Field Notes from a Tiger Forest
The Malabar whistling thrush is never a moment late. At 5:53 AM, a peculiar, human-like whistle cuts through the still, pre-dawn air, jaunty and cocksure. He sits somewhere hidden in the huge tree in the courtyard at Hulikanu, staking his territory and doubling up as my morning alarm. But I am already awake and pad outside, my shawl wrapped closely around my shoulders as I navigate through the darkness. The cool night air snuggles up close to my skin, leaving a dewy trail wherever it touches me. I shiver lightly.
Though the other human denizens of Hulikanu are fast asleep, the tree is full of life. Santosh, the research assistant permanently based at the field station, maintains a stoic expression even as a flying squirrel takes a gliding, graceful leap from the top of our big tree to a slender silver oak nearby. In the pale pink glow of the dawn, its patagium (loose flaps of skin stretched between the limbs that give it the ability to glide) resembles the wings of a bat, or a taut parachute. A chittering sound catches my attention; our resident Malabar giant squirrel is awake and squabbling with a racquet-tailed drongo that tries to alight on the same branch as its haphazard nesting site. Swifts call in high sweet tones to one another, and as the pale pink brightens to a mango shade, the dhonk of an alarmed sambar—India's largest forest deer—shatters the still air. I stiffen, my senses on high alert, scanning the expanses of coffee plantation around us for signs of a predator—after all, sambar do not vocalize unless threatened or startled—but the underbrush is still and calm. The sambar call back and forth for a few minutes and are joined by a few rowdy langurs. A bonnet macaque scuttles up a silver oak and a fairy bluebird takes flight. Yes, this coffee paradise set in the monsoon mountains is alive, and it pulses with the beat of millions of hidden hearts.
I spent a blissful fortnight wandering through not one but two of India's gorgeous wild kingdoms, Bhadra Tiger Reserve and Kudremukh National Park, both nestled between the rolling green peaks of the Western Ghats. My mornings at Hulikanu—the field station—began with the birds, in the pre-dawn chill. The Malabar laughing thrush was rivalled by the Malabar trogon, a brightly coloured chap with a bloated ego and looks to match. When the sun began to rise and the langurs started their calls, we took a morning walk through the coffee estate. Towering trees sheltered both the coffee trees and us, and the sunlight danced upon the silver waters of a small stream, which would soon join the mighty Bhadra River. We came across a machan—a wooden platform built high in a tree used to observe wildlife—and scaled the wooden ladder, forcing me to face my fear of heights. Standing on a gently swaying platform high above a rushing river provided me with a new perspective on my own human fears. Returning to solid ground, we checked various camera traps, used by our team to assess biodiversity in coffee estates across the Western Ghats. A Great Indian Hornbill flapped energetically from tree to tree, searching for wild berries and small fruits. Hornbills toss berries into the air, catching them in their beaks and swallowing the flesh, leaving the seeds behind. They scatter seeds as they fly, dispersing new life far from the parent trees.
The days seemed endlessly drenched in sunshine at Bhadra and the hills were out in shining glory, dazzling me with their emerald hues and golden dancing grasses along our dirt road. We paused the jeep to absorb the colours and the sight of unadulterated forest spreading out below us. Bhadra Tiger Reserve has one of the fewest numbers of tourists visiting it annually, a rare boon for the reserve's diverse ecosystems and endemic wildlife. Wildlife found here include the Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, elephant, wild dog, gaur, and sloth bear. We had hopes of seeing elephants in those early morning hours, and of spotting the wild dogs that were said to walk along the roadways, but no charismatic large fauna made itself available to our eager eyes. However, we did see more than our fair share of cows, an indication of grazing pressures in the periphery of the park. As a researcher, I kept a careful note of the number of cows in the park. Data on grazing pressure was always important when designing conservation protocols and management strategies.
Of course, even if it remains hidden from the eager eye, wildlife never fails to leave its traces. I eagerly pieced through fresh carnivore scat only to find that it was fresh leopard scat, a real treat to find right at our field station! A wild pig was spotted twice rooting around our field station compost pit, and we stumbled across a stripe-necked mongoose in a field, a pleasant and rare surprise. The poor mongoose was less than pleased to be found and headed for denser cover, leaving us exclaiming in delight. On the second morning, I walked up to the cliff to witness the sunrise over the blue hills. A soaring Brahmini kite circled above me, bringing a smile to my lips. The wind ruffled my hair and brought a flush to my cheeks. Mornings in the Western Ghats soothe the soul better than any other form of meditation.
Bhadra is cloaked in soft greens and blues at this time of the year. These pastels are interspersed with shocking oranges and reds from berries and flowers. Tribal houses, painted in shades of pink, blue, and orange, dot the landscape, peeking out from beneath the trees. India is truly a land of colours. From the landscapes to the wildlife to the people, colours dominate one's memories of this vibrant country. Small ponds dotted the landscape. Frogs chittered from leaves on the still water, wagtails and skimmers dipped their wings in droplets of silver, swirling in an endless dance of grace.
The beauty of Hulikanu lies in its simplicity. The field station is a breath of fresh air, given how most residential lodges around national parks are ostentatious and cater to those who have surplus money to spend. Of course, the field station is not open to public visitors. Field staff and research teams stay in a long dormitory on folding camp beds. The setup took me back to old Enid Blyton novels set in boarding school. Deprived of cell phone connectivity and internet services, we youngsters were forced to bond over conversation, delicious hot food, and stories of wildlife, just like previous generations had to do on a daily basis. For some, I am sure this must be the worst form of slavery.
Biodiversity abounds in the coffee fields above Bhadra. The forests grow strong here, supported by fertile soil, flowing water, and the love that local farmers pour into their land. Here, the tiger treads softly through the undergrowth. Here, elephants, their hulking figures outlined in charcoal against a deep blue sky, split tree trunks to amble down ancient migration routes. Here, langurs and bonnet macaques squabble over fresh berries and fruit, and the giant squirrels flash in and out of foliage, their pelts splashed in plum and gold. Here, the land is farmed by men by day and roamed by wildlife by night. It is a blend of the natural world and a managed one, a microcosm that manages to occupy both realms with ease.
Hulikanu is composed of two Kannada words—huli, meaning tiger, and kanu, meaning forest. And yes, sitting on the steps of our field station with my steaming cup of jaggery tea, I can sense that the tiger is near.