The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 27, 2008


Veena over at Yossarian Lives was recently hiking around Mukurthi Peak. Yup, she's lucky-as-whatsit. We are stuck here in alternately gray and cold London and she's having a fine time with Malabar squirrels [photo by S. Das] and the occasional elephant, not to mention salubrious climes and fine Nilgiri chai.

Fifteen years ago, when I was less bald and had more time on my hands, I joined a bunch of enthusiastic wildlife conservationists (some of whom also required no excuse to skip classes) on a trip to Mudumalai Elephant Sanctuary.

Mudumalai, as we found out, is part of a vast forest that extends into Karnataka (Bandipur) and Kerala (Wayanad), and has been earmarked as a protected zone for sundry creatures. The Forest Rangers administering this enormous area are grossly understaffed, and like nothing more than a few students to help them out on their annual census.

The Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science runs a research station in Mudumalai, and this gives them a bit of an advantage with the Rangers when IIScians want to help out in the census. I daresay there are students from all over the country just dying to go deep into the forest away from any beaten tracks. But they all have to line up behind us IIScians, because - as everybody knows - we are the Bee's Knees, the Sine Qua Non, the Nonesuch of wildlife enthusiasts.

Naturally, the Rangers don't really have much time to waste with effete geeks and wannabe trekkers, but they are an affable lot and tolerate our presence with remarkable sang froid.

Amazingly, I have no recollection of how we actually got to Mudumalai from Bangalore. I guess I was a tad drunk. Or sleepy. Did we go by train? No, I'm fairly certain there was a bus involved. The Rangers picked us up from somewhere in a big truck and took us to our sleeping quarters, which were rather nice small rooms in a long wooden house. There was a midget elephant running around. This was the mascot of the staff and treated with a lot of affection. The story was that its mother had abandoned it (or possibly died giving birth to it), so the Rangers had to rescue it. It couldn't get its full quota of nourishment from cow's milk, obviously, so it never grew to its full size. It had not been expected to survive very long. Luckily, it had deep reserves of inner strength and pulled through somehow.

The Rangers explained what we would be doing over the next three days. We'd wake up at the crack of dawn. We'd be given a biscuit for breakfast. We'd be split up into teams of two with one guide per team. We'd be given a map, a compass, and a bag of rice mixed with sambar. A truck would drop us off at our indicated start point. We'd walk along parallel trajectories, enumerate all the animals and birds witnessed (location, time, direction of movement, and - if possible - gender of observed creature), have lunch when we felt like it, and be picked up at the end of our route by the truck. We would then have the rest of the day off to our own devices.

On the first day, my teammate was a diffident research scholar from the Physics department. He refused the biscuit in the morning and dug into a tiffin box of chapatis and dal that he had brought with him. I ate his biscuit. He sulked. Our guide joined us - a bright-eyed boy from a local tribe that dwelt in the sanctuary. He spoke Malayalam and Tamil and some Kannada, he informed us, and a smattering of Hindi, besides his own native language. We could call him Raj, he said. He didn't eat the biscuit either. I wonder why. I always liked Parle G.

The truck dropped us off at a clearing in the woods. Raj suggested that we walk Indian file with about five metres separating us. Otherwise a branch I move aside may swing back and smack you in the face, he explained. The physicist brought up the rear.

After about an hour of trudging through green and somewhat parched forest, we saw our first animal. A cow. It mooed at us and I stopped to take a photograph. The physicist pointed excitedly at the forest canopy. A blur of orange whizzed by treetop to treetop.

Malabar squirrel, said Raj. I hadn't seen a thing.

After another hour of trudging, we encountered a skull. Raj took one look at my excited countenance and announced that it was the skull of a sambhar.

Oooh, I said, This would look real cool mounted on my dorm door.

Raj smirked and the physicist turned green with envy.

Around noon, we were feeling quite disgusted with life. We hadn't seen any wild animals. There had been no more squirrels and not a bird. The forest resounded with cries and chirps, but we saw nothing. Raj considered us for a long moment and suggested we have lunch. Better than nothing, said the physicist. He took one taste of the meal we'd been carrying and gagged. I wolfed down my portion, as did Raj. We may be gourmets but we are also adaptable. We set off again.

Suddenly, Raj stopped.

Sambhar, he said, crouching and waving at us to be quiet.

I crouched as well.

Where? Where? gasped the physicist, galumphing over. There was a noise of twigs breaking and a herd of possibly ten of the beasts shied away from us. We stood up to watch them go.

How did you know they were there? I asked.

I can smell them, said Raj.

Amazing. I couldn't smell a thing.

That evening, to our shock and envy, one of the other teams said they had seen elephant in the distance. Another team had found a tiger's pug mark. They poured plaster of Paris into it and took a very creditable print, which they showed us. I only had the skull to show off. (One of the Rangers privately informed me that it was most likely a cow's skull. But my story was that it was that of a sambhar, and I was going to stick to it.)

The Rangers, sensing a build up of jealousy, informed us that we'd be setting off even earlier in the morning the following day.

You'll all be intersecting the river, they said. Just before dawn is when most animals come down to drink.

Tigers, too? I said.


I am not going, said the physicist.

We took one long incredulous look at the fellow and burst out laughing.

In the event, the next day, he came along too. Nobody saw any tigers, however, but everybody saw sambhar and squirrel and sundry birds we didn't know the names of.

How do you collate all this information? I asked one of the Rangers that evening.

We look at the maps and project the trajectories of the animals. If an animal you described is also enumerated by one of the other teams, we get an idea of its range. It's not exact, of course, and our experience is important in identifying the same animal across the various teams.

He also admitted that the sambhar and the squirrel weren't really that important. There were very many of these creatures in the forest. The Rangers were more interested in any kills we found or pug-marks, indicating the presence of a tiger. There were bears too, which were rather rare. The occasional hyena. And wild boar. We had been warned to stay well away from the boars.

Chippy and Karupacheeni came in looking slightly panicked but exhilarated.

Elephants! they gasped. A whole herd!

The herd was crossing the road leading to our lodge when Chippy and Karupacheeni intercepted them. Inadvertently they had gotten between a calf and its mother, and she had charged them briefly. Hence their breathlessness.

Ah yes, said a Ranger sagely. The elephants are in the midst of their migration south from Bandipur. They are in search of water bodies.

By now, Sandeep and I and Kaushik and some of the others were gnashing our teeth in envy. We still hadn't seen a single elephant, other than the mascot midget, and this was intolerable. Was there any way we could see one before we left?

The Rangers agreed to take six or seven of us to a wooden observation tower overlooking the river. We were to stay the night. They were fairly certain that elephants would turn up there - it was a regular meeting spot for the behemoths.

Make a lot of noise going up the steps, they said. And ensure you put a lot of leaves and branches on the steps once you are in the tower.

Umm, sure, I said. Why?

Bears sometimes use the tower to sleep, said a Ranger. And unlike other animals, a bear won't slink away from humans. You need all the warning you can get.

So what do we do if we hear a bear coming up the steps? said Sandeep.

Pray hard, said the Ranger, grinning. Make a really loud racket. That might discourage the bear. Or just jump off the tower and make a run for it.

If the monkeys set up a screeching, then don't jump, said another Ranger. That would mean there's a tiger about.

Suddenly, the idea of spending the night in isolation, surrounded by truly wild animals was not quite as appealing. On the other hand, we were too chicken to chicken out. So we went.

Kaushik had his usual bag of marijuana with him, which he generously shared with the rest of us. I didn't smoke any - being a particularly saintly sort. But the night was fabulous. Clear as glass. Animal noises abounded. Chirps and cheeps and squeaks. We saw a mouse deer skulking off into the underbrush. Of course, it might have just been a large rat. I couldn't tell because I had never seen a mouse deer before, and the others, well, they were all just a bit high anyway.

Way past midnight, when we were about to drop off, we heard a tremendous splashing. Elephant! And what a large number of them! There must have been twenty at least, cows and calves, playing in the water and spraying each other with mud. There was one particularly young one constantly getting entangled between its mother's legs. The creatures were like ghosts in the moonlight - other than the sound of water, they were silent. For almost an hour, they played about, and then began to file away. One brushed its shoulder against our tower and we heard a scary creak and felt a small movement. The moment passed and the elephants walked off. [Photo from here.]

The next morning, the only people grinning from ear to ear were the few of us who had spent the night in the tower. We repeated our stories several times to anyone who would listen (and a few who wouldn't), embellishing the details with each retelling. By afternoon, Mudumalai resounded with tales of IIScians who had ridden elephants and taken intrepid shots of bear and chased curious tigers away.

That day, the Rangers took us deeper into the forest for our final census. Again, few of us saw any animals of note. Lots of cows, though. A sad fact of sanctuaries is that, because they are inhabited by people as well, there's usually livestock competing for forage with the wildlife. Every once in a while, an aging tiger, too old to catch a deer, will fall upon cattle. They then lose their fear of humans and become dangerous. Only rarely do they become man-eaters. You know: They ... only come out at night / The lean and hungry type / ... Watching and waiting

Our return to civilisation turned out to be a little less than civilised. We got the last three tickets on the last bus from Ooty to Bangalore. The bus broke down a few miles from its terminus in the Garden City. We had to hitch a ride from a lorry heading roughly in the direction of Yeshwantpur. The truckwallah dropped us off in some obscure part of town that we hadn't encountered before. Pooling the remains of our funds, we thought there was enough for an auto ride to campus. There wasn't. We had to walk to the hostel from the bottom of Malleswaram.

To top it all, someone had chucked my skull away in the night. So there I was - without a memento to show for my travels and travails.


Unknown said...
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Veena said...

A sambhar skull! I am jealous.

And well, not lucky or anything. Moi in cold and gray London which hasn't been that gray lately but wait, how would you know? You have been gallivanting around Southeast Asia while we are stuck here

Fëanor said...

Veena: Between you and me, I suspect the ranger was right and it was a cow skull. Still, a cool memento had it survived the trip back to campus. As for SE Asia, I've been back for a month. Shivering on a daily basis. ANd it's fairly gloomy today in London, no?

Lakshmi said...

wonderful adventure..Ive never come across skulls or stayed yes , have been charged by elephants

Fëanor said...

backpakker: welcome. now my curiosity is engaged: why did the elephant charge you?

Sunil said...

even a cow skull wouldn't be too bad for a souvenir. Most people wouldn't know what it was, and would probably even believe you if you said it was the skull of some more impressive beast. I actually met this guy once who had been charged by a sloth bear somewhere in bandipur. He was a veteran wildlife watcher, but apparently he was a little careless that day while walking, and almost walked into a sleeping bear. The disturbed bear half charged towards him, but for some reason turned and went away. He still thanks his stars that he's still alive.

Fëanor said...

Sunil: whoever named that species of ursines 'sloth bears' should have his head examined, what? Them bears show no signs of lethargy, not as far as I have heard...

Malathi said...

Several years ago, I came back home with a sambhar deer skull from one of my wildlife treks. I think it was narrower than a cow's skull. An adult deer's skull likely weighs less than an adult cow's.

Sunil, there are more ways than one in which to get (read: buy) impressive skulls these days, that too without leaving the computer. My department recently bought a polar bear skull replica, indistinguishable from the real one, as a present for a retiring prof.

Fëanor said...

malathi: thanks for your note. so what did you do with your skull? did you mount it on a wall with pride of place like a great shikhari? :-)

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