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Birds, Monkeys and Temples: Diversity and Hope in the New Wild

It’s the beginning of April and I’m in India for the first time. I wake wide-eyed and ready to start my day at 5am, an unusual occurrence for me as getting up in the morning is usually a struggle. I push off the seven-layers of quilts and thick blankets that kept me warm through repeated electrical blackouts during the night, jump out of bed, and throw open the curtains.

In the pre-dawn hour, the white snow-capped Himalayas give off a light as bright as the moon as if they were a celestial body unknown to me until now. Used to the expansive unending skies of the desert southwest, these mountains stretch into the heavens leaving only a sliver of cobalt blue sky. I understand now why they call this valley the “Abode of the Gods.”

The enchanting melody of the Himalayan Whistling Thrush, an electric blue bird slightly larger than an American Robin reaches me through the closed doors and windows. I open the porch door and am met by a full orchestra of birds already in mid-symphony. Foreign bird songs grab my attention. I listen with the same intensity I apply to learning a new language. A Great Tit calls, its song sounding like someone rubbing a finger along the edge of a golden metal prayer bowl.

Backlit by the mountain glow, birds flit among the tall native cedar trees, Cedrus deoda, which dominate the hillside forests around the valley. I pick out at least a dozen varieties as the bird symphony crescendos with the rising sun.

Sunlight spills from the hilltops behind me into the Kullu valley below. My eyes follow the illuminated winding mountain road in front of the hotel. A man in a baggy blue sweater saunters casually with his dog on a morning stroll. A pair of elderly women make their way uphill, brightly dressed in orange and pink Salwar Kameez, the regional outfit of baggy pants and a long tunic topped with a matching scarf. Behind them trail a mixed herd of sheep and long-haired goats heading off into the forest for a day’s grazing.

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At 6:30am, I make my way to the rooftop terrace where the other six citizen science volunteers and our Earthwatch Expedition leader are having Chai. I pour myself a steamy cup and smell the sweet spices of cardamom and cinnamon. After a few minutes of chatter we head downstairs for an early morning bird walk. A ritual we started on day way as a way to soak in nature before heading out to the field for focused data gathering. A couple of loose but obviously well-loved dogs follow us on our walk weaving in and out of the pack.

The road takes us past a few closed tourist shops near the Naggar Castle.

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Then onto a dirt path into a sparsely inhabited forest. We walk through forests of cedar, blue pine, and spruce interspersed with patches of apple orchards. I fill my lungs with a deep breath. The air here is especially fresh and sweet smelling due to the lack of industry and therefore, industrial pollution in the valley. Dozen of distinct bird calls alert us to the avian diversity hidden in the tree tops. We catch glimpses of Yellow-billed Blue Magpies, Black Bulbuls, Common Myna, the sky blue Verditer Flycatcher, Oriental White Eye, a brilliant red Scarlet Minivert and his yellow mate, and the lovely long, lacey-tailed Asian Paradise Flycatcher. The names alone make me swoon.

Mountain bluebird in India for The Unfolding Earth article on biodiversity in the Himalaya hotspot
Scarlet Minivert in cedar forests of Kullu Valley India for The Unfolding Earth article on biodiversity in Himalayan hotspot
Magpie in India's Kullu Valley orchards for The Unfolding Earth article on biodiversity in Himalaya hotspot
Greater Barbet and flycatcher for The Unfolding Earth article on diversity in Himalayan hotspot
Verditer Flycatcher in apple orchards of India's Kullu Valley for The Unfolding Earth article on diversity in the Himalayan hotspot

Birds play an important role in ecosystems as seed dispersers, pollinators, and food for predators. I’m reminded of a flyer posted on the wall of my local Audubon Center back home. Citing a new scientific study of birds in New Mexico it warned that global warming threatens nearly half of the regularly occurring bird species in the Continental United States and Canada with extinction. Of 588 bird species examined in the seven-year study, 314 species are at risk. Of those, 126 species are at risk of severe declines by 2050, and a further 188 species face the same fate by 2080, with numerous extinctions possible if global warming is allowed to change or erase the birds current habitats. This pattern repeats itself here in India and across the globe. Birds, like other delicate species such as bees and frogs, are the nature’s warning signal of what’s to come.

What would the world be like without birds songs in the morning and bright streaks of color flitting through our forests and prairies? While scientists debate about how many species we can lose before ecosystems collapse, I’m convinced that the great diversity of ephemeral, migratory species makes the world a more beautiful and interesting place.

Scientists and environmental journalists have been telling us for a few years now that we humans are causing the Sixth Great Extinction. In fact, humans have been causing mass extinctions for thousands of years. 13,000 years ago in my home territory of New Mexico, small communities of Clovis people wiped out Saber Toothed Tigers, great hulking Mammoths, fierce Dire Wolves, native equines, and many other large mammals. It seems that however many we number, humans are capable of killing off every last member of the animals that share our planet.

Oddly, this fact gives me hope. If human population, whatever its size, can cause mass extinctions than it seems to me focusing on the political quagmire of reducing our population may not be the best answer to staving off biodiversity loss. Can soon to be 9 billion people learn to share this planet with the non-human life that arguably makes it a better place to live? I believe it is possible. But it will take a very different collective consciousness than one we share now. Consciousness is something that can change on a dime, or a tipping point, certainly a lot faster than population.

In the face of these challenges, I’m deeply grateful to have an opportunity to see this a display of colorful, magnificent birds here in the Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot. I feel a bit selfish admitting it, but a driving force in my quest to see all 35 of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots is to experience nature at its finest before it is gone. The experience of nature for me is essential for my spirits to remain high. I’m also hopeful that by traveling to these Biodiversity Hotspots and participating in conservation as a citizen scientist, writer and photographer to document and spread the word about conservation efforts, consciousness can be raised and much of it can be saved.

At the top of a hill overlooking the expansive valley below and tall mountain peaks above, we encounter a temple dedicated to Krishna. A garland of dried marigolds and golden poplar leaves hangs over the door frame. We enter an orange gate with ornate silver door handles and quietly remove our shoes. A pair of traditional drums wrapped with a sunflower yellow cloth sit ready to be played. Inside, a family of caretakers go about their morning rituals. A woman squatting by a water spigot scrubs ornate brass pots until they shine. She fills them with water to clean the Shiva lingam stone and other orange painted idols around the temple. An elderly man sits at the entrance to the inner temple chanting over a silver platter full of burning incense and small yellow flowers. He wears the traditional cap of the region made of gray wool with a red and yellow band.

Another woman with a wide smile steps out of the inner temple and asks us where we are from in broken English. When we explain we are from different countries: Canada, Japan, the U.S, she brings her hands together at her heart and welcomes us with a warm “Namaste.” She invites us to walk around to the back of the temple which she tells us is 5,000 years old.

The temple is tall and cone shaped. The rounded top is covered with an intricate wooden structure. The stone walls are carved with thousands of images of deities. One wall is covered with figures playing instruments. Another wall is dedicated to partners in various sex positions. “These are evidence of the days when Indian society was more open,” our Earthwatch leader explains without missing a beat.

Standing beneath these carved figures, I feel humbled by the ancient temple. Here is an unbroken line of spiritual practice. I wonder how many thousands of caretakers have performed these rituals every morning for the last 5,000 years with the same care and intention. These qualities will be needed for a new consciousness to emerge.

I’m reminded of the words of Running Grass, a college mentor of mine, who wrote that cultural diversity and biological diversity are two sides of the same coin. Lose one and you lose the other. Save one and you save the other. Ancient temples are around every corner in India and still part of daily rituals and lives of Hindus, Muslims, Seeks, and others. Cultural diversity is very much alive.

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Traditional drums at Krishna Temple for The Unfolding Earth article on birding and temples in Indian Himalaya biodiversity hotspot
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We descend the hill at the back of the temple. Rhesus Macaque monkeys sit quietly munching on blossoms innocently stealing the farmer’s harvest. A temple caretaker runs out of this house to loudly shush the troop out of his apple trees. His dog barks at them chasing them from tree to tree. The troop’s patriarch shakes branches and challenges the dog with hoots and howls. My money is on the male monkey for a win, but after a show of teeth he quickly moves his family out of the orchard into the cedar forest.

Rhesus Macaque, a common monkey across northern India inhabits forests and plains and easily adapts to living alongside humans often living off handouts in urban areas. A mother Macaque sits on the forest floor cradling a small baby. While other species are in decline, the Rhesus Macaque is adapting, learning new ways to survive and thrive in the face of change. For the Macaque, and other species that are adapting to the “New Wild” as it is being called where wild animals must live in close proximity with the growing numbers of humans, the future is still full of possibility.

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Photos courtesy of and © Bernard Johnpulle and Christina Selby