I lived for two weeks in a rainforest in the Western Ghats. Here’s what it was like
An HT writer signed up as a volunteer at India’s only rainforest research station, situated deep within the Western Ghats in a region called Agumbe. It was like nothing she had ever done before.Updated: May 22, 2017, 13:36 IST
- The Agumbe region is a biodiversity hotspot, attracting trekkers and wildlife conservationists from across the country and around the world.
- The ARRS is the only rainforest research station in the country.
- It was founded in 2005 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, and is funded and run by the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (the study of amphibians).
In Agumbe, shit is what you hope for.
Otherwise an ignored storyteller, scat is indispensable in one of India’s last surviving rainforests. It’s the only way to study some of the forest’s more reclusive residents.
And the only way to distinguish between your neighbours — who may range from the world’s largest bovine, the gaur, to the procession ant, to any of the 31 other types of mammal, 574 reptile species, 31 sorts of amphibians, 128 varieties of butterfly and 220 bird species.
Scat is a sign board declaring an animal’s presence and diet, offering crucial information about local ecology.
And so it was that collecting carnivore poop became a priority during my fortnight-long stay at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS).
I learnt that leopard and dhole (wild dog) scat is musky, tapered, and fibrous owing to their prey’s fur. That their droppings turn white with age because of exposed calcium content from the bones. That hare shit resembles hing goli and sambar deer pellets look like Cadbury’s Nutties. And that for every handful of pellets disbursed by a barking deer, a gaur leaves behind a turd pile that makes cow dung look like Lilliputian glop.
Scouting jeep trails, grasslands, and tropical evergreen forest with paper bags and tweezers in hand became a treasure hunt. The thrill of finding leopard and dhole scat had much to do with never knowing if they – one solitary; the other, a canny pack hunter – were a stone’s throw or several kilometres away.
But poop identification and setting up camera traps were just two highlights of my Agumbe stint. No amount of homework could season me for what has been my most existential holiday yet.
Snapshots from Agumbe: Some very weird froggie-style coupling
Welcome to the jungle
Buses from Udupi to the village of Agumbe, which shares its name with this section of the rainforest, careen through nail-biting hairpin turns as they make their way up the Western Ghats.
This is king cobra capital, also home to endemic species like the Malabar trogon and the endangered lion-tailed macaque, and I was fortunate enough to spot the latter near a retaining wall as our driver hurled obscenities at an oncoming truck.
Agumbe village has 600 residents, a bus stand, five provision stores, two lodges, three home-stays, three eateries and a single ‘chaat’ vendor.
The ARRS, located 1.5 km from the main village, houses a dormitory with six bunks (12 beds) and is generally occupied by a motley group of wildlife conservationists, biologists, researchers, students and volunteers.
During my time there, it also housed Pranav Khandelwal, a PhD student from the University of North Carolina studying the gliding mechanism of the Draco dussumieri (the flying lizard endemic to the Ghats); Steve Rodgie, who left Australia’s Gold Coast to volunteer for Pranav’s project in February; and Priyanka Upadhyay, who’s working on a thesis on the breeding and behavioral ecology of the yellow-wattled lapwing.
Snapshots from Agumbe: Chhamiya pretends to mate (to distract predators from her nest)
Dhiraj Bhaisare, the station’s research administrator, is a renowned researcher and wildlife photographer.
Fascinated by snakes since childhood, he came to ARRS in 2009 for the station’s landmark king cobra telemetry project.
“I’d never experienced such heavy rain before. But I was crazy enough about king cobras to put up with 12 hours of field work, countless leeches, and fungus growing on my clothes,” he recalls. “This place has been home ever since. Now, I can’t imagine living outside the forest.”
The unassuming CM Shankar, a former graphic designer who came to ARRS as a visitor two years ago and stayed on as base manager, is the resident MacGyver. When he isn’t neck-deep in DIY projects like making portable fans and solar panels, he oversees staff and visitors, manages accounts, and keeps to himself.
Inside the commune
- The minimum commitment for volunteers is 15 days. Calls for volunteers and research assistants come via the YETI (Young Ecologists Talk and Interact) newsletter.
- Anyone with an interest in wildlife or a love for animals can apply.
- ARRS charges Rs 400 a day, inclusive of dormitory accommodation and all meals.
- Researchers at ARRS have published papers on subjects such as the discovery of a limbless amphibian (Gegeneophis Peters) and sexual dimorphism in the Roux’s forest lizard.
- The King cobra telemetry project, conducted here, proved that the king cobra cannot survive if moved even 15 km outside its immediate habitat.
With no network available here except BSNL, indoor hours were spent reading and chatting. Additional free time was spent on long walks, night trails, warming shots and games of bluff and rummy.
Work hours included sessions on how to set up camera traps, conduct observations, and identify the multiple trails. On jungle expeditions, Shankar would point us to everything from tarantula burrows to boar tracks, dried otter scat and wallowing pits.
Twilight was spent swapping stories about bull elephants gone rogue, shy leopards, and cobra rescues; lying in the open grassland and star-gazing.
ARRS is yours to keep. The open grassland is for star-gazing. The meadow is yours for ruminative jaunts, and the backyard, your playground for cricket, coffee, and conversations. The chlorophyll-scented air is yours to shock those city lungs with, and the jungle, a pageant of endemic species and orchestra of rustles, snaps, hoots and grunts.
The ARRS office is equipped with wi-fi, which I initially used to WhatsApp friends and family. Over time, however, the phone became an encumbrance. The alarm is redundant when one awakes to the cheery Malabar whistling thrush. And why bother with social media when the Malabar giant squirrel, Malabar trogon, Malabar grey hornbill, bonnet macaque, and Malabar gliding frog beckon from trees?
Snapshots from Agumbe: Wild dogs are coming for you
“Agumbe forces you to put your phone away and appreciate the kind of endless stretches of green and wildlife you never knew existed,” says Pranav. “Spending months staring at dracos, catching and filming them, was an experience second to none. My takeaways are a new appreciation for wildlife, lots of patience and of course, tan lines!”
Patience is its own reward in the jungle. There’s something about sitting on jagged rocks, prickly foliage and dried streams, spending hours waiting for the slightest sound or movement, that offers perspective on urban clutter.
Between that and this, where I write in a concrete jungle, I hark to the joys of shit collection. And long for more.
Snapshots from Agumbe: A real-life meme creature