Semecarpus kathalekanensis, I heard the name for the first time, nearly after two decades of my forays in forestry. The closest I could place the Semecarpus was the dubious Dhobi's Marking Nut tree, Semecarpus anacardium. Even as I tried to discern this name, a deluge of Latin names was thrown at me, some known, and many unknown. The menagerie included Phillautus, Pinanga, Gymnacranthera, Knema, Myristica. It wasn't just Latin. Some closer to home stumped me too. Names like ‘knee roots' and ‘flying buttresses' challenged my dendrology, and there were some like ‘mudduraja' ("cute king" in Kannada, but turned out to be an ugly frog!). I realized it was time to don the student role again, and the year was 2004. Luckily, I had the great opportunity to visit a magical forest called Kathalekan - which means ‘dark forest' in Kannada - for the next six years, and frequently at that.
Every trip to Kathalekan was a revelation. The monsoon swept away all traces of learnings from my previous trip. Despite my very frequent jaunts to the forest, I observed substantial changes with each visit. Bare trees went on to bear fruits and sprout fragrant appendages that no botany book held a record of. Just when I thought I had seen it all, I stumbled upon new things.
I acquired knowledge not just from the forest, but also from the many experts who travelled to Kathalekan. One of them was MD Subhash Chandran, the person who actually brought fame to this forest. Though Semecarpus kathalekanensis was described by Dassapa & Swaminath for the first time, Subash Chandran's research revealed that the forests of Kathalekan were among the oldest in the world and the current vegetation was a remnant of primeval tropical forests. He also made the term Myristica swamps understandable to many working with nature. Walking in the field with MD Subhash Chandran was extremely rewarding, every swamp denizen was observed in detail and painstakingly explained. The moments I cherish the most from our field walks are those where he spoke in ‘Englisham' - he made every English word sound like Malayalam. He continues to work there and find new species, and is also very vocal about conservation of the region.
Another interesting person I met was the ‘kappe' doctor, KV Gururaj - the interpreter of frogs. The whole perspective of frogs in the Karnataka region of the Western Ghats has elevated to a new level by this young scientist, and Kathalekan is his favourite batting field. Out one evening in search of frogs, he asked me to identify a melodious call that rang through the forest. I was yet to come to terms with ‘frogging', and said that it could be a bird. He took off crazily in the direction of the sound and ran back to me brandishing the frog which made the call. I soon learnt that one could identify frogs the same way you could identify birds, through their calls. I also learnt from Gururaj that the frogs of Kathalekan are highly susceptible to even minute changes in water levels. Their entire breeding ecology is dependent on how streams in the swamps behave during the monsoon. His understanding and meticulous field notes about various species of frogs continue to amaze me. His passion for sharing his research with everyone via simplified science is noteworthy and his publications in that direction are laudable.
Prof.Vasudev of The College of Forestry, Sirsi, works in Kathalekan. One of the many topics he specializes in is the study of a lovely tree called White Cedar, a prized commercial species. While studying the regeneration abilities of the species, he found out that there was a greater success in regeneration when the seed passed through the gut of an endemic bird, the Malabar Grey Hornbill. He reminisces about how, while scouting the forest floor for seeds, he and his band of students had witnessed hornbills dropping seeds onto the ground. While he stood there, looking up to watch the hornbills, he saw a dropping coming his way and he quickly caught it mid-air! He went on to tell me how surprised he was at his dexterity to catch it, and how warm the seed felt in his hand. I am yet to come across a more zestful experience where a bird dropping was elevated to an exalted piece of natural history.
Kathalekan is not just a great forest but also a good example of how biodiversity can be preserved. Its very existence is thanks to the protection enforced by the Forest Department in the early 1980s as part of a research venture called ‘Linear Tree Increment Plot'. This protective cover has helped Kathalekan to stave off the matchwood extraction wave, where extremely huge sized soft woods were extracted for matchwood and veneer industries throughout the evergreen forests of Karnataka. Now Kathalekan offers researchers a ‘control' to compare similar areas subjected to extraction.
My tryst with Kathalekan came a full circle when we surveyed the forests of Sirsi - Honnavara divisions for the Lion-tailed Macaque. Headed by HN Kumara and Santosh K, the survey was an eye-opener to all those involved. It revealed a count of over 600 Lion-tailed Macaques in 32 different groups in an area of 36,000 Ha comprising almost entirely of reserve forests. This turned out to be the largest population of these macaques in the world. Luckily, Kathalekan too housed a few groups, which solved a nagging question on our minds - what should we do to give Kathalekan the conservation cover of a protected area? The best way was to ensure that, along with Kathalekan, the entire forest range between the North of the Sharavathi River and South of Agnashini River hugging the ridge of the Western Ghats, be notified as a Conservation Reserve. A new provision provided in the Wildlife Protection Act made the notification process faster and simpler. In 2010 the Agnashini Conservation Reserve was notified and Kathalekan got into the Protected Area network.
Kathalekan is an example of how good science coupled with a forward-looking management team can lead to better protection of our forests. This said, the battles are not over yet. There are lots of challenges that continue to be a threat to Kathalekan's conservation. The primary challenge is encroachment in the valleys upstream, mainly for cultivation of areca and banana. This affects water flows into the Myristica swamps and fluctuation of water levels leads to unfavorable changes in breeding cycles. Railway lines and roads cutting through the Ghats are threats too. Another emerging threat is from nature lovers and photographers, especially large groups that visit during the monsoon. It is nice that people get to enjoy the forests but the threat of loving it to death looms large.
Over time I have come to recognize that ecologically sensitive habitats are entirely dependent on the thin balance of nature, and that they are the first indicators of human-induced changes. It is forests like Kathalekan that tell us how we are treating our natural world.