds out an invitation to all forms of life. Indigenous varieties of plants, insects and birds have returned to their native habitat; migrants have begun to colonise the newly established wetland areas.
Life creates the conditions for its own regeneration. As soil and water combine, flowering grasses arrive, enticing a variety of bees, wasps and butterflies. These in turn attract rodents and snakes, toads and songbirds that feed on insects. And thus the whole fascinating play of predator and prey are woven together in the web of life. Rishi Valley now has fifty species of butterflies and perhaps an equal number of moths. Blue Mormons were a rare sight only three years ago. Now this second largest butterfly in peninsular India sails across campus in increasing numbers, alighting without discrimination on any flower that offers its nectar to the aristocrat among newcomers. The Common Banded Peacock, a species that is no longer very common, has also established itself here.
So far, students and teachers have identified ten species of wasps. A large Hornet species chose to build a spectacular nest - almost three feet high and two and a half feed wide - at the front entrance of the Senior Boys' Hostel. At any given time of the day, almost twenty thousand of these creatures could be seen at work - a lesson in industry to every student who entered or left the hostel. Very soon students stopped playing cricket in the garden out of respect for these creatures who temporarily shared their world. When, after a few months, all these visitors moved away to establish new homes, the empty nest was carefully detached and relocated in the biology laboratory for future generations of students to examine.
The whole area now teems with reptiles of many kinds. Colourful chameleons, looking like miniature dragons, dolefully cross our path as we walk to school. Baby cobras a few inches long find their way onto boxed hedges in the carefully tended gardens and raise their hoods instinctively. Monitor lizards have wandered into the dormitories, to be banished politely to their native grounds. Rat Snakes have been sighted engaging in their dramatic combat dances. During their dance sequence, these normally shy snakes are oblivious of onlookers. Lifting themselves into an erect posture, they intertwine in graceful movements that resemble a mating dance perhaps as much as they do a combat encounter.
The most splendid creatures on campus are two hundred and more species of birds, which fill the air, announcing their presence. Many of them call to one another throughout the day, and at night Owls and Nightjars take their turn. Seven species of Owls have been identified, along with six kinds of Drongos, five varieties of Shrikes, and five of Bulbuls as well as tiny Warblers, Sunbirds, Larks and Munias. Many types of raptors have been noted, including Harriers, Buzzards, Eagles and Kites. The percolation tank and the thick belt of vegetation that girdles it provide a breeding ground and asylum for Water Hens, Dabchicks, Kingfishers and the newest arrival, Moorhens. As the sun sets over the lake, Dabchicks can be seen with young ones on their back swimming to the shore, while Bee-eaters, Drongos, Egrets and Herons settle down there to roost for the night. The latest addition to the checklist of the Valley's birds is the Bluebearded Bee-eater, a large pigeon-sized, grass-green bird announcing its presence with hoarse guttural croaks. It takes the tally to 201 species (Jan. 2001).
Up on the forested hill one can run across a variety of wild cats. Civets, Jungle Cats and Leopard Cats have all been sighted, as well as large numbers of porcupines. The population of pythons has risen and recently, to our astonishment and delight, a Slender Loris was seen in the thicker part of the woods. We also suspect that bears have returned to the hill.
A survey of the flora on campus revealed three hundred and fifty species of plants, many of which have medicinal properties. Following the survey a flourishing Herbal Garden has been established on six acres of land. Under the care of an Ayurvedic specialist, it now has two hundred species of bushes and trees which already are beginning to provide medicinal benefits to the local population.
After some years of cultivation, mature Red Sander trees now flourish on the hillside. This endangered species is endemic to a small region of Andhra known as the Nallamalai Forest Range, which includes Tirupati, Cudappah and Kurnool. Several hundred saplings of this valuable species are given annually to local villagers as a means of ensuring its long-term survival.
In 1991, Rishi Valley was declared a Bird Preserve. Since that time, Bird Studies have become an important activity for students. Students keep track of migrant populations, watch out for newcomers and have documented the breeding biology of the Great Horned Owl and Brown Fish Owl. The dependence of Haircrested Drongos on the flowers of Erythrinas, Spathodias and some species of Eucalyptus has been studied and a report on these studies has appeared in the 'Newsletter for Birdwatchers'. More recently a new Department (now upgraded to an Institute) was created to conduct a Correspondence Course in Ornithology, on a Home Study model with 50% fee concession to students, housewives and other deserving cases. 437 students (of 15 to 78 yrs. of age) from all parts of the country have completed the course during April 1997 to December 2000. Annual camps for selected students young as well as mature bird watchers from all over the country participate in the activity, which has been designed to promote the conservation spirit on a wider scale, based on the Rishi Valley experiment in wildlife conservation and biodiversity preservation.
Green cover on the campus is now abundant; and nearly all the trees in sight have descended from saplings that were planted by hand. The hillside scrubland now provides local villagers with cut grass and dried wood throughout the year. This gives several hundred families a natural storehouse to help meet their fodder and fuel needs even in dry seasons when the monsoon fails.
Rishi Valley Education Centre, which supports these activities along with a robust Village Education Programme, has its origins in a small residential school that was founded by Sri J. Krishnamurti in the early 1930's. Krishnamurti developed his celebrated doctrine of freedom against the background of an abiding love of nature and a firm commitment to individual responsibility in working towards a better society and protecting our natural heritage.
This is an updated (January 2001) version of the article published in The Hindu, 'FOLIO on Wildlife' dt. 6th Sept. 1998.
The whole area teems with reptiles of many kinds...
R.R. Chari Lion Rock guarding the entrance to the Valley
Birds and their Joy of Living
Do you think a leaf that falls to the ground is afraid of death? Do you think a bird lives in fear of dying? It meets death when death comes, but it is not concerned about death; it is much too occupied with living, with catching insects, building a nest, singing a song, flying for the very joy of flying. Have you ever watched birds soaring high up in the air without a beat of their wings, being carried along by the wind? How endlessly they seem to enjoy themselves! They are not concerned about death. If death comes, it is all right, they are finished. There is no concern about what is going to happen; they are living from moment to moment, are they not? It is we human beings who are always concerned about death - because we are not living. That is the trouble; we are dying, we are not living.
From: ALL THE MARVELOUS EARTH