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‘Teak and the Tiger’ is an evocative trek through the evolution of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

Directed by Suresh Elamon, the documentary narrates the history and biological diversity of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

Forests in the Western Ghats are alive with the sound of nature. Tigers sun on rocky beds, hornbills nest in towering trees, herds of elephants feed on grassy slopes alongside chital (spotted deer), while lion-tailed macaques swing through the canopy and flights of butterflies rise up in the air… This is Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Kerala, the second one in the State, situated in the folds of the forests of the Western Ghats.

Suresh Elamon and ‘Tiger’ Sreenivasan. Suresh directed ‘Teaks and the Tiger’, a documentary on the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve  | Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

Teak and the Tiger, a 20-minute documentary on the reserve, is an evocative trek through the Reserve, one of the most biologically diverse forests in India. The documentary, commissioned by the Forest Department, directed and filmed by Suresh Elamon, narrates the history and evolution of the 644 square km reserve. The film also touches upon the changes in the lives of the people and their environment on account of the commercial activities in the forest regions.

“A film that documented the history, biodiversity and evolution of the Reserve has never been made. So the Forest Department approached the Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC) in 2018 to make a documentary and they chose Suresh Elamon for the task,” says PV Madhusoodanan, former deputy director, Indian Forest Service (IFS).

Capturing the tiger on film in the forests of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve  | Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

Once a part of the erstwhile kingdom of Kochi, a large swathe of the forests of Parambikulam were owned by feudal families in North Kerala. In the early part of the 19th century, the British colonizers noticed the abundance of teak, rosewood, ebony and blackwood in these forests. Over the years, the forests were stripped of the valuable timber, which was shipped to Britain for building ships and railways. Monoculture of teak plantations was started in the forests.

“Today, the 450-year-old Connemara teak, with a width of 6.7 metres and a height of 48.5 metres is a reminder of the giant trees that existed in the wild in these forests. The film is a story of the shifting conversation on conservation, about how a forest of timber wealth has metamorphosised into one of the last strongholds of the tiger in the Western Ghats,” says Suresh.

The then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj visiting the construction site of the Parambikulam dam  | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Vysak Sasikumar, Deputy Director, IFS, points out that not many know about the evolution Reserve. He explains: “Today, there are seven settlements in the sanctuary and two dams that supply water mainly to Tamil Nadu. The sanctuary became a tiger reserve in 2009. A tramway was constructed in 1905 to transport the timber wealth. We were able to get film clips of the tram and Suresh was able to source archival photographs of the Parambikulam dam from Tamil Nadu Public Works Department’s project office in Pollachi. This Reserve is important for the tiger because most of the forests in Kerala are fragmented on account of the pressure on land and this is one of the last areas with a contiguous forest area.”

It was after Suresh did a film on Silent Valley National Park in 2017, that he was approached for making a documentary on the Reserve. Suresh, who first visited the sanctuary in 1981, has himself seen the changes in the area during his innumerable visits to the reserve.

Hornbill in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve  | Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

Suresh teamed up with his friend V Bala Chandran, nature photographer, for the research and script for Teak and the Tiger. The flood in 2018 delayed the production of the film but it was completed in 2020 and released on May 14, 2021.

To get glimpses of the animals in the Reserve, Suresh had to get footage during different seasons. Documenting rare sequences like the Great Hornbills on a ficus tree top and feeding on hundreds of fast flying dragonflies meant waiting patiently on a tree for the right shots. Suresh recalls a stiff climb up Pandaravarai, the second highest peak in that part of the forest, to document, perhaps, the rarest tree in Western Ghats: the endemic Syzegium palghatense, of which only three or four survive.

One of the eight entirely new species of spiders discovered from Parambikulam a few years ago, the Haploclaustus kayi tarantula, was clicked after several treks along the old route of the tramway  | Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

“To film one of the eight entirely new species of spiders discovered from Parambikulam a few years ago, the Haploclaustus kayi tarantula, involved several treks along the old tramway path!” recalls Suresh.

However, to capture the tiger on camera required the help of ‘Tiger’ Sreenivasan, who works in the Tiger Monitoring Cell of the Reserve. “My guide and companion, he knows the forests of Parambikulam like no one else does. He has had “officially more than 2,000 sightings,” of tigers! “Tiger sighting in Kerala is a matter of luck than anything else. In my 40 years of trekking, I never had a chance to see the great cat in Kerala. One day, he took me to a spot by a riverbank and we sat on a tree trunk, below an umbrella-like tree. My camera was all set, and the wait started. In less than 20 minutes, I heard a whisper from Sreenivasan, ‘Sir, here he comes’. As I looked across the sand bed, I saw a young tiger, hardly 50 metres from us, slowly walking down the opposite bank, oblivious to our presence. It took me about a minute to control my thoughts and action and start filming. No wonder the tiger is indeed the King of them all…” recounts Suresh.

A herd of elephants in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve  | Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

With voiceover by author Shobha Srinivasan, the documentary has many such moments that unveils the development and chequered history of the Reserve.

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