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Tracking endangered species in Kerala

C Gangadharan Menon goes in search of two elusive and endangered species of fauna found in the heart of Kerala’s modest wildlife sanctuaries and returns amazed at what the reserves have to offer

Nature
Best time to visit: April-Mid June
You need: 3 days

When in Kerala, some might flock to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary and Eravikulam National Park for the birdsongs, or for the joy only weighty binoculars glued to the eyes can bring. I, however, am here on a quest to find beings rare, strange and endangered. Amid this leafy paradise, I seek a strange-looking bird called Ceylon Frogmouth, and a mountain goat called Nilgiri Tahr. It’s a travesty of justice that the father of birdwatching in India, Dr Salim Ali, has only two of the smallest bird sanctuaries in India named after him. One measuring just 25 sq km in Kerala at Thattekkad, and another one which is a mere two sq kms at Chorao in Goa.

Ceylon Frogmouths
The rare, elusive Ceylon Frogmouths lie perfectly camouflaged in the trees at Thattekad’s sanctuary

Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary
Don’t let Thattekad’s size fool you — Dr Salim Ali himself rated this 25-sq-km bird sanctuary as the richest in peninsular India, teeming with land and water birds. And it is here that one of Ali’s disciples rediscovered the elusive Ceylon Frogmouth. In what is a laudable conservation effort, the forest department closes this park for visitors every few months to minimise disturbance to these shy and rare birds. It has worked — I learn that their numbers have greatly increased over the past decade. As my car approaches the sanctuary, I find myself reminiscing about my first trip to Thattekkad in 1992. Any minute now, I tell myself, this road from Cochin will come to a screeching halt at the Periyar River. Just like old times. I think of the boatman who rowed us across in a canoe which looked rather hastily built. But my car does not halt at the river; it doesn’t need to. Instead, it sails over a bridge. It is easier, of course, but the mysticism of being rowed across to my destination, I realise, is gone forever.

Nilgiri Tahr
A Nilgiri Tahr at Eravikulam National Park

Inside Thattekad
Welcomed by a repertoire of birdsongs, I walk into the forest office nestled in the middle of the dense forest, which, in turn, lies between two tributaries of the Periyar River. My home for two days in the forest is a tree-top house. One glance outside the window, and I spot a perfectly camouflaged flying lizard on a tree. It is the perfect welcome — and it almost seems orchestrated when it flies across and perches on the tree right next to my tree-house for the perfect photo-op.

Periyar River
The lovely Periyar River at the edge of Thattekad. PICS/C Gangadharan Menon

Late in the afternoon, my guide, Maani, and I set out birdwatching. There are 270 birds to spot in this birding paradise, and we manage to spot around 75 in first three hours alone. We see some, but only hear the others. That’s when I remember Dr Salim Ali’s dictum: ‘Learn to identify a bird by its call. Because, first you hear it, and then you see it. And many a time, you don’t even see it.’

The Forest Calotes
The Forest Calotes is endemic to the Western Ghats

No guide ever guarantees any sighting, ever. But Maani is different. On our second day in the forest, he proclaims that we will spot not just one but three Ceylon Frogmouths. These birds are endemic to the Western Ghats and very rare. Maani takes me to a patch in the forest where, quite surprisingly, all the plants have dried up. But it is here, amid this aridity, I see three Ceylon Frogmouths, so perfectly camouflaged that only Maani’s eagle eye could have spotted them. Being nocturnal, they cannot see in broad daylight and it feels like they are staring at us without really seeing us. I click away wildly, trying to take the best possible shots of the father, mother and the chick. A sighting of the Ceylon Frogmouths stays with you long after. The next morning, I leave Thattekad before sunrise, but the unseeing eyes of the birds stay with me all along my journey to Munnar.

A Lion-tailed macaque
A Lion-tailed macaque is now endangered

Eravikulam National Park
The way to Munnar, it turns out, is gorgeous. I see two magnificent waterfalls — the three-tiered Cheeyappara and the two-tiered Vaalara — cascading down the slopes. This life-giving water that flows down from the Western Ghats has a very short lifespan in Kerala. In just 12 hours, it flows through the breadth of this small state and reaches its watery grave in the Arabian Sea. So, there’s a dire need for creating small check dams to slow it down all along its path and use the water better.

I drive ahead, irked by the political banners strung across century-old trees.

A pair of Lantern Fly
A pair of Lantern Fly

But just as I begin to mutter about how unsightly and unfair it is, I see an object glistening on the road and I brake reflexively. I get down to take a closer look and realise that it is a spectacled cobra slithering across into the bushes. Fortunately, I was driving at 40 km per hour and avoided a road-kill, which accounts for more deaths in the forests than poaching itself. In the foothills of Munnar, at Adimali, I see another endangered species: the lion-tailed macaque, endemic to Western Ghats. And as we start climbing the ghats, the well-known plantations began to appear on either side. Fortunately, the dreaded weed called plantation beans, locally known as Thottappayar, is nowhere to be seen. Specially imported and grown by plantation owners to keep the soil cool, this weed is responsible for the green cancer that has destroyed many an evergreen forest in the Malabar region of North Kerala.

But the other side-effect of cultivation is slowly rearing its ominous head. Slowly, as we near Munnar, the forests become highly fragmented, almost becoming small floating evergreen islands in a sea of plantation cultivation, sadly cut off from each other.

And the beautiful Kerala houses too are beginning to lose their colour and harmony, and seem strangely gauche. Some time ago, the houses in Kerala prided themselves in blending with nature and making themselves invisible. Now, they seem to scream and say, ‘Look, here I am, whether you like it or not.’

When I reach the magnificent Munnar, mystically rising from the clouds, I realise I have another 15 miles to go before I sleep, and quickly proceed to Eravikulam. There, I wait for my turn in the mini bus to take me deep inside the shola forests for my tryst with the shy and elusive Nilgiri Tahr, the mountain goat of the Western Ghats.

By the window of the bus, I gaze at the magnificence of this unique landscape, the shola forests. These rolling grasslands alternate with stunted montane forests and create a green mosaic that’s found here and here alone. As if to complete this dreaminess, far in the distance, among prehistoric rocks glistening in the setting sun, is a lone Nilgiri Tahr. Spotting one is much like spotting your first tiger. There’s no way you’d ever forget.

Plan now
How to reach:
Thattekkad is 70 km from Cochin via Perumbavoor. And Munnar is a further 60 kms from there via Adimali.
Where to stay: For bookings at Thattekkad, log on to www.indiawildliferesorts.com and for Munnar, log on to www.keralatourism.org.

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