Environmental activist and ace wildlife photographer Baiju K Vasudevan died on Sunday following an accident at his home. He was considered a sentinel of the pristine Athirappilly forest, which remains a hotspot for biodiversity in south India.
Just 43 at the time of his demise, Baiju spent the last few years as a caring and compassionate guardian of the birds and animals of the forests, located in a crucial portion of the Western Ghats.
According to the police, Baiju fell from the roof of his house while cleaning a water tank on Saturday. Though he was immediately taken to the Chalakkudy taluk hospital, he was discharged soon after and taken home, reportedly on the advice of a traditional healer. But his condition deteriorated late that night and he was then taken to a private hospital in Thrissur, but could not be saved.
Social media witnessed dozens of tributes to Baiju on Sunday.
Activism to protect flora and fauna
Between Kerala’s Chalakudy town and Tamil Nadu’s emerging hill station Valparai, the long stretches of forest remain a rare green experience. This is despite four decades of organised attempts to build a hydel project in the local river, which would kill the majestic Athirappilly waterfalls while also causing irreparable damage to the region’s flora and fauna.
The most vulnerable victims of the controversial project, which is still under active consideration by the Kerala government, are the forest-dwelling Kadar tribal community and the region’s huge hornbill population.
Baiju was once a notorious hunter and illicit hooch manufacturer who combed Athirappilly and the adjacent Vazhachal forests for wild boars and deer to kill. However, he later reformed and turned into a passionate protector of the animals. He was also at the forefront of agitations whenever successive governments batted for the hydel project.
But thousands of young Keralites remember Baiju for a specific incident: the way he had protected a female hornbill and its hatchling from starvation, after the male hornbill was killed by a speeding vehicle on a forest path last year. Videos of Baiju climbing a huge tree every day to feed the hornbill family went viral last year, winning him many fans.
People on trips to Vazhachal and Athirappilly used to meet Baiju to share their appreciation for his act of kindness and his love for wild animals in distress.
Born and brought up in Athirappilly, Baiju used to explore the forests since he was 10. Soon after completing his schooling, he started engaging with a local gang of hunters who targeted wild boars and deer.
But a chance meeting with then Divisional Forest Officer Induchoodan in 1988 changed his life. A kind and compassionate officer, Induchoodan showed Baiju the need to protect and preserve his natural surroundings. He also helped Baiju learn photography, after which Baiju became a popular wildlife photographer in Kerala.
Baiju also worked with the Forest department to conduct awareness programmes for people visiting Athirappilly and Vazhachal.
Aside from the hornbill family, Baiju took care of many animals in distress in his own locality, including a deer that had swallowed 5 kg of plastic nine years ago and over two dozen different animals that suffered serious burn injuries in a disastrous forest fire in early 2018.
When the wildfires were blazing through Athirappilly, Baiju used Facebook to summon 85 volunteers from all over the state to help douse the fires. Along with the Forest department, they were able to extinguish the fire in 24 hours.
Recently, Baiju started a foundation to open an eco-friendly tribal school, predominantly for children from the Kadar community. He envisioned training the children in environmental protection in an effort to preserve the Athirappilly forest. An informal source of forest knowledge, Baiju was also a visiting faculty member at Kerala Agricultural University’s College of Forestry.
Baiju had also appeared in eight Malayalam movies.
KA Shaji is a south Indian journalist who regularly reports from the backward parts of the region and works in the areas of environmental protection, social advocacy, and grassroots level development. Views expressed are the author’s own.