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Monday 4 January 2016

Tiger Census Blog - Anamalai Tiger Reserve

Write-up : Anish

“Tiger” the world’s most magnificent predator is now one of the least countable not only in India but all over the world. Some 200 years before more than 8000 Tigers which roamed around the vast forest lines of Sunderbans in West Bengal , Jim Corbet in Uttarakhand, Ranthambore in Rajasthan, Central India, Western Ghats and South India has depleted to a mere 1800 presently. Pre independence saw Trophy hunters in the form of Britishers hunting at will. Post independence saw the rush for development making ways for Roads, Rails, Hydro electricity, dams, large scale mining, agriculture and encroachment of forest lands to accommodate the ever increasing population thus shrinking the forest to one thirds of what it was. In 1972 the wildlife protection act came into existence followed by “Tiger protection program” in 1973. The 48 Tiger reserves governed by Project Tiger are administered by NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority).  Joining hands with WII (Wildlife Institute of India) all the reserves are categorized for an effective evaluation and each state are counted separately in which Karnataka tops the list with 408 Tigers.
Estimation of Tiger population census which occurs yearly once in most of the Tiger reserves are the best opportunity for a wildlife enthusiast in our country to explore and study wildlife. Let me also warn you that those who are looking for a fun time and mostly photography (which is hardly permitted these days, I had my luck though) inside the forest at the expense of forest department will be screwed up after two days. A week inside the forest might sound romantic or like a honeymoon vacation. No its not. It is tough work which requires hundreds of data sheets to be recorded, your stay and food situations would be quite demanding. You might have to walk 2 kms to have a bath. So expect nothing and gain everything what wildlife offers you. I have had chances before but couldn’t make it. Since all my trekking experiences was limited to 2 or 3 days in the forest I was really looking forward for a long stay experience. That’s when I came to know about the census in Mudumalai. I felt bad that even though Mudumalai is so close to my hometown at Gudalur I won’t be able to make it this time too. After a week i got info about the census in Anamalai Tiger Reserve (Atr), Pollachi, Tamilnadu which was on 4th Jan. Decided to join there. Called up the Dfo office and within the next 1hr Applications, photos, id’s and trekking history were all sent and received and by the last minute I was on their list. Got a confirmation mail asking me to be present at Attakkati training center at 4th Jan 9am and to come prepared for an eight day stay inside Anamalai Tiger Reserve forest. Backpacking experience helped me in packing light but since I was driving all the other Junks were packed inside my car as usual. On 3rd started off from Chennai with Ashok crossing Salem- Erode- Tiruppur to Pollachi. Ashok left to Gudalur as I stayed in Pollachi.

Day 1 

4th morning by 7am took the Valparai road crossing the beautiful Aliyar dam and while i was near the 9th bend spotted a Nilgiri Tahr. Stopped my car and went behind it for a while finally the Tahr agreeing for some poses. It was a great start i thought. Along the Ghat roads reached Attakkati by 9am. Around 70 forest officials including Watchers, Guards, Foresters, Range Officers were already gathered there. I registered my presence in the log book. By 11am around 60 volunteers were ready for the training. For the next 4 hrs there were speeches by Several Dfo’s, Acf and Ifs Officers. Training for 2hrs by Arumugam was a rapid brush up. I’m sure newbie’s with little wildlife knowledge had very little clue of what was going on for the past two hours. By 3pm theory and Lunch was over. By then most of the Volunteers were friendly sharing their stories. After that the day was spent in dividing each of us into different beats.
Since the volunteers are lower, a group will have just one volunteer and a watcher or guard. In a way I was happy that I will be left alone. Now all I want is a cheerful partner. I was assigned to Poonachi beat 2 in valparai range and watcher Tannasi was to accompany me for the next 7 days. We hit perfectly well from the intro and I sensed good vibes with him. He said valparai group will be deported last and my beat poonachi is just 10km away so we will have to wait till everyone is sent off. Some groups have to travel 65km into the forest in Amaravathi ranges. My experience has taught me if you are lucky enough you will get direct sightings, it doesn’t matter if you are in the core or buffer zones. Finally by 6pm all the rest left and we five were roaming around the place finding new viewpoints and cliffs nearby. 
Our range had 5 volunteers for 3 beats. Had dinner and all of us were getting a bit boiled up with the situation. The officer in charge was not sure where to fix the stay for all 10 of us in different beats. Finally by 10pm out of all the 150 members we four were the last to be deported. My Ib was after Upper aliyar nearly 12km. Agreed to take my car and 4 of us drove through the forest roads reaching there by 11pm.
 Ib guesthouse was just the best.  It had great beds, water heater, power and road accessibility. I could use my car too. Poonachi beat had 2 lines, Guard Muthumanickam and David from Madurai was in charge of line 1. Myself and Tannasi was in control of line 2. For the next one week we as a group would split in the early morning and join again at the Ib by evening. Opened the sleeping bag to wake up by 5am.

Anamalai Tiger Reserve covering a Core area of about 958 sq. km, Buffer area - 521.28 is one of the largest protected areas in Western Ghats. It has 6 Ranges. 1. Valparai, 2. Manamboly, 3. Topslip, 4. Pollachi, 5. Udumalpet, and 6. Amaravathi.

Day 2 

I woke up everyone before 5am. Went out to hear all kinds of wild sounds and singing peacocks from the Lonely guest house. By 6 am four of us locked and departed in different ways. Myself and Tannasi walked upto upper aliyar village and after a tea switched on the Gps. Through the roads to Kadamparai we diverted to eb lines.
First 3 days was for tracking carnivore’s animals. I have heard Dfo saying that spotting a couple of Tiger Pug marks in an entire census was in-itself a big thing and as we entered into the forest through the Eb lines there it was, two clear and deep Tiger foot prints within the first 30 minutes. Both of us were thrilled by the start. I simply told Tannasi that we will surely have a direct sighting within the next seven days for he replied confidently Sure sir.  
Each day a minimum 5 km has to be covered in Gps. Shifted back to the roads and both of us spotted different Scrape marks of Leopards, Tigers and Scats of Wild cats. After some 3km we were still following the road ahead to Kadamparai.Tannasi showed me a thin dried root, he sucked it and it started rotating like a magic. Took a video of that and later on found out that it was releasing itself from the friction and tightness with wetness. Walking along the roads ahead my head was always peeping into the right side of the forest, I really wanted to be inside it and was not so happy with the proceedings. Tannasi was in a hurry to finish the 5km official record, I know that things will turn around by the next couple of days so just heard stories of tracing and tracking methods making myself more accurate with spotting before entering into deep forest. Walking along the Upper aliyar reservoir was a nice feeling.
On the way we reached Kadamparai Tunnel where I met Police security Kumaran who joined the walk sharing some of his stories. Finally reached the Kadamparai Village it was 11am. Work was over for today and I was not at all satisfied with this road walk and reminded Tannasi about my trekking history and told him walking is not an issue for me I can do a maximum of 30km per day if necessary, he slightly smiled as if he has got the right person. Thinking back now Tannasi was one of the best things happened to me at Atr. I said if you are ready we will set records.
After hearing this I think he was charged up a bit. Had Tiffin from the Eb canteen there and got the next bus to Upper aliyar. Tannasi had to go to Attakkati Forest office and I found my way back to the IB alone. By 1pm David and Guard was already there. They were starving. There wasn’t any provision allocated for our team still. David and Guard Muthu walked down to the village for lunch as I stayed behind. Additional Unofficial walk was out of question because the Guard looked tired and there was no Tannasi.
I decided to do some birding behind the IB forest and took my camera and left the place before they came. No volunteers were supposed to leave the officials within a close range but when I am surrounded by forest I like to be alone not that I am not aware of the consequences of a danger but the extra thrill always compensates the laid out rules. I came back as soon as I heard their noise far away to let know I am nearby and not to worry. I was all over the nearby forest trying to click so many varieties of birds. David too joined Birding session after 4pm with his Binoculars and he was a Pro. You show him any bird he will name it. He was writing down the bird names just by sitting at one place and I was running behind it for some good clicks. I got Black Hooded Oriole, Drongo, Plum Headed Parakeet Male & Female, some Mynah's and a peofowl and more.

In 4hrs he noted down nearly 30 of them. By 6pm Tannasi came with some basic provisions like Rice and some vegetable. Made some tea and started preparing food. Night was passed by entering the remaining data into the books, chatting and life histories having dinner togethor and by 11pm everyone was ready to sleep. By now there was great bonding between me and Tannasi and I think he liked me very much. He was a honest person. Everybody slept.

Day 3

Managed to sleep till 3am and took my laptop to the verandah to write down the happenings of last two days listening and staring into the pitch dark jungle outside. It was cold. Tannasi woke up by 5am to set up camp fire and prepare tea.  By 6 am said goodbyes to David and Muthumanickam as they will be reaching another camp towards their end of walk today hence planned to stay there. Walking down from the Ib just before the village we took the left to the water channel. It was a scary walk through the concrete 2 feet path for 20 minutes. On to the roads Tannasi collected some Wild boar Scats and as we jumped to the roads found two leopard scrape marks. Soon we decided that no more roads and into the forest we entered. Each guard or watcher is assigned a specific route or area daily and minimum of 5 km to be covered in Gps. Since it was a daily routine for them he wasn’t quite really interested about the idea of changing the prescribed routes which was mostly through forest roads and safe zones. But within the second day the wait was over for me because Tannasi had come to terms with me and was in full josh that we shared a connection by then and decided to have the time of our lives for the next 6 days inside Anamalai Tiger Reserve.
 We decided to walk without barriers and bend some rules as well.  As we were climbing up through the forest he alerted to be very careful. For each 20 meters there was at least 1 bear hole. There was good visibility underneath the trees. We spotted hundreds of spotted deer and Sambar pug marks along the wet lands and streams. Crossed some patchy grassland to gain more altitude. I didn’t carry the original data book as I have created an easy method of entering all the details in a small book and later on copy it.  Each minute I was learning so much from him which I never knew about Jungle, things like listening to a dozens of sounds all at the same time, sensing smell, spotting marks, judging a situation much earlier, I was always on my toes with Tannasi. He showed me some scratchy half eaten roots by porcupine.

We stopped to have some photographs just before entering the first Tiger cave nearby. Tannasi slipped and fell down and had a small scratch in his leg while trying to get me into the camera frame since I was all over the place. Gladly nothing happened to him and my camera. In the next 20 minutes made ways to reach the cave. There wasn’t any sign of wild animals occupying the place. So I decided to go deep inside it and crawled till the deep edges of the cave. It was dark and cold inside. Spent some time around there and that is when he realized that our Gps was not working. I restarted it, but it would get stuck every now and then making us walk nearly 8km compulsorily to clock 5km in Gps. It was a boon for both of us as we could explore around 12 kms daily more off record now. On the way back to the roads spotted a Thar and Sambhar. 

Back to Upper Aliyar by 12pm. Had tea and reached the Ib and had lunch which Tannasi prepared today morning. Tomorrow our starting point was near Kadamparai power house which is 8km from here, the only way to reach there early morning was to take Tannasi’s bike which was standing without Gas. We decided to go to Valparai to buy some petrol and some sightseeing as well. By 1pm both of us in my car went past the check post to stop near Tiger valley which had beautiful views of the beat which I was exploring the last two days.
 We thought of visiting Akkamalai grasslands and Valparai but altered the plans and went straight to Sholayar dam. After that it was already 3pm and I asked Tannasi have you visited Athirapally falls which was 60km from there. He said he has never been there but wished to see that place, since it has been so many years I last visited the falls I decided to make a quick drive with him. The only problem was the 3 check post on the way where vehicles are stopped after 6pm. Since we are officials from Atr I freely shook hands with all the check post personals along the way to allow us back even if it was night. No issues we went past the Sholayar dam to Malakkapara entering into Kerala. Driving along the beautiful forest roads and sholayar reservoir was a very different experience. To the dry deciduous forest of Atr to the Evergreen rainfall kind of forest in Idamalayar and Sholayar it was a transformation in itself. We informed about our return at Vazhachal check post and by 5pm skipped Vazhachal and parked at Athirapally.
Till 6pm we were in and around Athirapally falls. Tannasi really enjoyed the day and thanked me a lot for taking him here. Bought some petrol from Athirapally and we returned back. It was a long drive. Tannasi had left his mobile at IB and even though I didn’t have mobile coverage I received some missed call messages from forest officials in Atr whenever it connected. Tannasi started murmuring like we are Busted sir! All of them will be searching us since I had not informed anything from morning. I am not supposed to take you anywhere without permission and we have broken the rules. It was already 9pm and we are not even half way. I said Don’t worry Tannasi I will take care of the matter, just point fingers at me if they ask anything because I too had many remarks to on how Volunteers are treated without basic necessities like food and traveling to a specific start point, I have also been spending for each and everything from food to fuel for the past two days and consoled him by saying the Old golden words “ If you follow all the rules you miss all the fun”. Finally reached the Upper aliyar check post to know that some officers including the forester came in search for us. Reaching the IB Tannasi went to check his mobile which had more than 20 calls. I said we will look into the matter tomorrow, let’s now sleep it off.

Day 4 

By 5am both of us were enjoying preparing the early morning tea which was the only substitute for breakfast all these days. We were discussing about all the places we visited yesterday. We have also planned some fishing today after census work with Kumaran the dam police, but he wasn’t quite sure what kind of treatment he is going to receive for yesterdays act. Took some time to kick start his old suzuki samurai and by 6am we drove off to kadamparai power house and left the bike there. Switched on the Gps and walked along the dam roads to find a slot into the forest after 3 hairpin bends. Just before entering we saw a Great Hornbill in close range flying above us. The breezing sounds through her feathers amazed me as we waited till it flew past the Neighboring Mountain. Today was the third and final day for Carnivores data collection and I was very eager to spot something apart from deer’s, monkeys and Thars. But as the saying goes “they are all there watching you”.  Before reaching inside the covers we had to make ways and it was hard work for Tannasi using his machete to clear up the lantana shrubs. 
It was a deep steep walk for the next 30 minutes to reach a graveyard. The place looked spooky with 6 burials from the 70’s. It was completely covered with shrubs. Since I was not interested in taking a friend with me back to home I restricted clicking any pictures. Had to wear leech socks from here on. Through the way spotted two giant squirrels and the usual data collection like scats, pug marks, scrape and scratch marks of most of the carnivores were spotted and entered in the data books in full swing. Reached a valley and heard the presence of a barking deer. We waited there silently for it to come against us and it happened. The moment it knew he was under scanner it disappeared quickly before I could focus my camera.
We must have walked 5km already but our brain dead Gps cloaked only 3km. We reached an old water tank and had to cross to the next hill. Within the next 30 minutes we were on top of that hill. Had some decent view of the nearby hill and ended up spotting some Scats of tiger. I was telling Thanasi that we have spotted all sought of indirect sightings of a Tiger and direct sighting was the only thing left. 
From there got down to the Eb camp which was a km away finally clocking the untrue 5km in Gps. By 12pm reached the Eb canteen in Kadamparai and had Tiffin. Met some Eb officials and one Mr Sampath was friendly enough to allow a visit inside the powerhouse before my return. Waited for David and Muthumanickam as they were heading to the same place from the opposite mountain. After meeting them they came by bus and we rode back to IB. Tannasi soon prepared some rice and curry and left the place. As soon as Muthumanickam and David came they also had news that we have to vacate the place to an old outhouse for the next 3 days in Upper aliyar because of pre booked tourist visitors. We were not happy because why can’t they shift all these bookings for a week and give preference to the volunteers who came to help them. Saddened to leave that place not because of comfort but the ambiance it provided. Anyway all I asked was will my car reach this new place and yes was the answer. We packed our stuffs and drove to the old outhouse. It was half broken. There was only a direct electricity line from which we did some wiring. The guard said he will bring his own kerosene stove and fix up light in one room by evening. It was muddy and chaotic all around but I kinda liked it because I am always a true trekker you know. After settling in went for birding with David along the Upper aliyar forest roads. Spotted and cliked so many varieties of birds like White headed starling, Parakeet, Woodpecker, Tit and Hoopoe.

 After a 5km birding session we reached back to camp by 6pm. Nobody was there but our guard has fixed the lights and bought the cooking stuffs. Tannasi came by 8pm and all of us watched a documentary called Baraka from my laptop. Everyone wanted a copy of that. After dinner I had twice the work from others because I had to enter Tannasi’s data book too. So I was the last person to get into the sleeping bags every night.

Day 5 

After 3 days of carnivores data collection today starts our Line transect for the next 3 days. It means a direct path was made a month ago through the forest for 2 kms. A beat may have several transect lines which also depends upon the size of the beat. Our beat had two lines for two teams. So for the next three days my work was to move along the same fixed transect line collecting details like herbivores species, vegetation, recording ground cover, human disturbances and pellet counting on every 400 meters. We have been equipped with range finders for calculating sight distances of herbivores animals and heights of trees. A 20 meter rope for finding the diameter from each of the 5 stops of transects line. A compass for analyzing the transect angle and Gps. Using the raw data count an estimation of the overall density of all vegetation and animal species can be be achieved by combining all the transect lines in the entire reserve. We were asked to start the day by 6:30 am and finish it by 9:30 am. Each transect line would be somewhere inside the forest and to reach there we would have to walk a bit.We were late. Muthu and David had already left. Kick starting our bike on those cold mornings was a daily exercise. Finally reached our place after riding 12 kms. Started walking to reach the start point through the forest. Tannasi knew the place well because he was in charge of making this transect line along with three other watchers. It was already 7:20 am and we were too late. Anyways we started off with the zero point rushing to the next stop. There was so many things to enter at the same time so it required time. Vegetation page covered all details like canopy cover, tree species, shrub species, shrub abundance and weed species. We were to check on Human disturbances like wood or bamboo cutting, logging, any presence of humans or livestock’s etc. Recording ground covers included dry grasses, herbs, weeds, green grass, bare grounds and littering of dry leaves. Each of them were calculated and split on percentage basis. Pellet counting was also part of this brainstorming and enjoyable process.
As we were passing by one stop after the other found a couple of big holes made by a bear just hours ago. The mud was scattered with nail marks and the ripe root under the hole was left may be for his lunch. Tannasi said if we could wait for an hour or so on top of a nearby tree we have chances of spotting the bear but time was a scarcity especially today. Walked down to reach a small rivulet. Tannasi said just give me five minutes, he had a troubled stomach from yesterday and ran down through the rivulet as I sat in one of the rocks. As the wind brushed me I sensed some kind of decayed dead smell. After sometime tannasi was calling me saar,saaar… come here.
I thought that was the route ahead and picked up all his stuff and reached there to find the third Tiger Pug mark. Took pics of that and returned to the rock where I sat. I asked tannasi do you smell anything. Yes he replied. He looked above where the water came and asked me shall I go and check it. I said we still have lots more work to do and time is ticking. So we started to follow the line by climbing up but Tannasi was intensely looking into the bushes on his left side suddenly stopping dead silent. One finger on his mouth signaling me to be still. I knew he had spotted some movement. I looked at the same direction through the thick lantana bushes standstill to see something in yellow and black moving back and forth. Within seconds tannasi was whispering Puli saaar, (tiger sir), and yes it was a Tiger! Again he isn’t stopping the whispering, I was like Damn it! Was that real? Did we really spot one and then the whispering came again not one sir, there are two Tigers!! Yes as he said two I could see two tigers in front of my eyes within a 15 meter range.
Let me explain my experience truly, I wasn’t frightened at all by the situation, rather I was taken aback by this unreal scene. My entire mind was thinking about getting at least one picture. Pulled out the camera, the lens, the aperture settings, the shutter speed Oh Gosh! I have really forgotten why these options exist in a camera. Finally viewing through the lens I found both the tigers walking left and right. Managed to click some single shots. I took my camera off to get a clear view of the next tiger to see that unbelievable scene where both the tigers were looking at us directly. I was in awe of those precious five seconds that we were face to face with each other. Totally forgot that I had a Dslr and I should have pressed that shutter button at that precise moment. All sought of YouTube videos of Tiger attacking clips started popping behind my head. Even though I clicked several pics i was not able to get the face, it was difficult to set the focus manually through the thick bushes onto a moving tiger. And the whispering came again, Sir it is coming down. As I was concentrating on one Tiger the next one started to walk against us. I saw it walking down step by step. I wasn’t thinking about anything but to get a good click. Even if it was my last day I was ready to die like a man because both of us never really thought the idea of running away and it was of no use either. The tiger which stood above suddenly disappeared. But the one which was walking against us was now closer within a 10 meter range. Now I was a bit worried because the scene was turning into something like a planned attack where the disappeared tiger can jump in from any of the nearby bushes on my right side. Anyways I placed my camera to a gap through the leaves and I don’t know what happened next the tiger which was walking straight to us turned right and slowly climbed up and disappeared. Between that I once again managed to click some but wasn’t sure if I got his face. We waited for some more time at the same place to see if there was any horror climax waiting for this story. After about two minutes both of us smiled heavily and hugged each other for what we have witnessed. Took my camera to check the last pics even though I still missed his face I was happy I could manage this. Tannasi was on cloud nine. He was very appreciative about the photos telling that you have done a great job and it’s not an easy thing to take pictures of tigers in such close range that too while on foot. We moved ahead to our next stop.
We wanted to finish of the work without running away. But as we were walking both of us were completely immersed in these thoughts. Tannasi informed the office about our direct sightings and from there on it was raining calls from all parts of Atr. We were the first one to spot tiger in this census. My sensibilities towards forest have altogether changed, It felt like I was really a part of the forest and they have accepted my love towards them. All the data were entered along the way without skipping anything.
Tannasi told me there was a tiger cave above so we should be very careful and silent, I just thought what kind of a terrorized transect line is this? More thrilled we climbed up knowing that two tigers were behind us. As we were nearing the cave I suggested making some noise because the opening of the cave was from the other side and we didn’t want to surprise any wild animal by poking right on his nose. After reaching the cave there was fresh Tiger scats and some bones inside the cave. I got down and went inside the cave while Tannasi was guarding me from behind.  I just want to feel what a real tiger cave felt like. Soon took some photos we moved ahead for the next one km to end our transect line work by 10:30 am.

Now the problem was returning through the same way. We waited for some time and started walking back bypassing the cave. It was quick we made sounds and noises to alert and letting know them we are still around finally reaching back to the same place where we spotted the Tigers. While returning back tannasi had received instructions from the officers to mark a Gps point at the exact place only if possible. So while entering it I clicked some more pics of the area and once again that awful decayed smell hit us again.Tannasi asked me sir shall we go up and check it out. I really thought this man has got some real guts. With an armed group of people it could be safe but with just two it was highly a risky affair. But I gave a thumps up and said do what you feel like. Today when I write this I don’t know what kind of craziness was going through both of us that day, we decided to climb up the place where those Tigers were watching us hours before.
Tannasi moved ahead as I clicked pictures from behind. The smell was getting very nauseating as I went nearer. Very slowly into the thick bushes we spotted the Kill after several turns, It was a Sambar deer. With torn flesh pieces all over the place and the blood soaked surroundings I know very well that we were in the worst and dangerous place that one could be in. A kill is always protected by the master and they must be definitely watching us somewhere closely. Took some quick photos and returned back to the stream again finding tiger scratch marks on three adjacent trees.

Too much to handle we rushed back through the transect lines back to the place we parked our bike. By 1pm rode back to our room. For a treat i bought 2kg of chicken from the village and tannasi started cooking. As soon as Muthumanickam and David came showed the pics. After lunch around 3pm myself and Tannasi planned to visit the Aliyar dam and we were caught red handed by the Forester of the range only to congratulate on our sightings. He told me that I was very lucky to spot and photograph.  Expressed no issues of going out of boundaries with tannasi but to just let him know. He saw the pictures but was searching for its face. He asked me you could have followed the tiger for which i smilingly replied it was not a household cat but a Tiger sir. He wanted me to come to Attakatti office for a copy of picture but I will miss my plan to visit Aliyar dam today. Finally with little more talk and tea he asked me to go visit the dam tomorrow so I decided to drive with David to Attakkati. Met guard sherief there and gave copies. In a way I knew I have missed a terrific click today and that was haunting me. By 7pm both of us wanted to make some calls and drove to valparai to get mobile coverage. Back to the room by 10pm we had rice with tasty chicken treat and everyone slept while I was looking at the pictures.
Day 6 

From the dry roads on day 2 to the tiger sightings on day 5 everyday was like opening a Santa's bag. So thrilled that both of us were ready by 5:30 am. We left the house earlier to reach the spot by 6:30 am. It was the same transect line and if we are lucky today we knew chances were high to spot the Tiger again because the Kill had enough flesh for one more day. While I was riding the bike both of us came up with several ideas like to spot the Tiger before it spots us and to always keep a locked in sight while I was operating the camera. Some officers cared to call us to be very careful. Before 7 am we reached the start point and proceeded slowly. Today’s work included only sightings of herbivores so inputs of data are less unlike yesterday. All our concentration was on sighting the Tiger once more. We were moving so slow that even birds unnoticed us. There was not even the slightest of noise but we were moving. Each step was kept only on bare grounds or grasses finally reaching near the bear holes. We waited for some time there. Today I was all ready with my camera and all the settings were ready underneath my fingers. We just have to move some 20 meters to get a view where the tiger was standing yesterday but the problem was it was a slope directly into the small stream so if the Tiger was already standing there it could spot us easily. We waited and decided to lookout and proceeded slowly. It took some time to cross those 20 meters and both of us waited with glued in sharp eyes for any movements. Once again I was tweaking my camera settings and as I turned my head I saw the Tiger jumping from the bushes. I think the tiger knew something was around. By this time I lost sight but tannasi was whispering me to come nearer to him. I walked slowly to see the Tiger staring at us from the bushes. This time I cannot afford to let it go so we stood there like statues. There was very little gap but our stillness made the tiger move and search for us from those gaps. I knew I was shaking but once it came into my frame I started shooting.
Shooting continuously in burst mode was also not a good idea because the shutter sounds from the camera was really loud and audible. We waited and clicked 3 or 4 at a time. I was confident that I have owned his face today. I saw the second tiger in between to the right but tannasi missed it. Thought I will come back to him later but it just went into the bushes and never returned. Positions changed and we started moving around for another gap where it was sitting like a King facing us. Clicked once, twice, thrice and more. I knew I have got what I wished for. Through the camera I saw the tigers facial changing like smiling and showing its teeth, Tannasi too noted it and told it’s the sign of getting angrier and disturbed. We should move. But I couldn’t resist and kept on clicking, worrying about missing an epic shot than my own life. Tannasi started whispering that Sir, we should move...pls.. Just before ending the final click the Tiger itself decided to move away.

( Photographs are copyrighted under Indian copyright act 1957 )

Altogether it was nearly a 10 minute scene. Checked all the pictures on the spot and after viewing, it felt like winning an Oscar. Tannasi was overjoyed. We got what we came for. When I zoomed in, the eyes was very clear so I was sure on a big screen the quality would be decent enough. We could have decided to return back but both of us were highly intoxicated by this wildlife dope hence we moved forward through the transect line crossing the stream. We wanted to finish the 2km work. Walked nonstop till the next stream and sat there. Both of us kept on viewing the pictures again and again because this was something unbelievable.
Two Horn bills flew to a nearby tree i clicked it but my lens was fogged out otherwise it would have been a wonderful add on. I have seen two tigers before in Mudumalai. One nearby Kargudi while I was driving to Chennai on an early morning and one on the way to Moyar when I was 15. Both were on vehicles. Likewise Tannasi had seen two tigers in his 30 years of forest life but that too was in vehicles. But the experience of last two days was extremely astonishing. Tannasi again called up to the office to let know the news and the pictures taken. I must have spoken to more than a dozen of officers and everybody congratulated me. As we were finishing those two kms more calls poured in not only from officers but from several local people and friends of tannasi saying that our spotting of tiger yesterday was published in some Tamil newspaper, by the way it was News to us. Anamalai Tiger Reserve Biologist Maruthamuthu called up and asked about the experience and the quality of the photo. Upon hearing me say that I have got some decent shots in my kitty he was shouting Superb! Superb! Even discussed about the possibility of fixing a camera trap to which I replied as a good thought but to do it asap before the kill is wiped off.
When Forester Chandran called up, Tannasi explained about the facial and behavioral changes that we saw in the Tiger today and told him it was dangerous to return back on the same route. The only safe way out was to climb up and down through the opposite hills and reach another village where we would be picked up by the department vehicle. It was already 11am and we got passed the tiger cave.
Kept walking till 1 pm crossing two rivers missing the village but finally jumping into the tar roads. From there decided to walk another 3kms to Upper aliyar. I was starving so stopped for a tea break before going to the quarters. As soon as I reached back to the room took my laptop to view the pics and It was all perfect. Most of the pictures had a real emotion to it. As soon as Muthumanickam and David came they knew the news already and after seeing the clicks Muthumanickam showed some display of happiness. Yesterday I missed visiting Upper aliyar dam and today I wanted to visit Kadamparai dam so I was planning for that but Tannasi was called up from the Attakkati office to bring me there. He soon handed over the phone to me. I was a bit furious. Told them i was too tired of walking all those extra miles and it was not possible to come now but i was cooled down and asked me to come there by evening because all the higher officials like Dfo, Ranger and Foresters will be there to view the pics. I said I will be there by 5pm. This was something I never wanted to miss out on.

Tannasi prepared lunch for us and by 4:30pm all four of us drove to Attakkati. Met many officers who were working nearby and Ranger Mr Saravanan congratulated me on the click. He himself has never seen a Tiger till date and appreciated both of us wholeheartedly. He said we don’t allow anyone inside Atr since its one of the best protected Tiger reserves in the country but you have used this lucky opportunity to photograph the Tiger itself. He shared a couple of interesting stories while trekking inside Atr. I exchanged my experience as well. Another surprise news was that I am now the first person to click a Tiger in the History of Atr Census ever. While showing those pictures at the training center to everybody it was a beautiful moment in my life. Missed a group photo with all of them and meeting the Dfo though. As discussed earlier the team had arranged two cameras to fix on the spot. A couple of staffs will be joining me and Tannasi tomorrow again at the same place. I was like I have escaped twice from those tigers and these guys are pushing me back into its mouth. It was a situation where i can’t say no or yes. A senior guard became very close in a short time and he will also be joining tomorrow. My transact line work was cancelled for tomorrow. All I have to do was assist the camera trapping which was a rare opportunity for a volunteer to be involved with. Cameras were placed in my car and by 8pm David and I left the place to drive along the Valparai ghat roads to catch some signal for phone calls. Reached back to room by 10pm and was really hoping that I have seen and done enough with these two Tigers for the past two days. I really wished not to see those Yellow haunting stripes again tomorrow. Last two days all these things have not sunken properly into my system but now slowly i am feeling the seriousness of what if something happened to me. It was not fair to be so wacky in life when you learn out of experience. Since a volunteer is involved the forest department should have provided more forest personals for assisting or send an armed personal along with us. Just saying be careful won’t help before a wild blood sucking predator. Back into my sleeping bag closing my eyes i know whatever wackiness i question myself or others i will be the same old enthusiastic chap when i smell forest. But i certainly was thinking about the sad state of all the watchers and guards who are the real warriors of protecting the forest with just a machete. They go through this everyday till retirement.                      

Day 7

Today was the third and final day to follow the dashing transect line along with Vulture data collection. But after fixing the camera traps I was free to go anywhere. Since I had the trap camera’s I had to take my car. We started late and by 7:30 am reached the last motorable road. Apw Murali joined us from there. News spread all over the place that somebody has photographed a Tiger in close range and where ever I saw groups of villagers they asked me to show the pictures. I was really taken aback by the response and felt blessed to take this rare gem of a photograph. It also got me charged up once again to face the Tiger one final time but Murali was saying what more can you take than yesterday. I thought maybe I could record a video. We started moving along the line. Like yesterday after the start point we followed the same silent method and reached the spot. We waited but there wasn’t any movement for nearly 20 minutes. In a way I was relaxed. We decided to reach near the kill. All of us were watching intensely in different directions moving slowly. As we climbed up found so many bush caves which was the resting places created by the tigers. After reaching the place we found the sambar deer completely wiped off with only remains of skull and one thigh bone. There was a way up through the bushes. Murali suggested that we follow it but Tannasi rejected with a big No. There wasn’t a line of sight of more than 3 meters inside those dark bushes we can be in huge trouble said Tannasi. We kept searching for the remaining bones and found bits and pieces nearby.

Tannasi pulled out all those pieces to one place while we were setting up the camera between two trees. If in case the tiger comes back the camera could capture it, was the idea. Let me also explain why a camera is used. These motion sensor cameras are placed in both sides so anything which passes through it is clicked simultaneously on both ends. It has a flash for nighttime and is weather proof. The batteries can stand for a week. The batteries are changed by a person again and memory cards are bought back for viewing the pictures clicked. Tigers are differentiated by their stripes. Just like human thump prints each tiger has its own design of stripes and both sides of a tiger are different too. So when they get a perfect picture of a tiger from both the cameras it is then transferred through a software called Extract compare or Huli to filter out that particular tiger and tag it by a number. This is also one of the main methods of estimating the population of Tigers. Even if the tiger moves to another state or in worst cases the parts or skin is captured from poachers or if someone claims that it is their 200 year old heritage property left by their forefather the truth is it can be relocated within minutes.
So after fixing I inaugurated the camera by fixing it into the case and posed for some pictures to test it. It really was motion sensor though! Before leaving I was feeling gloomy because I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to come here again because this was the place which gave me three days of lifetime memories.  After this we have decided to visit Kadamparai dam, Vandal dam and a whole lot of new places with Murali and friends who is on their way from Tiruppur. Forester chandran called me asking if I could come to the office or send some pictures to the Dfo office from my mobile. I said I don’t have mobile coverage for email or wattsapp and I am on my way to visit some places he said Enjoy! i will take care of it. By 11am they reached with loads of fresh fish which was fried and cooked in the nearby hotel. By 12pm Murali,Vishnu, Balakrishnan, Jp and myself drove off in two vehicles to Kadmparai dam.

On the way we stopped to see something strange. A huge rock with bamboos placed like ladders upto to the center. The gaps had honey bee hives, we saw a couple of them but murali told there were more beehives inside the gaps and tribal people would come and collect it. Two tribals have lost their life by falling off from the bamboos but even today they risk their lives to collect honey at this place. Next we reached a check post, without special permission these roads cannot be accessed but since Murali was there he had the check post keys in hand.We parked our vehicles in the center of the bridge and spent some time there in the midst of the sharp hills all round.
The dam had an amazing structure as it was carved out of a single rock. Views of Mayil cholai which resembled like a peacock was a patch of shola forest on the grass hills under the Pachaipal malai was splendid. All of us had a timer group photo positioning Mayil cholai as our backdrop. After tasting the fish fries we moved on to the Muthuvan tribal village called Karumatti and then to Vellimudi.
This place had huge mountain coverings from all sides, the sloping paddy fields and a beautiful river nearby. Their houses remained Indian. The barriers built by bamboos and grass at the front portion of every house was called Chavadi, visitors are allowed and welcomed only till there, this was something new to me and these houses definitely defined their culture. I felt even though they are equipped with some of the outer world developments like solar power, asbesto roofs and an age old broken school at the center of their hamlet.

Very few students study here and I was surprised to hear a story of Kallarkudi tribal settlement nearby has 1 student, 1 teacher and a Headmaster, the teacher Kalaiselvi walks nearly 2.5 km through the jungle braving everything from elephant attacks to leech bites to reach the school and tutor her class II student. I saw women and Kids peeping through the small holes and windows, they were too shy to step out of their home while I took some photographs. Apart from cultivating their land for agriculture their other sources are collecting honey, lemon grass, gooseberry and fruits. I parked my car there and all of us jam packed in the Omni left to a Dam called Vandal. On our way there was one more check post which was unlocked by Murali. Fresh elephant dungs were spotted and Vishnu was keen to spot an elephant. We also met an old tribal physician (vaidyar) who was returning from the forest after picking his usual herbs. Murali said he was quite a famous person among the whole tribal communities in Atr and had medicines for most of today’s diseases, people from the plains also visits him, he lives at the Karumutti hamlet. He warned us there was an elephant but it just crossed the roads and climbed up into the forests so don’t worry it won’t harm you. Driving ahead we saw a gooseberry tree and everyone wanted to taste one so got down to pick some. Our next stop was Vandal Dam. This place was just exotic.

Even though the small dam was man made the other end was a beauty with colorful trees and a stream flowing through it. Returned by 3pm to stop for lunch near Deviar waterfalls. Water was minimal at this time of the year but there I saw the opening of the Tunnel which was built in the 60’s. This round tunnel takes water in full force through the mountains till the Kadamparai powerhouse. Back to the tribal hamlet I took my car back and we returned for a final stop near a bridge. By 6pm drove to kadamparai and then to Upper aliyar. Good company I had with Murali, Vishnu, Bala and Jp today. We bid goodbyes for now hoping to meet some other time.
Tannasi was already there. It was already 8pm so called up Muthumanickam to come down from the room so all of us could drive again to Kadamparai to have dinner. Reached back and it was sharing story time. Tomorrow was our last day and today was our last night together. Tomorrow was Endemic Mammal census like Tahr, Ltm and Grizzled giant squirrel. Everybody will finish off walking the minimum 3 kms and run away back to home by afternoon but we had other plans. As i gave a word to tannasi on the first day that we will have a time of our life for the next one week we really wanted to finish it off on a high note by climbing the highest hill which was visible from Upperaliyar area called as the Pachaipal malai.    

Day 8

Final day at Atr. I was awake before sunrise enjoying the serenity outside the room alone when Tannasi brought me tea. By 8am all of us were ready to leave and had a group click because David would be leaving the place back to Madurai by afternoon so chances of meeting him were less. We have to reach waterfalls stop on the Valparai main road to start our trek today. Planned to leave the bike at the entrance check post. On the way met forester Chandran and Suresh a volunteer from Chennai who was coming to meet us to take them to the place where we spotted the tiger. I said the tiger had left the place and it was a waste of time going there today. We left to reach the entrance check post where there was another watcher friend Chandran.

Grabbed one chappati and tea from his breakfast while we parked the bike there and waited for the bus. Today was the first experience of getting a free ride on a govt bus because the conductor thought I was a forest official all dressed up in camouflaged. Got down at Waterfalls stop to have one more tea. The shop owner asked about the tiger pics. More people came in to see, within minutes there were around some 20 peoples curiously asking about the experience and safety measures. I replied about the experience but on safety measures I joked the Tiger was stomach full which turned out to be safe for us. We left after saying goodbyes and walked to reach waterfalls tea factory it was 11am. Pachaipal malai was standing tall from there and I knew we had a terrific trek today because the shola forest was visibly lengthy till the base.
One km through the estates we reached the shola forest and I wore the leech socks because I hate leeches. Grizzled giant squirrel never existed in this part so Ltm (Lion tailed macaque) and Thar was the only thing we were targeting at. The forest was completely different from the last 6 days. It was thicker and greener, wet and cold with long trees. Saw many Ltm’s as we climbed up. Tried clicking some but I couldn’t get hold onto the speed at which these monkeys were jumping around.
Next we found the presence of honeybees and searched the area and found a bee hive inside a tree hole. It was all flying madly around us. I was worried and told tannasi we should run. I don’t want to end up with a chunky faced crazy volunteer today evening before others. But Tannasi told don’t worry sir it won’t bite just don’t make sudden movements you will be alright. He then went near to the hole and started singing something. At first I was covering my face peeping through my fingers to see him entering his hand into the hole. Yes he was searching for the bee hive. I was wondering why the bees were not biting him or me. I decided to click pictures and record a video of the act. One by one he took 3 hives. Gave one to me as I tasted the honey right there and felt like I have done it all here in Atr and I am now a true son of this forest. Tannasi packed the remaining bee hives into the plastic cover.

 Moving ahead the canopy became thicker and steeper. With some fresh elephant dung’s we followed a way which was created by the majestic black. I asked what if the elephant was hiding somewhere in the bushes as it became very thick tannasi said chances of an elephant re walking on the same path where it dropped its dungs is very low. It will travel through the same path only after 3 months. Even if you see elephants on the same route it should be a new one or group. I failed to understand the logic behind this because there wasn’t much way to move around in these steep places so do they really have a choice for different paths like in the plain forests?
At one place we saw a tiger bush cave, a perfect resting place. From here on we have to crawl through the buses and lantanas to reach the grassland above. There was no water,  It was already 12pm he asked me are you sure you want to scale the peak I said even if I had to stay an extra day I was damn sure Tannasi. He smiled back and continued fighting with the bushes with his machete. By 1pm crossed the forest to enter the grasslands. 

Negotiated the bumpy climbs by pulling up the grasses from there on to reach the ridge lines finally to get some stunning views of Kadamparai dam, Chinna Anamalai, Periya Anamalai, Akkamalai, Thangachi malai and more. There was a Cross placed before the peak, it took us another 20 minutes to reach there. Spotted 3 Thar's which was running through the sliding rocks to the peak. Rested there for some time. I was feeling thirsty, the single water bottle we had was already depleted an hour ago. We had packed food in the bag but without water lunch was not possible. Gave the camera to Tannasi and told him to stay here and click my pictures as I walked up to the top most peak.

Looking down I saw the entire beat where we were roaming for the last 1 week. Saw the entire Upper Aliyar Reservoir in one single piece. By 2pm we started climbing down onto the next hill. Mist engulfed the peak for sometime which controlled my thirstiness. Tannasi told me it was his desire to reach this peak all these years and he was glad that it finally happened with me. Actually there wasn’t any purpose for a watcher to take me here because firstly we have crossed our beat and its also being recorded in the Gps. Secondly on this last day a minimum of 3 km was more than enough but we will be walking for more than 14km by the end of the day. I know he is doing it purely for our friendship.
Now from the grass hills it was deep steep rocky edges. Far away we could see the kadamparai village and powerhouse. We have to reach there through the long forest patches below. Again spotted a group of 4 Tahrs climbing up.
As soon as they noticed us they ran away. Tannasi by the time hit his toes onto a stone and it started bleeding slightly. Initially thought we could find a way and tackle the steep and slippery rocks quickly but we were in for a trouble. Wherever we climbed down risking our lives heavily it was either a cliff or too steep to grip. Time was ticking and both of us were searching a way out in different directions. At one place we thought we had a definite way down and wasted nearly 20 minutes to climb down and got stuck there. Thinking of climbing up was giving shrills to both of us. There wasn’t a rope in our bag or felt confident to grip the weak grasses. We couldn’t afford to lose more time as it was already 4:30pm so Tannasi removed his shoes and threw down some 100 feet to pick it later. I removed and tied the threads along my neck and started rock climbing. All I know was Tannasi was praying, I was gripping well with my legs and finding small rock cuts to grip and pull myself step by step. It was pure rock climbing. A slip down was definitely death. I cant quite explain how we reached back to place where we started. Sat there for a few minutes to get my breath back.

Some water would have made a huge difference. It has been 4 hrs both of us last had a drop of water. Tannasi told me to relax for some more time so he will lookout if there was any other way down. That’s when I spotted 3 elephants down on the sholas. We had to walk through that after sometime and I was there sitting all alone at the heights of wilderness also worrying if there was any tiger nearby.
After sometime he started calling me from somewhere down and guided the direction. I followed him and somehow climbed down through the steepest of flat rocks, but it didn’t end there. Tannasi took some time to find his shoes and we walked parallel on the rocks without getting into the forest to face the elephants. By 6pm we thought it was now safe to enter into the sholas as we have diverted ways from those elephants some 200 meters. Thirsty, tiring and starving we had no time to rest until we found some water.

He warned that we should start running before it becomes completely dark. We had no torch or mobile charge. I told him don’t waste time by looking back at me I will follow you. We ran through the dark, at times he would just stop suddenly in front big rocks thinking it was an elephant. Eventhough I didn’t have a clue of which direction the kadamparai village was I kept following him blindly. Found a small water flow between some rocks, after 7 hrs I felt consoled.    

We had food but dark threatened us not to stay for more than two minutes. After drinking some water our speeds increased as we ran nonstop to reach a rocky place. I felt the place familiar and he said we were here on the third day where we spotted tiger Scats. Tiger the word gave us more power to run again finally to reach the village by 7:20pm. What a climax! What can I ask more! I don’t think even if I participate in all the rest of the 47 tiger reserve census in the country I won’t be able to experience a week like this again in my life. Got lift till Upper Aliyar and reached the room at 8pm. Guard Muthumanickam had come to pick up his stuffs and asked me to go soon to Attakkati office because every other volunteers has submitted the data books afternoon itself and Guard sheriff was waiting only for me. Got fresh and after having some food packed all my stuffs and on the way stopped near the check post to say goodbyes to Prabhakaran and Chandran and both of us reached back to Attakkati. Submitted my data books. He wanted me to write some experiences of sighting the two tigers in two days. I quickly wrote a small passage in the data book itself and signed off. I was to stay that night in Guard Muthumanickam’s quarters. Murali told me that he has shown the Tiger pictures to all the 150 staffs and volunteers today afternoon. I felt bad that I missed to meet them all but I was happier to think I was on top of Pachaipal Malai at the same time. Chatted for some more time and we drove off to the quarters. Tannasi bought homemade food for me. I gave some surprise presents to tannasi Just out of Love! Next day early morning I left the place driving to Gudalur thinking one by one from the gathering and training at day 1, The tiger pug marks on day 2, The tiger caves on day 3, The birding session on day 4, The two tigers sightings on day 5, The perfect Tiger click on day 6, The camera trappings, Vandal, Muthuvan hamlet, friends from tiruppur on day 7, The pachaipal malai, rock climbing, running through the dark forest on day 8 along with Tannasi, Muthumanikam, Murali, David, Vishnu, Bala, Jp, Marutamuthu,Guard Sherief, Forester Chandran, Apw Prabhakaran, Apw Chandran, Ranger Saravanan, JE Anbazhakan, Pc Kumaran, the villagers, the innocent Tribals, the staffs and volunteers who have seen my Tiger photograph yesterday and to you as well for patiently reading this…

        Author & Photographs  : Anish vk

   Team: Tannasi, Anish 
Distance Covered      :8 days || 70 + Kms


  1. Wonderful blog. When I go through the lines I have a feel I was in the dense forest.sighting a Tiger at ten meters near is a golden chance to a wildlife photographer. A new visiterhas hard to sight the wild.I think one week stay in the forest the animals not felt them strangers.Any way achieved best.

  2. Dumbstruck! Like a movie it started, into the wild and ended with the effect of an epic. You gained the most adventurous memories, which are more valuable than all other lifetime achievements. You showed us the depth of the forest, King of the forest, beautiful birds, extraordinary scenery, loving people and of course an inspiring venture. I am proud of you eta,, for you have taken up the MOST adventurous path just to live your life with fruitful memories. lOVELY BLOG!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Thankyou for dropping in Triptha..sure i will.

    2. You comment got deleted unknowingly..

      I felt it was like man vs wild.. keep going etta. - Triptha

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.