2004 – I was at cross roads: having to choose between academics and an offer to work in a King Cobra conservation project. Naturally, I chose the latter and in a week’s time was living in a rented house in Mangalore close to the Pilikula Biological Park.
Under Rom’s guidance I worked at the park for a year. I managed captive king cobras, monitored a wild King Cobra nest at Kudremukh and assisted in the filming of ‘The King and I’, a wildlife documentary made by Icon Films, BBC. By end 2004, Rom was on the look out for a piece of land in Agumbe to start a research station.
Collecting data from relatives of a king cobra bite victim (who died).
My journey into the kingdom of Kings had begun. I surveyed the length and breadth of all terrains in Karnataka where King Cobras were found – met with local snake handlers, visited families that had lost lives to King Cobra bites, interviewed doctors and medics about King Cobra bite cases, met local people from several villages to enumerate King Cobra sightings and learn about their perspective of this royal denizen of their lands. Armed with all this information and knowledge, we intently looked for a place around Agumbe and in December 2004 zeroed in on a 4.27 acre land at the edge of the forest with an old house, around 2km away from the village.
January 2005 – the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station was set up. Rom’s dream took shape and my dream of living in a rain forest was about to come true.
The old house in 2004, which is now the ARRS base
The old house was wrapped within folds of the forest. An areca plantation sprang out in the back yard and typical of all Malnad houses, a Tulsi plant in the front yard over looked a huge clear patch where paddy was once grown. Dark sooty walls stood grimly and crumbling roof tiles exposed gaps that served as a passage for clouds and mist to pass through. Being the home of a family that once supplied milk to all homes at Agumbe, every door, window, and the floor of the house smelled of milk. Electricity, water taps, telephone, mobile, the so called necessities of modern life were left behind 2km away at the village.
I plunged ahead into the adventure. I purchased utensils, groceries, candles, kerosene lamps, a blanket and the days rolled on. Exercise in mornings, fetching water from a stream behind the house, walking through dense pathways to procure daily needs from the village, cooking for myself,
Cooking under moonlight
exploring forests around, revelling in lost thoughts and sleeping under a blanket of mist typically made my day.
Critters galore, from beautifully coloured spiders, to noisy geckos and snakes were a common sight around the house. Mornings were filled with shrills of malabar horn bills, racket tailed drongos, great Indian black woodpeckers, sweet whistles of the malabar trogon, fairy blue bird and myriads of other birds. On one such evening while walking along the periphery of the property, a rustling sound caught my attention. I guessed it to be a huge snake and only hoped it would be a King and just as I had hoped I was rewarded with the first sighting of a King Cobra.
My first king cobra sighting at the base
It was a great feeling to stare into his eyes as he went by quite uncaring. Within a month’s time I bumped into another King drinking out from the same stream where I fetched water for myself. I was dumbstruck and this encounter made it very clear that I was indeed treading their land. I now understood why Rom often called this place the homeland of King Cobras! Apart from the King, the forest teemed with other wildlife too. I sighted my first leopard sitting in the front yard! Sambar deer, mouse deer, barking deer, gaurs, wild dogs, malabar giant squirrels, slender loris and langurs were regular visitors.
We were after all in Agumbe to study and learn more about the King Cobra! So within a week’s time I reached out to people through King Cobra rescues.
Bullet, 1981 model : My companion!
It was quite another challenge to travel on a Bullet with a snake hook and a snake bag and convince people about our good intentions of conservation.While most people welcomed me with a smile they suspected viciousness and malice behind my back, as happens with any new stranger in a closely knit village! I persisted without any prejudice and reached out all the more and delivered talks in schools, colleges, local resource groups, self help groups, participated in village forest committee meetings, and interacted and conducted open air video shows with a television and a projector at the remotest of villages. A sense of acceptance came in when a school student who attended my talk prevented his parents from destroying a King Cobra nest and informed me about it.
Interacting with people after a king cobra video show on a television
That year I got to observe three King Cobra nests, rescued twenty King Cobras and by the end of that year was invited to people’s homes for festivals, poojas and family events. I felt I had arrived.
But what was to arrive next was the biggest surprise of all…..the Monsoon! It struck by end May and with it brought in a total makeover to my life style.
Monsoon meant, no sun and relentless downpour for months....
It poured for days together, roofs leaked, my bullet started to rust and I could hardly see anything three feet ahead of me! The strident sounds of the cicadas and birds were lost to the rattling noise of relentless downpour, croaking of frogs, and sloshing sounds of my own foot steps marching through foot deep water. Fresh life bloomed everywhere, mushrooms, orchids, and fungus! Like a phoenix, leeches seemed to rise from the dead and spread out like a live carpet. With 99% humidity and absolutely no sun, nothing would dry. Fungus started to grow on walls, clothes, groceries, my cherished photographs and my own body! Rom still recalls and jokes about how he caught me drying my Boxer shots over a gas stove and burnt it! Cooking was a disaster with vegetables rotting soon, groceries becoming damp, salt almost turning liquid and eggs spoilt. Experiences became my teachers and they slowly taught me to make fire with fire wood, purchase only what was necessary for the day’s cooking, parcel my white clothes to Bangalore, use salt, snuff and castor oil to combat leeches and plan ahead to keep things dry. Once I learned these lessons, things seemed a little easier.
Once monsoon receded, we started renovating the old house
The make shift room that was my abode for six months during renovation
Life moved on with each day being an adventure and after a year Prashanth joined me as base supervisor and also assisted me in my work with King Cobras.
Prashanth assisting me with a king cobra hatchling
Suresha, the cook....at our first kitchen!
I started to concentrate more on research, education and public relations with the forest department and villagers.
Rom and me at our first office
ARRS started to grow with Rom’s prize money from the Whitley Fund for Nature and his most valuable guidance.
Fresh engraved stone acknowledging support from the Whitely Fund for Nature
Over the next four years, three cottages were constructed, an office, library and lab took shape, a jeep was purchased, the world’s first radio telemetry study on King Cobras began, research projects not just on king cobras but amphibians, climate monitoring studies, plants, an organic garden and several education programs were started, a weather station was installed, volunteers and visitors started to pour in and ARRS slowly started to make a mark of its own.
ARRS as it is today. Our first jeep is seen in the background
Thus has been my journey so far with ARRS. My reward are all those experiences that helped me grow, people’s acceptance and confidence and the growth of ARRS. I continue to be a consultant at ARRS and look forward to more research and action at the research station!
Much has changed over the years (since all the ‘firsts’) and to know how ARRS looks now and what is happening there, do visit : http://www.agumberainforest.com.
Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar | Edited by : Shweta Harish
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