As the battered jeep heaved on the uneven, boulder-strewn, mud road towards the Pandaramukki peak inside the Kudremukh National park, a mild rain started to fall. Evenings have been drippy in the past week with pre-monsoon showers already in order. Just as the monsoon sets in the shores of Kerala, Kudremukh also receives considerable rainfall in the Western Ghats. The rain increased into a strong banter, lashing on the metal sheets of the jeep and when we reached the camp site it had literally started raining on our parade.
We were to pitch tents at the location identified as the temporary Anti Poaching Camp up by the forest officials, as part of the certified volunteer program conducted by the Karnataka Ecotourism Development Board. Overnight stay at the APC, inside the reserve park area, is mandated to provide the volunteers with real-time, hands-on experience and ground level realities of the park conservation. Kudremukh National Park is located in the central Western Ghats covering 600.57 km2. The park is also a UNESCO world heritage site and home to numerous endemic species of animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
The third batch of the Volunteer Training Program, conducted in the third week of May, saw participation from 29 individuals from all walks of life. As similar as their interests are, their professions are as varied – fitness instructor, software engineer in their yesteryears turned organic farming consultant, software engineers in their present lives, students. The weeklong program aimed to impart knowledge on the basics of wildlife and conservation with speeches and presentations by naturalists, herpetologists, amphibian specialists and forest officials. The trained volunteers would be used for activities like pilgrim management, animal census and other areas where the forest department is crunched for staff.
The clouds ushered in more rains as we arrived at the campsite and we quickly set about pitching tents before the ground got too wet. As though on cue, as soon as the tent pitching was over, the rain stopped. With it, a red-wattled lapwing that had her nest somewhere close to the water body by which we had our tents, realized there is trouble in sight and started her ‘did you do it’ alarm call. She didn’t have to worry too much because lapwing nests are extremely difficult to spot – their dirt-colored eggs are camouflaged with their nesting ground.
With the rain out of sight and concern, the enterprising among us helped setting up the makeshift kitchen by collecting rocks, starting a fire and chopping vegetables for dinner. The others wandered off to the nearby peaks their arms extended with phones in search of cellphone network, like diffusers looking for landmines. After volunteering with Girish, the solar instrument entrepreneur from Hassan on preparing dinner, I took a short walk and was rewarded with sightings of Sambar and Gaur in packs, in distant hillocks heading home after a rewarding day of grassland grazing.
The Anti Poaching Camps are typically located deep inside the jungles where animals and the forest wealth (timber and other valuable plants) are vulnerable to the greater predator – the human being and other natural disasters like forest fire (also, sometimes started by careless humans). The forest guards usually set out on foot early everyday aided by a GPS device and record their observations and enter the same in the evening into the HULI software, developed by the forest department. This enables the department to monitor wildlife and habitat health.
Having decided on an early morning trek through the thickets of sholas and grasslands, we zipped ourselves up, retiring inside the tents quite early wishing each other an early night. The morning sun rose pink and purple above the peaks of Kudremukh as we commenced our trek the following day. The lapwing wasn’t letting up on her warning calls. We ambled along as the forest guards lead our way. The grass was awash with last night’s rain and snails, in yellow and white stripes, lugged themselves ahead languidly.
The thickets of shola forests are just a few yards away and everyone, except me and the forest guards of course, is armed with leech-proof socks that prevent these blood thirsty monsters from raiding your legs. Without much forethought, in an act brimming with pointless bravado, I refused to accept the leech proof socks when they were offered back at the base camp. I would soon pay for that ignorance. Thanks to their perennial water supply, shola forests are home to numerous endemic evergreen trees. Which also means the mulch inside the sholas is squirming with millions of leeches trying to hop onto a host to feed on blood.
Strewn with mossy boulders and haphazard tree growth, sholas are the antithesis of trekking routes. Walk precariously but if you are in a danger of slipping, holding onto your dear life and to the nearby tree covered with lichens, will be of little help. Lichens are organisms found in rain forests on trees with the perennial moisture supporting their growth. There began my dance with the leeches. Amid fear of unsettling nesting cobras and driving out grazing Sambars, I started stamping my feet to shake the leeches away but in vain. By midway, I realized I was hopelessly hosting at least 50 leeches, sucking blood from a single entry point they have made in my leg. A few enterprising ones have moved on to other unmentionable spots as well. Ineffectively, with the help of a twig, I got rid of the cluster of them and by the end of it I realized I had slowed down the trek party’s efforts as well.
The agile forest guards walked swiftly pointing to trees and plants to us and describing their medicinal values. A fig tree had borne the brunt of bear claw marks and another stood victim to a gaur’s horn marks that had stripped the tree of its bark considerably. Though poaching is not that rampant in Kudremukh the threats forest department faces include forest fires, some amount of local timber felling and eradication of invasive plants (predominant of them being the pteridium, a fern).
Later, as we tracked our way back to the base camp and as the debriefing session was in progress, DFO Dr. Ramesh mentioned that staying inside the Kudremukh National Park was a rare experience. Kudremukh is one of the newest National Parks in the country and hence the virgin forests and grasslands are left untouched with little access to tourism infrastructure. Much of it is off public access and it is one of the few places where the shola forests and grasslands with their birds and animals are preserved in their natural glory – with bare minimum human intervention. On the other hand, the leeches would love to have some human company, I suppose.
An edited version of this appeared in Deccan Herald and can be accessed here.