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SamUEL Schmitthenner: 
The Lonely Elephant of Dummukonda and Other Animal Stories from India

SIX
The Remarkable Bison Herds of Manjampatti

When I was a lad in Kodaikanal School in southern India , the month that we most enjoyed was May. The school would close the first Saturday in May with the school play. For three weeks we had vacation. Our parents would always come up for the month of May and part of June to enjoy their vacation with their children. The cool weather in the 7,000 foot high Palni Hills was a delightful climate for hiking, camping, tennis, golfing or boating on Kodai Lake .

My first experience going to Kukkal was in my junior year of high school. We had big, terrifying pictures in our minds of the leech shola (forest). Hiking from the village of Kukkal two and a half miles uphill with the fear of leeches in our hearts made us strain our lungs and legs to get out of there as soon as possible. After arriving at the top of the ridge, we came to a beautiful grassland area where the only trees were Rhododendron. These are fire-resistant and have survived scores of grass fires.

From there our party had a gorgeous view of Kukkal Cave , one and a half miles away and the distant Manjampatti valley with two prominent, sheer rock domes on the other side of the valley in the state of Kerala. This region was and is really wild. We had been warned to be most careful when hiking in this grassland. As we looked down on the whole area, we could see rainforests in every one of the gullies where there was a stream with enough moisture to nourish the trees through the droughts from December to May.

Suddenly one of my friends spotted a herd of bison coming up out of one of these rainforests, quite close to Kukkal Cave . There were about 15 in the herd, including three calves.

The Indian Bison is really a wild cow. It looks exactly like an ordinary cow, but bigger and black with white stockings up to the knees. It is the wild ox referred to in the Bible. A male wild ox stands seven feet high at the shoulder. They are not shaggy, but have skin like an ordinary ox, and they are very athletic. We saw them running up a steep hillside effortlessly. After having our lunch, we discussed whether or not to go down to the cave. Though we wanted to go, we realized we did not have time to make it back before dark to the spot six miles from Kukhal village where we had left our car and faithful driver.

I would not see bison again for eight years. Immediately after graduation in May of 1944 I set forth on my wartime journey to America . There I studied for seven years at Gettysburg College and Lutheran Theological Seminary, got married in 1950 and graduated in 1951. We were called to be missionaries, and in 1952 I was able to vacation in my beloved Kodai Hills again.

My wife and I went to Kodaikanal in April 1952 with our son Bill, who was one year old. By this time Ruth was carrying another child, who would be called Hans. She wanted to hike with us but could not go on a hike as long as Kukkal. So we hiked together to Pillar Rocks Cave, Ten Mile Round, Green Hut, and Berrijam Lake (one way uses seven miles—we got a ride back).

Later on in the year we stayed on in Kodai for two more months with our Telugu teacher, who had come with us from Andhra. During that time one of the staff members, Steve Root, asked if I would like to go with him to Manjampatti on a hunting trip. Two of the schoolboys would go with us—one was Chuck Gosselink, Ruth’s brother, and his friend John DeVries. Steve was the only one with a hunting license or rifle.

We took the school car to Manavanur and left it there in care of the driver who had relatives in the village. Then we hiked five miles to a small village, Killanavai. There we picked up our guide Perumal, who had gone ahead of us to recruit three of the hill tribe men to help carry our supplies down the very steep trail to Manjampatti, which was about eight more miles of hiking.

At that time there were no roads through Manjampathi valley. From the village of Poondi in the Palni hills, not far from Manavanour, a large stream flows down through terraces of irrigated fields and a series of waterfalls into Manjampatti Valley . Other streams join it to form the Palar River .

We found a good camping spot near to the river where we could put up our tents and build our fireplaces. By the time we made camp, gathered firewood and filled our water containers it was too late to go out hunting.

The next morning Steve woke us all up when it was still dark and offered us coffee, dates and bread. “This is to sustain us for the morning hunt. It’s not breakfast; that comes later.”

We went out slowly, quietly and carefully, going upstream against the wind. Within a quarter of a mile we heard the noise of splashing animals just as it was becoming light. There were six adult elephants and two elephant calves having a wonderful time bathing in the river. We carefully approached them, being as quiet as we could, and just watched for about 20 minutes. Then we went west of the river and found ourselves climbing up old rice terraces. These had been laboriously carved out of the hillside, but were now overgrown with trees and bushes.

“Steve, what happened here?” I asked. “Perfecting these terraces must have taken years of work by a large number of people.”

“Malaria,” Steve replied. Then, lowering his voice, he said, “Let’s be real quiet. I hope we will soon meet some bison. They have very keen hearing and smell, but not good sight. We are walking against the wind, so they will not smell us.” We went slowly, carefully and silently.

We heard a slight noise off to the right, and Steve motioned us to be quiet. The mist was shifting, and gradually a herd of about 20 spotted deer (axis deer) came into sight. Steve slowly lifted up his rifle and shot the biggest buck I had ever seen.

Perumal and one of the porters came to join us when they heard the shot. They were ecstatic. They quickly chopped down a small tree, made a pole out of it, and tied the deer to it. We took turns carrying it back to the camp. “No bison for this morning,” said Steve, “but I did have to get that deer; it was so beautiful.” Perumal cooked breakfast while Steve and the other men skinned and butchered the deer. After breakfast Steve salted down the deer hide. Then, while the porters and Perumal had their breakfast, we discussed our tactics and schedule. We decided to send two of the men with as much venison as they could carry to meet the driver and have him take it to Kodaikanal so it would not spoil. We would eat the rest. The men said, “First of all, we will eat a meal of rice and venison before we go up that hill.” By eleven o’clock we had a wonderful meal of rice and venison curry with enough leftovers to last us for another day. The two men took off, and we noticed that each of them had several extra packs of meat that they would give to their families and the village elders of Kalanavai.

During the afternoon we rested up, swam in the river and loafed until about four o’clock. Then we started off to find the bison. Steve said, “It’s too wasteful to shoot a bison down here. You can’t carry even ten percent of the meat up to where it can be used, and the thick skin is remarkably heavy. So we’ll try to avoid shooting one.” We went slowly, against the wind, mounting some more terraces. Then we saw a herd peacefully grazing. We knew Steve was being very careful because he was the only one who had a gun, and there were five of us including Perumal.

There were 16 bison in this herd, with several huge bulls seven feet high at the shoulder and weighing much more than half a ton. There were also several calves grazing at the edge of the herd. Steve whispered to us to get behind a tree or a rock and just stay put. One of the calves was very curious and came quite close to us. Then we heard a funny sound. What was that? We realized it was a big bull urinating with quite a splash. Shortly thereafter that curious calf came close enough to touch us, and it suddenly smelled us. With a startled cry it ran back to its mother, and the whole herd stampeded the other way.

“Whew, that was a close one,” said Steve. Steve had already been in Manjampatti a number of times, as he had been teaching at Kodai for many years. He told us that these herds of Manjampatti belong to two states, Tamilnad and Kerela. Their boundaries joined in this beautiful forest. The Palar River was the border. During the monsoon season the bison would range in the higher hills of the Palni range. Sometimes herds would come together, and he had seen herds of over 70 bison. There was a rumor that there were some albino bison somewhere in the valley. Albino calves had been seen but no one had seen any adults. This special herd of 70 or more would sometimes go as high as Kukkal Cave .

We then examined the area where the herd had been grazing. There was a lot of buffalo dung and some pools of urine. It was astonishing how big an impression that stream can leave in the ground.

The next day we saw a lot more game—more elephants, more deer and several more bison herds. We did not hear or see any predators. We asked Steve, “Do tigers ever kill bison?”

“Very rarely,” he answered. “The herd has a way of protecting itself. The large bulls stand on the outside with the cows and calves on the inside whenever danger threatens, except of course when they stampede.”

We certainly enjoyed that first hunt with Steve. That was one of the experiences that led me to buy a rifle and start hunting in the Kodai hills. Normally we could go on only one hunting trip a year there, considering it took five days out of our vacation of five weeks.

I did have the joy of taking each of our children down into Manjampatti for a hunting trip. We would exercise a lot to get in shape for this special hunt, which included the twelve mile descent of 5,000 feet and the much harder task of climbing out of the valley with full packs, sometimes laden with meat. When camping with the children, we never saw the albino bison.

Twenty years later after my children had all graduated from Kodai, I took one more hike down into Manjampatti after staying in Kukkal Cave overnight. Early in the morning, we saw a herd of bison, and there on the edge of the herd were two albino calves. Earlier that month I had read an article in Hornbill, a Bombay conservation magazine, about the albino bison of Manjamphatti.

Just this year I received the wonderful news that a national park, including the Manjamphatti and Kukkal areas, is being planned by the government of India . This will be one of the few places in southern India where bison, elephants, deer and other interesting animals will be safe. I hope many people will enjoy their adventures in these parks and that they might occasionally see albino bison, too. I pray that this new national park will be a great blessing to the people of southern India and to all who go there.

 

 

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