The Malabar whistling thrush is never a moment late. At 5:53, a peculiar, human-like whistle cuts through the still, pre-dawn air, jaunty and cocksure. He sits somewhere hidden in the huge tree in the courtyard at Hulikanu, staking his territory and doubling up as my morning alarm. But I am already awake and pad outside, my shawl wrapped closely around my shoulders as I navigate through the darkness. The cool night air snuggles up close to my skin, leaving a dewy trail wherever it touches me. I shiver lightly.
Though the other human denizens of Hulikanu are fast asleep, the tree is full of life. Santosh, the research assistant permanently based at the field station, maintains a stoic expression even as a flying squirrel takes a gliding, graceful leap from the top of our big tree to a slender silver oak nearby. In the pale pink glow of the dawn, its patagium (loose flaps of skin stretched between the limbs that give it the ability to glide) resembles the wings of a bat, or a taut parachute. A chittering sound catches my attention; our resident Malabar giant squirrel is awake and squabbling with a raquet-tailed drongo that tries to alight on the same branch as its haphazard nesting site. Swifts call in high sweet tones to one another, and as the pale pink brightens to a mango shade, the dhonk of an alarmed sambar – India’s largest forest deer – shatters the still air. I stiffen, my senses on high-alert, scanning the expanses of coffee plantation around us for signs of a predator – after all, sambar do not vocalize unless threatened or startled – but the underbrush is still and calm. The sambar call back and forth for a few minutes, and are joined by a few rowdy langurs. A bonnet macaque scuttles up a silver oak and a fairy bluebird takes flight. Yes, this coffee paradise set in the monsoon mountains is alive, and it pulses with the beat of millions of hidden hearts.
As a part of a conservation course organised by my boss, Krithi K. Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society- India, I had the great fortune of visiting not one but two of India’s gorgeous wild kingdoms – Bhadra Tiger Reserve and Kudremukh National Park, both nestled between the rolling green peaks of the Western Ghats. My mornings at Hulikanu – the field station – began with the birds, in the pre-dawn chill. When the sun began to rise and the langurs started their calls, we took a morning walk through the coffee estate. Towering trees sheltered both the coffee trees and us, and the sunlight danced upon the silver waters of a small stream, which would soon join the mighty Bhadra River. We came across a machan – a wooden platform built high in a tree used to observe wildlife – and scaled the wooden ladder, forcing me to face my fear of heights. Standing on a gently-swaying platform high above a rushing river provided me with a new perspective on my own human fears. Returning to solid ground, we checked various camera traps, used by our Wild Kaapi (https://wildkaapi.com/) team to assess biodiversity present in coffee estates in the Western Ghats for green certification purposes.
During our four days in the field, we visited the rolling expanses of Bhadra Tiger Reserve. It was a rare cloudless day that we arrived at Bhadra, and the hills were out in shining glory, dazzling me with their emerald hues and golden dancing grasses along our dirt road. We paused the car to absorb the colours and the sight of unadultered forest spreading out below us. Bhadra Tiger Reserve has one of the fewest number of tourists visiting it annually, a rare boon for the reserve’s diverse ecosystems and endemic wildlife. Wildlife found here include the Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, elephant, wild dog, gaur, and sloth bear. Of course, we saw none of these species during our wanderings through Bhadra and on our safari. However, we did see more than our fair share of cows, an indication of grazing pressures in the periphery of the park. Conservation scientists are happy enough seeing cows, if no wild ungulates grace us with their presence, if only because we can say that livestock are crowding out wild species from parks. It’s useful to have evidence for such things right in front of your eyes…
The beauty of Hulikanu lies in its simplicity. The field station is a breath of fresh air (literally and figuratively), given how most residential lodges around national parks are ostentatious and catered to those who have surplus money to spend. Of course, the field station is not open to public visitors. Field staff, and our team, stay in a long dormitory on folding camp beds, taking us back to old Enid Blyton novels of boarding school. Deprived of cell phone connectivity (unless you use BSNL or Jio!) and internet services, we youngsters are forced to bond over conversation, delicious hot food, and stories of wildlife, just like previous generations had to do on a daily basis. For some, I am sure this is the worst form of slavery.
Biodiversity abounds in the coffee fields above Bhadra. The forests grow strong here, supported by fertile soil, flowing water, and the love that local farmers pour into their land. Here, the tiger treads softly through the undergrowth. Here, elephants, their hulking figures outlined in charcoal against a deep blue sky, split tree trunks to amble down ancient migration routes. Here, langurs and bonnett macaques squabble over fresh berries and fruit, and the giant squirrels flash in and out of foliage, their pelts splashed in plum and gold. Here, the land is farmed by men by day and roamed by wildlife by night. It is a blend of the natural world and a managed one, a microcosm that manages to occupy both realms with ease.
Hulikanu is composed of two Kannada words – huli, meaning tiger, and kanu, meaning forest. And yes, sitting on the steps of our field station, I can sense that the tiger is near.