Agumbe is a small village in Thirthahalli taluk, Shimoga District, Karnataka. You can recollect the memories of RK Narayan’s “MALGUDI DAYS” which most of the episodes were shot in Agumbe.
Agumbe receives an average rainfall of 8000mm annually and is often referred to as the Chirapunji of South India. It is situated 826 meters above sea level on the Sahyadri ranges. Agumbe is adjacent to one of the last surviving lowland rainforests in the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kudremukh national Park.
The Agumbe village is of 3 sq km in area with a population of about 600-800 people who largely depend on the areca plantation. These dense forests are home to the world’s longest venomous snake, the King Cobra.
ARRS [Agumbe Rain Forest Research Station]
To Rom Whitaker, snakes have always been a passion. He caught his first snake when he was just four. He wrote and studied extensively about the lesser known reptiles viz. crocodiles, sea turtles, snakes that nobody paid any attention to let alone conserving them. Rom set up Madras Crocodile Bank (1976), a gene pool for all the world’s crocodilians and India‘s premier research centre for herpetology.
Rom built a network of contacts in the Western Ghats [Sahyadri] and zeroed in on Agumbe as the most likely place for such a study. Rom’s dream was to have a Research station where the King Cobra casually crosses the backyard to drink from the spring and he found it Agumbe where in ARRS gave its birth.
As we say likeminded people join their hands together, Rom also wanted a person who can take care and manage the ARRS. That is were Gowri Shankar came into picture.
Like Rom, Gowri Shankar too fell in love with this place and its people. He has been fascinated with reptiles from childhood. Through school and college he spent most of the available money and time rescuing and working with snakes.
He worked with The SPCA, Bangalore as an animal inspector and rescued and relocated many snakes (more than 1000 snakes.).
In 1999, he functioned as the Education officer with the Madras Crocodile Bank, Centre for herpetology, Mahabalipuram, where he conducted seminars, slideshows and awareness programs. He was also in charge of the management of captive snakes including King Cobras.
He worked as a Research Associate for the King Cobra Conservation Project, and as a Reptile consultant at Pilikula Biological Park, Mangalore in 2004.
From 2005 Gowri became instrumental in setting up of the Research Station and making it functional. From rescuing King Cobras, releasing them, studying them, conducting educational workshops, and awareness programs among people, he spread the word of conservation in these areas. He is now the conservation officer with ARRS.
Back to our experience, at the ARRS, Gowri Shankar and his team heartily welcomed us. The previous night I had seen the episode of King Cobra “The Secrets of King Cobra” in the National Geographic Channel and I was very happy to see an NGC personality, who is easily accessible to the common man.
That night, at ARRS, we all assembled for dinner. Gowri Shankar introduced us to his associates[Prashanth, Vipul] who take care of ARRS while Gowri Shankar is on field work. The environment was incredible! It was rain cats and dogs and our wish to visit the Western Ghats in monsoon was fulfilled.
Gowri explained about the Radio Telemetry Project which is ongoing in ARRS. The world’s first king cobra telemetry project with a pair of kings (male 11 feet and female 9 feet). This was a collaborative effort between The Karnataka Forest Department, scientists, veterinarians and herpetologists from U.S and India. The whole radio-telemetry procedure was documented by the NGC (National Geographic Channel) crew and the film titled ‘The Secrets of the King Cobra’ was recently aired on the channel.
Radio transmitters were inserted into the snake’s abdomen through a simple surgical procedure. The forest department officials teamed up with ARRS during the whole process. These healthy snakes were then released back into the wild and were followed by trained radio trackers with the help of local forest trackers. Currently these snakes are being followed around the forests and farmlands and a lot is learned about the behavior in their natural habitat. This study about King Cobra is the first of its kind in the whole world and through this we hope to discover the unknown facts about this magnificent creature whose home terrain is Agumbe.
Every day a volunteer with a local tracker is sent to track the KING. I asked Gowri whether we can also join for tracking and then realized that before we can go inside jungle we should undergo the basic training of tracking by experts in ARRS.
Though we could not go for tracking, Vipul, an associate from ARRS promised to take us to a cave, which was amidst the jungle, were Manjappa, a local tracker had spotted a King Cobra while setting up a camera trapping equipment. The next day, at 6:30 a.m. we started to the cave in the continuous downpour. Vipul suggested that we wear anti-leech socks as the rainforest is full of leeches.
Manjappa, Vipul and our team headed towards the cave. We were searching every nook and corner of the jungle in anticipation of sighting the serpent. The moment we would stop, the leeches were attacking us from all directions. Rajeev and Pavan were bitten twice, and just when Karthik and I thought we had escaped, we too fell prey to the blood-suckers.
Vipul crawled inside the cave and setup the camera trap, while we stood nearby watching. It was a remarkable experience, which will last forever in our memories. We returned to ARRS, and Vipul and Prashanth briefed us about the goals of ARRS, which I would like to share with you all.
Conservation | Education | Rescue | Research.
Finally, it was time to return to Bangalore. After having coffee, we decided to take an early morning walk in the woods with one of the volunteers of the Research Programme. We saw a moss covered stone idol of the Snake God by the trail, and draped over the idol like a garland was a Pit Viper! We stood there in shock and took some pictures and then returned to ARRS. We thanked Sharmila (Mrs. Gowri Shankar) for her hospitality and appreciated all other volunteers of ARRS for their dedication towards wildlife conservation and with a heavy heart, left to Bangalore.
HATS OFF TO WESTERN GHATS…………!!!
Rom Whitaker- The snake Man of India
We all have seen in the television, read in the newspapers about tracking tigers, leopards and elephants. Why should we track these animals in their natural habitat? The answer is that we are loosing these beautiful creatures to poaching because of their skin, teeth, tusks, oil, venom, etc. Most of the animals are endangered, while some are already extinct. The future generation can only see them in photographs!
To keep track of these animals and understand their behavior in order to maintain the fine balance of ecology, researchers track them using the advanced equipments (GPS, Radio Collar, Radio Telemetry devices, etc.).
Have you ever heard of tracking a reptile, that too the world’s longest venomous snake, the King Cobra, in the thick jungles of the Western Ghats in Karnataka? That is what Pavan, Karthik, Rajeev and me learnt about and would like to share with you the most amazing wildlife odyssey we had in the Western Ghats.