Magic Mountain

When Vijay Kumar lost his job, he went for a walk in the woods of South India's Palani Hills. He needed to figure out what to do with his life. The answer, it turned out, was right beneath his feet.

By / December 2011

“Shhh!” says Vijay Kumar, his left forefinger to his lips, his right hand signaling for me to stop moving. “We must go a little carefully from here,” he whispers. “There are many bison and boar in this area, where the cover is thick.”

Kumar, who has the suffering eyes of a poet and the silver-tipped beard of a sage, is leading me on a walking tour of the Palani Hills, the eastern swath of the Western Ghats mountain range in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Kumar, a trail guide and conservationist, has been roaming these mountain woods for nearly 30 years.

We tiptoe through twisting trunks of smooth-skinned shola trees, Kumar leading us noiselessly ahead. When he stops, I narrowly avoid smashing into his back, yet cannot avoid causing enough of a commotion to give away our whereabouts. Fifteen feet ahead, two massive black bison startle to their feet. With incredible speed and agility, they dart from out of the underbrush and up the mountainside.

These are not the first bison I have seen in India, but they are certainly the closest. The largest bovine species on earth, the male Indian Bison (or Guar) can be seven feet tall and weigh 3,000 pounds. They are nothing but horns and power, and two of them have just thundered across our path.

These personal encounters with raw, unbridled nature are one of the things that Kumar says he loves most about the Palani Hills. He has devoted his life to the study and preservation of this place, an effort that has taken on the urgency of a personal crusade as poaching, pollution, and the spread of non-native trees threaten to undermine the fragile ecosystem.

Kumar was born on the scorched plains of central India in 1954. He spent the better part of his boyhood in cramped cities — Hyderabad, Bangalore — but his father, a logistics officer in the Indian army, was stationed now and again in the Himalayas to the north.

It was there, as a child, in the shadow of Darjeeling’s snow-covered peaks, that Kumar gained his first impression of real mountains, an impression that stuck with him and grew ever more vivid with time.

As a young man, Kumar took a job in the kitchen of an isolated international school in Kodaikanal, a small British hill station high in the Western Ghats. He worked to get off from work, lived to explore the deep forests, the 8,000-foot peaks. Too smitten with the mountains to return to the drab cities of his youth upon losing his kitchen gig in Kodaikanal, Kumar retreated further into the mountains as if looking for a sign. “In those days, I started walking far into the forest, trying to figure things out,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just walked and walked, aimlessly.”

The deeper he ventured, the more he discovered. He found the hiding places of bison, deer, elephants, and bears. He learned the calls of the langur monkey and the tracks of the leopard. He discovered which mushrooms were edible (Fugo), which were poisonous (Entoloma), and which would give him strength and pleasant dreams (Psilocyban).

At first his peregrinations were solitary; over time he befriended several nature enthusiasts in town. As a group, they began making lengthy forays into the forest, camping for days and walking for miles uncounted through the wilderness. On one excursion, a friend led him to the caverns at Pillar Rock, an enormous, chimney-like formation outside Kodaikanal. Kumar returned to it often to explore the caves and surrounding terrain.

Returning from one of these solo outings in 1985, he passed a group of tourists lost in the woods. They asked him how to get to Pillar Rock, then offered him money to take them there. “That’s the day that my future became clear to me,” he says. “After that, I began hanging around the road near Pillar Rock. Very few tourists came up the mountain in those days, but when they did, arriving on foot, or horseback, or car, I would offer to show them the caves.”

His work as a mountain guide allowed him to scratch out a living in the place he loved. As his business grew, so did his knowledge of the local environment. He befriended botanists, geologists, naturalists. He uncovered new trails. On more than one occasion he nearly lost his life during run-ins with wild elephants and bison.

Kumar learned firsthand that the jungles of South India were still savage, remote places. He also learned that everything was not as it should be.

Non-native trees, introduced during colonial times, were consuming grasslands and choking out indigenous forests. Poaching, for the purposes of food and fur and recreation, was driving rare animals to the brink of extinction. Unchecked development was polluting water sources that had remained unspoiled for centuries. These problems were not new, but few people had taken notice. Fewer still had attempted to bring the depredation to a halt.

As we walk together along a rushing stream, through a pristine stretch of forest, the canopy so dense that only the pluckiest rays of light reach the fern-covered ground below, Kumar stops me and points silently to a branch high above.

“Giant squirrel,” he says. “Very rare nowadays.” I watch as the squirrel, three feet long, scuttles along a gnarled limb into a massive round nest of twigs and leaves.

It used to be that the natives of these mountains hunted animals only for food, but as the Indian economy has expanded and opened up, so has the black market for fur and animal parts. The pelts and organs of tigers, leopards, and bears often find their way to the streets of Chinese cities, where they are sold at high prices as aphrodisiacs and medicines. Much of the poaching, though, remains recreational.

Kumar says the government has taken some steps to curb illegal poaching. The forests here have been deemed protected lands. Wildlife officers occasionally patrol them, but Kumar says that corruption is rampant. Poachers regularly pay bribes. Kumar even claims that some officials host secret hunts for those willing to pay top dollar.

We approach a small patch of grassy slope. It is ringed with monstrous, hundred foot tall Eucalyptus and smaller, scrubbier wattle trees. “This should all be grass,” Kumar says, explaining the other major environmental quandary facing the Western Ghats. “Those trees are alien species, and they’ve covered the mountains. Historically, the tops of the mountains have always been grasslands, which were key grazing areas for the bison and elephants and deer.”

The terrain began to change when the British introduced eucalyptus and pine trees to the area in hopes of building lucrative lumber plantations. The plantations never got off the ground, and the British eventually left, but the trees remained, growing and spreading at a rapid pace. These were followed by the wattle, a scrubby, thin-leafed species with a massive underground root system.

For a time, wattle oil was used in the tanning industry, but when that industry failed, wattle trees, like the eucalyptus and pine, were simply abandoned here to grow on their own. They filled the mountaintops, consuming the grasslands, choking out the shola, and forcing elephants and other animals to find food elsewhere.

Kumar says he hopes that the mounting pressure on India to address environmental problems trickles over into the Palani Hills. He helped found a nonprofit, the Palani Hills Conservation Council, to address some of the region’s environmental challenges. The group runs nurseries where indigenous trees are grown into saplings, and then replanted in the wild. They also lobby local and state government officials for greater protection for wildlife and trees.

Their lobbying offensive appears to be making a dent. In recent years, the Indian government has proposed turning the Palani Hills into a national park that would cover 737 square kilometers of forested mountains, centered around Kodaikanal, Kumar’s adopted hometown. If the plan were approved and implemented, Kumar says, the level of protection afforded the forest would increase dramatically. It could be the breakthrough he has been fighting for for years.

As we climb up the final slope heading back toward town, I ask Kumar, who is now 57, how he wants to spend his remaining days. “Here,” he says. “I want to live out my life here, in the forest, in the mountains.”

These mountains have beckoned him since birth. They have fashioned him into the man he is. They have afforded a decent living and endless inspiration for Kumar. Now, he says, he will not rest until he has returned the favor.


Chris Watts is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.