Trip Report: KMTR, Oct ’14

Trip Report:        Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR)

Dates:                  2-5 Oct 2014

Camp:                  Talayannai FRH, Mundanthurai Range Office FRH

Who:                    GK, VR

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley… [often go awry] – Robert Burns

Dog’s breakfast

GK and I had prepared for this trip for weeks. We had spent time compiling lists of endemic or significant species that we wanted to look for, and in checking on what areas and routes to cover (I’ve included the list of target species at the end of this post). However the trip didn’t quite pan out the way it was intended to.

The jinx began right from the word go. GK hatched this plan of saving a day by driving the 600-odd kilometers to KMTR overnight. Shortly after reaching the place, I realized that I’d left behind my binoculars, notebooks and torch back in Bangalore. My eyesight being what it is, I was unable to ID a bunch of birds that weren’t close enough. And then we weren’t able to get permission to visit places in the higher ranges – places like Sengaltheri, Upper Kodayar and Kakachi. We intended to seek accommodation at the Kuduraivetti or Kodamadi FRHs – these are sited in spectacular locations – but had to be content with being put up at the Talayannai and Mundanthurai RO FRHs located at the fringes of the reserve, and at low elevations. Even these are available only if requested by someone in the FD. A tough new Deputy Director has taken over for the past few months and she has pretty much closed off many areas that were hitherto accessible. We saw several instances of people flaunting various degrees of influence being stonewalled and refused permission. While this effectively hamstrung our trip, it was heartening to see a young officer (this is evidently her first posting) take an uncompromising stand on behalf of our forests and wildlife. May her tribe increase.

Day 1, Talayannai

After a sleepless night spent driving from Bangalore and Chennai, we reached the Talayannai Dormitory near the tiny town of Kalakkad after a short break in Tirunelveli. This is the very same place I’d been to with my sister’s family last year. A short distance inside the reserve lies a small check dam and the resultant waterfall is a popular spot with local tourists, most of whom land up with towels slung around their necks. And understandably so, as the heat of the second summer was oppressive. The FRH lies a short distance from this check dam. The day was squandered in trying to get permission to access the upper reaches of the forest. Fourteen kilometers from Talaiyannai is a place with a spectacular reputation – Sengaltheri. This place is now out of bounds for just about everyone, and we finally gave up all hope of getting access to it after day-long effort. There’s a large dormitory in Talayannai with bunk beds and that’s where we camped for the night.

View from Talayannai watch tower


Standing outside the dorm at about 4:30 in the evening, we saw a couple of dhole canter across the road. Grabbing my camera, GK and I hurried after them, but they’d moved on and we got no pictures. There was some birdlife around, but I couldn’t do much without my bins. All we saw was Sambar, bonnet macaques, tufted langurs, Indian giant squirrel, Indian treepie, peafowl, Small minivet, coucal, Magpie robin, White-cheeked barbet, Grey junglefowl and Blue-faced malkoha. And we heard hoopoe, Savanna nightjar and what evidently was the Mottled wood owl calling (the latter two after sundown, naturally). A Changeable hawk eagle called persistently all day; we eventually located it and sighted it a few times. A couple of species of scorpion were met with around the dorm.

Fattail scorpion


Dhole spoor set in concrete


Offroading interlude

VR (who is a cop himself) had stumbled across a police inspector in Tirunelveli while searching for KMTR leads online. Inspector SE has a staggering range of interests including trekking, parasailing, paragliding, snake rescue, cactus cultivation, gardening, philately and offroading. Prior to the trip, VR had contacted the inspector to see if we could get some local guiding help. Finding that I was missing the bins, we contacted inspector SE again and he was kind enough to offer to lend us his for the duration of the trip. We therefore dropped by the police station in the morning to pick up the bins, when the inspector asked us if we’d like to join him for a spot of offroading.

We then ended up spending time until a very late lunch being bounced over rocks, ditches and other tyre-shredding obstacles. In the searing heat. It was spectacular fun nonetheless.



We then picked up the borrowed bins and headed for the Mundanthurai Range Office via Ambasamudram and Papanasam, and the amiable ranger there agreed to put us up (in the ‘Panther cottage’) for two nights.

The Panther Cottage


Day 2, Karaiyar and Servalar dams

The Mundanthurai range office is sited about ten kilometers inside the reserve. The road forks from here with one prong leading to the Servalar dam about seven kilometers away, and the other to the Karaiyar dam, also about seven kilometers away. The reservoirs of these two dams are linked by a massive tunnel three kilometers long – to equalize water levels. About halfway to the Karaiyar dam is a road that branches off to the Sorimuthu Ayyannar temple; and this draws a considerable pilgrim crowd. We covered the Karaiyar and Servalar roads several times in the mornings and evenings, with no significant sightings. Junglefowl called in alarm at a couple of places, most likely triggered by our presence.

Nilgiri langur on the Karaiyar dam

KMTR Oct 14 057 

Since driving on these roads is banned after dark, we took a public bus on impulse at about eight thirty in the evening, to Karaiyar and back. The driver spoke of leopard and sloth bear sightings almost on a daily basis on this stretch, but we had no such luck. GK spoke to some tribals employed as watchers and they recommended driving along the Servalar route early next morning to look for leopards. Again no luck. However we saw Jungle babbler, White-headed babbler, Common iora, Black eagle, White-bellied drongo, Tailor bird, Ruddy mongoose, Brahminy kite, Brown-headed barbet, Grey junglefowl, Tufted langur, nightjar (possibly Savanna) and peafowl (the latter being especially numerous all over the lower ranges). And heard Common hawk cuckoo and coucal. We also spotted a malkoha-like bird which I am unable to identify – it appeared dark with a white terminal band on its tail. In the waters of the Karaiyar dam was a swimming herd of buffaloes – I initially assumed they were domestic animals, but a tribal watcher later told GK they were wild – perhaps a feral herd. An Indian scops owl called persistently after dark around the FRH without us being able to spot it. Sambar belled once in alarm late in the evening.

Incidentally, we saw no chital, wild pig or gaur in the course of the whole trip. Just the occasional sambar. The scanty prey base probably explains KMTR’s low tiger density, at least in the areas we visited. However leopards are reputed to be met with commonly (langurs, macaques, peafowl and junglefowl abound in these forests). Elephants are small in number. Dr. Johnsingh attributes this to the scattered and sparse presence of their food plants, and to the mountainous terrain.

From the Servalar dam, there is a rough road which leads to the Kodamadi FRH, three klicks away. Again a highly restricted route that we couldn’t get permission for. This FRH nestles in another wild spot and has a great reputation.

View from the Servalar dam. The Kodamadi FRH is sited somewhere around the conical hill.


The ranger – Mr. I – became very friendly with us once he realized we were there with a serious wildlife interest and not as casual tourists. He chatted transparently and disarmingly about his profession, and about forests and their management.

Day 3, Kuduraivetti

On day three, we finally got permission to drive upto Kuduraivetti, thanks to Ranger I’s intercession. Access to this place is heavily controlled, with a quota of five vehicles permitted daily. And all visitors are required to exit by 6 PM, with no overnight stay allowed either in the FRHs or in the estates. After crossing the Manimuttar dam, we climbed steadily to reach tea country and a string of estates leased to the Bombay Burmah Trading Company. Manimuttar dam is crowded with bathing visitors, but hardly anyone is allowed beyond this. Beyond lie Manjolai estate – Manimuttar estate – Naalumooku estate -Oothu estate and finally Kuduraivetti, in sequence. The drive took a good three hours and we spent a few minutes at Kuduraivetti chatting with the watcher on duty before turning back.

Kuduraivetti FRH

KMTR Oct 14 159

From Naalumooku estate, a road branches off to Upper Kodayar and Kakachi – places we badly wanted to visit. But again, these were out of bounds. Two famed birds – the Broad-tailed grassbird and White-bellied shortwing are reputed to skulk around those areas. We kept an eye out for the Southern birdwing – our largest butterfly – having been told that it was a common sighting on this route, but it is not easy to spot butterflies whilst driving through winding hill roads.

Between the estates are stretches of lush evergreen forests. It is a beautiful drive. A brace of Painted spurfowl went scurrying off the road. Flamebacks and Asian fairy bluebirds called repeatedly without showing themselves. Ashy wood-swallows flocked on an electric wire. A solitary Racket-tailed drongo went sailing across the road. We also saw a solitary Green imperial pigeon. And small flock of Black-throated munias on the way back.A shikra was perched near the Manimuttar dam. The estates were alive with noisy Red-whiskered bulbuls and Tailor birds.

Tea estates and evergreen forests


Ashy wood-swallow taking off

KMTR Oct 14 158

Besides streams at elevation were great clusters of Ochlandra reedbrakes (Ochlandra travancorica) – an endemic we were looking for. And plenty of Messua ferrea – a plant common to the W Ghats and the Himalayas – however these were not in bloom. GK pointed out Fern trees – Filicium decipiens – which were plentiful in the forest.

Ochlandra travancorica, these reedbrakes are found in clusters by streams above 1,000 meters altitude, and constitute one of the few sources of food for elephants in KMTR

KMTR Oct 14 134

Messua ferrea, an example of flora common to the W. Ghats and the Himalayas

KMTR Oct 14 108

Canarium strictum, another example of flora common to the W. Ghats and the Himalayas

KMTR Oct 14 129

A stream in the forest. KMTR spawns fourteen rivers and is the primary source of water for surrounding districts


Day 4, Kadayam range

Ranger I had encouraged us to visit an orphanage and speech-and-hearing-impaired childrens’ home near the Kadayam range run by the Gandhigram Trust. He felt they were doing great work and needed all the encouragement they could get. Perhaps as a sort of inducement, he also promised to send us trekking up the Kadayam range with a watcher to guide us. And so there we went on the last day.

The Kadayam range begins from the Sivasailam dam and drab, hot countryside sparsely dotted with Indian palm and Prosopis juliflora abruptly transforms into lush evergreen forest.

Approach to the Kadayam range


A trek of four kilometers from here brings one to the Korakkanadar temple. The path up was choked with pilgrims visiting the temple. We rested for a while in a tiny FRH that nestles just above the temple.


The path carries on from this point for another thirty kilometers until it reaches another temple, but access is restricted owing to elephant and bear presence en route. And there is no FRH at the path’s terminus.

Mohammed Ismail the watcher who accompanied us then brought us back through another route, this a restricted and therefore blissfully undisturbed one. And a pretty route at that. Elephant droppings were occasionally seen but signs of sloth bear were everywhere – by way of dug and scraped ground.


I should add that after the strain of the day’s activities, we were fairly drained and the daunting 600 kilometer overnight drive back through steady rain and horrendous traffic is not something I’ll remember fondly. I was pretty much done in when I reached home at about three thirty in the morning, after successfully having avoided falling asleep at the wheel between Salem and Bangalore. (VR who is evidently incapable of exhaustion drove the Scorp until Salem, and then drove GK’s car all the way to Chennai through the night).

Common sand boa rescued by Inspector SE


The target list

Here’s the list GK and I created prior to this trip. AJT Johnsingh’s Field days was of great use in compiling this. Some of these are so rare that we didn’t have a prayer of a chance of actually encountering them, but we got them on the list anyway. In any case, considering that we were mostly confined to the foothills, this effort came to naught and we saw just a couple of these candidates.


  1. Ochlandra travancorica
  2. Discoria wightii
  3. Gluta travancorica
  4. Bentinckia condapanna – endangered palm tree
  5. Dasia subcaeruleum – Boulenger’s dasia, tree skink originally mistaken for Dasia haliana, a Sri Lankan endemic
  6. Broad-tailed grassbird
  7. White-bellied shortwing
  8. Cochin forest cane-turtle
  9. Anamalai gecko

Flora common to the W Ghats and the Himalayas

  1. Bishchofia javanica – Bishop’s wood tree
  2. Canarium strictum
  3. Messua ferrea

Other significant flora and fauna

  1. Podocarpus wallinchiana – only coniferous tree native to peninsular India
  2. Paphiopedilum druryi – Asian lady slipper orchid, on the verge of extinction
  3. Gnetum ula – endangered woody climber
  4. Brachycorythis splendida – orchid also found in Africa
  5. Southern birdwing
  6. Oriental bay owl
  7. Brown palm civet
  8. Brown mongoose
  9. Black narrow-mouthed frog – rediscovered after a hundred years in Kakachi
  10. Calotes andamanensis – Andaman lizard
  11. Indian kangaroo lizard

Meghamalai Reprised, Apr 2014

Trip Report:        Meghamalai Willife Sanctuary

Dates:                  11-13 Apr 2014

Camp:                  Vellimalai FRH

Companions:     GK, GiK, SS

Revisits to any place tend to be let-downs, primarily because a large part of the pleasure the first time around is in all likelihood, derived from the sheer unexpectedness of it. This trip was an exception. GK and I visited Meghamalai in January this year (blog post here), were unable to get permission to occupy the picturesque Vellimalai FRH, and swore we’d come back to stay there someday. We made good on our promise this time.

This FRH nestles in a spot of great beauty deep inside the forest, is dwarfed by towering riverine forests, and has a stream running by it. Armed with the requisite permission, we were eagerly looking forward to the experience of camping at this beautiful spot. And the experience did not disappoint, despite the heightened expectations.

In terms of the itinerary, we did pretty much the same things we did the last time around – driving up through the Pandian estate to the Vellimalai Murugan temple, and having Thangaraj jeep us up to the Anaikullipallam estate (these are separate outings). In addition to these, we spent the mornings and evenings absorbed in some very pleasant birding in the vicinity of the FRH. This last was probably the most fulfilling part of the trip, given the pleasant surroundings and richness of birdlife around.

We expected sunrise and sunset hours to be especially spectacular around the FRH, and they were. We woke up to the calls of Malabar whistling thrushes, Asian fairy bluebirds (plenty of them around), Hill mynas, Malabar grey hornbills and Grey jungle fowl. On a single tree in the camp, we counted four species of bulbul all at once – Red whiskered, Flame throated, White-browed and Yellow-browed. There were quite a few Black bulbuls around, but they regrettably did not join in the record attempt or else we’d have seen five species of bulbul all on one tree. And this was in addition to a Malabar giant squirrel, a Malabar grey hornbill and a couple of Green barbets that were foraging on the same tree. Elsewhere around the camp we saw Hill myna, Racket-tailed drongo (plenty of both), Malabar whistling thrush, Asian fairy bluebird (dozens of them), Golden oriole, Puff throated babbler, Brown-cheeked fulvetta, Orange minivet, Cinereous tit, Nilgiri flycatcher, Crimson-backed sunbird (plenty of these too), Pond heron, Common kingfisher (both by the stream), Lesser flameback and Nilgiri langur (there were plenty of Bonnet macaque in the camp).

On Saturday evening around sunset, GiK and I took a walk down the road towards a little culvert a short way from the FRH. Incidentally Muniswamy, the forest watcher who accompanied us on our drives had told us of having sighted a tiger on a kill (a cow) beside this culvert a while back. The road runs parallel to the stream that abuts the FRH, and we had gone some distance when we heard splashing and snorting noises from the water below. We were looking forward to (and dreading, at the same time) meeting elephants and naturally assumed we’d hit paydirt. GiK moved around to find a gap in the intervening shrubbery and three sambar went crashing through the water in alarm, splashing up a tremendous din in the silence of the forest.

We resumed our walk and went a little further ahead when sambar alarm calls erupted in the jungle across the stream to our right, and some distance ahead of us. The calls persisted and a Nilgiri langur presently took alarm too. This animal was just off the road to our left, and both calls some hundred meters ahead of us. (We could see neither sambar nor langur). Stealing ahead noiselessly on rubber-soled feet, we reached the culvert. I was desperately hoping for a tiger sighting on foot – an item on my bucket-list that has so far refused to fructify. We planted ourselves on the culvert and waited in silence, but were disappointed when the calls eventually died out. Incidentally, sambar alarm calls also erupted around the FRH a couple of times after sunset, when we were sitting on chairs outside our room.

The eight-kilometer drive through Pandian estate to the Vellimalai Murugan temple was pleasant as ever and very productive as far as birding was concerned. We entered the estate in the evening after the labour-force had departed and had the route to ourselves. Our luck was on a roll this time around. We had searched for but failed to find Lion-tailed macaque the last time around and here they were, a whole troop just off the road. I had mentioned a flashing tree shrew sighting which only GK got a clear look at in January and now I got a clear sighting of Anathana ellioti – the Southern tree shrew.  We also saw the White-bellied treepie in the upper reaches. We saw this bird multiple times on this trip – once here and thrice on the Anaikullipallam track. SS was unwell and had elected to stay back, and he got the privilege of sighting Draco dussumieri – the Southern flying lizard – at the FRH.

Anaikullipallam if you recall is eight kilometers or so from the Vellimalai FRH. The road to get there passes through some very rough, lantana-choked, boulder-strewn terrain. The track is far too rough for the Scorp, and hence the need to have Thangaraj jeep us up. Having learnt our lesson from the last trip, we had requested Thangaraj to organize a cooked meal for us at Anaikullipallam.

En route are some three or four estates in various states of disrepair, all of them having been abandoned presumably due to labour shortage. Living quarters built for the hands are empty and dilapidated, having been visited by the occasional marauding elephant. There was an injured or ill gaur – bull or cow we couldn’t tell – just off the road that the men with us said had been sighted around the same spot for a couple of days now. The creature sat in the lantana by the roadside and made some effort to rise and move away at the sight of us.

We got off the jeep a kilometer or so before the Anaikullipallam estate house, and walked the rest of the way looking for birds. The upper reaches are cool and pleasant, with evergreen vegetation interspersed with plantation – coffee and cardamom. We saw what Muniswamy identified as sloth bear scat during the jeep drive, and Dhole scat in the last stretch (we had seen this the last time too). After a modest scratch meal at the estate house, we walked back the same distance and en route ran into a truly exhilarating encounter. GK who has eyes sharp as they come suddenly called out that there was a cobra just off the track. Since some people seem to equate all snakes with cobras, I rather uncharitably assumed he’d spotted a rat snake. Peeping over, I was astonished to find that we were in fact looking at Ophiophagus hannah himself – the King cobra – at a distance of less than six feet. Strikingly dual-toned in yellow and black, the snake had his hood raised two and a half feet off the ground and stood completely motionless. GiK and I were alternating between staring in fascination and fumbling with the wretched camera, which had chosen this of all moments to misbehave. The snake stood there for a full minute, and then lowering its hood, went slithering down the slope at great speed. Regrettably, we found the inadvertent setting change on the camera that had ruined our chance of a picture just after the snake departed.

Two quick points before I end this narration. One, I had been fretting over being unable to identify a call that is common in all our forests at night – it is a ping with a plop-like echo. On this trip, we traced the source to a tree and a torch beam revealed the culprit to be an Indian nightjar. I rechecked Xeno-canto and can only find the chuck-chuck-chuckrrrr calls that are typical of the nightjar.

Second, I had wrongly mentioned the named of the entry checkpost as Manjur in my last post. Turns out it is Manjoothu.

Here are some pictures GiK took – I seem to have completely abandoned my camera for binoculars.

Macaca silenus – the Lion-tailed macaque:


The Vellimalai Murugan temple:


The Vellimalai Murugan temple commands a spectacular view of the surrounding forests:


Malabar giant squirrel:




Indian nightjar, there is some camera shake as the picture was shot under trying conditions, by headlight:


Flameback around the FRH:


Malabar grey hornbill:


Here is a full list of sightings:


Ashy woodswallow
Asian fairy bluebird
Black bulbul
Black-hooded oriole
Brown-cheeked fulvetta
Cinereous tit
Common babbler
Common hawk cuckoo
Common kingfisher
Coucal (call)
Crested serpent eagle
Crimson-backed sunbird
Flame-throated bulbul
Green barbet
Golden oriole
Grey junglefowl
Hill myna
Hoopoe (call)
Indian nightjar
Indian robin
Magpie robin
Malabar grey hornbill
Malabar whistling thrush
Nilgiri flycatcher
Orange minivet
Pond heron
Puff-throated babbler
Purple-rumped sunbird
Racket-tailed drongo
Red-vented bulbul
Red-whiskered bulbul
Spotted dove
Yellow-browed bulbul
White-browed bulbul
White-bellied treepie
White-headed babbler
White-throated kingfisher

Barking deer (Ganesh only)
Black-naped hare
Bonnet macaque
Lion-tailed macaque
Malabar giant squirrel
Nilgiri langur
Palm squirrel
Southern tree shrew

King cobra
Southern flying lizard (SS only)