I’ve grown up in these parts, and written a fair amount about how well adivasis know the forests. But I’m not the kind to be poetic about the their abilities to look for tracks and other animal signs. I believe its a skill like any other, that you acquire over time, being in a forest environment. Once they point out the grasses and shrubs all leaning in one direction thanks to a herd of moving elephants it seems obvious. If you train yourself to look for those signs, soon enough you also see them. With a little more practice you can start estimating the number of elephants and and along with other signs how long it was since they passed. With time you will start noticing cropped foliage, and depending on the height and plant you can guess it must have been gaur. I’ve seen some non-tribal guards and watchers who also have learnt a lot about the forests and its signs. And quite honestly, after all the time I’ve spent with these people in the forests added to the various census operations I’ve been through I quite fancy my own ability to read some of these signs.
But today I was blown away.
I had gone to Benna, a part of Mudumalai close to Pattavayal and the Kerala border. There are 4 villages inside to core, with Kattunayakans as well as Chettys, and talks of relocation are underway. The Chettys are all waiting to move out, and land has been identified in Aiyankolly (about 20 km from there), but the Kattunayakans are clear they can’t go that far. And in all fairness, the forest department is listening to what they are saying, and not trying to force them into anything. We were discussing the possibility of moving to the the edge of the core zone in the same area, within walking distance of where they were.
We were sitting around, me listening to various stories, waiting for more people to come, and I noticed a little black spec settling on my shoulder. I looked around and into the air, and noticed there there little wisps of black floating around. Very pleased with my observation, I declared that there was a forest fire somewhere. It was still to far to see, hear or smell, but this was the first sign. The charred blades of grass carried long distances in the wind.
Just as I was mentally patting myself on the back for being the first to notice it in a group of adivasis, Vasu got up and picked up a little wisp and felt it powder as he rubbed it between his fingers. He moved a bit to get a clear view of the surroundings, and then declared that the fire was on one particular hill, well inside the Karnataka border. And without stopping he went on – “It will reach our forest in about an hour. Some of the forest people will be calling us soon. And the forest watcher’s phone does not work, so he’ll come running to call us soon after that.”
In about 10 minutes the Range Officer called him to say here was a raging fire on the Karnataka side, and to ask if all the people could get ready to go the boundary and ensure it didn’t spread into Mudumalai. And in 20 minutes the watcher came running to say the same thing.
He had looked at the little wisps of ash and decided what kind of grass it was. Then from the direction of the wind he decided roughly where it was coming from. He knew that particular grass only grew on that hill, and from experience knew how long it would take to reach here and what the department’s reaction would be.
I think it’ll take me a long long time to get to that level.