Missions in the jungle
Wayanad, a place that highlights the glory of the Western Ghats, is also home to two examples of good ecological practices.
GREEN PARADISE: Everything is in harmony, be it at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and Garden or the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. PHOTOS: VIMAL M.
AS we drove up the Thamarasserry pass up to Wayanad, leaving behind the heat, dust and bustle of the plains, all around was blue the sky above and the rolling mid-lands below looked surreal. I looked up and saw a serpent eagle gliding smoothly in the air. The sultry heat of Kozhikode/Calicut, its peculiar smell of spices, rotten fruit and petrol and city noises were far away. We were entering a different land green, cool and full of life.
As our vehicle moved up the pass, the remaining evergreen forests on both sides looked fresh after copious summer showers. Common Langurs were trying to get hold of eatables thrown to them from passing vehicles. Bright red flowers of Erythrina and Gulmohar sparkled like flames amidst the mist and light rain.
As we climbed up the Western Ghats and reached Kalpetta, the plateau emerged interspersed with forests, paddy fields, villages and unending rows of tall and graceful bamboo. Our destinations were the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and Garden, and one of the most beautiful of wild places in Kerala with abundant wildlife the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary,
It takes 1 1/2 hours to reach Mananthavady from Kalpetta, the district headquarters. Wayanad is one of the greenest areas in Kerala. The rain fell silently and darkness was closing in on the forests. As we reached the Mananthavady Forest Inspection Bungalow, it was already pitch dark. The old colonial building with a wild and unkempt garden around was unlit and silent. Caretaker Satheesh emerged with hot tea and a warm smile. Satheesh insisted on getting us dinner from the town, unable to digest the fact that three "unaccompanied" women can tread the forest road "alone" at night and go in search of a hotel.
We woke up to many bird sounds, the wonderful aroma of Wayanad tea and the bewitching scenery of blue mountains half hidden in rain and mist. Our destination was the Gurukula sanctuary, a botanical garden and regenerated forest tract, located between Mananthavady and Periya.
Gurukula is a dream come true for any conservationist. Twenty-five years of toil have created wonders at the sanctuary. It is home to nearly 2,000 plant species from the Western Ghats and hundreds of other varieties from all around the world. A group of people under Wolfgang Theuerkauf (whom the local people respectfully call Swami) worked single-mindedly for years: their aim was to protect and preserve rare and threatened plants found in the Ghats and rejuvenate a destroyed forest tract. Swami came to Alatil from Germany 30 years ago, bought a degraded patch of forest and settled there. He dreamed of "gardening back" the forest to its natural glory. Nearly 10 acres of the 50-acre sanctuary is a garden and nursery, the rest is restored forestland, fields and grazing land. Wild, yet orderly, pleasant yet remote: the Gurukula garden is a mixture of many things. It is very much like a painting or a musical composition, structured and well-thought out, but imagination and dreams pervade it, giving it an atmosphere of other levels of existence. Everything is in harmony here, the workers, the herbariums, the forest that borders the garden; all exist as part of a whole.
Gurukula tends its habitat according to the best principles of restoration ecology. "We believe in gardening back the biosphere. The Ghats are under tremendous pressure. Every plant, every living organism is important. Correct interventions and the process of healing the forests back to their natural state are an important and complex activity," says Suprabha Seshan, a trustee of the garden who lives and works at the Gurukula. The restored forests in the Gurukula are the best example of this. After careful study and assessment, plants are reintroduced into the forests. Mosses, ferns, orchids, angiosperms are all there. The regenerated forests look magnificent in their beauty and profusion of species. "A complete explanation for what we do and why we do what we do defies us but there is always that hunch, that sixth sense, that intuited connection that lays the ground for every course of action. Usually it works! Magic is how we experience it. Science is the tool we use. And this tiny garden is our crucible," Suprabha once wrote.
One of the most exclusive elements in the botanical garden is the huge collection of orchids and impatiens, endemic and endangered ones (see picture left in set of three pictures). They are gathered from different parts of the Western Ghats and tended here. The highlight of the trip was watching the rare and delicate ground orchids in bloom: they were collected from a shola in the High Ranges and moisture and temperature levels as in there are maintained round the year to ensure their survival. You can call Gurukula as a shelter and hope for the endangered plants of the Ghats, especially orchids.
Gurukula has simple accommodation for 15 to 20 people at a time and they welcome students and nature lovers who can take part in the work at the sanctuary. Gurukula is also engaged in organic farming, animal husbandry and alternate energy mechanisms. They also have a programme called "School in the Forest" under which the public, especially children and rural folk, are given an opportunity to live and work in the sanctuary.
In the afternoon, in pouring rain, we drove into Sulthan Bathery, a small town adjacent to the Muthanga range of the Wayand Wildlife Sanctuary. The Bathery-Muthanga road (see picture centre in set of three pictures) is one of the most beautiful stretches and if you drive on you can reach the Bandhipur National Park. Tall trees and expanses of paddy fields and villages lie there on either side of the road. We took a jeep and availed of the services of a guide, Rajeev, and proceeded to the interiors of the Muthanga forests. Thanks to the ever-helpful Warden A.K. Gopalan, there were no hitches or delays in getting the necessary permits.
The initial stretch of the road is through plantations. Look out for deer, sambar and the spotted ones, said Rajeev. We took a right turn and the vegetation changed medium-sized trees, undergrowth comprising plants, shrubs and grass. Everything was green, washed sparkling after the rain a few minutes ago, and an unearthly silence gripped the forest. As we travelled through the mud filled and treacherous road, Rajeev urged me to climb to the top of the jeep, hanging on to the metal bar, I balanced at the rear of the jeep! What a fantastic way to travel when you have no open jeeps available. We reached a meadow, a valley amidst hillocks called the Muthankolly Valley. It is an expanse of marshy, grassland.
Tales from the sanctuary
The sun was going down behind the hills and a golden light spread over the place. Far ahead, a herd of spotted deer moved slowly. Not far behind were two sambars. We were yet to see elephants. The forest department staff was in elation as their recent elephant count showed an increase in numbers. We drove on and saw a bison family resting under a tree. The light was fading fast and we took a winding road back to the highway. Far away were the Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) and Bandipur (Karnataka) forests. We turned and saw a small herd of elephants walking up from a water hole. There were also the butterflies (see picture right in set of three pictures). This year since there were good pre-monsoon showers, the forests had escaped from fire and the animals saved from water scarcity. During the previous summer, extensive tracts had been burnt down and many animals including 12 elephants had died of dehydration. On the road ahead were more elephants, herds with babies and semi-adults.
The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and is the contiguous stretch of forests of the Nagarhole, Bandipur and Muthanga protected areas. It has one of the largest populations of the Asian elephant in the subcontinent. Rich in bio-diversity, difficult to manage, precious and beautiful, this sanctuary is a typical example of all protected wildlife areas in the country.
As darkness engulfed the forests and a moon emerged from behind the tall bamboos we drove back to Bathery. Tired after a day's hectic travel, we were treated to an excellent dinner comprising Malabari food at "Jubilee", a small, but well run, food outlet in the town. Sitting in the dimly lit restaurant, listening to the rain outside, we discussed the day's events. A memorable trip to a wonderful place, a destination to visit again and a source of material to study closely.
Best way to travel: By road from Kozhikode/Calicut, which is also the nearest airport (Karipur) and rail head.
Best time: November to April.
Climate: 2,322 mm/232.2 cm is the average rainfall in the area. December to January is pleasant and chilly.
Places to stay: Forest Inspection Bungalows or Government Guest Houses, forest sarambis or wooden structures inside the sanctuary. There are many private hotels.
Wildlife: The elephant, the deer,the leopard, the bear, and hundreds of bird species.
Forest types: Moist deciduous, evergreen and semi-evergreen.
Must-see places: The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Muthanga and Tolpettey ranges), the Pookode Lake, the Edakkal Caves, the Kuruva Islands, Papanasini and Thirunelli.
Main towns: Kalpetta, Mananthavady and Sulthan Bathery.
Permits can be obtained from:
The Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife)
Forest Head Quarters, Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum-14, Kerala. Tel: 0471- 2322217
The Wildlife Warden, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary,
Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad, Kerala.
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