In search of the Nilgiri langurs, elephants, and lion-tailed macaques, the sojourn into the tea estates and rain forest regions of the Valparai range of Anamalai is a memory to cherish for a lifetime, as well as a trigger to plan another trip to revisit the region.
The flare of sunlight struggling to pass through leaves, the rustic look of algae on the truck, mushrooms everywhere during monsoons, the chirping sounds of birds, Lion-Tailed Macaques (LTM), the high canopy – a firm layer above heads as of someone is protecting you constantly. The occasionally appearing mist on the green cover. Perhaps, these are one of the reasons why I am so attached to rainforests and their decline is my primary concern. This strong magnetic pull persisted inside me, leading to another visit to Valparai. This time to photograph exclusively The Great Indian Hornbills, Nilgiri Langurs and LTMs.
It was my first visit to Sheikalmudi bungalow. The scenic spot amidst the Anamalais on one end and Vazhanchal on the other end.
As preparation to photograph Nilgiri Langur was going on, Lingesh, the in-house naturalist and the manager of the bungalow, informed us that they had witnessed a pack (probably 10 in number ) of wild dogs for two consecutive days in an area. The excitement of our team was boundless.
As we strolled with our camera gear, with an intention to photograph Nilgiri langurs and a mild hope of seeing wild dogs through the path ways in the midst of a tea estate, Lingesh signaled to bend down/ sit immediately. “Elephants”, he whispered. I peeped through foliage to see two elephants walking slowly. When I raised my head a couple of centimetres, I could count some 10 individuals in the herd, including 2 calves and a sub-adult. I had to move step by step on my knees, adjusting the lens and tripod for a place where the view is good. They made a pit stop for grazing. Elephants usually cross this range quite often but being summer the frequency was less. Luck was on our side, resulting in this sighting.
In the Valparai range of Anamalais, usually, the elephants are mostly found grazing in the tea estates. I am used to seeing them in the safari, but this was the first time witnessing in a tea estate. They were grazing, pouring mud on themselves, drinking water in the stream which is bisecting the Tamilnadu and Kerala region as I was told. The forest patch behind the stream is the Vazhachal region whereas the other side is the Valparai range, completely covered with tea estates.
Among the two calves, one was quite mischievous. He was hardly obeying orders from his mother, neither grazing nor moving quietly along the group. He circled around other members of the group and would not allow his brother to eat. He hit him, pulled him, climbed on top of him, and fought with him for attention. He settled a little when his mother admonished him gently but only for a while. He again started his routine behavior for attention, sometimes rolling, occasionally remaining calm just by just lying, then circle around other elephants again, playing with his brother. It was funny to watch him doing this ritual with our own eyes rather than through the lens. Sometimes it was very hard to control our laughter watching his behavior.
This continued for some time and then the herd slowly started to march towards the forest patch until they slowly disappeared. The mischievous calf was the last one to go from sight. We waited for some more time hoping they might come back to no avail.
We continued or search for langurs again but hardly found any. But, the amazing encounter with elephants made our day.
The sunset was spectacular that day behind Shiekalmudi bungalow, with the blue sky turning yellow and then orange, finally black. It was serene, with chirps from bulbuls here and there.
The next morning after a brief session of birding around the bungalow, we decided to explore a rainforest-like patch for hornbills. My eyes were busy scanning for any sighting of hornbills. Although we did not find them, we did come across Nilgiri Langurs, a group at one place and then a solitary one further away. Some of them were on top of trees while some were on the ground. Nilgiri Langurs mainly feed on leaves and fruits. The solitary one was just feeding on the fruits after carefully examining each of them, and moving from branch to branch for the choicest ripe fruits. Nilgiri Langurs are rainforest dwellers, they are classified as endangered species as per the IUCN list and are seed dispersers, germinating a good amount of trees through the food (primarily fruits) they consume.
We found another endemic species of the Western Ghats strolling at its usual pace – the Indella Ampula. It was a large specimen, appearing as if it was moving slowly but disappeared after just a couple of snaps, providing me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the tropical terrestrial air-breathing gastropod mollusc.
While we were on our way for lunch, we encountered a troop of Lion-tailed macaques. The group was split, with some were quite far away, while there were a total of five nearby. To me, they are the heart of Western Ghats. It’s not very hard to recognise them from far by their mane. Most of them were either behind the foliage or a bit far away, so it was difficult to take photographs of them. Somehow I managed to take pictures of one fellow when it was sitting solitary on a tree. That was a brief introduction to LTMs to my brother. They are usually found in an area called Puthuthottam, in groups – sometimes going up to 20 individuals as per the locals. At times they are up on the top of vehicles that stop by to see them, while unlucky ones end up as road kills. NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation) has taken very good measures in preventing these road kills by constructing bridges between trees so that macaques can use these connections to traverse from one corner to another without touching the road.
In the evening the same day, we were lucky to spot three Great Indian Hornbills. The sound of their flight is quiet mesmerizing. It’s like the sound of fans of a helicopter when rotating gently. It just echoes even louder and better because of the silence of the forest. I could not take photographs of them, although I was lucky enough to witness them while feeding, flying from one tree to another. They are approximately 120cm in length so it is not that hard to miss any activity that they are doing even from a decent distance. The red eyeballs in the case of males are just striking. We spent half an hour with them, after which they flew away to a different region. It rained quite heavily in the evening, which meant that it was time to explore amphibians. Again, we got hardly any photographs but we had some good sighting of a few frogs.
Before leaving this magnificent place, we wanted to explore for a chance to catch a glimpse of the LTMs one last time. The vehicle slowed down again while passing over Puthuthottam. Another troop consisting of 14 had paid a visit on the road. This time some little ones posed for the camera. We took some more images of the troop and then departed. No trip ends without taking pictures of residents of rainforests. A family consisting of four Nilgiri Langurs were hanging on the side of the road, providing us with a wonderful photo opportunity, before bidding goodbye to the wonderful world of Valparai.
Most of the species that I had encountered in this trip are endemic to the Western Ghats. Some of them like the Nilgiri Tahr and Lion Tailed Macaques are listed as endangered, as well as the Asiatic Elephants – though they are not endemic to the ghats. Due to poaching, superstitions, or land mining, the rainforest cover is decreasing and along with it, the population of most of the species mentioned above. It will take more time, probably some years, to convince people about the importance of this ecosystem.
I had set up a camera trap on one evening before our departure, given by Lingesh, in one of the locations with an expectation to capture images of leopards roaming in that region. Although we did not capture any during my stay over there, but I got news that it had caught a leopard almost two months later. This is one more reason beckoning me to visit Valparai again, and not to miss another endemic of ghats, the Nilgiri Tahr on hairpin bend no.14.