Twenty-five years in forests has brought biologist R.Arumugam up close and personal with wild animals. He shares some of his adventures.

It's shaggy, solitary and nocturnal. It flits around like a ghost at night. It is a scavenger. And it has a high-pitched laugh, eerily like that of a human. The striped hyena is more elusive than the tiger. A meeting with biologist R. Arumugam inevitably leads to a paean to this animal. And several others as well.

A freelance biologist working with the Tamil Nadu forest department, Arumugam has spent years with wild animals. He has worked at Romulus Whittaker's Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (MCBT), has conducted elephant and tiger census at the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and has studied the prey-predator relationship in Mudumalai. He has also compiled a manual with the Tamil names of the flora of Anamalais… In fact, ever since he earned his post-graduate degree in wildlife biology in 1987, he has mostly been camping by riversides and in the wild. He has trekked miles inside jungles to study the flora and fauna.

“I've spent 25 years in forests,” he says. No wonder he can talk about its inhabitants for hours on end! He begins with the mugger crocs of the Moyar. “They are unlike those found anywhere else,” he says. “People have been fishing in the waters for years. Till date, there is not a single incident of people being attacked or killed by crocodiles.”

As part of his work with MCBT, Arumugam spent six months in a tent along the banks of the Moyar to study Mugger crocs. At the time when Veerappan was at large in the Sathyamangalam forests, Arumugam spent a great deal of time there, monitoring crocs. He recalls coracle rides in the dead of night along the river to check out the reptiles lounging on the river bank. “We travelled 45 km over five nights in a coracle from Moyar to Bhavanisagar and spotted 150 crocs en route,” he says.

Research along the Moyar had other unforgettable moments, says Arumugam. “Early one morning, my tracker had gone to fix temperature probes in the river bank. Suddenly, I heard a blood-curdling scream, followed by deathly silence. I thought the tracker was killed. I learnt later that it was the call of a sloth bear during mating season.”

It was at Masinagudi that Arumugam became fascinated with striped hyenas. “One night, I was waiting at a narrow bridge across a canal from Masinagudi to Moyar with my camera. It was around 10 p.m. when I first heard the laughter! I had never heard such a sound before. This was followed by an alarm call of a langur. I saw a black form approaching in my direction with a lilting gait. When it was near enough, I clicked the camera. The hyena froze in the powerful flash. He trotted away, but not before I got some pictures.”

Arumugam went to Mudumalai to study the food habits of hyenas. This meant extensive work, including studying their scat and pug marks. “I also worked on their population dynamics,” he says. “The only way was photography, since striped hyenas have unique stripe patterns like tigers.” Camera traps were nonexistent back then, and Arumugam devised his own system using sponge, air pillow and aluminium foil. “When an animal walked on the contraption, it triggered its own picture. I got some excellent pictures this way,” he says. He also applied the alarm system that textile mills use when the yarn breaks. “Two probes emitting infrared rays were placed on either side of a path. They were connected to the camera. If an animal cut across rays, the camera would be triggered,” he explains.

Arumugam has also followed packs of wild dogs on foot. He finds them fascinating and crafty hunters. He studied their home range and food habits when he was a laboratory assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Research Station.

Snooping on animals is something he can never grow tired of, says Arumugam. “I can walk for 45 km at a stretch,” he says. In all his years in jungles he has not once felt threatened by wild animals. “I've always feared coming across men of stealth in forests. They can attack for no reason. Animals never do that.”