*Augustiya, a member of the Kani tribe, can’t forget 1992. A resident of Thiruvattamparai village in the remote interior of Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, Augustiya says his village was marooned by heavy floods that year. “But still worse off were the honeybees. The forest hasn’t been the same since then,” he said. The bee population has since dropped drastically, Augustiya says. And he should know, since the Kanis are traditional honey collectors. He said that since 1992, the rains have become more unpredictable than ever, the air is still and bereft of a breezen, a certain species of spotted deer has vanished, and “we don’t know when the trees will bear fruit.” He hasn’t heard of climate change, to which he seems to be referring, and there’s little no point in talking about the responsible use of cars and airconditioners with someone who walks everywhere and doesn’t even own a lightbulb.
*You wouldn’t know that K Vasamalli is a member of two state-level government committees. A shy and soft-spoken Toda tribal from Ooty, Vasamalli turns vocal about a certain statistic: the number of non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, in the Nilgiris. “There are about 29,000 tribals in the Nilgiris and 500+ registered NGOs,” she says. That is about one NGO for every 60 tribals, an astonishing statistic. But Vasamalli adds that the number is not the real problem. “The issue is that each NGO inducts about 3-4 tribals for representation in their varied organizations. Some might be on health, or education or human rights or livelihoods. And over time, the union of a village starts disintegrating,” she explained, ruing the intrusion of non-profits into village communities.
*C K Madan’s household has a colour television set. In 2007, the state government started delivering on a promise made by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in its election manifesto: a TV for every family below the poverty line. Before the TVs arrived, Madan’s village of Theppakadu inside Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, didn’t even have electricity. “We had asked for it many times but it was only after the TVs that power arrived,” he said.
*Miles before you reach the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris, roadside billboards start to inform you about the approximate distance from the tiger’s lair. And tourist resorts.
Now, for most tourists, a sojourn in a wildlife reserve or its periphery is pointless without wildlife sightings. While resort managers cannot guarantee a tiger sighting, a little manipulation can get you elephants.
“Resorts outside the park started keeping tamarind and salt near their boundaries to attract herds for sightings,” said P T Verghese of Mudumalai village. Elephants are confirmed fans of tamarind and can smell it from a long distances.
“So they (elephants) figured out that they can get tamarind near and in houses. And the raids began,” added Verghese. Numerous incidents of elephant attacks in villages have occurred in the area.
But the elephants aren’t complaining.
*After a childhood and youth spent travelling over North India, I am used to the slogans painted behind long-haul trucks and trailers. More often than not, they nag you to use the headlight dimmer or the horn for the right of way. And wish you a black face if you dare cast an evil eye on the vehicle (Buri nazar waley tera moonh kala).
Trucks in the south were a welcome change. Messages splashed across their backsides proclaimed, “Don’t overspeed”, “Save rainwater”, “Don’t use child labour”, “One is best. Avoid AIDS” and “Save oil, Save India.” The last one might have been a little insincere, since it was painted on a gas-guzzler.
*An obscure tribal temple inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu is worships the tiger; not as the reigning deity but as the mascot or the ride for the deity. Although the conservation of tigers is facing off with tribal rights to land and other forest resources, the beast is held sacred. For the villagers, tigers are tied to the forest, to the ecology and to tourism benefits and to them. The temple priest said, “Whenever we see a tiger in the forest, we bow.”