The landscape of the Sharavathi river valley is unparallelled in its beauty. Lush forests line the tarred roads, descending deep into the valley to where the mighty Sharavathi roars. From the winding road, the wind whipping through my hair, I can smell the river and its rich soil from kilometres away. I close my eyes, letting the howling wind swirl around me. It is a heady experience to travel through the Western Ghats, even in the dry season.
The forests of the Sharavathi are not of a single type. From dry deciduous forests, we see a shift to moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, which are filled with birdsong. Ioras perch on the shorter trees, singing their piercing melodies, and golden orioles flutter from branch to branch. Peafowl startle and scurry off into the undergrowth, their squawks comical and raucous amidst the sweeter birdsong of other birds. Soon, the forests blend into wet evergreen, the trees heavy and moisture laden with towering canopies that seem endlessly ginormous. The cackling laughter of a Malabar pied hornbill splits the air, making me jump. I hear the booming call of a langur and the softer hooting of a green imperial pigeon, a forest pigeon that frequents wet evergreen patches and sounds eerily similar to the langur. A flash of crimson catches my eye; a male Malabar trogon flutters to an advantageous perch to attract potential mates. A purple and gold squirrel – the Malabar giant squirrel – hangs casually from a branch as it nibbles on a tasty fruit. These large squirrels are avid feeders, competing with monkeys and frugivorous birds with the temper of an irate toddler. Suddenly, a male paradise flycatcher soars through the forest, its long, delicate tail feathers streaming behind it carelessly. Bonnet macaques line the road, their droopy eyes evoking great pity in most passing people. Don’t be fooled; this is how this little monkey tricks people into feeding it and interfering with its natural feeding habits. We pass a few tourists handing biscuits out to monkeys and wince. Feeding wildlife is not the kind act it appears to be.
The dense forests along the Sharavathi are home to some of the most elusive creatures in the Western Ghats. While tigers do appear occasionally in these forests, they are rare, choosing instead to pass through this corridor between Bhadra Tiger Reserve to the south and Dandeli National Park to the north. But these forests are the stronghold of the leopard. This sleek, spotted big cat is perfectly adapted to life in this landscape, cleverly avoiding humans while diversifying its prey base. Barking deer are its preferred diet here, as spotted deer are not found in these wet forests. Alongside the leopard, dholes have been spotted in these jungles, but packs are smaller given the lower density of large prey. Gaur, or Indian bison, drift aimlessly through the forests, pausing to drink from forest streams and headwaters near Myristica swamps. For such large-bodied animals, they move impressively quietly through the dense forest. Pangolins, the most trafficked wild animal in the world, also call these forests of the Sharavathi home. Hard to spot but easy to identify, the peaceful pangolin is not often spotted by researchers but most villagers will tell you of multiple sightings during their daily wanderings. Children, especially, speak of the pangolin with fascination, calling it ‘chipphandi‘ or ‘scaly pig.’
But in my opinion, the most magical creature in the Sharavathi’s hidden forests is the singalika, or lion-tailed macaque. The forests between the Sharavathi and Aghanashini rivers are notified as the Sharavathi Lion-tailed Macaque Wildlife Sanctuary, an attempt to protect one of the final strongholds of this shy monkey. The lion-tailed macaque (LTM) prefers to remain in the high canopy, where it moves from treetop to treetop in search of food. This macaque is one of the seed dispersers of Myristica fatua, a swamp obligate tree that lends its name to the Myristica swamps that I study in this region. LTMs feed on the bright red aril encasing the Myristica seed, dropping or excreting the seed and thus enabling germination. I had been on the lookout for this elusive monkey for the past week, hoping to come across it in the canopy of the swamps I visited, but my attempts were thwarted. All I saw were a few curious langurs and some very rude bonnet macaques with a penchant for aggressive teasing.
There is a lookout point along the highway from Siddapura to Honnavar that offers a splendid view of the river valley. In the dry season, the Sharavathi is a tamer version of her monsoon persona. This is due to the Linganamakki Reservoir upstream of Jog Falls. The gates leading out of the reservoir are shut during the dry season to prevent water from leaving the reservoir; this is how the government ensures water availability for surrounding villages and towns during the dry season. With the onset of the monsoon, the dam is opened and water roars over Jog Falls, transforming the downstream landscape into a magical, misty wonderland. As I look out over the river valley from the lookout point, I admire the quiet elegance of the Sharavathi. She wears her pale blues with grace, draped in silvery ripples like bangles adorning an arm. I pull out my binoculars and do a slow scan of the treetops. Who knows what secrets the forests hold.
Suddenly, one of my fellow researchers exclaims and points towards a towering tree. I swing my binoculars towards the tree and a thrill rockets down my spine.
There, perched on the topmost branch of an evergreen tree overlooking the Sharavathi is a tiny black shape. A monkey, a stocky, large monkey by the looks of it. The breath escapes my lips. It’s an LTM, at last!
We stare at that lone macaque for what seems like an hour, our eyes glued to our respective cameras and binoculars. Greedily, we watch as it settles itself on a tree and stares out over the valley. What is it contemplating? Do macaques feel lonely? Or perhaps the noisy chaos of the troop was too much for this fellow and he decided to take a solo trip to the treetops to recover in peace. Either way, we are thrilled with this unexpected gift. To spot an endangered species in its natural habitat is a pearl of joy, something that we in conservation cannot take for granted. Today, this LTM has its habitat, its protected space, its treetops. But what is the future of this river valley? What will this landscape look like in a decade? Will these intact, towering forests still exist? Will the hooting cry of the singalika still echo through the treetops as the human footprint enters landscapes that were never meant to be encroached?
I finally turn away from the tiny shape of the lion-tailed macaque on its lonely tree. A black speck against a landscape of vibrant greens and calming blues, the monkey has no idea that we have scrutinized it so closely for the better part of an hour. And that, perhaps, is how the magic remains in sighting the singalika. The forest seems much more alive now that I have crossed paths with this macaque of the monsoon mountains.