Flying high in Thattekad

The Periyar river today...
The Periyar river today…

The ornithologist Salim Ali’s unscheduled stopover at Thattekad in 1933 made it the focal point of a bird survey and, 50 years later, he helped establish in this unique ecosystem with 14 different habitats Kerala’s first bird sanctuary. Text & photographs by Subash Jeyan

The Thattekad bird sanctuary in the Western Ghats in Kerala is known chiefly for the Sri Lankan frogmouth and other birds endemic to the region. The sanctuary owes its existence to an accident of history. In 1932 Sri Chithirai Thirunal Balarama Varma, the Maharaja of Travancore (now part of Kerala), asked the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai, if it would like to conduct a bird survey in his kingdom. Salim Ali, who would later come to be known as the birdman of India, was working as a guide-lecturer at BNHS. He had conducted a bird survey in the princely state of Hyderabad in 1931 and 1932. The British curator of BNHS asked Salim Ali to conduct a similar survey in Travancore and Cochin. Salim Ali readily agreed. The Maharaja had earmarked a princely sum of Rs.10,000 for the project.

In February 1933, Salim Ali and his wife, Tehmina, set out by train from Bombay to Madras. Since Salim Ali wanted to begin the survey in Munnar, they travelled by road to Munnar via Coimbatore. At Marayur, N.G. Pillai, the representative of the Maharaja and curator of the Trivandrum zoo, joined them, presumably to help Salim Ali negotiate with officialdom easily. Dr R. Sugathan, a protege of Salim Ali who is a scientist at the bird monitoring cell in the Thattekad sanctuary, recalls that Salim Ali spent about a month at Marayur surveying the bird life in the shola forests.

After studying Munnar, Salim Ali wanted to survey the area around Kumarakom near Kottayam. To reach Kumarakom, he had to come down the western side of the Western Ghats on the only available road that wound its way through thick forest areas in Mankulam, Pooyamkutty, Thattekad and Kothamangalam before ending at Aluva near Cochin.

The Aluva-Munnar road owes its origin to the compulsions of commerce. The British tea estate owners in Munnar used to send their produce to Top Station, from where a ropeway carried it to Bodinayakannur in Theni district of Tamil Nadu to be transported by road to Madras for shipment to England. The ships had to go all the way around Sri Lanka. Finding a way to ship the produce directly from the Cochin port would shorten the journey time considerably and also lower expenses. The British made a slight alignment to a bridle path used by tribal people that connected Munnar to Cochin, widened it and constructed a ghat road. The road, all of 45 kilometres long, had around 15 culverts and bridges. Along the road, at every 16 km there was a dak or forest bungalow consisting of a kitchen and one or two rooms. The British used the road to transport tea bags on the backs of bullocks and buffaloes to Cochin.

Salim Ali crossing the Periyar river in 1933.
Salim Ali crossing the Periyar river in 1933. (Photo courtesy Thattekad Bird Sanctuary.)

Salim Ali and his companions were coming down this road from Munnar on their way to Cochin in 1933. Sugathan says: “When they reached Thattekad in February 1933, it was evening, so they decided to stay at the dak bungalow on the banks of the Periyar. Seeing the rich birdlife around him, Salim Ali told Pillai that he wanted to stay there for a few days. He ended up staying in Thattekad for 12 days. He recorded over 165 species of birds during that period. What was an unscheduled stop became one of the focal points of the bird survey. Today, 330 bird species, 300 of them endemic to the area, have been recorded in the Thattekad bird sanctuary, also known as the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.

The bird diversity of Kerala, in particular Thattekad, left a deep impression on Salim Ali. He noted a “curious similarity between the fauna and flora of the higher hills of Kerala forming part of the southern Western Ghats complex… on the one hand and the Eastern Himalaya, West China, Burma and Malaysia on the other” (The Fall of a Sparrow, Salim Ali, OUP, pages 81-82). He wondered about the continuities in the flora and fauna when the two regions were “separated by more than 2,000 kilometres of very different terrain ecologically”.

While it is for experts to explain what he called an anomaly, in his autobiography, Salim Ali is forthcoming about his Travancore and Cochin bird survey: “Of all my regional bird surveys between the years 1930 and 1950—which I regard as the most productive period of my career—perhaps the one that gave me the greatest satisfaction both as to the fieldwork and writing up its results was the ornithological survey of Travancore-Cochin which later provided the basis for my book The Birds of Kerala” (The Fall of a Sparrow, page 81).

With regard to the birdlife in Kerala, he wrote: “For richness and diversity of birdlife Kerala stands, in my estimation—at least stood at the time of the survey fifty years ago—as undisputed No.1. There were certain localities in particular, for example Thattakad [sic] on the Periyar river in northern Travancore, which linger in my memory as the richest bird habitat in peninsular India I have known—comparable only with the Eastern Himalaya” (The Fall of a Sparrow, page 84).

Fast forward almost 50 years to 1982. Salim Ali and Sugathan happened to run into K.P. Nooruddin, the then Minister for Forests in Kerala, at the Bombay airport. The Minister told Salim Ali that he had read about his survey work in Kerala and wanted to commemorate that feat undertaken 50 years ago. Upon hearing that Kerala did not have a bird sanctuary, Salim Ali asked the Minister whether he could help establish one. The Minister readily agreed and got back with a formal proposal in late 1982.

The responsibility of deciding the location fell to Sugathan and Dr Vijayan, another student of Salim Ali. Says Sugathan: “Salim Ali asked me to visit [along with Vijayan] the 21 sites he had visited in 1933 and find out their present status. We covered some other areas too and gave our report in six months. Of all the surveyed areas, we thought Thattekad was the best one. There was one other place that was equally good: Vazhachal. But Thattekad had greater bird diversity. A dam constructed across the Periyar near Thattekad in 1962 led to the creation of a big reservoir which attracted about 30 species of waterbirds. [Salim Ali had observed only two species of waterbirds during his survey in 1933.] So we recommended Thattekad.

Dr Sugathan.
Dr Sugathan.

The bird sanctuary, the first in Kerala, covered an area of 25.16 square km with two rivers [the Periyar and the Kuttampuzha] and two streams [the Urulanthanni and the Kolambethodu] forming a natural boundary….”

Unique topograpghy

The topographical location of the sanctuary is unique. It is situated in peninsular India in the Western Ghats which extends from the Tapi in Gujarat to just short of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, for about 1,500 km, and in Sugathan’s words, “lies squat in the path of migratory birds, forcing them to stop here”. The highest point of the Western Ghats, the Anamudi peak, at 8,800 feet (2,682 metres), is only 22 km east of Thattekad (altitude 35m-523 m). There are 13 or 14 different habitats as one ascends from Thattekad to Anamudi, from high altitude shola forests to evergreen moist deciduous forests, each having its own unique flora and fauna.

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But, the Thattekad of 1983 was very different from the one that Salim Ali saw in 1933. He recorded that on both sides of the river there were thick forests. He said he encountered elephants, plenty of bisons, gaurs, king cobras and other wildlife. Incidentally, in a photograph showing Salim Ali crossing the Periyar with his car strapped onto boats one could see the banks of the Periyar denuded of trees. The British had, some years earlier, discovered rubber cultivation. It was in Palamattom, about 5 km upstream of Thattekad on the Periyar, that the British started the first rubber plantations in Kerala.

When rubber began to be cultivated on a large scale, labourers were brought in to work in the plantations. These labourers settled down with their families in the clearings on the fringes of the forest. In the 1980s, Salim Ali wrote: “Since the survey, and particularly since our Independence, I have visited Kerala every few years and been more and more depressed and scandalised each time by the mindless vandalism being perpetrated by successive State governments and crooked politicians in the devastation of virgin evergreen forests to settle repatriates, or for so-called ‘development’ projects such as dams for hydroelectric power and raw material for wood-based industries” (The Fall of a Sparrow, page 84).

Sugathan says the area was not exposed to the outside world until the early 1930s and all the encroachments and degradation of the forest along the Periyar up to Pooyamkutty started in the 1930s. Since the rubber plantations made the area accessible, what was once a virgin forest became a secondary forest. After Independence, too, valuable timber such as rosewood, mahogany and teak was extracted illegally. “That was still going on when we started the sanctuary in 1983. By that time, most of the animals that Salim Ali saw in 1933 had been wiped out because of large-scale poaching. Only the smaller birds were left.”

Once the sanctuary was started, poaching declined because of the protective measures that were introduced and the animal population increased slowly. “In 1983, there was just a single herd of elephants here. Thanks to improved management practices, the elephant population had gone up to 22 in 1994-95. In a recent census, we counted over 40 elephants inside the sanctuary, all permanent residents,” says Sugathan.

Now the sanctuary can claim to have even a tigress. “It doesn’t stay here permanently but visits just twice or thrice a year,” says Sugathan. “In order for tigers to stay permanently, big kills are needed. Since there is no gaur, or bison, in the sanctuary, the tigress does not stay here permanently. We’ve got three or four leopards here. Two years ago, one pair had a cub. We have bears also now. The adjoining forest areas have gaur, but because of the intervening human habitation they are unable to enter the sanctuary. We are trying to introduce gaur in Thattekad,” he says.

The hornbill returns

As for birdlife, the most important bird the sanctuary lost was the great Indian hornbill and the Malabar pied hornbill. These two birds were plentiful during the time of Salim Ali’s survey. “We have lost these birds because their food availability was lost. They are mainly frugivorous birds. They move from one area of the forest to another depending on the fruiting of the ficus tree. In almost all the areas, ficus trees were gone. People had cut down the trees and removed even the dead trees that provided nesting cavities for hornbills. Hornbills nest in a particular tree for years together. Because of their huge timber value, people had cut and removed such trees. So, since they lost their feeding and breeding habitat, hornbills left this place,” says Sugathan.

Now, hornbills have started coming back thanks to the efforts taken by the Forest Department to plant ficus and jamun trees in the sanctuary. About five years ago, when the trees began fruiting, hornbills were sighted. The birds have not started nesting in the sanctuary, but Sugathan is sure that in another five years they will start nesting and stay in Thattekad permanently.

The sanctuary had also lost the gaur, the Nilgiri langur and the lion-tailed macaque because of poaching. The Nilgiri langur, hunted for its meat which was used in the making of an ayurvedic medicine, was wiped out in the sanctuary. “But after about 35 years of conservation, there is now a troop of the Nilgiri langur, numbering five or six, in the sanctuary,” says Sugathan.

Finding the frogmouth

Sri Lankan frogmouth.
Sri Lankan frogmouth.

The Sri Lankan frogmouth is the sanctuary’s deservedly most famous success story.

About 13 species of frogmouth are found all over the world, of which two are found in India. The Sri Lankan frogmouth is endemic to the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. In the 18th century, Europeans recorded the sighting of the bird, and the BNHS museum has four skins collected by them. Until Sugathan set out on his quest to find the bird in the Western Ghats, the skins were the only known evidence of the bird in India.

How Sugathan found the frogmouth is a tale best told in his own words: “In 1976, when I was with Dr Salim Ali, he was revising the Red Data book. When you revise the book every five years or so, you have to assess the current status of endangered and extinct bird species. Salim Ali was not sure about the current status of four or five species. One of them was the Sri Lankan frogmouth. Until then there had been no confirmed record of the bird’s presence for more than 80 years. If a species has not been seen for 50 years, its status is officially considered as ‘extinct’. Salim Ali was about to enter ‘extinct’ for the Sri Lankan frogmouth but he had his doubts because it is a shy nocturnal bird and so could have escaped notice. To make sure the bird was really extinct, he asked me to carry out a survey. Since nobody alive then had seen the bird and nobody had records of its call, we had to locate the bird through visual identification alone. This is where the four skins available with BNHS was really helpful. Salim Ali asked me to cover the entire known habitat of the frogmouth by foot. Through the Europeans’ previous sighting, we knew that its habitat was below 4,000 ft (1,219m), in thick evergreen forest, especially bamboo and cane forest.

So in 1977, I started from Tapi in Gujarat, along with a helper. We passed through Khandala, Lonavla, Pune, Goa, Chikmagalur, and walked down the entire Western Ghats. We passed human habitation very rarely. When my rations were over, my helper would go to the nearest tribal settlement and procure them. Eventually, I came to the Nilgiri junction where the Eastern Ghats branches off from the Western Ghats, and came to the virgin forest area on the Kunthi river in Silent Valley in Kerala.

At that point we’d run out of rations and so my helper went to Attappadi to get rations. It would take a couple of days for the journey. While he was gone, I busied myself surveying the birdlife in the area. In the evening, I heard the sound of elephants from the river and I thought I’d go and watch them since that was the only ‘entertainment’. I was sitting on a rock close to the river, watching the elephants. Between the elephants and me there was a dead tree in the water. Suddenly, I saw one broken branch of the tree move. I took out my binoculars and began looking at the tree when a bird alighted on a branch and, sitting erect, looked as if it was an extension of the branch.

It was the Sri Lankan frogmouth. It was similar to the skins at the BNHS, with the same wide mouth with bristles near the beak…. I didn’t have a camera with me at the time. My helper came the next day with the rations and I told him that we would be staying there until we located the bird again. On the third day my helper found two of these birds. We found out that they roosted in the same tree during daytime. I made a tree-top shelter and stayed there for about 50 days to record its calls and movement pattern in flight. Once these and the habitat they preferred became known, it became easy to locate more birds. Thereafter, I could locate up to about 26 birds.

In Thattekad, we found just four birds [two pairs] during a survey conducted in 1982. I suggested giving special emphasis to the conservation of the frogmouth. So, in selected areas we planted trees preferred by the frogmouth and gave special protection to such areas. By 1997, we had about 10 pairs. Now we have about 32 pairs. The frogmouth is a slow breeder. It has only one breeding season in a year, during which it lays only one egg, in a nest which is very light and flimsy. So, it is all the more gratifying to see them flourishing.”

The unprecedented rainfall and floods in Kerala in August has impacted the sanctuary, too. Sugathan says that while the core forest areas remain largely unaffected because they were not flooded, it is a different story as far as the waterbodies in the sanctuary are concerned. The sanctuary is facing an acute water shortage mainly because sand deposits and silt have filled up the rivers, streams and waterbodies. As a result they have lost the capacity to store water. About 35 species of waterbirds migrate to Thattekad from October. This year, they have already started arriving. but there is no water in the wetlands. Also, since the floods, new fish species have been found in the rivers and some old ones have disappeared. This will affect the feeding habit of migratory waterbirds and force them to find alternative habitats, Sugathan says.

The visit this summer

Unlike Salim Ali, I did not have to wait for ferries to cross the Periyar. Used as I am to rivers “baring their sand ribs” in summer, it was quite a sight to see the mighty Periyar in full flow. I thought I had chosen a good time to go to Thattekad. The monsoon would not start until about June.

Since it was early May, I knew that most of the migratory birds would have left, but I was as keen to sight the resident birds. I had not counted on the early onset of the monsoon and the rain gods draping everything with a veil of water. For most of the three days I was there, the skies opened up and I could not witness for myself the legendary birdlife of Thattekad. The veil only lifted to reveal occasional tantalising glimpses. I was staying with the mother-son team of Sudha Amma and Gireesh Chandran, who seem to know the Thattekad forest and roosting habits of its denizens inside out. Within the short time available to us, when it was not raining, they were able to take me to the roosting spots of the Sri Lankan frogmouth (I was able to sight not one but three pairs) and the Malabar trogon.

Malabar trogon.
Malabar trogon.

Thattekad may no longer be the place it was during the time of Salim Ali’s visit. In fact, in his autobiography he says it has become a travesty of what it once was. But especially in these times of vanishing ecosystems, it is what it is, extremely valuable and, for me, worth coming back to one more time to see the place in its full splendour.

Little cormorant
Little cormorant

References

1. Ali, Salim (1985): The Fall of a Sparrow, OUP.

2. Ali, Salim (1999): Birds of Kerala, revised by R. Sugathan and edited by J.C. Daniel, Kerala Forests & Wildlife Department, (third edition).

3. Ali, Salim (2003): The Book of Indian Birds, OUP, first published in 1941.

(First published in the Frontline dated October 26, 2018. Link to the online version:  https://www.frontline.in/environment/conservation/article25167819.ece)

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