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Home / Travel / Agumbe is a wonderland in the Western Ghats

Agumbe is a wonderland in the Western Ghats

Sign up as a volunteer with the ARRS’s king cobra research programme for the ultimate immersive experience through the Western Ghats.

travel Updated: Feb 05, 2020 13:34 IST
Natasha Rego
Natasha Rego
Hindustan Times
At Agumbe, follow one snake through the forest, and you end up seeing the jungle in a whole new way, discovering new species and habitats.
At Agumbe, follow one snake through the forest, and you end up seeing the jungle in a whole new way, discovering new species and habitats. (ALLAN SUTHERLAND)

Patience is the name of the game if you sign up for the month-long volunteer programme with the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station’s (ARRS) long-running king cobra research project. It’s also immersive travel at its best.

The location: A set of villages around Agumbe, a three-street town in the Western Ghats.

My mission: To follow the female king cobra, F3, using radio telemetry, to record her movements and observe her behaviour.

By the end of the month, we had travelled through seven villages. Come rain or shine or the blackness of night, we’d jump, climb and wade through the secret gardens filled with life that the snake led us through. Along the way, we identified 40 species of bird, spotted Malabar giant squirrels, lion-tailed macaques, dracos (flying lizards), a magnificent atlas moth and several other marvellous creatures that live in this one strip of tropical rainforest.

But before she took us on the ride of our lives through this primeval heart of Karnataka, for two weeks, F3 lay resting in a burrow in the paddy fields of Hosagadhhe (literally, ‘New Paddy Field’), the village where we were initially stationed.

Come rain or shine or the blackness of night, the research volunteers had to jump, climb and wade through the secret gardens filled with life, as the king cobra went about her business.
Come rain or shine or the blackness of night, the research volunteers had to jump, climb and wade through the secret gardens filled with life, as the king cobra went about her business. ( Allan Sutherland )

Experts suspect she had eaten another snake (that’s the king cobra diet – other snakes) before being captured to have the transmitter fitted. For us that meant a lot of sitting around, reading, making conversation and letting our imagination run wild, and exploring the surrounding terrain. We also laid bets on when she would start moving. (‘Snake’ Mani, ARRS’s local tracker, won Rs 400 by guessing 1 pm on Day 14.)

On Day 14, we were off. Our patience was rewarded, and how. Every other day we would travel through a new village and discover more of this snake’s territory, as she went about her business. The best day was when she decided to go for a long swim that led from paddy fields to a secluded river that forked. From the banks, we kept pace with her — and came upon a row of trees, with an exposed root system as tall as the 15 ft-trees themselves.

One night, she went on a hunting frenzy on the tail of a rat snake, and we followed her through degraded forests and paddy fields in pitch dark, with only the dim red of our headlamps, some starlight and the fuzzy glow of fireflies to guide us. (Red light because white would alarm the wildlife.)

Our snake was an 8-km bus ride from the ARRS field station, where a stray tusker was roaming and causing havoc in neighbouring villages. We shared ARRS dorms with fellow volunteers and staff, and also three resident Malabar pit vipers that had taken refuge from the rain on the wooden beams that held up a tiled roof.

The crying screech of the Sri Lankan frogmouth (a nocturnal bird) announced the night, but we were woken up every day at exactly 5.30 am by the sweet, surreal sound of the Malabar whistling thrush, giving us just enough time to grab breakfast, pack our lunches and set off on a new, adventurous day in the field.

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