Lookout towers have been put up inside Neyyar, Peppara, and Agasthyavanam forests to spot wild animals.
At 6 a.m. on all days, except Sunday, Bhagavan Kani, a forest tribal, clambers up a narrow bamboo ladder to get to a watch house atop a tall tree deep inside the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary to keep a look out for wild elephants.
The thatched “tree-house,” roughly at the height of a coconut palm, is a bamboo structure put up to help forest watchmen spot wild elephants and warn indigenous forest dwellers from inadvertently stumbling into the path of the foraging wild herds.
From his overhead vantage post, Bhagavan can scan a considerably vast expanse of the semi-deciduous evergreen forest. When he spots elephant herds, lone tuskers, sounders of wild boars or gangs of wild buffaloes in the dense undergrowth, he gives a shrill call to warn tribal people of wildlife presence.
Forest Department authorities say that wildlife spotters like Bhagavan have helped save the lives of scores of forest dwellers who venture out of their tribal settlements daily to collect kindling and forest produce.
Wednesdays and Saturdays are particularly busy days for Bhagavan. On these days, scores of tribal people, including women and children, trek up to 17 km to reach the local market at Kottoor to sell “kasturi manjal” (Curcuma aromatica), honey, banana, tapioca, yam, pineapple and lime.
On market days, Bhagavan's duty starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. The forest department pays him around Rs.4,000 a month for his toils. Forest authorities say they have put up at least four such lookout “towers” in Neyyar, Peppara and Agasthyavanam Biological Park wildlife sanctuaries.
Last year, a wild elephant had trampled to death a 58-year-old woman, Kunji Ravi, who was collecting forest produce near Muthipara in Peppara sanctuary.
In December, a tribal youth was injured in a wild elephant attack in Neyyar. There are 27 tribal settlements in the three sanctuaries in the district.
Wildlife enforcers say that with summer peaking, elephant herds, boar and gaur are likely to move to the fringes of the forests. The smell of ripening jackfruit and pineapple near human habitations seem to draw them. For forest dwellers and guards, summer means heightened vigil to prevent potentially lethal human-wildlife conflicts.