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Monday, January 2, 2012

On the tiger trail

Trekking Janaki Murali follows the footsteps of a tiger in search of its kill, in this rich and descriptive account of the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary in Kerala. In October, during the Diwali weekend, it was tourist mayhem at Thekkady in Kumily, Kerala, famous for its Periyar Tiger sanctuary. It had been raining through the night and it was still trickling in the morning, making it a very cold and wet day. We had rushed out of our hotel, which adjoined the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary, at 5 am in the morning to walk the short distance to the tiger sanctuary’s gates, to join the lengthening queue. The main attraction in Kumily, more commonly referred to as Thekkady, is the famous Periyar Tiger Sanctuary, housing some 45 tigers. The dense deciduous forests, surrounding the Periyar Lake, has some 145 species of orchids, over 60 species of mammals, over 300 bird species and some 150 types of butterflies. Coffee and tea were being sold by enterprising cyclewallahs to the tourists in the queue. Clutching the paper cup with its hot coffee and finding shelter under a borrowed umbrella, I watched as handicrafts’ stall owners opened their shops to catch the early tourist traffic. They often cheerfully turned arbitrators in small quarrels that arose between the tourists whenever somebody broke the queue. It was a wet and cold morning, and tempers were short. Autos, buses, taxis and cars added to the chaos, parked willy nilly before the closed gates. When the gates opened, there was a mad rush of vehicles through the Tiger Reserve. It was amusing to see vehicles pour into the parking lot of the Periyar sanctuary at break-neck speed , so that it could vomit out its inhabitants to join yet another long queue to buy tickets for the boat ride. No way were we joining another long queue, and so we made an instant decision to trek instead. The forest, on foot Periyar sanctuary offers different kinds of treks. There are camping trails where groups can stay overnight in the sanctuary, and there are jeep rides. There are nature walks among other treks. We decided to do the nature walk costing Rs 800. The nature walk comprises a trained guide who accompanies a small group of five on a three-hour trek into the Periyar forest. “Wear heavy shoes as there are lots of leeches in the forest,” we were told at the ticket counter. We were also asked to fill in forms with our contact details and the next of kin’s numbers and address. We were then given leech socks — pair of thick khaki socks. This was to prevent leeches from attaching themselves to our skins. We walked down a few steps to board a bamboo raft that the guide rowed to take us to the other side. The view from the raft was spectacular — the lake, surrounded by the forest, had the cardamom hills as its backdrop. On the other side, the forest beckoned with all its mysteries intact. Nature had spread its bounteous gifts for us to experience. We kept to the shoreline during the initial parts of our trek, but were soon walking deep into the moist deciduous forests, complete with the undulating hills on one end and marshlands and slushy undergrowth beneath our feet. We had to constantly watch our step, for we never knew what might be crawling below us. There were plenty of leeches which stuck to our shoes that we constantly pushed away with twigs. At one point, the guide sprayed some tobacco powder on our shoes, which he said would keep the leeches away, not that it did. In and around At a distance we saw the Nilgiri langur monkeys which swung from branch to branch, offering us a glimpse here and a glimpse there. They were too quick for us to capture on film. Birds surrounded us with their loud chatter. Some brightly coloured ones flew into our view and flew away even before we could identify them. Across the lake, we spied some bison, and far away on a hill were some more. As we went deeper and deeper into the forest, we spied some silver oaks, cedar, teak, rain trees, wild berries, wild guavas and wild mushrooms. But, except for the bison, we had caught sight of no other animals and had to be satisfied with bear pug marks and an elephant fossil. With the fresh rains, the undergrowth was wet and slushy, but we plodded on, still in search of the elusive tiger. Then suddenly the guide shushed us and asked us to stop. We stopped and listened in silence to the noise of the jungle. Amidst the loud chatter of the birds, the guide whispered, “Can’t you smell him? A tiger has been here just now.” I shivered in excitement. A tiger? We stood quietly and scoured a clearing that the guide pointed us towards, hoping to catch some action. There was nothing there, expect rolling greenery. The sun shone like a spotlight on the natural amphitheatre kind of setting and I almost expected the tiger to appear from the wings and take a bow. Beastly presence After a few more minutes of expectant silence, with our hearts pounding a little too noisily, the guide began groping around in the undergrowth. With the sunlight filtering in through the leafy branches of the tall trees, every shadow could have been a tiger in disguise. The guide, the consummate actor that he was, demonstrated what the tiger must have done. I was certain that our guide had missed his calling. He ought to have been on stage. “It must have spotted a fowl and come to attack. Then it smelt us and bounded away. Tigers are very shy animals, but there should be pug marks, let’s look for them,” he said softly. We groped around the green and brown carpeted forest floor, not knowing what we were looking for. “Ah! There they are,” he said with a smug satisfied air about him. We saw them too and collectively released our breaths. We hadn’t spotted a tiger, but had walked in its wake, which was nearly as good, if not better, for what would we have done, if we had seen a tiger face to face. The trek back to the raft that would take us back to the other side was nearly not as exciting as our near encounter with the tiger. Back at the base, we pulled out our khaki socks and saw them creeping and crawling with leeches. Some had found their way inside my shoes too. While we spent the next few minutes removing the leeches, I was sorry that the trek was over. A group of tourists, who had spent the night camping in the forest, told us disappointedly that they hadn’t spotted the tiger. Another couple who had gone into the forest in a jeep had the same story to tell. I smiled in smug satisfaction. We hadn’t spotted a tiger either, but we had walked its path, and had a pugmark to show for our efforts.

Kanha’s many stripes

Tej Narayan Animal retreat One fine crimson evening, I found myself in Kisli, a village that lay within the green woods of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Saturated with saal trees, these forests maintain their greenery even during the summer and act as green mansions for the wildlife in Kanha Tiger reserve. As I explored the Kanha forest, I came across a plethora of fauna. I found a herd of bison as well as deer grazing merrily in its lush green surroundings. Negotiating hairpin turns on Salkat Road, a terrain defined by bamboo and saal trees, I found myself entering the tiger’s abode. My excitement and anticipation over the possibility of spotting a tiger fell through, however, when all we could spot were a couple of wild boars rustling the bamboo. While I might have had no luck on that particular day, I chanced upon the beast on my return journey to my rest house in Kisli. I hadn’t noticed that the being I had driven past in the middle of the night was one that I was hoping to see all along. Early next day, while exploring the meadows of Kanha, I also chanced upon one of the most beautiful and elegant deer to be found, the Barasingha. There are different species of Barasingha, some of which can be found in Kaziranga National Park in Assam. But the most beautiful are those protected within the confines of Kanha. Forest officials also organise a ‘Tiger Show’ for tourists. Mahouts on elephants set out before dawn to areas where one is most likely to spot a tiger. When the tiger is sighted, elephants encircle the area to make sure that the tigers don’t stray too far off. Wireless messages are then sent to a camp at Kanha, who then usher the tourists (for a price, of course) to view the tigers from an elephant’s back. Seated on an elephant, I had the delightful opportunity of watching a tiger during its meal time. Its catch of the day was the royal stag. It was rather chilling, and at the same time, exciting, to watch this striped carnivore devour its kill. I wanted to move a little closer to the animal to get a better shot on my camera. An inch forward, however, led to a low warning growl from the tiger. I managed to get my picture in a fraction of a second, a second that captured his feast and growl all at once. The mahout pointed out to another tiger lazing about behind a bush, trying to seem like he was meditating. Perhaps, he had gulped down his grub to his satisfaction and was enjoying his siesta. As we inched closer, he opened one eye, only to remind us that appearances, after all, were always deceiving. We saw other fauna too — black buck, spotted deer and sambar, to be precise. The guide also pointed out a variety of birds, including the multi-hued peacock and the colourful kingfisher. The Kanha Tiger Reserve is spread over 1,945 sq km of lush green flora of the Maikal Mountain of Satpura mountain ranges in Central India. The park is open from October to May.

‘Jaw traps’ suspected for tiger death in Bandipur

K H Obalesh, Chamarajanagar, Jan 1, DHNS: Practice prevalent in North India; attempts to hush up incident alleged An incident of Forest officials allegedly hushing up the death of a tiger caught in a ‘jaw trap’ has come to light in the limits of Bandipur National Park. A 10-year-old male tiger was found dead in the Kalkere range of the Park on December 30 and the official version was that the animal died of hunger. One more tiger was found dead at the same spot on December 31 after being caught in a ‘jaw trap.’ It is said senior officers visited the spot clandestinely and buried the caracass. They are also said to have taken photographs of the dead animal and the ‘jaw trap.’ According to the guidelines framed by National Tiger Conservation Authority, post mortem on tigers should be conducted in the presence of two representatives of non-governmental organisations. Accordingly, two representatives were present during the post mortem on the tiger which died of hunger. However, sources in the Forest department say that the officials have maintained secrecy on the ‘jaw trap’ death of the tiger. There had been no reports of ‘jaw trap’ deaths in the State for the past three years. The practice of hunting animals using this type of trap is more prevalent in North India and the tribals of Madhya Pradesh are said to be experts. The first such case came to light in South India at Nagarahole National Park in 2002. Two hunters were arrested in Veeranahosahalli, Nagarahole in 2008 for using the trap. It is said the forest officials are attempting to suppress the recent incident to escape laxity charges. A wildlife expert, who wished to be unnamed, said true facts would come to light if a CID investigation is ordered into the death of tigers. Dr K T Hanumanthappa, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Bandipur, told Deccan Herald that a tiger died of oral lesions in Kalkere range and that the caracass was burnt after a post mortem. He denied any ‘jaw trap’ deaths of tiger in the Range. What is a jaw trap? A common foothold trap is made of two jaws, a trigger in the middle and one or two springs. A round pan usually acts as a trigger. The traps, usually laid on the tracks frequented by animals, are anchored to the earth with the help of strong chains and are camouflaged with dry leaves. As soon as the animal steps on the trigger, the trap closes around the foot clamping down its limb or paw. As the animal struggles to free itself writhing in pain, the steel vise cuts into its flesh, some times down to the bone. The trapped animals are sometimes gunned down by hunters, while in some cases they die of pain and hunger.