Parambikulam – Subaltern Sanctuary To Sanctum Sanctorum
The Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in ‘God’s Own Country’ exemplifies the best of a thriving Western Ghats ecosystem, writes Vivek Menon.
Photo: Vivek Menon.
A story in Indian mythology goes that when Ganesha was once asked to circumnavigate the world, he walked around his parents, maintaining that for him they constituted the entire universe. If an Indian conservationist or forester were asked to draw a line around the constituents of wildlife conservation in the country, they would undoubtedly encircle the tiger, the elephant and the rhino, and deem that to be the whole conservation story. (If the person came from Gujarat, he would replace the rhino with the lion, but not much else would change.)
This holds true not only in the species realm, but also in the Protected Area Networks. In the 1980s or even early 90s, nobody would have gone to Pench to see a tiger, to Parambikulam to gaze at gaurs or to Valmiki to do anything whatsoever. The national imagination was limited to Corbett and Ranthambhore, Kanha and Kaziranga.
Pramod Krishnan, an exceptionally gifted new generation forester who is credited with having turned Periyar around, calls the smaller, neglected Protected Areas ‘subaltern sanctuaries.’ Subaltern is a term used in critical studies to mean “social groups who are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland”. The colony in this case is the state and the homeland the hearts and minds of the Indian citizen.
MYRIAD SHADES OF GREEN
In the first week of the New Year, I was in one such sanctuary, Parambikulam. In one sense it is a typical Kerala sanctuary: one that owes its existence to dams (most sanctuaries in the state, except Chinnar, were created around hydroelectric projects, utilising the beauty of the artificial lakes thus formed) and is focused on tourism, as befits any project in ‘God’s Own Country’. The hundred shades of green that assault and assuage the eye all at once, also call to mind any other habitat in the Western Ghats. But there the resemblance stops.
There has been no poaching in Parambikulam for 10 years, no conflict reported between fringe villages and the park. This is 600 sq. km. of entirely undisturbed habitat, and it is the state capital for the massive gaur. The animal achieves a massive size here (an old conservationist recalls a bull whose dewlap swung a palm’s width from the forest floor!) and occurs in large numbers in the vayals or swamplands that dot the park.
The beauty of this wonderful piece of Anamalai real estate is not just in its vayals, but also the alpine grasslands, quasi-sholas, moist and dry evergreen forests, rivers – and the world’s largest natural teak tree. The kannimaram or virgin tree towers nearly 40 m. high and has a girth of seven metres; this mahavriksha reminds me of the redwoods that I retreat to whenever I visit west coast USA, resting my forehead on one of them for a while, for giant trees convey a peace that only the ancients can provide. The kannimaram made me want to do that here as well.
THE UNINTERRUPTED FOREST
This natural bounty has not been protected by chance. The vision of P. N. Unnikrishnan, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in the 1980s, has been carried on by many foresters, including, of late, DFOs Sanjayan Kumar and Vijayanand, both of whom started innovative projects. The latest officer in the line, Anjan Kumar, shows us around the eco-village – where honey and beeswax production, bamboo handicrafts, paper bag manufacturing, pickle making and even plastic bottle shredding provides the communities around Parambikulam with a green livelihood.
The tourism centres are painted camouflage green and tourists are taken into the park only in battery-operated vehicles and on guided walks. The bamboo rafts designed by the local boatmen deserve an innovation award, so stably and aesthetically are they made.
A personal highlight of the trip is a birding walk I undertake with my son Shiva, wildlifer James Zaccharias and WTI’s Jose Louis. Most of the southern Western Ghats’ deciduous forest specialities are checked off, but the woodpeckers capture the conscience.
The Common Goldenback and the Lesser Yellow-nape hammer away at teak. A pair of tiny Heart-spotted Woodpeckers twirls around the trunk of a red crowned Kindal tree, chipping away at its trunk. An even tinier Brown-headed Pygmy Woodpecker appears sky high in the branches of another tree.
And just when everything seems miniature, in floats a Giant White-bellied Woodpecker, the largest of its kind in the country. For half an hour we watch the giant artisan chisel away, now swivelling, now swerving, calling occasionally but tapping away evermore into a large bole. For the aesthete in me it is soul fulfilling, for the conservationist, a grand testament to the success of Parambikulam. For a forest that harbours the largest of the woodpeckers must have a habitat both intact and old enough to provide the grand woodmaster with its requisite timber.
If there needed to be another testament, a magnificent male leopard casually strolling across the path of the jeep as I return from Aanapadi provides it. Its relaxed gait and calm demeanour can only mean that Parambikulam has attained the highest status that a Protected Area can offer its wild denizens – that of a sanctum sanctorum.
The author is a conservationist, writer, photographer and the Executive Director of the Wildlife Trust of India.
Author: Vivek Menon First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.