Tag: Forest Road

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.

Through the window

The tea estates lie quiet, now. Through the window, he sees the tea bushes stretching away in precise rows, beyond the clustered houses of the town of Valparai, his home for the last twelve years here in southern India. Later, the drone and whine of the motorized pruning shears on the hill across the Naduar will kill the silence and the sounds of the hills. With visor and machine, the workers will swing shoulder and hip, arms tensed, grasping the handle, scything and slicing the green, leafy bushes to a prickly, wounded, brown fuzz. Smarting and stark, the shorn hills.

There is tension in departure. There must be. Bags packed, his and hers, water bottles filled, his and hers, a last glance around the home they leave behind for ten days, laces, sandal straps, pulled tight, the keys snapped onto the key hook in the backpack, they are ready to leave. They must leave the hills for the city—it is from the airport there that they will depart for Borneo. The cat stands above the steps of their home watching them leave, in inscrutable concern. Black-masked and calico, bushy tail flicking from one side to another.

* * *

The song of the koel in the swelter of the city. The cuckoo’s poignant refrain is heard through summer and monsoon in Chennai city. They have arrived to take their next flight, but must spend the day here. The heat rises, invisible, palpable, inescapable, from tarmac and pavement, from the concrete walkway in the front yard. The city throbs and growls with the stream of motor vehicles. Voices sound from the houses marking the stream of private lives. This is his home, too. The house was built the year he was born. He lived here for the first fifteen years of his life, before he was led to other places for his studies and his travels—to become, to be, an ecologist. Sitting on the porch, he looks to where the tree stood: the mango tree, now long dead, where the purple-rumped sunbirds built their nests, their downy, pendant homes. He does not hear, now, the lively gossip and chatter of the babblers, but the new, raucous conversation of treepies can be heard from the trees around. Trees younger than him, but taller three times, five times over.

The airports have no songs, only the monotony of announcements. There is the utter silence of a thousand noises—a dulling, meaningless cacophony that is always heard and never listened to. The voices of monotony punctuate the silence referring to destinations—flights delayed, arriving, boarding. Destinations: this is the last and final call, say the voices.

Inelegant but powerful, the bird flies though the air. From darkness to gleaming, ochre sunrise, from black to grey to stunning blue and white. Filled with lives, yet lifeless, the bird flies higher and faster. Another airport: Kuala Lumpur. One has to take a train to reach the next flight. Another journey: he flies now over unfamiliar forests and familiarly-carved landscapes. Far below the aircraft’s wings, he sees swathes of oil palm plantations in unending rows, sliced sharply by boundaries and roads, punctuated with towns and settlements. He falls asleep as the flight to Kota Kinabalu crosses the South China Sea. The destination arrives. Or one arrives at the destination. In half-sleep, he cannot really tell.

The chirp of the sparrow cannot be heard. Thick glass separates the waking, walking people in the airport causeway from the little tree sparrow flitting among the tyres of the vehicles onto which people load their luggage. One cannot hear, surely, the gentle swish of water, the soft rustle of sedge, against the egret’s foot in the roadside marsh, or the cry of the crow, even—the vehicle that takes them to their hotel is too fast, the glass windows are pulled tight-shut to keep the conditioned air in, and the unconditional tropical air, out.

The hotel is old, they say. It carries a certain history, of a certain people, they say, in the city once-called Jesselton, and now Kota Kinabalu. Colony, conquest, capitulation, civilisation: the pulse and passage of time has left its varied imprints. He sees it in the remnants of an older architecture, in the crowd and clutter now in the markets, in the high-rises and steely cars flashing past, in the very faces of the people passing by. As night falls, and the rain-drenched city in Borneo goes to sleep, another marker of time and place and history stands quiet and dark and silhouetted on the street. A cinnamon tree.

* * *

Dipterocarp forest at Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo

The forest is dark, dark. No starlight or moonlight, not even the twinkle of a single firefly. Leafy clusters in exuberant green are all he can see in the artificial light cast by the fluorescent bulbs—a few metres only, then it is dark. Unbroken blackness, yet not empty. He knows there is a forest beyond—a forest of tall trees, where orangutans sleep in their leafy nests. He knows they are there because he has been here before. In Danum.

She sits by his side, looking out into the darkness, too. A dozen others from the city have joined them on this leg of the journey. Their companions on this trip, they are tourists, photographers, nature enthusiasts. Over dinner, they chat and laugh and talk of what they have come to see. There is anticipation in the air.

Through the black window of night, the sounds of the river reach his ears. The river marks a boundary that a certain kind of person carrying a certain kind of intention has not crossed. On the far side, the old side, he knows, is the primary, equatorial, tropical rainforest: a lowland forest that has never been logged, its worth never converted into so many ringgit or dollar for so many cubic feet of timber. It is a forest of diverse dipterocarp trees. The trees that send their their seed whirring through the air on winged fruits. The trees that are among the tallest in the world’s tropical forests. On the near side, the new side, where he sits—as an ecologist in a research facility built partly with timber and oil money and partly with science funds streaming in from afar—here, on this side of the river, the forest is shredded by logging. The flat gravel roads have opened the forest wide for the logging trucks to come through. Now, by night, he and the others sitting there see the forest as lost in its darkness. He wonders, does the forest see them as blinded in their light?

Road through logged forest, Danum Valley

Earlier in the day: by the road, they are amidst tall grasses. She, one who is older than the others perhaps, looks through the grasses—one steady eye looking, one large ear gently flapping. She twists a few blades of grass with her trunk and curls it to her mouth; she moves her elephant body at elephant pace and steps forward. Ahead, her calf moves into the undergrowth away from the prying human eyes peering from cars. Another yelps further ahead, like a dog almost—is he agitated? Or lonely?

It is late evening, a brief tropical dusk, and he sits high on the tree. He turns to see her where she ushers her child down a tree trunk onto a bridge of leafy branches and into the enveloping folds of another tree. He turns back to see the people spill out of the cars. Their chatter is clear, it carries, and the engines drone on. From the tailpipe, a different smell wafts up, wafts away. They point at the orangutans they think they have found, they gather together, they are absorbed in the handling of objects. Glasses glint like eyes, teeth flash in ephemeral smiles. Unhurried, he blinks his lambent eyes and turns his face away from them.

Orangutan in Sabah, Borneo

The palm civet and bearded pig find themselves in a blaze of light on the road. They only want to escape into the welcoming dark, perhaps. They pause, they look, but find nothing to see in the blazing beams. The vehicles pass, one by one and another and another, and one more. From inside the cars, eyes peer out into the forest where the civet has entered. They pause, they look, but cannot see anything in the depths of darkness. The civet can perhaps see them now, if he turned to look, but then does he really want to?

Under the glare of the fluorescent light, he wonders now why he has come back. Back to this place, to this very table. From his home in distant India, to Danum. To the forest that he cannot yet see. Is it for himself? For a reassurance that whatever he has come to see is still there? Rather like obsessing over a possession—a jewel perhaps, a pearl in a jewel-box that he must open now and then to see that the pearl is still there, still there for him. Is it for her? She, who has travelled long journeys with him, who cannot stay away from such places even if she tried—and why would she? Is it for them? The people from the other world—the world of the big city that has not left them, but is here, too?

The insects trill, they chirp and chitter, they utter sibilant and metallic squeaks. The patter and clack of frogs punctuate the night chorus. The forest is dark—dark, but not silent. He waves his flashlight seeking to find his way back to his room. The eyes of the resting sambar deer throw the light right back at him.

* * *

He turns forty this year, he remembers, in the morning, looking up at the giant dipterocarp tree that is ten times as old as he is and twenty-five times as tall. The air is heavy and humid. His shoulder slouches with backpack, the sweat drips off his face and runs down his neck and chest as he gazes upward. The tree stands straight and tall.

Tree in rainforest

The tree would have been a lanky sapling when the early men came, walked past, carrying with them one of their own. Carrying their bereavement to be entombed in belian, in the ironwood coffin that they will place with care further down the trail. For decades, it would have stood as a tree, weathering storms and sun in the forest, in the company of its cousins. Soon it would have been tall enough for hornbills perched on its high boughs to look across, past the storm-flattened clearing, past the browned waters of the Sungai Segama, into the forest beyond. And the hornbills gracing its high branches would have seen the forest on the other side whittled away only in the last four decades: the four decades of his own life.

Ten thousand square kilometres for a Forest Management Area, but just over four hundred square kilometres for Danum, for protection. The wheels of progress spin under the heavy logging trucks that cart away the forest—the managed forest—log by log by log. The managed forest: when trees become logs, the forest gains an adjective. Sustainable forests, certified forests, reduced impact managed forests: more adjectives. And further still, from stripped land, from the ashes of the burnt remnants, rise the giant plantations of a single species to begin new cycles of production: with the oil from the oil palm, the lubricated wheels of the economy spin smooth and fast. This is not madness, we are told, this is need—there is reason and it is reason, ultimately, that completes the circle. Nothing should go to waste.

Down in the forest, in stultifying, sweltering humidity, on the dark carpet of dry leaf and twig and fungus and seed lying among snaking roots and curled millipedes, in that carpet of multi-hued browns under the many shades of green above, is a small, black lump of animal excrement. It holds pieces of the shiny skins of fruits, the shining splinters of insect elytra, and it is studded with small seeds. A civet or marten has gone this way, very early in the morning. It is a mere scat, something rotting and dead, yet it seems alive. It moves. It heaves and struggles like something rising from paralysis. The scat is mere offal, these are dung beetles that are at work. There are two, he notes, crouched over them like a giant. Two beetles, seemingly standing on their heads, each gathering its piece of dung and rolling it away. They roll it upslope on the trail, over little leaves and twigs, their dull black bodies all earnestness, unfazed by such obstacles.

From a little distance, across the vast gulf that separates him from them, it looks like they are rolling ahead on wheels. The wheels that need to be buried to nourish the earth, feed the young and bring forth a new generation, and plant the entrapped seed of the rainforest tree. It is just a piece of dung. But nothing should go to waste, after all.

* * *

One thousand five hundred termites per square metre in the rainforest, he reads with astonishment in the new book, a scientific and photographic treatise on Danum. More than six hundred species of beetles from just five individual ferns. Mere facts, blandly stated, not to embellish or exaggerate, merely to inform. Just sundry facts about insignificant invertebrates placed before him like a sampler in a chocolate store: here, try this! Do you like it? Would you like some more?

He wonders if he can take more. Not because he does not desire more, but he really doubts if his mind, his irresolute brain, can really take more. He stands before the tree considering the thought. What is the information the tree contains? Its texture: sprouting like a finely-branched brush, or feather, or undersea hydra, sprouting from the surface of the land, spreading, flattening into leaves turned just so, and so, the upper surface shiny and smooth, ribbed with veins, velveted with epiphylls down to its pointed tip, more midrib than leaf at the point, collapsing over and around into the lower surface white and soft with hairs against impressed veins, with pits and, look even closer, even smaller pits, too, like nostrils for the leaf to breathe—a texture so dense, so particular, yet pliable and ephemeral, unlike the bark, ridged and rough, notched and creviced, with the spiders in the crevices, and eggs, fine eggs under a flake of bark that is dripping wet on the outside, but dry, very dry, beneath. And that does not describe it all, hardly does, there is more texture, and then there is colour and smell and sound and above all life—how many of the six hundred beetles are there on the single fern up there? Is the tree just a piece of the forest—an object to look at, measure up, pass—or a historical monument with its place, its purpose, its baggage, its limitless texture, its intricate forms?

Fern in the canopy

He overhears the man with the camera and lenses say to another member of his group that the best camera of the day is one which is beyond his means. It is a video camera so expensive that the professionals can only rent, use, and return it to the big companies. It shoots three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels. Megapixels? Mega, as in big, and pixel, as in small area. Eighteen big small areas? No, megapixel, as in the mathematically precise number of two raised to the power of twenty or one million forty eight thousand, five hundred and seventy six. A screen, a window of observation, of photographic record, parcelled into more than a million little pieces of information. At three hundred frames a second and eighteen of these millions at every instant, the video gathers and records in its cards, in electronic memory, terabytes of information: more information than can be displayed even today on any existing screen at contemporary capabilities.

Information. How much information does the tree contain? What if the video camera, or a whole bevy of such cameras, shot the tree, from every aspect and angle, at three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels, shot it every second of every day of its four-hundred-year life until the terabytes and yottabytes on the cards ran out? Would we have the information, of the tree, on hand? Would it even come close? And then what? Feed all that to the irresolute brain, the mind that seeks more? There seems to be a problem here. The information available seems far more than the best mind-screens of the day can handle, leave alone illuminate and display.

The rain pelts down in heavy droplets and finer drizzles, merging with mists skimming the treetops, the mists seamlessly melting into the overcast, grey sky. The air is humid; under the thin raincoat, he sweats profusely as he walks in a stupor through a world that seems now saturated with moisture. The rain breaks and the clouds quickly part. The bushy-crested hornbill, separate now from the rest of his flock, sits on a high stump, his wings held open and his back turned to the evening sun. In a world saturated, he tries to dry himself a bit.

* * *

Why does coming to Borneo feel like coming home? Even as he knows he will leave in a couple of days, he knows he will come back again. Yet, he is not of this place. He does not know the people, he cannot speak the language. He loves the food but does not know how it is made, where it all comes from, comes together, in that finesse of process and proportion and place that one calls cooking. The sounds are not alien, but unfamiliar, recalling sounds of his place and other journeys: the drone of the cicadas, the metronomic tk-trrt tk-trrt call of the blue-eared barbet that he last saw and heard in the northernmost rainforest back in his country, the patter of rain, the crunch and rustle of his own footsteps on the forest trail. Clearly, this is not the place where he can, like Walter Scott’s man, in returning, claim:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’

No, that doesn’t fit him at all.

Sitting with a bottle of beer, in the evening, he gazes out towards the forest. The forest is a multi-hued green, rising and falling in the irregular waves of tree canopies, clinging with climbers—rising and falling, but poking out of the waves like mushrooms over base litter are giants, their canopy brave against sky, kissing mists, clouds even. The falling sun and the clouded moon soon rob the forest of its texture, its depth, its waves and whispers, until there is only a formless black to the unattuned eye. The giants that rise above the rest include, of course, the smooth-skinned Koompassia excelsa, the menggaris favoured by the rock bees, and the lanky, straight-boled dipterocarps—favoured, unfortunately, he thinks, by the loggers who are called forest managers. Every other tree in the forest, almost, is a dipterocarp. How does the manager see the forest, he wonders? Half as commodity, a third as collateral, the balance mere crap or carcase?

Rock bees on Koompassia excelsa

He knows he will leave the forest soon. The forest will not leave him—it will go along, too. Who says trees cannot travel? The giant trees will reappear in his dreams, by day or night, for trees there must be in his dreams. From miles away, where the sweep of forest becomes the manager’s territory, the lanky dipterocarp will be brought down, laid flat, sliced flat, and shipped with him, without him, to his other place, his other home. He can buy it in his town in the hills of the elephants, make a cot with the timber of Malaysian sal, to place his mattress and sleep on and dream his dreams of the trees.

Logging in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Further afield, still, in time and space, the forest stripped of commodity and collateral will burn and scar. The carcass needs cremation, the cremation ground its scar tissue. And from the ashes of the fires will rise the new Phoenix, the palm that has travelled, too, across the oceans. The oil palm is the new fruit of the land, the one stubborn shade of green that will replace the many subtle greens.

Large-scale monoculture, oil palm cultivation in Sabah, Borneo

The new earth-scars, the roads to carry crop and cropper, will scour the countryside. The shanty towns will spring up in the backdrop of the factories belching smoke, as after a good meal, the fire in their bellies are well-oiled machines producing well-machined oils.

Clearing for oil palm plantation, Sabah

Palm oil. Palm kernel oil. The oil will follow him, too. It flow and glide along, melt and slide inescapably into his everyday life. He will see it in his soap and shampoo, his cake and fries, his chocolate that he will have now and then. Who says, he thinks, that trees cannot travel?

Perhaps that is what he feels, going back, coming back, to his home in the hills of the elephants, where the whistling thrush sings under the monsoon clouds. If going into nature, into Danum, is like coming home, then isn’t going home also only coming to nature, coming to terms with nature? He has read the poet, Gary Snyder, an unlikely American in the same world: “Nature”, the man said, “is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.” He thinks, now, with the bottle of beer in his hand, that he senses something of which the poet wrote. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just the gentle stream of alcohol coursing his veins: he’s just let his guard down too much, tonight. What do poets know anyway?

He’s no poet. He’s an ecologist. At work, off work, he remains preoccupied with ecology. Ecology, from the oikos and logos of the Greeks. Logos, as the scripture, the study, of oikos, the home. With a renewed awareness, he realises that ecology is nothing less, and nothing more, than a deep preoccupation with home. Everything, now, appears to point home. Even the alcohol offers no escape.

It is late. The darkness descends. He must catch some sleep before the morning. Tomorrow, he must return home.

Roads, revetments, and restoration

Roads, revetments, and restoration

by divya and sridhar

In the last year or so, there has been a frenzied expansion of the road between Attakatti and Valparai—most of it through the protected area (Anamalai Tiger Reserve) and adjoining buffer zone in the Valparai plateau. Earth from the shoulders holding up tea bushes and trees has been gouged out to fill the gap between the current extent of the road and the culvert and revetments being built off it to expand this steep hill road. This road starts at about 400 m (Aliyar) and climbs to an altitude of 1480 m (Kavarkal) boasting of 40 hair-pin bends over 40 km!

The hill road to Valparai (Photo: Manish Chandi)
The hill road to Valparai (Photo: Manish Chandi)

After such work has begun, we have witnessed landslips—occurrences unheard of in these hills—in the last four years ever since there has been a push for attracting tourists. The solution is cement and granite! Remove plants and build metre-high revetments and culverts to prevent landslides and soil erosion! Never mind the hills in the plains with their great-horned owls and hedgehogs and foxes blasted and mined out of existence for the stones and granite to reinforce the mountains here that are older than the Himalaya. The plants have done their job for long enough and it is time we take on the responsibility is it? Do not let plants (even a tuft of grass) grow on these as they will corrode the man-made structures. The infrastructure the various departments aim to provide are good, wide roads. Speed breakers are not good for the modern cars. Never mind if a few monkeys or mongooses or deer get run over. Actually may be we should remove them, too, so that they will not interfere with the speed of the bikes and cars. The traffic on these hills have increased many fold as have the number of accidents due to reckless driving. While local people continue to struggle in crowded buses to reach their homes, we also now see motor rallies with convoys of speeding cars and bikes go through. Is this development? Is this what roads through such vitally important hills and forests are meant for?

The animals too have suffered. The arboreal mammals have to make huge leaps across the roads where the canopy connectivity is lost, or come down to the roads. The wall-like culverts on one side and the steep mud banks on the other prevent escape for the animals caught on the road. They fall prey to the wheels—resulting in countless road-kills.

Wide canopy gaps-a hurdle for canopy dwellers like the Lion-tailed Macaques
Wide canopy gaps-a hurdle for canopy dwellers like the Lion-tailed Macaques

All along this highway, we have lost the benign and beautiful fern- and impatiens-covered slopes to obnoxious weeds like lantana and others, due to the regular ‘maintenance’ work and chronic disturbance, including the indiscriminate slashing of all vegetation native or weedy. The roots of many large trees are exposed and are waiting to fall during the next monsoon. And of course the tree-falls would be good enough excuse to be rid of trees along the road. And thus the forest recedes.

Native ferns and impatiens lining the road
Native ferns and impatiens lining the road
Roads now lined with thorny invasive alien lantana and exposed soil
Roads now lined with thorny invasive alien lantana and exposed soil

Just last month, on February 14th, the road work struck a blow to our 6-year old restoration plot adjoining the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, in a private forest fragment belonging to Parry Agro. The site had been dug up using a JCB for expansion of the road and the mud and rocks dumped over the treelets and regenerating saplings in the plot. A third of the plot had been destroyed. The boards declaring it a restoration plot and carrying a plea not to cut trees, and even the fence marking the boundary, had not mattered. We were devastated.

Digging and dumping into the restoration plot.
Dug and dumped into the rainforest restoration plot.

However, the same evening that we had discovered this, we informed the management of the company and the Forest Department, and they decided to do a field check the next morning and stop any further construction activity over there. The next day was a long but ultimately heartening one. We had unstinting support both from the Range Forest Officer, Mr Lakshmanaswamy, and the Managers of Parry Agro (who own that land and partner with us in the restoration work). The contractor and engineers could be convinced of our arguments. The contractor, Mr. Jayaraman, has been very polite and understanding and has heeded to our request of not widening the road, but to stabilise it with a rock wall with no further extension. However, they are quite at a loss as to what changes they can make in the granted contract without destroying forests or being pulled up for not completing the contract.

Why are we in such a situation? It is probably because of the failure to distinguish roads going through forests (even private forests) from roads that pass through cultivated or built-up areas. It also represents the failure to treat roads in the hills, that receive higher rainfall, differently from roads in the plains and drier tracts. Finally, while extra care is taken when the road goes through private plantation areas and private property, little heed is paid to forests and forest vegetation (in private forests and protected areas) during road construction, widening, or ‘maintenance’.

At the restoration site, there was no need for a road wider than what exists here already—three 4-wheel vehicles can pass by each other comfortably. Do we need something more than that in the hills? Could not a simple roadside crash-guard be installed for safety of travelers? This would have meant little disturbance to vegetation and minimal obstruction for animal movement.

Crash-guards can be used for roads through forests
Crash-guards can be used for roads through forests

Such roads works are often carried out ostensibly to prevent soil erosion, when actually this part of the hills is probably one of the most stable and with good natural forest cover. But now, after the digging, if left the way it was, the road could cave in. Therefore, we had to let them build some support. Moreover, since all the soil has been just thrown over, they would need to either scrape the soil from the plot along with all our plants or dig up somewhere else. Is all this really necessary? Couldn’t we plan better? Can’t we live comfortably without destroying forests? Already, unnoticed by us, a 200-metre stretch of such destruction has been done lower down some distance from our restoration plot.

Road widened by clearing forest and building revetments.
Road widened by clearing forest vegetation and building revetments.

In the middle of our discussion with the road contractors and highways engineers, our motivation was pepped-up by the Great Hornbill that landed on a tree nearby. Everyone present there were thrilled to see it. And their support became even stronger.

Great Hornbill
Great Hornbill

Over the next two days, about ten people from the Nedunkundru Kadar settlement, who work with us on the restoration project, patiently and carefully rescued as many plants as possible smothered by the soil dump. Each one of them were carefully resurrected, provided support, and watered. Hope all their efforts will not be in vain and these plants will revive. I thank them all for their effort.

We are still monitoring the site everyday as the work is being completed and hopefully wrapped up. We hope that with this the destruction of the forests here by road works will end. Another 200 m length that had been planned is now probably and hopefully stalled.

Bridging the canopy gaps

Bridging the canopy gaps

On a fateful morning in June 2008, four lion-tailed macaques (LTM) including a pregnant female were found dead on the road.

A lion-tailed macaque killed on the road (Photo: Kalyan Varma).
Post-mortem of the pregnant LTM revealed this fetus (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Within a month, yet another individual was a casualty on the same stretch of the road.

And another death on the highway (Photo: NCF).

There may have been multiple reasons for this sudden and unprecedented tragedy hitting a population of a 100-odd endangered macaques found in Puthuthottam, a rainforest fragment adjoining Valparai town in the Anamalai hills. With a push to attract tourists, the Highways Department has been widening the road and consequently the canopy gap has become wider. This is an obstacle for arboreal mammals and they now have to come down to the ground to cross the road. There has been a sharp increase in the number of tourists and the noiseless cars speeding down the 3 km road through the fragment. And, of course, because of the seemingly well-intentioned feeding of the macaques by people, the monkeys have become bolder and frequently hang out by the roadside.

The LTM are now forced to cross on the ground at risk from fast-moving vehicles on the widened road that lacks any speed breakers (Photo: NCF).
The LTM are now forced to cross on the ground at risk from fast-moving vehicles on the widened road that lacks any speed breakers (Photo: NCF).

Since it seemed that all these reasons were beyond our control, we decided to make some efforts to prevent future deaths. As a first step to tackle this problem, we employed an LTM watcher, Joseph, to keep an eye on the monkeys and the tourists. Soon, we had to employ one more watcher, Dharmaraj, as the 3 km long road passing through this fragment was too much to be patrolled by a single person. Together, their job was to ensure that the monkeys crossed the road as quickly as possible, that tourists were made aware of the monkeys when they were on the road and requested to drive slowly as well as not feed them. Jegan and Dina also conducted ‘LTM – watch’ programmes to build awareness and garner support of school children to protect these endangered monkeys.

LTM watch: Valparai students hold an awareness placard exhorting vehicles to go slow (Photo: NCF).
LTM watch: Valparai students hold an awareness placard exhorting vehicles to go slow (Photo: NCF).

The deaths of the monkeys had occurred despite the efforts of the Forest Department to put up half a dozen bamboo bridges from tree to tree across the road. This was acting on the advice of Dr Mewa Singh of the University of Mysore, and choosing locations identified by Anand and his team, based on their knowledge of the frequent crossing points over the road. These bamboo bridges, although useful, need to be renewed at least annually.

One LTM crosses on the bamboo bridge even as another looks for a crossing over tree branches in the background (Photo: NCF).

Even now, the roads are being widened and the canopy gap is widening, even as more and faster vehicles ply on the road. Speed breakers would really help reduce the risk of accidents both for people as well as monkeys and other mammals on these hill roads. Meanwhile, we needed a good solution to facilitate the crossing over the road by monkeys. In May 2010, during a visit to Borneo, we saw tarpaulin/canvas strips being used to build canopy bridges for the apes and other monkeys to cross the River Kinabatangan. We thought it would be a good idea to use such canopy bridges here, too. Although we believe that engineering solutions will not provide long-term redressal to ecological problems such as fragmentation and roadkills, it seemed the best option at the moment. At least these would last longer than the bamboo bridges.

With the help of our friends Kalyan Varma and Ganesh Ragunathan, we procured lengths of used fire hoses from Bangalore, as these seemed more durable, with rubber-lining inside and a canvas outside layer. We wove them into a bridge and replaced the decaying and breaking poles of bamboo that otherwise formed the bridges in two locations. They were installed on the trees across the road with the help of two of our field assistants, who are the best tree climbers and honey collectors—Ganesan from Erumaparai and Dinesh from Nedunkundru. We have had a long association with Ganesan since 1993 and Dinesh has been with us since 2000.

Installing the canopy bridge: Ganesan on the tree, with Dinesh (left) and Joseph (right) helping below.
Installing the canopy bridge: Ganesan on the tree, with Dinesh (left) and Joseph (right) helping below (Photo: Nisarg Prakash).

Within a day, we were gratified to see the monkeys comfortably negotiating these bridges to safely cross the road overhead.

A lion-tailed macaque crosses the road on the new canopy bridge.
A lion-tailed macaque crosses the road on the new canopy bridge (Photo: Kalyan Varma).

Although engineering solutions are not what we hope to have for all conservation problems, we will have to live with these for now. Hopefully, not too far into the future, the Highways and Forest Departments and the people visiting these areas will find it aesthetically pleasing to have large, native trees lining these roads, with branches overlapping over the road that double-up as natural canopy walkways for the monkeys and other arboreal mammals like giant squirrels and brown palm civets.

This post is a means to thank all those who have helped and are helping (particularly Ramki Sreenivasan, Cornelia Bertsch, Kalyan Varma, Ganesh Raghunathan, other friends, and the Forest Department) to keep these monkeys safe and as akin to their truly wild kin.

…Tik..Tik..Tik…Tuk Tuk…Krok…Krok…Krok..

…Tik..Tik..Tik…Tuk Tuk…Krok…Krok…Krok..

It was drizzling in Valparai when I started to Chalakudi late in the evening after I stopped there to have a cup of tea. I was not in a hurry, driving slowly I reached Malakipara Forest Check Post at around 6:00 pm. I stopped the vehicle in front of the barricade and went inside the office.  A forest guard asked me in Malayalam, ‘where are you going’?

I said ‘to Chalakudi’.

‘Do you have plastic bags in your car?’

‘No, I don’t have any’.

‘What is the purpose of visit?’

‘I am going to attend my friend’s marriage there’.

‘How many people are in the car? Who is driving?’

‘I am alone and driving myself’.

‘Show your license’.

I opened my wallet, took out the half torn license and gave it to the forester.

The forester leaned sideways from his chair a bit and looked at the vehicle’s registration number and entered in his huge ledger full of details of vehicles passing through that check post. He filled a verification certificate and asked me to sign on it. He returned my license and said, ’don’t stop anywhere and give this certificate at the other check post ’.

It generally takes about 3 hrs to reach Chalakudi from Valparai. It was a deliberate decision to start late in the evening from Valparai so that I can see some wildlife while driving through that pristine rainforest. I had driven through this forest during the day few times but never travelled at night. I drove slowly in that twisting and curving road towards Vazachalal rainforests. It was late in the evening and sky full of monsoon clouds, however, there was ample light and there was no need to put on the headlights.

I entered a forest road after few minutes.  I leaned forward and looked up through the glass. Tall trees by the side of the road touching each other canopy. I was driving slowly in second gear and the maximum speed was only around 20 to 30 km/hr. It stared drizzling slowly. I stopped at one place where there was an opening of canopy due the passing Electric pylon. Hill mynas, Common mynas, Racket-tailed drongos, and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters were flying around and catching the winged termites which emerged recently. On the other side of the valley there was a breathtaking view of monsoon clouds passing like waves on rainforest canopy. The scene reminded me of a photo by Kalyan Varma showing similar view.

Canopy with clouds
Canopy with clouds_Photo: Kalyan Varma

After watching them for a while I started again and entered a road closed by rainforest tree canopy. Light was dim so I put on the headlights. Roadsides were clad with different varieties of ferns. They look beautiful from every angle even at night.

It was at that moment that I noticed a movement by the side of the road. It was a small frog that jumped from one end of the road and almost cleared the width of the road just by two jumps. One more jump and it would have gone into those ferns and other plants with leaves of different shapes and sizes. But it didn’t. It stayed right there. I slowed down a bit, swerved away from the frog and went past. There were quite a few on the way. I saw another frog but this one did several jumps to reach even at the middle of the road. The width of this road was about 4 to 5m on an average. I had to be a bit careful while passing this type of frog. I had to drive past this frog keeping it in-between the two tyres and hoping that it doesn’t move from the place where it stopped. After passing few more frogs I put off the headlights. Although the natural light was less under the closed canopy it was still possible to see what was in the front.

It was a Sunday but surprisingly there were not many vehicles going towards Athirapalli – a waterfall – a major tourist destination. Obviously it was too late for tourists to go there at this hour, but there were quite a few vehicles going past me towards Valparai. In all the vehicles that passed by, headlights were on and they honked at me as well while passing. I had to wait by the side of the road to make way for them. On one such occasion my car stopped. Before turning it on I waited there for a while. I came out of the car and stood by the side of it. I was surrounded by the cacophony of frog calls of varying resonance.

The calls of the frogs were everywhere in that forest. It came from the ground, from mid-story, and some appeared as if it was coming from top of the trees. It was completely dark then. The entire rain forest around me was alive with these frog calls. There were so many varieties of frog calls. Some sounded like, Tik..Tik..Tik..with short intervals between the sharp Tiks, some like Tuk..Tuk…Tuk..as if some one was knocking on the door. Suddenly I got a start when I heard some weird call that sounded like, KRRWakk. I looked around and I heard that same call again and it came from the ground and it was a loud… ‘KRRWaak..kak..kak..’.Then I realized this is another frog and must be calling very close by as it was loud. There was one more similar call coming from a bit far away and I could only hear the first note and the last two notes was very faint and fading away. There was another interesting frog call. The call notes were loud, sharp, and the time interval between the notes was quite uniform. This monotonous call sounded as if it was falling from the top of the tree….TUP……..TUP……..TUP…….. It was like water droplets falling from the tap into a bucket brimming with water. I leaned on the car and closed my eyes facing the canopy. All I could hear was…

……Tik..Tik..Tik…Tuk..Tuk…Tik..Tik..TUP…Tik..Tik..Tik…Tik..Tik..TUP…Tik..Tik..Tuk..Tuk…KRRWaak..kak..kak..TUP..Tik..Tik..Tik..Tik..Tik.. Tuk..Tuk TUP… Tik..Tik..KRRWaak… Tik..Tik… Tuk..Tuk..Tuk..Tik..Tik..TUP… Tik..Tik..Tik…

A Frog on the forest floor
A Frog on the forest floor_Photo:Kalyan Varma

What an amazing feeling to be alone inside the rainforest at night and listening to this frog music! Rainforests never sleeps, I thought, birds and cicadas give life during the daytime and it is these frogs that keep the rainforests alive at night, especially during the monsoon. This momentary enjoyment came to an end when I felt a Tup..on my forehead. This time it was a raindrop.

I started my second gear journey through the rainforest again. It was not a heavy downpour but I had to close my windows to avoid water dripping in. Soon rain stopped but it was replaced by a thick fog. I had to be even slower this time. I was thinking about the fate of those jumping frogs. ‘Even if I don’t want to drive over it I can’t do much in this fog’. Who else is going to drive slowly like me on this road? People will think I am mad if I ask them to avoid driving over frogs and stop for them to cross the road, I thought.     

It was around 9 pm and I was passing through Oclandra reed forest. I opened the windows and here insects subdued frog calls with their loud and continuous chirping. There was fresh signs of elephants on the road. Bamboo shoots were strewn along the road for a short distance and I noticed fresh dung. No vehicle had passed me for more than half an hour. A slight sense of panic surrounded me, but it was gone the instant I noticed a bunch of tourists on the road. They were dancing in the middle of road to some song blasting from their vehicle which was parked by the side. As they noticed my car they moved a bit to make way and while I was passing them they whistled and shouted.    

Few kilometers passed and there was a small village. Here there was more Krok…Krok…Krok and less Tik..Tik..or Tuk..Tuk..May be different types of frogs, I thought. This Krok was non stop without any pauses. But this was only for a short distance, once the forest started, I experienced the same symphony from the rainforest frogs again.

As I was driving, I noticed something long – like a glittering stick by the side of the road. I stopped and reversed the car and came near to that and it was a snake. It was there lying with its raised head as if it is going to catch something. And then I heard a vehicle behind. I quickly opened the door and stepped down and stamped my feet a couple of times on the ground near the snake. It immediately turned and slithered away into the forest floor. I had to be quick to get into the car and moved ahead a bit so that the other vehicle could pass. Again it was the same tourist vehicle and again they shouted as they passed by.     

I was not pleased by what happened. Forest roads should be forest roads I thought to myself. It shouldn’t be flat and wide like in the plains. A good road inside the forest means death of several frogs, snakes and many other animals. Forest roads should have a lot of potholes, speed breakers, and preferably kachcha. Suddenly something came to my mind. While I was travelling through this forest wherever the road is not in shape with lot of potholes I didn’t see many frogs jumping in front of the vehicle. But in a flat tarred road I saw many frogs jumping around. So a good road in a forest is good for tourists and others, but is not so good for forests and its animals.       

An example of bad forest road (except for the closed canopy) - Tarred, no speed breakers, no potholes
An example of bad forest road (except for the closed canopy) - Tarred, no speed breakers, no potholes.

By this time I was nearing Vazhachal Check Post. After completing the necessary formalities with the foresters I started my journey towards Chalakudi. Road from here was wider, but still went through forests for some distance. After that there were several hoardings advertising on how cheap it is to stay at their hotels. There was more Krok..Krok..Krok..here and very few Tik..Tik..Tik or Tuk..Tuk. Not only that, but the calls too were coming from far way since the road is wider. I changed the gear from second to third and to fourth. I said to myself that I will restrict myself as far as I could by not traveling on this road at night time, for the sake of the frogs.