Friday, September 26, 2008

Ganga's Trysts With Wild Animals, in His Own Words!

Here's friend Gangadharan Menon's account of his tryst with wild animals specially the one above which, to be frank, almost killed him. Ganga, hope you don't mind. I am reproducing it here because there's a message to the whole thing, which is so vital to our forests and wildlife.

The wild side of wildlife

By Gangadharan Menon

In the last 36 years, I have encountered wildlife at extremely close quarters just four times.

When I say close quarters I mean face-to-face encounters outside the safe confines of a forest jeep.

The very first time was during my very first trip into the forests. We were filming a documentary called Silent Valley. During the 3-week shoot we had run out of provisions, and I was trekking to a village 24 kms away, along with my tribal guide.

As we were trekking, we heard sounds that could send a chill down your spine, especially when you are on foot. A lone tusker in 'mast' about 150 feet away, breaking every single branch within his reach and smashing it on the forest floor. The whole forest was trembling with fear. We had to lie low in the forest for almost an hour, and it seemed like a year, to allow the rampaging elephant to pass.

In this situation, we were pre-warned and thus we escaped.

The second instance was also in the Western Ghats, north of Olavakkod, near Palakkad. I was trekking with my brother, Manu. At one point, we had to cross a river that was in spate. My brother stepped into the gushing river first, and I followed.

Just before I stepped in, I was holding on to the last rock on the ledge. My brother casually turned to look at my progress, and to his horror he saw a viper inches away from my hand. Without letting me know of the gravity of the situation, he calmly told me, "Chetta, don't look back. Just take away your hand very, very slowly, and come towards me!" I did exactly that, as slowly as I could, and then turned to look back. There was a viper on the rock, and I had escaped death by the moulted skin of my teeth!

Here, I had a narrow escape as I had not threatened the viper, and it allowed me to retreat gracefully.

The third instance was in Tadoba, near Nagpur. My son Akash, who was barely ten years old then, and I, had gone into the jungles with a guide. It was 6 in the morning, and the forest was coming alive with the chirping of birds. As the mission was to look for tigers, we headed straight to a waterhole about a kilometre from the forest bungalow.

At the waterhole that was nestling among the rocks, there were no tigers. But the wet pugmarks on the rocks were tell-tale signs that a tiger was there a few minutes ago. We looked around but couldn't see it; maybe at that very moment it was watching us from the dense jungle around! Disappointed, we started trekking back. Suddenly a full grown tiger emerged from the foliage and stood there majestically, staring at us from about 100 feet away!

The guide asked us to 'freeze' and we did just that. So much so that I didn't even attempt to click a photograph, though my camera was limply hanging around my neck.

After staring at us for a full minute, the tiger disappeared into the mystery of the forest.

Dazed out of our wits, we started our journey back, marvelling at how small and insignificant you feel in front of the raw, unbridled power of a wild animal!

Here, we escaped because we were absolutely still – the tiger was neither threatened, nor provoked.

The last of the encounters of the wild kind happened on the 15th of June, this year. It was at Masinagudi, the last village before Mudumalai Sanctuary, on the Ooty-Mysore road.

There were three of us: The guide Ombalan, my brother Manu and me. Ombalan had been a guide in Mudumalai for over 15 years and he knew the forest like the palm of his hand.

But little did he know that very soon the lifeline on his palm would cross the path of a wild tusker.

Spurred on by the sound of an elephant, we set out into the dense jungle. Within minutes we saw a tusker moving into the distant foliage. Ombalan asked us to double up as the elephant was downwind and could easily sense our presence.

Then we saw two trunks towering above the bamboo grove, pulling down bamboo shoots, at a distance of some 150 feet.

As we moved ahead, we came across a strange forestscape which had a mix of ancient trees, bamboo groves and gigantic bushes of lantana. It was the first time that I saw such massive bushes of lantana in a forest, that too in circular shapes, as if pruned by Mother Nature.

The first uncanny sight we saw was a freshly killed wild hare lying on the forest floor. We looked around for the predator, which could have been a tiger or a leopard or a jackal. There was an eerie silence and we cocked our ears for the gentlest rustle; there was none.

A little ahead we saw the skeleton of a prey hanging from a tree, about 30 feet above the ground. Ombalan told us that a leopard had carried his kill up that tree about a month ago, and left the carcass behind. It was the last photograph I took, and little did I know then that it could well have been my very last!

Shaken and stirred, we moved on.

As we were trekking along a forest path created by elephants, Ombalan heard a sound which none of us had picked up. He asked my brother and me to wait, right in our tracks. And as he went around the dense bamboo bush, he walked straight into the waiting tusker.

Inadvertently he had entered the elephant's discomfort zone, which it construed as an act of blatant aggression.

I have been close to elephants, may be about 5 or 6 times, but was always in a jeep. And every time they would warn by taking a few steps towards me, and then making a short, mock charge.

But in this instance there was no time and not enough distance for such wild niceties.

It made a charge at Ombalan, and he took to his heels shouting, 'Sir, odungo!' Which in plain English meant run! Without knowing whether it was a tiger, an elephant, or a leopard lying in ambush, we ran straight ahead, trying to catch up with the guide who was in full steam.

By the time we caught up with him, I was the last in the group.

As I turned back to look at what we were running away from, I saw a wild tusker aged about 16, barely 20 feet away from me, in full charge. I ran for my life, as fast as my trembling feet could carry me. Five steps later when I turned again, it was just about eight feet behind me, now in full flow.

My survival instinct told me that I have to get out of his way before it knocks me down and tramples me, or impales me on its tusks. So I dived to the left and landed on my shoulder like a good goalkeeper, which I was in my school days.

I could hear four legs coming to a screeching halt behind me, as it was surprised by this unexpected move. Then the tusker went down on its front legs and attacked me with its right tusk, right on my lower back.

Just as it was preparing to attack me the second time, Ombalan let out a wild, nomadic scream which unsettled the tusker.

It lost its concentration and the tusk went through my shirt near my shoulder, and I fell on the ground again. If the shirt hadn't torn, I would have been impaled on its tusk. Once you are impaled, the natural instinct of the elephant is to take you in its trunk and smash you to the ground.

Ombalan's scream continued to reverberate in the forest, and the tusker left me bleeding, and disappeared among the lantana bushes.

Ombalan later told me that the attack was so vicious that he didn't expect me to get up.

Digging into the reserves of my will power, I slowly tried to get up. And surprise, surprise, I could! Then I made an attempt to take the first few tentative steps after my rebirth, and I could!

Slowly, in deathly silence, we all started walking back.

Suddenly, a group of spotted deer ran across our path, and for the first time in my life, the sight didn't stir my soul! I just wanted to get back. And the jungle we had to walk through had four elephants at the last count, including the one that attacked me.

Those 30 minutes were like a lifetime.

When I reached the resort, my wife Anita was startled by the news of the attack and the sight of the 8-inch gash that was bleeding profusely.

We got into the jeep and drove to a primary health centre in Masinagudi village. The doctor there bandaged the wound; but he said the bleeding will not stop till the wound was sutured.

The attack happened at 2.30 in the afternoon, and we reached Coonoor at 5. All along, for 2½ hours, I was bleeding. By the time I reached the hospital, I was drained and exhausted. I held on till I met the surgeon and explained to him all that happened, and then blanked out.

I came to at 9 pm. By then the suturing was over and I was on the hospital bed.

I discovered there was a TV in my room; and over the next 7 days in the hospital, the channel of choice continued to be Animal Planet! I realized that my love affair with wildlife would continue, even in my second life, and that even a vicious attack by a tusker could not dent my faith in them.

This was, truly, an accident. And it could happen to anyone. A jungle trek is not a walk in the park, and every time you walk into the jungle, you are entering the territory of wild animals whose sole purpose of existence is survival. Any threat to that, even a perceived one as in this case, and you risk your life.

All that remains today of that attack is an 8-inch scar, and 3 hairline fractures in my lower vertebrae, which are now healing.

Two weeks after this incident, a young elephant was poached and killed in the same jungles. His young tusks were brutally chopped off and he was left to die there. As I heard the news from my brother Manu, the first thing I did was pray that it is not 'my tusker'. And I called up Ombalan, and discovered to my relief that it wasn't.

'My tusker' is still roaming the forests, and Ombalan tells me that they have named him 'Gangadharan' after me!

On the 13th of August, I read an article on the front page of DNA. It was titled 'Are animals getting mad at human beings?'

The article noted that across Asia, Africa, Australia and America, there has been a spike in unprovoked attacks by elephants, leopards, bears, and many other species.

According to Dr. Gay Bradshaw, a world renowned Animal Psychologist, traditional explanations like encroachment and loss of habitat isn't sufficient to explain the manifold increase in the attacks. She and her colleagues believe that entire generations of traumatized wild animals are seething with revenge. They have grown up witnessing the systematic slaughter of their families by humans, and are getting back.

These observations should be taken seriously by wildlife enthusiasts who venture into the forests. But rather than allow this new reality to dampen our exploratory spirit, it should strengthen our resolve to be extremely cautious.

Every time we enter the hallowed precincts of these beautiful people, let's pause for a moment. And then tread on those forest paths with a primordial awe and a primeval respect that we have been secretly carrying for millions of years. Until yesterday.

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