Its been just over two months since fieldwork began and the going has been good but it hasn’t always been easy. Negotiating difficult terrain and possibly dangerous animal encounters are among a few of the daily occupational hazards making it a job almost impossible to do solo. When the going gets tough I find myself relying heavily on my friend, partner and field assistant Dorai, a middle aged Paliyar tribesman from a small village called Kuthiraiyar close to Palani.
The Paliyar people are the original inhabitants of the Palanis and were traditionally food gatherers and are thought to have lived in the Palanis to close to 2000 years. They lived in the forest subsisting mainly on edible tubers, roots, wild fruits and honey, but have had to take on varying occupations to sustain themselves in changing times.
I first met Dorai three years ago when the two of us were part of a small team studying wild foods like tubers and yams in the forests near his home .
Dorai seemed to know the jungle intimately and had a quiet, almost gentle way of interacting with the forest, a quality that drew me to him almost immediately. When I got the approvals for the project, I needed a field assistant and I couldn’t think of anyone better than Dorai. In the last couple of months Dorai has guided me through some magnificently treacherous terrain and on more than one occasion prevented us from wandering smack into the middle of elephant herds. He has also saved our lives on several occasions by finding water in small hidden springs and once by guiding us to a safe refuge in near total darkness on a stormy night. In addition to the obvious benefits of his company, his knowledge of the jungle and its life forms has made my time with him a learning experience. His general conduct and way of living is also remarkable. Dorai lives very simply. He is extremely adaptable, able to survive and be content in almost any situation. In a small backpack slung across his tiny frame, he carries the entirety of his material world… along with our lunchboxes. He never asks for anything, and waits patiently to for his needs to be met… almost like the forest itself. It made me really think about how people from my socio-economic background live.
As Dorai and I continue on this journey together, I know that we will have many more adventures and discover a lot about ourselves in the process. I’m glad to share this experience with him.
Just an overnight bus ride away from Bangalore lie the “Palani Hills” , an eastern spur of the Western Ghats, a region recognized as one of the top hotspots for biodiversity in the world. Spanning an area of 2068 km2 , altitudes ranging from 400 – 2500m and rainfall levels from 600 – 2000mm, The Palani’s are home immensely diverse habitats, flora and fauna. These include endangered species endemic to the Western Ghats such as the Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), grizzled giant squired (Ratufa macroura), Dhole[Cuon alpinus]and numerous others. These hills also form vital watersheds that supply water and other crucial resources to millions of people living in the plains surrounding them.
In 2013, the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary [KWS], a 609 square sqare km portion of The Palani’s was officially declared protected by the government ,however, there is insuffient research to to draw even basic conclusions like whether conservation efforts are succeeding or not . This lack of information combined with increasing human activity threatens to seriously degrade this fragile ecosystem. In late 2017, a small group of individuals came together with the mutual intent of remedying this situation in some way. So here I am today ,conducting a baseline survey of mammal presence, distribution and abundance and this blog is an attempt at sharing this rare oppurtunity a glimpse into a pristine and ancient ecosystem which is right in our backyards.
I am Dhruv Athreye and I have been working in and around the Palani hill for the last five years. I worked in the Palanis as a teacher, farmer, cowherd and sustainable waste management facilitator among other things. Since September 2017, I have been working as a Junior Research Fellow for FERAL [Foundation for Ecological research, Advocacy and Learning] an auroville based research entity concerned with conservation and related issues.
dAs of February 2018, I began the mammoth task of surveying this 609 sqare kilometer area for signs of mammal activity . So far I have surveyed approximately 180 square kilometers in the last two months and have seen signs of several different mammals such elephants, gaur, various deer species, porcupines, boar, dhole and many others.
Seen above are fresh elephant dung and
a drying stream bed showing tracks of the Indian gaur and sambar deer.
In my time here I have come to realise that the animals, though vital, form but a part of an intricate web of systems that affect all life in the area and beyond.
So come and join me in the deep jungle and lets see what nature has to teach us.
1. Dhruv Athreye in February 2018 began a survey of mammals in the Palani Hills and is publishing notes of his field work.