After 36 kilometres of forest-lined roads descending to Mysore, you arrive at Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Situated in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Madumalai and its nearby areas were big-game reserves up till a century ago. After independence, a mere 320km of Mudumalai were declared a wildlife sanctuary, leaving out vast stretches of dense forests in the areas adjoining it. This has made huge populations of wild elephants, wild dogs, hyenas, gaur, sloth bear, leopards and tigers roam in unprotected areas that have been snatched away from them. Houses and farmlands have mushroomed in what was once the corridors of wildlife migration, leaving these animals disoriented and scattered in all directions.
Ombalan, a local wildlife expert, has witnessed dramatic changes in animal behaviour in the last decade alone. “Wild animals don’t trust human beings anymore,” he says. “How can they, when they have witnessed the brutal killing of members of their own herd by poachers? Or by reckless vehicles that speed along the national highway that slices this sanctuary into two?” At his small resort in Masinagudi, he showed me photographs and videos taken at his resort, which is located eight kilometres away from the sanctuary. The photographs include those of tigers, leopards, wild dogs, elephants and sloth bears. Stories of how a wildlife photographer survived an elephant attack four years ago, and how a French lady photographer was mauled and killed by a lone tusker just 4kms away last year serve as our bedtime stories.
Taking the elephant ride from the Centre, I entered the forest. Wildlife was conspicuous by its absence. It was almost as if they had deserted the forest, en masse. Selvam, the mahout, took us to a salt-lick where we were almost certain to find some wildlife. It was a small herd composed of just five elephants with calves in tow. “Sir, just a few years ago, the average size of a herd used to be 25-30,” said Selvam. “Now it’s come down to less than 10.” I remembered reading in a wildlife report that lack of sufficient food is a reason why herd numbers are dwindling. In that report, it was observed that reduction in prey base has reduced the average weight and size of tigers across India over the last decade.
At the only photography institute in India, Light and Life Academy in Ooty, I was told about the endless ‘intrusions’ of wildlife into urban jungles. Iqbal Mohamad, the principal of this college, on an early morning ride, saw a leopard as it leapt across from one side of the road to the other in front of his car. Charan Hegde, the head of administration, saw a hungry sloth bear on the roof of his cottage, as it was planning to cross over to the neighbour’s house in the night to steal honey from their apiary. And there was a news item about an ex-army officer who was gored to death by a gaur in nearby Coonoor when he had gone for his morning walk. All this made me wonder: Is it a case of man taking over the forests or is it one of wild animals taking over the urban jungle? Whatever be the truth, the situation is one that will lead to disaster.