An under-(rated)-story

Bengal Tiger maybe the apex predator, ardent protector and supreme destroyer of the subcontinental forest. Thus, he plays the pivotal role in carrying on the cycle of life in his kingdom which in turn has earned the status of almighty for him.

But the splendor of a monsoon night in his forest rests on some relatively ignored and misunderstood creatures living at the darkness of the downstairs of forest.

My journey in the Shadow of the Bengal Tiger was for seeking the answer to the question, “Why tiger is perceived as the god of subcontinental forest?” So far in this journey that question has generated several other questions, and the most existentially challenging question among all other questions is the question related to this so called supremacy of big mammals or big cats in ecosystems.

To find the answer to this question we need to look down, and I literally mean it.

The answer lies on the understory of the forest. The most ignored part of forest but the most significant from eco-restoration point of view. The species of forest undergrowth are seriously “misunderstood” living creatures although the undergrowth of tropical rainforest plays immense role in nourishment process of the forest, which in turns provide nourishment to every other species including “big mammals”.

Therefore, to further witness the importance of herpetofauna in the Shadow of the Bengal Tiger, my next herping expedition during monsoon was planned in a mid-elevation hill station with tea and coffee plantations, surrounded by evergreen forest of Western Ghats. It was in a private reserve forest, considered as sacred groves also locally known as “Devara Kadu” situated adjacent to the Parvathi Valley Coffee Estate of Coorg or Kodagu district of Karnataka.

Kote Betta peak in “The Scotland of India”

If Agumbe is known as “The Cherrapunji of the South”, then Coorg is “The Scotland of India”, because of the striking similarities between the two places in terms of lush forests, breathtaking views, rich biodiversity, numerous fresh water bodies and romantic climate. The concept of this “Devara Kadu” has immense impact in conservation history of this Indian highland. Felling, lopping, clearing of fallen branches, plucking of weeds, pruning or burning of trees is prohibited in “Devara Kadus”. It is believed that offenders will be punished with death by the folk deity. Granting of sacrosanct status to forests dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation. In Kodagu, kings considered a stretch of forest sacred and cared for the folk deity who in return protected his land. “Devara Kadu” of Kodagu falls under the tropical evergreen forest belt of Western Ghats. Even though Kodagu has one sacred grove for every 300 acres, the highest in the state, the groves are still depleting. The pressure of economic returns from plantations has resulted in their depletion. Yet, to some extent, the spiritual connections with these ecological havens are keeping them alive.

The scared groves which I visited between 17th and 19th Septemebr of 2021, was a 1000 acre forest situated in an area which receives a high amount of rainfall, the environment around possess a wide variety of life, especially with regards to numerous species of amphibians and reptiles, many of them being endemic to the area and found nowhere else on Earth. The area is also amazingly rich in bird life that boasts over 300 species including the beautiful Malabar trogon, orange minivet, hill myna, Asian fairy bluebird and various species of woodpeckers, flycatchers and raptors. Mammals found in the area include, leopards, barking deer and wild boar and an amazing array of nocturnal life such as mouse deer, various species of lesser cats, flying squirrel and porcupines. During my visit I got to see plenty of Malabar grey hornbills, Malabar parakeet, plum headed parakeet, yellow browed bulbul, black throated munia, golden leaf birds, white cheeked barbet, red whiskered and red vented bulbul.

But not the commonly seen avian fauna, it’s the endengenered undergrowth flora and faunal species which were the highlights of my visit. Under the mentorship of Bangalore based Anglo-Indian Wildlife photographer-Naturalist couple Phillip and Samantha Ross, I could spot seven different frog species, numerous different insects (including five different species of spiders), five different fungi, three different individuals of blue morph of Malabar pit viper and plenty of wild flowering plants, mosses and ferns.

Strobilanthes cuspidatus

During monsoon of 2021, already over crowded by tourists, Coorg or Kodagu (which means ‘dense forest on steep hills’) was reintoruduced to the world by the tourism industry for a different reason, which added even more load in this nature destination’s already exceeding carrying capacity.The reason was blooming of a flower of a tree of Acanthaceae family. The species is Strobilanthes kunthiana, locally known as Kurinji or Neelakurinji in Malayalam and Tamil. Nilgiri Hills, which literally means the blue mountains, got their name from the purplish blue flowers of Neelakurinji that blossoms only once in twelve years. However, the flowers which were blooming in Coorg on the Shola ecosystem surrounding Kote Betta peak (the second highest peak of Karnataka) were a different species under same genus, known as Strobilanthes cuspidatus. This species bloom once every seven years, and then die. Their seeds subsequently sprout and continue the cycle of life and death. The important aspect of human-nature interaction associated with this species is, the Paliyan tribal people living in Tamil Nadu used it as a reference to calculate their age.This plant flowers during September–October. During my visit to Coorg I could witness that blooming when it already reached at its fag end but till good enough to establish the capability of this shrub to bring in youthful vigor and freshness of the evergreen rainforests of Western Ghats.

Impatiens scapiflora

Another strictly endemic angiosperm of Western Ghats I found during my Coorg visit was Impatiens. The Impatiens found in Western Ghats are all endemic to this region and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. One of them is Impatiens scapiflora. As Western Ghats is also hub of tea/coffe plantations and tourism, therefore growing demand for these two activities are now the biggest threat to survival of these species. Based on a blog called happybotanist.com, all of the Impatiens species present in the Western Ghats are either endangered or critically endangered as their environment is changed by humans.

Flowering plants have many reasons to attract attention of human being, although for the survival of the species it’s more important to get attention of birds and insects that help them in pollination.  But there are another kind of ignored undergrowth species lies between plant and animal kingdom. The Fungi, they grow well under moist and warm conditions, in the presence of suitable nutrients. Most of them are saprotrophic, that is, they obtain their nutrients by growing on dead animal and plant remains, and that makes them one of the most important contributors in maintaining the vigour of the habitats for every species, including our beloved Bengal Tiger.

Mycelium Running

Fungi break down plant and animal matter and recycle important elements like carbon and nitrogen back into the natural environment. The rainforests of the Western Ghats provide ideal conditions for the occurence of a wide diversity of remarkable fungi. Among the five different types of fungi I could spot during my Coorg exploration, one was Coprinus sp. As these are saprotrophes, they decompose wood, dung, and forest litter. Their spores, when dissolved, form a black, inky substance that can be used as writing ink. Hence, their common name–ink cap fungus. Other species I found were Stereum and Foitopsis bracket fungi. Another mind blowing observation during my “macro-photography” in Parvathi Valley Coffee Estate was display of mycelium network of Schizophyllum (bracket fungi). Mycologist Paul Stamets, in his book titled Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, mentioned, “…mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind. The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.”

If the health of the forest is taken care of by the undergrowth flora then the rejuvenation of the forest by the undergrowth fauna.

The musical ensemble constituted by these undergrowth fauna, accompanied by all the onomatopoeia of rain fall, starting with pitter-patter to end with whoosh and splash, changes to mark the trasition from daylight to dusk in rainforest.

My night walk in monsoon in the forest of Madekere range of Kodagu district was also not an exception. In the presence of daylight when we were primarily busy with fungi and flowering plants, our background score was iconic sound of cicada. Then under the dim lit canopy cover, when we were busy with a blue morph of Malabar pit viper, sound of cicada was faded by pitter-patter of light rain. Gradually it became the whoosh and splash of heavy down pour, which immobilized us for good 30-45 minutes. Then again it was changed into pitter-patter, with the new orchestra acompaniments of varied range, from the tick-tick of wayand bush frogs, high-pitched whirring of bicolour bush frog, to a deep bonk of common tree frog. The darkness engulfed us and along with the variety of sounds made by numerous unseen insects, amphibians and reptiles, the rainforest came alive.

Coorg yellow bush frog

With the flash of hand-held and head torches in those few nights in Coorg, I found species of Indosylvirana (golden frog), bicolour bush frog (Malabar frog), Pseudophilautus wynaadensis (Waynaad bush frog), Raorchestes luteolus (Coorg yellow bush frog), Rhacophorus lateralis (small gliding frog), a species of Fejervarya and Raorchestes ponmudi. Out of them except golden frog and Fejervarya all others are endemic to Western Ghats.

Among all the frog species I found, ponmudi is critically endangered, Waynaad bush frog and lateralis are endangered. As far as Coorg yellow bush frogs are concerned, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has marked their conservation status is “Data Deficient”. This actually raises even more concern, because “data deficient” status is given when the absence of records about particular species may indicate dangerously low abundance.

Coorg yellow bush frogs are most commonly found in disturbed habitats, near coffee plantations adjacent to primary forests and waysides. They are often found on leaves or stems of shrubs about one metre above the ground. Male frogs start calling at dusk, first under the leaf litter and then ascending to the vegetation. A beautiful blue ring around their pale yellow elliptical eyes gives them a mesmerized look of “the frog prince” from Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.

Ponmundi

The ponmudi is another endemic species to the Western Ghats and like others in the genus have a life-history that involves direct development, the tadpoles develop into tiny frogs within the egg. It was first described from Ponmudi hill of Kerala after which it is named but the species has a wider distribution within the southern Western Ghats and besides Coorg has also been recorded in Wynaad, Idukki, and Thiruvananthapuram districts in Kerala, and Valparai in Tamil Nadu.

Spider species of this forest are also delight for the nature lovers. The montion worthy species from unique natural history point of view are two genus of Araneidae family. These are Argiope anasuja and Parawixia dehaani. Spiders of Araneidae family are commonly known as orb web spiders. Argiope’s speciality is constructing orb webs attached to the branches of plants, and the spiders rest in nearby shaded areas. On disturbances they vibrate the web vigorously by projecting the bofy from the surface of web.

On the other hand, the nocturnal Parawixia spider constructs a vertical web with an open hub. The web looks abandoned with damaged portions and this may lead to avoidance of further searching by predators. The spider hides underneath a dry leaf during the daytime, is very well camoufleged with the suvstratum and is very difficult to be seen. When disturbed, it falls onto the ground and exibits catalepsy with legs retracted close to the body. Our Parawixia in that forest was found busy with an insect kill in her web.

The “Devara Kadu” of Kodagu is the habitat of so many of these entrancing undergrowth species. The small gliding frog is decalared as an endangered species, nevertheless in those couple of days I spotted at least 10 of them in that forest. The folklore of forest deity plays significant role in conservation, that’s how sicence and mythology holds each others’ hands. I witnessed that before in Sundarbans, where respect for Bengal Tigers was triggered by the stories of Bon Bibi.

“Devara Kadu” near Parvathi Valley Coffee Estate

Currently, there are nearly 1,214 “Devara Kadu” in Kodagu covering an area of 4,614 hectares and, 18 native communities are involved in worshiping 165 folk deities and ensuring safe heaven for undergrowth biodiversity including endengenred and critically endangered species.

Nevertheless, in the past decade, “Devara Kadu” have been reduced to less than 9,000 acres from the original 15,000 acres, according to a survey on “Devara Kadu”, as published in 17th June 2018 online edition of The New Indian Express. “There have been a lot of encroachments. The deities are not as feared as before leading to these encroachments”, as mentioned by the then DFO of Madikeri range of Kodagu, Mr. Manjunath.

Around 10:30 PM, when we were leaving the forest, Samantha spotted two pairs of fine and long antenna, protruding out from the underneath of a large leaf of Arabica coffee tree. Phillip went close and confirmed a pair of mating cicada. The key vocalist of the daytime consert in the forest of monsoon caressed Western Ghats, was engrossed in the process of bringing new life and spreading love for all the jewles of Mother Nature.

Suddenly, the soft emphatic whistle of a slender loris was added into the nocturnal orchestra of rainforest, applauding the significance of “inherent value” of all life forms on earth.  

Mating pair of Cicada underneath Arabica coffee leaf

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