Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Tiger Trail @ Periyar


The Tiger Trail @ Periyar

After our successful chase of the jungle kings at their last abode in Asia at Gir, Gujarat in December 2012, came January 2013, it was time to hunt for the other majestic cat, tiger, in Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady. This time around we didn’t have any scope to take a leave, hence decided to do the trail on a Sunday and chose Jan 20th.
The trail was booked in no time. Still afresh the memories of our Wayanad bus trip imbroglio, we made sure that the bus tickets were in hand and checked and rechecked with the bus operator to ensure that the seats are indeed available. It was convenient timing as the night bus from Bangalore was scheduled to reach Kumily at 6.30am, just in time for the 7.30am trip. It was also a decent way of saving hotel expense, giving us a viable excuse of not having enough time for a formal fresh-up.

It was dark. In the faint moonlight, behind a bamboo cluster, I spotted a tigress with 2 cubs. I was leaning for my camera, when I heard someone screaming, “Kumili”, waking me up from an inviting dream. I looked at the watch it was just 4.30am. In no time we were dumped out and the bus was gone. In the light simmering lights of faraway spice shops I read: Welcome to Kerala. And behind me I saw another sign board which says Welcome to Tamilnadu – we were standing in no man’s land.

I could still not figure out why those spice shops were open at 4.30am, when even the push cart tea guys were busy asleep. With some 2.5 hrs in hand and lingering sleep hanging, we could not afford to spent time on road. We knocked in one hotel-like gate for some 10 min just to find no response. At around 5am, we managed a hotel guy to open his gate for us. After a quick negotiation he agreed for Rs.200 rent for a 2 hr room occupation.

At 7am, we were at the Eco Development Centre; we need to find Ambili, with whom we have arranged our tickets. At 7.45am, with no Ambili in sight, we were still waiting in front of the Cntre when someone opened its gate. Tickets in hand, we hurried to the boat landing station, some 3 Km away, from where the trip is about to start.

It was an 8am to 5pm trecking cum bamboo rafting round inside the Periyar Reserve in the banks of charming Mullaperiyar reservoir. By 8.10am we were provided with our package of fruit-bread breakfast and fruit-bread lunch. Our crew of 3 Forest Guards, 3 Forest Guides and 1 Forest Officer, fully equipped with gun and oars (for rafting), guided the group of 8 well-bread foreigners and 2 mean domestics – Ranjith and me – in to the forest.

Getting ready for the day: Water bottles and Kits with fruit breakfast and fruit lunch.  All waste to be deposited back in the base

The 9 hour-trip is organized as 2 hr trek – 2 hr of bamboo rafting – 0.5 hr trek – 0.5 hr rest – 2 hr return rafting – 2 hr return trek. The whole path has a mysterious allure with the Mullaperiyar most of the time alongside us.

The trail along side the Mullaperiyar river
Getting ready for the raft

With 48 tigers in about 300 sq Km, the tiger density of Periyar Reserve is reasonable. But being an extremely shy animal, one need to have exceptional luck to sight it, especially in the evergreen thick vegetation of the Reserve which offers ample cover. Our senior guard, Koshy in his career of 10 years with the Reserve has spotted it only 8 times. With about 250 trips a year, his statistical probability of sighting is just about 0.003 times a trip! We soon resigned from harboring even the faintest possibility of tiger sighting. But this was a true case of journey being more important that the goal itself. With so much to explore around, there were a lot of momentous excitements in offing.

The first hour of the trek was rather passive with only worth-mention things being seeing wild black pepper vines and wild curry leaves. After a while from nowhere we found one Malabar Giant Squirrel glide past us. The canopy was thick, so we could not have a decent snap. Then we were negotiating a small hill-turn, suddenly we found clear signs of tiger presence – a bison skeleton. The guides explained that it was about a week old. The head and the few skeletal remains of its body found around a radius of about 10 meters were pretty well cleaned up. It was a beautiful reminder of the food chain at work – the remains of the tiger feast were consumed by lesser carnivores like bears, heynas and dingos, followed by rhodents and birds and lastly the ants and mites. And some distance ahead, in a small dried-up stream, still a bit wet, we found the chilly reminder of the killer – two pug marks from the left fore and back legs of a large male tiger. For experts, pug marks throw substantial details about the animal. The size of the pug mark along with the distances between the marks can give an idea about the length, size, age and gender of the animal. We knew this was the best we could come closer to the animal…

Tiger hunt: the cleaned up remains of a bison head

Pug mark of right hind legs of the large male tiger

At the end of the 2 hour trek, it was time for breakfast amidst the wide view of Mullaperiyar at the end of the long grasslands in front of us with thick forests on both sides. The over ripen banana and hard bun and large portions of Amul butter were unusually tasty, thanks to the walk.

Relishing the Mullaperiyar
The trade mark of Periyar Lake: tree stumps

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From the start I got amused by the gunman with us, who seemed a little uninterested of the whole proceedings; he was carrying a nervous look as a default. With some initial resistance, I could cut a conversation with him. As I could make out, part of the reason for his aloofness was class division. The 7 guys accompanying the tourists are of 3 different levels. The gunman was a permanent employee of the forest department, hence formed the elite among them. While guards were part of the Eco Conservation initiative, the guides were poachers turned conservatives taken as forest guides by the Eco Conservation initiate as part of their rehabilitation program. The knowledge of the forest was inversely proportion to their class. The gunman was there as part of his job rotation and visibility exhibited his displeasure on his predicament of subjecting to labour so much out there. He had pretty much no knowledge of the forest – just like any of we tourists. Moreover, he seemed somewhat scared of a possible animal attack, particularly from bear. He later told that a couple of weeks back one of his colleagues was attacked to pulp by 3 bears in this area. I was more or less convinced that he was carrying the gun as a self-protection mechanism and has remotely to do anything with protecting the tourist. Nevertheless, there was nothing much to talk about the elderly gun itself, which was unlucky enough not to earn a deserving place in a children museum.

The guides were the real stars; they had immaculate knowledge of the forest, its ways and sounds, which had proven its worth later in spotting the King Cobra above our heads and a pair of Great Malabar Hornbills, camouflaged high in the canopy.


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In our West-majority guest group, I could soon realise that the whites were not all of same colour. A group of 6 from England formed the elite amongst us, leaving Jane and Elisa seemingly closer to we two coloured natives. A natural friendship was formed amongst we 4 commons.

Both were globe trotters by their own rights. Jane, in some thirties, was in India for some 1 month by then, most of which spent on exploring Varkala beach, and was in her last few days of India trip. She was visibly concerned on two fronts: leaving India, which had by this time created an overwhelming feel in her and on her prospects of landing in London which was witnessing one of the coldest times in decades; I was not sure which among them weighed more. Elisa, a little older, seemed to be much contented. She had already spent about 3 months in Kerala and had another 1 month in hand, before which she would explore old temple architectures in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. She had spent some 1 month in Varkala, but found from Jane that she had missed some spots there, so planned to go back to Varkala as well. What was striking among them were the facts that though they were enjoying their lone back-pack trips across the globe, they are indeed concerned to travel alone, being females. They also derived great amount of pleasure out of the numerous unplanned trips they make within a country. Mostly, their trip plans are fairly simple: decide a country to visit and have a time frame; once they reach, the rest of the visit is just spontaneous – a luxury a family traveler can never dream of.

Our group: 1st from left is Elisa and 3rd from left is Jane

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Elephants are gentle giants. The mother elephants are extremely caring for her calves. The two mothers which we saw from our bamboo raft, were fully aware of our presence and were guarding their two calves from two sides. Once they judged that we were not threat to them, they started moving more freely. We watched them for some 20-30 minutes, till they moved north, towards a small island nearby. Though the Periyar Tiger Reserve does not allow any human settlement inside, some tribes are given right for fishing in the waters. There were a few fishermen in the island and for some reasons, the mother elephants didn't want them there. It was an unexpected scene to see both the elephants charging towards them forcing the fishermen to jump into the relative safety of the river.

A Periyar tribal fisherman in his canoe

The two babies between their moms

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Elephants are gentle giants. The mother elephants are extremely caring for her calves. The two mothers which we saw from our bamboo raft, were fully aware of our presence and were guarding their two calves from two sides. Once they judged that we were not threat to them, they started moving more freely. We watched them for some 20-30 minutes, till they moved north, towards a small island nearby. Though the Periyar Tiger Reserve does not allow any human settlement inside, some tribes are given right for fishing in the waters. There were a few fishermen in the island and for some reasons, the mother elephants didn't want them there. It was an unexpected scene to see both the elephants charging towards them forcing the fishermen to jump into the relative safety of the river.


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While walking towards our lunch spot, one of our guides, aptly named Daivom (i.e., God) spotted a full grown King Cobra, up in an overhead branch, just some 5 meters away. The cobra blessed us with a lazy look, giving us enough time for all our cameras to relish.

King Cobra: As close as it can get

While walking towards our lunch spot, one of our guides, aptly named Daivom (i.e., God) spotted a full grown King Cobra, up in an overhead branch, just some 5 meters away. The cobra blessed us with a lazy look, giving us enough time for all our cameras to relish.


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By this time we had seen the endangered Nilgiri Langur, palm sized super tadpoles of Large Wrinkled Frog endemic to Western Ghats, a host of birds, etc. But the most cherished catch was the Great Malabar Hornbill couple. While walking back one of our guides quickly identified the unique rough-call of the Hornbills. We walked some half a kilometer inside the forest following the call before we spotted the two hornbills up in the last branches of the canopy at least some 100 meters above us. It was perfectly camouflaged that, only after some 10 minutes of viewing we realised that there were two birds.

The large tadpoles of wrinkled frog

Pitch black Nilgiri Langur

The hornbill couple in the canopy

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Back in Kumily town by 6pm, it was bustling. The air was filled with thick penetrating smell of various spices, mixed with sweet flavours of jams and chocolates. All those fruits we had for breakfast and lunch had by this time evaporated. Before we board the 7.45 return bus, we filled ourselves with lots of rubbery Kerala porottas and beef fry, prepared in local Christian stlye, with generous dose of pepper.

I had a deep peaceful sleep while returning, momentarily obviating the  busy work load awaiting back in office due to the last quarter rush before the financial year closure in March.

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