AFTER A GOAT IN THE GHATS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). After a Goat in the Ghats. Living. September-October 2006. Page 110-111. Volume 02, Issue 01. ISSN 1800-0746.
In pursuit of a rare species of goat, Gehan encounters a host of birds in western India.
Eravikulam – stronghold of the Nilgiri Tahr
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne find the endangered Nilgiri Tahr in the hills of Southern India
Four days into our tour of the Western Ghats, the cyclone which had lashed at us was finally over. A crisp chill and a blue sky marked our arrival at the Eravikulam National Park, the last stronghold of the Nilgiri Tahr, a species of wild goat. But this was not any old goat, this was an endangered species which has been brought back from the brink of extinction. In one of the most beautiful areas in Southern India, amongst the cold, craggy hill tops of the Nilgiris, it is staging a slow comeback.
We had left the High Range Club by six in the morning as it was important to be amongst the first visitors to enter Eravikulam National Park. The High Range Club is a delightful left over from the colonial days of the British Raj. A sign by the bar still warns that women are not allowed in the bar although it is no longer enforced. The manager had proudly shown us a book in which it is listed amongst the top one hundred clubs in the country. Despite the obvious pleasures of un-winding in a charming colonial club, we knew we had to make early start and forgo the indulgence of a relaxed breakfast. The later you arrive at Eravikulam, the harder it becomes to see certain species of bird like the Nilgiri Pipit. They are more likely to show themselves well to the first few visitors on the tarmacked road which winds up hill past the visitor center.
On our way, a Malabar Whistling Thrush flew across the road. A beautiful bird coloured in a deep blue, almost looking black at times. We pulled over to watch it for a while. It seems to be a fairly common bird judging by the calls we heard on the tour from various sites. The bird perched on a bare branch in good view. We watched mesmerized as it began to sing, fanning its tail and spreading its wings as it sang. Some of the notes in its song was very similar to that of the White-rumped Shama which we are familiar with in Sri Lanka.
Being in a small vehicle, we were permitted to drive up to the small information center with its focus titled as ‘The story of Eravikulam National Park’. The display area is small, around 25 feet by 16 feet. But it is an informative and extremely well presented introduction to the park. There is a stunning collection of photographs to accompany the narrative. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking at the design of visitor centers.
However, before our visit to the center, we immediately go on to the main access path. On entering, as if on cue, a pair of Nilgiri Pipits gave good views from just a feet away. The birds are very strongly marked and unlikely to be confused with any of the other pipit species, many of which are coloured in nondescript earthy colours. We heard the Painted Bush Quail calling, but this endemic eluded us. Walking up to a patch of forest we were thrilled to hear the endemic Nilgiri Langurs calling. We had distant views. Through our binoculars we made them out as dark primates with extremely long tails and brownish hair on the crown.
In a forest thicket a singing White-bellied Shortwing gave us a close but awkward view. Indian Yellow Tit, Tickell’s Warbler, Plain Prinia, Red-whiskered Bubul, Pied Bush Chat (very common), etc were other birding treats which made time pass quickly. But the star of the park, the Nilgiri Tahr was missing. We were wondering whether we would miss it when a herd of around fifteen came into view. They were just dark shapes against a blanket of mist which had rolled in. The wind gusted peeling away the mist and we had beautiful views of them outlined against the crest of a hill with a wide valley in the background.
The Tahr have a male dominated hierarchical mating system. A single male will attempt to dominate access to the females. The alpha male kept aloof. The Tahr have become used to visitors and the young rams jostled and butted each other oblivious to our presence. They were training for the day when one of them will gain dominance and guide the destiny of the herd.
With frequent media appearances, Gehan is a well known writer, photographer, wildlife populariser and tourism personality. E-mail him at email@example.com to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.