The wild and the wonderful

Bandipur National Park is the gateway to the Nilgiris for most travelers from Bangalore and Mysore. It is perhaps the most celebrated and well known among the south Indian wild life parks and sanctuaries. It is an important part of the very diverse ecosystem of the Nilgiri biosphere. Its contiguous extension into other forest reserves makes this Tiger Reserve a significant player in maintaining the ecological balance of this region. Coupled with that is the socioeconomic significance of it being the passage to the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The more you learn about this region, the more you begin to fathom how delicate this balance is, between nature, wildlife and local human habitat, and movement along the economic lifelines of national highways connecting the three states.

The Nilgiris provide a perfect backdrop to scenes from the Bandipur and Mudumalai forests.

While it has earned its fame largely as a Tiger Reserve, the Bandipur National Park ushers you to the foothills of the beautiful Nilgiris, and leads to the queen of hill stations, Ooty. At the North-western side it connects to the Wayanad Wild Life Sanctuary of Kerala as the Kollegala-Kozhikode highway cuts through it. This gives a fair idea of the amount of human and material movement that this park is subjected to. Growing demands of easing the curbs on night traffic movement, particularly to and from Kerala, brings this Tiger Reserve to the brink of an uncertain outcome of human decisions.

The Bandipur and the Mudumalai forests merge with each other without a break even as you cross the forest check-posts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with less than hundred metres separating the two. So it is a big stretch of dense forests that one gets to enjoy while driving to Ooty before the uphill climb starts. Well into the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, the road to Ooty splits into two at Theppakadu. Two different route options present themselves, one much shorter but with a steeper climb to Ooty than the other. The differences between the two routes do not end at that, but let us leave that for a later occasion to talk about.

The wild life in Bandipur is similar to that in the Nagerhole forests, with a good count of predators and a strong prey base. My encounters with the predators have been relatively few here, compared to my experiences in the Nagerhole National Park, though I know of many who have been luckier than me. I did chance upon a tiger in one of my recent safaris, but that was probably after a dozen attempts. Leopards too have been a rare sight, with only a few distant fleeting views. However, the unpredictability of such wild life sightings is what keeps you excited to get back every time. Speaking of which, my best tiger sighting in Bandipur has not been while in an organized jungle safari but at a time that I had expected it the least. It was after spending one New Year’s Eve in the Emerald region near Ooty, that I was driving through Bandipur on my way back. One kilometre into the state of Karnataka after crossing the forest check-post at the border, we were treated to a sight that one dreams for a lifetime about – a full grown adult tiger crossing the highway barely a hundred feet away from us. While the few vehicles on both sides stood still as if in reverence, this royal form with streaks of orange, black and white on its shining coat, moved across the windshield view and disappeared into the bushes.

This chance encounter was all over before we could gather our senses about us and get our camera firing. The best we could manage were some quick phone clicks as we drove away. Dumbstruck as we were with this unexpected stroke of luck, it reinforced the importance of driving with caution on these roads through the forests. While an encounter of this nature may be rare, it is common to find elephants, chital and sambhar deer, langurs and gaurs on or very close to the road.

Even though you are on national or state highways, specific rules apply when you are driving through the forests. The rules are quite clearly indicated on roadside signs. In case you are not forewarned on these, just remember a few basic ones. Do not over-speed and do not stop for clicks even if you spot wild life on the sides of the road. However, do slow down if you see any animal close to or on the road to avoid a collision. The only time you stop is to allow animals to cross the road as they have the right of way. Remember, the price for violating the rules of driving on forest roads is pretty high, both in terms of prosecution by law and your own safety.

Not much change is noticed as one moves into the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve after crossing the forest check posts of the two states. The typical mix of deciduous forests, evergreen forests and grasslands continue for some time, before you start noticing increased presence of moist deciduous vegetation and grasslands. Different parts of the Mudumalai National Park have different mix of vegetation, a result of the unequal distribution of rainfall in the region, in turn caused by the adjoining Nilgiri clusters. The images that I am sharing here are more from the Masinagudi side, along the route that takes a shorter but steeper climb to Ooty.

An opportunity to stay well inside the Mudumalai forests many years ago was a revelation of the sounds of the wild at night. That was special, as a series of thunderous roars of a tiger, alternating with elephants trumpeting in clear disapproval, shook the forests and the bordering hills. These were indications of conflict between an elephant herd and a tiger that might have been targeting a calf for its prey. As the confrontation eased, the jungle started to get back to normal, with the sounds of crickets, jungle fowl, occasional alarm calls and the continuous rustling in the vegetation taking over.

Seasons and the Sun lend their colours to the land.

Masinagudi sets the tone of the journey into the Nilgiris. As you leave Masinagudi behind, the road to Ooty finds its way through exquisite undulating terrains that present different views in changing seasons.

Bandipur-Mudumalai-Masinagudi serve as a fitting gateway to the marvels of the Nilgiris. In the posts to follow, I shall take you to some more of the jewels that adorn the crown of the Nilgiri biosphere. The region is treacherously poised on human development and a diverse but sensitive ecosystem, with tourism testing its limits. The greatest appreciation for these southern wonderlands can come in the form of responsible tourism. So if you like my posts and if you are fascinated by the Western Ghats and the Nilgiris, make sure you place responsibility ahead of self gratification as you tour these lands.

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