"I was alone that day and was trying to clear my path from the twigs and leaves in the forest. I suddenly looked up and right next to me was a tiger staring right at me." #EarthHeroes
The Silent Valley National Park in Palakkad is one of the most well-known tropical forests in India and is home to a wide variety of rare species of flora and fauna including the endangered lion-tailed macaque.
In 1970 when the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) proposed a hydroelectric dam that runs through the Silent Valley submerging almost 8 KM of the forest, many environmentalists came together in protest and standing at the forefrunt of the protests were the tribal communities living in Palakkad. Eventually, the project was scrapped.
Maari, a Muduga tribal, grew up listening to his father standing in the frontlines, fighting to protect their green home. And it left a lasting impression on him.
It is no wonder then that Maari became a conservationist, dedicating his entire life towards preserving the environment. And for the same reason, he was bestowed with Kerala Chief Minister’s Forest Medal this year.
Early Life In The Silent Valley
Maari has been a part of the conservation of the Silent Valley forests in Kerala’s Palakkad municipality since childhood. His father, Letchiappan, had helped numerous environmental scientists and conservationists from across India study the biodiversity of the Silent Valley during the late 1970s.
Maari had also accompanied his father on most of these guided tours where he would point out the peculiarities of each of the rare species found in the forest.
Discontinuing his formal education in the 7th standard, Maari joined his father at the age of 16, who was also assigned as a temporary ‘watcher’ at the Silent Valley.
“My father knew every single detail about the place since he was brave enough to go into the deepest regions of the forest,” explains Maari.
Currently a conservationist at the Poochipara region of the Silent Valley, Maari interacts with eco-tourists and environmentalists on a daily basis.
He points out that he has had the opportunity to learn a lot from the researchers he’s guided in the past few years. He would point out rare species to them and they would teach him the name. Today, he can name 134 species of orchids in the Silent Valley along with the names of different birds and insects.
“In 2013, I had the chance to meet Prince Charles who had come to visit Kerala. I even had the opportunity to speak to him for a while with the help of a translator. At the time I didn’t know that it was a big deal, but now I do,” laughs the 48-year-old conservationist.
Besides conservation and being the ‘keeper’ of the Silent Valley, Maari also enjoys taking pictures of all the exotic creatures that only his eyes have witnessed.
“I’m not a professional photographer, but I love to capture whatever I see in the forest as a form of documentation. A range officer that used to work here gifted me a camera in 2002 and I’ve been taking photos ever since. I don’t keep any of the pictures, I submit them all to the forest office,” he explains.
Encounters With The Wild
“Whenever I take tourists and researchers into the forest I tell them a few simple things. If you spot an animal, don’t get scared and don’t make noises or run. The key is to be silent. The second thing and the most important thing to remember is that this is the animals habitat, if you don’t do anything to them, they won’t do anything to you,” he explains.
“There are so many encounters that I’ve had with the wild animals. A few years back, I was guiding a few researchers through the forest and we spotted a lone elephant. Everyone hid behind trees on seeing the tusker. When the elephant heard our footsteps, I saw him reach out with his trunk to find us. But luckily, he couldn’t reach in completely,” he says, relieved.
But for Maari, the scariest encounter was with a wild tiger.
“I was alone that day and was trying to clear my path of the twigs and leaves in the forest. Suddenly, I looked up and right next to me stood a wild tiger staring right at me. Then for the next 15 minutes, both the tiger and I were imitating each other. When I sat down quietly, he also sat. When I got up, he also moved back. Then suddenly, when I made a loud noise, the tiger ran away. The next day when I came back to the same spot, I found the remains of a Sambar Deer lying there. That’s when I realised that I had encountered a hungry tiger,” he explains.
Leopards, bears, tigers, stray wolves, snakes, there’s a long list of animals that Maari has encountered. But rather than being scared, this man has embraced these experiences that have brought him closer to the wild.
Silent Valley Today
Life in the forest has been full of obstacles and difficulties for Maari. Even during the Kerala floods in 2018, Maari was forced to spend multiple days in the forest alone as all the paths and roads to the forest were flooded.
Furthermore, his visits to his home are limited to once every 15 days. Maari says that his wife Pushpa and his three children Mithun, Lakshman and Sreerag love life in the forest but don’t have the kind of passion that he’s developed for it.
Every year the Kerala government presents the Chief Minister’s Forest Medal for exceptional efforts by individuals who have worked for the development of the society and the conservation of the environment. This is one of the highest honours that Maari has received so far.
He has also won several other environmental awards in the past, including a conservation award instituted in memory of former Chief Conservator of Forests N Madhavan Pillai and also the prestigious P V Thampi environmental award.
Maari’s selfless efforts and contributions to save the rare ecosystem of Silent Valley is unparalleled and we applaud him for being an inspiration to many forest officials and conservationists.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)