I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills,
part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the
subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in
Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of
the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was
part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety
of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage
of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing
around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight
beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything
in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is
legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down
some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at
becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and
killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal
healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not
kill them. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the
environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate,
my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I
could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This
extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the
Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top.
Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after
cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters.
Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is
the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it
used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and
consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in
1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained
continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was
horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we
get about thirty centimeters annually.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet
in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas
raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our
motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered
with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It
was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the
first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on
them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield
would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create
its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all
around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add
their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would
rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so
heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof.
This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the
beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would
become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block
roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon.
When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two
or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candlelight dinners with a roaring fire in the
fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot
of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which
twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power
and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from
the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this
period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her.
But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside.
She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end
of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning
ability or the quality of my game but being rained-in has its benefits.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India.
Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who
bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries.
Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly,
quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see
the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and
to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however,
meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality
standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening
to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable
happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the
South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were
more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty
Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And
Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over
to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Sholayar
River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation,
I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited
the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’
Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the
pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey
straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the
cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the
flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up
your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors
as there are flowers. While we lazed
about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat
together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew
how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of
kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this
river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall,
thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat
in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the
lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the
whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free
from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call
of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle
Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you
could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not
something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking
softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He
snorted, spun on his heels, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I
was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it
became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are
self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world
outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are
unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the
unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is
to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the
solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if
you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the
matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are
unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock
and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were
Over the past more than ten years I have wandered around almost every tiger sanctuary in India from Kaziranga and Manas in Assam to Idukki in Kerala. I lived in the middle of the Anamallais for seven years. In my childhood and youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent every summer and winter holiday with my dear friend and mentor Uncle Rama (Venkatrama Reddy) in his house on the bank of the Kadam River in the middle of what is today called, Kaval Tiger Reserve. I would spend every single day and many nights in the forest, walking or in a bullock cart. No tiger. I spent ten days in Badhavgarh living in the house of a good friend, alone, in Tala village which is in the buffer zone. I went on safari drives every morning and evening. No tiger. I spent days in Pench, even slept in a dry nala on the boundary of the forest, one hot afternoon. No tiger. I have spent days being jolted around in Gypsy vehicles in sanctuary after sanctuary, my backbone witness to the wear and tear on the suspension of the vehicle and still live to tell the tale. Yet all I saw of the elusive tiger was one glimpse as it leapt across a road in Corbett and a decent sighting in Tadoba. At the end of all this wandering, I concluded that I was jinxed as far as tigers are concerned. But since I love the forest and all those who live in it, I continued to escape to the nearest forest that I could find at every opportunity; tiger or no tiger.
Then I went to Ranthambore. My very first visit. My most gracious host, Sonu Khan and his driver Sajid, ‘promised’ me that I would see a tiger. Having heard such promises from many others over the years, I hardly paid attention to it. I wanted to be in a forest and Ranthambore was not only a forest but one of the most beautiful ones that I have ever been in. Massive banyan trees, flowing streams, lakes, high rocky hills, mysterious pavilions, Muslim graves and even an abandoned masjid near one of the streams. The main river that flows through the forest especially the part that comes down from the Ranthambore fort has ‘inexplicable’ date palms all along it. Inexplicable because though Rajasthan has date palms, this is a different variety, not indigenous to Rajasthan. Excellent perches for kingfishers, owls, parrots and parakeets, as I discovered.
Ranthambore fort is very impressive to say the least. We were sitting in our Gypsy waiting for the driver to submit the entry pass at the gate house and I looked up at the battlements of the fort in awe at the amazing architectural challenge they would have posed to build. With my interest in military history, my first thought when I saw the battlements rising high into the heavens was, if I were to besiege this fort, how would I do it? I concluded that this fort is impregnable and can’t be conquered keeping in mind the armies and armaments of the time i.e. the 16th century.
Later, my dear friend who shares my interest in history and wildlife, Jehangir Ghadiali solved the mystery of the date palms for me. He told me that apparently Ranthambore was besieged for a month by the Moghul Emperor Akbar and then submitted to the Mughals in 1568. Moghul soldiers ate dates and the seeds they discarded sprouted all along the streams that they would have camped on. ‘Mughal soldiers’, is a general term referring the army they fought in. As it was, most of Akbar’s army consisted of Rajputs. It is easy to condemn them as being anti-national but one must realize that the concept of India as one nation is only from 1947. For all our history, we were individual countries that existed in the landmass of the subcontinent, much like European countries exist to this day in the landmass called Europe. Rajput kings fought other Rajput kings and were being patriotic to their tribe and country and not anti-national. The Moghuls capitalized on this and with their superior technology and generalship, they commanded Rajput armies that won the day. Rajputs rose to become generals in Moghul armies and fought loyally for the Moghul Emperor who they considered their liege lord. One of the most famous of Akbar’s generals was Raja Mansingh who was one of this Navratans (9 Jewels – Nobles held in the highest esteem). Today all this sounds strange and that is why history has many lessons to teach us.
Rai Surjan Hada was apparently demoralized by Akbar’s victories in Chittorgarh and Thanesar and when the Moghul cannons were brought to bear and bombardment started, he decided to capitulate. It was cannons that gave Mughals the edge over their opponents. Babur had cannons when he fought Ibrahim Lodhi thanks to which war elephants which were the ultimate weapon of Indian armies were rendered a liability. War elephants would run amok with terror at the sound of cannon and turn and charge through their own troops, creating havoc. Another thing that gave the Mughal armies the edge was light cavalry using the famous double curved Mongol bow. That gave them mobility and range which effectively nullified the advantage of massive infantry which was the hallmark of Indian armies. European armies of the time had infantry in thousands, but Indian kings could field hundreds of thousands. All this force came to naught when faced with highly mobile cavalry shooting from powerful bows and cannons which though not too accurate at long range, could create total mayhem in massed troops, especially when loaded with scatter shot.
Indian wisdom decided that losing lives unnecessarily would serve no purpose and so Rai Surjan Hada opened the gates to the Moghuls. In my view, Ranthambore fort can withstand a far longer siege and even Akbar would have been hard pressed to keep the siege going for a long period given the issues of supply lines and the semi-arid country that Ranthambore is in. Though the area has forest, which in those days it would have been more, but there is not much in it for an army to eat. That they were eating dates is a sign because dates are dry rations. They would have hunted in the forest but to feed an army needs a lot of meat and animals move away when they are hunted. Not easy, laying siege. This also explains the masjid and pavilions in the middle of the forest.
It is with these thoughts that we entered the forest. We drove through semi-deciduous forest with a variety of bird life. We entered the forest through a beautiful gateway that is today framed by the aerial roots of a banyan tree. In the days of Ranthambore’s glory it would have had soldiers posted on top of it and the gate itself shut, except to those who were authorized to enter. We drove through it and along the track that borders Padam Talao on one end of which is the beautiful Jogi Mahal. That makes Jogi Mahal a part of the Ranthambore fort complex because to get to it you must pass through gates on either end. Imagine that you are a guest of Rai Surjan Hada of Ranthambore in happier times before Akbar came on the scene and are sitting on the deck of Jogi Mahal watching the sunset (I hope I have my directions correct), drinking sherbet and eating savory snacks followed by Rajasthani sweets. The survival of Jogi Mahal through the siege of Ranthambore is evidence that beauty is protection in itself.
There were several waders and other birds in the shallows of Padam Talao. A pair of Indian Thick-knees, simply standing in one place. The Stone Curlew or Thick-knee is active in the dark and feeds at dawn or dusk. During the day it stands still in shade. In this case they were standing at the edge of the lake, in the hope perhaps of getting the odd worm. They had for company a pair of Black-winged Stilts, a most attractive wader whose delicate long legs give it their name; a pair of Brahminy ducks (Ruddy Shelduck) and a solitary Darter drying its wings. A more peaceful scene can’t be imagined.
As I contemplated all this, it occurred to me that all is right with the world. Until I woke up and reminded myself that the reality is far from this. We are at a stage where we humans have wiped out 85% of wildlife and are facing the specter of extinction. It is true that my tiger jinx was broken in Ranthambore and in three days I saw twelve tigers. It is true that when I watch Blue Planet or Planet Earth, with Sir David Attenborough commenting on the glory of nature and the profusion of wildlife, I am carried away with the sheer beauty of what I see. But it is good to remember that the reality is far from this. Very far. Yes, I saw twelve tigers in Ranthambore, but tigers are so seriously endangered as to be close to becoming extinct in the wild in India. Our population pressure, total ignorance and apathy towards forests and wildlife, greed to make money at any costs and a political class that is innocent of any ethics, responsibility or knowledge, means that forests and wildlife continue to get short shrift. Every mining concession, highway or railway line tends to get precedence over the forest that it will either seriously endanger or completely destroy. It is no secret that tiger reserves which get a higher level of protection from reserve forests, were systematically de-tigered so that the status of the forest could be officially downgraded to reserve forest, in order to start mining for marble.
The solution is to educate people. Ordinary people like you and me, about the importance of forests and wildlife and how our own survival is intrinsically linked with it. Self-interest may not be the most noble emotion, but I believe that unless people understand the importance of forests and wildlife, they will not do anything to protect it. As it is, people at best consider forests to be a source of entertainment and tigers and other wildlife to be performing artists which must put in an appearance for people to get value for money. Forest Department officials succumb to this pressure and I know of instances where, using tame elephants, tigers are driven to the road from where they are resting in the heat of the day, so that tourists can take photos.
The challenge is to educate those who will be affected by global changes. What is their level of awareness? Simply ask anyone the meaning of “Big Data”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Peak Oil”, “Climate Change”, “Global Warming” and you have the answer. Most people simply don’t even know what these things are, much less how they will be personally affected by them. The powers that be, the billionaires who rule the world, manufacture weapons of mass destruction and sell them to those willing to use them on their own populations, while stridently calling for peace; benefit from wars, forest depletion, polluting industries, global poverty and oppression. Looking to them to bring about change is like asking the tiger to eat grass. That is the challenge.
How do we show the oligarchs that eliminating poverty is not for the benefit of the poor but so that a bigger market can be created for what the oligarchs sell? How do you convince those who work in weapons factories that living off the blood of others is immoral? Educating the public seems to be the obvious answer but the challenge is to find a way to do it fast enough to energize people to stand up and make a difference.
He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feeds mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.
Kabini River Resort on the bank of the Kabini Reservior, bordering Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. I am in the Gol Ghar (which is actually rectangular) at tea and snack time after the afternoon safari.
“What did you see?” asked an American who had come to Kabini for the first time.
“Nothing. Totally dry. Five safaris and we saw nothing,” said an extremely bossy Indian woman whose rude behavior was on display wherever she went with the saving grace that nobody was exempt from it. One must be grateful when people with bad manners display them equally for everyone.
Ajeeb! I say to myself. Then I check to see if the people talking were blind or blindfolded. But no. They weren’t. Bright eyes and each had a camera and lens worth at least 3 – 4 laks each. One a Nikon and the other a Sony. But we shall not hold that against them. What was more, this conversation or different versions of it, were happening all around me. So, it wasn’t only this one woman who saw nothing.
How could this be? How can people go for a three-hour drive in one of the most beautiful forests in India and say that they saw nothing? Unless of course one were to ask, “What does seeing mean?”
Well, what did I see?
I saw a silent life and death struggle between a strangler fig and its saprophytic host, a nameless giant of the forest, whose fate was sealed when the first tender filament of the fig started its climb upwards towards the sun. After that it would only be a matter of time, measured in decades perhaps, but the ending, inevitable. The fig strangles the host. As I saw this struggle without motion, I thought how closely it resembles what is happening in our national politics. Politicians of all hues have taken hold of the nation like strangler figs and are busy throttling its life out. There is one exception to this however in our case. Unlike the forest giant, we the people of India, are not helpless. Unless we choose to be. We are not helpless unless we choose to vote for the one who gives us Rs. 200 instead of voting for the one who is most likely to serve our best interests. Rs. 200 doesn’t even buy a chicken. Is this what we have priced our futures and the futures of our generations yet unborn, at? Less than the price of a chicken?
I saw Chital (Axis deer) or Spotted deer in their hundreds. Chital is one of the most beautiful of the deer species. In Nagerhole, they abound. Grass and shrubs are aplenty. The terrain suits them very well. There are predators; Wild dogs (Dhole), leopards (black and regular) and tigers but the Chital simply outbreed them all, so they thrive. Predators also ensure that all the weak die early and only the strong are left to breed so predation helps and promotes survival of prey species. I saw their fawns ranging from some which must have been literally days old to older ones. Chital fawns simply must be the most beautiful creatures on earth. All Chital have liquid black eyes with eyelashes that will give every Bollywood actress a complex. Their coats, golden brown with white spots showing shadowy in the morning mist are a sight to behold.
Then their behavior; the way the dominant alpha males strut. The stags with a full rack of horns, which they shed every year to grow a new pair; clothed first in skin called ‘velvet’ which they then rub off on trees until it is at first hanging in rags and then is totally cast away to show the shiny bone beneath. It is rutting season and you can hear the territorial braying call of the alpha males, challenging all takers. The stags eat very little during this time, being focused almost entirely on protecting their harem of hinds from other roving males, ready to give battle at the slightest provocation. When there is none they sometimes take out their testosterone on innocent bushes, bashing then to smithereens with their impressive horns.
But if you are a Chital, no matter how impressive, you are at the bottom of the food chain. Everyone eats you and you eat grass. So, if you want to survive and live to tell tales of your life to your grandchildren you need to be extremely alert. Chital learn this lesson early in life. Those that don’t, never grow old. The result is that Chital will sound their typical alarm that sounds like a very high-pitched bark, at practically every suspicious movement. I have seen Chital calling when they see a Sloth bear, Dhole, Wild boar, eddies of wind rustling the bushes and simply because they imagined that they saw a tiger or leopard. But you can hardly blame them for this because they are No.1 on the menu of any predator on a keto diet. One of them calls while striking the earth with one forefoot with every call. The rest, run. Chital learn two CTS (Critical to Survival) lessons in life which are good lessons for us to learn also.
Lesson No. 1: Complacency is death.
Lesson No. 2: It is better to run twice than to be caught once.
A much more reliable alarm giver is the Grey Langur. These have a symbiotic relationship with Chital. Langur feed in tree tops and drop more than they eat, of leaves and fruit which the Chital eat off the ground. And all bands of Langur have a sentinel, who doesn’t feed but sits on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the area and scans the forest for threats. When he sees anything suspicious, he calls the alarm and the Chital take off. Since this sentinel is watching from a vantage point, he is much more accurate in his risk assessment. When his shift is over, another of the tribe takes over and he goes to feed. It is amazing to see how this entire system works to the advantage of two different species who are united in threat. How much can we learn, I muse, about being united despite our differences because we face the same threats in our societies. Threats of moral degradation, drug abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, rape, murder, crime of different kinds; all of which don’t differentiate between us because criminals view all victims equally. Makes the forest with its lurking leopards and tigers seem positively safe.
Langur are playful in the extreme. Most amusing are the young. They fight, chase each other up and down trees, making some leaps which almost amount to flight. I saw one young chap simply hanging from a vine and swinging back and forth. Just like a child on a swing. He was simply having fun. Another one climbed up behind his older sibling and used his tail for a swing. That didn’t last too long because the owner of the tail had a different opinion about this liberty. Some older individuals simply sit on a branch with their hind legs stretched out before them. Occasionally those lower in the pecking order come up behind them and start grooming them. I saw one Langur sitting on one branch and leaning out holding another with his hands while resting his chin on his hands, fast asleep. His instinct ensures that he doesn’t let go of the other branch even in his sleep. Our driver stopped the jeep under a tree, but noticed some Langur sitting directly above and very wisely and hurriedly moved us out from beneath them. I could almost hear one of them look down at us and say to the other, ‘Are you thinking what I am thinking?’ I didn’t fancy being the recipient of their donations.
Nagarhole seems to have the highest population of Hoopoes and Flame-backed Woodpeckers that I have ever seen anywhere. Both are beautiful birds with the FBW males shining like jewels in the forest. They fly in their characteristic wavy flight and land on a tree trunk (unlike all other birds that land on branches) and immediately switch to the back of the trunk. Very infuriating because my camera can’t see through the tree. The females are not as colorful as the males, as is the case in most species of birds but have the same flight pattern and irritating habit of hiding from you.
Trying to match the FBW is the Indian Roller. A brilliant blue bird whose brilliant lilac breast and fluorescent blue wing colors are spectacular in flight. What is best about the Indian Roller is his desire to be photographed. He is totally unfazed by the jeep or the chattering monkeys in it. He perches on a solitary branch of whichever short tree or bush that happens to be present and watches intently for his prey; worms, insects and whatever is small enough to appeal to his palate.
Then he flies down, picks it up and flies back up to the same perch to eat it. This is an absolute boon for the photographer who can literally set his camera and wait to get the in-flight photos which are the best for this bird.
Another extremely photogenic bird is the Green Bee Eater and its various cousins. They are best seen in the early morning and sometimes in the late evening. They perch on any raised object, a dry branch, a rock or even a blade of tough high grass and watch for flying insects. As soon as they spot one, they swoop up, pluck it out of the air and return to their perch to eat it. Once again, this predictability of returning to the same perch and the fact that they are not spooked and liable to fly away at the slightest movement, makes them such favorites of photographers. Their brilliant green plumage, with some blue in some of the sub-species, their feathers which closeup look very fine hair, black beaks and shiny black eyes are a study in art. Birds in general afford one a look into their lives and behavior much more closely and readily than mammals and so are wonderful to photograph. Naturally, given their size (small birds) and that they fly about means that you need a camera and lens that can get you close to them. But if you have that, then there is endless joy in photographing birds.
As I was trying to find a better perch for myself in the jeep that had (believe it or not, eleven adults in it) the driver whispered to me and I looked up to where he was pointing and loed and beheld a pair of Imperial Pigeons. They were in a fig tree, engrossed in gorging themselves on the fruit. While I took pictures of them, there was a shadow and the pigeons exploded out of the tree and headed for the Lantana bushes. I looked up to see a Brown Serpent Eagle.
Pigeons are not his normal diet, but I am sure it wouldn’t object to a change of menu; something the pigeons understood very well. The eagle settled on the fig tree and so there was no chance of the pigeons returning, but I noticed a Monarch butterfly alight on a blade of tall grass. One single butterfly on a single blade of grass in just the right light. As I was clicking away, I saw a flash of yellow and there were a dozen Clouded Yellow (I think!!) butterflies on a damp patch in the road. Butterflies of all kinds settle on patches of moisture in the road and make wonderful objects of photographs with their brilliant colors, set off against the brown or black background of the road.
The driver moved along as our companions were getting bored with not seeing anything. We drove around a corner and came to a pack of Dhole (Indian Wild dogs), resting in the grass under some trees. The Dhole is a rich brown in color all over with a pointed face and a black tail. It is barkless and whistles. The dominant female and alpha male were sleeping. A couple of uncles were also resting, but one of them was sitting up, alert and watchful. In the jungle you have two choices; be alert or be eaten. There were four puppies who were being the pesky nuisance that all young are when adults are resting. Whistling and nuzzling and trying to crawl under their elders, failing which climbing all over them. What was amazing was the patience of the elders, who couldn’t have been enjoying this ‘affection’ but showed no irritation. The sentinel suddenly tensed but didn’t sound an alarm. I looked in the direction that he was pointing to and saw the most enormous Gaur bull that I have ever seen. Huge and black with his signature white socks, walking slowly and majestically, fearing nobody and nothing. He was followed by three cows, one of which was a subadult and so much more skittish. But the bull was a sight to behold.
Just then a peacock screamed. What else can you call that sound? It is a communication call, ‘See what I am doing!’ What was he doing? Dancing to try to please a bevy of totally disinterested peahens. But he was spectacular to say the least.
Still not having seen anything, the driver decided to go and investigate why two other jeeps that had passed us, hadn’t returned. We drove to a place where the road takes a steep dip between two low hillocks and there in the depression, we finally saw that after which we couldn’t say, ‘I saw nothing.’ A tigress sleeping.
Or more accurately, trying in to sleep. No sentinels here. Just a cat trying to get some sleep in a patch of sunlight while batting flies and mosquitoes which had other ideas. No sentinels because when you are the apex predator, you fear nobody and everyone else fears you. Our camera shutters sounded like machinegun fire as we took amazing action photos of a sleeping cat. Every time she flicked her tail, the cameras would go trrrrrrrrrrrr. Every time she rolled over they would go trrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. We watched her in action for over an hour, hunched up with our eyes glued to the viewfinders, our backs screaming in agony but who cares? A tiger is a tiger.
We returned with the light started failing and we had to get out before the designated time. “Did you see anything?” they asked.
“Yes,” we replied. “We saw a tiger.”
Nothing else, only a tiger. So, did we see anything or didn’t we?
In Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, on the other side of Sholayar Dam in the Anamallais, we had a coffee area which was adjacent to the reserve forest. The coffee presented open grazing area to the Sambar and Gaur that live in the reserve forest. They did not damage the coffee itself but would feed on the grass and shrubs that grew in the fields. I set up two or three salt licks in this area to attract these animals and to get them used to coming into our area so that we could watch and photograph them. For this I got some bricks of rock salt from the Forest Department and cleared small patches in the grass to arrange them. Once the animals discovered them we had a huge herd of Gaur, about thirty-five of them, who took up residence in the coffee area. They would come down from the hills every evening as the sun went down and would leave only the next morning once our workers started to arrive in the fields. They would be joined by several Sambar hinds and stags so that when I would drive into the coffee area at night, I would see this big herd lying down and chewing the cud. It was almost like seeing domestic cattle at rest; the Gaur had become so used to us. Grazing animals love salt, which they get from deposits in the soil. Carnivores get it from the blood of their prey. So if you put out some salt in the forest you were absolutely sure to get anything which was in the vicinity to come visit.
If you walked to the end of the coffee area and entered the forest, taking the small pathway leading up the hill, you would pass under the heavy shade of big leaved, tall trees. Lining the path were lovely light green big leaved shrubs, which if you didn’t know what they were and took one in your hand, it would prove to be a very painful and potentially dangerous experience. These were stinging nettles called locally Anaimarti (the chaser away of elephants). The leaves have poisonous hair on them, which produce anything from painful rashes, to blisters, to high fever, and delirium, depending on your level of tolerance. As you walk along this path it is a good idea to keep all your senses functioning. The thick undergrowth can and does hide anything. As you continue climbing steadily, getting sweatier by the minute due to a lack of breeze, you come to a small flat rock on your right a little way inside the forest. If you walk silently you will almost always see the resident cobra that likes to sun himself on that rock. Sometimes you will see his skin, which he has shed and then you must be very careful because he is almost blind for a while and extremely irritable.
As you continue onwards, you will come out of the forest into an open area which is a sheet of rock. This area stretches about three kilometers all the way up to the ridge beyond which the forest descends three-thousand feet down to the backwaters of Parambikulam Lake. This sheet of rock is covered with a patchy lichen growth almost all over which becomes yellow when it matures and so it is called Manjapettai (Yellow Ridge). This is also where you will get the first breath of cool breeze, most welcome on your hot and damp brow. There is a large clump of thorny bush right before you and almost surely you will hear the ‘Dhank’ of a Sambar doe as she bolts out of the bush and gallops down the thirty-degree rocky slope at a speed that would certainly topple a horse and break its neck.
If you continue to climb then you would eventually come to the top of Manjapettai, which was a small flat plateau through which flowed a small perennial stream. I’d had a machan (platform) built on a tree at the edge of the forest overlooking the stream, which emptied into a small pool and then went down the slope of Manjapettai. I had cleared a small pathway to get to it, but without disturbing the area or its animals. The machan was halfway up the tree at a height of about twenty feet. It was quite substantial and could comfortably seat four people. We would sit there late into the night watching animals come to drink at the pool. It was an amazing experience to suddenly see a shadow move and realise that what you had been looking at was not a shadow at all but a Gaur bull; the herd leader who was watching to see if the coast was clear to signal his herd to follow him to the water. This forest had tigers and so the Gaur and Sambar, which are its main prey were very cautious.
We once had a full-grown Gaur cow killed by a tiger in our coffee area. At first the Forest Guards came and tried to accuse us of having shot the animal in an attempt to extract some silence money. But I would have none of that and demanded that the DFO come to inspect. When he came, I took him to the carcass and showed him the telltale claw marks of the tiger. The tiger attacks from behind and rides the animal, and as it gallops in panic, the tiger reaches forward and hooks its claws into the animal’s nose and draws its head back, biting into the back of the neck to get at the spinal cord until the animal falls and breaks its neck. If you see the neck of a Gaur, how huge and muscular it is, you can imagine the strength of the tiger which can force that neck to bend back until it makes the animal fall. Tigers generally go for juveniles or cows, which are smaller. The big bulls are immune to everything except men and old age. The DFO (District Forest Officer) was more knowledgeable than the Forest Guard and so the matter was resolved.
You sat in the machan very still, secure in the knowledge that you were invisible unless you moved. Though the game viewing was amazing, the stillness made you very stiff, a relatively small price to pay for the privilege of watching wild animals in their habitat. In the early hours of the morning, after all animal movement had ceased and it started getting bitterly cold, which it does in the forest at that elevation, we would come down onto the rock, light a nice big fire and warm ourselves and spend the rest of the night sleeping on the rock around the fire. Then in the morning we would re-kindle the fire and put on the tea pot and watch the sun come up over the horizon. I know many people lived in Lower Sheikalmudi, but I don’t know of anyone other than myself and Suresh Menon, who was my assistant at the time, who enjoyed the beauty of the forest like we did. It was a rare privilege and we appreciated every minute of it.