Spotting the spotted ones: Going on a nature walk or birdwatching in and around Dvara, a restored bungalow in Mudumalai forest, Tamilnadu, can be an exciting one. Kuruvi Sidha, a naturalist and a man of the jungles for more than two decades, was my guide. Here I am with a pair of binoculars and a fancy walking stick (both provided by Dvara) to keep my balance on the uneven forest terrain watching a family of deer on the open grasslands. Since spotted deer are nervous animals, it is challenging to admire them at a close range. But with the help of binoculars, you will soon realise that the spotted deer is perhaps one of the most beautiful animals of the forest.
Hanging Banyan: Mudumalai, a Tamil word, translates into Old Hills. Mudu= old. Malai = hills. In summer, the deciduous trees shed their green leaves. The bare trees form alluring patterns in the woods — like modern art. I chanced upon this interesting banyan tree on the path that elephants usually tread on their way to the stream. It’s because of these tall jumbos that the tree is unable to put down its aerial-roots.
Sniffing ’em out: Bears will climb tall trees to get honey and dig deep into the ground to get termites. Two of their favourite foods. Termites live in homes shaped like a ball, under the ground. Bears have a keen sense of smell. They will sniff out the termites and will not rest till they get to it. This is their handiwork. It looks like some bear got lucky the night before. According to Kuruvi Sidha, you can never escape from a bear by climbing a tree or running fast. “It will get you,” he says. However, somewhere deep inside the bear is also a scaredy poo. Sidha says, “Try to create an illusion for the bear that you are somehow bigger that him by jumping up and down while screaming loudly and ferociously. More often than not, the bear will get scared and run away.” If it doesn’t… “Then it is goodbye, world.”
Ants in the Pent(house): In Mudumalai when the trees are bereft of leaves is when you see the honeycombs. You will also see something similar to Chinese paper lanterns hanging from the branches. Greyish-white, something in-between an oval and round shape and the size of a football. Like a contemporary art installation. These are the homes of Flying Ants known for their fiery bite. They build their nests on tall trees using mud, cotton, the sap of trees, barks and so on. Can you imagine how many loads of material their armies might have had to chug to build their penthouses? Incredible!
Playing Catch: Giant Indian Squirrels are bigger than our largest domestic cats. They are rich coffee brown with white underparts and a fat bushy, orange-tipped tail. They live in compact but untidy nests made out of twigs, branches and leaves on top of the trees. They are never far from their nests. They are also sensitive and can sense movement 30ft away. Along with the monkeys, the squirrels are also the watchers of the forest. Their guttural sound serves as a warning alarm for deer and other animals in the woods. They have a love-hate but overall-healthy relationship with the monkeys.
Beauty runs in the family: Out of the four kinds of deer species, I got to see two and hear one during my nature-walk. While the elegant and beautiful spotted deer was a common sight i, we had to venture a little deeper into the forest to see a large Sambar deer making a majestic leap across the pathway. Often in the mornings, I would wake up to the sound of the Barking Deer. Yes, they do bark! The spotted deer is golden brown with white spots. The spots are not random but appear in longitudinal rows. These animals have large beautiful eyes rimmed by pale furs. Spotted deer are usually found in herds of six or more. They eat grass, leaves, fruits, tree branches and shrubs. And also the antlers which they shed. They are extremely sensitive to movement and runaway at breakneck speed. And what a sight it is to watch these elegant creatures leap across grasslands and disappear into the thick jungle!
Dear Mr.Deer: Males have slightly darker spots than females. Their antlers have six tines on them, three on each. Spotted deer are also intelligent animals. Dvara Bungalow has a solar operated electric fence (it is legal) to prevent large animals from getting very close to the building. Herds of deer spend the nights very close to the fence because they believe they will be safe since predators usually tend to keep away from the electric fence. I was told, that the leopards know this too.
He who stares the tiger in the eye: Spotted this male bison in the forest just beyond the boundaries of Dvara. Apparently, the bison weighs around 400-600 kgs and can easily thwart an attack by tigers and chase away elephants. It is also a smart animal. It usually waits for the elephants to pull down trees and then when it is time to eat the leaves the bison chases the elephants away and enjoys a hearty meal all by himself. It has got, ‘make others work for your food’ mantra to a pat. The male bison usually lives for only 15 years, but the female lives up to 22 years. Bison is known as a one-charge animal. If you encounter a bison in the wild, don’t try to outrun it thinking it is a sluggish animal. More often than not, it will get you. The better option is to stand your ground, without fear (easily said than done when you see the mass coming towards you) and at the last and opportune moment move away from its path. It is said that the bison will not turn around and charge at you again. That’s why it’s called a one-charge animal.
The guide: Kuruvi Sidha, my guide for birdwatching and nature-walks, checking the terrain for four-legged inhabitants before letting me out of the jeep.
Bungalow for bears: Driving a little further away from Dvara Bungalow, I came across this abandoned building that the locals refer to as Karadi Bungalow (Karadi = bear). Apparently, the wealthy owner of this piece of land built this cottage for his daughter. But she chose to make her home in America. Over time, the bungalow was abandoned, and the bears moved in. Wonder what they call “squatters” in the animal world? Bears like to stay in caves or any covered enclosure. The local legend goes that during the rainy season the bears prefer to stay in this bungalow. There is also a large pond/lake nearby, and the bears needn’t venture too far for their daily chow and drinks. When I went, the building was locked. But I doubt whether that would be a deterrent to a bear who has got the taste of the good life 🙂
Bored Boar: This is the large waterbody by the side of the Karadi Bungalow. You cannot see what I saw when I took this picture. But you can visualise. Behind those trees was a ferocious looking wild boar scavenging for food. It was around 2 feet in height and midnight black in colour. The fella seemed like he needed a good scrub after lolling around in the muck. He had a grouchy face, which I am told, is the look that all wild boars sport at all times. He stood and sniffed us humans from across the pond. He looked bored. Must’ve thought we weren’t worth the effort or were too chicken to be any threat to him, so he went sniffing in the opposite direction. He moved with his long head thrust forward and the nose twitching constantly. Seemed like an unsteady gait — like that of a man walking home from a kallu shaap (Toddy shop) in Kerala. The wild boar, like the bison, is a “one-charge” animal.
What goes in, comes out: That’s a lot of crap, you think. But it is child’s play for an elephant. Doesn’t take them much effort to make shit-loads. This elephant dung, I was told, was a couple of weeks old.
Jumping Jumbos: Apparently, the private properties inside the buffer zone in the forest have solar operated electric fence on their boundaries to prevent animals from getting too close. Elephants have found a way to beat the humans at their game. When the jumbos are in a nothing-can-stop-me-tonight mood, they usually step on the plants on their side of the fence, push them onto the fence and cover the wires before leaping over it — unhurt and triumphant. Oh well, they have the right of way, after all it is their home, isn’t it?
Treehouse, not: An abandoned machan inside the forest. Once upon a time, somebody had built a little watch-tower on a tree so he could watch out for the elephants and protect the coffee and ginger plants from the jumbos. Wonder how that worked out for him though!
The great love story: There are 350 species of birds in Mudumalai. Around 20 species are migratory birds that come from Srilanka, North India and the Himalayas. There are about 145 species of birds in and around Dvara Bungalow alone. Birdwatching with Kuruvi Sidha is an animated experience. He can recognise more than 250 bird species by its call and even mimic a couple. His bird-stories are captivating. Here’s one: The Great Indian Hornbill, a beautiful black bird with sizeable yellow beak, can give Romeo and Juliet a complex. When it is time, the female bird would lay eggs in the hollow of a tree, pluck all her feathers and cover the eggs with them. Then she would sit on it for them to hatch. In the meantime, the male bird will build a nest around the female and the eggs. He would build a tightly packed nest with twigs and leaves, covering the entire hollow leaving just enough space for the beak of the female bird. For 22 days the female bird will not leave her station and the male bird would bring her food and feed her through the hole in the nest. During this time, if the male bird gets killed by accident or is captured by someone, then the female bird will remain inside the nest till she breathes her last. Remember this story the next time you feel like buying birds for your cage at home.