Anakulam (Idukki): Six Adivasi men, women and a child wade through a shallow Anakulam river and disappear in a dense forest on the opposite bank where they live in huts. Children splash around in a puddle while a man takes a dip in the water. Half a dozen teenage boys play volleyball in a court demarcated on the riverbed.

Scores of Indian and foreign tourists in bright clothes arrive in cars, jeeps, buses, rickshaws and motorcycles. A shop with pepper, cardamom, jungle berry, green tea and other forest and garden produce in glass displays starts inviting customers. It is a Sunday crowd, so business is brisk.
Two makeshift roadside stalls sell tea, lemon soda and omelettes. Two grocery stores-cum-eateries sell toys, buckets, mugs and other households items all made of plastic.

About 200m from the river is the Kerala forest department outpost of the Malayatur reserve forest. The adjoining building houses a ticket window and a centre to brief tourists about the eco-sensitive region—both closed. Across from the building, within the same estate, plaques describing the characteristics of 27 Nakshatras (stars) represented by 27 species of trees found in the reserve forest are covered by a thick layer of dust, with wild grass and shrubs growing below.

“Entry into the reserve forest without permission is a punishable offence and so is littering the area,” a notice board put up by the forest department warns. Just behind, on the riverbed, the game of volleyball continues. Families, on Sunday picnics, litter the riverbank with empty plastic and aluminium packets. Women and girls loiter lazily, some dipping the feet in the water.

Across the river, on the edge of the forest, a Malabar giant squirrel jumps from branch to branch. Suddenly, a Sambar fawn emerges out of the forest, its left hind leg bleeding. The wolf chasing it stops abruptly, turns around and disappears into the forest.

A hush falls on the Sunday revellers as trumpeting is heard in the distance. “They are coming. The elephants are coming,” the crowd murmurs. People scamper towards the road, leaving the riverbed and positioning themselves on the embankment parapet in anticipation.

An adult cow elephant emerges from behind the trees. It walks down the slope to the river on the other side and stands right where a spring gushes from below, bringing bubbles to the surface. It draws the spring water with its trunk and pours it in its mouth. After about 10 minutes quenching its thirst, the elephant makes a sudden dash and disappears back into the forest.

In a few second, a herd—three adults females and four calves, one of them male—emerges from the forest and takes up the same spot as the earlier elephant. From the manner in which the first elephant rushed back into the forest, it seemed it had sensed the arrival of the herd much before the onlookers saw it coming.

The seven elephants spent much more time, sating their thirst in a leisurely way. Another adult female walked out from the forest and stopped on the bank some 50m from the herd of seven. It walked downstream about 200m and waited its turn.

“Yesterday as many as 25 elephants had come to Anakulam to drink water from the spring. They come sometimes one by one and at times in herds. Each of them waits for its turn. I have not seen a single fight among them,” says the owner of the shop selling spices and jungle berries, which opened three years ago.

Anakulam is considered the only place in Kerala where no man-animal conflict has been reported even though the forest is dotted with human settlements, mostly of Adivasis. Almost every day, herds of elephants, numbering 30-40, come to drink water at Anakulam. The local Adivasi farmers grow pepper, coconut, rubber, tapioca and plantain. Last year’s estimates put the number of elephants in the Mankulam forest division at 98.

Though elephants are known to bathe and gambol about in water bodies, the herds that come to the Anakulam river come only to drink the spring water that is rich in minerals. It is because of this mineral-rich spring water that Anakulam has become the favourite watering hole of the elephants and is called “Jumbo’s pub.”

Kerala Tourism and the state’s forest department have plans to erect crash-guard rope fencing on the 1.2km stretch from Anakulam to Valiyaparakutty to prevent conflict between humans and animals. A watchtower is also being constructed so tourists can get a better view of the elephants at close range without causing any disturbance to the wildlife.

Nachiketa Desai is a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad and tweets at @nachiketadesai. The views expressed are his own.