Archive for May, 2010
“Some days have a nervous, excited feeling about them while most are drab, mundane and one’s we would never retrieve from the depths of unwanted storage”. – Anonymous
I had been in the Anamalais for over 4 months now, looking for otters where many wouldn’t expect to find them, in the tea and coffee plantations of Valparai. It had been a mostly frustrating time, having not seen a single otter that I was out looking for (thankfully, I rely on signs and not sightings for my data). I would gladly bin most days into the latter category, except those few where my stroke of luck took a brief upward trajectory. Great pied hornbills, an occasional leopard posing beside a cow or stalking a herd of pigs, the motley crew of striped-neck mongooses, brown palm civets and porcupines kept me from slipping into a coma. And, a leopard cat chasing shadows on a tree was an indication of the times to come.
I had taken a break from the “evergreen” tea and coffee landscape, and was instead sampling streams in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. My base camp was Varagaliar, in the heart of the reserve in more ways than one. It is here that the monotonously brown teak plantations give way to rainforests in every hue of green. And recently, all of its inhabitants including the highly damaging camp elephants had been relocated to other places away from these rainforests. The most striking feature of Varagaliar though is Perumkundru, the lone giant who towers over everything else. This lone giant keeps a silent vigil on one of the last remaining rainforests on one side and India’s economic ambitions on the other. His upper slopes are also home to a small population of the highly endangered Nilgiri tahrs. Two major streams starting somewhere deep in the folds of the mountain join in front of the Varagaliar camp and there is water flowing throughout the year. This combined with the open fields (thanks to its earlier inhabitants) now attracts herds of gaur and sambar.
After arriving at Varagaliar in the evening, I was told by the watcher that a pack of dholes had killed a sambar near the stream and feasted on it the previous day. And as he had predicted, they turned up again in the dying light and scavenged on whatever was left of it as I watched from a cautious distance. The next morning, I was up with the first light and as I made my way to the stream near the camp to check our camera trap, I startled a pack of 5-6 dholes on the other bank still scavenging on the remains.
One of them on seeing me, started off a “wak-wak-wak” alarm call and ran away to join the others listen to this . For the next 30 minutes I watched them finish whatever was left of the now two day old kill. My day was made I thought, and I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The stream I had to sample that day was a good three hour climb from Varagaliar, somewhere in the darker shadows of Perumkundru. The climb took us upstream along the Kurumpalli Pallam, a fast, rocky stream with dense rainforest canopy. An hour and a half later as we were crossing over to the other side near a rocky pool, we (Dinesh, my Kadar field assistant and myself) were completely caught unaware by a small animal, a little larger than an overweight bandicoot with a long tail that burst out of the water and went scurrying into a rock crevice just large enough for animals its size. The small-clawed otter, the animal I was trying so hard to see, was hiding in a rock crevice in front of us, and we were happy to leave it undisturbed and moved away sort-of-contented. Not wanting to linger around, we continued on our way further upstream. We were confronted by wet footprints of an otter on the rocks and we could only guess if it belonged to the one we had seen.
When I’m not looking for signs of otters or other carnivores, I often try to identify trees as one of the seven or eight species that I can confidently identify (thanks to Divya & Sridhar ). Dinesh, though infinitely more knowledgeable about trees often avoids my incessant questioning. We finally reached our start point at 11, a good three hours after we started. Overhead were a troop of LTMs (lion-tailed monkeys), not shy but curious. They were peering down at us from the canopy and us at them. It was at this moment that we heard a tiger calling. Everything went silent and then we heard it again. We stood staring in that direction, somewhere further upstream, where the shadows were even darker. The LTMs who had been silent all along now suddenly erupted with a series of alarm calls, while we stood rooted to the ground watching a tiger come down to the stream for a drink. He/she melted into the undergrowth as silently as he/she had appeared. I could then only glimpse momentary stripes of black and orange weaving in and out of a thick green curtain. The cacophony too followed the tiger’s movement and eventually died out. I couldn’t believe my luck! The first six hours since day break had made me feel almost superhuman. We managed to finish the day’s sampling, hoping like always to see another otter or a tiger. Finally, I got back with a wide grin on my face, but having narrowly missed a flock of martens!
That night, I was again driven out of camp by rats and the incessant din raised by fellow humans. As I settled down in the gypsy (parked some distance away), the rutting calls of bull gaurs and the frantic alarm calls of sambar took over, accompanied by an orchestra of night jars, owls and the “brain-fever” bird. I slowly drifted away under the pleasant glow of a thousand fireflies and the ever-watchful gaze of Perumkundru, feeling like a happy insignificant blink in the face of timelessness; which was but now restricted to a few valleys.
Or as Cameron Langford (The Winter of the Fisher) puts it, “And a man’s a fool to think on time, when timelessness encloses him on every side”.
Two days later, we watched a pack of 9 dholes bring down an adult sambar. They were then joined by 6 pups.
If killing an adult sambar wasn’t hard enough, the dholes had to then defend their kill from an adamant wild boar looking for an easy meal!
Which soon turned into a scene straight out of a western classic,Dholes defending kill – 1