Book Review: The Secret Life of Tigers, by Valmik Thapar


Book review: The Secret Life of Tigers, by Valmik Thapar

Second edition

Oxford University Press, published 2008

This slim volume was first published in 1989, by Elm Tree Books in Great Britain, and by OUP in India in 1999. It is tiny as books go, but was a seminal work in terms of the insights it revealed.

Valmik Thapar is probably the most well-known tiger conservationist there is. He is not a trained scientist or field biologist, but in this book Thapar traced the development of the litters of three tigresses in Ranthambore – Laxmi, Noon and Nalghati – along with his mentor, the legendary Fateh Singh Rathore.

In the March of ’86, the tigress Laxmi was sighted with a pair of month-old cubs, fathered by a tiger called the Bakaula male. Shortly after, Rathore observed the Nalghati tigress with a pair of cubs a month older than Laxmi’s, these fathered by a male called Kublai. A month or so later in May, another tigress Noon was seen with a newly born litter, this too fathered by Kublai. Sensing the unique opportunity offered by having on hand three tigresses with cubs, Thapar and Rathore closely followed the triumphs and travails of the three litters over the next couple of years, until the cubs reached adulthood. This book is the fruit of those efforts.

A good part of the book deals with the question of the tiger’s family ties. It was traditionally believed that male tigers indulge in routine infanticide, killing off any cubs they encountered. In the April of ‘86, Thapar was stunned to find Kublai with the Nalghati tigress’ cubs, together soaking the summer heat away in a pool. This behavior was presently confirmed with the other litters. Thapar then postulated that the resident male interacts and develops bonds with the litters of the tigresses in his range. He also speculated that infanticide may occur when a male takes over the territory of another and proceeds to eliminate any litters sired by his predecessor to bring the tigress into oestrus. This is behavior observed in monkeys and lions, and Thapar surmised that it was probably applicable to tigers too.

A male tiger’s beat may encompass the beat of more than one female and being essentially solitary, the male roves over his range ceaselessly. On occasion, this brings him in contact with the resident females and their litters, and he consorts with the family until it is time to move on again. Further, Thapar found that the male partook of kills made by the tigress, along with the cubs, and allowed the latter to partake of kills made by him whilst in contact. This brought up the remarkable sight of familial feeding in tigers, and Thapar observed upto eight tigers feeding off a single kill. Also, he found (as in the case of Kublai) that the male may consort with more than one tigress and associate with their respective litters.

The bonds between the tigress and her litter is strong, and the task of keeping the cubs alive into adulthood while passing on essential life skills was a huge order, as Thapar discovered. He recollected watching the tigress Padmini in ’77, maiming a tethered bait buffalo and leaving the cubs to attempt bringing it down. He also discovered her regulating the feeding to ensure all the cubs got to eat. As the three tigress’ cubs got older, they began to actively help with the hunt, taking up positions to drive prey towards the tigress. And thus you have the phenomenon of co-ordinated group hunting for at least a brief period in the tiger’s life. In Thapar’s words, “if undisturbed and well managed, tigers can, as families, form temporary groupings in order to hunt and share food”.

At about sixteen months of age the process of detachment started, though Thapar surmised that the family retained kinship ties for life, recognizing individuals when one of them occasionally happened to run into another.

Thapar also made observations around the variation of hunting styles across individuals. In the mid-eighties, a tiger named Genghis Khan pioneered and perfected the hitherto untried technique of charging at sambar across open water in the Gilai Sagar lake,adjacent to the Jogi Mahal guest house. The tigress Noon evidently picked this technique up from him, and preferred bursts of speed over open land while in contrast, Laxmi preferred stalking from thick cover and with shorter bursts.

Thapar dramatically describes an incident that occurred in the February of 1987, terming it his “most exciting time ever with tigers”. The narration fills three pages of tiny italicized text. Noon attacked a massive sambar stag that valiantly resisted until the tigress gave up, exhausted. The stag died of its wounds a few weeks later. Thapar describes this and other dramatic first-person encounters in italicized interludes with usage of the present tense. And the ploy works rather well, making taut what might otherwise have been a bland account.

There is quite a bit of discussion around the threats tigers and their habitats face, from poaching or other human incursions, and Thapar outlines some prescriptive points to address the menace.

I should add that twenty colour photographs buttress some of the points made about tiger behavior.

In summation, while this may not be a masterpiece you’ll remember forever, it is certainly a quick, insightful, absorbing (and inexpensive) read for anyone who is a tiger lover. I’ll probably do a review of Karanth’s tiger book next and some comparison will be inevitable.

Trip Report: Bandipur National Park, March 2014

Trip Report: Bandipur National Park 

Dates:           29-31 Mar 2014

Camp:           JLR’s Bandipur Safari Lodge

This trip was organized by a bunch of us from the Nov ’13 NTP batch. It was open to the batch, but just four of us ultimately signed up. With the temperature rising, we were hopeful of productive mammal sightings; the forest fire which broke out a little before the middle of March threatened to put paid to our plans, but the safaris resumed after 4-5 days of disruption. We drove through some of these charred forests on one of the safaris, and the affected swathes can also be seen by the Ooty highway a little beyond the Bandipur reception area. A thousand acres were impacted by the fire, although this is perhaps not necessarily the tragedy it is made out to be. If you want to know why I say so, this is a very insightful piece to read.

Bandipur Mar 14 327

We did four safaris and I wouldn’t exactly say that the outings were brimming over with sightings, in terms of birds or mammals. Certainly not a patch on my last trip to Bandipur just before the south-west monsoon, when the safaris were vibrant with encounters every few minutes. That was in fact one of the best trips I have ever done (three tiger sightings, ten minutes spent backing up right besides a magnificent and very tolerant tusker, a Black naped hare, Ruddy and Stripe-necked mongooses that permitted prolonged and close observation, and plenty of birdlife).

This time in stark contrast, most of the time was spent in driving through a silent forest shorn of leaves (and completely infested with lantana), the jeep throwing up a pall of fine dust which settled on and fouled everything. Despite the subdued productivity, it was nevertheless time well-spent for us, with some intense birding and an interesting tigress sighting.

There was a tree spreading over our rooms, and weighed down with hundreds of golden-orange figs. Naturally, this was a magnet for frugivores of all hues and we spent a considerable amount of time between safaris under this tree and around the camp. Red-vented bulbuls, Plum-headed parakeets, Asian koels, Coppersmith barbets and palm squirrels were probably the most common gourmands – we found these on the tree with near-certainty at any point. Red-vented bulbuls were in force and aggressively so, and given to relentlessly harassing their more timorous red-whiskered cousins. Indian grey hornbills appeared fairly frequently.

Elsewhere in the camp, there were plenty of Purple-rumped sunbirds, Cinereous tits, Blyth’s reed warblers, Asian brown flycatchers, Common ioras, Oriental white-eyes and White-bellied drongos. A coucal was a constant (and constantly calling) fixture right outside our door, where we also spend an enthralling few minutes watching a flock (murder is the correct albeit awkward term) of crows mob a Shikra which had settled down to partake of something dead and delicious clutched in its claws. Unfazed, the Shikra decamped only after consuming its meal entirely, leaving nothing for the crows.

On the safaris, the first and last threw up elephant sightings, something that I was looking forward to. A small herd of three each time. In terms of birds, most common were hoopoes, Grey junglefowl, Brahminy starlings, Red-vented bulbuls, Magpie-robins, Flamebacks, Streak-throated woodpeckers, Jungle mynas and babblers (both Jungle and White-headed).

The tiger sighting happened in the third safari (evening). Our driver got a call and headed to a waterhole called Kadamatur Katte, where a couple of vehicles waited by the bank. Alarm calls were strangely absent though a langur foraged nearby. Deer were missing in the vicinity. A lapwing was calling hysterically though, punctuated by peacock calls. A few minutes later, a tigress walked out of a game trail on the opposite bank, and descended to the water to drink. However she seemed uneasy with the presence of the jeeps and wandered away to the right, disappearing into the undergrowth. Our jeep cranked up and moved in the same direction hoping for another interception when the van behind us, still parked at the same spot, signaled frantically. Backing up, we found that the tigress had returned to the water hole, slid into the shallows, and was lying with her haunches submerged. We spent some time watching her until she hauled herself out of the water and stalked away into a game trail in the shrubbery, to our left this time. Turning around, we drove some distance and parked near a spot where the drivers judged her likely to emerge. Five or six vehicles had congregated by this time, and we all waited in expectant silence.

The keyed-up tension settled in a few minutes, and we were trying to determine whether a flock of babblers we could see on a forking track ahead was common or white-headed when the tigress abruptly emerged and cantered across the track a short way ahead, much in the manner of a startled cow. We turned into another road in the same direction and some distance ahead, again found a likely spot where she might emerge. A few more vehicles had added on by this time and a long line waited in patient silence.


Eventually our patience ran out and concluding that we’d lost her, we started on our way and had hardly gone fifty meters ahead when she was spotted sitting amidst the lantana, a short way off the road. Our screeching to a halt however alarmed her and rising, she finally turned around and disappeared into the lantana.

Dr. R had stayed on to do an additional safari after we left, and an interesting sidelight is that he returned to the same waterhole the next evening and noticed that in our excitement, we had probably missed spotting a carcass floating in the water. There was evidently some flutter at the human-like appearance of the carcass, but the forest department staff were informed and presently fished out a dead langur.

(Pic by Dr. R).

_MG_9221 jpg-LANGUR

Here are a few more pictures.

Grey junglefowl, Mr. and Mrs.

Bandipur Mar 14 158

Bandipur Mar 14 422

White-browed fantail:

Bandipur Mar 14 212

Grey francolin:

Bandipur Mar 14 371

Paddyfield pipit:

Bandipur Mar 14 483

Sambar, note the hairless patch on the neck – this is found in adult males and in pregnant or lactating females, sometimes oozes liquid, and is postulated to be glandular in nature:

Bandipur Mar 14 262


Bandipur Mar 14 292

Common mongoose on the main road:

Bandipur Mar 14 267

Stripe-necked mongoose, this is the largest species of mongoose in India:

Bandipur Mar 14 092

Elephant herd in the grass:

Bandipur Mar 14 512

Unnerved by the presence of the jeep, this nervous matriarch turns to flee:

Bandipur Mar 14 076

Tiger tiger burning bright, pic by Dr. R:


Here is the complete list of sightings.


1. Asian brown flycatcher

2. Asian koel

3. Ashy drongo

4. Ashy prinia

5. Asian paradise flycatcher

6. Bay-backed shrike

7. Blue-faced malkoha

8. Blyth’s starling

9. Blyth’s reed warbler

10. Brahminy starling

11. Brown fish owl

12. Brown shrike

13. Chestnut shouldered petronias

14. Cinereous tit

15. Common hawk cuckoo

16. Common iora

17. Common kestrel

18. Common myna

19. Coppersmith barbet

20. Coucal

21. Crested serpent eagle

22. Eurasian collared dove

23. Greater flameback

24. Green barbet

25. Grey francolin

26. Grey heron

27. Grey junglefowl

28. Grey wagtail

29. Hoopoe

30. Indian grey hornbill

31. Indian robin

32. Indian treepie

33. Jungle babbler

34. Jungle myna

35. Large cuckooshrike

36. Lesser flameback

37. Little brown dove

38. Little egret

39. Long-tailed shrike

40. Magpie robin

41. Oriental white-eye

42. Paddyfield pipit

43. Pied bushchat

44. Pigmy woodpecker

45. Plum-headed parakeet

46. Purple-rumped sunbird

47. Racket-tailed drongo

48. Red spurfowl

49. Red-vented bulbul

50. Red-wattled lapwing

51. Red-whiskered bulbul

52. Rose-ringed parakeet

53. Shikra

54. Sirkeer malkoha

55. Small green bee-eater

56. Spotted dove

57. Streakthroated woodpecker

58. White-bellied drongo

59. White-browed fantail

60. White-browed wagtail

61. White-headed babbler

62. White-throated kingfisher

63. Yellow-footed green pigeon


64. Barking deer

65. Chital

66. Common mongoose

67. Elephant

68. Gaur

69. Malabar giant squirrel

70. Ruddy mongoose

71. Sambar

72. Stripe-necked mongoose

73. Tufted langur

74. Wild boar

75. Tiger


76. Terrapin

Trip report: BRT Tiger Reserve, March 2014

Trip Report:        BRT Tiger Reserve/K Gudi

Dates:               15-17 Mar 2014

Camp:               K. Gudi Wilderness Camp

This was the first of a series of summer trips planned months in advance. I did this trip with a friend VV, and my six year old son. We were perhaps a month too early, as the summer mammal sightings had not yet begun in earnest. However we were compensated by abundant avian winter migrant sightings.

The Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve spreads over 590 sq kms of a mosaic of habitats, ranging from scrub to Shola-evergreen forests.  The reserve comprises five ranges – the eponymous BR temple is in the Yelandur range while the K. Gudi camp falls under the Chamarajanagar range. It lies at the southern border of Karnataka, and is contiguous with the Kollegal FD to its east (which in turn connects with the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary further east). The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve lies to its south (which in turn is contiguous with the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve/Mudumalai to its west). The BRT reserve therefore forms a part of the ecological bridge running east-west between the Western and Eastern Ghats.

We stayed two nights at the K. Gudi camp and did four safaris in all. Summer was just beginning to set in and the days were hot and dry, while the temperature plummeted sharply at sun-down leaving the nights mildly chill. Most trees had shed heavily leaving the forest bare. Visibility was nevertheless poor due to lantana thickets crowding in ubiquitous profusion. Common trees were Terminalia elliptica (crocodile bark), Radermachera xylocarpa (maan kombu maram in Tamil), teak on some slopes and plantation areas, and a tree which our driver Rajesh knew the Kannada name of, which we could not identify.

The camp itself was alive with birdlife. Most common were Cinereous tits and Asian brown flycatchers. These two species were pretty much on every other twig. Followed by Orange minivets, Velvet fronted nuthatches, Malabar parakeets, Asian paradise flycatchers, Bronzed drongos, Ashy drongos, Little brown doves and Jungle babblers. The Jacaranda trees in riotous bloom around the reception area had a constant supply of Vernal hanging parrots on them. Black hooded orioles called frequently though we sighted just one individual. We also sighted a Gold fronted leaf bird, a Pigmy woodpecker, a Large cuckooshrike, Grey wagtails, Magpie robins and Indian treepies, apart from Sambar. I’m not counting the chital and wild pigs which are always to be found in the camp. Nor the semi-domesticated blackbuck doe with the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde personality; it toggled between begging for food and belligerent head-butting.

K. Gudi was the first JLR property I visited (over ten years back). Around the turn of the millennium, we were in the habit of visiting K. Gudi almost once every quarter for a couple of years. Memories of being driven out on safari by Thapa  – one of the best spotters you can ever find – and numerous exciting incidents are fresh in my memory. I find I can still recognize the spots where some of those incidents happened.

The four safaris were largely centred around birding, considering that not too much showed up by way of  megafauna, charismatic or otherwise. I was especially disappointed not to see any elephants. For me, elephant sightings carry the same thrill as sighting large carnivora.

Most abundant in the forest were three types of drongos (Bronzed, Ashy and White-bellied), Magpie robins, Malabar parakeets, Lesser flamebacks, Indian blackbirds, Bulbuls (both Red-whiskered and Red-vented),  Jungle mynas, Hill mynas, Asian paradise flycatchers, Blue capped rock thrushes,  Hoopoes, Jungle babblers and Indian treepies. Fairly common also were Common hawk cuckoos, Orange headed thrushes, Indian pittas, Ashy woodswallows and Grey junglefowl.

We had multiple sightings of a Brown fish owl by the same kere. On the way to the safari and a short way from the camp, an Indian scops owl roosted in a burrow high up – we looked for it each time we passed and sighted it twice. And on the way back to camp, a Racket tailed drongo consistently showed up at one spot. For that matter, the pitta turned up in the same place for multiple sightings, as did one particular Asian paradise flycatcher individual. Incidentally, VV and I had some discussion around differentiating juvenile and female Asian paradise flycatchers in the field. Both are rufous and broadly similar looking, but the juvenile male has a jet black throat, and a blue eye-ring. The female has a paler throat and lacks the eye-ring.

Two encounters with atypical individuals happened in the first safari. The first one concerned a sambar stag. We sighted it beside the track and halted. The stag was frozen immobile and alert, watching us. We inched forward in spurts getting closer and closer, and it didn’t move a muscle. Finally when we were practically beside it, its nerve gave way and stamping its foreleg as sambar are wont to do when spooked, it honked in alarm, the sudden loud calls resonating in the quiet of the jungle. Another unseen individual in lantana thickets just beyond was unnerved by these calls and gave alarm too. The herd of three finally disappeared, crashing through the undergrowth.

The second concerned a Grey junglefowl cock that effectively blocked the road, showing little sign of fear at the sight of the jeep. We were forced to tail it slowly for a distance before it stepped off the road and made way.

On day two post breakfast, we drove down the highway towards the south, turning back shortly before the Navodaya checkpost. Chital were calling in alarm at a waterhole a little before this checkpost. We waited for a while, but nothing emerged and the calls presently subsided. Incidentally, a male tiger was sighted on this stretch at 8:30 AM the previous morning by a batch of pilgrims. Elephant encounters are also apparently a daily occurrence here and a little beyond the K Gudi camp, a pack of dhole had been sighted the previous day. However our luck was limited to Malabar parakeets, a Yellow-capped woodpecker, a pair of Orange minivets, a Jungle owlet, Bay-backed shrikes and Tufted langurs,

We then drove back and past the camp, all the way north, turning back a little before the eponymous BR temple. This section of the forest is heavily disturbed, with plenty of traffic, grazing cattle and settlements and is not particularly pleasurable to drive through for this reason.

Here is a full list of the sightings:


  1. Ashy drongo
  2. Ashy woodswallow
  3. Asian blue fairybird
  4. Asian brown flycatcher
  5. Asian paradise flycatcher
  6. Bay backed shrike
  7. Black hooded oriole
  8. Blue bearded bee eater
  9. Blue capped rock thrush
  10. Bronzed drongo
  11. Brown fish owl
  12. Cinereous tit
  13. Common hawk cuckoo
  14. Common rosefinch
  15. Coppersmith barbet (calls only)
  16. Coucal
  17. Gold fronted leaf bird
  18. Greater flameback
  19. Greater racket tailed drongo
  20. Green barbet
  21. Grey junglefowl
  22. Grey wagtail
  23. Hill myna
  24. Hoopoe
  25. Indian blackbird
  26. Indian Pitta
  27. Indian Scops owl
  28. Indian treepie
  29. Jungle babbler
  30. Jungle myna
  31. Jungle owlet
  32. Large cuckooshrike
  33. Lesser flameback
  34. Little brown dove
  35. Magpie robin
  36. Malabar parakeet
  37. Malabar whistling thrush
  38. Orange headed thrush
  39. Orange minivet
  40. Painted bush quail
  41. Pigmy woodpecker
  42. Pipit (species not recognized)
  43. Red spurfowl
  44. Red vented bulbul
  45. Red whiskered bulbul
  46. Rufous babbler
  47. Spotted dove
  48. Streak throated woodpecker
  49. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  50. Tricoloured munia
  51. Velvet fronted nuthatch
  52. Vernal hanging parrot
  53. White-bellied drongo
  54. White-throated kingfisher
  55. Yellow capped woodpecker


  1. Barking deer
  2. Bonnet macaque
  3. Chital
  4. Gaur
  5. Malabar giant squirrel
  6. Sambar
  7. Stripe-necked mongoose
  8. Three-striped palm squirrel
  9. Tufted langur

Here are some random pictures:

Magpie robin:

BR Hills Mar 14 008

Painted bush quail:

BR Hills Mar 14 016

Jungle myna:

BR Hills Mar 14 030


BR Hills Mar 14 093

Indian pitta:

BR Hills Mar 14 150

Blue bearded bee eater

BR Hills Mar 14 218


BR Hills Mar 14 229

Barking deer:

BR Hills Mar 14 321

White-bellied Drongo:

BR Hills Mar 14 368

Indian Scops owl:

BR Hills Mar 14 484

Stripe-necked mongoose:

BR Hills Mar 14 519

Giant crab spider, a pair of these graced the loo:


“Biligiri”, the last log hut in its row, abuts the jungle and is reputed to offer tiger and leopard sightings if you are lucky:


Thattekad Reprised – Feb ’14

Trip Report:        Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad

Dates:                   21-22 Feb 2014

Camp:                   Periyar River Lodge

My experience in Thattekad in January enthused BIL B enough to want to do a repeat trip over a quick weekend. Accordingly we bussed in from Bangalore and pretty much replicated the itinerary from the prior trip. With one difference, but we’ll talk about that in a while.

Bhothathankettu was a disappointment and devoid of birdlife. Unlike the last time when I visited on a week day (Friday), we ended up visiting on a Saturday and the place was as lively with squawking tourists this time around as it was with avifauna the last time. The Flame-throated bulbuls were there though, along with the Racket-tailed drongos and Chestnut headed bee-eaters. I checked for the record-breaking teak tree mentioned in my previous post and not unexpectedly, it lay across the river somewhere, out of bounds without permission.

Mr. Luigi and the staff at PRL were hospitable as ever and we settled in with great hopes for the evening. We linked up with Gireesh Chandran at the place where I had sighted the Dollar birds the last time around (they were there this time too). Now Gireesh was accompanied by a couple of his house guests, and these two men had gawked their way through their wish-list over the past couple of days, barring three candidates –  Mottled wood owl, Black baza and Drongo cuckoo. And therein lay the rub. Gireesh assumed BIL and I would fall in with their plans to devote our energies to just these three species.

Anyway, we went into the reserve forest area adjacent to the sanctuary and saw a pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths, Yellow-browed bulbul, Brown-breasted flycatcher, White-bellied treepie and the much-sought-after Drongo cuckoo. Not counting the ubiquitous Malabar hornbills, Indian treepies and Racket-tailed drongos. At this point, the rain played spoilsport and we scurried back to town, ending the day’s work with a precious hour’s daylight wasted.

The next morning, Gireesh announced that he planned to take us all to Bhoothathankettu in search of the Black baza, and I was not pleased with this. We had just these two outings on our itinerary and it didn’t make sense (to me) to take BIL all the way to Thattekad and back without ever having set foot inside the sanctuary. At any rate, Gireesh wasn’t going to alter his house guests’ plans, and off he went to Bhoothathankettu looking for the baza. I wanted BIL to experience the rocky area inside the sanctuary that was so productive last time, and got Gireesh to call another guide. Some sort of tenuous arrangement was patched up hurriedly over the phone. BIL and I then drove back to the spot where there was a gap in the sanctuary’s fence and crossed in. Gireesh had some hesitation in sending us in on our own as a herd of elephants was sighted the previous evening in the area, but the fellow on the phone cleared that concern.

Anyway we found our way to the rocky area and joined Vinod, and he did a very decent job of guiding the morning’s outing. We saw Ashy drongo, Hill myna, Rufous woodpecker, Blyth’s starling (excellent and multiple sightings), Green imperial pigeon, Common Iora, Malabar hornbill, Gold fronted leaf bird, Orange minivet, Small minivet and Jungle nightjar. Apologies for the patricians and plebeians all merrily mixed up in that list. Or perhaps not. The highlight of the outing was a frogmouth and chick sighting.

The boat ride around PRL was spectacular as ever. Mr. Luigi himself joined us this time. Ironically, we saw the bird that was partly responsible for the morning’s hullabaloo – the Black baza – right off the boat, a short distance from PRL. And a truly spectacular bird it is. We also saw Black naped oriole, Asian fairy blue-bird, Vernal hanging parrot, Orange minivet and a Crested serpent eagle that thumped onto some small creature in the grass not fifteen feet from us and covered it’s trophy with outspread wings, glowering at us.

Post boat ride, we spent a glorious hour swimming in the river in front of the lodge, and I regret not having done this in the previous trip. Few experiences can beat lazing in a cool, slow-running river flanked by verdant greenery in hot weather.

I should also mention here that the staff and management of PRL showed an admirable degree of concern over the guiding issue, and took pains to follow up and apologize after we had returned to Bangalore. Another reason to return to PRL yet again, next winter.

Here are a few pictures:



Thattekad 2nd trip 023

Batrachostomus moniliger, female on the right:

Thattekad 2nd trip 049

Thattekad 2nd trip 069

Frogmouth with chick:

Thattekad 2nd trip 152


Thattekad 2nd trip 179

“What you lookin’ at?”

Thattekad 2nd trip 203

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Trip Report: Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, Jan 2014

Trip Report:        Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary

Dates:                  3-5 Jan 2014

Companions:     GK and VR

(Almost all the photographs here were clicked by GK)

Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary is a 600 sq km stretch of forest in the Western Ghats, in Theni district of Tamilnadu. It is contiguous with and lies along the north-eastern border of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The sanctuary was declared in 2012, and harbours two highly endangered endemics – Salim Ali’s fruit bat (Latidens salimali) and Hutton’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus huttoni). More common are elephants, leopards, Sloth bears, Nilgiri langurs, Lion tailed macaques, sambar, chital, dhole and Barking deer. Nilgai are also evidently found here. A tigress with cubs was enumerated in a 2013 survey and we heard claims of over eight cats having been enumerated in the December tiger census. Large tracts of pristine evergreen forests occur at altitude, interspersed with plantations – coffee and cardamom mainly – in the ranges we explored. Our exploration was limited to two of the sanctuary’s six ranges – Vellimalai and Kudalur.

This was another 500+ km drive from Bangalore. We peeled off from the NH7 near Dindigul, towards Theni. The route from here was: Sembatti-Batlagundu-Devathanapatti-Jayamangalam-Vaigai Dam-K. Vilakku-Kandamannur-Kadamalaikundu-Vellimalai


Vellimalai Range

We had sought prior permission to enter the sanctuary at the Manjur checkpost. A twenty five kilometer drive through forested country got us to the gate of the 3,000 acre Pandyan estate. En route is an FRH in a truly delightful spot by a stream, with massive trees towering all around and plenty of birdlife in the vicinity. We tried but couldn’t get permission to stay in this FRH this time around, but that is a place to bookmark and go back to. Around this FRH, we heard loud repeated calls that sounded like shrill, manic laughter. After much searching, the culprits turned out to be a pair of grey hornbills. Malabar or Indian, we couldn’t discern. I later checked Xeno-canto, but could only find the prolongued calls I’m familiar with, for both species.

We did this stretch four times over two days, and saw quite a bit of birdlife, elephant and Black-naped hare. On a large tree that I cannot identify (but which GK thought was Ailanthus triphysa), we saw the largest congregation of Golden orioles any of us had ever seen.

A climb of another eight kilometers from the estate gate brought us to the Vellimalai Murugan temple, from where one gets a panoramic view of the mountain range. This second stretch is at a higher elevation and meanders through plantation and evergreen forest. Several troops of Nilgiri langur can be seen on this stretch.


The lion-tailed macaque proved to be more elusive, though it is reputed to be regularly sighted in the upper reaches. We also saw plenty of Hill mynas, a pair of Malabar trogons, a pair of Asian fairy bluebirds,  sambar, Malabar giant squirrels, a Spot-bellied eagle owl, a Green imperial pigeon, gaur and a muntjac (that barked repeatedly, the very first time I’ve heard this – sounded like the bark of a medium sized dog, a spitz or spaniel perhaps). Apart from other assorted birdlife. We also got a fleeting glimpse of a small creature disappearing into the undergrowth. GK was the only one who got a clear look and from his description, it was probably the Indian tree shrew.


The landscape is very sparsely populated, but this was evidently not always so. Not very long back, an estimated ten thousand people lived in these hills, working the estates. With MGNREGS providing a less strenuous option, labour is now hard to find for estates like these. A hundred and fifty families from West Bengal are principally keeping the estate functioning.

On day two, we took a detour from the FRH to get to another estate at Anaikulipallam. This road is utterly dismal, and we did the eight or so kilometers in an MM540, on constant 4WD. The Scorp didn’t stand a prayer of a chance to negotiate some of the boulders or slopes on that track, so we left her parked at the FRH. There are some three stream crossings on that route and Thangaraj, the chap who drove us up told us about the jeep having been washed away downstream from the crossing nearest to the FRH not once, but thrice. It snagged on rocks some distance downstream each time and was hauled back using a tractor. Anyway, we spent some time with a most remarkable individual at the estate settlement (see next section) and were bounced and bumped down again in the late afternoon.

Since we were unable to get accommodation either at Pandyan estate or in the FRH, we were forced to drive down to the plains on both days – to Kadamalaikundu – some eighteen kilometers from the forest checkpost, this being the nearest village with accommodation of sorts on offer.


Dr. P. Ramesh

We met this extremely interesting man en route. Dr. P. Ramesh, PhD, is in his early thirties, works in the police department, and has a passion for wildlife, especially snakes. He runs an NGO called NEST – Netaji Snake Trust – and is involved with animal rescue, awareness dessemination, census operations and a wide variety of research work. When we ran into him, he was jeeping a group of around ten college students on a wilderness field trip to Anaikulipallam. This remarkable young man had spent his own money and effort to cook and carry a packed meal for the entire group, and which he generously invited us to share as well. He had also arranged for some provisions to be jeeped up for the evening meal (which again he’d cook himself). In a kit bag looped around his waist, he carried a snake venom extractor kit and some homeopathic versions of anti-venom. Ramesh does this often – getting different groups of students who are interested to go on field trips with him, to experience and understand snakes at first hand.


We got off the jeeps and walked the last stretch to Anaikulipallam and on the way, Ramesh showed us likely spots for finding Large scaled vipers, Green pit vipers and other snakes. He also talked about an attempt he is involved with to regenerate or cultivate coral reefs along the Tamilnadu coast in a bid to tsunami-proof the coastline. If you are interested in becoming a member of NEST, or in helping this young man with his work in any way, you can reach him at

While walking this stretch, GK and I heard repeated alarm calls reverberating from the valley below. I initially thought they were sambar calls, but these had a distinctly bovine quality to them. That was when Ramesh pointed out that nilgai occured here. I’m guessing that what we heard were nilgai alarm calls, though I’m unable to find any recordings online to verify this. I should also note that we frequently came across dhole scat on the path here.

Kudalur Range

On day three, we did a quick drive through the Kudalur range, around the Suruliyar Power House area. We saw fresh elephant dung and a very strong elephant odour at one spot, but the pachyderms didn’t show. This was in the morning and birds were up and about. This particular stretch had a remarkable number of Blue faced malkohas and Grey junglefowl, and on a silk cotton tree, we saw the largest congregation of Gold fronted leaf birds that we’d ever seen.


Poaching is a constant menace in all these forests, as is cattle grazing. We came across instances of locals poaching deer in Sathyamangalam TR, and now in Megamalai WS. The proliferation of lantana is another menace. Megamalai is fairly choking with lantana at most altitudes, and with a fair bit of parthenium as well.

On the way back to Bangalore, we stopped for a short while at Uttamapalayam to watch thousands of Indian flying foxes roosting on massive Arjuna trees by the banks of the Mullaiperiyar. We made a quick estimate of around a thousand bats in the three trees under which we stood, and there were more such trees along the far side of the river with still more colonies on them.


The List

Here is a full list of sightings from these three days (or at least the ones we could recognize).


  1. Grey bellied cuckoo
  2. Grey junglefowl
  3. Peafowl
  4. Blue jay
  5. Asian koel
  6. Spotted dove
  7. Pond heron
  8. Jungle babbler
  9. White headed babbler
  10. Black drongo
  11. Purple sunbird
  12. Purple rumped sunbird
  13. Plain prinia
  14. Pied bush chat
  15. Indian robin
  16. Bay backed shrike
  17. White browed bulbul
  18. Blue faced malkoha
  19. White bellied drongo
  20. Golden oriole
  21. White throated kingfisher
  22. Changeable hawk eagle
  23. Brown shrike
  24. Common iora
  25. Coucal
  26. Gold fronted leaf bird
  27. Green barbet
  28. Coppersmith barbet
  29. Ashy woodswallow
  30. Red rumped swallow
  31. Common hawk cuckoo
  32. Indian treepie
  33. Velvet fronted nuthatch
  34. Black bulbul
  35. Grey hornbill
  36. Lesser flameback
  37. Racket tailed drongo
  38. Spot bellied eagle owl
  39. Hoopoe
  40. Magpie robin
  41. Chestnut headed bee eater
  42. Malabar parakeet
  43. Rose ringed parakeet
  44. Green bee eater
  45. Indian robin
  46. Common quail
  47. Hill myna
  48. Common myna
  49. Grey wagtail
  50. White-browed wagtail
  51. Asian fairy bluebird
  52. Red vented bulbul
  53. Red whiskered bulbul
  54. Crested bunting? (uncertain ID)
  55. Green imperial pigeon
  56. Malabar trogon
  57. Large grey babbler (thanks to Deepa Mohan for helping ID this and the next one)
  58. Common rosefinch, female? (ID not fully certain)
  59. Malabar whistling thrush (calls)


  1. Malabar giant squirrel
  2. Sambar
  3. Barking deer
  4. Gaur
  5. Elephant
  6. Black-naped hare
  7. Nilgiri langur
  8. Indian flying fox
  9. Chital
  10. Indian tree shrew (GK alone got the privilege of this sighting)

Book Review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan


Book review: Of Birds and Birdsong, by M. Krishnan

Edited by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola

Aleph Book Company, published 2012

I have alluded to this exceptional book in a previous post, and have been wanting to publish this review for many weeks now.

Once in a rare while, we come across a book that has rich topical value, but which can also be read simply for the elegance of its language. Of Birds and Birdsong is one such book (M.R. James’ Ghost Stories is another that readily comes to mind). If you possess a love for the English language, you’ll enjoy this book immensely even if the immediate topic – birds – is not of any great interest.

Madhavaiah Krishnan (1912-1996) was not just an ornithologist. He was a naturalist and photographer par excellence. For a man with so brilliant a mind he was a failure academically, and tried his hand at an astonishing variety of vocations (including implausibly, goat grazing). But he was a prolific writer and wrote a column for The Statesman which ran for an astounding forty six years, the last piece being published on the day of his death. He was also an artful photographer, producing masterful black and white images from the natural world using equipment he had rigged together himself and dubbed the Super Ponderosa. Krishnan served on the advisory committee of the BNHS, on the steering committee for Project Tiger, and on the Indian Board of Wildlife. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.


This book brings together various pieces Krishnan wrote about birds, over the years. Some of the pieces are quaint given their vintage, like the ones on partridge and gamecock rearing, and pigeon post. Many others are short, straightforward profiles of certain species – the ones on the sarus crane, painted stork, grey junglefowl and changeable hawk eagle for instance. The more delightful ones are infused with personalized observations and anecdotes. There is an essay on the dangers of putting up nest-side hides, and on the precautions to be taken to prevent nest abandonment. There is another very short piece on the significance of the siesta in the animal and bird world. There are two entire sections devoted to pieces that deal with bird calls, and bird flight respectively.

As I have mentioned before, one cannot but help feel that Krishnan’s keen sense of observation was in a word, staggering. Wondering about the allusion to the sweet voice of the parakeet in Indian poetry while the call itself is a harsh screech in reality, Krishnan observed that the rose ringed parakeet has a “low, long, tremulous, ineffably sweet call” when summoning its young to the mouth of the nest-hole. Elsewhere, he painstakingly counted the number of times a hoopoe folded and unfolded its crest in the duration of a minute, and observed how the flicking of the crest expressed “the entire emotional range of the bird”. On yet another occasion he writes about trying to time the rapping beat of a woodpecker with a stopwatch.

The writing is often laced with a subtly wicked sense of humour.  In the chapter on birds that can be seen on the “interminable perches” of telegraph wires by the railway tracks, he says what can be principally seen are birds that like to perch high and pounce. “However, it is wiser not to be to exact on such matters. I once saw an undoubted quail planted squarely on a passing telegraph wire. What business can any quail possibly have atop this unnatural perch? I do not know, but I am almost sure the quail did not either.

In surmising why the white-browed wagtail is not as accomplished a singer as the magpie robin, Krishnan has a clever explanation. “It is all a matter of tails. If it could jerk its tail right over its head, and fan it out as the Magpie Robin does, no doubt it would sing as wildly and wonderfully, but being only a wagtail, it is content with its modest, sweet little song.

I cannot look at white headed babblers now without this scintillating description coming to mind. “They go hopping along to some corner, and one bird turns a dead leaf over while its fellows look on with a critical slant of their white heads – then, suddenly, the party dissolves in hysterical squeaks, and whirrs across on weak wings to another corner of the compound, where they proceed at once to turn over dead leaves again. Clearly, the birds are daft, but they are a feature of Madras gardens (however nominal the garden) and will always be. By sheer esprit de corps and an inability to take life too seriously, they have prevailed where their betters have given up.

Once every few pages, you are guaranteed to come across a word you’ve never heard of. Krishnan’s vocabulary was immense, and his love for finding the right word was deep. Whoever thought the grey wagtail’s belly was gamboge in colour? I was piqued by use of the word volplaning on multiple occasions and looked it up. Perhaps I’ve seen it used before, but I cannot recollect it.

Like any exceptionally good writer, Krishnan could be brilliantly evocative when he needed to. Sample this. “I remember spending a delightful hour beside the lake at Siruvani. The great, verdant trees and feathery clumps of bamboos on the shores mirrored in the still water to endow it with a dark, viridian calm. It was almost a scene of idyllic quiet, except that it was all too wildly beautiful to be idyllic, too like something out of a barbarian dream of paradise, and a barbarian that I am, it held me fascinated. Then an egret came flying round the corner, flying low over the water, dazzlingly white and clear against the profound umbers and greens of the reflected forest, each slow, rhythmic stroke of the wings duplicated in the mirror below. Halfway across, the bird stalled and hung in the air, the pinions of the forwardly directed wings splayed out with the braking action, the horn-black, yellow-footed legs dangling and almost touching their twin image on the lake’s surface, the head and neck stretched sinuously forward as it scrutinized something in the water below. For a moment then the stillness was perfect, and for that moment it was no dream but paradise in fact.

Krishnan was a voracious reader and there are umpteen literary references and allusions scattered all through the book – Lockwood Kipling, William Blake, Richard Lovelace, et al. Moreover there are plenty of references from nature writers of his and earlier generations – men like Konrad Lorenz, Douglas Dewar, ‘Eha’, G.M. Henry, G.P. Sanderson and David Cunningham.

Literary aesthete aside, the book has a wealth of information on over a hundred species of birds from the subcontinent. Much of this is derived from painstaking personal observation over the years. And the anecdotal narrative makes it good fun to read, for most part.

In summation, I found this book breathtaking. If you are reading this blog, you probably have some sort of interest in the natural world and if you do, this book definitely belongs on your bookshelf.

There is a useful ‘notes’ section at the back of the book which among other things, gives the current names of many of the birds. I however felt that these alone could have been footnoted along with the text, for more convenient referencing rather than being placed separately and at the end. But this is admittedly a minor inconvenience.

Trip Report: JLR Kali Adventure Camp/Ganesh Gudi, Dec 2013

Trip Report:        JLR Kali Adventure Camp/Ganesh Gudi

Dates:                   24-26 Dec 2013

Written:               26 Dec 2013

Kali Adventure Camp

This trip started off with some misgivings, but found ample recompense eventually. I’ve long wanted to visit JLR’s famed Ganesh Gudi camp, but it was booked out for the Christmas holidays even twenty days in advance. I was therefore constrained to book myself (with my six year old son) into the Kali Adventure Camp, twenty one kilometers from Ganesh Gudi, and a little under 500 kms from home. Incidentally the 500 klicks were doable in six hours excluding a half hour breakfast break and a half hour haircut break at Dharwad (this last being sheer whimsy, I desperately needed one and my GPS took me into Dharwad’s suburbs in any case).

The Kali Adventure Camp does not lend itself to the most favourable of first impressions. For one, it is sited right at the edge of Dandeli town. For another, it is hardly prepossessing in terms of ambience and general upkeep. To put it rather uncharitably but possibly accurately, it reeks of KSTDC rather than JLR. Moreover the place was a chaotic mess when I reached, with groups of people waiting around and the harried staff busy co-ordinating rafting rides for them. Day trippers mostly, from other resorts or homestays. JLR has a monopoly on the Kali river rafting and the crowds therefore head here. Amidst all this confusion, I had a tough time trying to figure out what I was going to be doing for the rest of the day. More than once, I was tempted to simply leave forfeiting the payment made.

Anyway, the evening was spent in a short coracle ride in the vicinity of the camp (the camp being sited along the Kali river). Wooly necked stork, river tern, common sandpiper, white browed wagtail and green bee eater later, we drew up by a tree I cannot identify, with small berries fruiting on it. An assortment of species were clustered on its branches, and we spent the next half hour anchored to the spot. There were a number of green pigeons – these birds tend to roost gregariously – and an astonishing number of coppersmith barbets. Dandeli is most famous for its hornbills – all four species can be seen here – the great Indian hornbill, the pied hornbill, the Indian grey hornbill and its casque-less cousin the Malabar grey hornbill. Of these, there were a few pied hornbills on the tree, as well as around in general. There were also a number of common and jungle mynas. Among the solitaries was an Asian koel, a female gold fronted leaf bird, an ashy drongo and a Malabar grey hornbill. A very satisfying half hour in a quiet, pleasant spot.


Karthik, Jungle Lodges’ chief naturalist had very sensibly suggested that I spend the whole of the second day at the Old Magazine House (OMH) in Ganesh Gudi, getting there early in the morning. A suggestion that completely changed the complexion of the trip. There’s been a lot written about the OMH. Dr. Huilgol did an admirable feature on it somewhere. Suchi Govindarajan has written a guest piece on Karthik and Poornima did a photostory on Ganesh Gudi’s butterflies. And Rana and Sugandhi have created a brilliant film, featuring vignettes of preening and shaking birds against a ghatam background score timed to perfection. The OMH apparently leaves everyone it touches spellbound, but the experience is much more than you can experience vicariously. I was certainly caught by surprise.

So there were the expected bird baths, and the expected line of seats and the expectant, watchful audience. And the expected long lenses on their tripods. The morning’s experience was relatively muted. Some birds did turn up at intervals. Lakshman, the guide who had accompanied me from the Kali Camp promised much more in the evening.

Dandeli 075


We came back to the Kali camp to grab lunch, and then drove another six kilometers to a lovely little lake with the lovelier name of Kanshirda (actually the lake inherits the name of the nearby village). I settled myself on the gnarled roots of a tree on the bank binoculars in hand, and spent a very pleasant hour there. The experience was inviting enough to lure me there for a repeat visit this morning.

Flocks of lesser whistling ducks and little grebes foraged among the lilies. Three couples were visible further afield – bronze winged jacana, common sandpiper and river tern – and a lone wood sandpiper. Numerous barn swallows hawked insects on the wing. Lakshman pointed out multiple flocks of cotton teals in the distance, but I couldn’t get a clean look at duck or drake even with the 10X50s owing to the luxuriant vegetation on the water. The usual suspects were also present in numbers – red wattled lapwing, pond heron, egret, white throated kingfisher, common kingfisher, little cormorant and brahminy kite. On the trees by the water, a flock of white-rumped munias advertised their presence noisily. And a solitary baybacked shrike sat on a fence post watching the proceedings with disdain, flanked by a trio of spotted doves. The highlight of this sitting was watching a pair of white bellied woodpeckers merrily rapping away on separate trees. These are spectacular birds, large and jet black with startling red crests, all this nicely offset by the pure white of the belly. I watched them until my arms ached from holding the binos up.

The Old Magazine House

Coming back to the OMH, the evening session was simply spectacular. And this despite the heightened expectation and all the hype. Reaching there at a little before five in the evening, the next hour and a quarter was spent standing, binocs in hand, with very little “downtime”. Those bird baths were kept very very busy, one lot finishing and another waiting impatiently for their turn. The larger ones didn’t bother with waiting, they just waded in and displaced whoever was at his ablutions willy nilly.

I sighted twenty three species in all, in that single session of a little over an hour: Asian brown flycatcher, blue capped rock thrush, black throated munia, orange minivet, velvet fronted nuthatch, black lored tit, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, white rumped shama, spider hunter, Asian paradise flycatcher, forest wagtail, verditer flycatcher, bronze winged drongo, leaf warbler, purple rumped sunbird, white bellied blue flycatcher, yellow browed bulbul, emerald dove, oriental white eye, orange headed thrush, brown fulvetta, ruby throated bulbul and  puff throated babbler.

I’m not sure there is any other place to compare with the OMH for sheer diversity of bird sightings all in a single spot.


My luck wasn’t good enough to get the Malabar trogan to visit. Malabar giant squirrels called constantly from nearby, but I couldn’t spot the little machine-gunners. I also missed seeing or hearing the Malabar whistling thrush, a bird that Ganesh Gudi is justifiably proud of dubbing the resident morning wake-up caller. And I missed the Big H – the great Indian hornbill. But no matter for regret, that. I was sated with the rest.

The wonder of the baths aside, the Old Magazine House is an extremely pleasant place to stay in. Small and cosy, it is tucked away in a densely wooded spot well off the road. It’s just a row of a few log huts on stilts, the gol ghar, and the bird baths with their cordoned watching area. Interestingly there is a dorm with bunk beds and a warren of shared loos attached.

Lakshman encouraged me to come back in the summer once for the birds, and again a little later, as soon as the first couple of pre-monsoon showers arrived, to look for snakes – Russel’s viper, saw-scaled viper, vine snake, Malabar pit viper, green pit viper and more. These can evidently be found on the rough trail between the camp and the road. He did warn me though that the place would be teeming with leeches. I hate leeches. Everyone does, but I hate leeches with an especially vicious intensity. But perhaps I’ll hazard a trip when the rains start to try my luck with the snakes.

I’m now dreaming of managing a trip to the OMH off the vacation season and in mid-week sometime, when the place will be empty of its gawking audience. Just the birds and me, if that is ever possible. Vinayak, the amiable and very knowledgeable naturalist at the OMH has promised to sit with me and help identify bird calls if I ever get there on a quiet day.

There’s a government saw mill and timber depot near the Kali camp, and this has a couple of trees which evidently harbor some lively birdlife when in fruit. Lakshman took me there this morning, but my luck was out. There were no figs on offer and the place was quiet as owls’ wings.

Incidentally, I should point out that I skipped the safaris into the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve (DATR) as the forest is overcrowded with too many vehicles in it, and suffers from a poor reputation as far as sightings go. The DATR is reputed to harbour melanistic (black) leopards among other fauna, but the daytime jeep safari was not going to help me sight them.

Before I end this post, I should also point out that Kali’s faults aside, the staff have the same thoughtful courtesy that is the hallmark of JLR everywhere. Shashi, the activity organizer and naturalist at Kali went out of his way to keep me happily engaged. Anand did a masterful job of the coracle ride. And Lakshman was with me for pretty much the rest of the time, working tirelessly to spot birds, birds and more birds for me to gawk at. These guys are very good at what they do.

Trip Report: Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Dec 2013

Trip Report:        Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR)

Dates:                   21-23 Dec 2013

Camp:                   Svasara Jungle Lodge

As I start typing this post, we’re just about to leave for Nagpur. It is 2 PM and the flight back to Bangalore is at 8 PM. Nagpur is some 100 kms away, and we’ll have time to kill at the airport. Meanwhile, there’s a long-tailed shrike brooding on a perch that a green bee-eater habitually sallies from. A large flock of chestnut shouldered petronias skulks in a bush a little to the right. A pair of little brown doves, and a pair of sparrows are starting to nest in two tiny ficus shrubs on the lawn outside. There’s a pair of red vented bulbuls that haunts a bamboo thicket a little to the left. And finally, there’s a tailor bird that is a very occasional visitor to the shrubbery. These are the regular habitués around my room in the Svasara Jungle Lodge. Not an unpleasant place to stay in at all.


Not that we’ve had much time to keep track of the local avifauna. It’s been a hectic three days. We did four safaris in all, but the remarkable thing about TATR is the time allowance. The morning safari starts at 6:30 AM and goes on until 11:30 AM. Back for a quick lunch at noon and barely enough time for a battery recharge (cameras’, not ours), and off again for the second safari which starts at 2 PM (gate opening time) and goes on until 6 PM. So five hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon. Nine hours of safari time each day, with little time for anything else. It is rather tiring.

TATR is 650 sq kms of dry deciduous forest, and a dry, warm place. Even in December the days are sultry, though evenings and especially mornings are cold. The teak trees are shedding prodigiously, and the ground in many places is carpeted with the large rotting leaves. Many of the Mahua trees are bare, as are the Indian ghost trees (in pic below). Crocodile bark and tendu trees still retain their green, as do the jamun trees by the waterlines. After having read about the place lacking the magnificence of Kanha or Corbett, I guess my expectations had been tempered down significantly; Happily, the forest seemed pretty enough in compensation. And the safaris are very productive.


The safaris

We did four safaris in all. Svasara Jungle Lodge is sited a couple of hundred meters from the Kolara gate, which in turn is on the north-eastern periphery of TATR. This gate opens into the Tadoba range. Three of our four safaris were limited to the Tadoba range. For our second safari (yesterday AM) alone, we passed through the Tadoba range to reach the Katoda gate, and thereon into Andhari (Moharli range).

The first safari was an evening one. A short while into it, we sighted a ratel – Mellivora capensis. None of us had ever seen one before, and we were elated. We then reached Panderpauni, with its pretty little lake and vast meadows teeming with chital, langur and wild boar. Tree swifts in large numbers hawked insects on the wing. There was quite a bit of birdlife in the waterhole.

A short distance from Panderpauni, on the way to Tadoba lake, we ran into a bunch of Gypsies clustered at a crossroads. One of them had spotted a tigress disappearing into the underbrush. The Gypsies hung around with hopes of the tigress re-emerging for a while, but eventually people started giving up and moving on. Around six Gypsies stayed on, and our patience was finally rewarded. Someone spotted a movement at the far end of the arrow-straight road to our left. Turned out to be P2, a four-year old tigress in fine fettle. She strode down the road unmindful of the cluster of Gypsies, skirted right around us, and ambled into the one road where entry was forbidden. Some of the Gypsies scrambled to loop back for another interception, but the tigress had other ideas. She stepped off the road, into the thickets and disappeared. But P2 was not done with us. In the three remaining safaris, we experienced close encounters with her twice more.


Tadoba lake is a large natural reservoir, with flocks of lesser whistling ducks lining its banks, interspersed with the occasional basking croc. Black headed ibis call noisily from a heronry on the opposite bank. On all visits to this lake, we looked for but failed to spot the grey headed fish eagle and the brown fish owl that were reputed to haunt its banks. Nearby is the little shrine dedicated to the eponymous Gond diety Tadoba or Taru (which is apparently out of bounds to tourists). From here we took the chital road to the Jamunbodi loop, where we spotted a sloth bear about fifty feet off the road – in the late afternoon atypically, and well before sunset.


On day two we covered the Moharli range. On the Tadoba-Moharli tar road, we stopped by a pack of five dhole cavorting by the roadside. They appeared relaxed, stretching, rolling in the grass and frisking around as these creatures are wont to do, but when a couple more Gypsies piled in, they withdrew a short distance away. We proceeded to the Katoda checkpost (which delineates the Tadoba and Moharli ranges) for a breakfast break, and by the time we were done and resuming our way to Telia lake, they had brought down a chital just beyond the checkpost. The kill lay in high grass, and little could be seen beyond one or the other dog’s head bobbing above the stalks as it dipped into breakfast.


The area around Telia lake on the Jamunjhora loop presents picturesque dark bamboo forests. Thirty percent of Tadoba’s greenery comprises bamboo and there is bamboo everywhere, but Jamunjhora has especially heavy growth.

The third safari (evening) was a quiet one, with much of the time spent on birdlife, but in the last half hour, we ran into P2 again, on another arrow-straight road. This time she walked towards us, with one Gypsy ahead of, and three vehicles tailing her. Since among the occupants of these vehicles were the field director and the ranger, we were waved off the road. She marched past our Gypsy and away down the road, completely ignoring everyone around.


On the way back, we found an Asian palm civet on a bole a few feet from the ground (I had earlier described this as a small Indian civet, but S. Karthikeyan  noticed and was kind enough to point this out). Being a little too early in the civet’s day, it was evidently groggy; at any rate, it did nothing for a long while, sitting with somnolent eyes while we sat and watched it. It finally roused itself to do something about all the attention and clambered up the bole and out of sight.


The last day’s safari was a morning one. We had covered pretty much all the local megafaunal attractions barring the nilgai and the leopard. Navegaon is a village on the northern periphery that has been relocated out in the past six months.  As in Kanha, the sites of relocated villages serve as excellent grassland habitats, supporting a healthy ungulate population. So off we went to Navegaon, looking for nilgai and birds. On the road from Panderpauni to Navegaon, who should we run into but P2. It started off with chital alarm calls. We had stopped over at the Panderpauni waterhole to check on the birdlife when calls started from the other side of the lake. We took the road that loops around the lake and stopped over on another side of the water. A brief flash of stripes, and it was another hurtling ride further down the road to try and intercept her. P2 finally emerged and did her thing – the walk on the road unmindful of the gawking audience. She walked towards us, past us and then away, and two columns of Gypsies, perhaps twelve to fifteen in all tailed her at walking pace. The tigress sauntered along unconcerned, stopping by select trees to mark her scent. This went on for the next fifteen minutes, until she turned off the road and disappeared. The Gypsy mobbing phenomenon of the popular tiger reserve is undoubtedly unseemly and downright ugly, but I’m not sure what exactly should be done about it. And Tadoba is undeniably tiger-centric. Guides and drivers do not expect tourists to come looking for much else, and at times it almost feels like they have difficulty mentally processing asks for lesser creatures.


Having touched on the topic of relocated villages, I should not omit to mention Jamni, which is the first landmark after entering from the Kolara gate. The village is in the process of being relocated, and appears largely deserted. The recently harvested paddy fields around boast of a high incidence of tiger sightings – with the beats of two tigresses P1 and P2 cleaving across this area.

Anyway, we did eventually get to Navegaon, and we did see all the nilgai we could have wished for. And a few herds of gaur thrown in to boot. And plenty of birdlife.



I was hoping to meet the couple that has been doing splendid conservation work in Tadoba – Harshawardhan and Poonam Dhanwatey (their organization is called TRACT – Tiger Research and Conservation Trust) – but this privilege will have to wait for the next trip.

The list

Here’s the full list of sightings from three remarkable days:


  1. White eyed buzzard (fairly frequent sightings)
  2. Sirkeer Malkoha
  3. Common pochard
  4. Lesser whistling duck (plenty of them)
  5. Black headed oriole
  6. Indian treepie (everywhere)
  7. Crested serpent eagle
  8. Orange headed thrush
  9. Plum headed parakeet
  10. Rose ringed parakeet
  11. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  12. Tree swift
  13. Black drongo
  14. Brahminy starling
  15. White wagtail
  16. White browed wagtail
  17. Red wattled lapwing
  18. Common myna
  19. House sparrow
  20. Asian koel
  21. White browed bulbul
  22. Yellow footed green pigeon
  23. White breasted waterhen
  24. White throated kingfisher
  25. Purple heron
  26. Grey heron
  27. Peafowl
  28. Longtailed shrike (plenty of them, especially outside the reserve)
  29. Pond heron
  30. Common sandpiper
  31. Shikra
  32. Coucal
  33. Chestnut shouldered petronias
  34. Spotted dove
  35. Little brown dove
  36. Eurasian collared dove
  37. Pied bushchat
  38. Leaf warbler
  39. Black redstart (female)
  40. Indian robin
  41. Magpie robin
  42. Black shouldered kite
  43. Plain prinia
  44. Tailor bird
  45. Black headed ibis
  46. Asian open billed stork
  47. Black ibis
  48. Egrets
  49. Indian roller
  50. Jungle babbler
  51. Lesser flameback
  52. Green bee eater
  53. Grey junglefowl (calls only)


  1. Ratel/Honey badger
  2. Panthera tigris (3 of 4 safaris, few feet away each time)
  3. Ruddy mongoose (couple of comfortable sightings)
  4. Sambar
  5. Sloth bear
  6. Barking deer (couple of close sightings, quite unmindful of us)
  7. Wild dog/Dhole
  8. Asian palm civet
  9. Nilgai
  10. Gaur
  11. Wild boar
  12. Chital
  13. Common langur


  1. Mugger
  2. Olive keelback (at the resort, rescued with injuries)

Tadoba 555


Book Review: Field Days, by A.J.T. Johnsingh

field days

Field Days – A Naturalist’s Journey through South and Southeast Asia

by A.J.T. Johnsingh

Universities Press, 2006

I had spotted this little book in the library of the JLR K. Gudi camp a few months back, and dipped into it for a bit over the next couple of days. I liked it well enough to order my copy as soon as I got back.

The book took me longer than expected to get through. At a little over three hundred pages, I would have expected to speed-read my way through it in less than a week’s time. It has taken me more like three. And that is not because the book is not readable. On the contrary, it is superbly readable. It is just that it is too rich in terms of the information it is loaded with and that makes it hard to binge-read. Smaller doses are the order of the day.

A.J.T.  Johnsingh needs no introduction, but a book review of this sort probably deserves a brief profile of the author. So here goes. A chance discovery of a Tamil translation of Corbett in his boyhood days set Dr. Johnsingh on a path that eventually made him one of India’s best known field biologists. Inspired further by a chance meeting with JC Daniel of the BNHS, Johnsingh undertook a study of dholes in Bandipur in 1976-78. This was the first study ever by an Indian scientist of a free-ranging large mammal in the wild. It also earned Dr. Johnsingh his Ph.D. This was followed by a post-doctoral research stint in the United States. Johnsingh then joined the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun in 1985 and rose to retire as the dean of the faculty of wildlife sciences in 2005. He is now a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and continues to be actively involved with various initiatives.

The book is a collection of pieces published by Dr. Johnsingh for lay audiences in various publications over three decades, between 1972 and 2005. Almost half of these were published in the WII Newsletter over the years. The book is organized by region, into five sections. These deal with the south, central/west, north and the north-east of India, with an additional section covering countries further east. While well known PAs like Kanha, Kaziranga and Bandipur are profiled, a host of lesser-known places are also dealt with masterfully – PAs like the Pakhui WS (Arunachal Pradesh), Dampa Tiger Reserve (Mizoram), Bhagmara Pitcher Plant Sanctuary (Meghalaya), Srivilliputhur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary (TN) and Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary (TN). In all, over thirty PAs are covered.

The narration is a delightful mix of personal experiences, detailed floral and faunal descriptions and prescriptive observations. For many of the pieces which were written decades back, there are thoughtful post-scripts provided which outline the current situation. Dr. Johnsingh’s extraordinary knowledge of his stuff is obvious, the book is fairly well-written and the anecdotes it is peppered with are fascinating.  Plenty of chilling encounters are recalled – crouching in lantana to hide from an enraged cow elephant in Bandipur, running into a pair of gamboling leopards in KMTR, his first and terrifying sighting of a tiger in the wild – he was blowing into a medium-bore rifle cartridge to mimic the whistling call of a dhole, and instead brought an indignant tiger charging out of the undergrowth. There are plenty more like these. You’ll enjoy them.

A quick mention of the pieces I especially liked. The narrations of walking through the Periyar TR and Neyyar WS make for fine reading. Two chapters deal in some detail with the years Dr. Johnsingh spent in Bandipur and are engrossing. When I reached this topic, I was especially interested in reading Dr. Johnsingh’s version of a gruesome incident I had read about in another book (Wildlife Memoirs by R.C. Sharma). In ’77 Johnsingh had accompanied Rajasekaran Nair, who was guiding a bunch of trainees from an institution which was the precursor to the WII, into the forest on foot. Dr. Johnsingh’s mortal fear of elephants has been mentioned in more than once place, including by him. As luck would have it, a tusker they ran into charged and killed Nair, leaving Johnsingh unscathed but traumatized. This tragic incident was recounted in Sharma’s book as he was one of Nair’s trainees on that trip. And now I read Johnsingh’s own version of what transpired.

The chapter on Gir is fascinating, as is the fairly detailed piece that talks about how Kuno-Palpur was identified as a viable alternative habitat for the Asiatic lion. Corbett aficionados will like the narrative on trekking through the Ladhya and Sharda valleys. The chapters on Rajaji NP, Pin Valley NP and one on trekking in the Lushai and Garo hills are spectacular as well.

Dr. Johnsingh is quite evidently besotted with angling, and an entire chapter is devoted to the fate of the blue-finned mahseer in Parambikulam. Johnsingh also speaks wistfully of fishing for carnatic carp with spoons in the Tambiraparani (in KMTR), and of landing a 5-6 kg mahseer on his first cast in Parambikulam – an incident that he says, made him an admirer of the species forever.

In conclusion, if you have an interest in wildlife or conservation, this is a book to possess. Apart from the pleasure of reading it cover to cover like I did, the book is probably invaluable to check through specific chapters when you plan to travel to any of these PAs. There are personal insights and a level of detail that is hard to match elsewhere.

Trip Report: Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve Oct ’13

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.

Paranormal Phenomena

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.

The Outings

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:

Day 1:


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.

Day 2:

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.

Day 3

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.



  1. Asian Blue Fairybird
  2. Ashy Crowned Sparrowlark
  3. Asian Koel
  4. Barn Swallow
  5. Bay-backed Shrike
  6. Blue-faced Malkoha
  7. Blue Jay
  8. Brahminy Kite
  9. Brahminy Starling
  10. Brown Rock Chat
  11. Brown Shrike
  12. Changeable Hawk Eagle
  13. Chestnut Headed Bee Eater
  14. Coppersmith Barbet (calls)
  15. Crested Serpent Eagle
  16. Drongo
  17. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
  18. Eurasian Collared Dove
  19. Golden Oriole
  20. Green Bee-eater
  21. Grey Headed Fish Eagle
  22. Grey Junglefowl
  23. Grey Francolin
  24. Grey Tit
  25. Hoopoe
  26. Hovering raptor – unidentified, with rapid fluttering of wings while hovering in place
  27. Indian Bushlark
  28. Indian Grey Hornbill
  29. Indian Robin
  30. Jungle Bush Quail
  31. Jungle Prinia
  32. Lesser Flamebacked Woodpecker
  33. Little Brown Dove
  34. Long Tailed Shrike
  35. Magpie Robin
  36. Owl (unidentified/indistinct in the morning darkness)
  37. Peafowl
  38. Pied Bushchat
  39. Purple Sunbird
  40. Purple-rumped Sunbird
  41. Red-rumped Swallow
  42. Red Spurfowl
  43. Red Vented Bulbul
  44. Red Wattled lapwing
  45. Red Whiskered Bulbul
  46. Rufous Treepie (calls)
  47. Shikra
  48. Small Green Barbet
  49. Small Minivet
  50. Spotbilled Duck
  51. Spotted Dove
  52. White-browed Wagtail
  53. White-throated Kingfisher
  54. White-rumped Vulture


  1. Blackbuck
  2. Blacknaped Hare
  3. Bonnet Macaque
  4. Chital
  5. Common Langur
  6. Elephant
  7. Gaur
  8. Indian Civet
  9. Malabar Giant Squirrel
  10. Sambar
  11. Sloth Bear
  12. Star Tortoise