Death by fire and elephant

‘Sorry’ said Romey, my guide, ‘we cant sleep here tonight’, there’s a forest fire, pointing to a thin wisp of smoke high up in the surrounding hills. We were due to sleep in a tribal bamboo cutters camp after a days trek through the Thattakkad Ghats, India, in a hunt for rare birds and animals. On previous treks I had either camped in modern tents, nicely cocooned from insects at night by a double skin of nylon and zips or had the luxury of the official guest bungalow and a proper bed. But this was supposed to be a special treat for me, to sleep with tribals and experience the sounds and see the wild life at dawn (the best time for observation) in the middle of the jungle.

These tribal people had agreed for us to use one of their ‘tents’, in which they live during in their nomadic wanderings while cutting bamboo for basket weaving, scaffolding poles, window blinds and furniture making. Eating from the roots of the jungle, catching fish and fresh water crabs from mountain streams and growing bananas and peppers in small clearings, their ‘tents’ consisted of plastic sheets and dirty tarpaulins hung on bamboo poles on a cleared piece of ground – no loos or obvious cooking areas, with beds a series of bamboo poles strung above the earth floor of the ‘tent’. The cleared ground around each ‘tent’, in my eyes, was no protection against the myriad of insects ranging from huge biting ants, innumerable moths, beetles and spiders or even the snakes which we had seen during our trek. Our food was supposed to be bananas, some grilled fish, ‘medicinal’ roots in a rice curry – tasty, but not one to which my western stomach was familiar and I also was not looking forward to the nights biting insect attack, as I was told, if I wanted to see animals, not to use repellent – they are sometimes sensitive to the smell!

Not wishing to appear ‘soft’ and disappointing my guides, who had enthusiastically shown me such rarities as ‘the Great Hornbill, Sri Lankan Frogmouth, Brown Fish Owls and Tickell’s Blue fly Catcher during the day, as well as sighting a pack of Dholes (Indian wild dogs) and Sloth Bear, I turned to my guide and asked ‘Why? The fire does not seem very big and the jungle is so humid that it surely cant burn for long’.

The guides reply certainly gave me added reason for the hasty retreat. ‘These tribals had their tents destroyed by elephants during the last dry season. The animals panicked at the sound and scent of the fire and rampaged through their camp. It’s too dangerous for you to stay here’.

Happy to take photos of the endangered animal and tribal life, we thankfully returned to the luxury of the village in the valley below, giving the camp’s children some sweets and a few Rupees in return for their hospitality. These photos now give me a reality check on how some people live on our planet – in constant danger!

C Manvell

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