I had a panoramic view of the landscape from the treehouse: rolling hills, blue-green waters, and amoeba-shaped islands covered with dense forests. I was in the heart of a tiger reserve in southern India, on an island in a deep reservoir with no access to the outside world. It was my third visit here. A familiar thrill of being in the wild surrounded me, but it was the scent of the forest that I loved the most: crisp and sweet, of mist and moss and woody wetness. I took a few deep breaths, trying to store some of it away as fuel for life ahead.
I was at Peruvari Island in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Kerala with two friends: passionate wildlife conservationist Pravin Shanmuganandam and my mildly-arachnophobic friend Sumi. Little did we know that our adventure would begin the moment we stepped into the treehouse. In the middle of the king-sized bed sat an enormous spider, its hairy legs spread out. Pravin was the first to recover. Setting his bags down on the floor, he announced, “Here we are!”
The island sits in the Peruvaripallam Dam, one of the three large reservoirs in the reserve. We were rowed out here by four boatmen local to the area, of which Lakshman and Shiva were the primary guides. All four of them would stay with us overnight. They were here to show us the forest, protect us (they said initially), and protect the animals from us (they added later).
Spread over 640 sq km, the tiger reserve contains the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary (391 sq km), and manmade reservoirs that are sustained by three rivers that cut through the landscape. The habitat has a rich mix of moist deciduous, dry deciduous, shola and evergreen forests that support numerous creatures big and small. It hosts one of the densest gaur populations and is home to 49 species of mammals, including Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, Indian leopards, spotted deer, and the more uncommon lion-tailed macaques and Nilgiri marten. The reserve also features over 300 species of birds, 81 species of freshwater fish and over a thousand insects (221 species of butterflies alone!). A dazzling flora sustains the creatures: over 70 species of orchids are found here, along with endangered medicinal plants. In November, the forest blooms in shades of red and brown: the scarlet flowers of the gulmohar tree and rust-coloured fruits of Terminalia paniculata are interspersed with the greens of teak, rosewood, and bamboo.
The forest reserve is also home to four tribes that live within its boundaries: Malasar, Kadar, Iruvar and Malamalasar. About 15 years ago, the Kerala Forest Department launched a community eco-tourism initiative, encouraging locals to give up herding cattle, and participate in conservation. The programme trained several to become forest guides, who are now adept at spotting species and dishing out scientific and common names in English and Malayalam. Humans and wildlife co-exist peacefully for the most part, and attacks on livestock and people are rare due to the abundance of prey. “It’s unusual for the animals to get in our way. We try not to get in theirs,” says Shiva, simply.
That evening, we sat on the balcony of our treehouse. As the sun set, the sounds of the forest got sharper and louder. Here was a wild orchestra performing a grand symphony. I picked out the sounds that were familiar to me: the gub gub gub of a Nilgiri langur, the chirping of frogs and crickets, the eerie creaking of bamboo swaying in the wind. It was soon dark. We felt the cool breeze on our faces and swatted at insects.
Then, all of a sudden, a deep roar came from the depths of the jungle. “That’s a tiger!” Pravin said. The leaves on the ground rustled below our treehouse, and I panicked, thinking there was an elephant below, but it was only Laxman who was checking if we had heard the roar. He said it was a female tiger, possibly calling out to a male. It seemed surreal to be sitting there listening to tigers seeking out a mate.
The next day, over a breakfast of hot cups of chaaya (tea) and bowls of Maggi, Lakshman and others offered to take us to the island from which the tigers’ sounds had emerged the previous night. It’s safe, they assured us, “We will be with you.” I agreed, and we all got on the raft. It was an overcast morning, and the rhythmic splashing of the oars broke the silence. We saw mugger crocodiles lying on the banks of one of the islands, but much to my relief, there was no gleaming eye gliding beside our boat.
Once we reached the island, we set off on a mud track into the forest with Lakshman leading the way and Shiva behind us. The jungle was alive with birdsong. Every few seconds, Shiva identified a call: “Ashy prinia. Hill mynah. Malabar whistling thrush. Emerald dove.”
I asked Laxman if we were likely to encounter animals. “We might see elephants,” he said. “But only from afar. Wild elephants don’t like human voices, and they get disturbed and walk in the direction of the voices. Tigers and leopards usually run away when they hear us.”
“Sloth bears,” Shiva added suddenly, “Bears are best avoided. They feel threatened when they encounter humans, especially when they don’t expect it, and it’s not uncommon for them to attack.” I asked what animals they saw regularly. “Yanai (elephant), maan (deer), kaduva (tiger), puli (leopard), gaur, sambar,” said Shiva. How do they know when an animal is close? “You can tell by the smell,” Shiva replied. I marvelled at how intimately they knew this landscape. We reached a clearing amidst a dense bamboo forest. “Elephants like hanging out here,” whispered Laxman. He went ahead, paused for a moment, and then gestured. “Safe,” he said. A pile of elephant dung lay ahead of us, still moist. A group of grazing spotted deer looked up from the grass curiously. A jungle mynah was perched on one of them, looking very pleased with its ride. Pointing at it, Laxman looked at me and grinned, “It’s going on a safari.”
We followed a circular route and made it back to our boat. I felt privileged (and very much like an intruder) to have walked on the same path a tiger might have the night before. As we rowed back to the island, I spotted a brahminy kite soaring above us. I wondered what its view looked like: a pretty picture, of course, with lush green jungles set among teal waters, but the kite was probably just looking for its next meal. I thought about how the wilderness was both ruthless and kind. Claiming lives every day, yet the very source of life, of abundance. From the white-bellied treepie to the magnificent elephant, every being had
There was something particularly enchanting about this land. No two visits were the same. I’ve learned not just a great deal about the forest but also the people who call it home. Not many protected areas have successfully integrated the local community into its conservation efforts while reducing human-wildlife conflict. I remembered what Murugesan, the first guide I met in Parambikulam, had told me a few years ago: “We are far more dangerous to the animals than they are to us.”
The following morning, I heard a shriek from the bathroom and I knew that Sumi had found the spider.