Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Silent valley national park, Kerela
20th -27th April 2007

God’s very own country! Kerela! And in this very land God choose to unfold the mysteries of Mother Nature and the power of the Elements to us mortals who happened to tread the forest path of the Silent Valley National Park.
The darkest of nights; the densest of forests; echoing calls of the Lion Tailed Macaques, high in the trees and a bed of bloodsuckers wriggling at your feet. The fury of torrential rains and the peace and quiet of the mist laden green valley.

Next to the north east, Silent valley in Kerela has India’s only surviving tropical rainforest and an experience in it is worth every penny, time and effort spent (and every drop of blood shed- as u will read furtherJ). It is vastly different from an experience in any other forest or national park in India. The main difference lies in the fact that it is a “rainforest”. The flora and fauna are influenced by the fact that it rains for about 8-9 months in this place. The vegetation is evergreen as against deciduous in other parts of the country.
As Edward Hamilton Atkin puts it in a lucid manner

“We are not accustomed to speak of autumn in India, but there is a timeof year in this country as much as in any other, when each tree puts off its old clothes and gets a new suit. The only difference is that tropical trees for the most part manage the matter more decently than those of cold countries. They do not strip themselves before the newsuit is ready and stand naked till it arrives. They undress and dress at the same time, as respectable people do”.

And so it happens here -every tree, plant or shrub will wear its green mantle all the year around. With the amount of life giving water that keeps pouring from the heavens, trees grow to unimaginable heights of 40 meters and more. Even regular trees found in the other parts of the country tend to grow taller in this area. The density of growth is substantial and there is a great deal of pushing and shoving happening to grab a bit of land here and bit of sunshine there. Smaller shrubs and creepers will climb up larger trees to get their bit of share in the nature’s bounty. Many symbiotic relationships are hence visible. Epiphytes and parasites abound. Lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids adorn the stems and branches of large trees. Every source of support, to get to the prized raw materials for life is exploited. The abundance of canopy compost created by the decay of fallen leaves, wood, and animal waste provides much moisture and nutrients for further growth. So there is life every where u look – up above, down below…….

Orchids are a best example of survival in a competitive world. Apart from the exotic flowers it produces, its stiff upturned leaves hold reservoirs of water – a drinking supply for canopy animals and shelter and breeding places for larvae of many insects- they are miniature worlds in themselves.

Our journey into this world began from Coimbatore in Tamilnadu from where we cross over to the border district of kerela -Palakkad. It is surprising to know that how ever popular Kerela is for its green countryside, the state has precious little of forested area. A large part is under cultivation. But the people of Kerela deserve due credit for their struggle to save the rainforest from being destroyed at the hands of development. The national park came into news because of the successful struggle that the environmentalists put up to save the forest from being drowned under a proposed dam to be built on the Kuntipuzha River flowing through the heart of the forest.

Mukkali and Bhavani

Leaving Coimbatore we reached our base camp at Mukkali silent valley at about 11.00 am. Prior to lunch a round of introduction was in the right order. There was a clear wide spectrum….several school goers- chirpy and pampered lot and an equal number of senior citizens retired ladies – gapishta in a different sense of the term….and a select few of my age. We were lucky to have amongst us Dr. S.D. Mahajan the acclaimed taxonomist, his son Dr. Parag Mahajan (equally enthusiastic about trees and photography) and wife Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan. Mr. Shouri Sulakhe and Mrs. Jayanthi Krishna introduced themselves and Shouri assured everyone that there was no escaping the fact that the forest was infested with leeches, but he asked us not to make a huhbaloo about it else we would not be able to enjoy our trails.

We proceeded with an informative discussion on what one would call a “forest”. Dr. Mahajan explained that Man cannot generate a forest. Forest is always formed by natural means and when we speak of aforrestation we use a wrong term. At the most we can try to plant endemic species of trees in areas that have been stripped of its green cover and hope that nature takes its course. Still it would take 1000s of years before it resembles anything like a forest ecosystem.

Southern bird wing - After a good South Indian lunch of “rassam bhaat” cooked in coconut oil (the lunch area practically reeked of coconut oil and by the end of three days I had developed a nausea to it!) we were to proceed to our evening trail. I had a delicacy served for me after lunch! The sight of my first southern bird wing flying past in front of the balcony! The dazzling golden yellow of hind wings against the black fore wings was unmistakable. Just what I had come to see all the way down south!! But I wasn’t very sure, for the size did not look like that of the largest Indian butterfly that it was. The others which flew past like the Blue Mormon and the Great orange tip looked much broader and larger. Shouri though confirmed saying that they had sighted SBs on earlier trips at the camp site.

On our evening trail we came across a dead specimen. This we got to examine closely. It is to be noticed that the fore wings are certainly longer than any other butterflies found in this region but not broader. Hence in flight it does not look as big as the others. To our delight we got to see this butterfly nectaring on Syzyzium flowers- its food plant -and on practically every trail it paid a visit. Thro’ the lense of the binocs its golden yellow is every so much more appealing to the eye. Its slow wavered flight makes it easy to spot and one can enjoy its beauty to one’s heart’s content
Another lifer for me was the Malabar Tree Nymph. This one also a large, white, spotted butterfly flies still slower than the SB. You will hardly see it flap its wings. It will descend from a high branch as if it were a feather gliding and sailing on the breeze. The unhurried manner of these butterflies can be attributed to their distastefulness. Any bird which happens to get hold of them will get a bad taste “yuck” – precisely that and it will stay away from them in future. The distaste is due to the toxins that they harbour right from the caterpillar stage, in turn procured from the plant it feeds on. These butterflies do not have to resort to speed to avoid enemies and can take life at leisure.
Dr. S.D. Mahajan was a friendly grandfatherly figure of 75 with a rich treasure house of information and experience; one could easily make out that he was at home in the forest. He practically seemed a part of it J. Pointing out the most inconspicuous of plants in the over growth he would draw our attention to their characteristics, flowers and fruits and their significance in the eco system. Our guide Hussain from the forest department and Dr. Mahajan would practically converse in scientific names of species and help each other identify trees and shrubs.

It was thus that he pointed out many types of ferns and spices among them wild turmeric, wild elaichi, nag kesar and ground orchids. Dr. Parag brought our attention to a very interesting phenomenon – a log fallen on the ground. It was at an interesting stage. Most of it was crumpling and reduced to dust….returning back to the soil from whence it sprungJ. He explained how the saprophytic fungus and bacteria contribute to the process of degeneration. Each living organism however insignificant it may seem has its role to play in the ecosystem.

On one of our trails Dr. Mahajan pointed out to a profusely growing weed – “Raanmaari” or Chromolaena odorata or Eupatorium odoratum, known as Mexican weed or Siam weed, belonging to the Sunflower family (Asteraceae). This is a destructive exotic weed spreading aggressively in warmer parts causing serious threat to the native plants. This plant finds a place everywhere from plains to hills. You can see the colonies all along the roadsides, in wastelands and cleared forests. They look attractive in full bloom with copious bluish white flower-heads. They can adapt to any conditions and thrive well. Fruit setting and seed germination are 100%. Although we uprooted a few plants, the flowering one that we saw was sure to spread its seeds far and wide.

On the first evening Dr. Mahajan spoke elaborately on the damage caused due to the senseless plantation of exotic species of plants that wipe out the endemic flora. The government as well as private bodies have engaged in extensive plantation of exotic and rapidly growing species under the pretext of increasing the green cover of the landscape. There is no business for Australian acacias, African tulips and Eucalyptus to be growing here. The eucalyptus for example makes huge demands on the ground water table leaving less of this resource for other trees. More over the leaves of the tree are oily and species which feed on the fruits or leaves of the tree to aid in its population control do not exist in India. Thus aforestation programs which have been successful in other countries may not be useful here if they are not tailored to the endemic ecosystem! He also pointed out that in a proper forest, where human interference is not seen, one can see only endemic plants and trees. These exotic species are not seen as they do not originally belong to the land.
With some more discussion on the scientific names and their origin a quite enlightening and informative interaction came to an end.

We proceeded to a good night’s sleep on the terrace. With enough space on the two large terraces adjoining the rooms, hardly anyone was interested to spend the night inside. For a forest rest house the place was comfortable and clean. Individual tourists are not usually encouraged and the forest department has an anti poaching unit on strict vigil. Because they did not have as many officers to accompany us, we went about in two buses in groups of 15.

Coffee and pepper
Abhiram and a few others were lucky to enjoy the melodious liquid notes of the Malabar whistling thrush early the next morning and I got a glimpse of its glistening blue from the front seat of the bus.
We had a wonderful sumptuous breakfast of idli chatni and sambar in the plantations. The coffee shrubs were blooming on every slope with beautiful white flowers while pepper creepers spiraled up on the tree trunks. In this area of the forest we had the opportunity to make most of our sightings. Some pompedor pigeons, vernal hanging parrots, plum headed parakeets kept us company. A golden backed woodpecker had begun its day’s work; we saw it hammering on a nearby broad tree trunk while the heart spotted woodpecker paid a cursory visit. We soon finished hogging but lingered longer to appreciate a red faced forest calotis displaying.
Our guide Hussain, had a lot of information on the endemic flora and fauna but language was a barrier…if u showed enough interest and could manage to decipher what he had to say in his heavily accented broken English….he could point out a shy brown “something” behind the bushed as the mouse deer and make the bus stop to look for grey jungle fowl or a Malabar whistling thrush.

Rainforest….. of LTMs and Leeches
A path forked to the left from the main vehicle road into the jungle. We took this one on foot into the dense foliage. The forest was visibility denser and the trees taller than those in the plantation area. The path was covered with leaf litter. Unlike the carpet of dry leaves found in deciduous forests here the ground was moist covered with leaf humus making the path slippery at places. This natural compost is obviously of great value in
increasing the fertility of the soil and its capacity to retain moisture. Rainforest trees grow to great heights. Canopy of these tall trees shields the lower areas under them from natural sunlight. Noticeably so the lower 3/4th of these huge trees do not have any branches for what use is it of sprouting leaves at lower levels which do not receive enough sunlight? The upper one fourth of the tree has long branches covering as much area as possible resulting in the popular rainforest canopy. Lianas and woody climbers dominate the lower parts of the forest and some take truly unconventional forms.

A little further into the jungle and Hussain pointed to Lion Tailed Macaques (LTMs) in the high branches of the trees. They are arboreal animals. Their favourite food is the fruit of “Kulinia” tree- a round yellow ball of spiky fruit. The kulinia trees were fruiting. So we also saw a lot of them feasting. They have a striking appearance with a mass of white mane bordering their dark black face. The person who first saw and named them seemed to have seen the animal’s tail end first (literally) and hence the name. Else wouldn’t the lion faced macaque be more logical? Whole groups cruised the tree tops and we saw them practically on every trail. A probable explanation of this rare endangered species being so frequently sighted was that their favourite tree did seem to have produced the goodies in enough quantities. Hence they were forced to move and search larger territories.
The Nilgiri Langur was another of our ancestors that we saw peering at us through thick foliage. It is dark back allover swinging across branches in groups it causes much more disturbance than does the silent LTM.

Unfortunately for them, most of the group was busy fending themselves from leeches than enjoying the beauty of this unique forest!!!! While the LTMs occupy the upper reaches of the canopy, the leeches rule the ground. This wriggly earthworm like creature lives exclusively off blood. Its diet forms the blood of warm blooded animals for it can digest little else. It has a heat sensing mechanism which directs it to warm blooded creatures, and when one of them finds a meal a dozen more follow in its footsteps……

We did apply enough salt on our legs and rolled up our pants to the knees so as to catch sight of them….for u cannot feel them! Yes …they have an anesthetic substance in their secretions which allows them to latch on to u and suck to their hearts content. This substance also acts as an anticoagulant, which keeps the blood flowing long after u have got rid of the irksome worm…
Moreover while u are engaged in pulling off one from ur toe, five more are busy climbing up your other foot. Stop to look at a plant or take a shot with ur camera and that’s an invitation for an army of them to have a feast. And they are persistent fellows at that. Unless u manage to see one and tweak it off with a twig, u have had it. For once its mouth parts (suckers) are firmly buried in ur skin, it is difficult to get rid of it. Try and pull it and it elongates itself rather than let go, while u look on horrified wondering what to do.
Among screams, shrieks, jumps and jolts we reached a rivulet. Many of us entered the water eagerly to get away from the dammed leeches only to be told by our guide that leeches are also found in the water :-) . To think of it, on our return our legs were washed off the salt to be fresh meat for the leeches. Nevertheless all of us managed to preserve our sanity as we boarded the bus not forgetting to check our sandals for any remains of the worms. With bloody feet we entered the bus and took our seats. Phew!! Enthralled, fascinated, some still shocked from the leech attacks and others keeping a nervous eye on any that may have come in the bus, we headed back. We kept on discovering the remains till we got to the campsite.
Hussain was the only one practically immune to leeches….due to the high nicotine content in his blood from constant smoking …….as we joked later :-) .

Rains at Mukkali

On the evening trail on the earlier day, we got some light showers but that was hardly a trailer of the real movie!! After getting excited over a huge hawk moth on the entrance door, we climbed up to terrace for the much awaited night’s rest. I snuggled in a sleeping bag that night and was quick to slip in deep slumber. Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to much disturbance and movement around me. My eyes opened to nature’s drama in full swing. A clap of deafening thunder, followed by sharp lighting and heavy downpour! Most of the group was sitting up wide eyed in their beds, awakened by this sudden fury…..As mumbaikars we are used to heavy rains but this was something out of ordinary!! These torrential rains threatened to uproot every erect thing and blow away every speck of dust from the forest floor. And amidst this dense jungle it seemed surreal, almost eerie. The continuous lightning seemed as if someone was holding a torch in your eyes – enough to take away every bit of drowsiness from your eyes. The entire atmosphere was rather “filmy” perfect for “Gumnaam hai koi” type of songs
I wondered what the state of affairs would be the next day. We were supposed to go to Serendri – in the interior area of the forest….and rains would make that difficult. After taking in the situation a while later sleep enveloped everyone.
The next morning the trees having received a through wash looked fresh and the birds were chirpier. The surprising part was that the rains had not left any nasty remains - a bloated river or puddles of muddy water. It seemed that each droplet that fell on the blessed soil was absorbed, quenching its thirst. That was testimony to the absorption capacity of the soil. We stood on the terrace appreciating pompedor pigeons, scarlet minivets and wood peckers and eyeing the green mangoes hanging from branches close at hand which we may not pick :-) .

Malabar Giant squirrel and fairy blue bird
Malabar Giant SquirrelA charming large furry squirrel with a handsome rust coloured coat and a cozy bushy tail, it is very alluring. The rust sheen that we have come to appreciate in the Sahyadris is traded for a dark bluish black in this southern cousin (in keeping with our dark complexioned cousins down south!). It is completely arboreal and rarely comes to the ground. Its need for water is fulfilled by drinking from water collected in tree holes and eating juicy fruits. This squirrel builds many nests on adjoining trees. This serves to dodge predators and transfer its young from one nest to another while a snake or bird may be inspecting a third. It also uses these living quarters generously one as bedroom, the other as living room– or so Hussain our guide told me. Today this furry animal kept us company for breakfast. While we had ours standing on the ground it was busy running up the boughs gathering fruits, nuts and other goodies.

Next the bus halted for the most glamorous living thing in this forest- the Asian fairy blue bird. The male has a marvelous bright blue on its back extending to its tail and a red eye dotting a black head and front. The sight is mesmerizing. The bird perched on the branch for quite a while and all had a satisfactory look. Due to the rains the road had become a bit soggy and the bus could not take a load of 15 people any further. We got off and decided to walk. The walk was a long one but while returning a close encounter with a forest calotis that Shouri hastened to catch and the sight of black eagles soaring in the valley made it interesting.

Up above the world so high…….watch tower at Serendri

Serendri professed to be very scenic and most beautiful of the forested area is located near the Kerela Tamilnadu border. After some more encounters with leeches in the rainforest patch we proceeded to Serendri. Through the impenetrable forest which closes up on you and trees that try to shake hands with u through the bus windows we reached the inspection bungalow and the watch tower. The tower is in an open area and said to be the highest of any national parks. Looking down from the top of the 100 feet tower is an experience beyond words. And we were there at just the right time - sunset. From this height one can appreciate the blue hills that rise and fall with the Pucchapara peak marking the horizon. The denseness with which the trees grow and the canopy of the rainforest can be best appreciated from this point. A 360o view of these mist laden hills around you covered with thick foliage, a cool westerly wind and light showers makes you feel right in heaven!!
To do justice to the atmosphere Shouri asked us to maintain silence for a while. All one could hear now were the calls of the LTMs and the Nilgiri langurs, the mountain imperial pigeons and the swish-a-swish of the trees as they swayed in the breeze. On the east rose a hill covered with green tree tops and red stems an impressive sight. Down below the Kuntipuzha River snaked through the dense overgrowth. To the tired city minds this serene calmness is healing to say the least!
On the west unfolded another spectacle – sunset. As the great orb set on the horizon it lend a golden lining to the mist in the valleys. The reddish golden mist rising from the valleys seemed like flames touching the sky. The pucchapara peak stood tall and dark against the red sky No photographs could do it justice. We stood there, quiet, absorbing all this beauty around us.

Night trail
Back to base we had dinner and some songs presented by the songsters in our group and the Tamilian cook. Before hitting the bed we decided to go out for a stroll to look for the nocturnal life of the jungle. The forest assumes a singular character at night. A few us who dared to venture out did so. The rest preferred the cozy security of the bungalow. Out into the pitch darkness we had our torches to show us the way. Along a well defined path we proceeded, looking for toads, snakes and owls. Throwing our torches along the trenches besides the path we located a toad and a millipede. Leeches though in small numbers loyally kept us company. Picking them from our sandals in the dark night was a task indeed. It is interesting to experience what pitch darkness is for us city dwellers. Switching off our torches for a moment and looking back into the forest it is just u and the starry sky above. U cannot even see the person standing next to you. That’s some experience, what say? On our way back we noticed an extraordinary thing. The crazy leaf phenomenon or “Vede paan” - a leaf keeps swaying at an odd angle from the tree- without any reason- even in the absence of any breeze!!! Eerie! Ghostly! This is enough to drive a weak minded person out of his senses !!

Kunti puzha
Our last day was the most happening and glamorous of the lot! On our way down to the Kuntipuzha River we sighted two mountain imperial pigeons. A plump large brownish bird it sat high on a branch. Much of the path is cleared of the leaf litter to facilitate leech free access to the river for the ‘one-day tourists’. The river has a narrow bed and a hanging bridge over it makes for a scenic location. While shooting with the camera me and Abhiram caught sight of the both the male and female fairy blue bird on a leafless tree! The female is entirely blue but lacks the attractive luster of the male. After spending sometime at the river we headed back.
As if to bring completion to the camp, a green vine snake lay awaiting us on a sunlight branch of a low shrub. Shouri wasted no time in luring it with a cap and getting hold of it. This glamorous sighting was not to be missed and soon every one gathered round it. Threatening by rising up erect and showing us the black scales underneath the yellow ones it tried to do away with the unexpected visitors. Holding it deftly Shouri showed us the fangs buried deep in its pink mouth. This semi poisonous snake uses its poison on the prey that it catches and is not harmful to human. Called “Harantol” in Marathi and often seen in the countryside it has a parrot green lusturous body. Here in its different morphology it was more yellow. After appreciating it from all angles we left it to its sunny branch.

Our return was also marked with spectacular sightings. It was as if the residents of the valley knew we were on out way back and they came to say good bye. The LTMs first, a young one came down on a closer branch and kept looking at us for a long while. The Malabar giant squirrel ensured that it put on its best suit to bid us adieu! Out in the open we got a classic view of its red and blue coat dazzling in the morning sunlight! Beauty beyond compare!!

For all the endangered species that thrive in it and its unique fascinating ecosystem this forest needs to be preserved.

Text - Rama Bhave
Photo- malabar giant squirrel taken from the web, rest clicked by Canon Powershot S3IS



At 6:02 PM, Blogger Puja said...

Amazing experience and you have given a vivid description... I could almost see everything you described! Its like visiting the rainforest through your eyes! I never knew about the colorful Malabar squirrel! It looked like it had fallen into a paint can! I dont know if I have ever told you this...but your knowledge about birds, butterflies and generally nature... is really amazing!
I enjoyed reading this article very very much. Thanks!

At 4:40 PM, Blogger AshLin said...

Hi Rama,

Nice blog! You have a nice turn of phrase. I enjoyed seeing your butterflies too. Keep up the good work.

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Bhave Madam,

The blog on exotic plant species in nice one.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Shruti said...

hey u've written it really well!
while i was reading it, it seemed as if i was really back at silent valley!

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Parag mahajan said...

rama , hi.
your article on silent valley is fabulous.
where did u confirm that this is southern birdwing's caterpillar? i also got
it's snap but could not identify it.

At 9:17 AM, Anonymous Pournima said...

ur article was mindblowing!!!
specially the night's rainfall u've described...thast great!!!!
and the night trail....bout that VEDE PAN!!! hehe
i'm sure u'll b having more of this???

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Savit efc@ceeindia.org said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Savita said...

Very sorry never got back to your blog, but I read it (took a print of the copy you sent me and read it in bus). It was hilarious, I really enjoyed going through it and it felt as if even I was part of it. The leech experience was quite scary and the rains at night time made me feel so excited, I wanted to go and experience whatever you narrated in your experience. I do look forward to be part of one such camp :)

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Puja said...

Amazing photographs!! You were literally "in the clouds"!!! I have never seen these rare species of animals except the lion tailed macaque! My Mom was fascinated by the clarity and beauty of your photographs! I shared you blogspot with my father and he was thoroughly impressed with your writing skills and knowledge of the natural habitat! He was also impressed with your photography and told me that I have a very talented friend!! I agree with him completely! Check out his comments for your blogspot!



At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Rafique said...

Hi Rama Mulye,

Good writing, Your next step is to publish a book. I know it wont be a long wait!

All the best

At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Amit said...

Wow !!!!!!!!
The photographs of green vine snake are fabulous.....
It is actually very difficult to shoot snakes......

Cheers !!!!!!!


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