Tracking Tortoises

Tortoises are difficult creatures to find in a forest. How does one search for a quiet animal with a shell the colour of wet leaf litter? Or for one that moves around mainly at dawn and dusk in a forest full of gaur, elephants, bears, and assorted snakes, and still come out of it reasonably intact, with enough data to write a Master’s dissertation?

When I began fieldwork in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve in 2002-03, it was a fairly well-researched place but few researchers had seen a Travancore tortoise in the wild. In 1983-84, J. Vijaya had done a pioneering study on these animals in the Anamalai—Chalakudy region but unfortunately, only a few brief articles had been published before her early demise and much of her remaining notes had been lost or had simply crumbled away over the years – the official record was a total of just seven tortoises and that too went a long way back, to E.O Moll, in 1989. Did that make this an extremely rare species or a particularly shy one?

When I decided to work on this species, I heard much well-meant advice against this choice of animal because there was the very real risk of not being able to gather enough information to get my degree.  But I was fascinated by what little I knew from watching captive Travancores in the Madras Crocodile Bank and was determined to give it at least one good try. In short, I was hooked even before I began.

So to field I went, with enthusiasm outstripping experience by a good margin. I showed around photographs of captive Travancores and it soon became apparent that they were known only to the older Malaimalasar and Kadar people in the sanctuary. They too said it was hard to find. After a month of fruitless searches with a number of field assistants ranging from an old man (who was quite deaf) to a Forest Guard (who wanted to be home by 4 pm sharp), I was getting quite desperate since I had a tight deadline at the end of which I would have to go back and write a thesis. Then I met Ganesan anna. He’d been away helping some filmmakers but I had left word with several people that I wanted to meet him since he had been highly recommended by other researchers who had worked in the Anamalai Hills.

Someone pointed him out to me when he sauntered into the Topslip teashop one day. By this time everyone around Topslip and the neighbouring Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary knew about my strange interest in tortoises, which seemed all the more odd in a region teeming with megafauna. But when I introduced myself to Ganesan anna, he first feigned ignorance about my project and then pretended to be too busy to work with me. I was really disheartened by his initial response since as far as fieldcraft went, he was a star. And it was very clear that he knew it!  I spent another few days of precious field time way-laying him every time he stepped outside his settlement and asking him when he might be free. Fortunately, he eventually agreed to work with me and said that he had seen a few tortoises before and had some idea of where to start searching. I think more than my pestering, it was everyone else’s conviction that this was too difficult a job even for him that did the trick, for he simply could not resist such a challenge to his expertise.

In the beginning, it was like working with a prima donna: I would go to our meeting point near the Topslip bus stop and wait for him to turn up. Some days he would be there on time and others he wouldn’t.  The times he didn’t, I would be left sitting at the bus stop, shredding fallen leaves with immense concentration and vigour. My stomach would churn with the worry of losing yet another day of fieldwork. He would add to my irritation by rarely bothering to explain why he didn’t come to work the previous day or failing to send word through someone that he had other plans.
However, the days he did turn up, I learned so much while walking in the forest with him that it seemed worth putting up with his temperamental approach to schedules. And best of all, he found us our first tortoise on just the third day of fieldwork! However, we went through almost two months of trial and error. At the end of each day, we’d discuss our hunches about how to refine our search. We figured out that it was best to enter the forest in the afternoon and search intensively until dark, so it would often be well past nightfall by the time we returned.  As he made it a point to remind me frequently, he knew the area like the back of his hand, so coming back in the dark posed no difficulties for him although we had to cut across long stretches of the forest before we hit a trail that could take us back.

Ganesan anna always brought a small bag with him when we went to the field. It would have a torch, some soapnut to make a paste to keep off leeches, and sometimes, a small matchbox and a roll of beedis. His machete was like an extension of his hand – I never saw him enter the forest without it. When we were a little way into the forest, he’d first stand still and silent and just look around, maybe wordlessly point out some fresh civet scat to me. Then he’d stand on one leg while he scratched at the other with his machete and pondered which direction we’d take that day. His deliberations over, he’d suddenly take off into the forest. I’d scurry behind, trying to spot birds in the canopy while avoiding tree roots which seemed specially designed to trip unwary researchers. It always took him an hour or two to thaw enough to actually talk to me, but since I enjoyed walking quietly, his silences were welcome and it meant that we missed little of the wildlife that came our way.

When we sat on a rock to catch our breath, he would point out medicinal plants and stinging nettles. Sometimes, he’d give me news from the settlement or help me learn the Kadar dialect. He’d make me recite the names of plants and animals we had seen so far. Or, we would have ten minutes of ‘conversation practice’ before resuming work. Initially, when I made mistakes, he would condescendingly tell me, “Literate people are not used to storing information in their head and should stick to writing things down in their little notebooks.” Perched on his rock, he’d look very pleased with himself after that declaration, unfazed even if I snapped back. As we grew to know each other better, he continued to say it, but with a big grin, and I often shamelessly chanted it with him when I had forgotten something. If the going was tough with rain and leeches, he would cheer me up with a folktale because I had an insatiable appetite for stories and would scribble them down as he talked. His wife and cousin were also generous sources of songs and stories whenever I visited their settlement, and they kept a protective eye on me throughout my field days.

I usually left it to him to make a lot of the in-field decisions but sometimes I had to insist that certain sampling schedules were followed. This frequently involved a verbal tug-of-war and in one instance, it ended with Ganesan anna and me vowing we never wanted to see each other again. Then the sisterhood stepped in: the women gave him a piece of their mind for fighting with me (unnecessarily of course) and he actually came looking for me two days later (I was shredding leaves by the bus stop). As we both found fieldwork too exciting to stop on account of our quarrels, we went back to work immediately.  But the impossible man had found a new dialogue now – if he didn’t agree with something I said, he would roll his eyes towards the sky, heave a huge sigh and say “Kadavule, yenna mattum kapathu!” (God, save only me!) It’s the best example I’ve heard of provocation masquerading as piety.  

You may wonder why I so wanted Ganesan anna to work with me despite all the drama – how hard could it be to find a creature that’s legendary for being dead slow? Well, tortoise hunting is incredibly difficult! Apart from the awkward hours, the creatures keep, clambering up and down rocky stream beds and tick- or leech-infested banks is exhausting work. In summer, we also had to keep a sharp lookout for thirsty gaur and elephants.

Travancores often tunnel their way into lantana thickets or bushes bordering streams and these are distinctive though it takes practice to identify them. Searching for the tortoise itself needs a lot of concentration and skill for they are beautifully camouflaged: sometimes you could be looking directly at one and still not realise it. You can almost hear a click in your head when the jumble of black and brown leaves you’ve been absent-mindedly gazing at for a couple of minutes suddenly resolves itself into the carapace of a Travancore tortoise sitting amongst leaf litter. It was usually at this point that I’d give a very unscientific whoop of delight and pounce on the poor animal to take measurements (altogether we found 79 tortoises over six months). Initially, I used to just tag along behind Ganesan anna, but with time, I acquired a keen eye for spotting tortoise trails and the animal itself. As I grew more experienced, when we reached a suitable place we’d split up and search. We had to be quiet as well because we discovered that noise made the tortoises hide under dense undergrowth. Whenever we separated to search, Ganesan anna insisted that we keep in touch using the soft ‘hoo-hoo’ calls of the lion-tailed macaques so he would know I was alright. My single-minded search for Travancores worried him because he felt I didn’t pay enough attention to the likelihood of stumbling across a sleeping bear. This was the only animal that made him nervous because startled bears tend to lunge straight at a person’s face and rake it with their long claws. He said that they were too stupid to realise a human was nearby until you got very close to them, and they were too mean to give adequate warning before attacking.

But it wasn’t only about being quiet. Finding tortoises needed sharp ears as well for sometimes you can hear the slow tell-tale sound of a tortoise ambling through the undergrowth. It was easier in summer when the leaf litter was dry and the deliberate scrunch of a tortoise’s footsteps could be heard several meters away. While I was quite happy with the way the experience was honing my senses, I must admit I came a poor second compared to Ganesan anna. He had a sort of sixth sense about which stretch of the stream bed to concentrate on and which one to casually walk past. And of course, all the while, he would also keep tabs on me and the other creatures!

Later, when I asked if we could extend our search to other patches of forest, he told me about the forests around Anaikundhy and Varagaliar but hesitantly mentioned that it would involve camping in the Anaikundhy watchtower, which was about 15 km from Topslip. But by this time, like many women researchers before (and after) me, I trusted him completely so I was willing to go and stay wherever he thought it was safe. We had to carry our rations and trek to the spot. We had underestimated the number of provisions we’d need but I didn’t mind in the least because he would cook interesting forest food like wild spinach and tender cycas fronds to eat with kanji. On one of the trips to Anaikundhy, we found that the mahouts from the elephant camp nearby had carried away the plates and glasses kept there. We fashioned containers from bamboo and everything we ate and drank had a mild, salty bamboo-ish tang to it. The Anaikundhy area turned out to be an even better place for tortoises. In addition to patches of forest, amidst old teak plantations, it had large stretches of grassy swampland (called vayal) which harboured tortoises. By now we had a good idea of where and how to search – we were averaging at least one tortoise a day. (I assure you, that was actually an impressive rate!)  But it was still such a challenging task that we gloated over every single one we found.

But Anaikundhy was memorable for another reason: I discovered the one animal Ganesan anna truly disliked. Ants! The watchtower was crisscrossed with ant lines that raided the rice and sugar that we and the anti-poaching patrol stored there. He would spend a lot of time squashing the ants with his machete because he believed that eating food with ants in it could make a person go blind. My giggling over his needing a huge weapon to eliminate a tiny creature never deterred him. He would simply ignore yet another pesky researcher telling him what’s what and just get on with wiping out the ants.

If he could have written a book, Ganesan anna would probably have written one titled ‘Bringing Up Young Researchers’. He has worked with several scientists, right from when they were young students many of whom still come looking for him whenever they are in Topslip. He takes his job very seriously, and so when he was working with me, I not only heard a lot of forest lore from him but also lectures on the importance of courage and so on. Since “why” is one of my favourite questions, we often had long discussions on many topics and I suspect I became more familiar with his worldview than someone who politely agreed with what he said.

As every researcher will attest, fieldwork is often grindingly hard work and there are days when the weather, leeches and ticks, hasty meals, and inability to have a long hot bath will all get to you. But what I found worse than all of those were the leering busybodies who flooded Topslip in the tourist season and thought a lone researcher was yet another strange animal to be commented on and provoked for a reaction. I had a few friends amongst the Topslip residents who would look out for me, but it was mostly having Ganesan anna and his family solidly on my side that helped me complete fieldwork. Their friendship and humour saw me through some stressful days.

It’s due to people like Ganesan anna that researchers like me are able to convert academic pipe dreams into publishable data. It is some fifteen odd years since I worked in the Anamalais but Ganesan anna and I still keep in touch through sporadic postcards and phone calls. When I told him that I wanted to write about our tortoise search, especially my experience of working with him, he had a predictable response, “Kadavule, yenna mattum kapathu!”

This article is from issue


2018 Sep