Trip Report: Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve
Dates: 26/27/28 Oct 2013
Camp: Wild Valley Farm, Germalam P.O.
Companions: GK and VR
STR: Wikipedia Abstract
Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) was declared as a PA in 2008 with 524 sq kms of area. In 2011, another 887 sq kms were added, bringing the size to 1,412 sq kms – which makes it the largest wildlife sanctuary in Tamilnadu. STR is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, and is contiguous with BRT Tiger Reserve, Mudumalai National Park, Bandipur National Park and Masinagudi (Sigur Plateau). Sathyamangalam falls under Erode district, overlaps two taluks (Sathyamangalam and Gobichettipalayam) and is the fourth Project Tiger reserve in TN (after Mudumalai, Anamalai and KMTR).
The topography varies from scrub and thorn jungle in the plains, to lush shola forests at higher altitudes. A December ’11 camera trapping study estimated the presence of 28 tigers. In the same year, the population of elephants was estimated at 850. A 2009 wildlife survey had estimated 10 tigers, 866 elephants, 672 gaur, 27 leopards, 2,348 chital, 1,068 blackbuck, 304 sambar, 77 barking deer and chausingha, 843 wild boar, 43 sloth bears and 15 striped hyenas. Mr. Daniel (see later) mentioned a tiger scat study that had enumerated some 46 tigers in the area.
The area is infamous as being the haunt of the sandalwood and ivory smuggler Veerappan for years. You can find online references to STR as one of the most haunted spots in India after his slaying. Strangely, four people we separately asked were puzzled or amused by the question and seemed to be completely unaware of any such reputation the place possessed. We went looking for spooky stories, but this came a cropper. So much for the supernatural.
Wild Valley Farm
We stumbled on the place online and it turned out to be a great choice. The farm is near a village called Germalam, exactly 205 kms from my home in Bangalore, via Kanakapura road/NH209. To get there, you drive to Kollegal and ask for the road to MM Hills/Udayarpalya. Some 20-30 kms down this road, you see another road forking off to the right, with a large signboard that reads “Wildlife…” something (“Wildlife Conservation Society”?) This road leads straight to Germalam, where you’ll need to turn left to get to the farm. Germalam is 60 kms from Kollegal, and is a very short distance from the Karnataka border.
WVF is owned by S.R. Daniel, a very amiable and interesting man who lives on the place. He is one of those rare people who’re actually living out their dreams, having bought 100 acres of uncultivated land at the back of nowhere in his late twenties, and then having settled there and learned to farm successfully. We had some very interesting conversations with Mr. Daniel. His love for the place, its people and the animals came through very clearly. Especially memorable were his anecdotes about the relentless struggle to keep wild elephants out of the farm. This quest to elephant-proof the farm seems to be a big part of Mr. Daniel’s life and he talked about the big bulls that aren’t deterred by the electric fencing.
These elephant fences are single wires strung out at heights varying from 6.5 feet to 7 feet or so, and connected to an electric fence machine that spits out a pulse of high voltage (4,000 volts) and low wattage (Ampereage?) at intervals of about a second. The pulsing and low wattage ensure contact doesn’t kill. Getting entangled in the wires however can, and we heard of cattle as well as inebriated men getting killed this way.
Coming back to the topic of the bull elephants, Mr. Daniel spoke of them hurling a branch or trunk to get the wire to sag, and then flooring the entire contraption, fence post, wire and all by stamping down on the live wire with their forelegs, notwithstanding the shock of the electric current. Alternatively, they’d get hold of one of the posts with their trunk, and heave it right out of the ground, uprooting poles for 50 meters or so on either side in the process, and bringing the whole arrangement crashing. I was reminded of Dr. Lucy King’s experiment with beehive fences in Kenya (see Sanctuary Asia, October ’13 issue). These fences have wires between posts from which the hives are suspended, and if the pachyderm attempts to dismantle or even touch the fence, it sets the hives swinging. Dr. King found that the resultant angry buzz the bees make is enough to get the elephant to back off. The hive fence also generates an additional income for the farmer. I did mention this to Mr. Daniel, though I’m not sure if he found the idea convincing enough to attempt.
We crossed under the live fence-wires a couple of times, gingerly stepping across, bending much lower than was required, and staying low well after the wire was passed. For all the caution exercised, we discovered later that we had been trudging right under one of these fences strung between our tent and the toilets, blissfully unaware of its electrifying presence a few inches above our heads.
The staff on the farm is polite and hospitable, and the frosting on the cup-cake is the dogs – five of them – Bilbo the lab/GSD, Rover his brother, Spike the Dobermann and a couple of Lhasa Apsos. They are, especially the first three, delightfully friendly. Bilbo slept on the grass outside our tent once he figured we liked dogs as much as he did. And the cherry on the frosting is the Red Spurfowl calls in the darkness that resound through the forests around the farm, vaguely reminiscent of something plopping into water. Grey junglefowl call too, and so do peafowl – all of which are very pleasant sounds to those of us who love our forests. And during the day, bulbuls, sunbirds and other birds set up a cacophonic chatter. The farm is verily a birder’s paradise, at least in winter.
Accommodation is by way of fabric tents pitched on grass plots near the forest edge, with no power supply. The tents overlook a patch of turmeric and gooseberry beyond which lies the forest’s edge. Each tent holds upto four camp cots, and little else. The farm has a total of 20 such tents, and they are erected when booked and dismantled after. Toilets and bathrooms are in a regular, electrified facility about 50 meters away. The arrangements are not luxurious by any stretch, but certainly clean and functionally adequate. Dining arrangements are a little way off, near a large kitchen constructed for the purpose – there is a little al fresco dining area with a delightful view. No, not quite al fresco, but you can eat on the porch whilst looking at the forest with the ever-present elephant fence-wire in the foreground. We must say we quite enjoyed the simple south-Indian fare. All the wandering in the forests and the clean air helped sharpen our appetites too.
The weather in October was warm and dry during the day for most part (though it must have been cool enough on the farm), with a nip in the air come evening. Nights are pleasantly cold.
The one inconvenience we faced staying on the farm was the distance from there to the starting point for our drives – Hasanur – 23 kms away. This required a headstart, which meant leaving at 5 AM to link up with our guide at 5:45 AM. In the evenings, this distance had to be factored to ensure we returned to the farm in time to get our dinner (latest by 9:30 PM or so). But despite this constraint, there are enough reasons to visit the farm again and we would recommend it to anyone wishing to visit the area.
VR had discovered a most resourceful fellow who was a driver to the ranger for 9 years and consequently knew the topography of the place intimately. We covered as much ground as we did because of this. And cover ground we did. In the two days on which we drove into the forests, we covered 400 kilometers, much of it over boulder strewn stretches, dry stream crossings and generally rubber-ripping non-roads. In any event, the Scorp (“Vanessa”) held up her end of the bargain remarkably well in these proceedings.
So this is what we broadly did:
This is a delightful stretch of wilderness. Mixed deciduous and shola forests, with ample roadside sightings in the late evenings. The road is tarred and in grand condition.
We came upon a sloth bear in the fading light, intent on digging out what were presumably termites. Enormous male in his prime. He sniffed and snorted around a circle some 10 feet in dia, completely ignoring us as we sat with the engine turned off, hardly 10 feet away – except for one irritable moment when he rose on his hind legs and flashed the white V on his chest as he warned us off. We watched him in silence for a good ten minutes before he made off into the undergrowth. That’s the longest I’ve ever watched a sloth bear for, not counting the Daroji Bear Sanctuary sightings where one can watch sloth bears at one’s leisure and often for hours, but from a very long way off. (I did hear recently that the Daroji sightings are now a thing of the past, with the elimination of the stone-crushing units that dot that landscape – and that they have now apparently dispersed across a much larger area).
This must have been the Night of No Fear, since we also came across a pair of Indian Civets cavorting on the roadside in the darkness, quite unmindful of our presence.
A short while later, on the drive back to Germalam, we ran into another bear, a much smaller one, but this one fled as soon as it spotted us.
First leg: Germalam-Hasanur-Dimbum-Bhavani Sagar-Sujilkuttai-Kulithurapatti-Karavanrayan Koil-Alli Mayar-Dimbum
To traverse this route, one needs to first tackle the 29 hairpin bends down the Dimbum escarpment (including an infamous one called the raikal bend which spirals up seemingly interminably and then abruptly spins out in the opposite direction). There is a lot of heavy lorry traffic on this stretch, and the narrow road, steep inclines, hairpin bends and heavy loads make for a potent combination.
Re-entry into the forest then is beyond Bhavani Sagar (with its lower Bhavani Sagar dam), and the trail meanders through dry scrub jungle where Blackbuck can be sighted, until the Moyar/Mayar river is reached. This is the Moyar river valley and you can spot White-rumped and possibly other vultures patrolling the skies in this area. I am confused by the differing spellings for this river – Mayar and Moyar. Our guide’s take was that the original/correct name is Moyar, but that it has morphed into Mayar or the enchanted river on account of its vagaries, coming into flow suddenly and unpredictably.
At Alli Mayar, the road ran into the river quite literally, and diagonally at that, requiring a crossing through rushing waters 2.5 to 3 feet deep, for a distance of around 100 feet. I didn’t have the nerve to attempt the crossing (in my defense, the Scorp was hardly three months old), and we turned back to Dimbum, wisely I think. I don’t believe there are too many options for towing a Scorp with a flooded engine block out of the Moyar in the middle of that forest.
The roads on this outing varied from poor to worse, inside the forest. The boulder-strewn slopes that flank stream crossings tend to be especially vicious as far as tyres and underchassis are concerned. You cannot attempt this route in a vehicle with inadequate ground clearance.
Second leg: Dimbum-Mavanattam-Begaletti-Thalaimalai- and then a u-turn shortly before reaching Chikkahalli, at a place called Dasarapallam, to return to Dimbum via the same route and thence to Hasanur.This Dasarapallam is reputed to be the stretch of forest where Veerappan had secreted his celebrity abductee Dr. Rajkumar for several months.
This was a repeat of the previous day’s route. While passing the spot where we’d had the stretched bear sighting the previous evening, I remarked that this was the spot and turned to point and as luck would have it, the same sloth bear was in the exact same spot. And curiously, this time accompanied by a Grey Junglefowl cock, pursuing him for any stray, wholesome insects he was dislodging. The sun was just starting to set and mellow evening light still suffused the forest, so we could see him much more clearly than on the previous occasion. We screwed up with the camera, having forgotten to reset the exposure comp a few minutes earlier. The images we got were frame-filling, but irredeemably blurred and overexposed. Yet another lesson to promptly return the exposure comp setting to zero if it is ever tinkered with – this is not the first image to be ruined on account of this oversight.
This was déjà vu day, as after Bruin, we again ran into a civet on the way back, perhaps one of the same pair we ran into the previous evening.
The highlight of the evening however was a glorious Makhna mock charge. A Makhna, for the uninitiated, is a tuskless male elephant (unlike the African elephant, only the males carry tusks in case of the Asian Elephant, and that too not all of them). Shortly before we reached Chikkahalli, we came across a massive tuskless bull feeding right beside the road. I was intent on my driving and drove right past, missing him completely. The guide urgently whispered and we slammed to a stop, backed up and sat watching him in silence. He was hardly 40 feet away and we were obviously way too far into his comfort zone (do I correctly remember the recommended safe distance for motorists as 100 feet?).
The elephant then started showing signs of agitation, decided to get his retaliation in first (a la Jack Reacher), and came hurtling towards the Scorp with a short warning trumpet. There was a shallow rainwater ditch between us, but it was hardly designed as an elephant barrier. The animal stopped some 15 feet away after effortlessly snapping a 6-inch wide bamboo stem with his trunk in a demonstration of disgust, and I dutifully moved the car a short distance ahead to pacify him. He then resumed feeding, still showing signs of agitation. We left in a short while to avoid precipitating a second charge.
I’ve seen plenty of mock charges, but they were all with the perceived comfort of having a professional safari driver at the wheel. This was the first time I’ve experienced a charge while at the wheel myself, and this ups the feeling of anxiety. In any case, I’ve found mock charges at close proximity to be intimidating enough to send my pulse racing in each case. I think I’d freeze in place if I were on foot instead. We read about the signs of mock charges vis a vis intent to make contact – flaring of ears, outstretched trunk, trumpeting – but I somehow lose the capacity to assess these the moment that grey-brown mass comes hurtling through the lantana.
After this incident, I remembered what I’d read as a child about Makhnas in E.P. Gee’s The Wildlife of India; Gee surmised that Makhnas tend to be larger and stronger than tuskers as a rule, to compensate for their lack of in-built weaponry. Elephants are large, Makhnas are larger, and all objects appear larger than they are in the dusk!
It should be noted that most of the routes described here are closed to the public, and that there is no organized tourism in STR. Permission to enter the jungle has to be obtained from the forest department.
Hasanur figures on the itinerary not because it lies en route to Germalam (it does not), but in order to pick up and drop our guide who lived there. It is a short way ahead from the Germalam turn-off.
There would be broadly three categories of visitors to this forest I’d imagine, excluding the politico-VIP-types who’d get in anyway. Bands of men or youngsters out to drink, hoot at elephants, maybe bathe in the river, and generally have a jolly good time. Families, out to look at some wildlife, with someone who can get them into the forests. And then amateur naturalists with a serious interest in the forest and its wildlife. It makes a lot of sense for the forest department to find a way to encourage the latter category, and to make some money in the process. Look at what Jungle Lodges & Resorts has done in Karnataka. The Kerala Forest Department does this in some limited way I assume, from what we’d seen in Gavi/Periyar TR earlier. I haven’t seen meaningful eco-tourism deployment anywhere in TN, and that is a pity. We were refused entrance in KMTR, and met with a very lukewarm response in Top Slip, and these are all places with tremendous ecotourism potential.
We dispensed with the drives on day 3 and opted for a “long” trek organized by Mr. Daniel. Slipping under the electric fence below the dining area, we entered the bamboo forests by the Moyar with two guides, one a short distance ahead and another just behind us. Mr. Daniel repeatedly warned us against trying to catch up with the leading guide, as he might make himself scarce in a trice in the event of an elephant charge, leaving us at the mercy of the elephant. The lag would give us a head-start if we were to encounter an angry elephant. The reason for his caution became apparent very soon, with large deposits of elephant dung appearing just about every ten feet in the forest. This area is quite obviously infested with elephants, though there was some temporal respite in the fact that their movement in this area was almost always nocturnal. There was not much birdlife active in the jungle in the forenoon, and the forest was largely silent barring some junglefowl calling dispiritedly at intervals.
We climbed for a distance of around three kilometers and then descended by another route. The trek was moderately easy, with a little bit of clambering up rocky slopes. What was surprising was the unlikeliness of the places where we found elephant dung – on steep boulder-strewn slopes where it was hard to imagine an elephant making his way.
Mr. Daniel had told us about a Brown Fish Owl that we might encounter, we did see a large bird beside the Moyar that took to flight at our approach, but we couldn’t determine if it was this worthy or a CSE/CHE. GK found a discarded Chital stag’s antler that I carried home with me – it is much heavier than you’d imagine and I pity the stag that carried two of these around on his head. Incidentally, I read somewhere that deer seem to use their antlers solely for sparring with other stags of their own species, and do not even attempt to use them in any manner of self-defense when confronted with a predator or other assailant.
Overall as far as the trek was concerned, we got ourselves some good exercise on our feet and the delight of being in the forest, but not much by way of sightings. And no elephants either despite all the signs scattered everywhere. Thank God for that, I suspect both GK and VR would easily outrun me, not to mention our two guides (note to self: restart the thrice-a-week running schedule before venturing into elephant-infested forests again).
Post script: Kenneth Anderson aficionados will find bells ringing a chorus in their heads with all the place-names that leap straight out of his stories – Gedesal, Thalavady, Thalaimalai, Dimbum and so on.
- Asian Blue Fairybird
- Ashy Crowned Sparrowlark
- Asian Koel
- Barn Swallow
- Bay-backed Shrike
- Blue-faced Malkoha
- Blue Jay
- Brahminy Kite
- Brahminy Starling
- Brown Rock Chat
- Brown Shrike
- Changeable Hawk Eagle
- Chestnut Headed Bee Eater
- Coppersmith Barbet (calls)
- Crested Serpent Eagle
- Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
- Eurasian Collared Dove
- Golden Oriole
- Green Bee-eater
- Grey Headed Fish Eagle
- Grey Junglefowl
- Grey Francolin
- Grey Tit
- Hovering raptor – unidentified, with rapid fluttering of wings while hovering in place
- Indian Bushlark
- Indian Grey Hornbill
- Indian Robin
- Jungle Bush Quail
- Jungle Prinia
- Lesser Flamebacked Woodpecker
- Little Brown Dove
- Long Tailed Shrike
- Magpie Robin
- Owl (unidentified/indistinct in the morning darkness)
- Pied Bushchat
- Purple Sunbird
- Purple-rumped Sunbird
- Red-rumped Swallow
- Red Spurfowl
- Red Vented Bulbul
- Red Wattled lapwing
- Red Whiskered Bulbul
- Rufous Treepie (calls)
- Small Green Barbet
- Small Minivet
- Spotbilled Duck
- Spotted Dove
- White-browed Wagtail
- White-throated Kingfisher
- White-rumped Vulture
- Blacknaped Hare
- Bonnet Macaque
- Common Langur
- Indian Civet
- Malabar Giant Squirrel
- Sloth Bear
- Star Tortoise