Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Wildlife Viewing and Poachers

South India is loaded with wildlife refuges, national parks, officially protected forests and bird sanctuaries; many with public access were former plantations during British colonial times, or former maharaja hunting grounds. In the last number of years, with the increased number of tourists, state governments, as well as private companies and individuals have built guest houses, hotels and in some locations luxury resorts on or near these properties for international as well as internal tourists.

Local people are often available, and in some cases entrance fees include a mandatory guide for foreign tourists. Some guides get excited about showing you animals and birds, others seemed bored and obviously lack training. It is possible to stay away from large cities and move from one wonderful wildlife viewing location to the other by hired taxi or bus. In a one month visit it was difficult to choose which of the wildlife preserves to visit and enjoy in a relaxed pace, for several days at each, sit back, take out binoculars and watch the animals and birds.

Beginning with Kumarakom, a bird sanctuary, about sixteen kilometers from the mid sized city of Kottayam, on the Malabar Coast in Kerala, is a former rubber tree plantation, at one time owned by the British Baker family. Several years after Indian independence in 1947, the state government bought most of the property. The Bakers sold some land to former employees at a nominal cost. We stayed in one of two lovely, simple, stucco and stone cottages, on property owned by the great-grandchildren of a former boat man for Mr Baker, according to the cottage owner, Mr. Gopakumar. The last Mr. Baker left Kumarakom in the 1970s. There are also a few tastefully designed large resorts, including one that the state of Kerala has built, and three luxurious resorts. One, The Taj Garden Retreat features the large Baker family bungalow that serves as a restaurant and reception, surrounded by well appointed cottages, a landscaped garden and swimming pool. Arundati Roy is said to have played in the house when a child, as her hometown in nearby. Another resort, the Coconut Lagoon sits on the edge of Lake Vembanad, and serves a fabulous buffet of over forty dishes and a sunset cruise on a boat sent to pick up guests. The lake is the source of water in a partially natural and partially manmade canal system that was used for irrigating the former plantation, and now provides habitat for thousands of water and shore birds. The canals also are used by locals in small boats for carrying goods, fishing and general transportation to small communities around the sanctuary.

From our small front porch, overlooking a narrow canal with dense jungle beyond, we pulled out our binoculars, sat back and spent hours watching and listening to the variety of tropical birds and other jungle sounds. Boatmen paddled by in small wooden canoes and one morning at sunup a dhoti clad man showed up to take us out for bird watching. He had little English, was more interested in the cost of the luxurious resorts, which is phenomenal by average Indian standards, but enjoyed showing us the birds. Between sitting on our front porch and the canoe trip, we saw hundreds of tropical and migrating birds. Siberian storks, fruit bats and snake darters roosting, soaring white headed Brahminy kites, darting iridescent blue kingfishers, stalking paddie herons, sunning cormorants, strutting chestnut and black greater coucals, brilliant yellow flashes of black headed orioles, just to name a few. The only disappointment was the lack of an Indian bird book or materials to identify birds at any resort, small trinket shops, or at the sanctuary entrance gate.

Next was a three day stay at the remote 345 square mile Wayland Wildlife Sanctuary, part of a larger Nilgiri Biosphere that straddles the borders of three states, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. An old teak plantation, the sanctuary has dirt roads, old stone bridges, huge bamboo groves and teak trees for wild animal and bird habitat. There are several small villages nearby in the coffee, tea and rice growing area. Three jeep tours into the reserve provided great views of wild gaur, three types of deer, a sun bear, langur monkeys, numerous tropical birds, and a tiger. The bird highlight was Asian paradise-flycatchers with their small black headed bodies and long wispy white tails.

Unfortunately there was no walking allowed within the sanctuary due to some “incident,” (despite Lonely Planet and Rough Guide reports) but walks in the surrounding slow roads provided ample bird viewing, big smiles and happy waves from school children as we disrupted an entire school. An invitation into a home for tea and friendly conversation, from an elderly village man, who proudly showed us his soy and coffee beans was a bonus. Other villagers quickly stuck their heads in the door once our camera was pulled out, lining up to have a “snap” too. The area is fairly remote, requires a bone jarring taxi ride off the beaten track, although it is listed in the Lonely Planet. There are no large hotels or resorts and one of the few places to stay is the Pachyderm Guest House, immediately adjacent to the sanctuary entrance where we stayed in a lone bamboo and palm thatch stilt house perched above coffee plants. Venu, a former coffee picker took excellent care of us, endearing himself to us one morning by saying, “Madam, I am chicken making tonight,” and then presented a delicious curry chicken, coconut chutney and rice dinner later that night. He arranged all trips into the sanctuary, and a night prowl along the road for animals, but alas, had no bird identification books.

Officially, the Indian governments takes preservation of the animals seriously. A large non-profit organization manages some tiger preserves and there are TV commercials and newspaper advertisements to save tigers. For years the Indian Army had a well publicized effort to track down a notorious poacher of elephant tusks until he was shot dead. Some claim that the poacher was only able to prosper as long as he did with bribes to officials. Despite the notoriety, and hoopla, of protecting wildlife, there are still problems. Corruption is apparent in the Forest Department, charged with assuring protection within national preserves. On a drive along a 32 kilometer road through the Nilgiri Biosphere, we passed through several individual wildlife preserves and parks, demarcated by gated check points and uniformed guards. At a cluster of Forest Department buildings, we saw several chained elephants. Our driver pulled over and asked one of several lounging men, who watched us carefully, if we could take pictures. A cage, carefully constructed of logs, held one elephant. As we walked back to the car, our driver insistently whispered several times, “Put the camera in your pocket.” After some persistent questioning he described how the Forest Department team would train the elephant and rent it to temple festivals and if pictures got to journalists or politicians there “could be trouble.” Down the road, as we passed through the next gate manned by a lone uniformed guard, our driver urged that we hide the camera because he could be fined. In India, fines are typically paid in cash, on the spot. This is clearly not the implementation of preservation laws. Elephant rental to temple festivals, by the way, is lucrative. Earlier we had been told at a large temple elephant rental lot, home to nearly one hundred elephants, that an elephant can fetch up to 40,000 rupees (about $500 USD) a day, depending upon it’s beauty. (Elephant beauty is very specific, high forehead, long legs and good bones, according to one taxi driver.) This in a country where there is a tradition of elephant processions at hundreds of temple festivals throughout the year.

Later relating this story to an owner of a Mysore hotel spa, she simply dismissed it with, “Oh, that happens all the time. There are poachers everywhere.” And that these men may have been government employees? She gave a look of even more disdain.

Without a doubt our favorite bird viewing spot has been in the Karanji Lake Nature Park, near the Mysore Zoo. Originally a man made water supply one hundred years ago for the royal family, posted signs tell visitors that the lake was restored as a bird and butterfly sanctuary with an Asian Development Bank grant several years ago. Well maintained paths around the lake with carefully designed signs showing the birds found in the park, make it a pleasant refuge in a busy city, away from honking horns. There is an unexpected bounty of tropical birds. Nesting painted storks, anhingas, and white pelicans are just a few of the delightful birds you can spend hours watching from the edge of the lake, an observation tower, or in rented paddle boats. And, in Mysore, a well stocked book store had several birds of India books!