The vast forests of South Karnataka lying in the shadow of the Western Ghats, are a veritable treasure-trove of wildlife.
The sun peeps over the horizon and a rim of light begins to penetrate the trees. The ground mist clears and within moments, the great Indian jungle has come alive with music of birds and insects. Calls of mynahs and drongos, he incessant chatter of monkeys, pierce the soft gurgle of forest streams. At one of the jungle’s perennially green spots, a herd of massive horned gaur graze placidly. An elephant trumpets its delight, a shy stag shoots out of lantana bush and dashes for cover.
The landscape is generally one of gentle slopes, shallow valleys and undisturbed forests. Tall timber trees, dense undergrowth and open grasslands provide a rich diversity of habitat that supports a fascinating assemblage of species. Together, Nagarahole and Bandipur National Park, once part of a single ecological continuum called Wynad, cover an area of more than 1,500 square kilometres. Three tourism zones with facilities for wildlife tourism have been developed, one in Bandipur and two, called Nagarahole and Karapura, in Nagarahole National Park. The most convenient way to reach any of these three places is by a two-hour taxi ride from the old royal city of Mysore.
Bandipur has a woodland, Savannah-like appearance, with mixed deciduous forests interspersed with herbaceous clearings. It remains largely unspoilt despite being one of the most accessible of our preserves. The park, 80 kilometres from Mysore, is bisected north to south by the busy Mysore-Ootacamund highway. A network of motorable roads provides excellent opportunities for game-viewing, and view lines have been cleared bordering the game roads. Wild elephants and other animals attracted to the many pools and bamboo clumps can easily be viewed from the road.
Over a thousand elephants are estimated to range over the Nagarahole-Bandipur forests. During the wet season, when water and green fodder are plentiful, herds of these mighty beasts can be seen frolicking at water holes and tanks, wallowing in the mire and bathing in the water. When the cool season ends, they converge around specific localities, most notably the banks of the Kabini river. From Karapura, you can travel by jeep to Mastigudi on the banks of the Kabini and witness some unforgettable sights. A mile long stretch of the river dotted with elephants, or even a herd swimming across if you’re lucky enough. Mastigudi is also an old Khedda site and when the river waters recede, the remnants of the old stockade (Khedda) used for capturing elephants until quite recently, can be seen.
The Nagarahole-Bandipur forests are also the finest stamping ground of gaur, largest of the wild bovines. Gaur are not often attracted to way tanks as elephants are, preferring to congregate at the open, grassy swamps. But even when viewed through tree-cover they are impressive with their splendid stature.
A common sight around the tourist lodges at both parks is the spotted deer or chital, usually associated with exquisite scenery, grassy forest glades and shaded streams. Chital are partial to open grassy areas and these handsome creatures with bright rufous-brown coats profusely spotted with white, are most often seen along the game roads. Sambhar, the largest of the four species of deer inhabiting these forests, is a shy animal preferring thick cover. The usual sighting is of two or three animals but in the wet season, sambhar congregate at Tavarakatte, a lake close to the tourism centre at Bandipur, where they enter the water to feed on aquatic plants.
Less often seen is the muntjac or barking deer, a timid goat-sized animal with a loud bark that warns of predators on the prowl. The dinky little mouse-deer, though numerous in the area, are rarely seen by tourists because of their nocturnal habits.
The lush vegetation also hides small and swift animals such as the black napped here and the wild pig, favourite prey of the dhole or wild dog. Other worth mentioning are the Indian porcupine, pangolin and slender loris—not usually seen because they are nocturnal, the giant red squirrel and the still large nocturnal flying squirrel. With its loud alarm call and sharp chattering, the giant squirrel, almost a metre long with its bottle-brush tail, is heard more often than it is seen since it keeps to the tree summits.
Sharing the tree canopy with the squirrels and birds, are two types of monkeys, the bonnet macaque and the Hanuman langur. The langur’s distinctive call—kha-ko, kha-ko-kha—almost invariably indicates the presence of a tiger or leopard. The predators (as also the lesser cats and the civets) are very much there, but being nocturnal, are seldom seen. Interestingly, though Bandipur is one of the first nine Project Tiger Reserves set up 20 years ago, it is Nagarahole with its dense cover and large concentrations of prey species, that is the stronghold of the tiger. Tiger sightings are somewhat difficult but leopards can usually be seen at fairly close range on an evening jeep ride through Karapura.
The Nagarahole-Bandipur region is rich in woodland birds, the avi fauna alone provides sufficient interest and enjoyment for bird watchers. Pea fowl, the most common ground birds are excessively shy and alert and are usually seen in the forest along with other game birds like the gray jungle-fowl and the quarrelsome red spurfowl, while the grey partridge favours the scrub on the margins. The back waters of the Kabini and the larger tanks attract cormorants, ducks, herons, teals and waders. Among the woodland birds that dominate the avi fauna are the crested hawk eagle, serpent eagle, the collared scops owl, the yellow legged green pigeon, parakeets, woodpeckers and barbets, hornbills, drongos, scarlet minivets and diverse warblers. The hill myna and the racket-tailed drongo are the loudest during the day, while owls and night-jars are heard at night.
You can have your fill of bird-watching on an early morning coracle ride from Karapura. And profitably, combine your trip to the Bandipur-Nagarahole forests with a visit to the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, 16 kilometres from Mysore. Situated on one of the three islets of the River Cauvery, near Tipu Sultan’s capital of Srirangapatna, Ranganathittu is an all season scenic spot with migrant birds like darters, egrets, spoon-bills, white ibis, open-bill storks and herons.
To complete the picture, there is a tremendous abundance and diversity of flora. These jungles are reputed as the home of some valuable timber trees such as teak, rose wood, gum know, red cedar, terminalias and adina cordifolia. There are also the prolific fruit yielders: nelli, kooli, kadu and tega. The forest floor is a profusion of colour with morning glory and a purple flowered shrub, Argyreia cuneata, the late blooming scandent lily and the white ground orchid.
To get a feel of the jungle, take a ride on elephant back. Or, better still, settle down for a night vigil in a watch tower or macchan and have a clear view above the tree cover.
As the sun goes down, the jungle falls silent once again. Still mysterious and forever fascinating, the forests of South Karnataka offer unique opportunities to escape from the pressures of urban living and for adventure seekers from every corner of the globe.