I had a few day off from the conference mid-week, so I took the opportunity to hop on the local buses and do a couple of day trips. The first was out to Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary just across the state border in Tamil Nadu. There, I got to see wild elephants for the first time... amazing.
This was what I needed to truly start loving India... pleasant, quiet, beautiful rural areas and countryside. The bus ride out was beautiful as soon as we left the city limits. The flat areas around Mysuru are dominated by farmland, but as we approached the Western Ghats, it gave way more and more to patches of forest. We had to drive through Bandipur National Park before crossing the state border into Tamil Nadu, and that was where it hit me that India wasn't completely full of people. The national park was beautiful, and there were plenty of signs posted prohibiting any unauthorized stopping or hiking in order to protect the animals. Despite all this, tiger numbers in India are still catastrophically plummeting; it is almost inevitable that the wild tigers will soon be extinct. Poachers still figure out how to get what they need, ivory and tiger carcasses, to sell to markets in East Asia, who are just as guilty if not even more so for creating the demand for such slaughter. I also heard an interesting rumor about a cutthroat gang of female loggers, who are illegally harvesting wood from the national parkland in the area. These are the problems of overpopulation, in which the last pockets of pristine wilderness cannot be protected from the increasing onslaught of humanity looking to extort natural resources at any cost. India is just a warning of what is to come throughout the rest of the world soon enough if we keep allowing our population to expand exponentially.
Anyway, on to more positive things. Common langurs...these guys hung out just like a group of mischievous youths. This is a picture of the group at an information building at the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary, right by the bus stop. They are obviously very used to living in close proximity to people, as they showed no signs of fear. As soon as I was off the bus, local businessmen started inquiring into whether or not I was interested in a jeep tour through the area. Of course I was, so I started negotiating. I found a very nice man, who was quite willing to share information about the official tour through the park service. Since the official tour is direct competition to these guys, and it only runs at set times in the afternoon, I figured I could hop in one of the jeeps and see what I could see. We negotiated a deal I think we were both happy with, and I set off for a jeep tour around the outside of the park (the locals can't go into the park either, but there are many animals outside of the park too).
Did I mention how eerily human-like these common langurs are? This guy was just sitting by the side of the road...hanging out.
Just a little further down the road, the driver stopped again and pointed out these wild boars... and we saw plenty of deer too...its an atrocity that tigers are quite literally going extinct in India... was obviously clear that people were to blame since these boar and deer represent the abundance of tiger food running around.
And yes, elephants too. The driver was quick to point out though that this elephant (and others like him that we saw) were tame. There was an elephant sanctuary in the area and many of the elephants were kept to help with physical labor. I was kind of torn on the situation: it is an ancient tradition for mahouts to work with tamed elephants in India, and they are probably safer with the people than in the wild too. But to have them so close to wild herds must be tough on the elephants. Elephants are very intelligent and social animals...I just don't know about them being chained up their whole lives.
I also got to enjoy some of the local scenery from the jeep, something that was not guaranteed on the official tour later on. The Western Ghats form the spine of the Indian subcontinent, running north to south along the southwestern half of the landmass. They are old mountains, and thus not immensely high, unlike the Himalayas that form much of the northern boundary of India, but they are beautiful nonetheless.
As I mentioned in the Mysuru post, religion is everywhere in India. We stopped at two shrines like this one, both unattended and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Miles from the nearby village.
Ganesh over the doorway, flanked by holy cows.
It really was a relief to see such massive areas of wilderness. I kept dreaming of what was out there, with elephants and tigers dominating the themes in my wandering imagination.
We turned around at a very small community by a dam in the river. These three ladies had just finished washing clothes. The surroundings were very, very pleasant, but the people living around there obviously did not have much money. It reminded me of the woman we met in the Li River area of China, who told us that "yes, we are lucky that our home is so beautiful, but we are very unlucky because we are so poor."
I don't know what this guy was up to, but he looked peaceful, as did the rest of the landscape surrounding him.
The river back down by the bus stop. It ended up raining for ~30 minutes that afternoon. I was in India in late July, during the monsoon, which was supposedly behaving pretty odd this year. Despite that, I barely saw rain except for the couple of days I spent up in the mountains (which was good for my trip, but bad overall considering that farmers depend on those rains to grow their crops).
I can't stress enough how beautiful this area was...such a massive relief from the cities. I found myself relaxing quite often and just enjoying the nature surrounding me.
Some monkeys hanging out by the river. There really were animals all over the place here. It was quite impressive.
The rain I mentioned above...it was a pretty short downpour, but pour it did. It was heavy and steady for 15-20 minutes. Fortunately, I found shelter in a gazebo down by the river and enjoyed the wet, shedding atmosphere from there.
Speaking of those animals, here is the listing of sightings in the wildlife sanctuary (really like a national park... just a big wilderness area). I was very excited about the tigers and leopard that had been spotted just a few weeks before I was there. Note that these are animals sighted by visitors on the official tour, not by park rangers for the census. Pretty cool and definitely a list that I was excited about!
Our tour bus... loved the camouflage too. They packed this thing full, as is seemingly done with all the buses in India. Just looking at the bus, I knew that we wouldn't be doing any extreme, off-road safaris here.
Just a few minutes on the dirt road from the highway into the sanctuary and we came across these guys. A wild herd of elephants is an incredible thing. To see so many of the large animals together, and to know they are there naturally, is just such a wonderful thing. There were about 8 of them total, over a variety of ages, from very young to old.
So the official tour in the bus (and on actual sanctuary land) only revealed these elephants and more deer. I wasn't really expecting to see any of the top, classic Jungle Book predators, like panthers, leopards, pythons, bears, or tigers, but still, it would have been neat. It was incredible though just to be in their natural habitat.
More deer...these things were literally everywhere. It was interesting too that the adults were spotted. This is unlike the white-tail deer in North America, which are only spotted when they are young. The forest was very much like this all around too.
Really a lot of deer...they were everywhere. Tigers, not so much. The guy that arranged my first jeep tour (his name was Krishna) told me about how local volunteers help with the tiger census by going out into the wilderness for days at a time and reporting any evidence of tigers, not just sightings, but prints, kills, and spoor. That must be a pretty terrifying task, hiking and sleeping outdoors in the thick of tiger country. Though at this point, tigers really know to avoid people... we're forcing that upon them, since only the ones that do have any decent chance of survival.
Back from the tour, and my next stop was up at the elephant center. Here, mahouts work with elephants that are rescued from the wild for various reasons or are born to the already tame elephants that work with the mahouts. There was a new baby, a juvenile, and several full grown adults. This was by far the closest I was able to get to the massive creatures. This inquisitive little guy wandered over to where I was standing, her bell jingling at her neck and her chains clanking at her ankles. Amazingly, as soon as the mahout back behind the buildings realized she had wandered off and called her back, she went to him. It intrigued me; what is it like to train a young elephant? What happens when they don't want to listen? How about when they want to play with you; do they instinctively know their strength and how easily they can kill a person, that is are they purposefully gentle when playing with people they like? Questions like this just flooded my head while I watched the elephants at the center interacting with their mahouts.
The elephants gather the food they eat. Here, one of the adults is bringing back a big bushel of fodder for dinner. They gather during the day and then have normal eating times when all the elephants get together and are fed from what was reaped that day. The way that the elephants and people work together is just amazing, and pretty inspiring actually. It is a symbiotic relationship in many ways. The elephants provide the humans with an immensely powerful vehicle and set of "hands" (their versatile trunks) and legs, while the humans provide the elephants with safety and shelter. They also provide each other companionship.
It was scenes like this that made me really question whether the elephants are truly happy or not. This big fellow was chained to the posts here, and was obviously a little restless. So it isn't all fun and games for these elephants...restraint like this must get frustrating for them. Like I mentioned above too, I wonder how aware they are of their wild counterparts in the jungle nearby (literally within only a few miles at times). I'm sure they know they are there and can probably hear and communicate with them. I guess if they really, really wanted to, they could escape. I'd be very surprised if those chains and stumps would really restrain a full-grown elephant that was genuinely trying to escape. Also, once unchained for their daily duties with the mahouts, there is essentially nothing stopping the elephants from overpowering the mahout and escaping. The mahouts are unarmed other than a bamboo stick they use for guiding motions (like mounting), steering (tapping the hind quarters) and controlling acceleration (smacks on the hind quarters).
Unlike the big male in the last picture, many of the elephants were freely wandering around the area, and there were no gates or fences around the entire perimeter, so if these elephants really wanted to escape, they could. I really hope they are happy and satisfied living there with their handlers, and also that the handlers are happy living with them.
Another elephant-mahout team returning with a bundle for dinner.
Looking down on the bridge to town: another colorful truck is making a crossing.
I can definitely suggest a trip down to Mudumalai if you are ever in the Mysuru area and have a day to spare. If you have a couple days, further into Tamil Nadu state and the Western Ghats you can check out the hill station of Ooty (Udhagamandalam), which was on my list of things to see, but I just couldn't find the time for it. Travel times in India are a challenge with public transportation, but there are buses connecting just about all towns and an extensive network of trains, which are quite effective for longer distances. People are helpful too... transport employees and even total strangers will help to make sure you get where you want to go! I really enjoyed traveling on the buses too...they got packed at times (several times I found myself standing in the door-well, pressed against the door, which fortunately had a very trustworthy additional security latch, a fail-safe for exactly that scenario), but the opportunity to stare out the window at the passing countryside and villages and towns is just priceless. It was on buses that I realized how much more I wanted to explore India; it was there that I was truly enchanted and realized that I will definitely return.