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On a wild trail

Print edition : Sep 10, 2010 T+T-

A good nature guide to one of the most picturesque sanctuaries, amazingly rich in terms of biodiversity.

FIELD guides to the birds and mammals of India have been around for a long time. Recently, there was even a guide to the dragonflies of India. But a field guide to a specific sanctuary is rare. I have seen handbooks for the Kanha and Mudumalai sanctuaries. But they are, though very useful, rather elementary, good enough only to help you during a visit. But now a team of four wildlife enthusiasts have come together to produce a sparkling new book, a nature guide to one of the most picturesque sanctuaries, amazingly rich in terms of biodiversity. What is more, the book is bilingual, in English and in Tamil. That is an ambitious attempt, but the young group has pulled it off successfully.

The authors point out that the main purpose of their effort is to bring people, particularly those who live around the sanctuaries, closer to the wealth of wildlife there. Through well-written, authentic notes on each species covered, supported with photographs and line drawings, the book effectively captures the character and spirit of a magnificent stretch of wilderness.

The Kalakadu-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve lies at the southern end of the Western Ghats and covers an area of 895 square kilometres of mountainous terrain. It is one of the 19 biodiversity hot spots of the world. Like the other forested areas of the country, these ranges have had their share of lumbering, dams, roads and plantations.

High altitude grasslands disappeared as plantations were rapidly introduced into the hills. The evergreen forests in the upper reaches were logged, and there was steady environmental deterioration in the hills.

Uncontrolled hunting decimated wildlife in the area until the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 came into force. What was left was formed into a tiger reserve in 1988 by unifying two sanctuaries, Kalakadu and Mundanthurai, and joining a few other reserve forests around. This reserve lies next to the Neyyar, Peppara and Shendurny Wildlife Sanctuaries in Kerala and the Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary down south. All these form part of the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve, which spreads over 2,000 sq km.

The sanctuary is a precious addition when one bears in mind that tropical forests cover only 7 per cent of the earth's surface but are home to 50 to 80 per cent of the world's species. In recent years, the government introduced eco-development programmes in the villages around the sanctuary.

The sanctuary harbours an astounding number of plant and animal species. The area encompasses scrub jungles in the foothills, deciduous forests, dry evergreen forests, grasslands and rainforests. These diverse habitats are home to as many as 77 kinds of mammals and over 2,000 plant species. It is imperative that this generic diversity is saved. The rainforest here especially has many life forms, more than the number found in any other terrestrial ecosystem, in addition to being the source for rivers and streams that sustain life in the plains below. In these forests lives one of the oldest indigenous peoples of the mountains, the Kaani tribal people.

During the annual festival (July-August), the Sorimuthaian kovil (temple) in Karaiyaar attracts lakhs of tourists, but that is only for a few days. The temple in Agasthyamalai also has its share of devotees, who trek up the hill. The Manimuthar fall brings in a lot of visitors. However, unlike many other sanctuaries in the country, this sanctuary has so far been protected from tourist onslaught. Resort builders and ecotourism operators have not appeared on the scene. This feature really sets this sanctuary apart, and I wish it remains this way in the coming years.

The reserve is home to many endemic and rare species of life forms. There are nearly 100 plants that are found only in this region, including the fabled The Lady's Slipper orchid, one of those species in this region that are in jeopardy. Nearly 10 varieties of Kurinji plants have been documented here. Celebrities in the world of birds, the great pied hornbill and the Malabar trogon, can be spotted here. The Nilgiri tahr, the sure-footed mountain goat that inhabits the ragged peaks of Agasthyamalai on the southern side of the sanctuary, is one of the relict species. Its nearest cousin, the Himalayan tahr, can be seen in the upper reaches of the Himalayas.

The sanctuary is also one of the last refuges for the lion-tailed macaque, a denizen of the rainforests found only in the Western Ghats. In fact in this sanctuary there are as many as five different primates, including the nocturnal slender loris. And, of course, there are a few tigers left as evidenced by the camera trap pictures. Until a few decades ago this was a favourite poaching ground for the landlords around these hills.

While guide books to sanctuaries restrict themselves to birds and mammals, this book goes beyond conservative expectations. It is neatly divided into sections, on plants, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The best is the one on plants, with its emphasis on easy identification of trees and other plants. Each species gets a page, with photographs and a write-up. Scientific and popular names have been provided. Distinct symbols facilitate easy identification of the species described. Details about the different administrative ranges and formations are given. There is also a useful section on trekking routes.

The photographs used in the book are of a very high order. Digital photography has changed the way we look at the external world. The speed, the lee way you have in handling depth of field and the auto focus help in producing sharp and detailed pictures. This is evident in the photographs featuring plants and butterflies.

The problem comes when we move on to the Tamil section. The British did immense work during the colonial period in the field of natural history in India. But when it came to the names of birds and mammals, they coined them from their point of view (for instance, Indian robin), completely ignoring the local names that had been in parlance for millennia. M. Krishnan, writing in 1958, asked, Who was responsible for calling our gaur, wholly unrelated to the bison family, the bison? Who coined the utterly misleading name lion-tailed monkey for one of our most distinctive macaques?

So we inherited the names of a number of birds and mammals as a legacy of the British Raj. When they do not know the local name of an animal or a bird, our friends in the media and in government departments take the short cut of providing a literal translation of the English name instead of searching for the original name. King cobra is literally translated as raja naagam in this book while the Tamil name is karunaagam (black cobra).

The use of English words or their literal translations in place of the words in local language not only fails to communicate with the people but impoverishes the language. A heritage is being lost and a new diglassia is created. Traditional and popular names are thus being forgotten. For instance, a Kaani tribal person would tell us that the Tamil name for the lion-tailed macaque is solai mandhi, the monkey of the rainforest, as different from karu mandhi (the black monkey, or the Nilgiri langur). The Tamil names of many of the mammals are given (for some reason the label Vazhangu peyar' is given instead of saying Tamizh peyar'.) In the translations of the write-ups, often literal translation is resorted to, and this distorts the connotation. For instance, the term key' (for symbols used) has been rendered savi', which makes no sense.

The section on butterflies has been done well. In Tamil, you have names for birds but there are no specific names for butterflies. This presents a problem. The translators have solved this problem by christening each butterfly on the basis of its common English name. So Red Helen becomes Sivapazhagi'. I doubt if these names will gain parlance.

In the Tamil section on birds, there are many errors. To point out a few, the oriole and the orange minivet have been assigned the same Tamil name. The common iora is not pachai pura. That name refers to the green pigeon. The Tamil name for the tree pie is the well-known manguyil. White-cheeked barbet is not kazhutharuthaankuruvi. That is the name for the coppersmith, which sports a red spot in the throat. Sengal narai is the white stork, not the painted stork. The spotted dove is known as manipuraa in Tamil, not pullipura. There are already two books that list the names of birds, and these could have been easily referred to.

The authors have paid close attention to all dimensions of a field guide. I am hopeful that this will set the standard for such works on other sanctuaries.

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