Ashwin and I were staying at Sethumadai, a small town about 10kms from Anamalai Tiger Reserve. The plan was to leave early in the morning to Topslip, a forest department regulated area within Anamalai located at around 2500 feet above sea level. Number of cars permitted inside is regulated and on first come first serve basis. The whole process of waiting in line, getting tickets, checking at gate took about an hour and half; we entered Anamalai only at 7:30am. The forest officials kept repeating in Tamil- do not stop till you reach the top. And we followed their instructions. But we drove very slow so that we could keep an eye out for any wild animal sighting.
With not much luck on sightings, we reached the top by 8am and decided rather reluctantly to join a van-safari to the elephant camp where wild elephants are tamed and trained (You can read more about this camp here). We wanted to do the 4 hour trek inside the forests but that apparently required a minimum of 4 people. We then found out that one group (of 4 people) had already opted for the trek. They were going for photography. Joining them would just make it a crowd, and not very conducive for birding. We decided to go for the Safari. But our decision turned out to be a bad one.
Our safari bus was filled with noisy tourists from all over India, and they all wanted to see elephants. Young children were screaming loudly. One tourist even took the liberty of throwing her tea cup outside the window just when we were about to start our safari. I was wondering how would be able to see wildlife at all?
Our guide was a middle-aged man who seemed like a no-nonsense person. He once or twice got angry at the tourists and said that we are in the forest, and if we want to see anything, we must be quiet. His sternness helped a bit. During our journey, we sighted one barking deer, a pair of Indian Gaur and several elephants. Much to my dismay, all the elephants were chained! Most tourists did not even notice this.
Whenever the guide sighted something, the tourists would rush to one side of the bus where sighting was best…and then I would hear some of them exclaim- This?! This we have seen in our village also, why did we have to come here to see it? OR papa, deer we have seen before in Rajasthan, I want to see tiger OR huh, what is that? That [gaur] looks like bulls that we see in the town, what’s the big deal?
We finally reached what they called the elephant camp. I was happy to stretch my legs. But when I saw the massive iron chains, I was thoroughly saddened.
I strayed from the camp site to the fringes from where I tried to spot birds. The guide then asked the tourist crowd to follow him to one of the sheds, from where a trainer brought out a baby elephant. All the tourists clicked selfies with seemingly frightened creature who was moving restlessly between the crowd. I looked from far and decided I would rather concentrate on birds. I could see that the guide was looking at me and signaling me to come and pet the elephant. I politely refused and continued to look for birds.
We headed back to the bus from where we took a different route to reach back to topslip camp. It was about 10am and we decided that we will book ourselves into a birding trail for 4 hours. We requested the forest official again for allowing us to go for a nature trail as we were keen on seeing birds, and specifically looking for some specialties of the region. When we said birds, he said that there was a local expert who can take us for the trail; we would of course have to pay the fee for 4 people. The official sent for the bird expert; who turned out to be none other than our safari guide! His name was Baby.
“They want to see birds”, said the Official.
“Yes, we are very keen on seeing the birds here, particularly this one specialty…the Kerala Laughing Thrush”, started Ashwin, opening our bird field guide to show which species we were talking about.
When Ashwin opened the page, both he and Baby pointed at the picture of the Kerala Laughing Thrush, at the same time.
“This one, isn’t it?” inquired Baby in a matter-of-fact tone.
“yes yes”, exclaimed me and Ashwin.
“See, he is our bird expert, the best we have. He will show you the birds”, said the official.
The Official insisted that we take the 2 hour nature trail but Baby insisted that we take the 4 hour one. We obviously were in favour of the latter. Ten minutes later, after finishing all payments and formalities, we started walking out of the topslip campsite into the forest. Within 2 minutes of us leaving the campsite, Baby spoke up:
“I knew from the moment I laid eyes on both of you, you were not here for elephants or seeing the big animals… you had no interest in seeing the elephant camp.”
“Oh, we were interested to see the animals, but just not in captivity… we are passionate about birds”, said Ashwin.
Baby said, “You should have told me at the beginning, now its past 10am… many birds would have gone inside…. Early morning, we would have had better chance to see them”
“Ya, we realise that now”, remarked Ashwin.
“Sigh… anyways, let us try… These Kerala Laughing thrush is always seen moving around with the babblers. So make sure you scan all babbler groups well. This laughing thrush does not come out of the shrubbery often”
After two hours walking through amazing forest (but no luck with the Laughing thrush), we took a break to take a sip and eat a bite. Baby then asked about us, what we do. Baby was happy that he could converse with us in Tamil. He was also very happy to know that Ashwin had some roots in Kerala as so did he. He spoke in Malyalam sometimes and asked me if I understood what he said. He told us tales of other birders who came there to see the Kerala laughing thrush and they spent hours looking for it and did find it.
He said the nature trails in this area yield many wildlife sightings.
“What animals are sighted here, Baby?”, I asked.
“There is leopard, gaur, elephants, bear…and of course the tiger”, replied Baby as he scanned the trees above us for birds.
“You must have seen them all… is it not?”
“I am 52 years and I have spent more than 3 decades in this forest… I am member of the scheduled tribe. My tribe’s name is Kadar. Here you also find other tribal groups mainly the malasar and malai malasars. After being in the forest for so long, I can tell when an animal is within a 500m range. I can smell and track animals…”Baby’s reply to my question.
“Is it not frightening to encounter a wild animal suddenly, when you are walking in the forest”, I asked genuinely, for this thought always comes to my mind.
“Not really, actually they avoid us…and mostly I know before itself when an animal is approaching. I am always prepared especially when I am with tourists like you”, smiled Baby.
“And what do you tell the tourist when they see a wild animal on a trail?”
“Depends… if it’s a tiger, then just don’t move… at all… you have to be absolutely still… it happened once. I was taking this foreign couple for a nature trail and they wanted to see a tiger badly. I had already tracked one tiger in the area so we went looking for it. As we got closer, we could hear it also. It had just caught a prey and it was eating it. We stopped some distance away from where I told them they can click photographs. They clicked a few snaps when suddenly the clicking sound distracted the tiger and its attention moved to the 3 of us. I told them to be absolutely still and not make a movement. They followed my orders but the tiger stepped away from its prey and made a loud roar, so loud that every hair in our body stood up. If you hear a roar upfront of a tiger like that madam, I assure you, it is scariest thing you will ever encounter….”
“I doubt I will dispute that… so then what happened?”, I curiously asked.
“Well, we kept still and the tiger roared a couple of times after which he turned back to his prey and started eating it. I signaled to the couple to inch their way back slowly. The lady had wet herself. The couple were sure that they were going to die. But they were ecstatic with what they had witnessed.”
Just imagining Baby’s story gave me goosebumps. He was about to continue with another story when he suddenly stopped…
“There was this other time when this foreign lady had come looking for the tiger… [sniff sniff] …. A bear has passed from here”, said Baby looking through the bushes.
“How can you tell?”, I asked inquisitively.
“This smell… peculiar smell of bears…and see this track [pointing to the stamped grass ahead of us] it’s a bear’s track”
We walked for 10 minutes and came to a small opening with 3 or 4 huge rocks. And on top of a leaf covered rock, an unmissable and unmistakable scat of bear lay. It was fresh. I recognized bear scat immediately since I have seen it on several occasions before this.
“Bear scat”, said Baby. “He has gone in this direction” [gesturing one path]
Baby soon forgot about the bear [freaks me out, now that I think about it] and focused on his original goal- finding the Kerala laughing Thrush.
“Like I was saying, this other time, a foreign lady had come alone and she was hell bent on seeing a tiger. I had tracked one for a while in the area and I knew that he had made a gaur kill recently. I was sure that the tiger will come back for the prey so I took this lady in a hiding spot near the prey. We sat over this huge rock and waited for more than 2 hours. I was very sure that the tiger will come…but so much time had passed and no sign of the tiger. I then heard some faint panting. I got a shock of my life. I told the foreign lady to be still and quiet and I slowly peaked below the big rock we were camped on. The tiger had set camp below us and was probably waiting for us to leave all this while. But then he got up and then went towards the Gaur. I urged the lady to quickly click pictures and we left from there! When we came back to topslip campsite, she hugged me and pecked me on the cheek!!”, said Baby blushing now.
“Such a close encounter!!”
“yes, with tigers, its easy, just don’t move. Stay still. With bears, it better to escape. And with elephants, just climb a tree. Can you climb trees, madam?”
“Well, I think I can…not all trees”, I said, as I looked at a tall tree ahead of me, which had a fairly long vertical bark.
“Learn it, it’s a good skill to have in the forest.”, said Baby.
Our 4 hours was up and we saw no sign of the Kerala Laughing Thrush. I guess it was not meant to be. We thanked Baby for his valuable time and patience with us. After parting ways, we made our way to Coimbatore. We did not do justice to the forests of Topslip; next time we hope to spend a few days here, and not few hours!
Update: Sad to inform that I received the news of the demise of Mr. Baby in early October 2022.
Want to know more?
Chandi, M. (2008). Tribes of the Anamalais: livelihood and resource-use patterns of communities in the rainforests of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and Valparai plateau. NCF Technical Report No. 16, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.
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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.