Tiger Tales: Let Surendran be your guide
Mr. R. Surendran is curious and chatty.
No wonder he makes such a good guide.
A sudden burst of colour lights up the overcast sky over India’s Periyar Tiger Reserve as a beautiful crimson bird with a long black tail streaks from one tree to another. Surendran looks through his binoculars and pronounces his verdict, “Theekakka.” He opens his bird identification book and confirms the fact. “It means fire crow. It is called Malabar Trogon in English,” he explains. “I rarely see them these days.”
Surendran is the nature guide at the tiger reserve that is also home to over 300 types of birds, most of which he can identify. He fancies himself a bit of an expert on birds. In fact, he is well informed about most things in the forest. It’s this penchant for learning that makes him the ideal guide to have around.
“I am constantly reading about nature and wildlife so that I can answer all the questions the tourists ask me,” he says. “Besides, the forest is full of mysteries and I love unravelling them.”
Surendran believes there are some mysteries in the world that are beyond human understanding. When he falls ill, he prays to the earth god and offers bangles and rings as prasad (offering). To appease his dead ancestors, he buys clothes for them and hangs them in a corner of his house. And before he goes out into the forest, he always prays to the tiger. “We call the tiger thathan (grandfather) and treat it like a god. I pray to it so that it protects me,” he says.
He was nineteen when he first saw the mesmerizing black and gold stripes. “I was collecting sloth bear faecal droppings for a research project,” he recollects. “I saw a tiger walking beside a lake. I kept looking at it and when I couldn’t see it anymore, I followed its pugmarks. After a while, the pugmarks stopped and I lost track of the tiger. But it hadn’t lost track of me. I saw it watching me intently and walked away slowly. It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Recently, when he was taking tourists through the forest, he came across a dead wild boar that looked like tiger kill. He took the tourists back to the safety of the park’s office and came back to look for the tiger. He hid behind a bush and was delighted to see the tiger come and roll in the shallow muddy waters nearby. When it saw him, it snarled and left.
His most thrilling sighting was from a boat on the Periyar river. “I saw a tiger run out of the bushes from the bank of the lake, chase a sambar (large deer) into the water, kill it and drag it back into the bushes,” says Surendran. “I was awed by the speed and strength of the animal.”
What Surendran is most afraid of, though, is not tigers but his wife. “I am not scared of any creatures in the forest or senior forest officials,” he says. “But I am terrified of my wife, especially when she is in a temper. I’d rather encounter a tiger any day.”
Surendran’s day starts at 4 a.m. After a ceremonial wash, he reads books on wildlife. He reports to the forest department at 7 a.m. and makes three trips to the forest with different groups of tourists, each trip lasting about three hours. During his trips, he makes sure that he picks up plastic bottles and other rubbish left behind by visitors. He also reports anything unusual that he comes across during his trips inside the forest. He finishes work by 5:30 p.m. and returns home to play with his three young children or watch an old Malayalam movie with his wife.
Surendran’s work spreads awareness about the nuances of conservation to a diverse group of visitors. He loves the forest and can’t imagine living in a city. Nor, for that matter, can he imagine doing any other job. He is a permanent resident of Periyar Tiger Reserve like the fifty-odd tigers, numerous elephants, snakes, deer, macaques, wild pigs, otters, and thousands of dazzling birds.