My first stint with the woods

My first stint with the woods

Rumia Basu

It would be worthwhile to begin by saying that I am not a field person. I have always enjoyed writing codes and analysing data sitting in front of my laptop. It is therefore not surprising to reveal that unlike my classmates, I wasn’t necessarily overjoyed when I learnt of our field visit to Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR). The field visit was part of our Natural Science Methods course. The thought of having to spend the summer in an awfully hot place and then make trips to a forest filled with leeches, spiders, and snakes made me very apprehensive about the trip.

I woke up with a jolt on the morning of 17th May when the bus reached our destination. The overnight bus journey from Bangalore to Tirunelveli was the only thing I was happy about. And, as the journey came to an end, I was once again reminded of what lay ahead of me.

I must admit however, that the Agasthyamalai Community-based Conservation Centre (ACCC), our field station was quite a welcoming place with its serene surroundings and quiet air. One could spot the hills from the field station and the fresh air left you gleeful.

Apart from the staff, there were two other members of the ACCC family, who led us into their hearts - Gingy, the over energetic mongrel, and Jacky, the clumsy cat. Jacky reminded me of a poem I had read in school – ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’. This poem is about a cat, which is never satisfied, despite whatever you give it. Needless to say, Jackie was such a cat.

My classmates immediately took a liking towards them while I decided to maintain a safe distance from the two. After a sumptuous meal, an induction session in the afternoon and an equally delectable dinner, we retired for the day with instructions for the commencement of the field visits from early next day.

We woke up, while it was still dark to an alarm bell from the kitchen staff, who made sure we got our morning tea.

Our first trip was to the forest at KMTR. As we started our journey, we first encountered the dry evergreen forests. The most striking feature of this forest in KMTR is the large number of Teak trees. This is unusual because Teak is not suitable for this climate. We were informed that these trees were planted by the British and since they are not meant to be here, the wood is not as great. However, the trees have thrived well. We also waited to spot Nilgiri Tahrs which are quite common at this elevation but unfortunately we could spot none. We had all heard wonderful stories about the famed Lion-Tailed Macaques (LTMs). We were sure to spot some!

From the dry evergreen forests, we proceeded to the wet evergreen forest and this is where our adventure began. This forest was quite different from the one that we had left behind- it was darker, wetter and the trees were different too. We walked along the ‘Green Trail’ encountering Cullinea, Palaquium and other magnificent trees. All of which I was seeing for the first time. Not to forget the army of leeches on the forest floor that had been waiting for human blood- all I could do was pray and take every step with caution.

Here, I hate to admit that the forest had gotten the better of me. I was slowly starting to fall in love with the place. I imagined myself as Little Red Riding Hood walking through the woods with the calls of Cicada keeping me company. The LTMs have a very important role in this forest as seed dispersers. They feed on the Cullenia fruits which can only be ripped open by the macaques, given their thorny outer covering. When the fruit is opened, the seeds are dispersed.

We also noticed a large number of lichens on the trees, and they also became the topic of my project. The prevailing condition of moisture in these forests supports the growth of lichens. Though the forest is dominated largely by Palaquium and Cullenia, some other species include Myristica, Syzygium and a gymnosperm. I was in awe of everything; the animals that I was seeing and hearing, the serene surroundings, the mushroom that lay at my feet or even the leeches that I was trying to get rid of from my shoes!

The day ended with the best part of our trip, the canopy climbing exercise using the single rope technique. This was my ‘aha’ moment, a once in a lifetime experience that might not come again.

As I walked out of the forest, I kept looking back many a times, thinking how enchanted the woods felt, how I might not return to these woods again and how they will keep pulling me back. Picking up a leaf from the floor as a souvenir, I took one last look at the myriad forest that was to become a cherished memory.

Over the next few days, we visited a dry deciduous forest on the lower reaches encountering different species of trees, and learnt how trees adapt to the prevailing climatic conditions. I also learnt quite a few sampling techniques, how to make plots and also learnt reading the compass. Each one of us collected leaf samples for our personal herbarium. This was another euphoric moment because I had never made a herbarium before.

Apart from learning about trees, we also learnt about different adaptations in flowers for pollination- be it a strong smell, colourful appendages or a simple white flower that would stand out in the dark to be pollinated at night.

During the trip, we would stop to have lunch either by a spring or inside the forest and it gave us a chance to look around and learn on our own. It also gave us ideas for our projects. Apart from lessons in the forest, we were also taught other techniques at the field station (ACCC) such as laying camera traps, making  herbariums, a transect walk for sampling of animal species and learning to use instruments like the song meter which is used for bat sampling.

By the time it was time for us to leave, I had fallen in love with the place. And I had every reason to be in love; where else could you spot a rainbow out of your window, hear peacocks calling, see a mongoose run by or simply enjoy the wind blowing across your face.

As I write this article, I once again travel back in time to the forests of KMTR that have given me a memory of a lifetime. KMTR is a place that taught me to be open to new things in life because we never know what is in store for us. It helped me appreciate nature at its very best. And guess what I am proud and elated to say that I too am a field person, who now loves the unknown sounds of the woods and is not afraid of trailing on a path less explored. KMTR, you are missed.