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AKILA KANNADASAN
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wildlifeA workshop in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve sensitises media on tiger conservation

Every day, at around 4 p.m., a small group of tribal men row their pondi (a raft made of seven-eight bamboo stems) through the croc-ridden reservoirs of Parambikulam. Once they come to a narrow recess, they fix a fishing net against the current.

They will return at dawn to collect the net along with, hopefully, a good catch of catla and paral, and if they are lucky, the gleaming kuyil fish. “We caught some kuyil today,” smiles Krishnan as he serves me a fleshy slice of the fish. “We were lucky.”

My first meal at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve couldn't have been better. Cooked and served by the tribal people of the area, it is absolutely delicious.

It's day one of the wildlife workshop organised by Wildlife Conservation Society-India, and C.R. Jayaprakash, Project Coordinator, Eco Club of PSG College of Arts and Science. Twenty-five journalists from across the country have been invited. The workshop is to sensitise the media about the importance of conservation of tigers and their habitat in Tamil Nadu.

Wildlife and conservation experts such as Ravi Chellam and Rajah Jayapal from Wildlife Conservation Society are present too and they deliver talks and presentations. There are discussions about conservation, the importance of the big cats in maintaining a balance in the food chain, and the man-animal conflict.

For three days, it is tiger talk. We discuss them over tea and biscuits; worry about their dwindling numbers over chapattis at dinner.

The big cat consumes my mind. Will I catch a glimpse of it on one of our early morning treks? I fall asleep looking at the stars, or are they fireflies?

The call of a Malabar whistling thrush wakes me up on the big day. Split into two groups, we set into the moist deciduous forest led by our guide Shanmugam.

Parambikulam is fresh after a shower of morning dew. We walk in silence for the most part, only the cacophony of bird calls fills the air. “Yesterday, a spotted deer fell into the canal when it came for a drink” says Shanmugam showing us the spot. “But it was up on its feet in minutes and trotted away.”

Shanmugam is from the Malasar tribal community. “I have studied up to class ten in Kerala,” he says, his eyes skimming the trees and bushes as he speaks. The 26-year-old is part of the Eco Development Committee of the tiger reserve.

His inherent knowledge of the forest, combined with the training provided by the authorities makes the trek enlightening. Shanmugam has every species of flora and fauna of the region at his finger tips. Why, he can even mimic the sounds of about 15 birds to perfection! “I've started studying fishes now,” he says. “We have an extensive library with all the necessary material at the Reserve.”

We come across a tall tree that oozes something that looks like blood. “This is a dragon blood tree. Our women and children use the deep-red paste as bindis. It is believed to chase away ghosts and evil spirits,” he explains.

Halfway through the trek, the party splits further – it's now just six of us and Shanmugam. A butterfly with bluish-white streaks and spots (Glassy Blue Tiger) floats by. It's then that we hear it – a loud trumpet.

“A herd of elephants is close by,” says Shanmugam, stopping in his tracks. “They are less than a kilometre away.” We hasten our pace, hoping to catch up with them.

There is fresh dung along the track – Shanmugam places his feet on it. “It's a little warm. They've passed this way only minutes before.”

We walk on, straining to catch a patch of grey skin. A herd of spotted-deer gambols in a stretch of grass along the way, but no elephants. The deer ignore our frantic efforts to photograph them. One of them lifts its head to check us out and goes back to nibbling grass. The narrow path along the Sarkarpathy canal is the last leg of our trek. So far, there have been no traces of the tiger.

“Tigers mostly come out of the deep woods in February and March,” says Shanmugam.

“You might sight them then. It's less likely now.” But, is it possible that he is looking at us from behind the thick bushes? Shanmugam shrugs. “Maybe.”

I cast a furtive look over my shoulders. Is that something orange and black I see?

AKILA KANNADASAN

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