It begins with seeds in a parcel of poo. And it ends ... no, it doesn’t end at all. It is one of those stories with no ending, like any story of nature’s cycles that loops around and circles through time on its own journey. A story of wild hope and crushing despair, of a seed of an idea that grew into something far bigger and more challenging than we imagined.

First, the seeds. It was 1999. We were walking on a narrow trail through the rainforests of Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), part of the Agasthyamalai range in the Western Ghats in India’s south-western corner. We were both there for field research for our doctoral degrees, but we are naturalists first.

The rainforest kept us alert at every step. A jewel orchid sprouting leaves with intricate veins on the forest floor. A green forest lizard scurrying off the trail up a tree, keeping an eye on us from the corner. A flash of red, a purr and mellow notes from a dark understorey tree lighting up with the body and voice of a male Malabar trogon. Great whoops and crash of leaves and branches from the troop of Nilgiri langurs above, their voices reverberating through the forest and across the river.

Over 400 square kilometres of unbroken rainforests swathed the mountains around us. We came across a fallen log some way up the Neterikal trail, which snakes upslope along the thundering Sengaltheri River. A greenish-black smear atop the log caught our eyes and we gravitated to it. A trace of an animal that had passed by at night, a remnant of its dinner: a scat. A scat of a civet. An inch-long, oblong Elaeocarpus stone lies there with a sprinkling of fig seeds and the chitinous glint of beetle elytra. Surely, the scat of a brown palm civet.

We towered over the Elaeocarpus seed like giants, but stooped before it, bending our heads to the log, the scat, the seed, to pick it up and toss it into a brown paper cover, labelling it ‘25/2/1999, Neterikal trail, Elaeocarpus serratus, BPC scat’.

With the precious cargo tucked in our backpacks, along with the other seeds collected from scats and ripe fruits fallen under trees, we walked a couple of kilometres to our field station. If everything went well, the seed would grow larger than either of us, with her verdant and welcoming arms opening into the rainforest canopy in a matter of years, leaving us in awe and feeling humbled. We did not know then that it was not just a seed of a tree in our backpack, but the seed of an idea in our minds.

Back at the field station, P Jeganathan was waiting for us. Jegan, who had recently completed his master’s degree in wildlife biology, had joined us earlier that month to help with the project on civets and other small carnivores. He was a shy naturalist but a perpetually curious one who loved being in the rainforest. ‘How was your day? Did you see anything?’ he asked. We tell him of the orchid and lizard and trogon and monkeys and show him the seeds and fruits we collected along the trail.

‘What seeds are these?’ he asked Divya.

‘These stone-like ones are those of Elaeocarpus serratus, a wild rudraksha tree. The smaller, round ones are Acronychia pedunculata, and these fleshy red fruits with tiny seeds are from a wild fig tree. These ones in the paper covers are from civet scats. We need to plant these seeds now,’ she replied. Jegan was given to asking so many questions that he even made statements interrogative. ‘Plant the seeds?’

‘Yes, it will be interesting to grow them to see if the seeds that pass through the digestive system of civets germinate better or faster than those in ripe fruits that fall from the tree. How these animals disperse seeds and help regenerate forests is an aspect I plan to examine in my thesis. Come and help me plant them in the nursery,’ Divya announced.

The nursery, just behind the field station, was a dilapidated shed, roofless and open to the elements. Trays and polybags with forest soil and some petri dishes with moist cotton were arrayed, carrying seeds and sporting little flags or aluminium tags inscribed with details of each batch. The germination experiment had been running for a few months. After planting the morning’s batch, we scanned the earlier seeds for signs of life.

‘Something germinating?’ asked Jegan.

‘Yes, look here!’ said Divya.

And there, on a tray with thirty elaeocarp seeds, a few had begun to split with little roots curling out and down. Hints of green cotyledons poked out of the stony containers. After nearly five months, the elaeocarp seeds from civet scats had started to germinate.

The three years in the Kalakad rainforests were a time of learning and reflection for us. As we settled in and gradually began to understand the landscape, something within us split open and our roots, too, began to sink into the rainforest. The Sengaltheri Field Station that we established as a base for our research was built and used earlier by people who had leased about twenty hectares to create a cardamom plantation. They had cleared the undergrowth, retaining the rainforest trees for shade, and planted cardamom and pepper, with some Arabica coffee thrown in.

The land was an enclave within the area notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1976 and as a tiger reserve in 1989. When the lease ran out in 1995, the land fortunately reverted to protection, the plantations and buildings abandoned to the elements. Still, three years later, as we went about our research, the cardamom plants and scattered coffee bushes persisted in the abandoned plantations. Other invasive plants were virtually absent.

There was little forest regeneration despite shade trees raining seeds from above and the rainforest stretching for miles around. What would it take to bring back the forest? we wondered.

At the field station, there were times when the two of us (Divya and Sridhar) were alone or had just a couple of field assistants, but for a long spell in 1997-98, we shared the field station with two friends, Karthikeyan Vasudevan and NM Ishwar, who were also working towards their doctoral degrees. We learnt from them almost as much as we did from the field time we spent on our own research projects. We learnt about the many species of frogs and reptiles in these forests, their uniqueness, and that each watershed in the landscape appeared to have its own distinctive mix of amphibian species.

Each of us had one or two field assistants from the Kani community in KMTR, or Malasars and Muthuvars from the Anamalais. Two men from Kalakad village multitasked with jeep-driving, cooking, and logistics. Our field assistants were sharp-eyed, young and with keen forest skills, although they were not as knowledgeable as some of the elders in their communities.

They helped us find our way through dense forests and terrains unfamiliar to us, while keeping an eye out for large wildlife such as elephants and bears. They assisted with our plots and monitoring,
telling us the local names of plants and animals that they knew. They showed us the plants, insects and other animals that were edible, how to climb trees and how to start a campfire.

We learnt much from them about the forest, while sharing with them our knowledge and research skills: how to tell one confusing forest tree or frog or lizard from another, what their scientific names were, how to use a rangefinder, set up a field camera and record systematic observations in a datasheet. Few assistants stayed for long, though, as they yearned for home from the relative isolation of our research station. Often, one would take leave for a few days to go home and simply not return for work. We would then search for a replacement.

Sridhar’s surveys were showing how rainforest bird communities changed from lower to higher elevations and how the entire span needed to be conserved to secure the full array of bird species.

As rainforests were logged or altered to plantations, their structure and tree species changed, resulting in a decline in rainforest birds while birds of open and disturbed habitats gained on this front. It was sobering that this signature of change persisted even fifteen years after the logging and plantation operations had ceased. It raised an intriguing question: if the forest structure and rainforest trees could be brought back, would the rainforest birds recover, too? But how could one bring back the forest, repair the damage already done?

Excerpted with permission from At the Feet of Living Things : Twenty-Five Years of Wildlife Research and Conservation in India, edited by Aparajita Datta, Rohan Arthur, TR Shankar Raman, HarperCollins.