Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Jaisselmer and Jodpur

All these photos were made on a quick wander inside the walled city...and in a small village nearby.

Priests in a Jain temple.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

In the desert

In Jaisselmer, I spent a few hours in the desert on camelback, kicking up sand as I jogged along trying to sync with the weird, wave-like rhythm of my camel's gait. So different than a horse.

It was my first real peek into a life where a every drop of moisture is so precious. Where strong village traditions still thrive. I'll return to these Rajastani desertlands...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Outside Jaisselmer

Rajastan is a psychedelic swirl of color. These pictures were made in a small village outside Jaisselmer, a harsh, desert world where temperature rise into the 90s even in early "winter." It's an agricultural life, with families dependent on their goat herds for survival.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Documenting Delhi

During my last two weeks in India, I was an “expert” on a National Geographic Expeditions tour through India's northern triangle: Delhi, Rajastan, Agra. On this part of my trip, I was in photo heaven, documenting the brilliant swirl of life that is much of India. Here’s a peek at Delhi. Will post pictures for the rest of the week.

At the India gate.

Pilgrim at the Qtub Minar.


At the Qtub Minar.

At the Friday Mosque.

At Hanuman's tomb.

At the Friday Mosque.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Full moon in Kaziranga

Saturday, October 27, Kaziranga National Park

Today I have a touch of “Delhi belly.” Here, going off to “pick the flowers” (a Cambodian euphemism) is a perilous affair. The guards get really nervous about letting you out of their sight, and hover nearby. They insist that you clap your hands loudly all the way to your “spot.” Thick swarms of mosquitoes descend as you squat. But worse yet, in the still-wet areas, a small army of black jooks (leeches) stand on end, flailing around, jerky bio-sensing devices that hone in on their target—and then inch their way towards you from all sides, a relentless, creepy army. They inspire the same panic in me that I feel watching “Night of the Living Dead” or Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” No matter how quick I am—and believe me, I don’t dally—they are climbing my boots and crawling into my pant legs as I flee.

Late afternoon we headed off to a remote sector of Kaziranga to spend the evening out on poaching patrol with park guards. On the way there, we encountered a small group of elephants: two mamas, two young babies, and an older calf. They stood knee-deep at the perimeter of a pond, placidly munching water hyacinth. We watched, spellbound for nearly an hour.

We four-wheeled it through some mucky, rutted terrain, maneuvering over small fallen trees and through runoff-carved ditches to reach a large lake just before nightfall. Six guards hung around, snacking and talking around the fire (lit to chase off the millions of bugs that swarmed nearby), waiting for dusk to head out. Suddenly, a series of shots echoed across the water. Half the guards took off to investigate. One guard was glued to his walkie-talkie for the next hours, tensely awaiting news. Things were getting hotter in the park: just two nights before, the 12th rhino this year was killed by poachers inside the park. Another six were shot (and de-horned) outside park boundaries.

A heavy moon rises above the horizon, orange and swollen. At home, this is the Harvest Moon, children are preparing their Halloween costumes. Shamanic elders say that at this time of year, the veil between our world and the Unseen World is at its thinnest. Trick or treating children seem many worlds away.

The guards insisted we stay in camp for safety’s sake. Talking around the fire, we learned that they sometimes stay on patrol for two, three, even four months at a stretch. It’s a tough life, living in isolation in a hot climate amidst many dangerous animals. Besides the big ones, the tigers, rhinos, elephants, there are also cobras, kraits, monitor lizards, and a multitude of stinging and biting things. The guards only get a few day’s leave at home with their families between posts. These dedicated men are unsung heroes.

It took over an hour to maneuver our way out of the park. Along the way, we glimpsed a mother rhino and her calf, flushes of night birds, and a water buffalo, ghostly in the silvery light.

We later learned that each of the eight reports we heard that night were warning shots fired by three guards who were attacked by a rhino, a tiger, and an elephant respectively. They must have been close encounters, because budgets are slim here and guards don’t waste bullets. Maybe, like people, wildlife goes a little wild on the full moon. No one was hurt—animal or human.
Back on the main road, Konwar, our amazing guide and driver, deftly avoids a dozen near-head on collisions with pedestrians and vehicles of all sizes. I barely flinch anymore. We hunker down against the wet chill that descends each night with the loss of the sun. It is a magical evening. Each wooded area we pass blinks with brilliant constellations of fireflies. Outside houses and shops, lines of tiny oil lamps twinkle along walkways, fence posts, windowsills. Important festivals mark wintertime, and in this sacred season it an especially auspicious time for puja: prayer, rituals, and offerings to the pantheon of Hindu deities. Tonight’s full moon makes this a blessed night, and everyone adds their own light. I close my eyes and offer a prayer for these people, for these animals, for us all.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Speaking up for the wild things

Friday, 10/26 Kaziranga

When I’m traveling, I so often wake long before first light, living a day life, so completely different than my normal night owl existence at home where I’m frequently up writing until 1 or 2 AM (and waking after many are already at work.) On either end of the day, it's quiet and allows time for reflection, a kind of silent focus that we only find in small corners of our too-connected, crazy electronic lives.

This morning I came across this quote when I checked my email on our satellite setup:
"Someone must speak for them. I do not see a delegation for the four footed. I see no seat for eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation."
--Oren Lyons, ONONDAGA

As we head to the park just past dawn, these words echo. In my life as a photographer, people and culture are my fascination. But as a writer and editor, being a voice for conservation and for the creatures we share the planet with has been my driving force. They all fascinate me—even the ones I’m wary of (OK, wary is weak: the things I’m seriously creeped out by or scared to death of) like stinging/biting bugs, poisonous snakes, scorpions—and leeches. So much of the world’s wildlife and wild places are in such dire straits: producing my first book last year, “State of the Wild 2006: A Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands, and Oceans” was a long labor of love, and left me hugely depressed for months.

But I think of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who again and again layed down on the railroad tracks leading from Rocky Flats nuclear munitions plant. He was arrested numerous times, drawing attention both to the environmental impact of the plant on the pristine Rocky Mountain landscape and to his ardent anti-war stance—but as a Buddhist, he did so without attachment to outcome. He just needed to put right action out into the world. Adopting a similar attitude allows me to write on environmental issues without feeling like I want to slit my wrists.

Friday, November 23, 2007

As the rest of the house sleeps

Writing through curtained light as the rest of the house sleeps. I’ve been up since 4 AM, I’m home in Hoboken, and it’s Thanksgiving. Stuck in zombie jetlag limbo. At an American Museum of Natural History lecture by my zoologist friend Alan Rabinowitz the other night, I struggled to stay conscious, nodding like a narcoleptic through the last half of his talk. He was outlining his 10+ year struggle to save tigers in Myanmar, chronicled in his new book "Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed." Steve (my partner) worked with him there on a story for National Geographic when Alan was fighting to establish what has become the largest tiger reserve in the world outside of India, a tract the size of Vermont.

It’s a particular kind of shock returning home from India. The world drains of color and sound—hi-tech, orderly, slick, commercial. No holy cows blocking major thoroughfares. No crazy weave of pedestrians, motorbikes, tractors, trucks, rickshaws, buses, and livestock vying for roadspace and trying to stay alive amidst the flowing chaos. No vehicles driving down the wrong side of the street.
The cacophony of horns, day-and-night explosion of Diwali fireworks, the blare of music through scratchy speakers, the hawkers—all silenced. Here, women fade into the black-garbed uniform of hip, elegant New York. I miss the dayglo-colored saris of Rajastan’s women, the glitter of their nose rings, arms loaded with bangles, the glint of sun on sequins and gold and silver. Rappers think they have the corner on bling. They have no idea.

Over the next days, I will put up entries I was unable to post during my last few weeks in India. But for today, I am thankful for having had the opportunity to spend time in that most amazing country, am grateful for the love of family and friends—and look forward to breaking my usual status as a pescetarian (a “vegetarian” who sometimes eats fish) with Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing. Blessings to all on this Thanksgiving day!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Kaziranga

For the last days, we’ve risen at first light, spending long days inside Kaziranga National Park, in northeastern India. We ride in a small, open Jeepsi, with a rifle-toting park guard riding shotgun. Standing up in back, clutching the roll bar, I have a full-sky view. It also keeps me from getting beaten to hell bumping along these rain-mangled dirt roads.

Much of the plain is swathed in 12- to 15-foot high elephant grass, tall enough to conceal even the largest pachyderm residents. Expanses of water appear everywhere: temporary ponds formed during the just-finished monsoon season, lakes, ponds, and the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries that cut through the park, swollen beyond their banks.

In some corners of the park, these grasslands give way to bands of lush, tropical woodland, woven with vines as thick as my thigh, blanketed in rattan and ferns, flitted and fluttered over by an endless array of birds, bugs, and butterflies.

There’s rhinos, rhinos everywhere, like gray, prehistoric armored tanks. They’re usually solitary, but we’ve also seen some mothers paired with calves. In close proximity, we have to be careful. These animals can be ornery, may charge unprovoked—and could easily tip the Jeepsi. And even though the big males can weigh in at over 6,000 pounds pounds, they can hit 35 mph over short distances, making them incredibly dangerous. Fun fact: they are the world’s fourth largest land mammal (after three species of elephant).

This park is home to 70 percent of the world’s remaining Indian rhinos. They were hunted nearly to extinction, with perhaps 100 left alive by the early 1900s. Today, about 2,500 are split among six protected areas in India and Nepal, and they remain endangered.

But there’s far more to see than just rhinos. I glimpsed my first-ever tiger in the wild yesterday, crossing the road and slipping into tall grass. Monitor lizards bask in the sun on the road. Uncountable birds flit and soar, storks, pelicans, kingfishers, eagles—and so many species I can’t identify. When I return in January for the huge bird migrations, I’ll bring a birding guide.

Two stories have brought me here: one on a wildlife rescue/rehabilitation center and another on the endangered Indian rhino. My long-time partner, Steve Winter, is here shooting a story on the park for National Geographic. Much of his work on this story is being shot with remote cameras: he’s set up 11 of them throughout the park.

Out at 5:50 AM this morning with an anemic sun peeking over the horizon, headed into the western section of the park. A filmy gray veil shrouds the landscape in morning mist, mysterious and otherworldly. Each day, we check, move, service the camera traps, walking into the grasses or into the forest on animal trails. The thick black mud is imprinted with deep elephant and rhino tracks. Stepping over such massive prints, some over a foot across, makes me almost expect to encounter a stegosaurus languidly munching on a blanket of water hyacinth around the next bend. These trails are also marked with a highway of tiger pugmarks and hoofprints from water buffalo, sambar, and hog deer.

A tiger came through one of the traps we checked today, snapping beautiful self-portraits. But one of the three flashes had died, and another was smashed by passing elephants. So we spent an hour repairing the mess. The entire time we heard nearby rumbling. It seems we had split an elephant herd that was moving through the area (perhaps the vandals that knocked down the flash?), and they weren’t happy about it. The guard was at the ready, all the while banging his knife on the car and barking sharp, guttural noises.

Sending this via satellite Internet…for now, to bed. Wiped. Another 4:30 AM rise looms too soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hello from Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India

Well, I’ve been initiated: when I stripped off my sweaty clothes after an afternoon at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation (CWR), my leg looked like I’d been in a car wreck, rivered with blood. I’d heard that the area was crawling with leeches after extreme monsoon rains that displaced entire villages earlier this month—and sent wildlife fleeing from the flooded national park. I never saw the culprit. I’d heard that they inject an anticoagulent to better gorge on their victim’s blood—and I’m amazed at what an effective chemical it is as I watch my blood still oozing from two small bites two hours after the sucker fell off of me.

I picked up the bloodthirsty hitchhiker while photographing a small herd of orphan elephants at the Centre. A pair of them were under three months old, still scrawny, milky-eyed infants. They stumbled around looking lost, following the older calves and the keeper who had become their surrogate mama, always seeking physical contact. One had been rescued from a 15-foot drainage ditch in a nearby tea plantation. The other had been separated from its herd and kept by villagers until it was so sick that it almost died. Traces of a rope burn circled its neck, and someone had slashed its trunk nearly through. Though it had healed in the two months that the animal had been tended here, the tiny trunk bore a ropy scar and kinked off at a 30 degree angle.

Wildlife here is in trouble. Since the turn of the millennium, Kaziranga’s elephant herd has continued to dwindle, with at least 20 individuals killed so far this year. Poaching isn’t the problem—the big, old tuskers disappeared years back, shot for their ivory. Most of the casualties are the result of run-ins with local farmers. The animals are speared or shot as they rampage through the subsistence plots that barely sustain these people.

But the Indian rhinos are another story. Their horn is worth its weight in gold on the black market as a highly prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. So far this year, 17 rhinos have been poached out of Kaziranga National Park, which is home to the largest population left in the world. Huge areas of the park are inaccessible by jeep for whole chunks of the year, and the Forest Service is often outgunned. India has launched an all-out war, with a shoot-to-kill policy on poachers.

One night last month, park guards happened to be nearby when shots rang out. They returned fire, and the poachers fled. But they were sharpshooters, hitting the huge female twice in the head. She stumbled for a kilometer until she fell over and died. When Anjan, the CWR vet came the next day to examine her, he noticed she was engorged with milk: she was a mom. Park staff launched an all-out search, and the 18 month-old calf was found hiding in the head-high grasses. They tranquilized her, loaded her 650-pound frame onto a stretcher and into a wildlife ambulance, and brought her to the Centre. She’s still in shock, eating little, lying listlessly on the grass in her paddock.

She will be raised here for two years. Eventually, she will be released, returned to her own kind. Hopefully, the wild will be a safer place by then.