Kasaragod: The summer officially set in on March 21, the equinox day. But the green grassland of Ranipuram Hills, billed as the Ooty of Kerala, turned brown at least three weeks ago.
The Department of Forest, which manages the ecotourism trekking trails, shut down the hills to tourists on March 8 because of the unavailability of water at the hilltop, around 1,000m above sea level. It reopened the picnic spot on March 19, but the water and the tourists are just a trickle.
But that was not a concern for a group of nature activists. They found the watering holes of animals -- three around the ticket counter -- had also dried up. So last week, members of 'Make My City Green', a Kannur-based collective, and wildlife rescuers pitched a tent on top of the hill to make a watering hole. "This is our gift to the wild animals and birds on World Water Day," said snake rescuer Santhosh K T of Panayal near Bekal.
Santhosh's joy knew no bounds when he saw lumps of elephant dung, 200m from the watering hole three days after he and 20 others dug at a height of 1,048m from sea level.
Ranipuram hills in Kasaragod run into the Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in the Brahmagiri hills of Karnataka, and form an elephant corridor between the two states, said Rahul R K, a Forest Beat Officer attached to the Panathady Section of the Forest Department.
Apart from elephants, Ranipuram hills are home to sambar deers, their predator wild dogs, wild buffaloes, snakes, and around 200 species of birds, he said.
"After we built the brushwood check dam, we saw hoof marks of sambar deers also near it," said Rahul.
The gift of life was a lot of hard work. Members of the 'Make My City Green', rescuers and Forest officials started their trek around 3.30 am, carrying mattocks, machetes, shovels, and baskets. Their destination was on the other side of the hill, a steep climb and descent 4km away. After an hour, they reached the wet spot at 4.30 am. "We had to start early because the sun would be unbearable after 9.30 am," said Santhosh.
After working for around five hours, the team of 25 built a watering hole on the rocky terrain, and secured it by building a fence around it with wood and grass and plastered the fence with mud. The grass would grow and strengthen the fence, said Shihabudheen A K, beat officer and secretary of the Forest Protection Committee of Ranipuram.
The team was led by Rahul Kannur, Sreejith Harvest, and Pradeep Alavil.
The next day, the team also cleaned another brushwood check dam that was filled with dry leaves. In two days, the pond, measuring 10m by 10m by 10m, has filled up.
Beat officer Rahul said the department was planning to build more such check dams inside forests. They will help recharge the groundwater, too. "We built one at Vannarkayam in Ottamala, a very dry area on the opposite side of Ranipuram hills," he said.
The best season to visit Ranipuram is from August, after the heavy rains, to November. Around 4,000 persons visit the hill station every month during the season.
The numbers start falling in February to 2,000. By March, the aquifers in the hills will be running dry. It will take two days to fill the 2,000-litre water tank at the ticket centre to fill up. Water is drawn from upstream using pipes.
The centre has a drinking water outlet, toilets, an eco-shop, a canteen, and staff quarters. "We will not be able to handle it if 100 guests come together. That's why the centre was closed," said Rahul. While the rescuers were cleaning and making the water holes, Forest officials had to send back bikers from Thalassery, and another bus of tourists from Karnataka.
"But one rain will recharge the hills," he said. "Till then, we will have to take care of the animals," said the officer.