It all began with Jahnavi and Abhisheka walking into the kitchen at Mundanthurai after the early morning surveys to monitor birds and animal occupancy in forest along roads. They had seen a kill- a fresh one at that, so much so that they had even seen the blood trail! This, is something nice to hear about when there are an approximated half a million people camping and moving about near the Lord Sori temple inside KMTR and the Sambar was found dead about half a kilometer from the road on the way to another major tourist attraction the Banathirtham falls. They were walking on the trail from Servlar to Kariyar and this kill was in a dried up stream bed next to a culvert. They set eyes on the blood trail and Jahnavi thought that someone beheaded a chicken and carried it along. Then, when they walked some 300m, they came across this kill and got pictures from the road and came back to camp.
Saleem, Rajkamal and I, who were there at the camp eating food, were very excited to hear about the kill. We immediately wanted to go have a look at it but we had other work lined up and had to shelve the plan. We however tried to figure out what had killed the animal. They had not seen tracks around and none of us were sure of what had killed it. Whatever it might have been, we were all sure it would come back. In the back of my mind however, I was pretty sure that the kill, if fresh and visible from the forest road would have been taken by some tribe living in the forest and was somewhat reluctant to go take a look. But afternoon came and then things changed. Myself, Rajkamal, Saleem, Eric, Abhisheka and Jahnavi decided to go take a look at the kill in any case. The path was already littered with human excreta and my doubts of seeing the kill became stronger but to the contrary, we reached the place and there was this dead sambar with its stomach split wide open and some gooey green stuff sprayed on the rock next to it. It was the first time for all of us and it sure did look a little gross. But being biologists, we had to pack such feeling aside and go ahead to take a closer look at what had happened and immediately picked out the pug marks of dogs and what seemed to be of a leopard. The animal was badly mutilated at the ears, tail, eyes dug out and the stomach was completely ripped apart and disemboweled. This was clearly the doing of a pack of dogs but to make our case stronger, myself- a self made jack of all and saleem- expert wildlife rehabilitator got to work with a pair of plastic bags over my hand and began observing the animals neck.
|Saleem and myself observing kill, Jahnavi, Abhisheka, Eric and Rajkamal out of frame. Pic by Rajkamal|
|Pic by Rajkamal|
If it were to be killed by a cat, there would have been puncture marks at the neck where the animal breaks the jugular vein or snaps the neck with its weight. But there were none. Further investigating, we wanted to see the other side of the neck to make sure there are no punctures on the neck and it took me a hard pull and push of 15 minutes to flip the animal over! The animal was still warm and the blood gushed out like a burst open pipe! The neck was clean, apart from a few scratches there was nothing of interest to us expect for the “Sore patch” which occurs in all sambars in summer. This is a patch on the lower neck which becomes bald and starts to bleed and gets infected. This was a mystery, or I guess it still is. But what I had heard and from what is saw, it seems that the horrendous “ticks” bite the poor animal on its neck where it simply cannot lick itself ( nor can humans!) and the bites itch and the animal rubs it too much causing an infection. We in-fact saw 2-3 large ticks were still biting. The other interesting thing which stuck us was the Millipede feeding on the blood of this sambar! Never had any of us seen or heard of such a thing. Eric began searching for his dung beetles and rajkamal began getting hair samples from different parts of the body for having a reference collection and I flipped back the animal after taking the measurements of head, back, feet, etc
The stomach was full of flies and wasps; they were all busy with one purpose- lay eggs. While the flies did so within the body, the wasps with their scary looking jaws cut up the carrion and carried them away. Some of them, like us humans, bit more than what they could fly with and would crash land to the ground. I managed to flip the carcass over and we could see that the animal’s intestines were pulled out but it was punctured before removed causing the green spray of its gut content. The content indeed was phenomenal amount! And it had a lot of Terminalia chebula fruits in it. It had just rained and the weather was hot and humid, this coupled with the stench and exercise of lifting a 200 kilo animal made me sweat all the water and body salts! While all this was happening, a passing Kani tribal forest watcher stopped over and gave his expert opinion of it being killed by a Tiger. We all nodded our heads lest he would be un-happy and carried on with our work.
Within about 20 minutes of our arrival, we could build up on what exactly had happened. The kill was done early that morning and the actual attack had happened about 300m from there where the blood trail began. The animal was attacked and the stomach was bitten off by a pack of Wild dogs- these whistling hunters of the forest are ruthless and begin eating their quarry even before it is dead often attracting the ire of horribly disillusioned animal rights activists claiming to be hard to the core conservationists. Some of them, ex government officials whose name I will not take, claim that these horrid dogs eat up all the chital and recommend they should be shot!
The Dholes as they are called kill unlike the cats by eating the animal where ever they can get hold on and it might have so happened that the stomach was opened some distance away and the sambar somehow escaped the clutches but ran and fell into the stream where the stomach burst open and the animal died due to loss of blood or shock. The dholes had just then began to feed when the two researchers walked and must have scooted on seeing them approach. And that would explain the partially eaten body.
Saleem wanted to sit over the kill and see what animal came to eat but weighing out our options, myself and Jahnavi decided to go fetch the camera trap and set it up instead. The situation reminded me of the great hunter turned conservationist Jim Corbett where he would see such kills, more often than not that of a fellow human and sit over it to shoot the deadly man eater. The same was with the Kenneth Anderson of south India. How much of what they said was true, I would not comment but only that in our case, this was a sambar killed by dogs and we were curious to see what happens when an animal is killed in a forest. This was a golden opportunity which is so rare to witness in one’s life. So it was decided to get the camera form the field station and after a round of tea in an old lady’s shop and a round of nonstop story full of lies from the local forest official myself and Jahnavi headed on the bike to singampatti. We stopped enroute at the lower camp to fill in on this situation to Dr Ganesh who was in Bangalore on some other work and to ask permission to set up camera and of course to make him jealous! He was invariably excited and gave a go ahead to set up the pretty expensive and new digital camera trap which detects heat and records video on to a Fash card!
So thus we went to the field station that night to find it locked. Ruthammal who has the keys was in a church on that Sunday night and she wouldn’t come till the next day morning. We then went to the new field station and there, the watchman was about to retire for the day and we woke him up and got the camera, ate a quick dinner at Chettys, bought new pair of batteries and set back to Mundanthurai at 10pm! And reached in record time of 1 hour! What happened next is more interesting and adventurous that what I have told above and will remain as suspense for now but I shall write about it in the following post. Until then, I shall keep you in the dark like we were until we saw the images of the forest at night as captured by the camera trap!