Into the night in Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady, Kerala is a tropical evergreen forest located high up in the Cardamom Hills of the southern Western Ghats of India. An overnight train to Madurai and a three-hour taxi ride later we were in Periyar one cloudy Saturday morning.

On the way there, I excitedly tell P about the night trek organized by the Periyar Forest Department where visitors can join the regular forest protection party as paid volunteers. They have three slots; 7pm to 10pm, 10pm to 1am and 1am to 4 am where groups of 5 to 6 volunteers accompany a forest ranger on his daily beat. Our Bengali middle class risk-averse cells are suitably assuaged and we opt for what appears to be the least perilous of the three, 7pm to 10pm.

Come 7pm and in the growing darkness we assemble at the designated starting point. We are handed a form and a register to fill in our details and sign. To summarize, the form says, “I hereby declare that I am of sound physical and mental shape and the Forest Department is not liable for any mishap that may happen during the trek”. P and I share alarmed glances. Un-perilous huh! What is this for then? The other three folks in our group are already signing the form. P and I give each other the “doesn’t make any sense to turn back now” glance and fill in our details.

Each of us is handed a torch light and we begin walking towards the gate of the sanctuary. Through the broken gate, past the board that says, “Periyar Tiger Reserve – Closed Area – Trespassers Will be Prosecuted”

As we pick up pace, the group starts warming up to Mr. Ranger; asking all sorts of questions. What kinds of animals are present in the forest? Which animals are we likely to see? Etc. Etc. He rattles off the names of a host of herbivorous animals, including deer and owls.  I was getting impatient and interrupted to ask the main question on everyone’s mind, “Are there any Tigers here?”

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Picking the forest ranger’s brain

He turned to me and replied patiently, “Periyar is a special protected zone for tigers. We have about 40 tigers here.”

With rising trepidation, I asked, “Have you ever encountered any tigers?”

He replied again in a calm voice, “I have been working here for last eight years and in these eight years I have come across tigers just twice. Since Periyar is a dense evergreen forest, tigers are often difficult to spot here.” Having sensed the anxiety in my voice, he continued, “But you have nothing to worry. Tigers of Periyar don’t attack human beings. The last attack on a human took place in the 1970s. This is a WWF approved program and on our way, you will in fact see groups of people sitting around bonfires at various places inside the forest.”

I didn’t quite understand the last part about people sitting inside the forest and the prospect of a tiger watching me from behind a cluster of trees while I walked on unaware was so unsettling that I did not bother to ask.

I was looking at the tall trees and all-consuming darkness on both sides of the tar road that we were walking on when he suddenly directed his torch towards a narrow path through the trees on our left and said, “We will enter from here”. Before we could react, he promptly stepped off the asphalt and entered the uneven forest ground. We followed him almost instinctively.

My trepidation was now turning to panic. The path we were walking on was simply an oft trodden serpentine clearing through the dense forests. On both sides was pitch darkness and the prospect of something-that-I-can’t-see peering at me through the trees made me constantly swing my torch from one side to the other. With every step, the jungle was getting denser; branches and vines were obstructing the way. Mr. Ranger asked us to keep to the serpentine path and not step into the grass to stay clear of snakes.

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Into  the dark woods

We continued with heightened caution. My feet were only starting to get accustomed to the uneven terrain when I stepped onto something long and hard. My foot got twisted and I let out a shrill shriek. The ranger immediately swung his torch around and P jumped forward fearing the worst. It turned out to be just a root. I had barely recovered from the twisted foot when the loud call almost like an air horn rang out through the forest. White with fear, I asked the Ranger, “What was that?” He casually replied, “Oh, that’s a Sambhar Deer. It must have sensed something unusual or carnivorous animals around it and let out that warning call”. Fortunately, my foot was not hurt very badly. A little twisting and turning later, the group started walking again.

This time Mr. Ranger told me to keep the torch focused about a foot ahead of me instead of swinging it around from side to side. I smiled sheepishly. He said, “I am keeping a watch on what is around. If I see any animals I will point them out to out. You just keep your eyes on where you are stepping.” Well, that was the whole point wasn’t it, I was trying to spot the thing that could be hidden among the dense trees. The thing peering at us from behind the trees that the ranger could have missed. After all, he had only two eyes but the dark jungle spread out in all directions around us.

This whole time the Sambhar deer kept on calling and I kept wondering what could possibly be the thing that alarmed the deer. Nevertheless, after escaping the peril of ending up with a twisted foot in a forest, I decided to focus more on the path in front of me and less on trying to find a hidden adversary. As is, the ground we were treading was threatening enough.

I shone my torch on my watch. It was getting close to 8pm now but the stillness of the forest made it seem like midnight. Up ahead we could see small bonfire in the forest. So, this must be what the ranger spoke about earlier. As we got closer, it turned out to be a basic shed built on a slightly higher ground. Two men sat around the fire that burnt under the shed. They sprang up on seeing Mr. Ranger and with hands pulled behind their back started speaking solemnly. We could not comprehend what they were talking about but after a few enquiries and exchanges, Mr. Ranger got up from the crude wooden bench near the fire that he had been sitting on and we were off into the dark jungle again.

 

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Making note of the night’s activity in the forest

He told us now that these men were local villages recruited by the forest department to keep a watch for sandalwood smugglers who were menace in Periyar. (Veerappan, did you say!) That sent a chill down my spine. He went on to tell us that some of these men in fact, were rehabilitated sandalwood smugglers.

It seemed quite a daring task for these men to camp out unarmed in the jungle where carnivorous animals and fearsome dacoits run free. As we walked on, every now and then, orbs of orange would peep through the undergrowth, breaking the pitch darkness and assuring us of a guarded presence nearby.

The woods now really did seem dense, dark and lovely. We stopped to look at a porcupine spine embedded into the trunk of a tree, owls vigilantly watching over the forest and trees of several kind. In one place, the branches of the trees had been harshly torn apart. Elephants, said our guide. Every now and then, a pair of red dots would appear in the darkness and shining our torches on them would reveal a deer or two quietly watching us from behind the leafy canopy.

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A porcupine spine embedded in to the trunk of a tree

Soon we left the dense jungle behind and came to what looked like a grassland. Our guide was telling us how a court order to raise the water level of the Mullaperiyar Dam over the Periyar river that the sanctuary gets its name from, had led to submersion of more acres of forest land. The grassland that we were now walking through is usually submerged under water but this being summer, the water had receded letting the grass to cover it up. A family of rabbits had made home here. Our movement had alarmed them and we fleetingly saw them scurrying away deeper into grass.

After what seemed like an eternity, we were back on the asphalt road and out of the forest before long.

The next morning, we went for a walk in the direction that we had headed the last evening. We tried in vain to find the spot where the ranger had stepped off the asphalt road to enter the forest. In the light of the day, the same forest and trees seemed much less intimidating and a lot more inviting.

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The forest in daylight

Nonetheless, it was truly a hair-raising experience to walk through the jungle in the darkness of the night. An experience that we will never forget.

P.S. : Apologies for the bad pictures but it was way to dark and I was way too jittery to be able to capture anything clearly on camera but I hope I was able to make it up with words.

Getting there and about:

The closest town to Periyar Tiger Reserve is Thekkady in Idukki district of Kerala. Thekkady is about 500 kms from Bangalore and 560 kms from Chennai. To get there, one can a train or flight to either Madurai or Kochi and then a cab from there to Thekkady.

The Periyar Foundation offers some pretty interesting activities and packages for visitors besides under it’s community based eco-tourism programme. There is of course the regular boat safari on the Periyar river, nature walks but for those who seek more adventure, there are full and half day bamboo rafting, full day treks through the jungle, night treks and also two to three days of tiger trail with rehabilitated poachers and tree cutters. Click here and here for more details.

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Boat Safari on Periyar River
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Elephants sighted on safari

Ciao! Happy Exploring!!!

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