Part six of our six-part Kerala adventure.
With a stable population of 37 tigers, Kerala’s Parambikulam Tiger Reserve is doing well by its big cats. A relatively new reserve of 391 square kilometres, established in 2010, it encompasses three large man-made reservoirs and healthy teak, rosewood, neem and sandalwood forests. Its oldest known teak tree, at 465 years, has been listed as an Indian ‘Great Tree’.
The approach taken to tiger conservation here, which combines ecotourism with tribal community involvement, isn’t unique in India, but it is certainly heading in the right direçtion.
Rather than ring fence the reserve, demarcate a buffer zone between problematic animals (tigers, elephants, gaur and sloth bears), then allow farming and dwellings outside the buffer zone as many other tiger sanctuaries do, the original four indigenous tribes of 2,000 people live in the buffer zone and work to maintain the environment, roads, undertake fire prevention and run the tourism activities and accommodation. And whereas many other tiger reserves fall under the sole management of the Forestry Department, Parambikulam is managed by a group with representatives from all the relevant state departments plus two representatives from the tribes.
According to our guide, Jimmy, there haven’t been any attacks by tigers on humans here as they have plenty of prey with healthy numbers of gaur, sambar and cheetal. Sloth bears, gaur and elephants on the other hand pose a danger to tourists who leave their vehicles or wander far from their accommodation.Jimmy and Stuart
Under the compact tribal people are able to continue their traditional fishing and gathering to extract value from the land, but each family must have at least one member employed in some capacity. No outside workers are allowed onto the reserve except with special permission. We met indigenous guides, drivers, cooks, labourers, dancers and musicians.
On arriving at the reserve gates after a hair-raising five-hour drive from Cochin we had to first pass through the Tamil Nadu section of the reserve, called Anamalai. Foreigners must reserve accommodation and supply their passport details in advance. At the gate they are checked in by a Tamil Nadu official and pay vehicle and admission fees plus a camera fee (fees are less for Indian nationals). A few kilometres down the road the process is repeated when we pass into Kerala. Essentially if you want to go to Parambikulam you have to pay for Anamalai too as there is no other way in.
I am happy to pay to support the people and creatures of Anamalai and Parambikulam, but I would appreciate being able to drive on an actual road and not on a series of potholes and craters. Most of the single lane entry road needs resurfacing. This is under way but judging by what we saw it will take years to complete. With an average speed of 10k it took another hour to get to the accommodation office then fifteen minutes further to our treehouse. If I go back it will be by helicopter.
Our package comprised two nights accommodation in a basic but serviceable en suite treehouse built on three teak trees beside the lake.
We discovered later this treehouse was the premier accommodation. It pays to book well in advance (Suresh did this for us but you can book single nights online).
All meals were supplied by a lovely couple who cooked for us in a small building across the road. We also had the 24-hour services of a guide, 54-year-old Jimmy who has been guiding for 35 years. Actually Jimmy proved to be more of a minder who made sure we didn’t do the wrong thing or wander off in the dark.
On the first afternoon we took the afternoon bus safari with a load of other tourists on a set route. Besides an eagle-eyed driver we had a guide and four other strong fellows on board. They found us cheetal, elephants, gaur, sambar, giant squirrel, Nilgiri langurs, Bonnet macaques and wild boar. Most of these were some distance away and well camouflaged in the forest, but we all got to glimpse them. No tigers, leopards or jungle cats.
February is well into the dry season, a time when the big cats are deep in the forest. With so much water accessible and plentiful prey they have no need to come anywhere near tourists. Jimmy told us November-December is the best time to visit as the land is green and you can hear the tigers mating.
After passing several viewpoints we were dropped by the water’s edge for a bamboo rafting experience at sunset. This involved walking onto a flat raft of lashed bamboo with two bench seats built onto it and stations for four rowers, hence the four extra men. They rowed us around in a circle for forty minutes telling us about the crocodiles that inhabit the lake (translated by some kind, English-speaking Indians present) and the elephants that swim to the island, then dropped us back at the same spot where the guide gave us tea in tiny paper cups and a digestive biscuit.
We had another hour and a half of driving with the guide shining his spotlight into the verges, but no other animals were sighted.
The rest of the evening and night passed unremarkably, however I did have an odd experience with my face oil. We’d been instructed to put snack food items inside a wall compartment that had mesh on one side and a glass window on the other. We assumed that was to keep monkeys at bay. We hadn’t reckoned on ants.
I went to apply face oil after a shower and found large ants had gnawed away the rubber stopper from the pipette. Having destroyed the rubber they showed no interest in eating the oil so I thought it was safe to keep the glass bottle on the floor until I could decant it into another container. Next evening after returning from safari I found my bed sheet and the floor around the bottle covered in teeny tiny biting ants. It took me a good thirty minutes to get rid of them.
The morning activity was listed as a bird watching walk. At 6:30am we duly waited for Jimmy and at 6:45am he came down rubbing sleep from his eyes. He led us back up the road we’d driven in on. Masses of birds were calling, creating a symphony of birdsong. Most of them were high in the trees and too small to see without field glasses (which neither Jimmy nor we had). We soon became aware that this was a bird listening walk rather than a bird watching walk. We did spot racquet-tailed drongos, a kingfisher, jungle fowl, jungle warbler, mynah, and peacocks and heard a woodpecker and cuckoo.
We walked a couple of K to the nearest village where Jimmy has his home and he led us past his neighbours’ houses. The huts are small and one I could see inside had a dirt floor with a mat in the centre. The villagers seemed unperturbed by us wandering through in the middle of their ablutions, but we were disturbed to hear the groans of a woman in pain coming from a hut with its door shut. Jimmy said she probably had a fever. It sounded worse than that. Three doctors staff a central healthcare centre and visit the seven villages on a weekly rotation.
Jimmy was proud of the new primary school which seemed well built if rather hot with its tiny, barred windows. School is 9am-4pm with a morning break and lunch break. All three of Jimmie’s children went away to high school and college. Now his daughters, his granddaughter and his wife live in Cochin while his son is on a sports scholarship in Trivandrum.
No other activities were scheduled for us until the same kind of safari in the afternoon so we just took it easy and at lunch time I watched the cooks making chapatis and poppadoms over a wood fire (the rest of the food is prepared on a gas cooker). How they don’t burn themselves is a mystery to me.
Stuart found the bumping and lurching of the bus too hard on his back so chose to miss the second safari trip. When I went to wait for the bus outside the treehouse I found we were penned in our room by a tribe of Bonnet Macaques. They’d been looking for ways to get inside and were playing with the verandah furniture and a plastic bottle they’d extracted from the bin. The young ones dispersed when Stuart waved a towel at them, but their large male leader just bared his teeth and wouldn’t budge.
There is no mobile phone signal in the reserve so I couldn’t call Jimmie for help and he wouldn’t hear us shouting. It was time to channel my inner lion tamer. I picked up a cane chair from the verandah and holding it in front of me forced the macaque to back away as I moved forward. He gave up ground reluctantly even with much shouting and baring of teeth by me. I finally got him down the stairs and managed to get past him to high tail it up to Jimmy’s hut where he was sleeping soundly. When Jimmy saw the male macaque, which had taken up a position on the verandah again, he realised I wasn’t fussing about nothing and fetched two long cane sticks. With the sticks in one hand to keep the monkey at a distance, he pelted it with small stones he picked up off the ground. It took him at least fifteen minutes to move the male and the rest of his tribe along. My bus was late so I was able to admire Jimmy’s skill.Back in sole occupancy of the treehouse.
The second safari was exactly the same route and routine as the first (and I saw all the same animals again plus a river fishing owl) but with the addition of a tribal music and women’s dance performance in the community hall. Of course I leapt at the opportunity to dance with them when invited. A four-year-old Indian girl wanted to be on stage with them and seemed mesmerised by their circle dancing, happily standing in the centre for several dances.
The bus was fuller the second time, mostly with a group of French tourists led by an experienced French guide who was on his tenth annual visit to Parambikulam. I had to ask him how many tigers he’d seen in that time. The answer was as I had come to expect. None. The only place I would see a Parambikulam tiger would be on a camera trap.
There didn’t seem any point waiting around for breakfast before departing next day and Selvan was happy to make an early start on the six-hour return journey to Cochin.
Nothing exciting presented itself until we were in Anamalai when suddenly a russet brown creature the size of a house cat with a bushy tail shot across the road. It was a vulnerable (population less than 1,000 and decreasing) Nilgiri Marten that was a split second from becoming our road kill.
PS The food stops en route to and from the reserve were highlights – we ate delicious dosa and idli at the same roadhouse for the equivalent of AUD3 total each meal. And have a look at the size of the dosa!