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It may not look like it, but this is India.
The Western Ghat mountain range is one of the world's
great natural treasure troves.
Its multi-storeyed worlds
have fascinated wildlife photographer Sandesh Kadur.
He's spent the last decade documenting
its astonishingly varied but fragile ecosystems.
This is the story of Sandesh's
journey through one of India's last wildernesses.
There is a saying that goes,
"We will only conserve only what we love,
"we will only love what we understand,
"and we will understand only what we are taught."
My photography is a tool that I use to help people make that first step.
My parents, of course, wanted me to join the family business.
But the Western Ghats were always there,
boiling away in the back of my mind.
My friends got careers,
went into business, manufacturing, property, and into IT.
I took photographs!
CAR HORNS BEEP
How could I go to an office
with the Western Ghats only a few hours drive away?
Also known, as the Sahyadris or "Benevolent Mountains",
what makes the Western Ghats so hospitable to all life
is the range of different habitats these mountains embrace.
Ghats means steps,
and the Western Ghats are a very step-like mountain range.
We're on a journey along this
staircase and we're ascending into discreet worlds.
Below me is a familiar Indian jungle,
the jungle of Rudyard Kipling, the Jungle Book.
Tigers, elephants and monkeys.
But as we go up into the mountains behind, we enter the rainforests,
and in the rainforest
we have strange monkeys like the lion-tailed macaques.
As we get further still, we ascend into the high grassland,
and this is an area that very few people have been to,
the animals that live there are virtually unknown,
and nothing has been filmed.
In his quest to show not just
the beauty but also the importance of this wilderness,
Sandesh recalls an extraordinary turning point.
Ten years ago in the high-altitude grasslands,
he had an encounter with a mysterious cat,
a type of feline he'd never seen before.
It was nine o'clock in the morning,
lovely light filling this valley and
this cat comes up over the shoulder of the hill, sniffing the grass.
It was a very uniformed greyish-coloured cat
with a long tail.
My mind is flipping through
the book of Indian animals by Prater,
and I couldn't place which cat this was.
It could only be one of 15 or 16 species of cats found in India,
and it wasn't matching any one of them.
Sandesh is driven by the tantalising prospect
that somewhere in the Western Ghats, there's an undiscovered predator.
Sandesh is now back to spend a year in the Western Ghats.
He'll revisit old haunts and explore new ones,
and perhaps he'll solve the mystery of his cat-in-the-Ghat.
Sandesh and his field assistant, Mandanna,
arrive in the dry deciduous jungles of Bandipur in April.
It's the peak of the dry season.
Everything's just dried out. It's the middle of the summer.
It's very hard for the animals
during this time, because there's very little water anywhere.
So we're gonna go and try and see
if we can find some water holes that still have some water.
During the dry summer months, water is everything.
WHISPERING: We just spotted a
tigress with four cubs just as we rounded this bend at the waterhole.
So we're gonna set up a blind and see if she comes back to the water.
It's most likely that she's made a kill close by,
so they'll be hanging around the same water hole all day long.
So we're just waiting here and let's see what our luck does to us.
Tiger's back, tiger's back, tiger's back!
I use my camera as a notepad or a diary.
From these snaps,
I can later identify individuals and share that information.
Tigers are the undisputed top cats of the Western Ghats,
with nothing to fear from anything, except, of course, man.
The question for Sandesh is,
could the high grasslands and dense
rainforests hide one more cat to add to that list?
Sandesh knows that if he's going to document any species of feline,
let alone a new one, he'll need more than just luck.
We're just on our way to an old friend of mine,
Nisarg, who is based here in Bandipur.
He's been here setting up camera traps,
and he's got an amazing collection of photographs.
So let's go meet him and see what new pictures he has for us.
Hi, Nisarg, how's it going?
-How have you been?
We put this camera trap in a wild dog den,
and over a period of ten days, this is what we got.
How old are those pups? They seem like just a few days old.
Yeah, might be a week or so.
-How many pups were there?
-I think there are six pups there.
And the dogs didn't mind the camera being there at all?
-And they seem totally natural, look at that.
That's beautiful stuff, that really is gorgeous.
I'm sure no-one's seen anything like this.
Oh, so what happened here? A tiger came to the den?
Yeah, a tiger came to the den.
They are looking for the pups because of the scent.
Maybe even the dogs knew the tiger was in the area,
and they decided to shift their den, probably.
Exactly. And the other thing is I also saw a leopard,
which is not on this camera trap, in exactly the same place.
Whoa, that's a massive leopard.
Wow, this is a great insight into, like, an unseen world.
And this is the famous elephant called Onti Kombu,
a single-tusker, found on the highway.
Is this the one that's been killing a lot of people?
-Yeah. It's killed around two to three people.
On the way out of Bandipur, the menacing still becomes a reality.
With an unpredictable lone male,
any sudden movement could be extremely dangerous...
..and retreating even more risky than staying put and holding ground.
These males, they're just
roaming around and they're making their way to the backwaters.
You can see this one's been shot through the ear.
Males get into combat quite often over females,
and this one seems to have lost his other tusk in combat.
And right now, he looks very tense again.
His ears are frozen, he's just not moving.
He's hardly six feet away from the front of the vehicle.
One charge and he'd have this vehicle turned over.
No, no, it's OK, it's OK, Mandanna.
Look at the size of this animal!
The elephants have to move from one water hole to another
as they dry out,
and they travel great distances during the summer.
And a beautiful ivory-bearing tusker like this one is now a rare sight.
The unrelenting heat of the Indian summer
is briefly tempered by pre-monsoon showers.
This is not the deluge that will transform the Western Ghats,
but it's an absolute lifeline that will keep plants and animals going
until the rains proper arrive in a few more months.
The first drops of rain prompt an eruption of termites.
With waiting armies of ants,
most will never even take off, let alone land.
Bears, monkeys, birds will all join the feast.
This year, with these good showers,
a lot of animals are gonna tide over
and they're gonna make it to the monsoon.
It's filled up the water holes a little bit,
left lots of puddles for the wildlife.
Without these rains,
summer is just a terrible place for the animals down there.
Sandesh does what all other animals
of the Western Ghats do during the summer.
He looks for water.
I'm now heading to the Western edge of Bandipur Tiger Reserve,
to an area called Kabini.
This place is known for its gatherings of elephants,
and it's one of my favourite places at this time of year.
But even here in Kabini with its perennial water sources,
the elephants are reduced to scratching a living,
kicking up short shoots of grass.
Like all the creatures of the Western Ghats,
the elephants are waiting for the annual miracle,
the monsoon that will transform all it touches.
We have over 200 elephants here right now,
and elephants from all the neighbouring states,
all the neighbouring national parks,
they all converge right here to the Kabini backwaters,
because this is the only place left with any water.
'Ever since this reservoir was created here in 1974,
'this area has become a magnet for large herds of elephants.'
WHISPERING: We're following these family herds and the tuskers.
This is the time for them to mate.
This is the only place you can get
so intimately close to the elephants.
Leaving the dry jungles and elephants at Kabini below,
Sandesh begins his ascent to the second of the steps
that make up the distinct worlds of the Western Ghat Mountains.
It's the smell of these mountains
as much as anything else that I love.
If I were blindfolded, I'd immediately know where I was going.
There's nothing like the rainforest just before the rain.
For the highly adapted species found here,
the arrival of the rains determines everything.
It feels that life is on hold.
In this multi-sensory world,
smell and, above all, sound, are as important as vision.
If he's going to be successful in documenting a new predator,
interpreting alarm calls will be essential to him.
Can you hear that? Barking deer alarm call.
It's probably a leopard
or a tiger that's walking through this area right now.
It's very hard to see these animals in the rainforest.
So you've got to follow these calls.
And just hearing the calls is exciting enough.
With the long-awaited arrival of the monsoon,
the Western Ghats are about to be transformed.
The arrival of the rains coincide with the ripening of the jackfruit,
irresistible to the lion-tailed macaques.
With such a harvest, there's no real need to fight,
but nonetheless, a strict hierarchy is observed.
The rains bring species out into the open for both food and for mates.
Like this group of scimitar-babblers,
another rainforest species often heard but rarely seen.
There are 216 species of amphibians in India.
Over half come from the Western Ghats,
of which 75 at least are found nowhere else on earth.
These mountains hold many more species yet to be described.
There are over 100 frogs still waiting for a name,
including this one.
I could spend the rest of my life here just photographing frogs,
and I'd still just scratch the surface.
One of the most extraordinary recent finds is this.
Nasikabatrachus, never before filmed,
the purple frog.
Very little is known about this weird-looking creature.
It's thought to spend most of the year underground.
This is a female,
and it emerges once a year with the rains
to mate with the much smaller male.
Its closest relatives are found in the Seychelle Islands,
3,000 kilometres away,
suggesting that two populations were separated
during the continental break-up of Gondwanaland.
During British rule,
the discovery that a variety of camellia grew here very well
would transform these slopes.
Tea bushes replaced rainforest.
Roads created new towns just as deforestation led to soil erosion,
the silting-up of rivers,
and ultimately, the extinction of animals and plants.
What life is found up here
is confined to the last fragments of forest,
clinging on between the tea estates.
Elephants are frequent migrants through these inedible tea bushes.
We're here in the tea estates,
and I heard that there's a group of seven elephants here.
If you can see, we're just walking along this trail,
and there's these big craters in the ground,
and that's the elephant footprints.
Wow, there's a herd of elephants.
They're just working their way through the eucalyptus.
There's about seven of them right here.
'I'm here to document this too.
'The good, the bad and the ugly.
'Photography is not always meant to be beautiful.
'We need to show what's actually happening.'
Some wildlife holds on,
but crops like tea and exotic plantations like eucalyptus
have removed nearly 90% of these forests.
Migrating animals now face an
obstacle course through their fragmented world.
But what remains is of unparalleled richness.
Above the tree-line, with little value to humans,
the high-altitude grasslands have remained virtually untouched.
And it's here, in this most remote level of the Ghats,
that Sandesh first saw the mysterious cat
that has haunted his imagination ever since.
The tribal people of the area have told Sandesh
that they too have seen his mystery cat.
They call it the pogeyan,
the cat that comes and goes as the mist.
It's hard to imagine that anything could make a living up here
in this severe and exposed landscape.
But with so much habitat gone, or disturbed,
all sorts of creatures, some resident, some just passing through,
seek sanctuary in these grasslands.
Here we are in the high ranges of the Western Ghats.
This is the land of the cloud goat, the Nilgiri tahr.
These are the mature adult males.
They get their name with that light greyish patch on their back.
And right now, this is the season of the annual rut,
and that's when these males come down here to these grasslands
and these adults vie in attention for a mate.
Oh, and by the way, it smells being out here.
These saddlebacks, they keep spraying their face with urine
and following the females
and checking their urine to see if they're in heat.
And when two evenly-matched males get together,
you'll see them just head-butting.
We started off this morning down in the tea estates
at about 1,900 metres,
and walked up here. We're at about 2,400 metres.
This whole mountain range is just enveloped in mist.
I wish I was as adapted to this
mountain climate as the Nilgiri tahr.
But it is this rain that makes the Western Ghats what it is.
Ten metres falls here each year, and the run-off is not only spectacular,
but vital to providing the water for the thirsty plains below.
Water is one of the biggest issues facing 21st-century India.
All the major rivers in peninsular
India originate in the Western Ghats,
and we need to protect this mountain range as a catchment area
for all of the rainwater
that provides for the growth of 21st-century India.
And if we can't protect the Western Ghats,
we're destroying our own future.
Sandesh decides it's best to head home, back to Bangalore.
His friend Nisarg's camera traps have shown
what a few strategically-placed boxes can reveal.
Back in Bangalore, Sandesh has some research to do.
What could the pogeyan,
the mystery cat that he saw in the high grasslands actually be?
With its solid grey colour, rounded ears and long tail,
it fits none of the standard descriptions.
With the help of his sister, a wildlife artist,
Sandesh tries to put a shape to what he has witnessed.
Seeing the form of the pogeyan come to life here.
The Western Ghats certainly has many new species yet to be discovered,
mainly reptiles and amphibians.
But a new cat in 21st-century India?
Sandesh now knows what he needs to find out.
Finally, the clouds clear.
Sandesh is back above the tea estates,
and ready to return to the high grasslands
and renew his quest for the pogeyan,
and whatever other creatures his boxes of equipment might reveal.
The expedition is entering Eravikulam National Park.
Eravikulam is probably one of the
most guarded national parks that I've ever been to.
Hardly anyone is ever allowed to come up here.
So we're actually very privileged to be here,
and to be able to explore this area to be setting up camera traps.
Shola is the name given to the
stunted forests that grow in these undulating high-altitude grasslands.
Like oases in the desert,
the sholas are the focus
of all life up on these exposed and windswept plains.
An old corrugated building sits
incongruously in the heart of Eravikulam National Park.
Built in the early '20s by the British,
it will be Sandesh and his team's base for the next few months.
We're bringing all the camera traps and in addition to that
these metal contraptions that are really heavy,
but we've had to bring them up here
because I lost two cameras to elephants last year,
so I don't want that to happen again.
The old British fishing hut
has a panoramic view of the surrounding ranges,
dominated by the highest peak in India south of the Himalayas.
This is Anamudi, the Elephant's Head, rising to nearly 9,000 feet.
Scientists still know very little about what lives up here,
except that many of the animals that are found here
are found nowhere else on earth.
Hey, over here!
Beautiful snake. Look at that.
It's a shield-tail.
She was probably just basking on
this trail in this early morning light.
He's got tiny red spots along the side here,
and a lovely speckled underside. Look at that.
I'm sure this is an endemic.
I'm sure this is not found anywhere else in the world.
This is a bio-diversity hotspot,
and every year, scientists are
discovering new species in these mountains.
Some of the high-elevation species, like this shield-tail, perhaps,
could possibly be new.
It's the first time I've ever seen one of these,
and we'll be taking it down
and trying to identify what species it is.
The high grasslands are windswept.
It gets cold up here.
But despite the apparently inhospitable surroundings,
there's life here, and with the help of his camera traps,
Sandesh is determined to find out exactly what's out there.
A pack of dhole, Indian wild dogs,
have moved up into the grasslands around the fishing hut.
When a sambar doe and her calf are also seen in the area,
Sandesh and Mandanna move in with their cameras.
Dhole are India's most expert and remorseless group hunters.
Once on the trail of their quarry, they rarely, if ever, miss.
The mother sees a way out, and seizes the chance...
..but is forced to abandon her calf.
Sandesh has set out to document the
flora and fauna of the Western Ghats.
He wants to build as complete a picture as possible
of what makes the region so unique.
But the longer he spends in the misty mountains of Eravikulam,
the more determined he becomes to document one species above all.
Desperate times call for pretty desperate measures,
and...I think I'm gonna have to put a bird as bait.
OK, the camera's in place, the cage is in place,
and all I need now is the bird to put in the cage.
And here it is,
a black-capped chickadee.
I saw the pogeyan in broad daylight,
but my hunch is that like most Indian cats,
the pogeyan is going to be a nocturnal creature,
and it's at night that I reckon
we're going to have our best opportunity.
I'm up here on a hillock,
and I'll be waking up every couple of hours,
and scoping the hillside
and see what I can get.
I was just looking out there.
It's pitch black. I can't see a thing,
but looking through this monitor,
I can actually see what's going on in the landscape in front of me.
The grasslands are completely blue in colour,
so any warm-blooded animal passing from one shola to the other,
we'll be able to get a very, very clear image as they cross the shola.
Monkeys, Nilgiri tahr, even
elephants appear on the heat-seeking camera,
but no cat.
Ah, Tweetie Pie is still alive!
Well, the camera's still running.
So Tweetie Pie lives to tweet another day,
so let's keep the bird out there a little longer and see what happens.
Tweetie Pie may have evaded attention,
but Sandesh's video camera traps have had a busier night.
A mouse deer and a leopard cat
manoeuvre around one another in the dark.
A jungle cat has reason
to be timid, with leopards sharing the same territory.
But once again, the cameras record
nothing that cannot be found in the textbooks.
Like all naturalists, Sandesh knows that local knowledge is essential.
He turns to the indigenous people of this area.
The Muduvan have exchanged their
semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer existence for village life.
But they're expert trackers,
and retain a close affinity for the wildlife of the area.
Sandesh has come to see one of Muduvan elders.
HE SPEAKS IN TAMIL
Krishnan has seen the pogeyan three times in his life over here.
He saw one most recently, about a year ago just beyond this hill,
behind this hamlet of Lakkam Kudi.
In all the areas that he says he has seen the pogeyan,
we've had our camera traps, but we just haven't had any luck.
THEY SPEAK IN TAMIL
Well, I mean, in summary,
basically he says that it's one of the larger cats,
with a long tail, a uniform darkish grey,
almost brownish colour, rounded ears.
He says that there's one,
and it's the same one that he has seen several times.
Sandesh is running out of time,
but Krishnan's descriptions of the pogeyan
have suggested another explanation for the mystery cat's true identity.
Sandesh is reminded of a tantalising note his researches threw up.
While albino leopards are very rare, they are not completely unknown.
Could the local leopard population have a mutant gene
that occasionally throws a grey individual?
I've spent ten years documenting the wildlife of these mountains.
The idea that I'd be able to add
another mammal, a new carnivore to the portfolio, has been a dream.
Back in the field with a Muduvan tracker called Vijian,
it's time for a last push.
..it's been several months,
and I've just had no luck up here in this part of the National Park.
So I've been talking to Vijian earlier this morning,
and he believes that the best chance to find the pogeyan
is going to be around Anamudi.
Vijian insists that the Elephant's Head
is the most likely place to find the cat
that comes and goes like the mist.
Sandesh and Mandanna leave camera traps on the trail up to the summit.
We're on the summit of Anamudi, Elephant's Head.
We're at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level,
and this is the highest point south of the Himalayas.
At the start of the quest,
I was really hoping that the pogeyan would be
a cat that ends up with a Latin name, a new species.
It has been frustrating and unfortunate
that we haven't found the pogeyan,
but I'm happy that we've come across many things along the way.
It's been a great experience.
The fact that in 21st-century India,
there are still places like this that are wild enough, remote enough
and unexplored enough for a new species like the pogeyan to exist,
is cause for a celebration and hope.
Sandesh has still to prove the existence of the pogeyan.
But his extraordinary images have revealed a little-known wilderness,
and shown why preserving these mountains is essential,
not only to its wild inhabitants but for the future of all Indians.