Eravikulam National Park in Kerala may not spring to mind if you recall India’s major wildlife reserves. It covers, after all, only 97 square kilometres, and plays second fiddle to the rolling tea country of Munnar. But it is home to India’s largest population of Nilgiri Tahr, a gorgeous cousin of the sheep (and not the mountain ibex of the Himalayas that it resembles), and is endemic to the montane grasslands and the shola forests of the Western Ghats. The national park came into being – as with most protected areas – after indiscriminate hunting resulted in Tahr numbers being reduced to a precarious level. The region’s colonial tea planters often trekked up to the highlands of the Ghats and hunted them, before their population shrank to as few as 100 individuals at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the park has about 800 Tahrs, out of the 3,000 that live across the Ghats.
Eravikulam Park authorities have done a magnificent job. A winding one-kilometre walkway takes one to a high plateau from Rajamala, where visitors de-board the buses that bring them from the park gates. The basalt massifs of Anaimudi, the highest peak south of the Vindhyas, and Naikolli Mala, dominate the park and tower over visitors as they walk up from Rajamala, where an information centre lists the do’s and don’ts of the park. The rules don’t differ from that of any other protected area: Do not disturb animals. Do not trouble animals. Don’t touch the animals. Don’t stray off the path. And they are well-displayed. They appear at intervals, always reminding [human] visitors they are intruders in an ecosystem that is not ‘theirs’, but the wild’s. The Tahrs themselves seem accustomed to human presence, so when the first one comes traipsing down the tarred path, there is a moment of surprise before the cameras whirr.
For the family of eight walking in front of us, though, it’s a moment of raucous joy. First, a young child, about eight years old, attempts to kick out at the Tahr. The animal seems unfamiliar with this gesture, and quickens its pace. The adults are laughing. Then another child picks up a stone and attempts to throw it at the Tahr. Even as it runs down the slope to escape any possible injury, one of the adults asks the child to stop. The stone is not thrown, and a sheepish grin is offered in lieu of a reprimand.
The walk continues. It is Onam, one of Kerala’s most important festivals, and the park is extremely crowded. The ticket counter suggested only 2,250 visitors were allowed in daily, a bid to reduce human pressure on this delicate ecosystem, but that’s a lot of people on a kilometre-long path. There are a lot of selfie sticks being extended – the landscape is surreal, to say the least, and they deserve to be photographed. The Western Ghats have come alive in the monsoons. Are there names for these many shades of green?
Another Tahr, this time a big male with resplendent horns, appears on the path. It’s busy grazing, but the human interlopers have a better idea. They want it to pose for them; they shove their mobile phones in front of it, the selfie sticks fully extended. They want to take a selfie with the Tahr! They make all sorts of sounds in an effort to make it look their way. One first, then a second, then the third: each wants a selfie with a Nilgiri Tahr, one of the world’s rarest mammals, with a population less than that of all Tiger species. The Tahr is nonchalant. It doesn’t care, until one tries to hold it by the horn. By then, it’s had enough. It goes down the slope, away from human eyes.
The wild has an unspoken rule – humans do not belong. We are visitors, first and foremost. In the few pockets we’ve deemed ‘wildlife reserves’, the rules exist for a reason. These reserves are for the animals, and not for us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold true for most of us. Humans, by nature, are exploratory, curious beings. That’s deeply problematic; we ravage the lands that come into our possession. The attitude that ‘rules are made to be broken’ may work wonderfully in an environment of conformity, but not in the wild – or wherever wild animals are concerned. The week-long concern about the young man who jumped into the white tiger’s moat at the Delhi zoo, or the man who tried to click a picture with another tiger at Guwahati zoo, or the many instances of zoo vandalism that occur across the subcontinent – all of these show a basic disregard for animals in general. Then there is the disregard for the wild in general, best exemplified by the four loud men in the Gypsy who raced off while shouting, ‘Yeh to ullu hai (It’s just an owl!)’ while our guide in Corbett National Park pointed us towards an eagle-owl perched on a tree.
It may be that urban living leaves us with no empathy with the wild; it may be that we prefer concrete jungles to real ones. There is little that we’re taught about how to behave in the wild in any case in our part of the world. Or maybe we’re just obsessed with selfies, like the young men at Eravikulam.