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Walk in the woods: Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve

There was something unrealistic about standing within 10 ft of a pack of Indian wild dogs. Popularly known as Dholes and classified as an endangered species, this elusive pack of wild canines was busy gnawing at what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a deer. It was 7.00 on a crisp Thekkady morning and we had just embarked on our three-hour nature trek from the Periyar Tiger Reserve nature interpretation center.

Earlier, we had crossed a small creek that was part of the Periyar reservoir, standing precariously on a bamboo plank. We had just commenced our walk along the fringes of the forest when we came upon an open meadow. The Dholes were stationed here. I did the only thing I could possibly do in those circumstances – pull out my camera.

Nature at its best

Nature at its best

We were on the last leg of our five-day drive from Bangalore to Munnar and Thekkady. Having already covered Munnar in the last three days, we had reached Kumily the previous day and had put ourselves up at a home stay, Pepper County, owned by the lovely and enterprising couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cyriac.

Periyar Tiger Reserve is situated in the southern part of the Western Ghats spread across the Idukki, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala. The reserve is also the catchment area of the river Periyar.  Periyar National Park is one of the few national parks in India to remain open even during the monsoon.

Enchanting jungle path

Enchanting jungle path

We had earlier decided against the mandatory boat ride, the most common activity that tourists prefer to do when visiting the Periyar Tiger Reserve.  We didn’t want to look touristy in our own home state by going on an hour and a half long boat ride with a load of other tourists ‘just to spot some wildlife’. There is no advance booking for the boat trip and there is a mad rush in the mornings to reach the booking counter and we did not want to be a part of that.

Traffic jam at the Periyar Tiger Reserve entrance gate

Traffic jam at the Periyar Tiger Reserve entrance gate

At 6 am we were standing behind a file of about 20 vehicles, autos, buses, taxis, and cars, before the closed gates of the Periyar Tiger Reserve – all of us patiently waiting for the gates to open. It was astonishing to realise that, at that early hour, there were so many people lined up for entry tickets. We were almost sure that most of them were here for the boat ride. From the entry gate, one is only issued the entry ticket and a parking ticket. To get a ticket for the boat ride, you have to drive another 2 km from the entry gate, park your car and then run to the ticket counter, another 500 m from the parking lot, and join the jostling queue. It was a wet and cold morning, but tempers were definitely hot and short. Once the gate was open, there was a small rush as every car was aiming for that first spot in the queue.

On the way to the parking lot

On the way to the parking lot

Nobody was overtaking but positively speed driving, way above the 20 km/h speed limit.  We joined the mad rush till the parking lot. From the parking lot, the others continued, most of them probably boosted by the idea of having an upper deck ticket so that their chances of ‘spotting wildlife’ improved.

Boat ride

Boat ride

We had already booked a slot for the nature trek, the previous day, which was supposed to start at 7 am. As we were at least an hour early, we thought we would do a recce of the place. We first watched the excited tourists get packed onto the boat. After the boat tragedy of 2009, the authorities have limited the number of boats at Thekkady.  Later, we remained on the porch of the ticket counter from where one could get the best views of the reservoir. Early mornings are the best time for animal sightings as most of the wild animals come to the water. We watched a herd of Sambhar deer coming to the water and prancing around.

Sambhar deer

Sambhar deer

By 6.45, we had assembled at the Nature Interpretation Center and were busy struggling with the khaki leech socks that were being provided to us by the forest department. These long leg covers, to be tied over your legwear, are supposed to protect you from poisonous insects, reptiles and the scariest ones, leeches. We were also asked to fill in forms with our contact details and the next of kin’s contact numbers and address.

Struggling to keep the leech guards on. The leeches didn't have to !!!

Struggling to keep the leech guards on. The leeches didn’t have to !!!

The nature walk is a light trek where every group is led by an experienced forest guide and can have up to a maximum of six individuals. The prescribed fee is Rs. 200/- per person but as the minimum fee for the trek was Rs. 800/- and as there were no other members in our group we had to dole out Rs. 800. It was also surprising to note that there were no other Indians in any of the other trekking groups. So much for the love of the forest!

The Kerala Forest Department has employed local tribesmen from the Mannan community, who have a good knowledge of the local flora and fauna, as guides for the treks. The Mannan community, the oldest tribal community in the Periyar Tiger Reserve area, was primarily into fishing and cultivation.  With the spread of tourism, many have now become guides. Under a program in association with the German government, they are trained to speak English, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, and even foreign languages like French, German and Spanish.

Brahminy Kite in action

Brahminy Kite in action

Our guide, Mr. S, who had 10 years of experience, seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the jungle. After gearing ourselves with the leech socks, we started our trek. We had to cross a small creek first. It took a huge amount of practice and balance to stand still on the bamboo plank. There was the uneasiness of one’s footwear getting wet or, even worse, the dismay of plunging into the reservoir in its full glory.

The bamboo raft

The bamboo raft

Neither of it happened and we started walking along a forest path. Before reaching a clearing, S gestured with his hand and told us not to move. He cupped his ears and told us to listen carefully. We could hear a high-pitched whistle. We slowly walked towards the clearing and hid behind a few brittle bushes. It was then that we spotted the Dholes. There were around 7 or 8 of them, some of them busy gnawing, some of them cautiously looking around and a few of them just moving around. The Dholes must have sensed human presence as they suddenly got up and moved a bit further even as we silently pursued the pack.

Dholes on the prowl

Dholes on the prowl

Dholes are supposed to be shy and cautious animals and are found to tolerate a minimum amount of human disturbance. Dholes are probably the only carnivores found in India which has never been accused of attacking humans. On the other hand, it is a common practice of the tribals to often steal Dhole kills, many a time right from underneath their noses!!!!

Dholes live in packs and almost look like larger dogs but with a more reddish coat and a black bushy tail. Dholes, like dogs, are very social and communicate with each other by whistling.  Dholes hunt together, teaming up to take down smaller animals like hares, rodents, pigs, and even larger preys like Sambhar deer, wild boars, and Chital. They are also quite ferocious and always end up tearing rapidly into their prey, sometimes feasting while the prey is still alive.

Sadly, the Dhole is an endangered species.

As we walked further, the Dholes kept moving away from us, crossing over a patch of marshy land, half-swimming, and half-trudging and finally disappearing into the cover of the forest. Right on the side of the marshy patch was the skull of an Indian Gaur supposedly killed and eaten by a tiger about a year ago. The forest department had not removed the skull so that visitors could get to touch and feel it.

Gaur skull

Gaur skull

Suddenly the forest was reverberating with the unmistakably large whirring sound of the Great Malabar Hornbill. We had already seen some of its cousins in Arunachal and were quite familiar with the sounds and sights of the bird.  S pointed to us where a hornbill nest existed and told us to wait. In less than a minute, we saw a hornbill swoop down from the skies and hop onto the tree.

Great Malabar Hornbill in flight

Great Malabar Hornbill in flight

We were now walking towards the forest. Throughout the three hours trek, we learned about several different types of trees, birds, and animals.  Though we were not expecting a few tigers or leopards to pose in front of us, we were quite satisfied by spotting a great variety of birds and also listening to the beautiful songs of Malabar whistling thrushes, the hoots of the coucals and the calls of the hornbills.

Indian Gaurs grazing on a nearby hill

Indian Gaurs grazing on a nearby hill

We also came across Nilgiri langurs and a couple of Gaurs which were grazing up on a nearby hill. The most beautiful find was the Giant Malabar Squirrel.

But what took our breath and a lot of blood away was the leeches. It is really amazing to see how these tiny creatures can jump onto one’s body like an acrobat. Also, stuck to our shoes were plenty of leeches that we constantly flicked away with twigs. At one point, S sprayed some tobacco powder on our shoes which he said would keep the leeches away – not that it did. Guess our leech socks were not thick enough!

The jungle is alive. You just have to look.

The jungle is alive. You just have to look around.

We realized that, apart from providing an opportunity to experience forest life, this trek also creates awareness in the prevention of poaching and other illegal activities like sandalwood smuggling. A lot of the night patrollers were once poachers and had been given an opportunity by the forest department to be a part of their special protection team. The plus point, of course, is that they know the forest inside out.

The most dangerous and unpredictable animals are sloth bears and elephants. S’s brother, a night patroller, was once attacked by a sloth bear and fractured his arm and had a rod inserted. Sloth bears are at their highest alert during breeding time and when they have cubs.

Elephant tooth

Elephant tooth

We also came across a huge elephant tooth, belonging to an elephant which was killed by another two years ago. In that same year, around seven other pachyderms were killed by this very elephant. We had read in the previous day’s papers that a wild elephant had run amok in the jungle and a lady got injured. We asked S about it and were surprised to hear that he was witness to the whole incident. He had been leading a group of 6 people when the elephant came running through the jungle, catching a group of tourists unaware. In the melee that ensued, a lady fell down and fractured her leg. S said that he did not even have the time to warn the tourists.

Great Malabar Squirell

Giant Malabar Squirrel

My hiker’s eyes did travel longingly to the summit of a small hill across the river. Seeing our enthusiasm, S mentioned that the forest department also conducts a day and night trekking/camping program. Another interesting program is the Jungle Patrol where tourists are given an opportunity of taking part in the regular night patrolling inside the reserve. It is interesting to note that this is the only tiger reserve in the country where night patrol is allowed.

Innovative signboards within the park

Innovative signboards within the park

The objective of this activity is to not only explore the jungle at night but to also understand how tough the work of the forest department is. As all the forests of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are contiguous, sandalwood smugglers travel all the way from the other states, bare feet and barely clothed with oil applied all over, making it difficult for the patrolmen to catch them.

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Another recent addition to the activities is bamboo rafting, a full day activity which includes both hiking and rafting. Tourism is highly regulated as only 30 sq km of the park is open to tourists and trekking is only done around the buffer area.

Do Indians hate a walk in the jungle?

Do Indians hate a walk in the jungle? Go figure!!!

In spite of the fact that this reserve being home to a vast assortment of wildlife species, wherein a number of birds and animals are unique here, we found that most of the times these activities are only booked by foreigners. This reserve is visited by wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers in crazy numbers, all round the year, but most of them only make it till the boat ticket counter.

Move away from the crowds. Explore the nature. It is bound to leave you gasping in wonder. Step away from the usual path. It can be a rewarding experience. In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. Peace, clarity, happiness……?

Happy feet

Endless trails and happy feet

Our feet were definitely happy.

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In Namdapha: Chasing the Butterflies

The alarm on my mobile phone was set at 4.30.  But I was woken up before that.  By a steam engine, of all things.

A steam engine in the middle of a jungle! The nearest railway station was about 90 km away, in Margherita, Assam.

Desperately seeking

I ran outside to see if the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9¾ had changed its course into this magical land. The sound was coming from somewhere up, from the branches of a tree. Seeing me dash outside in my night clothes, Gogoi da came out from the kitchen and joined me outside on the lawn. He pointed up and said “Hornbill”. At that very same moment two hornbills flew away flapping their wings vigorously.

I later learnt that the wing beats of a hornbill are so heavy that the sound produced by the birds in flight can be heard from a distance. When flapped, their wings create loud whooshing sounds that resemble the puffing of a steam locomotive starting up. Even their deep echoing calls can be heard from miles away.

Gogoi da rushed back to the kitchen to get us our tea and we walked towards the river to enjoy the dawn.

My alarm just went off. It was only 4.30 in the morning.

Does this look like 4.30 am!

The sun was rising somewhere behind the high mountains. But the golden rays were already making an impact on the sky and the river in front of us. It is hard to explain the way we were feeling – completely at peace, far away from the noises of the city, the honking, the shouting and yelling.

The Dapha Bum looming in the background

While sipping our tea we heard the loud whooping of hoolock gibbons. We followed the evocative call which led us into the woods behind the rest house. It was very difficult to judge from where the noises were coming, but the sounds got louder. It was as if they were somewhere right above our heads. But it was so hard to spot the gibbons through the thick foliage. It seemed as if more than one group were there and some sort of a hooting competition was going on. We had strained our necks for quite a long time so we decided to get back to the rest house.

It was barely six in the morning and so much had already happened. Such is the magic of Namdapha.

We had an early breakfast. Mr Pungjung had told us the previous day that if we had to spot wildlife we were to start early .

In the Kitchen, with Gogoi-da

So we set off from the rest house armed with our cameras, binoculars, a book on butterflies and a lot of enthusiasm along with our guide, Mr Pungjung.

Mr Pungjung had 33 years of service, out of which 18 years he had spent at Deban. And he didn’t even look 33.  There was a sprint in his walk, a twinkle in his eyes and he was always at least 50 m ahead of us, patiently waiting for us if there was something interesting to be sighted.

Mr Pungjung and his keen student

And interesting it was.

We took a shortcut from the guest house, cutting the hills and reached the Miao-Vijoynagar road and started walking towards Vijoynagar. Deban is called the 17th mile.  We had planned, or rather Mr Pungjung had planned, that we would walk till the 22nd mile to get some views of the mighty Dapha Bum.

In Namdapha

The jungle  was replete with bird calls.

We got to understand the spectacular bird life present here. In the small muddy streams we saw forktails hopping around, while other birds included the flamboyant  scarlet minivets, babblers, tree pies, barbets, patridges, kingfishers  ……..

Can the flora be behind?

The sun was climbing up, slowly. Till then we were passing through thick forest and the mud path was mostly covered with shade. Suddenly we came out to an open space, a small meadow, and realized how hot it was. But we did not feel the heat, as there was something that lay before us that cooled everything around us.

Butterflies.

Namdapha is a veritable butterfly paradise. Perhaps one of the prettiest insects on the planet,  butterflies embody the spirit of beauty and transformation in nature.

And what we found in front of us looked like a colour palette with multitonal hues and designs. Mr Pungjung started to identify the butterflies and I was busy noting them all down. Somewhere in the middle I gave up, the zoological names were distracting me from enjoying those fragile and pretty creatures.

Great Orange Tip’s, Common Five Ring’s, Chocalate Pansy, Evening Brown, Plum Judy, Common Mormon, Common Sailor and  Common Crows kept flitting by. The dragon flies and moths were not far behind.

I was distracted again, this time not by the Zoological names but by something more profound. It was the Gibbons again, those loud, coordinated, stereotyped duet song bouts had started again. Mr Pungjung said they were somewhere nearby.

We walked further up the jungle trail. The sounds got louder. And we spotted them. And ‘they’ consisted of a small happy family of a mother, father and child. The mother was  swinging from a branch with her baby clinging on to her, her husband watching her carefully from a neighbouring branch.

The man, woman and child

They suddenly disappeared into the thick forest cover and we moved on,  their sounds still haunting us.

On the way we found remnants of small fires that had been rustled up along the roadside. They had been made by people belonging to the Lisu tribe. About 157 km from Deban lies a small village called Vijoynagar. A succession of earthquakes, landslides and rains have made the settlement inaccessible and the only way to reach this village is on foot. Vijoynagar is inhabited by the Lisu tribe, who hunt forest animals. This has caused a lot of friction between the Lisus and the forest department. Poaching is common in these forests. There has been instances where Lisus have tried to exchange the endangered Red Panda for a packet of salt!

Remnants of a fire place

There are hardly any shops in Vijoynagar, so they have to trudge through the forests, cross the river, defend themselves from wild animals and sometimes walk in the rain to Miao to do all their shopping.

We met a few Lisus on our way, they carry bamboo baskets on their backs,  loaded with provisions walking slowly through the jungle. It takes them around 10 to 11 days to reach their village depending on the weather.

It is a long way home

It was already 12 pm and we started walking back. We were too engrossed with the forest sights, we totally forgot about the river flowing by, down in the valley.

The river and the valley

The sky was overcast and it looked as if it was going to rain. By 2.30 we were back at the guest house – and then it started to rain.

Famished, we decided to have lunch first.

Back at the cottage, we realised we had brought in some of the jungle’s fauna along. My husband took his socks off to reveal a particularly obstinate leech clinging on to his ankle – our first encounter with a bloodsucker. Fortunately, I had remembered my lessons…..a drop of saline and the little fellow dropped off, leaving behind a wet, red smear; our predator squiggling away for its next unsuspecting prey.

The prey and the predator

We sat by the river in the evening. It had been an eventful day.  The day’s excitement and tiredness began to take its toll. Before long we were asleep, lulled by the river flowing by and the occasional hoot of an owl.

The next day we were up before 5 am. This had become our daily routine – sleeping early, getting up even earlier – ever since we started our trip.

By 7.30 we were on the road, again. Today we were to walk towards Miao, as long as we could.

Across the river we spotted a small village with a lot of stilted houses. This village belonged to the Chakmas. The Chakmas are refugees from Bangladesh and are relatively recent immigrants, having been settled by the Indian government in the western edge of Namdapha.

The Chakma village across the Noa-dehing river

Mr Pungjung kept spotting animals and birds. By the time we came running with our cameras they conveniently disappeared. I did manage to capture a Malayan Giant Squirrel and a few hornbills flying by.

The Malayan Giant Squirrel

The patient trekker has a chance to see what he wants. The entire area is filled with songs of different species of birds –  from cuckoos to tree pies, redstarts to whistling thrushes, finches to sunbirds – the list is, happily, never-ending. The pretty flowers found in the shruberries and undergrowth added to the beauty of the forest. The oaks, the bamboo thickets, ferns and wild orchids all over.

Wild flowers on the way

A lot of road repair work was going on, a bridge was being revamped, ahead of the trekking season

There were surprises everywhere. A blue whistling thrush crossing the road, hornbills gliding over the tree canopy and a group of cape langurs enjoying their afternoon siesta.

Hornbills taking off

But it was time to go back. As we walked back we felt as if we were in a trance…taking the whole rainforest in.

But then I was reminded of a quote by Charles Darwin – “Delight is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a rainforest”. How true. Truer still, in this paradise called Namdapha.

But there was more to come. More to see. And more to know about.

The battle fields of Namti, near Walong.

Kaho and Kibithu – the eastern most villages of India.

Wakro and Tezu – our homes away from home.

Watch this space for more..


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