For the average Keralite, the name ‘Wayanad’ immediately brings to mind the heroic struggle of the Raja of Pazhassi. With the help of his loyal tribesmen, the king battled the East India Company guerilla-style in the forests of Wayanad until he was betrayed and killed. In those days, the hills of Wayanad must have been covered in one unbroken mantle of green, serene and inviolate, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Today, Wayanad still retains a part of its old magic, though the forest cover has all but disappeared. The land is for the most part under cultivation, and generations of planters have transformed the jungle into highly profitable plantations yielding coffee, cardamom, vanilla and orange. Some wilderness still remains, however, in spite of man’s best efforts; mysterious and untamed spaces where tall trees intertwine with thick vines. There are dark, lush thickets, from which, early in the morning, the mist rises in the filtered rays of the sun. There is no dearth here of lakes and streams and rivers. And there are places still where wild animals roam freely as in the days of yore. These vulnerable tracts of forest land, together with the ubiquitous plantations, help to sustain the impression, partly illusory, of that bewitching greenery that is the stamp of Wayanad to many.
My most pleasant memories of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary are from the nights I spent in the forest bungalows, particularly the one at Tholpetty (one of the two entry points to the park). The Tholpetty Range is perhaps a better place for the purpose of animal viewing than Muthanga (the other entry point to the park), though such generalisations are at best only half true. The fact remains that animal movement can at best be described as unpredictable. In my most recent trip to Tholpetty, I didn’t see any animal on my way there, not even elephants whom one usually encounters at every turn in these parts. “They are all probably away crop-raiding,” said the old forest guard on duty at the checkpost. “This is the harvest season in Wayanad and, at night, the elephants head to the fields to feed on the crop.” He suggested that I should freshen up at the Inspection Bungalow nearby and then take a night drive along the road, when there would be an opportunity to encounter a big cat, a leopard perhaps, or even a tiger!
After supper, I followed the guard’s advice and drove along the road towards Begur and Thirunelli. The road surface being broken and pitted, it was a bumpy ride. It was imperative, too, to keep my eyes peeled while driving in the dark through elephant country. But this time there were no elephants, no dark shapes looming out of the thick curtain of the night. At Begur, I stopped to talk to the guards in their quarters. As usual, ‘yesterday’ or ‘last week’ or ‘a couple of days ago’, somebody had come face to face with a leopard right by the roadside, or seen a tiger drinking at a stream early in the morning. These infuriating stories may indeed be true, but they serve no purpose other than to infuse in the itinerant visitor a sense of self-pity.
I continued to drive right up to Thirunelli, saw a lone gaur on the way, but no sign of any big cat or elephant. On the way back, I did see a nightjar on the road, stunned by the glare of the headlights. I could approach the bird within touching distance before it flew away. Back at the forest bungalow, I retired to bed without further ado. It had been a long day and I had done a fair deal of travelling. Gunshots and crackers being let off by farmers trying to drive away marauding elephants punctuated my sleep.
Next morning, along with a friendly guard, I set out to explore the forest on foot and before the sun got uncomfortable made a circuit of about 8 km. Walking is not the best way to see wildlife. However careful we may be, we make too much noise when we walk, and no matter how committed we are to the philosophy of soap and water, our odour alarms and infuriates the denizens of the forest. Despite that, we saw herds of spotted deer, a herd of gaur in the distance, and playful otters near a stream at Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, all of whom fled at the first sign of our approach. Much more abundant was the bird life. A crested serpent eagle on its perch made a marvellous picture of mastery and grace. A pair of red-wattled lapwings made a great deal of noise and performed a variety of aerial acrobatics in order to misdirect us from the location of their nest.
The jungle also seemed to pulsate with a variety of insects, including many kinds of butterflies and dragonflies. A common leopard butterfly played tag with me for the best part of half an hour before he finally relented and let me take his picture. As always, when on foot in a forest such as this, one had to be ever wary of the unexpected. As I lost myself in the task of photographing the skittish butterfly, my companion watched out for approaching elephants.
After lunch, we decided to drive to a place located a few kilometres within the forest called Dasankhetta, where there is a pool with a watchtower overlooking it. An encircling ditch protects the watchtower from elephants. This is a truly wild area, isolated from all human activity. Our idea was to spend the evening and night in this watchtower. The only sounds you could hear were calls of the birds and the rustle of the wind-blown leaves. Silently, we settled down to wait.
It turned out to be a marvellous evening. First, a small herd of spotted deer came to drink and flocks of yellowlegged green pigeons descended on the sand banks of the pool in their thousands, probably to eat the salty clay there. Any small disturbance would make them take off in a flurry of beating wings, which was quite spectacular to see. I was busy trying to train my lens on these birds, when the guard whispered urgently in my ear, “Aana!”, meaning elephant. I looked up and saw in the distance three elephants, all females, slowly making for the pool of water from the other side. In a few minutes, they had drunk their fill and then they trundled back the way they had come. Hardly had they disappeared from view when a single female with a male calf came down from another direction. The mother drank slowly and ponderously while the youngster played in the water. And we could see the mother elephant chastising him from time to time. This was the highlight of the evening, and it more than made up for all my time and trouble. Soon the plaintive calls of peafowl about to roost announced the imminent sunset. We delved into our packed chappattis and then decided to call it a day. The night was silent except for the occasional alarm calls of spotted deer.
Location In north-east Kerala in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Wayanad WLS is spread across two disconnected parts. The Muthanga side lies along the Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu border, while the Tholpetty side is contiguous with Karnataka’s Nagarhole NP Distances Upper Wayanad WLS (Tholpetty) is 25 km NE of Mananthavady, 64 km N of Kalpetta, 129 km NE of Kozhikode, 115 km SW of Mysore; Lower Wayanad WLS is 15 km E of Sulthan Bathery, 22 km E of Kalpetta, 125 km NE of Kozhikode, 94 km SW of Mysore. Mananthavady is 37 km NW of Sulthan Bathery Route from Kozhikode to Upper Wayanad WLS NH212 to Kalpetta; SH to Kartikulam via Mananthavady; district road to Tholpetty
Route from Kalpetta to Lower Wayanad WLS NH212 to sanctuary via Sulthan Bathery
Route from Bengaluru SH to Mysore via Maddur and Mandya; NH212 to Sulthan Bathery via Gundlupet
When to go; The sanctuary is open throughout the year, except for the monsoon months (Apr-Sep), when the forest roads become too slushy for vehicles. Oct-Feb would be the best time for a visit Best sightings Dec-Feb
Go there for Elephants, bison
About the Author
A college teacher by profession, S Vinaya Kumar lives and teaches in Thiruvananthapuram and does Photography as a hobby.