Close encounters in the wild

Published : Mar 13, 2009 00:00 IST

The Western Ghats, with awesome sights, form a nature-lover's paradise.

N.A. NASEER shoots animals. In all his treks through the Western Ghats for nearly 15 years, he had come across the Nilgiri marten only once before � that too fleetingly. So, it was an absolute delight for the wildlife photographer when he encountered one at close quarters.

"I stumbled upon it. Though I had photographed it four years ago at the Periyar wildlife reserve, the pictures were not up to the mark. But this time I was close to it, at arm's length," said an elated Naseer, who considers the rare photographic occasion at the Pampadumshola National Park on January 2 as a New Year's gift.

The park, 35 kilometres from Munnar in Kerala, has a wide range of habitats. Elephants, gaurs, leopards and wild boars are the main attraction here. The wildly beautiful place is also home to more than 100 species of butterflies and 93 species of moths.

The Nilgiri marten, a civet-like, agile, tree-climbing animal with long limbs and a bushy tail, is endemic to the Western Ghats. Seeing strangers in its habitat, the animal came at the wildlife guide who was accompanying Naseer as if to claw at his shoes. The guide used a stick gently to keep it at bay. Now it stood erect on its hind legs, flexed its muscles, made growling noises and circled the strangers. Then, suddenly, it turned playful like a naughty schoolboy, giving Naseer his souvenirs, before vanishing into the emerald shola (forest) patches.

Photographs of the Nilgiri marten are rare; many wildlife books have only drawings of the animal. Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, wildlife biologist, said he had "not been fortunate to see the Nilgiri marten in any part of the Western Ghats". Not much is known about the elusive animal. The red data book of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) says its status is vulnerable. According to S.H. Prater, an authority on Indian wildlife, the Nilgiri marten is seen south of Coorg (Kodagu, in Karnataka) and Travancore (now part of Kerala).

"It is restless. It hunts day and night, and is confined to trees. It preys on squirrels and bats and raids nests for eggs. It likes honey. Its colour is dark brown to black. It has a pale yellow or yellow orange neck, and the same colour goes down. It is an agile climber of trees and bold enough to attack even large defenceless animals." In 1995, wildlife biologists M.D. Madhusoodan and Dr P.V. Karunakaran spotted one in Rajamally, the tourist zone of the Eravikulam National Park in Munnar. Though people were aware of the animal's presence in the park, sightings have been few and far between. Madhusoodan, who is now Director of the Mysore-based National Conservation Foundation, recalled having seen the animal lying on a tree in a shola while he was looking out for a spotted babbler's nest.

"It was reluctant to move. I took a few shots with an ordinary camera. It was really thrilling to see an elusive and beautiful animal. For nearly an hour I watched it. Later it disappeared peacefully into the shola canopy. After that I have not seen one," he said.

Karunakaran is the president of the Nilgiri Tahr Foundation and holds a PhD on the grassland ecology of the Eravikulam National Park. "I have trekked many parts of the Western Ghats. I have not been able to see a Nilgiri marten after the sighting in 1995," he said. Prof. Rajan Varghese, who conducts animal census in the park, said that in a span of 12 years, only once had a member of his census team seen a Nilgiri marten � like a flash. Now Naseer has the elusive animal trapped � on his camera.

Oceanic blooms

The sighting of a Nilgiri marten could be one of chance and luck, but the blooming of the neelakurinji � an awesome spectacle of nature � happens regularly, once in every 12 years.

The last time the kurinji bloomed, in 2006, Naseer had the rare opportunity of delving deep into the core areas of the Eravikulam park on his photographic pilgrimage. "It was a passion for me. The oceanic flowering of the kurinji inspired me, opened the floodgates of a unique experience with my camera," he says.

The mauve blue kurinjis attract a large number of people to Munnar. In 1994, unruly crowds uprooted the rare bush and decorated their vehicles with the flowers. But come September 2006, the Wildlife Department was prepared with an action plan and visitor management scheme. The State Bank of Travancore extended a credit of Rs.40 lakh to the department to buy minibuses to transport visitors to the tourism zone.

Nearly five lakh people visited Munnar for two months to see the kurinji flowers. "Everything went on well, there was no room for complaint from any person. No traffic jam at all. The visitors were totally disciplined and they cooperated with the guidelines imposed by the Forest Department and other authorities," said Roy Thomas, who was then the wildlife warden of the park.

It set a brilliant example of managing visitors. The department raised a nominal fee from the visitors and used the amount to repay the bank loan.

By a notification in October 2006, the Kerala government established the Kurinjimala Sanctuary in order to ensure the long-term protection of the unique biodiversity of the area, especially the kurinji flowers. The sanctuary is near Vattavada, 42 km from Munnar. It is contiguous to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Manjapatty valley in Amaravathy in Tamil Nadu.

Years ago, Englishmen who worked as managers in tea estates went up the hills of Munnar on horseback to fight a battle for conservation. Though Englishmen have left Munnar, the bridle paths exist. Established in 1978, the Eravikulam National Park, a romantic and enthralling piece of nature, is now scrupulously protected by the Forest Department and tribal watchers. Schoolchildren do their bit by spreading the message of conservation. It is adjudged to be one of the cleanest parks in India.

Nature seldom offers such a splendid spectacle, said Sunil Babu, who is at present the wildlife warden of the park. Called the roof of Kerala, it is marked for its backdrop of undulating hills and mountains, oceanic high-altitude grasslands, meandering trek paths and numerous sholas, all draped in cloud and mist. Tourists are not allowed in the core areas. The park, one of the richest biodiversity spots in the Western Ghats, has the largest viable population of the Nilgiri tahr. There are wild dogs, tigers and elephants too. But to see the Nilgiri tahr one has to go to the tourism zone. It is worth all the travel if you are lucky enough to see a rare bird with the face of an owl and the beak of a nightjar. The Ceylon frogmouth caught the legendary ornithologist Dr Salim Ali's attention when he came to Kerala in 1933 for a survey of birds.

"I saw the bird once in Thattekkad, on the old High Range Road, in cane brooks," he wrote in one of his writings. Thattekkad now has a bird sanctuary named after him.

In his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow, he wrote: "Thattekkad, on the banks of the Periyar river, will linger in my memory as the richest bird habitat in peninsular India I have known. It is comparable only with the eastern Himalayas. Thattekkad had always been a passion for me."

When he came here first, Salim Ali was amazed at the sight of more than 50 hornbills flying together. But when he came again in 1986, he was worried that he could not see even one.

Cryptic plumage

Overall brown in colour, the frogmouth is a nocturnal bird and is rarely visible because of its cryptic plumage. It is identified by its calls. Not much was known about the bird until 1978, when Salim Ali asked his disciple Dr R. Sugathan to trek different parts of the Western Ghats to spot the bird.

It was a thrilling moment for Sugathan, who was then working with Salim Ali in the Bombay Natural History Society. Salim Ali advised him to camp in forest areas and scribble all that he saw and heard in a notebook. Sugathan set out for Wayanad along with a guide and with a letter of introduction from Salim Ali. Camping in the forests at night was frightening. Wild animals were on the prowl and crude guns of poachers boomed at night. In July 1979, he reached Silent Valley.

After a long search, he finally found the Ceylon frogmouth near the banks of the Kundhipuzha. Immediately he sent a message to Salim Ali. Sugathan continued his trek and came to Vazhachal in Thrissur district, where too he located the bird. With great passion, Salim Ali came to Vazhachal to observe Ceylon frogmouths.

Frogmouths are found in the Parambikulam, Orukkombankutty, Vazhachal and Sholayar areas and are usually seen in pairs. It is estimated that there are 30 pairs of Ceylon frogmouths in Thattekkad. The aim of the Forest Department is to make it a keystone species, said Sugathan, who now works as a consultant in the department.

Thattekkad, 50 km from Kochi, is the only place in Kerala where frogmouths can be watched closely. Tourists are taken for bird-watching on strict guidelines, said wildlife warden Nirmal John Augustine.

There are nearly 327 species of birds in Thattekkad including the frogmouth, the Malabar whistling thrush (whistling schoolboy), the Malabar trogon, the orange-headed ground thrush, the Nilgiri verditer flycatcher, the Indian pitta, the emerald dove and the large pied wagtail. There are migratory birds too.

Wild beauty

The rare white gaur (Indian bison) is an attraction at the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary near Munnar. Experts say its white colour is because of a genetic abnormality. The gaur is an elusive animal; if one drives close to a herd, they turn round and disappear into the wild.

"But I had the opportunity to photograph them in Chinnar," said Naseer. For him the herds of white gaurs appear like a painting with the white ones and the black ones together producing a black-and-white effect.

The Chinnar sanctuary, 40 km from Munnar, is also famous for the highly endangered grizzled giant squirrel. It is in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats. At Vasyappara, a high-altitude point, the Forest Department rents out a hut, from where the view is ethereal.

G. Shaheed is the Chief of News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi, and the secretary of the Nilgiri Tahr Foundation.

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