We first heard of Timbaktu Collective back in the days when Ranjeet was a volunteer in Asha-NYC/NJ and Asha first started supporting the Timbaktu schools in the ’90s. We got a chance to visit Timbaktu in Dec ’02 at the Asha-India conference which was held there, and were so impressed with their work that we asked the guests at our wedding the following year to make donations to Timbaktu in lieu of gifts to us. Thus began a long and satisfying association with Timbaktu Collective, and a wonderful friendship with Bablu and Mary – the dynamic duo running the organization. We have since visited Timbaktu countless times in the last 5-6 years, and helped out with their various initiatives, most recently their organic venture, Timbaktu Organic.
Timbaktu is located in Ananthapur district of Andhra Pradesh, one of the driest districts in India. The area gets very little rain, and decades of over-grazing and abuse had left the land degraded and lifeless. Timbaktu Collective took up forest regeneration and ecorestoration work in the hills around Timbaktu, and the result is there for all to see. After 15 years of effort, Timbaktu now stands out as an oasis of green in the bleak landscape around. You can read more about their regeneration work here.
Interestingly, the hills in Ananthapur district weren’t always bleak and degraded. The town of Penukonda, 25 km away from Timbaktu, was in fact the summer retreat of the kings of the Vijayanagara empire which had its capital at Hampi. Penukonda must have been a hill station at the time, five hundred years ago, and boasts of a ruined fort which was supposedly built during Krishnadevaraya’s time. The forests around Penukonda were described in the late 19th century by a British forester as one of the finest deciduous forests in the south. Though rainfall was scant, an elaborate system of tanks and canals for rainwater harwesting ensured the farmers two or three crops a year. Over time, however, the tanks fell into disuse and unsustainable agricultural practises wreaked havoc, upsetting the balance of nature.
Timbaktu is trying to remedy the situation by working with the farmers in the area to promote traditional crops like millets, reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and protect forests from over-grazing. They have started several other initiatives including women’s groups, schools for children, local self-governance etc. Ranjeet is now conducting a training programme there for rural entrepreneurs, while my energies have been focused on the winged residents of the area. 🙂
The area around Timbaktu is scrub forest, and many of the dry land species are to be found in this habitat. The most common resident species are the red vented bulbuls, yellow billed babblers and laughing doves which drive one crazy with the racket they make all day. Ioras have been present in profusion but last year after I learnt to identify Marshall’s iora (distinguished from the common iora by the white tips to the tail) I discovered a few of them in Timbaktu (out of range mentioned in Kazmiercsak’s field guide) and this year there are Marshall’s ioras all over the place!
Timbaktu is a great place to photograph several common species like sunbirds, tailorbirds, Indian robin and small minivets. In the summertime, the intense heat drives the birds to congregate around dripping taps near the kitchen area (called “Mayasabha”). This summer, I found a few Asian brown flycatchers there – a male, and a juvenile. This flycatcher is a migrant to most of the south, except for a few pockets (including Kerala) where it is resident. Have spotted the juvenile quite a few times since then, and plan to keep a note of my observations for the remainder of the year to see if it is indeed a resident there.
At dawn and dusk, nightjars can be heard calling around the hills. I have heard Indian and Jerdon’s nightjar there, and last visit saw a pair of Indian nightjars at dusk. In the late afternoon, grey francolins call out their characteristic “Kapildev Kapildev” calls and sometimes barred button quails can be seen scuttling about frantically. The resident peacock (who showed up one fine day and has lived on the school premises ever since) screeches incessantly all day long.
The fields around the Timbaktu office in C.K. Palli (Chennakothapalli) are also very productive for birding. There is a stream here with a check dam, where pied kingfishers and white-browed wagtails can be found, and nesting baya weavers in the fields around. In the winter Timbaktu hosts numerous migrants who make it their home, including the greenish and Blyth’s warblers, whitethroats, siberian stonechats, raucous brahminy starlings and rosy pastors.
Part of my plan is to eventually develop a set of flash cards with the common bird species found in Timbaktu, with English and Telugu names, for the kids in the Timbaktu schools. Last year Bablu’s daughter Molly produced a calendar entitled “Birds and Butterflies of Timbaktu” with pictures that I had clicked there over a few visits. Now I have a lot more for a calendar for next year, don’t you think?
PS: If you’d like to support Timbaktu through financial support of the schools, or by buying some of the organic produce from TO, please drop me a mail/comment. Thanks!
More pics from Timbaktu: