Periyar Tiger Reserve

Sights & sounds of Periyar reserve

Print edition : June 21, 2019

Tiger. Photo: Sanjayan Kumar

The leopard watches the tourist boat in the Thekaddy lake unperturbed. It did not budge even as wildlifers approached it, on February 25, 2015. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The tiger cub approaching the forester and the guard. Photo: Sanjayan Kumar

A herd of elephants in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, on May 2, 2015. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A nursery of gaur calves in the middle of a large meadow. The meadow gives them security from predators. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A gaur bull in the reserve, on May 2, 2015. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

An alarmed sambar doe with an open wound. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The tiger, suspicious of the stir in the nearby forest. Photo: Sanjayan Kumar

Grasslands, shola forest and eucalyptus plantation provide a soothing view in the tourism zone. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A tourist boat at Thekkady. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Captive tourism fetches revenue to the reserve. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Periyar Tiger Reserve has an alluring landscape of plant and animal species and one of the best conservation programmes.

A TERRIFIED troop of Nilgiri langur raised an alarm and its fear manifested itself in various forms of expressions: whooping calls, grunts, grinding of teeth and excited leaping from branch to branch. The langurs were in a clump of tall trees in a deep nallah on the shore of the Periyar lake in Kerala. The nallah had a rank growth of vegetation. Initially, I thought that a tiger or a leopard was lurking in the nallah, but the langurs were looking at a distance. One of the tribal assistants who was with us in the boat located the leopard at about 250 metres away, resting below a clump of grass closer to the upper limit of the reservoir where the grassland and the forest began.

Evening was coming to an end gradually, and we slowly cruised towards the leopard, which lay on its belly watching the approaching boat unperturbed. I was accompanied by Samir Sinha, who was then the Field Director of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, and we took pictures of the leopard. We wished the leopard would stand up for a picture, but it was not willing to do so. As darkness was gathering rapidly, we left the leopard to rest in peace and cruised the boat to the yard in Thekkady. Only an experienced driver can cruise the boat in darkness as there are numerous stumps of tree trunks in the reservoir. The reservoir was created in 1895.

Conservation significance

Established as India’s 10th tiger reserve in 1978, the 925-square kilometre Periyar Tiger Reserve performs a vital role in conservation by providing water to a little more than 600 sq. km of arable land in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. It has a breeding population of about 30 adult tigers and generates employment for about 300 local and tribal people through its community-based ecotourism programmes. The reserve’s scenic and alluring landscape has a visible population of bird species such as the Brahminy kite, the lesser grey-headed fish eagle, the cormorant, the little egret, the darter and the great Indian hornbill, and animals such as the elephant, the gaur, the sambar and the wild pig. It attracts more than five lakh visitors every year and its 19 ecotourism programmes generate an annual revenue of more than Rs.5 crore. Sightings of dholes, sloth bears and leopards are frequent. Tigers remain elusive.

Restoring the corridors

The reserve covers a landscape of nearly 3,000 sq. km, popularly known as the Periyar landscape. Sadly, its connectivity with the Anamalai landscape to the north-west in the Western Ghats is broken by cardamom cultivation and encroachments in Kerala and unregulated expansion of agriculture along the foothills, which falls in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. There is a possibility of restoring its connectivity with the Agasthyamalai landscape (about 2,000 sq. km) in the southern tip of the Western Ghats along the Ariankavu corridor (or the Shencottah pass between Periyar and Agasthyamalai), which itself has three corridors—Kottavasal (on the inter-State boundary), the Mean Sea Level, or MSL, in the western side of the pass in Kerala, and Nagamalai. Although sufficient information is available for the establishment of this corridor, no progress has been made so far. If this stalemate continues, unregulated developments in the coming years will totally expunge the possibilities of establishing this corridor. The Ariankavu corridor is crucial for the elephant, the gaur and the lion-tailed macaque. There are reports of tiger sporadically moving across this corridor. The governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have to work together to establish this corridor.

Periyar was the site of the India eco-development project from December 1996 to June 2004, which led to the formation of the Periyar Foundation in 2006 with the involvement of 75 communities (15 are tribal communities). The Periyar Foundation has become a role model for all Tiger Reserve foundations in the country. One of the high points of the conservation programmes in the reserve is that the communities grow pepper and process honey and market them through the foundation without the help of middlemen, thereby getting a substantial amount of revenue.

The granting of permission for fishing in the Periyar reservoir to the Mannan community, whose members help the reserve management in monitoring illegal activities around the reservoir and in protection, can be a great model for other tiger reserves where prohibition of fishing has led to enormous conflict between fishermen and the management. Fish is a resource that needs to be and can be sustainably harvested; a locked-up fish population is vulnerable to disease. In June 2017, lots of fish died in the Ramganga river arising from Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand when the silt from the reservoir was released into the river. No fishing is allowed in the Ramganga reservoir.

The communities also do a yeoman service during the Sabarimala pilgrimage season when lakhs of people walk along the 23-kilometre route to the Ayyappan temple. They establish small shops all along the trail and collect garbage discarded by pilgrims, which amounts to 40-50 tonnes each year. This conservation effort has earned the reserve several awards: the United Nations Development Programme’s Best Tiger Reserve Award in 2012, the Kerala State Biodiversity Award in 2013, and the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s Biennial Best Tiger Reserve Award in 2015.

My first visit to the Periyar Tiger Reserve was in 1976 to attend a meeting on the conservation of the Western Ghats. Thereafter, I have gone there several times largely in connection with the teaching and training programmes of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. In February 2004, facilitated by Anil Bhardwaj, the then Deputy Director of the reserve, I walked across the reserve from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, a trek of three days. In April 2011, along with Sanjayan Kumar, the then Deputy Director of the reserve, and a team of 18 anti-poaching watchers and other staff, I walked 56 km in four days south of the reserve. On all the four nights, we slept on the forest floor on tarpaulin sheets. A tarpaulin sheet was spread overhead to shield us from the rain. A fire was kept burning throughout the night for warmth and to keep away the sloth bear and the elephant.

During my trip in April-May 2015, I learned more about plants, animals and the conservation issues of the reserve. During this visit, I stayed at the Pachakadu anti-poaching camp. While going by boat to the camp, I was fascinated by the feeding association between cormorants and egrets. Cormorants hunt in flocks. They drive the fish towards the shore where the fish are cornered and caught. The fish, largely small in size, in the process of escaping from the cormorant leap up and down and in the process fall on the shore where they are caught by the waiting egrets. If the cormorants wing to another area for feeding, the egrets follow them. I also observed a few Brahminy kites hunting in the lake along with the lesser grey-headed fish eagle.

The Brahminy kites, which were once common in the countryside, have become rare as a result of the use of pesticides such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). They can be seen only along the coast and in unpolluted reservoirs such as the Periyar. DDT accumulated in frogs and fishes, on which the Brahminy kite largely feeds, has possibly led to the thinning of egg shells, as was the case with the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States. A ban on DDT saved the bald eagle in north America, but in India use of DDT has contributed to a massive decline in the population of the Brahminy kite. Strangely and sadly, we have not done any research on this aspect. India is the only country that is still manufacturing this harmful pesticide.

The Pachakadu anti-poaching camp, protected by an elephant trench, was in an elevated area from which I was able to see the extensions of the lake. The forest around was of moist deciduous type. The anti-poaching watcher G. Kannan, who had won many awards for his knowledge of the jungle, bravery and dedication, was in charge of the camp, and I was told by the Field Director that he would be my guide and guardian for the next few days. Kannan was skilled in steering the boat in the reservoir even at night. He kept the camp clean and tended a fine kitchen garden where he grew pepper, brinjal, chilli, tomato, tapioca, papaya, curry leaf and varieties of beans. He died of a heart attack while on duty at Pachakadu, at the age of 52 on June 21, 2017.

The jungle around the camp was alive with sounds. The common animal calls that I heard was the whooping calls of the Nilgiri langur groups (there were two groups on either side of the camp), the resonant tok…tok calls of the great Indian hornbill, the meek rutting calls of the mighty gaur bulls, the loud staccato calls of the Indian giant squirrel and the sharp, creaky shrieks of the southern hill myna (grackle). A group of jungle babblers noisily hunted around the camp often foraging among the leaf litter. My stay coincided with the waxing moon. One night, the half-moon shone bright like a well-polished silver plate. As there was no cloud cover, the light was bright enough for me to clearly see the portion of the lake in front of the camp. I decided to sleep on the cement platform built outside the building but within the area protected by the elephant trench. The night was cool and breezy. The Indian nightjar and cricket were incessantly calling. At night, the sawing noise of the leopard woke me up, and soon there were repeated alarm calls of the sambar from the jungle to the left of the camp. The mournful rutting calls of the gaur bulls also occasionally rent the night air.

Brilliant sunlight greeted us in the morning, and Kannan took me on a walk along one of the patrolling paths. We walked either along the edge of the lake or through the forest. Signs of wildlife in the form of wild pig diggings and gaur tracks and dung were plentiful. In one place, Kannan showed me the skeletal remains of a gaur that had been killed and eaten up by two tigers. A jungle babbler flew from an indigoberry bush, Randia dumetorum. When we checked the bush, we found a nest with three turquoise blue eggs.

The habitat was free of weeds such as the whitetop weed, Parthenium hyterophorus, and wild sage, Lantana camara, which are a curse in many wildlife areas. But there were occasional patches of Siam weed, Eupatorium odoratum, and the Mexican devil, E. adenophorum. The lush green ranabili shrub, Cipadessa baccifera, a native plant, was common. The strong pungent smell of the leaves of the plant makes it unpalatable to ungulates. Birds and the sloth bear are reported to feed on its fruit. A grey jungle fowl flew out of the fork of a large Assyrian plum tree, Cordia myxa, at a height of 3 m. Kannan peeped into the hollow and found three eggs. It is believed that generations of jungle fowls would have used this tree for laying and hatching eggs. The fork in the tree gives the incubating hen some sort of security from terrestrial predators such as the mongoose and the leopard cat.

The climax of my walk came when we stealthily followed a massive gaur bull, which led us to a nursery of gaur calves in the middle of a large meadow. The meadow gives them some security from predators. There were seven sambar deer and 23 gaur in all, and at least half of them were calves. Stalking predators have to go closer to a prey before they launch an attack, which is not possible in a meadow habitat. The predator will be spotted and alarm calls will go out. This discourages the predator from hunting in the meadow. Species such as the gaur and the wild buffalo can be aggressive and are capable of attacking the predator.

Sanjayan and the tigers

Although I have seen pugmarks and other signs of the tiger such as scrapes, scats and claw marks on trees in several places, I have not seen a tiger in the reserve. Sanjayan Kumar, who has walked all over the reserve, stayed in remote anti-poaching camps and earned the respect and admiration of the staff, had an interesting encounter with a group of four tigers in the Pachakadu area. Late one evening, while on patrol duty with four staff, he saw the tigers, may be a mother with three grown-up cubs on the other side of a tongue-like extension of the lake, on a gaur kill.

The tigers were playing. Sanjayan, after taking some pictures from a distance, wanted to go as close as possible to observe them. He took the bravest staff with him and both crawled on the ground through the reeds that had grown along the edge of the water. Sanjayan had whispered to his colleague that normal tigers do not attack people and so it would be safe to crawl to the edge of the water and observe them for some time, and take some pictures. He also got an assurance from his colleague that he would neither reveal himself to the tiger nor abandon Sanjayan if a crisis should arise.

Everything went well while the tigers were on the other side of the water. But one alert cub, curious about the movement on the other side of the water, walked around the tongue of water and started stalking the two. Sanjayan said he could hear his own heart beat and was afraid that it was loud enough for the tiger to hear. Yet, he stayed crouched, watching the approaching tiger. When the cub was 10 m away, his colleague, unable to withstand the tension, stood up, raised his hands in surrender and screamed, which made the cub turn around, run across the water and disappear into the jungle along with the others.

One sultry afternoon, while resting on the cement platform, langur alarm and agitated calls of the jungle babbler alerted me and Kannan. We saw a leopard walking across the clearance in front of the camp. The jungle babbler followed the leopard, screeching and chattering and flying from tree to tree. The langur stayed in the canopy, uttering their guttural alarm calls and grinding their teeth. I had once asked Kannan whether the jungle babbler, noted for its alarm calls at the sight of smaller predators such as snakes and the mongoose, raised an alarm on seeing a tiger or a leopard. Kannan was unable to answer my question. I had half of the answer that afternoon for the question I had asked Kannan.

Suggestions for the Reserve

Before coming out of the reserve one day, I climbed the steep slope on the right bank of the Periyar river where it enters the lake to get a picture of the river flowing through a sea of green. It is one of the beautiful sights in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. As I walked along the edge of the reservoir, I noticed the proliferation of several inedible or weed species in the draw-down area of the lake, which is an important grazing ground for the abundant large wild ungulates of the reserve. The species I noticed were the Indian heliotrope, Heliotropium indicum (most common); the common cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium; and the coffee senna, Cassia occidentalis and Cassia pubescens. The last three are alien invasive plants. It should be possible for the staff to walk along the edge of the water and remove the weeds once or twice a year.

The staff were unhappy when the water level in the reservoir was increased to a maximum level of 142 feet as it totally submerged the grazing areas for large ungulates. Tamil Nadu benefits a lot from the reservoir, so the State government’s policy should be to keep the water level to a maximum of 136 ft as the reserve is home to large wild ungulates.

When I returned to Thekkady by boat, I saw nearly 30 elephants but only one young tusker, about 10 years old, was in the herd. It appears that the magnificent tuskers, which were poached decades ago, have not been replaced by new grown-up tuskers in spite of good protection measures in the reserve. The recent elephant poaching incidents in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are a reminder to conservation agencies that the lure of ivory continues to be a problem throughout the range for both Asian and African elephants. The reserve management should also reintroduce the Nilgiri tahr in its former potential habitats and introduce/reintroduce the chital.

The meadow habitats in the Periyar range can support a sizeable population of the chital, which can be a buffer prey to the sambar, which is the prime target of the dhole and tiger predation.

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, WWF-India and the Corbett Foundation.

Acknowledgement: This article is dedicated to the late G. Kannan, anti-poaching watcher of the Periyar Reserve. Anil Bhardwaj, Sanjayan Kumar and James Zaharia facilitated my visit to the reserve. Raghunath prepared the map and Mervin Johnsingh edited the pictures. Thanks to all of them.

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