Friday, August 27, 2010

Eyes in the forest

Just to continue from where I last left, the camera trap was brought from the field station to be set up at the place of Sambar carcass. It was about 22hrs and by the time I could mobilize a team it was 23hrs. The team consisted of myself, Allwin- who has the notorious experience of doing camera trapping for years together in some India’s best tiger habitats and Chian, the young man who came into existence within KMTR and has seen the forest and its mystifying creatures in detail and is one man who anyone would want to take into the forest given his great cheerful company, willingness to go out of the way and work hard, insult primates by gracefully climbing the tallest of trees and of course for the knowledge he has accumulated in those 2 decades he has been in the forest.
So thus we left on a bike from Mundanthurai to Kariyar where we had seen the kill to set up the trap, picking up or rather dragging Chian along from the booth near the temple to come along and set up the trap may be on a tree so that no one would steal it. We reached the path leading to the kill and began walking stealthily but at a hurried pace. In the dark night, the path seemed to be longer that in was in day and every sound we heard made us stop and listen, lest we should walk into an animal and startle them (or us?) to death. As we approached the spot of kill, we could already smell the putrefying body and we slowed the pace and almost simultaneously, I spotted a pair of brilliant greenish blue eyes, quite distant from each other staring at us from a rock behind a thin bush on the right flank of the road, just about 10m from where the kill was. I switched over from a LED to a focus beam on my headlamp but the light was way too insufficient to reveal what the animal was. By then, I had taken a couple more steps when the eyes glittered again and this time Chian saw it too and pulled me back from going any further. He snatched the headlamp from be and began to shine at the spot and there it went again! The same brilliant greenish blue eyes! Just like sapphires in the pitch dark night of the amavasya (No moon)!
We stared at the same spot for about 20 minutes looking for a glimpse of the animal but except for a few occasional glances towards us, the animal never revealed itself. It was evident that Chian was in full control of the situation and he held me and Allwin back from proceeding any further. We began discussing in whispers as to what it could have been and also contemplating of barging in further and flush the animal out. It was sure that the animal was a carnivore looking at the distance between the eyes and the low height. It was not a dog because the eyes were a little far apart and more so, the behavior of seeing us and still being there- this sheer audacity comes only for two creatures; either the tiger or the leopard. The animal was clearly weighting its options and sitting there looking at us.
My idea of going further was washed down by the other two who were with me and it was now clear that we are not proceeding further. By then, we could not see any more eye-shines form the place, and may be the animal had moved and was looking at us from elsewhere. All of a sudden Chian who had the torch jumped up and was visibly shaken! Allwin who was behind him, put his arm over Chian’s shoulder to turn the light at something and poor Chian thought it was an elephants trunk and almost died of fear!!
We were now contemplating as to what it might have been and only thing was a young tiger or an adult leopard. Both apparently have the same sort of eye shine. Allwin with his experience of dealing with tigers, said if it was indeed a transient or a young tiger, the mother might be around and if we proceed further, we would be more or less dead if it decides even to jump on us even by mistake because, on the left was a rocky dried up ravine and on the right the animal. We had to walk right thru a bush to reach the kill and this was clearly not the position which anyone would want in the middle of the night!
Reluctantly, we returned being almost sure that it was a leopard that looked at us, I also recollected the eyeshine which I had seen the previous time I saw the leopard on the road which I have written elsewhere. So we returned to go set up the camera the following morning. The next daybreak came and went in finishing the other work we had at hand and by 10am, Myself, Rajkamal and John-another jungle denizen went to the spot with the filmmakers Kiran, Nagesh and Shashi.
They were doing a film on the Sorimuthian festival and a part of it was to film the research work we did during the festival. We went and clearly saw the pugmarks and droppings of the leopard on the road and tracks of it all along the kill. The kill was half eaten and john and myself did another post mortem for the documentary. The smell had become intolerable and everyone wanted to get out of there as early as possible. I sat on the culvert and gave a few small sound bites for their documentary after them shooting the post mortem and setting of the trap. I set it up under a huge rock and covered it with leaf litter so that no passerby sets eyes on it. This whole process took us more than 3 hours to get done!

We did a lot of mock animal movement over the kill to see if it triggers the camera and moved away only after making sure of that. By evening, it started pouring and I was afraid that the camera might get water into it, so myself and Abhisheka who initially spotted the kill went to the trail from Servlar to Kariyar with the intention of checking on the trap and just as we were about to start the walk, at 17 hrs, we met a rather old gentleman, an Ex-Indian Administrative Service officer in a SUV, who claims to be a keen lover of animals and a follower of the school of thought that research should and can be done during family trips and holidays and being a full time researcher to him is the heights of madness. What he means by research I would not know and dare not comment on that. He was concerned that we were walking in the forest at that time and asked us what protection we had, and we nonchalantly said that we have nothing to fear and just before we departed, he claimed to have seen a sambar kill in the stream. I acted dumb and sounded enthusiastic to know about it. I acted like a moron who knows nothing of the forest and this pleased and boosted his enthusiasm and his assistant, explained to us that it was a pack of dogs and might come to eat on the kill. We both sounded excited and quickly bid farewell and kept walking at a fast but constant pace.
We saw some pugmarks of leopard on the trail and some birds, but otherwise there was nothing exciting until we reached the place of the kill except that the sky was overcast and it pour any time. As we walked down the road, we heard the yelp of what sounded like a dog. It crashed into the forest. We never saw what it was. We waited silently for 10 mins and I went to the kill. It was eaten up further and all of a sudden, I did not seem to see the camera! I had camouflaged it so well that I myself could not see it in the fading light of the dense forest.
The camera triggered when I walked past and I checked if it was in place, no water had got in and realigned the focus of the camera as the kill had moved. All the while we were looking out for the mystery animal which called. Dholes- as we knew had calls like a whistle and they are fondly called “Whistling Hunters”. This yelp of a dog made us think that a stray mongrel from Kariyar was stealing meat from the kill but in that case, we should have been able to see it as they would try to chase us instead of them running away. Darkness fell soon and we moved on to take the bus down to Mundanthurai and reaching by dinner time. Over dinner, we discussed this with Rajkamal and Saleem and both of them were not sure of such a call. It was decided that myself and john go the next day morning at day break and remove the camera trap. Having the reputation of being a self claimed gentleman, I offered anyone who was interested to come along and Jahnavi, Rajkamal and Smrity wanted to come. Since Smrity was new to this field and had not seen a kill, I told her to be ready at 5 am and I would pick her up on the bike from the dormitory.
Morning came and the usual rush to use the loo was on and like Saleem says the sight of half naked chaddi clad men was a common sight the first thing every morning! Managing to freshen up, I left in a hurry with john to pick Smrity up who stayed in another dormitory exclusively for ladies of the team. On reaching there, I could not hear a sound and there was no activity, I knocked the door and no one opened. Jahnavi and others in another room knocked too and no one opened. So much for being a gentleman, I left with john and went straight to the trail to recover the camera, if it was there that is.
The same quick stealthy pace was on and as we reached the kill, I saw two wild dogs bolt across the road giving the same yelp I had heard the previous evening. One step closer and two more bolted to the hills on the left of the stream. Both of us were awestruck! What a way it was to begin our day! We rushed up to collect the camera and the kill was almost eaten, it was dragged quite away from where we initially saw it and the camera, fortunately was still there. The dogs, were in the forest, some 50m away and I guess they were looking at us and wondering at our antics!
I pulled out the SD card form the trap, inserted it into my camera and saw the images and lo behold! There were images of myself testing it, a short while later 4 dogs and in the evening I reappear to check the trap and then the spotted master takes over the stage of this perfectly eternal drama of life which ends with dogs coming over at night. The leopard was indeed feeding on a kill made by dogs! Though I could see only previews of the thumbnails on my camera, I was pleased and so was john. We were out of words and on clouds with numerous nines!!
We rode back, John relived Chian who was at the booth all night and I took him to do the road kill survey on the way back to Mundanthurai. Chian was excited and he kept reaffirming the decision of not walking into a death trap. Road kill survey done , had a quick breakfast and filled in about the situation to whoever was there and then went to the dorm to see the footage on a computer!

The sequence of events was so beautiful that I was indeed full of joy seeing the drama in the shadows of the night. The dogs came about 2 hours after we set up the camera, one came then another and joined by two more, they were visibly fidgety, which is expected being the road and lot of people walking to and fro. They fed till about 1630hrs and then they see something up the road and all run. This must have been the IAS officer passing by in his jeep. Then, within 15min the dogs are back on the kill only to run when I reach there. The video shows that the animal was feeding half a minute before I reached! Exactly after 10 mins, I appear on the frame and after 2 more hours of me leaving, the majestic leopard walks in elegantly and begins feeding on the kill for about 2.4 hours up until 21 hours. Then there is a gap of 1 hr or so and the dogs re appear, they are far less fidgety then they were in the day and are playful as ever and one fellow also comes and sniffs the camera! The majority of the kill is eaten up in this time. The infrared camera records all this without the animals even knowing of its existence! The dogs feed till about 0031hrs. None of us knew that dogs come out and feed in the night! By 0400hrs the dogs reappear and feed until 0600hrs where I go and scare them away! All this was beautifully captured in 5-15 sec clipping coupled with pictures! With this whole experience, we learnt that dogs come back to their kill; Leopards do sneak in and feed when they have an easy meal at their disposal and wild dogs yelp like dogs too!! And of course, they come feed even at night! All this was entirely new for the whole team and all of us were simply enthralled by the whole sequence of events that led to this set of (personally at least!) wonderful natural history observations over two days.
(I have put some images below and All images and Copyright rests with ATREE team, KMTR.I put two clippings but they dont seem to appear!)
The dog about to scoot seeing SUV

Yours truly checking the trap

The spotted master

Dholes back in action

If some of you were wondering what happened to the lady who was to come with me, she came to the dorm with a scared and a sorry look on her face when we all were seeing the footage. Lucky for her that I was too happy to be angry like I was that morning when she dint turn up upsetting the entire schedule and she apologized for absconding and said she never woke up as there was no alarm clock! I guess the missing of the dogs taught her a lesson and hope she will never miss a time set for work again!


  1. Great experience Seshu. Do you add the Road Kill line for me to point out :).

  2. Sakattalla...sesha! Very expressive narration. I liked it very much. I should have been there.

  3. Fantastic account, Seshadri! You really have a knack of telling the story! And what an experience! Truly wonderful!

  4. as i said.. ur narrative skills are par excellence... felt as if i was really on spot.:P

  5. yes bala! :P
    thanks for the kind words guruji, Uma and Amrita!:)

  6. ur narration was makin the hair on my neck stand on end.... it was so exciting tat maybe for once at d back of my mind i wished i would also start doing all this with u..... tats unbelievable......... grttt job

  7. It is amazing , mind blowing pics . u r on cloud 9. narration is superb .Daddy:)here...