A Cloudy Paradise called Meghamalai!

Meghamalai, a mountain range situated in Theni District, is a part of Western Ghats. I had to visit the misty mountains on an official trip. Being a commercial photographer- who embarked on a photography journey shooting wildlife- working anywhere close to the forest is an exciting trip for me. The nightmare however- I wasn’t going to drive. I was given my client’s company Bolero with a driver accompanied by the Hospitality Manager of the group.

Being a very keen driver myself, I have done some crazy stretches, some times driving for 14 hours straight without taking a break. As much as I enjoy driving, I am terrified to be a passenger in a vehicle with a driver that I don’t know of! I comfortably ride with only a handful of drivers like my brother, cousins, and a few close friends. Having said that, I was going to be a passenger for 550 kilometers with an unknown driver, a vehicle that doesn’t handle well, unknown terrain, and a friendly co-passenger, Mr.Tharani Tharan. Although our driver was going slow, my eyes were constantly on the speedometer trying to have a check on the speed. I may sound weird, but this is sort of a phobia that I have! Another group of two gentlemen were supposed to join us on the trip and they were arriving from Cochin. Since they did not know the route, we were waiting for them at the Kollam-Theni / Kochi- Dhanushkodi intersection where we witnessed a spectacular scene. Six Auto Rickshaws, painted in funky colors, had sign boards all over them, luggage trussed up on specially designed roof racks,  with some crazy drawings of Tigers, Chicken Curry etc, it was a sight like no other. All 6 Auto Rickshaws, had only 3 members each in them, the best part was all of them were foreigners. A bunch of white people, driving funky colored auto rickshaws, is not what you see every day in India. I had to walk up to them and with their permission take some pictures. From their accent, I could tell they were from the US. I couldn’t interact much with them since our friends from Cochin were about to reach any moment. It was a wonderful scene nevertheless.

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Chicken Curry

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Dingo Brothers 🙂

The Cochin duo, John Mathew and Biji Kurian arrived just after the rickshaw rockstars left. In two cars, we started proceeding towards Meghamalai. We had to stop over at a junction to park Biji’s 300 kilometer old VW Polo GT and shift them over to our Bolero because the roads to Meghamalai is in horrendous condition and no vehicles other than SUVs and Jeeps can go there without scraping a good portion of the car’s underbody.

Finally after all the wheel locking, understeering, crank knocking, clutch burning we reached the main town of High Wavy Mountains. It was a very beautiful and scenic place with huge mountains, deep valleys, ever green forest carpet folding one on top of the other and a huge reservoir which was bone dry. About 20 minutes to our destination, Tharani got a call from the resort saying the lunch was ready and he also promptly warned us about elephants right in front of the bungalow. Like a boy was I excited! Hoping they wouldn’t wander off before we reached, I got busy being awestruck looking at the beautiful forest patches in between the Tea plantation. In no time, we had reached and before even getting my luggage and camera gear out, I asked the staff if they could take me to the elephants. Without wasting time, we walked towards where the elephants were and finally spotted them about 500 meters from our guesthouse. It was hardly a sight because they were behind a huge thicket busy feeding. Hungry ourselves, we headed back to the guesthouse for a hearty meal followed by a hot cup of home brewed tea.

After the refreshing cup of tea, John Mathew, Biji and I went out for a walk with our camera hoping to take pictures of the elephants we saw an hour back. As we were walking down the service road, I was surprised to see Grey Breasted Laughingthrush / Kerala Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron fairbanki fairbanki) perched about 20 feet from us. As much as I was excited to see these “Near Threatened” species of birds,  I did not want to scare them off. To my surprise they never flew away, like they were posing for my camera. John and Biji were very supportive being quiet spectators while I went trigger happy shooting these elusive birds. Few photos are attached below.

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Grey Breasted Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron fairbanki fairbanki) on a perch

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Grey Breasted Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron fairbanki fairbanki)

While I was shooting the bird, John Mathew called out to show me another of the same species perched on tea plantation. Moving in slowly trying not to freak them out, I went down on my knees to get an eye level shot of the bird. Only after looking through the view finder did I notice that the bird was wet by the rain. All in all, it was a great sight with great light.

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Grey Breasted Laughthrush (Trochalopteron fairbanki fairbanki) on a bed of Tea Plantation

After the Laughingthrush episode, we settled down nearby to review the images, while one of the staff walked towards us saying the elephants were out in the open. We walked a few meters down the road and across the hill were 3 beautiful elephants crossing the forest land to get to the other side of the hill. The family of 3 was lead by a sub-adult bull, followed by a few months old calf trailed by the mother. Mid-way, they encountered a slippery patch of rock which they had to cross to get to the other side and for a while the sub-adult male was hesitant. Building up all the courage he went for it and the others started to follow right after.

Almost 90% of the slippery patch was over and we witnessed something that was heartwarming. Right after the male elephant cleared the slippery patch and just about when he entered the thicket, he stopped. Leaving the baby and the mother waiting on the slippery rock. The baby was spooked! In a gesture of reassurance, the mother elephant immediately supported the calf with her trunk, holding her from slipping off in to a 50 meter fall. The male elephant immediately moved into the thicket as though they had a silent conversation about what was happening. This gesture by the mother elephant surprised all of us and I was glad I made an image of this scene.

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Mother Elephant supporting Baby from slipping away on wet rock

After this incident, strangers Biji, John and I became friends. Happily, we walked back to the guesthouse for another cup of hot tea and we endlessly started talking about wildlife and all our experiences. The following day, 3 of us went on a morning drive and the lighting was just spectacular. A whole new world opens up when the early morning sun meets the long staying mist. We took some landscape shots before heading back to the guesthouse, and here is one of the photographs. 

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Early morning sun meets the long staying mist

Our stay in Meghamalai was coming to an end and we were getting back with fond memories of the mountains, rain, birds, elephants, beautiful weather, Meghamalai (Cloud Mountain in Tamil) and of course the grueling ride. My job in Meghamalai is not over yet, gladly, and I cannot wait to go back during Monsoon. We were headed towards Valparai that day. I’ll probably save the stories from it for the next post.

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The Great Pied Hornbill

Valparai is a place that I have been visiting for the last 9 years. And every time I visit, the one photograph that I’ve always missed is that of the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis). More than one thing fascinates me about this great bird, their sheer size, their vivid colors, the loud sound made by their flapping wings when they fly and their monogamous pairing. This time, I was lucky enough to get different photographs of both the male and the female bird. I have edited an image to bring the male and the female bird to one image with the intention of showing the basic difference in the sexes. Taken at Valparai on the 10th of April, 2014.

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Left: Female, Right: Male. Females are smaller than males and have bluish-white instead of red eyes although the orbital skin is pinkish. The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and black casque on top of the massive bill. The back of the casque is reddish in females while the underside of the front and back of the casque is black in males. The males have black marking on white tail and the females have white on black.

Photograph of a Tiger finally!

It’s only everyone’s dream to spot a wild Tiger in the jungle, and so is mine. After almost 25 years of watching out for wildlife in the forest and with not much luck with spotting tigers, I have other things in mind now, especially after getting into Birding. On the other hand, I have spotted close to 40 Leopards in the last decade, prior to which I had seen only one in Topslip. To date, I’ve spotted about 6 Tigers but almost every time it was only for a brief moment. So, I’ve never really had a chance to photograph one. Now, my eyes are tuned to look for leopards even though watching a Tiger to my hearts content is still a dream. However, in June 2013, when we visited Kabini, I was in disbelief when our naturalist pointed out to a Tiger. It took all of us in the safari vehicle almost a minute or two to actually locate the Tiger. That’s how far away it was from us. It was a 20 minute sighting but only through a binocular or my 500mm lens. Even then it was merely bigger than a spot. I was fortunate enough to take a photo of the tiger just as an elephant was entering the scene. My day was done. I have an elephant and a tiger in the same frame, but again, I was really disappointed with the image quality. It was all grainy and I had to crop it really tight to get a good view of the animals. I thought to myself, “Not posting that one”!!

However, I got lucky last month. I had my friend Shivangi visit me. We went to school together in Singapore. And, as usual when ever my friends visit me from where ever they are coming from, they want me to take them to the jungle. And I love it! The whole experience of how we got to spot the Tiger itself was awesome. I am going to post an image, and explain along how it actually took place.

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As soon as we entered the park, we drove on the elevated road adjoining a huge waterhole (Just to give you an idea, the waterhole would have been about 10-15 medium sized sedan lengths).

Upon reaching “Stop 1”, I heard the spotted deer alarm calls towards our left. I instructed the driver to stop for while to analyze the situation. Right now, the alarm calls are chaotic, it was as if the cat launched an attack, it was all haywire. Our driver then took a left and drove towards the temple where we heard the alarm calls from.

Surprisingly, some deer there were absolutely normal doing their own thing. These deer rely on their ears, nose and eyes to watch out for a predator. Usually when they hear an alarm call, they must have seen or smelled a carnivore around them. Until the predator launches an attack, the deer have their eyes locked on to their animal of prey. It’s much more complex than how we see it.

Since nothing much was happening there, we got back to our “Stop 1” only to hear the second set of alarm calls across the waterhole at “Second Alarm Call”. Immediately we backed the Gypsy to “Stop 2”. After a clean surveillance, we proceeded towards the “Final Stop Facing Waterhole”. Assuming the carnivore is going to emerge from the water hole and walk towards where we were parked, we reached the spot and were ready with our cameras.

We waited for 10 minutes in silence, the deer had already settled down, it was absolutely quite. All hell broke lose when my friend heard something cracking behind us. Without wasting a second, I turned around to find a fine looking Tigress in her prime feeding on a Spotted Deer carcass. I got to spend 3 minutes with the Tigress, watching her eat and pick herself up to disappear into oblivion. Here are the photos from this series. Hope enjoyed the experience.

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Tigress feeding on Spotted Deer carcass

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An alerted Tigress

 

To Valparai in search of Lion-Tailed Macaques

The Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus), one of the most endangered primates of the world, is endemic to the Western Ghats. Almost after three days of no show, I got a call from a friend of mine saying there is a troop of LTM behind the tea estate managers bungalow he works at. Without wasting time, I immediately hopped into my car and drove off to shoot these Old World Monkeys. As soon as I reached the spot, my companion by the name Guru, ~ a local volleyball player who was famous among the young girls there~ walked me to the Lion Tailed Macaques.

Unfortunately, the main troop had already left the place before we reached. However there was a lone monkey still loitering around. This particular animal seemed very alerted and restless. Moments before I made this photograph a leopard was sighted in the vicinity and it was evident in this Macaque’s behavior.

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Lion Tailed Macaque in Golden Light

It never stayed in one place for more than five to ten seconds. I already had a few images in my mind that I wanted to make, and because of sparse light it seemed like a flop show. But, after staying with the LTM for about an hour, I could clearly see a pattern that he adopted to safely move and monitor the area, both from the top of the tree and the ground, looking for the leopard. He climbs on the tree shown in the above photo, sits on it for a while, climbs down only to walk for a bit to the concrete post to get on the roof of the building and this continued. Moments before he took the last couple of leaps to jump on the concrete post, I made an image. Fortunately it wasn’t a flop show after all.

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Moments before he jumped on the concrete post.

Finally, after a long time he climbed down to the ground, finds himself a rock to sit on. I was just a few meters away from him with my camera focus locked waiting for an action. He yawned, I was lethargic and missed the action. Mad at my self for missing the shot, I decided to hold the camera still and be alert until he moves. Equipped with the 9 fps of my Nikon D3s and my aching muscles holding the heavy camera for a while now, thinking to myself to never give up. Suddenly, I sensed a movement through my viewfinder and I went trigger happy without even realizing what he was doing. This time, it wasn’t a yawn. He was trying to get some debris off of his steel grey mane by pointing his head upwards and shaking it really fast. Bham! I managed to get some good shots of it. It almost seems like he is a faceless monkey.

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Faceless Lion Tailed Macaque

After an hour of restless behavior, finally after sensing that the Leopard had left the vicinity, he beat a hasty retreat into the jungle and eventually disappeared. The last 3000-3500, as listed by IUCN, of these primates roam the rain forests of Western Ghats.

Nikon D3s | Sigma APO DG HSM 150-500mm f/5-6.3 OS
Valparai | Tamil Nadu
26 Feb, 2014

“Let’s Talk” program- Man-Animal Conflict

Let’s Talk Program organized by Coimbatore Arts and Theatrical Society in association with Young Indians and Confederation of Indian Industry as a part of Coimbatore Vizha that happens every year, this year, the topic that was in discussion was Man-Animal Conflict. 

There were some distinguished people in the Panel Discussion, who have contributed a lot towards wildlife conservation, habitat restoration, creating awareness among people, sustainable conservation etc.

Usually, people seldom relate to how vegetation can make a change in today’s Man-Animal Conflict scenario, and the impact it can create. Mr. Arthur Steele, Director of Nilgiri Biosphere Nature Park, threw some light on this issue, saying how planting the right type of crop in the fringe areas can ward off wild animals from destroying the crop. Today, there are vast farmlands adjoining all forest reserves, invariably. This often invites wild animals to foray into the fields and raid the crops. Mr. Steele pointed out, planting the right type of cash crops and using fencing plants (eg. Lime Tree) is a more eco friendly way of keeping wild elephants and wild boars away from destroying the crop than using electric fences. He also mentions that not a single coffee plant in his Organic Coffee Estate in Kodaikanal had been broken in the last 20 odd years because of such adaptive measures.

Dr. Manohar, The Chief Veterinarian of the Tamilnadu Forest Department, pointed out one of the major contributors to Man-Animal Conflict- Human Behaviour. He describes, how these animals in the sensitive area have learnt to deal with human beings who usually only taunt them and provoke them invariably all the time. He mentions, in some fringe areas, there have been reports of peaceful co-existence between humans and wild animals. Over a given period of time, animals change their behavior towards humans and how to deal with them, he adds.

Dr. B. A. Daniel, Scientist/Entomologist and Secretary Trustee at Zoo Outreach Organization, points out how much educating the locals can bring about a change in todays Man-Animal Conflict scenario. Having held awareness programs in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, Dr. Daniel has proof for his education program working. Mr. K. V. Siddhartha of Coimbatore Arts and Theatrical Society put forward a very radical idea of introducing insurance policies for farmers who plant the right crop in their fields.

Peaceful co-existance

Wild Elephant walking towards village hut.

One of the many ways today’s farmers try to keep wild elephants away is by digging out Elephant Proof Trenches (EPT). But today, huge EPTs covering a massive piece of farmland, has the potential to alter ravines and small streams which in turn affects the water flow to reach its destination.

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Elephant getting dangerously close to human habitation.

At the Let’s Talk Man-Animal Conflict program, we tried to throw in all our ideas, concerns, and possible solutions to reduce the rate of Man-Animal Conflict in and around Coimbatore and try to develop Coimbatore as one of the most sustainable bases for Wildlife Tourism.

How far we succeed in imbibing these measures and containing Man-Animal Conflicts will be a matter of evaluation in the coming days. The event brought all the wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists together and it was a privilege for me (Harishvara Venkat) to moderate the discussions and share space with all of them.