SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Bio-reserve nonpareil

On the 20th anniversary of the declaration of Kerala's Silent Valley National Park, SRIDEVI MOHAN makes a special trip to find out how this stretch of the wilderness fares.

ECOWATCH

Enchanting valley ... home to an astounding range of bio-diversity.

Enchanting valley ... home to an astounding range of bio-diversity.  

AS we drove up the road with its hairpin curves to Mukkali, the air was dry and the surrounding hills looked desolate. I was with two special people, Sugathakumari and Prof. R.V.G. Menon, and we were going to the Silent Valley, the national park that is the core of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

Sugathakumari is a writer and activist and Prof. Menon is the past president of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) and noted science communicator. It was indeed a very special trip for both. This is the 20th anniversary of the "Declaration of the National Park" and two of the most doughty campaigners of the "Save the Silent Valley" movement were on a trip down memory lane.

As we reached Mukkali, the small base camp at the edge of the park, young officers of the park, under the leadership of the divisional forest officer, were ready to welcome the representatives of a campaign, which has saved the Valley for future generations.

The journey from Mukkali to the park is a winding one. It takes nearly 1� hours to reach Sairandhri, at the entrance of the protected zone. As we drove up the hills, for me, it was 20-year wait to be able to visit the valley. Too long a wait to see some thing so dear and close to my heart. Would it still be like the transparencies Dr. Satishchandran Nair had shown me when I was about 10 years old? From Sairandhri, it was a grand and unbelievable view — of towering mountains, deep valleys and an expanse of green all around. One of the most magnificent stretches of forest on earth was just in front of me — remote, silent and irresistibly charming.

It is a trail from Sairandhri and the journey really begins from this point. We were a small group and the assistant wildlife warden and three members of his team accompanied us. The sun was up and the forest silent, except for the rustle of bamboo and occasional bird sounds. It is not clear how the name Silent Valley was given to these forests. It is believed that the early explorers, British officers, gave the name because of the relative absence of the cicada.

THE Silent Valley National Park, 89.52 sq. km in area, is situated in the northeastern part of Palakkad (Palghat) district, Kerala. It rises to the north, towards the Nilgiri plateau, and overlooks the plains of Palghat in the south. It is a dramatic descent from 2,500 metres to 150 metres and this tract of forest has an unbroken evolutionary history of 50 million years. The park is a mix of tropical evergreen, high altitude grasslands and shola forests. The late Dr. Salim Ali, ornithologist, once observed, "It is a very fine example of one of the richest, most threatened and least studied habitats on earth." Scientists have also described this valley as the richest expression of life on earth.

As we walked through the winding trail, the magnificence of the forests emerged: hundreds of varieties of plants, trees and creepers in thousands of shades of green. The rainforest's view from ground upwards is a unique one. Different levels of plant life form the forest — from mosses and delicate ferns to huge trees and giant creepers. It is like a multi-storeyed structure with a 40 to 45 metre upper section and a second level of 25 to 40 metres. The third storey may be around 15 metres in height with small trees. The ground level fauna is also very rich. It is estimated that these forests contain more than 2,000 species of plants. There are around 900 species of flowering plants and 108 varieties of orchids.

It is a wonderful experience to sit on a log or rock and watch the sunlight filtering down the canopy. The moist, leaf filled soil and the thick vegetation maintain the balance of climate and the water-table, and sustains life in the plains. The temperature in the forest rises as the summer sun moves further up. We are tired, a little dehydrated and decide to sit on a fallen tree trunk. Someone in the group requests the poet to recite a poem. She is silent for minute and then slowly starts "Marathinu Stuthi" (Ode to a Tree), which was the opening song/prayer of most of the "save the Silent Valley" campaign meetings. All is still as if the forest is also listening. After the recital we sat in silence.

There are many springs all over the way, struggling to keep flowing in the worst ever summer in Kerala. We find elephant dung near the streams. The valley is home to a variety of animals and reptiles. The Nilgiri Tahr, the wild boar, the barking deer, the Nilgiri Langur, the Lion-tailed Macaque, the tiger, the leopard and the wild dog are found here. Unlike the Periyar Sanctuary, wildlife sightings are difficult in this area. But we were fortunate to see the Lion-tailed Macaque, perhaps the most famous resident. Two were at the very top of a tree; we got just a glimpse of them. And what an uproar and confusion these animals had created among decisions makers some time back! "Do you want electricity or some silly monkeys? If the power project comes up, the Lion Tails have to quit for the sake of development, they have to learn to live elsewhere" — thus went the arguments. It was heartening to see them happily jumping around in the forest. Dr. Menon and Sugathakumari might have felt thrilled to see these monkeys. They were accused of undermining the development of a State for the sake of this species of monkey.

Strangely the paradigm of development itself changed after "the Save the Silent Valley" struggle, at least among the thinking public. Then there were three/four Nilgiri Langurs jumping around and two Malabar Squirrels, colourful and regal. Our friend and guide, Anup, an ornithologist, doing research in the valley, said that two weeks ago he had sighted a tiger stalking a tahr. "I was lucky, the tiger definitely was not very particular about eating a tahr, and a researcher might well have been good enough!" We were hoping to see at least a herd of elephants. "Noon is not the best time to sight animals," said the experienced forest guard.

There are around 170 varieties of birds in the Silent Valley. Only the experienced bird watcher can identify and see them among the thick foliage. But we could hear many sweet songs and among them the most melodious — the Malabar Laughing/Whistling Thrush, a little dark blue bird.

Around three in the afternoon, we changed track and started our descent towards the Kunti, the pristine stream that flows through the heart of the Valley. The Kunti originates in the high altitudes of the Nilgiri ranges and many small and medium rivulets join it in the journey down the deep gorges. It is always clear even in the heaviest of rainy seasons. We could hear it gurgle from at least a kilometre away, welcoming us.

IT was a steep and winding climb down. The view of the river from the Sairandhri gorge is perhaps one of the most beautiful one can experience. The river is like a series of small pools and little falls. And in the pools the immense greenery behind is reflected. Except for the sound of water, it is silence all around. We cross the hanging bridge over the Kunti and get down to the river. It is clean and cool water, the best gift of the forests. I remembered the dried up Nila and the Pampa and other rivers in the plains. Looking at the Kunti, the poet said: "it was worth fighting a war for her." Tony Thomas, the activist from the region, said, "If you look at the surrounding Attapady area, you will find the difference. Those regions have become arid zones."

We were tired not just because of the walk; but more due to intense feelings and memories. The sun was going behind the hills and there was a sudden burst of activity in the canopy — more bird sounds and monkey sightings. We inch our way back to the Sairandhri camp. The two people who once easily climbed these paths are tired. "Twenty years have passed, many of our colleagues are not there — Prof. Neelakantan, N.V. Krishna Warriar, Dr. Velayudhan Nair, S.P.N. and Avarachan," R.V.G remembered.

As we returned, a group of students from Tamil Nadu passed us. They were returning from a trek. The leader of our team, the assistant wildlife warden, was constantly bending down and picking up something — plastic pieces, toffee covers. "We do not allow any plastic covers or polluting substances inside. Alcohol is also strictly prohibited. The only litter here is perhaps these abandoned shoes or toffee covers". It was the most reassuring scene in the entire trip — young and committed forest department officers picking up litter without any one telling them to do so.

WE drove back to the Mukkali base camp after a simple, but fine meal, given by the forest department staff. As we drove down the hills, night was spreading in the Silent Valley Hills and the Attappady ranges. The full moon was rising behind the tall trees and graceful bamboos. The forest was getting ready for another lively night.

As we neared Mukkali, we could see the forest fires raging at the Attappady Hills, an ominous reminder of the future of the remaining forests in the Western Ghats. At night, in the Mukkali guesthouse, we lay awake worrying about the officers who had rushed to tackle the fire and the Ganja mafia behind it. "I am sure Silent Valley will be safe in the hands of these committed youngsters," said Sugathakumari. Those words are a relief and reassurance for all of us, especially for all those people who fought to save the Silent Valley.

How to get there

The nearest town is Manarkkad, also the headquarters of the forest division. Manarkkad can be reached from Palakkad (Palghat), the district headquarters and the nearest railhead. The distance between Palakkad and Manarkkad is roughly 45 km. From Manarkkad it is 43 km to Mukkali, the national park's entry point. Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) 95 km away, and Kozhikode or Calicut (Kerala), 120 km, away are the nearest airports. From Mukkali, you may have to get the forest department's permission to proceed to the park.

Best time to visit is January to May and November to December.

Contact the Valley Wildlife Warden, Silent Valley Division, Manarkkad, Palakkad (Tel: 04924-222056) or the Assistant Wildlife Warden, Silent Valley National Park, Mukkali, Palakkad district (Tel: 04924-253225). Accommodation:

Comfortable accommodation facilities are available at a dormitory-cum-information centre at Mukkali.

There is also an inspection bungalow at Sairandhri, which is well within the park range and close to a watchtower that gives a panoramic view of the entire valley. Forest rules

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