• Fields of the Awards
Wandering through Wonderland
by   Abdul Kader

Cold breeze whipped against my face as I zipped past the lush green hills of the Western Ghats. After three and half hours of strenuous driving from Coimbatore and clearing three check posts I finally reached my destination, the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary. I was here with the assignment of conducting an interview for the 5th Green Guards Awards.

Day 1
It was almost afternoon when I reached the DFO’s Office at Annaikati. After a brief session of interview with the Wildlife Warden Mr. Sanjayan Kumar, I proceeded uphill in a forest vehicle accompanied by Mr. Manoj, the Secretary to the Wildlife Warden. Driving past ‘Nalayiram’ an open grass land dotted with spotted deer, peacock and langurs, we proceeded alongside the Thunakadavu reservoir and Sungam tribal colony with sightings of mugger crocodiles in its waters on the left side.A zig-zag drive took us toThunakadavu dam view point, offering a view of Teak stands and enchanting Vengoli hills on the back drop. We saw a portion of the Peruvaripallam dam as well and the Nelliampathy hills. We crossed the Thunakkadavu Dam and drove up amidst the whooping calls of Nilgiri langurs, later encountered a few of them on our way. While traversing upwards I was pleased to be greeted by a herd of Gaurs grazing on the slopes, pausing every now and then to reticently observe us. It was in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary I first learnt the fact that there are actually no bisons in India! What we have are gaurs. The shiny black, imposing animal with white legs — as if wearing white socks — is also the Park Mascot of the sanctuary which was only recently declared as a tiger reserve.

Our next stop-over was at Parambikulam Valley Point. I was spellbound by the spectacular sight, watching the highest peak in Parambikulam - the Karimala Gopuram and the valley towards Kuriakutty and Chalakkudy. Manoj told me the three reservoirs are part of the Parambikulam Aliyar Project. There are two primitive tribal settlements (of Malamalasar and Kadar) at the dam site. This thick, opulent habitat of the sanctuary with ample fresh watersupply, makes it the perfect abode for wildlife in the nurturing embrace of Mother Nature. I was enamoured by the artistic wizardry of our Almighty creator. A splendorous sight indeed...unsurpassable by any human hand, I inferred.

I had a meeting with the Wildlife warden after I returned back to the base camp which was marked by yet another round of fascinating discussion. Parambikulam Sanctuary was gripped by the menace of cattle grazing. The tribes and locals who owned about 500 cattle were persuaded to sell off their animals.They were offered better livelihood with lucrative and alternate remunerative jobs. A section of the tribals were absorbed in the sanctuary protection force while others were provided with the jobs as nature guides for all tourists visiting the sanctuary. They were also trained to lead the tourists into several trekking trails and dolmen trails. He explained to me about the several ecotourism activities that they had initiated in the sanctuary. The concept of eco-tourism has bloomed in its true sense at Parambikulam. Innovative tour-packages are the mainstay those offer the visitors a lifetime opportunity to watch wildlife in its habitat. An array of 16 well-conceived programme include Pugmark Trail, High Range Hiking, Elephant Song Trail, Cochin Forest Tramway Trekking, Full Moon Census, Tree Top Experience, Peep through Watch Towers, Vettikkunnu Island Nest, Bamboo Rafting, Parambi Cruise,Tribal Symphony or Hornbill Watch. It is indeed a sustainable model of development.

All such treks, meticulously planned and executed, classified into categories of soft, medium and hard are distance, terrain and endurance specific. Price tag ranges for Soft treks: Rs. 300. Medium treks: Rs. 600 to 3000 (for a minimum group of six persons). Hard treks: Rs. 1000 to 4000.

Overnight accommodations inside the forest are equally impressive. Parambikulam is dotted with tree top houses, log-huts, Machaans (camping sites), Island Inns, Tented Niche and dormitories, sheltered beneath the undulating canopies, those are run by EDCs. There are luxury lodges as well under the control of Forest Department. For a fancied sojourn in the woods, such outfits are matchless to experience its true ambience minus some city life amenities while those prefer stays in the lap of luxury can reserve rooms in the lodges well in advance. Accommodation tariff varies between Rs. 80 to Rs. 3000 depending on types. Vehicles are restricted to up to 30 a day to maintain the peace and serenity of the forests.

I was quite impressed by the innovative measure taken by the tiger reserve authorities to make the reserve a plastic-free “ParambikulamDhara”. Initially due to the lack of a strong supervision the tourists despite repeated warnings,would discard theirempty mineral water bottles inside the sanctuary. The Forest Department’s ‘Parambikulamdhara’ has adopted a plastic free zone that provides pure drinking water to Eco tourists but also created employment opportunities to the local tribes. The project is being implemented by the Eco-Development Committees (EDCs) constituted by Forest Development Agency. Eight EDCs functions at present. The Reserve authorities have initiated a host of other innovative livelihood programme such as Parambikulam Bee Wax Balm Unit, Honey Unit, Paper bag Unit, Souvenirs from recycled plastic waste, Tailoring Unit and Bamboo Handicraft Unit. The products are sold through the outlets called ‘Eco Shops’.