The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and Garden is in Peria, in the Wayanad district of Kerala. To reach it, you have to travel along an unpaved road from Peria for a couple of kilometers through a jungle. The moment you enter the Gurukula you experience the tranquility of nature. There are evergreen forests on all sides. You can see numerous types of butterflies and birds, like the winged parakeet and Mountain Imperial Pigeon. There is the Niligiri Langur, the sambar deer and the necked mangoose.
It is home to nearly 2,000 species of plants from the Western Ghats and is rich in fauna and flora. But there is a whiff of danger too. There are more than 20 varieties of snakes, of which seven are very poisonous.
In the Gurkula, there is organic farming, animal husbandry, and alternate energy mechanisms. They have a programme called, ‘School in the Forest’ where schoolchildren and adults live and work in the sanctuary. A five-month programme costs Rs 50,000, which includes food, accommodation, instruction and travel.
One man looks over this oasis. He is a German: Wolfgang Theuerkauf. He came here 40 years ago, fell in love with the place and stayed on. “On my travels to different parts of the world, I came to India and ended up in the Western Ghats,” says Theuerkauf. He bought a patch of land and started the Gurukula in 1981. “As this area was encircled by forests, no one was willing to look after it,” he says. “I decided to do so.”
And Theuerkauf fell in love with the place. “The climate is fine and it is calm and peaceful,” he says. Initially, he had problems communicating with the locals, but he managed through sign language. “As for funds, my family in Germany also helped me,” says Theuerkauf. “We also received donations from some organizations.”
But today, the sale of coffee, tapioca and spices has added to the income. About 10 acres of the 55-acre sanctuary is a garden and nursery, while the rest is restored forest land, fields, and grazing areas.
In 1981 Theuerkauf received Indian nationality and married a Malayali, Leelama, who is from Periya. They have a son, Santheeya and a daughter, Anna. Santheeya helps his parents in the garden while Anna is doing her masters in psychology in Bangalore. Suprabha Seshan, a Tamilian, has been assisting Theuerkauf for the past 16 years. Now, as Director of the sanctuary, Suprabha gives classes on the conservation of forests.
“Today, nature has become a commodity to be used and exploited,” says Theuerkauf. “Commercialisation and consumerism have brought the fragile eco system to the verge of destruction. In an industrialized city or a country you may get all the luxuries, but no peace of mind or physical well-being. I always prefer places like this.”
A few years ago, there were no discussions about conserving nature or preserving biodiversity. “But now for our very survival it is necessary, as you can understand from the changing climate of Kerala,” he says.
Theuerkauf says that nature is under tremendous pressure. “Every plant and living organism is important,” he says. “Our aim is to conserve the nature and preserve the disappearing flora and fauna. We grow the plants seen everywhere to make people aware that these are the plants they neglect.”
Theuerkauf also grows fishes. “My aim is not only to preserve but also to show the people different species of fish too,” he says.
His work has received international recognition. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has labeled the Gurukulam as one of the 25 centres of bio-diversity in the world.
In 2006 he won the ‘Whitley’ award, the biggest environment award in Britain for the most effective conservation efforts around the world.
So a German living in India is doing his best to preserve eco systems in one corner of this vast country.