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ECO-TOURISM

Inside a magical rainforest

SWARNA V. AND S. RAMAKRISHNAN

The Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, once described by Salim Ali as "the richest bird habitat in peninsular India", lives up to its reputation.


Hornbill Camp is a great, working case study of low-impact eco-tourism in India.

PHOTOS: S. RAMAKRISHNAN

An expansive view of the Thattekad Sanctuary.

AFTER months of waiting to go on an expedition with the universally acclaimed bird guide, Eldhose K.V., we were extremely excited to get his dates this March. So, off we went on a quick birding trip to a lesser-known spot in Kerala — Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Dr. Salim Ali, India's greatest ornithologist, once described this tiny, 25 sq. km. bird sanctuary, located about 60 km north-east of Kochi, as "The richest bird habitat in peninsular India". While the literal meaning of Thattekad is "flat-forest", it is in fact a dense evergreen lowland forest and is situated between the branches of River Periyar, the longest river in Kerala.

We stayed at the charming Hornbill Camp, owned and managed by Eldhose, which is a half-acre cocoa plantation with just two small, tented cottages for guests. Set across the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary along the scenic Periyar, the Camp offers a large dose of genuine and perfect Kerala hospitality. Small camp chairs with tables adorn the front of the tents. The interiors are cheerful while the attached toilets are basic yet clean. A resourcefully built open-to-sky common bathroom behind the tents is most definitely a conversation piece. With pebbled flooring and clay-bricks, this tiny room took our breath away.

Good start

Our fist morning in the Camp started with wonderful views of the brightly coloured, handsome Indian Pitta right behind our tents. A winter visitor to Kerala, the bird spends almost six months of the year in this camp. The Camp itself is rich in birdlife — both forest birds and water birds. We spotted Orange-headed Ground Thrush, Large-billed Warbler, Jerdon's Nightjar, Indian Cuckoo, Darters, Cormorants and Whiskered Terns.

The first day we explored the sanctuary on our own as Eldhose was to join us only the next day. Our endeavour proved productive with the spotting of the Collared Scops Owl dozing in the shades of a bamboo thicket just as we entered the Sanctuary. We continued our trek to the watchtower, the place for Frogmouth action. Frogmouths are nocturnal birds found in tropical evergreen forests. And there they were! A male and a female on either side of a tree trunk, perfectly camouflaged!

Unpredictable weather



Common Hawk Cuckoo, Drongo Cuckoo The Large Hawk Cuckoo.

As we trudged back to the Camp for a late lunch, thunder started rolling in the distance. This place was unpredictable. One minute it was scorching and the next, a thunderstorm keen to avenge the heat. That evening the rain poured incessantly and went on through the night. Meanwhile, it was difficult to contain our excitement as we were finally going to meet the famed Eldhose in the morning. But, he surprised us by showing up in the middle of the night despite the torrential downpour!

As we got talking to him, we realised why he was so popular and almost revered in the bird guide community. While Eldhose's confidence and knowledge of his birds are apparent, the minute you meet him, what strikes you most is his humility and unassuming nature. With the right blend of self-assurance and modesty, he claims "300 bird species, including 75 South Indian endemics, in 10 days or money back." Wow, what a bird guide!

We retired for the night, with earnest prayers for a clear and sunny morning.

Next morning, after a few customary views of the Blyth's Pipit, we drove to the core area of the sanctuary with appropriate permissions from the Forest Department. As we stepped on to the rainforest floor, we found ourselves in a different world. The forest envelops all your senses and for a moment you feel this is where you belong. The next instant you realise you actually are an aberration in God's perfectly created landscape. And just when you think you've seen it all, Eldhose points out an incubating Pompadour Green Pigeon. Camouflaged in the yellow-green leaves of a short tree, we take more than five minutes to spot the bird! Just as we settle to take pictures of the pigeon, we find two Yellow-browed Bulbuls twittering about a shorter tree. We couldn't have had a better sighting of these birds.

Cuckoo paradise

The highlight of the day, however, was the visit to what Eldhose calls the "Cuckoo Paradise". And how right he was! We spent the rest of the day spotting various Cuckoos — the amazing Drongo Cuckoo which can be easily mistaken for a Drongo; the highly vocal Indian Hawk Cuckoo and the much bigger Large Hawk Cuckoo with its characteristic dark grey head and heavily streaked throat.



AN ABUNDANCE OF BIRDS: The Indian Pitta.

Our next stop was Idamalayar forest, a dark and beautiful evergreen jungle above the Idamaliyar River about 15 km from Thattekad, in search of the Mountain Hawk Eagle. We started very early in the morning to get a glimpse of this large raptor, whose nesting and breeding was first recorded in this part of South India by Eldhose. After a long bumpy drive and a short walk, we spotted the Eagle. Soon we were rewarded with sightings of other specialities like the Dark-fronted Warbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Brown-backed and White-rumped Needletails, Green and Mountain Imperial Pigeons and coves of Emerald Green Pigeons.

That evening, as we bid adieu to Hornbill Camp and Eldhose, we returned to Bangalore with a promise that we will go back...sooner rather than later.

Hornbill Camp, with its strict adherence to the "Leave No Trace" principle, is a great, working case study of low-impact eco-tourism in India. The Camp uses local materials, employs local manpower and is eco-friendly. As a proponent of eco-tourism, Eldhose tries to build environmental and cultural awareness among his guests and thus offers them great experiences.

* * *

Factfile

  • Nearest Airport - Kochi (60 km)

  • Nearest town and railway head - Aluva (Alwaye). From Kochi NH-49 passes through Aluva and then to Kothamanagalam, from where you have to turn off on the Pooyamkutti (old Munnar) Road. Thattekad is 13km from Kothamanagalam.

  • Places to stay - The Kerala Forest Department offers good facilities, including the watchtower inside the jungle. Amongst the private ones, Hornbill Camp is the best.

  • Best Season - October to April.

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