Every year, as the Adi Amavasai arrives, researchers from ATREE begin preparing for the annual Sorimuthian festival. The preparation is more than what the people of Alangulam, from where half a million people come into KMTR and camp for over ten days in the name of Lord Sori. And as the story goes, one who visits lord sori once will keep coming every year after that! I guess sori has not spared the researchers either and It so is happening that I myself have been attracted by his un-fore seeable power to pay my due respect to this lord whose name in literal translation means itching! (Sori= itch/allergy).
|Sorimuthain temple before pilgrimage on banks of Tambaraparani river|
This year, a new entrant was inducted to the team trying to change the camper’s attitude towards conservation under the theme “Be better ancestors”. With the past three years, a team of us had gathered information on road kills, occupancy of animals, water quality analyses and social surveys. This year, we decided to have the same and add to the database we have to see the long term impacts which is what makes sense than a short term view of the whole madness. Having inducted myself to the field of road ecology a couple of years back, I was responsible for the documentation of road mortality of animals and hence, it was decided that the new entrant will carry out the study before the festival and my good self and soul was tied up in a mess at Pondicherry for a couple of more months. Smrity, the new volunteer, was overwhelmed by seeing the datasheets and protocols and was good to go in the field. I managed to convince two more of my classmates and roommates to bunk classes and come to KMTR in order to get trained in monitoring road kills and other projects which was planned.
Bunking a class is not so difficult and the week end saw us in KMTR measuring road length and laying plots along it to record road kills. This seemingly insane activity of searching millipedes in plots along roads to see the impact on their population drove all of us a little bit crazy. After figuring out the best method to count millipedes the new volunteers were trained in recording road killed organisms and by evening, the cold curd rice packed in morning went down our parched throats with the hurting feet in the cool waters of Servalar river. Having done this, and due to the incapacitated team with only one bike for four of us, I made my two classmates, Vivek and Tapan to board a bus and go back to our field station outside the reserve and before I followed the bus, I realized that I could as well do the night transects on the road leading to the temple as we used to do every year.
So I and Smrity were traversing the 5 km of road at a slow but controlled pace with a dim LED headlamp to spot the eye shine of animals. This method, we figured over 3 years of experience was way better than the huge hunting spotlight the department uses to catch eye shine and I am quite happy with the success of our method. Soon, the tourist vehicles exited the forest the roads were calm once again and except for a few bikes; there was no activity on the roads. With dusk the forest became silent and we began to see all sorts of wildlife starting from Chital, Sambar, Mouse deer and Pigs. It was almost 2000hrs when returning, I spotted the bright red eye shine of the Selnder loris. May be due to the change in angle of light, smrity never saw it and the animal moved.
We rode on and on reaching about 100m from the Mundanthurai dormitory; I spotted something on the road at about 70m. it did not seem like a pig and I accelerated to reach the animal and breaked barely 10ft from it and to my utter surprise it was a full grown leopard! It was about to cross the road and on seeing me took a huge leap into the forest and this leap carried it about 6m away from the road into the row of trees!! The jump is something that will remain etched in my eyes for the rest of this living life!
Our joy knew no bounds and both of us were jumping on the bike itself like tourists do! The leopard, now back to where it came form was crouching in the grasses and I could clearly see the green eyes and I quickly entered the sighting into the data sheet and moved intending not to bother the animal any further. Smrity, who was stepping into the forests of Western Ghats, must be considered very lucky. It took me 5 years of walking and walking in the rugged mountains to set my eyes on this majestic creature of the jungle and this city slicker lady saw it on the first day in forest!! Both of us, pitied my two classmates who were on the bus and decided to rub things in by not telling them about the sighting immediately.
On reaching the Mundanthurai dormitory we decided to go on Servalar road and do the surveys there and soon, half way to Servalar, I spotted an owl take off from the tree next to the road. And on shining the torch, it became evident that it was not the brown fish owl but something else, I was for the next 10 minutes of so, guilty of blinding the animal with my spotlight headlamp and the bike headlight in order to get a clear look at the bird. And lo behold! It turned out to be the Forest eagle owl- Bubo nipalensis!!! This sighting to me was more treasured than that of the leopard. It has taken almost a decade of bird watching to set my eyes on this beautiful forest owl.
This was the end of my survey as it began to drizzle and we had to head back as we had quite some distance to cover to reach the town and we headed back to Kallidaikurchi where I had asked my classmates to wait at the chetty shop. The survey was in no doubt a very successful one and it clearly indicated the fact that with no vehicles on roads in night, animals do move about a lot. Some might here argue that this post would influence others to go into forests on bikes and cars for thrill which would disturb the forest and I completely agree with their concern. But I am no body to decide and as far as I am concerned, it was with certain responsibilities that we did this survey and it requires permits to enter forests in day time itself, let alone at night. But going beyond and looking at the bigger perspective, I feel such things are necessary to make a difference, I have strongly believed that good science is what matters in making a change in conservation and for this, causing a little disturbance is not going to be harmful. In fact, with the results of previous years, we were able to convince the forest authorities to close the road at night until 3 days before the festival, compared to the 10 days earlier. This to me is something of significance and I would really not bother if someone goes into forest in night and look for animals. I still believe that going to see animals in day time itself would disturb them anyway so why bother?