Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary

Elephant Country- Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary

For the average Keralite, the name ‘ WayanadImmediately brings to mind the heroic struggle of the Raja of Pazhassi. With the help of his loyal tribesmen, the king fought the guerrilla style of the East India Company in the forests of Wayanad until he was betrayed and killed. In those days the hills of Wayanad must have been covered with an unbroken mantle of green, serene and unblemished, stretching as far as the eye could see.

Today, Wayanad still retains some of its old magic, though the forest cover is almost gone. The land is largely under cultivation and generations of planters have transformed the jungle into highly profitable plantations of coffee, cardamom, vanilla and orange. However, some wilderness persists despite man’s best efforts; mysterious and untamed spaces where tall trees merge with thick vines. There are dark, lush undergrowth from which mist rises early in the morning in the sun’s filtered rays. There is no shortage of lakes and streams and rivers. And there are still places where wild animals roam free like in the days of old. These fragile areas of forest land, together with the ubiquitous plantations, help to maintain the impression, partly illusory, of that enchanting greenery that is the hallmark of Wayanad too many.

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At Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo by Lyalka)

My most pleasant memories of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary are the nights I spent in the bungalows in the forest, especially the ones in Tholpetty (one of the two entry points to the park). The Tholpetty Range is perhaps a better place for wildlife viewing than Muthanga (the park’s other entry point), though such generalizations are only half true at best. The fact remains that animal movements can be described as unpredictable at best. On my most recent trip to Tholpetty I didn’t see a single animal along the way, not even the elephants that you usually see at every turn in these parts. “They’ve probably all been trampled on the road,” said the old ranger on duty at the checkpoint. “This is the harvest season in Wayanad and at night the elephants migrate to the fields to feed on the crop.” He suggested I freshen up at the inspection bungalow nearby and then take a night drive down the road, when there would be a chance of encountering a big cat, maybe a leopard, or even a tiger!

After supper I followed the guard’s advice and continued along the road to Begur and Thirunelli. The road surface was broken and pitted, it was a bumpy ride. It was also necessary to keep my eyes open while riding through elephant country in the dark. But this time there were no elephants, no dark shapes looming out of the thick curtain of night. In Begur I stopped to talk to the guards in their quarters. As usual, “yesterday” or “last week” or “a few days ago,” someone had come face to face with a leopard close to the roadside, or spotted a tiger drinking at a stream early in the morning. These furious tales may indeed be true, but they serve no other purpose than to make the itinerant visitor feel a sense of self-pity.

At Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo by Christian Baudet)
At Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo by Christian Baudet)

I kept going straight until Thirunelli, saw a lone gaur on the way, but no sign of a big cat or elephant. On the way back I saw a nightjar on the road, stunned by the glare of the headlights. I was able to approach the bird within a short distance before it flew away. Back in the bungalow in the woods I went to bed without further ado. It was a long day and I had traveled a lot. Gunshots and crackers unleashed by farmers trying to drive away reckless elephants interrupted my sleep.

The next morning I went out with a friendly guard to explore the forest and before the sun got uncomfortable he made a round of about 5 miles. Hiking is not the best way to see wildlife. No matter how careful we are, we make too much noise when we walk, and no matter how committed we are to the soap and water philosophy, our scent alarms and enrages the inhabitants of the forest. Despite this we saw herds of spotted deer, a herd of gaur in the distance and playful otters near a stream Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, all of whom fled at the first sign of our approach. Much more abundant was the birdlife. A crested serpent eagle on its perch made a beautiful image of mastery and grace. A pair of red wattled lapwings made a lot of noise and performed a variety of aerial acrobatics to trick us from the location of their nest.

The jungle also seemed to be pulsating with a variety of insects, including many species of butterflies and dragonflies. A common leopard moth played with me for the best part of half an hour before it finally gave in and let me take its picture. As always, when on foot in a forest like this one always had to be on the lookout for the unexpected. Losing myself photographing the skittish butterfly, my companion looked out for elephants approaching.

At Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo by Fountain_Head)
At Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Photo by Fountain_Head)

After lunch we decided to drive to a place a few kilometers in the forest called Dasankhetta, where there is a swimming pool with a watchtower overlooking the lake. A surrounding 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 the calling of the birds and the rustling of the windblown leaves. We lay down in silence to wait.

It turned out to be a great night. First a small herd of spotted deer came to drink and a flock of yellow legged green pigeons descended by the thousands on the sandbanks of the pool, probably to eat the salty clay there. Any slight disturbance caused them to advance with a swarm of flapping wings, which was quite spectacular to watch. I was busy training my lens on these birds, when the guard whispered urgently in my ear, “Aana!”, which means elephant. I looked up and saw three elephants in the distance, all females, slowly making for the pool of water on the other side. In a few minutes they had their fill and then they rode back the way they came. Hardly had they disappeared from sight when a lone woman with a male calf came down from another direction. The mother drank slowly and heavily 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 effort. Soon the plaintive calls of peafowl about to sleep heralded the impending sunset. We dove into our full chappatti and then decided to call it a day. The night was quiet except for the occasional alarm calls from spotted deer.

Quick Facts

State: Kerala

Location In Northeast Kerala in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Wayanad WLS is spread over two parts that are not connected. The Muthanga side lies on the border between Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, while the Tholpetty side borders Karnataka’s Nagarhole NP Distances Upper Wayanad WLS (Tholpetty) is 25 km NE of Mananthavady, 64 km N of Kalpetta, 129 km N of Kozhikode, 115 km SW of Mysore; Lower Wayanad WLS is 15 km east of Sulthan Bathery, 22 km east of Kalpetta, 125 km north 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; quarter 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 all year round, except for the monsoon months (April-September), when the forest roads become too sloppy for vehicles. Oct-Feb would be the best time to visit Best sightings Dec-Feb

Go there for elephants, bison

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