The evening sky was overcast. Dressed in their impeccable white stockings, the largest bovines in the world leisurely munched on succulent grass along the shores of Periyar Lake. They swished their tails with unfailing regularity to keep insects at bay. Deep within the forest, time stood still as a larger herd hurried into the thickets. Thirty, fifty, hundred…it was impossible to tell how many gaur streaked past in a blur of brown and green. The thundering of their feet was the only sound in a forest awaiting a storm.
I was at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala’s Idukki district, waiting along with other tourists to enter boats lined up to leave from the jetty for the afternoon safari. A Malabar giant squirrel perched on the high branches of a tree entertained us with its antics. It bounded from one branch to another, the sunlight accentuating its burgundy, cream and black coat. Deftly using its luscious tail and paws to balance itself, it didn’t hesitate to hang upside down to reach a piece of bark.
Among the waiting tourists were a sizeable number of foreigners for whom, I gathered, a trip to God Own’s Country is incomplete without visiting this 925-sq-km tiger reserve in the Western Ghats. This wilderness was afforded sanctuary status in 1950 and declared a tiger reserve in 1978. I took my seat on the upper deck of the boat along with other tourists.
Sambar deer, usually skittish, threw the passing boats a cursory glance from the lakeshores. A herd of around 20 gaur grazed in a meadow lined by gigantic trees. The foliage was a mosaic of green broken only by the flaming red of the flowering Terminalia paniculata, locally called pumaradu. A tropical evergreen and moist deciduous forest encompassed the lake, which reflected the brilliance of the blue sky. Teak, rosewood, eucalyptus, sandalwood, mango, jamun, bamboo, and Terminalias are the prominent trees of this forest. A magical vista of blue and green stretched as far as the eye could see.
After the boat left us back at the jetty, I decided to absorb more sights and sounds of the forest by walking till the entrance gate instead of boarding the tourist bus. I was soon confronted by a troop of Nilgiri langurs. They warily bounded away as I approached closer, except for one bold individual that had parked itself on a tree fork. It expressed its disapproval at being photographed by grimacing, baring its teeth, and questioningly raising its head. I moved on.
Among the various ecotourism activities undertaken by the forest department, the Periyar Tiger Trail is a unique programme led by former poachers. The programme allows groups of six visitors to hike through the wilderness and camp in the jungle for a night or two accompanied by poachers-turned-guides and an armed forest guard. I joined this activity the next morning with our guide Kunjumon Chacko leading the way. Along the way, Chacko paused to pluck the leaves of wild turmeric and lemon for us to smell. Pointing towards the skull of an animal lying near the trail, he revealed that it was an elephant calf that had died of natural causes.
Around noon, we crossed the lake in a bamboo raft to reach our campsite. Sitting around a campfire later that night, Chacko, who has been guarding the forest for 23 years, began talking about local politics around the Mullaperiyar dam. Soon enough, he was telling me about how he turned from poacher to protector. “I used to work as a daily wage labourer, earning a paltry sum of four to five rupees every day and would occasionally hunt wild animals to earn the extra money. I had around 15 cases against me in the court when the forest department offered me, and others like me, a way out.”
In 1997, Chacko and other poachers gave up their guns and joined the department as forest guides and protectors. After undergoing training, they began to earn new livelihoods by helping the department patrol the forest and guide ecotourism initiatives such as trekking, bamboo rafting, and night camping in the park. These men, who know the forest like the back of their hands, have also helped to crack several poaching and smuggling cases. The reformation model was a first for the country and has since been emulated in other tiger reserves and sanctuaries; it’s also marked Periyar as one of the best protected areas on the tourism map of India.
“Did you hear the elephant trumpeting last night?” asked Chacko the next morning while handing me a cup of black coffee. Since I had slept like a log after walking throughout the day, I shook my head. The elephant was apparently a frequent visitor to a nearby stretch of forest. Owing to untimely rains in December, elephant herds had moved deeper into the forest than usual, Chacko told me.
On our morning trail, our excitement grew when Chacko pointed out fresh pugmarks in the mud soaked from the overnight rain. There were two sets of marks, one visibly larger than the other. “Quite possibly a male tiger courting a female,” said Chacko, inspecting the pugmarks. Further ahead, he pointed towards a heap of bones lying along the shore of the lake. “A tiger killed that sambar a couple of weeks ago. A few lucky boat safari goers had witnessed it feeding on the deer,” said Chacko to our collective amazement.
Wild pigs, another prey of the tiger, were plentiful. We’d frequently sight both lone individuals and sounders of wild pigs foraging around the lake. I was pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon a wild boar nest built using grass, leaves, and twigs. Chacko told us that it was a fresh nest and the litter could be nearby. A litter usually stays in the nest for about 10 days before beginning to root about with their mother on foraging trips. When they sense danger, the piglets pause in dense vegetation, relying on the camouflage provided by their cream-coloured stripes to keep them hidden.
We emerged from a thicket onto the banks of the lake, startling a large sounder of wild pigs. There were more than 30 in the group; they rushed towards a shallow stretch, swimming vigorously to get to the other side. The adults waited patiently for the piglets to catch up before disappearing into the forest with them in tow.
Walking along the lake shore, we encountered a grey wagtail. The bold bird maintained a safe distance as it trotted beside us for a fair bit. Absorbed in watching this little bird, I didn’t realise that we were already back at the boat jetty. Bidding adieu to the guards, I thanked 60-year-old Chacko for sharing his observations and knowledge of the forest with me. I recollected what he had told me the previous night, with the orange flames of the campfire gleaming in his kind eyes, “It’s a beautiful forest, Anirudh, one that I am sworn to protect. You should visit us again in the summer next year. I will show you large herds of elephants by the lake.”