Before your imagination runs wild, I went to the forests around Agumbe in the Someswara Wild Life Sanctuary range as part of a volunteering exercise assisting the Forest Department of Karnataka in a monkey census. This was to assess the population status of the endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus) in the rain forests of Kudremukh in Western Ghats. The lion-tailed macaque is classified as endangered because of its highly selective feeding habits, limited range of occupancy (ca. 2500 km2, majorly in three southern Indian states namely Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala), delayed sexual maturity, long interbirth intervals, low population turnover, and a small remaining wild population. The population census is also crucial because comprehensive information on surviving numbers in the fragmented rain forests is not readily available.
The census had faced a roadblock earlier owing to the severe resource crunch, an acute shortage of field staff, in the forest department of Karnataka. The department, however, has found a novel way to tackle its resource crunch. The Forest Department of Karnataka and the Ecotourism Board are enlisting civilians into its fold as volunteers, tapping into the pool of willing enthusiasts to forge long-term partnerships and provide a rare glimpse into the department’s wildlife conservation efforts. Owing to the successful programs conducted earlier to enlist volunteers, the department can afford the lion-tailed macaque survey without any glitch to its existing resources.
I attended the Volunteer Training Program (VTP) conducted in May and was certified as a eco-volunteer. When announcement for this census came up, I jumped at it though I was back from a rather long trip only recently. After all, who wants to pass up on an opportunity to trek in the forests everyday (otherwise inaccessible for civilians), looking for an endangered monkey?
So armed with a GPS (the readings of which I botched up a first few days) and a local forest guard named Santosh, I walked in the forests braving leeches, mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies looking for the elusive monkey. I didn’t find one until the last day of the survey. But instead, I breathed fresh air, saw giant malabar squirrels skittering in the high reaches of tall trees and numerous birds. The exercise only lasted for a few hours in the early morning so I had the rest of the day for myself.
Creatures like this are found in and around the forests of Agumbe.
We made complete use of the better part of the day by exploring the nearby towns and villages. The fish curry meals at Hebri, the neeru dosa at the Ganesh Hotel at Agumbe, the charming Udupi, malpe’s sunset and the numerous walks we took inside the campsite (Seetanadi Nature Camp) made the entire trip worthwhile. Here are a few images.
You could be part of the Volunteer Training Program (VTP) run by the Forest Department and Ecotourism Board of Karnataka as well. Leave a comment and I will keep you posted on when it happens.
Hanakon: I have very clear memory of articulating the word to the mini-bus conductor in Karwar before boarding the rattling mass of automobile that is somehow, clutching its life in its hands, speeding down the narrow main road. I see signboards for Canacon and not of Hanakon and I suddenly grow wary – is it Canacon the bus is heading to? The dreary youngster of a conductor proves fractious, maintaining a sullen expression as if to avoid conversation with strangers. It could be the heavy-eyed, foggy morning on which he is forced to work when the entire world is still wriggling inside its sheets.
I call Diwan, chief instructor at the Riveredge where I am headed and confirm my navigational orientation. The bus drops me off at Hanakon, so infinitesimal a village wedged somewhere along the Karnataka – Goa – Maharashtra border, even Google maps chose to ignore it. As I try to make sense of my coordinates to reach the resort, I – a seemingly lost, lone stranger become a subject of curiosity for the villagers on that uneventful morning.
But they are friendly, suggesting shortcuts. “Look for Rajesh’s house. He works for the resort, he will take you,” the shopkeeper says. Rajesh and his house prove elusive but I continue walking and increasingly meet with head bobbing and lip pouting signifying lack of information. A middle aged man working on his field helpfully hands me a staff warning of stray dog nuisance. After about fifteen minutes of ambling around, I stumble upon a neglected wooden pathway built across the mangrove bushes leading to what seemed like civilization.
I amble further along the thicket of mangroves, lined on either side with stilted cottages and Diwan appears from his quarters with a loud call of welcome. I was shown my cottage whose bedside window opens to the mangrove duplicating a tree-house effect while the front door to the backwaters. In the following nights, I would wake up listening to the nocturnal movements of the forest – a falling twig, scampering of some animal, a cat or a snake may be – but too cagey to peep out into the darkness. The distance to my cottage from the dining area and access to it in the night also ensured that I constantly fear of accidentally stepping over a snake earning its wrath and a resultant swipe – or worse – a mouthful meal for a python.
Now though Diwan insists I take a kayak ride. He also adds that the water is very deep in some places and thinks I should not carry my camera. I persist. I slip into the kayak, with the help of Avinash, an ex-manager at the property, who spiritedly agrees to kayak with me. The ebb and flow of Kali’s backwaters has created a smattering of habitable islands with fields of paddy and vegetables cultivation.
The heaviness of the sunless, hazy day weighs down on me and I fall back on my paddling. Avinash is a spot in the distance framed by the huddling peaks of Western Ghats and the low, sluice gates of the river. Tiny kingfishers, cormorants and terns dart across looking to catch the fish leaping out of the still water. I slowly tire myself out and let the kayak bob in the water. That hard slog is thankfully supplemented with a meal that constitutes of fish fry and spicy pepper chicken.
The horizontal depletion of my resources is only complemented by the vertical ones, just the next day. On an extended trek through dense forests, Diwan takes me rock climbing. He comes equipped with sturdy shoes but omits the crucial detail about the shoes to me – I am in my hiking sandals designed for flat surfaces. ‘It’s ok sir, I have taken women for rock climbing with children in hand,’ he tells me as a way of assuaging my concerns. ‘Yeah but I am sure they had their shoes on,’ I think in my head.
At the sight of the steep precipice that was once a waterfall, my heart falls skipping several beats. I tell him I am not very fond of heights, sugar coating my acrophobia. But he is not around to respond. Rubbing climbing chalk in his hands, he is free-climbing with the orange rope hanging from his waist that he drops to me as a climbing rope, scaling the rock and fastening the rope in a tree. I wear my harness on with the help of the assistant, hook myself to the rope and begin my ascent clumsily.
‘Don’t use your knee, hold on to the rock,’ I hear instructions from above and below. My sandals threaten to slip me up but I scramble, hold on to dear life and tiny rock faces. In this manner, after what seems like hours, I reach the summit amid much encouraging hoo-ha. I can only feign a smile. Cautious to not look down, I rapidly oblige to Diwan’s instructions on rappelling down.
Are you still scared of heights, sir? Diwan asks me after the entire process is over. I do not bother to explain that one threatening ascend is not enough to ward off my fear of heights. Despite its non-existence in my imaginary bucket list, rock climbing (or scrambling) becomes the one thing I can easily add and tick off in quick succession. Soon after though, as we trek back to the main road over stories of bear attacks amid cackling of hornbills and the whoosh of breeze that rips the forest’s hush, my mood shifts; I gamely listen on.
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.