There are ocean people and others who are mountain people; and yet others who are city people. I, am of the forest people. Wildlife, open spaces, mountains and forests have always been a very significant influence in my life. There is an instant connection that I find with forests. And every once in a while I rejuvenate myself by spending time in forests, listening to them, watching animals, and simply being.
The sounds of the forest herald the passing of time and the arrival of the night and day. And they vary from place to place. In the Anamallais, the rain forests of the Western Ghats, there are no peacocks, who are usually the first heralds of the coming night in the forests of central India. In the Anamallais, the first heralds are Jungle Fowl roosters. They start calling (as they do at the approach of the morning) as they go to roost. They make sure that they are perched high up out of harm’s way well before it becomes fully dark. I must add this piece here. I was in the Anamallais in April, 2013 and to my intense surprise found peacocks thriving. This is a clear indicator that the amount of rainfall has decreased, for peacocks don’t survive in high rainfall areas like the rain forests of the Western Ghats. I asked around and everyone agreed that this was the first time in living memory that anyone had seen peacocks in the Anamallais. Alarming news.
To go back to our story, after the Jungle Fowl roosters come the calls of the Lion Tailed Macaques and the Langur sentinels who boom out their announcement to the world. These calls are not alarm calls. They are just to let their troops know that it is time to settle down for the night. Closer at hand you can hear the ‘Brrrrr!!’ of the Night Jar as it settles in the middle of a path or in a clearing and suddenly darts up to catch the unwary moth. As the sky darkens, you hear the hoot of the newly awake owl (many different species) as it ruffles its feathers and gets ready to take off on its nocturnal hunt. Then there is silence for a while. As the night progresses and if you are lucky, you can suddenly hear the ‘Dhank! Dhank!’ alarm call of the Sambhar as it sights a Tiger or Leopard out on the prowl. Sometimes you will hear the sawing growl of the leopard. The sawing call of the leopard is for courtship. Usually the cats go on silently so as not to alarm their prey unduly.
In the winters late in the night you will hear the moaning roar of the tigress, during which she literally bends down and booms off the earth and the sound of which travels for many miles. Sometimes the tigress calls continuously for hours. At other times you will hear her on and off. At all times it is a thrilling sound guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck. Tigers don’t have a breeding season as such but I seem to recall hearing them mostly in the winter in the Aravallies. The primordial memories of the hunter and the hunted travel through the genes. As do their responses.
In the Anamallais, which is prime elephant country you can also hear the king of the forest as the whole clan moves along, grazing. Branches breaking, sometimes a tree pushed over so that the hungry pachyderm can get at the succulent leaves at the top, which he loves. The rumbling of their bellies and the snorting of mothers and aunts as they try to keep the calves in line. Calves squealing and the sounds of playful trumpeting as they sometimes engage in mock battles. Sometimes you can hear the long moaning rumble of the matriarch as she calls to others who only she knows about. This low frequency sound carries for many miles and is answered by other family groups in the vicinity. As they are all happily going about their business of feeding and playing, the wind changes and they get a scent of you sitting in the tree. And there is change as if by magic. The noisy group of huge animals instantly falls silent and moves through the forest like shadows. It seems amazing to those who have not had the good fortune of encountering elephants in the wild and have not seen how silently and quickly they can move in the thick forest. Not a leaf crackles. Not a branch snaps underfoot. When the elephant wants to move silently he becomes a ghost. And he is gone.
On one occasion I was walking along a forest path in Manamboli in the Anamallais when I smelt elephants. So, I simply got off the path and into the forest, not more than a few meters away, hidden in the foliage. As I stood there, waiting for them, the whole herd emerged around the corner, all headed to the river from which I had just come. Believe me, they knew I was there and knew I was coming down that path far better than I could ever sense their movement. There was the matriarch who led the herd, some other females, young calves and a couple of bulls. But all of them simply walked past me without any comment. The one thing you learn in the forest is that respect gets respect. You respect the animals and they respect you and leave you alone. You are not in the slightest danger unless you do something silly like trying to scare them, or run away in fright or in some cases if you are completely unaware of their presence and blunder into them. Otherwise a normal wild animal will never attack you unprovoked. Animals are far better mannered than humans.
On another occasion, I was on my Royal Enfield motorcycle with a bag of cash on the petrol tank. The tradition in the tea gardens where I was the Manager is that workers are paid in cash directly by the Manager. This is considered the respectful way to do it. Workers would all line up outside the Muster on payday and come in when their name was called and greet you and take the money and thank you. For each one you returned the greeting, paid the money, waited for them to count it, returned their thanks and then called out the next name. Sounds tedious but it is a brilliant way to learn people’s names and to build relationships. To do this, we used to take the cash out of the safe in the Estate Office, count it – amounting sometimes to half a million rupees – and take it to the Divisional Muster for the payment. It is a mark of the safety of the times that we could do all this without any ‘security’. I can’t recall a single instant when anyone was ever held up and the cash stolen.
To return to my story of respecting animals, on this day I was going to the Candura Division in Lower Sheikalmudi Estate and decided to take a shortcut through our coffee plantation which bordered the forest. This was one of my favorite routes as in the short drive of perhaps five kilometers I could be sure to see several species of animals or birds. There were Grey Hornbills, Malabar Squirrels, Lion Tailed Macaques (which the locals called Yel-Tee-Yam). In season, Green Imperial Pigeons beautifully camouflaged and usually on the topmost branches of the figs that attract them when they start fruiting. The fig is the best tree to attract birds. So there I was, gently riding my bike, looking around to see what I could spot; the finely tuned engine just turning over almost silent when I turned a corner and right in the middle of the road was a very large Gaur bull. Lone bulls usually mean trouble. And when that is a Gaur, standing six feet plus at the shoulder and weighing half a ton or more, it is generally not good news. But what could I do? I was on my bike on a narrow forest road with a steep bank on one side and a drop on the other. The only way I could even turn the bike would have been to get off and do many back and forth pushing and pulling. Anyone who has ridden a Royal Enfield can understand what I was facing. Trying all these gymnastics on a jungle track, balancing half a million rupees in a duffel bag on the tank with a bull Gaur as your audience is not my idea of fun.
So, I did what any sensible person who knows animals would do. Nothing. I did nothing. I just stopped, kept the engine idling and looked at him. He looked at me for what felt like a couple of hours but was perhaps ten seconds, snorted and with great dignity, moved aside to let me pass. He didn’t run away. He didn’t even go far from the road. He just moved aside. I knew what he was telling me and so I put the bike in gear and also with dignity, unhurried, rode past him. He could have ambushed me or attacked me as I passed him or after, but I knew he wouldn’t do it. He knew he didn’t need to. And here I am remembering him and our meeting.
The final story of this dispatch is to do with Wild Dogs, the dreaded Dhole. Anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling will remember the Dhole. Romantic notions apart, they are a top predator and hunt in packs. The Dhole is a very handsome animal with a reddish-brown coat and a black-tipped tail. They can’t bark and communicate in whistles. Their favorite prey in the Anamallais is Sambhar. The individual dog can’t possibly kill the Sambhar which is far bigger and heavier but the pack working together is an unbeatable team. They literally run the animal to the ground and when you are talking about thick forests on steep mountains, that doesn’t take too long. Then they hamstring it and when it drops, start eating it alive. Nature is sometimes very ugly. But there it is. An ecologist friend said to me that the Sambhar at the end is probably so pumped full of adrenalin that it doesn’t feel a thing, but I am not so sure because sometimes they take a very long time to die, mostly due to loss of blood. Meanwhile they have the Dhole tearing into them and eating their living flesh. Definitely not a sight for anyone.
My story has to do with one day when one of my workers came racing to me and between panting breaths told me that a pack of Dhole had taken down a pregnant Sambhar doe and were eating her, very close to the worker’s quarters which we called Labour Lines. There is a lot of military terminology in the tea gardens, a memory of the first British planters who were military officers who came to India after being de-mobbed. I followed the man to the site. The doe was lying on her side in the middle of a clearing, almost all of it covered by sheet rock, in the middle of a valley surrounded on two sides by tea and on one side by the forest. She had been chased out of the forest and seemed to have come there to take refuge with people who Dhole avoid but before she could reach the quarters, she had collapsed. The pack was in a feeding frenzy, making excited yelping sounds. There were fifteen animals in the pack which is quite large for a single pack but when food is plentiful they tend to have large litters.
I watched from the edge of the valley for a bit and thought I could see the doe still kicking. I decided to put the poor animal out of its misery and drew my knife and walked down into the valley. The Dhole saw me coming, whistled to each other and moved off a few meters away and sat down in a semi-circle watching me. I walked up the doe and realized that she was dead. The kicking I had seen, was the result of the Dhole pulling at her carcass. They had ripped open her belly and eaten her unborn fetus, udders and were feeding on the stomach contents from which they get minerals. Definitely not a pretty sight. I made sure the Sambhar doe was dead and turned around and retraced my steps. The Dhole watched me go and returned to their kill. They never threatened me or made any attempt to attack. They knew I was not going to steal their prize. I don’t know what else they thought. But I do know that when you respect animals, they respect you.