The Anamalai range is also home to a wide variety of other animals, birds and reptiles, many endemic to the region.
ELUSIVE CUSTOMER: The Nilgiri Tahr. PHOTOS: RAMAKRISHNAN
A HEAVY and humid tropical air and a mid-morning silence welcome us into the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park (IGWLS & NP). As we cross the forest checkpost at Sethumadai, the base of the Anamalais, the abrupt change in the landscape catches our eyes.
WILD AND ENDANGERED: The sholas
Commonly known as the Anamalais (literally "Elephant Mountains"), the IGWLS & NP is a very important segment of the Western Ghats a global bio-diversity hotspot. Aptly named for its large population of elephants, the Anamalais are home to a tremendous diversity of plants and animals. A lot of these species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. Key mammals include the tiger, leopard, sloth bear, wild dog, Lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur, gaur or Indian bison, sambhar, spotted deer, barking deer and mouse deer. There are over 250 species of birds.
Spread over 1,000 sq. km, the bio-diversity in the Anamalais has flourished thanks to the strict protection given to the sanctuary, especially the sholas, by the Forest Department over the decades. Today, the Anamalais is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Western Ghats.
Our visits to the Anamalais are primarily to pursue some of the endemic birds and mammals and to create an image database of them. The sanctuary can be reached through the popular tourist destination, Top Slip, which is rather chaotic due to carloads of tourists landing there every day. But, hidden right behind this chaos is the magical Karian Shola a tract of wet evergreen jungle with a trail leading to a watchtower overlooking a clearing and a small check dam. This trail is very rewarding for birds, though one should keep a sharp look-out for elephants which frequently wander into the shola.
The Sri Lanka Frogmouth was our first target in Karian Shola. This is a fascinating nocturnal bird and spotting one in the jungle undergrowth is next to impossible. Its superb camouflage and stillness help it merge with the wet green-brown background of the jungle. Our guide, Arumugam, with his keen and experienced eye, was quick to show us a pair in the undergrowth. Later, we also could sight Blue-winged Malabar parakeets, Fairy Bluebirds and the White-bellied Tree-pie. Malabar Grey Hornbills, Scarlet Minivets, Paradise Flycatchers, Racket-tailed Drongos were fairly common in the Shola.
The Anamalais is one of the very few places in the world where you can see another curious bird the Wayanad Laughing Thrush. A skulker in bamboo undergrowth, this bird always gives us a good run. Gregarious and noisy, these birds live in flocks of about 20 and the Top Slip area is known to have a few resident flocks. We were very lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of them.
The Sri Lanka Frogmouth.
After exploring the vicinity of Top Slip, you can travel to the other parts of the sanctuary. The Anagundhi and the neighbouring sholas also have a resident population of the highly endangered Lion-tailed macaque, probably the rarest primate in the world.
The Valparai range of the Anamalais is the habitat of another endemic mammal the Nilgiri Tahr. These wild mountain goats inhabit the high ranges and prefer open terrain, cliffs and grass-covered hills, a habitat largely confined to altitudes from 1200 to 2600m. Their territory extended far and wide all along these hills in the past, but, because of hunting and large-scale habitat destruction, they now exist only in a few isolated sites like the Anamalais.
The Lion-tailed macaque.
The Great Pied Hornbill was our next goal. These giant birds stand over a meter tall and are the primary seed dispersers of the gigantic ficus trees on which they feed. These birds are in great danger of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching. We were lucky to hear them fly above us, with the characteristic "helicopter hovering" sound of their flapping wings.
The sanctuary is currently under the Government's "Project Elephant" scheme. Further, the sanctuary is awaiting the Central government's declaration as a Project Tiger reserve.
Edward Abbey had rightly said, "The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders". It is time that we rise to be the defenders of the some last few wilderness tracts in our country, such as the Anamalais.
The nearest Railway station, Coimbatore, is about 75 km from Top Slip.
Reservations for accommodation and permission for entering the sanctuary have to be sought at the Wildlife Warden's office in Pollachi.
The best time to visit is between October and May. Beware of tick bites and leeches.
Park entry timings are between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Forest Department vehicles are available for wildlife viewing.
Guides are available at Top Slip for short walks in the jungle.
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