He removes a stray prickle from the winding path of a coffee estate bordering the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. If you thought he was clearing the path for us trekkers following him down the narrow path, you are mistaken. Forty-two-year-old R. Masanan always does this, even during casual walks, to keep an unsuspecting animal from stepping on it.
After we hear from a passer-by who tells him that it was just a while ago that a sloth bear was spotted near the rows of coffee bushes, he looks out keenly for similar objects that may cause harm. All the while, he is also pointing out to various species of grazing deer, langurs, and the flora. We also get a lesson on the types of coffee seeds, their quality and flavour.
A forest guide from Aachakarai hamlet in Masinagudi on the fringes of the Mudumalai reserve, Masanan’s love for the forest and animals stemmed not from formal education, but from village elders. A couple of hours spent with him is enough to realise that he couldn’t have been a guide for close to two decades if not for his passion for wildlife.
A while later, it is time for the evening safari, and we meet the jeep driver, 37-year-old S. Govindan. After missing out on the sloth bear during our trek, four of us start the safari with Masanan and Govindan hoping to get lucky for some animal sighting. Even after manoeuvring a trek route, nothing prepares you for the safari. To begin with, there is no route. That is to the untrained eye. But for Govindan who has been doing the safari for the past six years, he could well be cruising along a marked highway.
He zigzags through clumps of trees, crosses several termite hills, some mini caves (“spotted a tiger cub there some days ago”), and thick bushes, through all of which, you have to cling on to the overhead iron bars of the open jeep for dear life. More than the undulating ride, what gives you the heebie-jeebies is the jeep cutting through branches to weave ahead where you never thought that a path could exist. Through this maze of a drive, he ensures that he sticks to the periphery and keeps away from the core area that is made out of bounds by the Forest Department.
The movement of the jeep, in no way hampers the work of Masanan, who switches on to his “forest eye” once the vehicle starts moving. In a hushed tone, he narrates instances of sighting elephants and tigers besides sloth bears, Indian gaurs, panthers, and even some exotic birds.
As evening fades into twilight, the chirping becomes a loud cacophony in the otherwise still silence. As the jeep trundles ahead, the heart starts racing in anticipation of a charging tiger or an elephant, a feeling that is quickly quashed by Masanan and Govindan.
We are given to understand that the maximum excitement on spotting a tiger can be getting to see a pair of curious eyes, or the animal merely walking away from human company. And, that is exactly what happened when we got lucky to spot a tiger. As deftly as it appeared from behind a bush, it strode away without any hurry, as we got a glimpse of its profile and posterior in the jeep’s headlight.
Once the tiger leaves, Govindan drives into a small clearing, switches off the headlights and engine. The guide and driver step out of the jeep in the shroud of darkness and show us a glade, a little beyond, that used to be an oft-frequented water spot of animals, now a parched area. Masanan tells us that we are very lucky to have sighted a tiger because with a failed monsoon and water reserves depleting, animals were moving away from their usual haunts.
From frequent sightings, it has come down to only two or three a month. Talking about the recent tiger census, he says he is sure that the number of animals would have declined.
As we talk in low voices, we find Govindan move around and pick something. Masanan explains that he is collecting plastic bottles and wrappers thrown by “irresponsible humans who do not even spare the forest”. Govindan adds that he ticks off people who try to be a threat to animals. He ensures that his guests sit quietly and behave in a way that does not disturb the animals.
Masanan says that most visitors respect the forest and wildlife. They follow instructions and are happy to get a feel of the forest even if they do not spot any animals. But there are those who create a scene when they are not able to sight any animals, not realising that is a matter of chance. These are times when he politely placates the visitors and takes them back. But when it comes to troubling or misbehaving with animals, he is very strict with them.
As we turn back, Masanan and Govindan explain how they spot animals after nightfall. While the former identifies them with their “shiny eyes”, the latter does so by their movement. Though Govindan assures us that he is taking us the same way we have come, nothing looks the same to us as we gear ourselves for the tumultuous drive back.
Not happy with just the tiger sighting, Masanan looks out towards the trees, now with the focus light, hoping to see more. And his efforts do not go waste, as he shows us a flying squirrel and a mouse deer.
As the jeep enters the familiar winding path to our destination, Masanan is about to let his guard down when suddenly he looks into a shiny pair of eyes. He alerts us and we get to see a glossy black sloth bear ambling along the coffee bushes at a distance, the one which Masanan cleared the path for, early in the evening.