Not the least of the problems the pioneer British planters faced while opening up Munnar’s tea plantations in the early 1900s was the grave threat from wild animals. Records indicate that wildlife was plentiful and brushes with the more dangerous species were fairly common, making carrying a gun indispensable.
Sometimes one’s very life depended on one’s marksmanship, resourcefulness or even fleet-footedness. A planter once found himself facing a vicious wild boar. Unable to load his gun in time, his instincts of self-preservation surfaced and he clubbed the boar to death with the gun butt — something his boss termed unsportsmanlike.
A general guideline followed by planters was that if one surprised a dangerous animal, one should back away from it slowly without taking one’s eyes off it. A planter’s wife who all but walked into a snoozing bear quickly followed suit — but tripped over a rock as she tiptoed backwards. Luckily the bear didn’t see her tumble.
Planters’ dogs often attracted panthers who brazenly stole into bungalow verandahs to lift sleeping ‘morsels’. Tigers preyed on livestock and workers, and elephants were a constant threat to life and property. Indeed workers often insisted on trenches around their colonies — and even armed guards — to protect them from the pachyderms.
Nearer home, footwear was vigorously shaken out to dislodge the lurking scorpion, tarantula or centipede, and women and children ventured into overgrown patches of grass only after these had been ‘beaten’ to drive out snakes. One planter survived the terrifying experience of sharing his bed with a viper that dropped from the rafters — fortunately when he was awake. Of course, bloodthirsty leeches teemed, ‘Waiting for dinner to come to them’, as one planter put it. Their victims sported bits of blotting paper plastered on their limbs like postage stamps to stanch the bleeding.
Such risks were common then as the pioneer planters paid the price for felling extensive tracts of virgin jungle (which had remained inviolate for millennia) to raise tea plantations, displacing wildlife in the process. A century later the people of Munnar continue to be menaced by wild animals. Two years ago a plucky female tea-picker fought off a tiger attack in broad daylight and miraculously survived to tell the tale. Hair-raising brushes with elephants, gaur, panthers and wild pigs are still reported from time to time, sometimes resulting in fatalities or serious injury. In the last decade there have been 10 casualties from elephant attacks alone in and around Munnar.
An analysis of this disquieting trend points to one fact as the prime cause: continuing human intrusion into wildlife habitats that is precisely what had triggered the human-wildlife conflict in the early 1900s. There has been hardly any let-up since then thanks to overriding developmental compulsions. To make amends, some tea plantations are now trying to regenerate degraded jungles in an effort to augment the shrinking forest cover — an initiative that has a long way to go. In the meantime Munnar continues to witness a recurring, and sometimes tragic, human-wildlife conflict.