As you drive through the quaint tiny tea villages, and past the armies of tea pickers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there was still plenty of forest to sustain a healthy wildlife population. But most of the 'islands' you see surrounding the estates are not rich multilayered forest at all, they are homogenous alien tumours of planted Eucalyptus - as silent as the tea estates and planted for one purpose only - to grow fast and be chopped down for fuel. So when you strip it all back all the unique mammals, birds, insects, plants, are left with are tiny ecological prisons, trapping them inside an ever decreasing world. Roads carve them up leaving rare species with the daily task of dodging traffic. Elephants, tigers, gliding squirrels, bison, lion-tailed macaques all once freely roamed. The forest depended on them and they depended on the forest. Now they depend on man.
I met Sridhar & Divya Mudappa, a husband and wife team who have spent the past seven years working with the estate managers, convincing them of their ecological responsibility and turning abandoned land, deemed usless to the plantation, back into lush forest. 'It's no easy task' Sridhar tells me, 'there's not much space to work with, maybe a few hectares here and a few there but it can all make a difference to sustaining the diversity and abundance of wildlife in the area' 'we can spend years convincing a manager, insisting on their support as part of their corporate policy and then we spend years regenerating the land, but in one fell swoop it can all be reversed' 'the estate may be sold to a company with less concern for the wildlife, the trees are felled and all the hard work starts again'.
Shridar & Diya took me to their nursery and showed me row upon row of young saplings, standing neat and tidy like an army ready to do battle. Elsewhere new recruits glistened, giant seeds of all shapes and sizes had been individually planted in narrow black bags, each seed painstakingly collected from roadsides where they would otherwise have been crushed by cars. All the ingredients for a healthy rainforest seemed to be here, pre-ordained veterans.
The onset of the monsoon signals the planting season. The torrents of water blown over from the Indian ocean provide a surge of energy giving the saplings their best possible chance of survival. Now it was my turn to help so I donned my rain gear, pulled up my leech socks and prepared to repent for a lifetime of tea drinking...