We hit the road at 2 pm – running late, relentlessly cursing the impeding traffic. Bruce Springsteen’s words sure did calm Kaushik’s nerves.
We were heading for the beautiful and mysterious Annamalai Hills! By the time we reached the foothills – dusk made a quick escape, leaving us in darkness, and quite blinded! It poured buckets, strong fickle winds deceiving us. We decided to move ahead, hoping as we climb the Ghats, shifting winds will encourage the rains to follow.
40 hairpin bends, a massive dam below and a domineering yet completely shrouded in darkness monstrous hills. At every bend, the cavernous opening gave away little – enough to leave you disturbed. Every climb she grew bigger, these hills make you feel vulnerable and humbled. Out there lay darkness, deafening silence and power – as it continues to drizzle, drenched and glinting, the horizon hits you like a bolt from the blue. I may sound a bit dramatic, but having done this climb at night, especially when the moon calls in proxy – these beautiful hills are alive, and beckon you like a seductress.
As Kaushik maneuvered yet another hairpin bend, a brown palm civet cat quickly made a run for it. Hiding behind a rock, it risked another glance. Kaushik was ecstatic! He likes to recount these observations, mentally comparing with his previous travels. On our way, we spotted a massive sambar and a juvenile alarmed hare.
Wildlife in tea estates? Well, yes! It’s nothing new, and the estate owners have learnt to live in harmony with their ‘wilder’ cousins.
You could never go wrong with this – the whoosh of its flight, and the characteristic call – the Great Indian hornbill. We soon spotted its kin too, the Malabar hornbills. This birder’s paradise is a treasure trove, and three days in this forest, we were lucky to spot almost 40 species that we particularly wanted to. Let’s not get into sprained necks and watery bushed eyes.
In these estates, you are sure to share space with the regulars, the gaurs. Flying squirrels and the Malabar giant squirrels are quite common. You should keep your head strained up, always searching the trees – you might spot civets too. I always trust Kaushik’s sharp and watchful eye. At night, with his Fenix, he is our perfect binoculars. Thanks to him, we could watch many nocturnal species going about their business – right from gliding experts, and hooting loners, to the bulbous eyed observers – a great experience. Highlight? The brown palm civet cat babies – all in all four of them! A very rare sighting this. Watching hundreds of Malabar grey hornbills returning to their roosting spot in the evening, flying right above our heads definitely makes it to the list.
The Lion-tailed Macaques (LTM) are another story. There are two troops in the area. We caught the larger group by a village – they were on the roof, a raucous lot, ravaging and heartily disruptive, trying to enter homes, being chased by sticks, hanging on ropes, foraging through garbage, and steadily boisterous. We quietly sat around these magnificent yet highly threatened primates for an hour. The villagers are very comfortable with this ‘typical’ raid – but it goes beyond comfort – they feel sorry and FEED the macaques. The LTMs were elegantly opening up packaged covers and devouring all kind of garbage and discarded food. Also, you’ll find a few younger macaques enjoy sitting on cars – it’s not easy to drive them away. The alpha male always puts up a great show – you’ll find him bossing around, yet subtly and proudly guarding his pack.
A tusker moved about in one of the estates, looking calm and satisfied. We soon came about a herd – Three mud-caked and intense creatures dwarfing the plantation. There have been increasing incidents of man-elephant interactions in the area. There is no crop raid issue here – elephants of course, don’t feed on tea. Threats are to buildings and lack of knowledge of elephant movement, leading to human deaths. When we were walking towards a village, we heard a siren – a sort of alarm being played out repeatedly. After inquiring, we were informed that the alarm was to warn people of elephant movements in the area, requesting them to keep indoors. The Elephant Information Network initiated by a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, works towards reducing conflicts by alerting locals of elephant movements through bulk SMSes, mobile-controlled floodlights and updates on local TV channels. These innovative approaches so far have proved to be successful!
Like the macaques the highly acrobatic and dexterous Nilgiri Tahr are endemic to the Nilgiris. We saw a fawn scale a precarious rock very gracefully, it’s quite a sight.
We stopped by to observe a herd of gaurs – one of the bigger cows hung about quite close to the road. There were two other cars parked, and a family of over 13 ran, jumped and yelped out of these vehicles. One of the senior members of the family was trying to shove his camera dangerously close to the timid gaur’s face. She patiently looked straight into the imprudent man’s lens – he was thrilled. This obnoxious bunch completely played ignorant to one of the largest wild bovines in South India. What happened next? Ah… we were not prepared for this one yet. The family blasts loud music and children begin to dance – with dupattas flying very Bollywoodishly, overstated pelvic thrusts and proud parents cheering on. The gaur? Confused! Ears perked up, she stops munching, quietly absenting herself from the extravagant show. I’m sure she wasn’t prepared for this one either.
LTMs feeding on garbage carelessly discarded and being fed by humans – quite a disturbing sight.
Crested serpent eagle, oriental honey buzzard, brown fish owl, Malabar whistling thrush, Great Indian hornbill, Malabar grey hornbills, chestnut bee eater, black eagle, lesser fishing eagle. Elephants, gaurs, sambar, mouse deer, barking deer, lion-tailed macaques, porcupine, Nilgiri tahr, giant squirrels, flying squirrels, common civet cat, brown palm civet cat, Nilgiri and common langurs.
– Gana Kedlaya & Kaushik Bajibab