The nature of things

Ambika Kamath | Updated on September 12, 2014

Close encounters: Nomadic Fakirani women in Kutch Photo: Ambika Kamath

On the trail of fan-throated lizards in Kolhapur and Kutch

As a biologist studying the behaviour of one of South Asia’s most common lizards, I find myself travelling to seemingly unexotic places. I don’t work in the rainforests of the eastern Himalayas or scuba-dive in the coral reefs of the Andaman Islands. Instead, I roam in fallow fields and grazing lands to watch the fan-throated lizard. As the name suggests, males of this lizard have a fan under their throat, which they extend and retract quite dramatically to display to and communicate with other members of their species. The size and colour of these fans vary incrementally among populations across India — from small and white to large and colourful — and I am interested in how the display behaviour of these lizards change accordingly. In other words, if you have different tools with which to communicate, do you need to communicate differently? In the last two years, I’ve collected many exciting observations of these lizards, and of the people I run into when I’m on its tail in southern and western India.

Many people, both rural and urban, can be ambivalent towards lizards, and are often alarmed that I not only catch these animals myself but also encourage them to touch and hold the ones I catch (the fear is unfounded — almost all lizards, including geckos and skinks, are non-venomous). When working in Kolhapur last year, I’d bring lizards back to the hotel at which I was staying, and take them up to the terrace to measure and photograph before releasing them the next day. The hotel staff would watch me warily, keeping a safe distance from the lizards and choosing not to see or touch them. One day, however, a lizard escaped as I was photographing it, ran through a drainpipe, and fell near the staff bathrooms below. I searched for it, but in vain. The next afternoon, I heard an urgent knock on my door — it was the hotel staff and they had found a sargota in the bathroom! One that was causing mayhem — at least five of the staff had been chasing it into the open, out of the dark corners where it was seeking refuge from the broom-wielding men. I ran down the corridor, re-captured the lizard, and sheepishly admitted it was one of mine before insisting that everyone present at least touch the reptile. I feel confident that this episode convinced at least a few people that lizards can be more entertaining than dangerous.

Fan-throated lizards are remarkably persistent in the face of human-induced disturbances to their habitat. Consequently, you can find them in all sorts of places, including open grazing areas frequented by cows, goats and buffaloes. Usually, the livestock are accompanied by a herder or two, and these herders are among the friendliest people I’ve met. Working in Kutch this year with a Gujarati-speaking field assistant, I had a chance to get to know some Kutchi herders well. Our first interaction was with Shivji, a buffalo-herder who offered to brew us some tea right in the field. I was yet to learn that you never refuse milk or tea in Kutch, so my initial ‘no’ stirred up some religion-based anxiety — Shivji thought we refused because we were Hindu and thought he was Muslim. By the time the confusion was cleared up (we didn’t care about his religion, and only wanted to save him the trouble), the tea was ready, and it was delicious.

Another herder I met was young Latho, who herded goats with his father Mathabhai. Latho talks non-stop. Despite our insistence that he needed to be quiet for us to work, he regaled us with stories of why he hated school (he couldn’t sit still long enough) and how the sparrows had built nests in the well and how he would show us a cobra if we took a photo of his favourite goat and him. One day we passed him while driving to the site. I waved, and Latho took it as a sign that we were leaving Kutch. Leaving the goats in the care of his father, he sprinted 2km after us to make sure he got his photos before we left!

My work has also given me the chance to interact with some of India’s finest naturalists, some of whom have dedicated decades to understanding the complexities of India’s ecosystems, and in the process, forged long-standing relationships with people around them, ranging from herders to tea-stall owners. In my days off from watching lizards, I like tagging along with these naturalists to their favourite ecosystems. On one such trip with Jugal Tiwari, a naturalist based in Kutch, I met Musabhai and his family, nomadic camel herders in the Banni grasslands, who keep track of the animals and plants they see as they move from place to place and share the information with Tiwari. In return, he raises funds to provide camel herding families with solar batteries that can charge cell phones and power lamps, enabling them to walk safely at night. Such symbiotic relationships benefit people, science, nature, and are a reminder that anyone who cares about the survival of India’s biodiversity must also care about the welfare of its people.

(The writer studies organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University)

Published on March 14, 2014

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