Winding roads after Shimoga, towards Theerthahalli, signal to you that a forest is closing in. The roads get curvier and the greenery increases fivefold as you get closer to the destination. You are heading to Agumbe, a small town located at the tip of a high elevation region. The road ahead slopes down to Hebbri. You can drive down through the Ghat roads with exactly seven old Hindi songs for company.
Once you are in Agumbe, you get to experience life in slow motion; and this happens only in the best of places. As you drive in, roll down the window, take deep breaths of fresh air, let your fingers feel the steady wind and feel the pouring rain. This place receives a very high amount of rainfall every year, indeed the highest in South India and hence, is also regarded as the Cherrapunji of the South. With such rains, you can imagine the richness of the forests this region beholds. The dense evergreen forests, varying landscapes, grasslands along the peaks,hillocks with slippery rocks and the rich beetle nut crop we depend on produced by a large number of plantations, all lie in your wait.
Kalinga Foundation is located in the middle of this mosaic of forests and plantations and functions as a ‘Centre for Rainforest Ecology’. I first came to Agumbe three and a half years ago and since then, I never really left the place. During my internship at this research base, I had the opportunity to experience the forests around. As part of the many programs conducted at the base, we walked through various forest paths numerous times, exploring all kinds of life forms and appreciating their uniqueness.
On one such walk through the forest during the monsoon, not once did we think it would be such an extraordinary day. About ten pairs of eyes were hunting for one of the most well camouflaged snakes in these forests, the Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus). After we had moved a few steps, just before the path curved deeper into the forest, one among the group exclaimed with joy; he had spotted the snake. It was a green coloured individual and a beautiful one at that. Once all of us had a quick look at the snake, we discussed about the different colour variants of this snake species. Yes, this species of snake has four to five colour morphs. And so the games began; we wanted to see all the morphs. Just as we had wished, we saw another individual, a brown morph, which looked like a fallen twig at first. The next one was orange, and then a yellow one and a greenish-blue one followed. In total, we spotted seven pit vipers within ten meters of the path and who knows how many more were hiding? We noticed that all of them were in a strike position – they are ambush predators. They stay still, wait for their prey to come to them and subdue them in the blink of an eye. A few were perched on branches and leaves, one on the bark of a dead tree, and one slithered along the path. The Malabar Pit Viper is an endemic species, found only in the Western Ghats, and is mostly seen during the monsoon. You rarely see them in other seasons. No one knows where they hide, what they do, when they breed or what they hunt. Our knowledge is restricted to a few opportunistic observations made by people living around the forest and by scientists and fellow naturalists. Much is undiscovered about these elusive serpents.
Towards the end of summer, on one of the last hot and sultry days before the clouds appeared, I tinkered with my new found fascination for cooking. I was in the kitchen trying not to be a liability and Prashanth (the manager and solution finder at Kalinga) and Gowri (co-founder and King Cobra researcher) were busy trying to get some cellular signal on their phones to make urgent calls. The camp site was quiet. Asking me to chop some vegetables, the cook, Poornima, who has explored these forests extensively, started walking towards the end of the base. Suddenly we heard her shout, “kalinga sarpa, kalinga sarpa!” which means King Cobra in the regional language, Kannada. I ran out of the kitchen as fast as I could and slowed down as I got closer to her. And then I saw the king. Olive brown, about nine to ten feet long, it stood for a few seconds hooded up and then decided to slither back to the forest. Together, the frightened lady and the excited researcher called out to everyone and tried to track it for a while, listening to the rustling leaf litter as the snake moved. Finally, we gave up as it slithered out of our sight. While working alongside Gowri and Prashanth, I had seen many King Cobras, but all of them on rescue calls. When these snakes enter a house or a cow shed, people in the surrounding villages call Gowri or Prashanth to trans-locate them back to the closest patch of forest. But, the one which frightened our cook was different. It was in the wild, in these evergreen forests, which have been the snake’s home long before it was ours.
Thrilling encounters with snakes are not the only things that make this place so special. A reliable alarm whistles every morning, before and after the sun rise, and you wake up to the incessant calls of the Malabar Whistling Thrush, with a smile on your face. This small bird is a dark shade of deep blue. The male thrushes sing out to their lovely ladies every morning. The songs vary, the lengths of the songs vary, but you can never tire of listening to the whistles.
Once the sun is up, you cannot miss the flying lizards or Dracos (Draco dussumieri) basking on beetle nut trees, gliding between them when they please. They glide, stretching out their fore and hind limbs, opening the saggy folded skin between to increase the surface area, with the air to help them along. This flying lizard species, found in various southern regions of India, is endemic to the Western and the Eastern Ghats. After the sun sets behind hills far away, most birds rest, the Dracos probably rest too. But, that is when the jumping and gliding male frogs start calling in hundred different voices. The forest reverberates with the calls of these males and as you get closer to water bodies, you can see males trying their best to impress the females with the calls they produce. A few males guard their positions, females hop around trying to decide which male to choose and frogs mate on the trees around, whose eggs may later fall into the water turning into froglets.
The grand show does not end as the night closes in, instead a new journey begins. As the night gets deeper, one can hear a Barking Deer making its way through the forest far away, or a Sambar Deer or a Mouse Deer. Even if you do not hear them, indirect evidences of their presence can always be seen, for instance, people living around can tell you if an Indian Gaur has passed through the previous night. A few times, we have also seen signs of leopards around. And you can never miss the blood sucking leeches which follow where ever you go. The show goes on; calling, hunting, mating, blooming flowers and swimming tadpoles in tiny streams. Rains come and go, and they come again. Mist covers the forest at dawn and dusk through most of the year, clouding your vision and challenging you at each step you take. This is Agumbe. You may leave after a few days of stay but it never truly leaves you.