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Night watchmen of the forest


Kerala/Eco Tourism/ Thattekkad

Lying half asleep in the tree house, I can hear below the cracking sound of bamboo branches. Roar of an elephant followed. Look, they are coming.

I was equally happy and fearful. If the 'children of Sahya' want to browbeat the visitors of the forest, the tree house built on four teak trees will be shaken like in the wind. They can pull down the bottom by just lifting their trunks.

Even though I have seen herds of elephants day and night in many forests, I am happy that this is the first time to have such a close sight at midnight from the tree top in Thattekkad.

I got up without making any noice. I thought that every body here would have been asleep. But four heads were looking arround for elephants.

The roaring became louder. It is sure that they are not one or two, but a herd. I again calculated in my mind. The bottom of the tree house will be high enough that they would not be able to touch it by lifting their trunks. These half grown teak trees must be stronger than the strength of the tusks.

But, the forest watchmen Stephan and Rajan were not ready for an experiment, Like a demon in the Pootappaattu Stephan was trying to scare them away. He made big sounds by striking on the hanging plastic drum. Along with every beat Stephan is saying in a very loud voice 'Go.. Go away..' In that suggestion that not to come near, there is a command filled with love.

How fast the sound world of the forest, filled with the crooning of owls and the chitchat of the birds of which the names are unknown, changed suddenly! Hearing the drum beat, Vijayan closed his ears with his hands. Both Balaravi and Shijil were in the adventurous mood that 'Stop that drum beat, let the elephant come nearer'. As usual Sreekumar is keeping aloof.

The response to Stephan's 'spiritual enthusiasm' was an elephant roar. When we tried to scare them they stood there like a fearless mother. If needed, there are many more weapons in the tree house to scare them. Like fire torch, tin vessels etc. But, before that the roaring went away.

Every body laid down again. Except Stephan. He got down from the tree house and lit the camp fire again. The fire which was lit with wooden logs in the dusk was already put off. It is said that if they see the fire or breathe the smoke the elephants will not come near. But, before one hour was gone we heard noices from another part of the forest. We repeated the drum beat and the fire again. Like that it repeated three times. No body slept on that whole moon lit night.

It may be happiness and enthusiasm for those who come see the forest. But what life is there for this daily wagers who watche the forest through out the day and night?

When we reached through the side of the forest by boat with the Range officer Anvar, we saw Stephan coming to us rowing a big boat. He was returning after netting fish from the river and buying things from the other shore. Then in the 'kitchen' under the tree house ginger lemon tea was ready. In the shed which was covered with plastic sheets, he lit a kerosene lamp. Since the solar fencings were not working for days, he made a security circle by lighting a fire. Supper will be ready with in half an hour. Rice porridge (Kanhi), fried dry fish and chilly chutney. The food we brought with us were fruits, rusk and pappadavada. When enjoyed the country taste every body kept those away.

The guest who came in the cage

While coming to the forest there was another guest with Anvar. A silver owl which was given to the police custody by the natives. Like Anvar said 'A poor guy like Anvar'. Even after the dusk it did not fly away. Since no injuries were found Anvar said 'the posibility is that it was reared in a cage'.

While putting him back in to the cage for more protection, he found some thing else. The owl has got a special smell. Since 'the birds never make their nest dirty', Stephan would have had some doubts. Thinking that they will be getting lakhs of rupees for this, there are people who catch silver owls and keep them. Catching the silver owls where ever you see them and giving it to police custody is not only cruelity but a punishable violation of law also.

Thattekkad 'snake' santuary

52 year old Stephan is behaving in the forest like a smart youngster. Even though he is awake the whole night, in the morning he will row his boat to the net to check if any fishes were caught. For the past 20 years this is his routine. Now a days his wage is Rs. 250/- per day. There is no wage on holidays.

This is a game of high risk even to his life, to protect the trees and the animals of the forest. He is an expert snake catcher also. The hamadryads (rajavempala) which are in plenty in Thattekkad, can't even scare him. Even otherwise, he says from his experience, that the snakes are not agressive. Other than hamadryads, in Thattekkad, snakes like adder and boor have increased in number. The situation is like that after dusk you can not walk without stepping over a snake. But the snake who bit Stephan was not a snake in the forest, but in his village. He got the bite while he was catching an adder from a house. He was hospitalised for several weeks. Even now, to get the wound healed completely a surgery is needed.

In Thattekkad, not only the snakes but elephants have also increased in number. The elephants have no sufficient space in this small forest which is spread over only in a 25 sq. kilometer area. And we have lost some herds also. It is said that the elephants in Thattekkad are more aggressive than the elephants in other forests. Their habit is to attack from a hidden place and not keeping away. That is why we took the boat instead of the forest path. When we were going to see the birds of a rare breed called 'Frogmouth bird' in a jeep with the Range Officer, what he said was 'it would be better if we never come across an elephant'. Before we climbed on to the tree house, what Steephan and Rajan said was the same thing.

But when we came out in the morning we saw the signs that they were here searching for the 'tresspassers' in the forest. They might have returned hearing the scolding and commands of the watchmen of the forest.

Text: M.K.Krishnakumar
Photos: Balaravi, Vijayan, Shajil
Translation: Balachandran

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