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I switch off my headlamp and look back. All I can see is darkness. But I have been to the same place during the day. I know that I am surrounded by verdant evergreen forest on one side, and a laterite plateau bedecked with wet moss on the other. I switch on my headlamp again and we trudge on. It is silent but for the strangely calming, constant pitter-pattern of rain. Luckily, the large poncho and gumboots keep me dry as we hunt for forest treasures, armed with our torches and cameras. As we walk on, suddenly, the beam of a small flashlight hits something shiny. There it is, by the side of the road. I let the camera out of its snug rain cover while one of my friends keeps the umbrella open for me overhead. I bend down and photograph a brilliant jewel of an animal, one which is found nowhere else in the world but here, the Amboli tiger toad — a critically endangered amphibian.

The Amboli tiger toad (Xanthophryne tigerina) gets its name from its unique coloration seen in the breeding season. It is similar to the big cat, which anecdotal reports suggest also inhabit these forests. There are only two species that belong to this ancient genus, both found only in Maharashtra (its sister species, the Koyna toad occurs in the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, Satara).
Photo: Shashank Birla  Amboli is part of the northern Western Ghats, the latter of which is recognised by Unesco among the top eight biodiversity hotspots in the world, due to its exceptional variety of flora and fauna.
Cover Photo: Yash Hegde - CC BY-SA 4.0

The Amboli tiger toad (Xanthophryne tigerina) gets its name from its unique coloration seen in the breeding season. It is similar to the big cat, which anecdotal reports suggest also inhabit these forests. There are only two species that belong to this ancient genus, both found only in Maharashtra (its sister species, the Koyna toad occurs in the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, Satara). Photo: Shashank Birla
Amboli is part of the northern Western Ghats, the latter of which is recognised by Unesco among the top eight biodiversity hotspots in the world, due to its exceptional variety of flora and fauna. Cover Photo: Yash Hegde - CC BY-SA 4.0

The popular hill station of Amboli is located in Sindhudurg district, on Maharashtra’s southern boundary, perched at an altitude of 690 m above sea level in the Sahyadri Hills. It is sometimes called ‘Cherrapunji of Maharashtra’ (The hill station records over 7,400 mm of rain annually, making it among the wettest places in India). Its emerald green forests, gushing waterfalls, rocky moss-covered plateaus interspersed with dry grasses that turn green in the monsoon make it a popular destination for travellers. It has in the past few years gained fame for another reason. More than a decade ago, a few devoted nature lovers started visiting the wilderness areas of this relatively unexplored Eden. Their steady efforts over the years revealed something amazing. In spite of not being notified as a protected area, Amboli’s biodiversity was staggering. It has over 35 species of mammals, a growing list of over 200 species of birds, approximately 150 species of butterflies, and over 45 species of reptiles and amphibians (the list constantly updated), some endemic to Amboli and others to the larger Western Ghats. Building on the work of the previous generation, young, energetic locals started taking an interest in showing visitors these unique treasures. Pretty soon, Amboli was on the wildlife travel map and now is a sought-after destination for both wildlife enthusiasts and adventurers.

Waterfalls are a haven for wildlife when undisturbed by rowdy picnickers. The ones close to the road are worth visiting early in the morning, while those deeper on the trails can be visited later in the day. They are great places to shoot long-exposure, habitat images with a tripod, such as this forest crab (Ghatiana sp.). Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Waterfalls are a haven for wildlife when undisturbed by rowdy picnickers. The ones close to the road are worth visiting early in the morning, while those deeper on the trails can be visited later in the day. They are great places to shoot long-exposure, habitat images with a tripod, such as this forest crab (Ghatiana sp.). Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Explore

Since it is not a formal protected area, the tourism infrastructure here is community-driven. It is advisable to explore the biodiversity only with trained guides or naturalists. It’s advisable to get a guide, especially as some of the species here are venomous and must be approached with caution. When booking accommodation ask for a local guide trained to conduct trails for ‘herping’ or ‘birdwatching’. Local guides can be booked through your accommodation or the Malabar Nature Conservation Club (+91 7588447161, +91 9422343161). Alternatively, you can join a group tour with a dedicated naturalist (conducted by Nidus (varadgiri.net/), Amazing Amboli (www.facebook.com/amazingamboli/), Toehold (www.toehold.in/)

(Left) The little streams and rivulets that flow throughout Amboli are ideal places to look for wildlife even in summer, as they are the few remaining water sources around which life forms congregate. However, the terrain can be uneven and slippery and is best explored with an experienced guide.
(Right) The dense evergreen forest and the carpet of leaf litter ensure there is plenty of organic matter, giving rise to a diversity of smaller life forms in Amboli. These patches are also prone to leeches in the monsoon. Photos: Shashank Birla

Amboli Forest Park is the most easily navigated here. The entrance resembles entering a garden, but the flora is not manicured, and is in its natural wild state. A trained guide will look through the leaf litter, tree hollows, and shallow ponds to unearth secretive insects, reptiles, amphibians, and even crustaceans such as the endemic purple crab. Once you cross the second gate, the trail leads to Parikshit Point, where the trail becomes denser and wilder. At the point, you may encounter rare flora such as Ceropegia fantastica (a curious plant that relies on trapping an insect for pollination).

(Left) The purple forest crab is one of Amboli’s star attractions, but isn’t the easiest species to see. They are arboreal, so tree hollows are a good place to look or, after a heavy shower, they may be out foraging on a tree trunk. They are dentrivores, largely feeding on dead and decaying matter. Photo: Saurabh Sawant
(Right) Ceropegias have a unique pollination system. These plants entrap insects like flies, drawing them in with a scent attractive to them. The downward-pointing hairs on the flower don’t allow it to escape immediately and lead the insect deeper within the flower, where it picks up pollen close to its base. After a few hours, it gradually springs free from its temporary prison to fly to the next entrapping flower. Photo: David Raju - CC BY-SA 4.0

The laterite plateaus encountered on Chaukul Road, as well as near the Hiranyakeshi temple, are excellent to view a variety of amphibians including the endangered Amboli toad, which can often be seen in huge mating congregations during the early rains. They curl up in mating balls as multiple males try to clamber onto females, hoping to sire the next generation.

Early monsoon (June) is probably the best time to see the threatened Amboli toad as it is their mating season. Depending on the intensity of rainfall, they can be seen in large numbers out in the open on lateritic plateaus. The females lay eggs in the small pools that form on the plateau with the rain.
Photo: Sumeet Moghe - CC BY-SA 4.0

Early monsoon (June) is probably the best time to see the threatened Amboli toad as it is their mating season. Depending on the intensity of rainfall, they can be seen in large numbers out in the open on lateritic plateaus. The females lay eggs in the small pools that form on the plateau with the rain. Photo: Sumeet Moghe - CC BY-SA 4.0

Mahadevgad fort though in ruins, is a haven for a variety of smaller life forms, and is a great place to see the diversity of lizards including shy day geckos (Cnemaspis sps.) and the beautiful Boulenger’s gecko.

Even the main road crossing the iconic waterfalls of Amboli harbour a diversity of wildlife. Visit these on weekdays and early in the mornings before the crowds arrive.

Boulenger’s Indian gecko is a nocturnal species, so best observed post sunset. This beautiful lizard feeds primarily on insects, so is often found in the vicinity of termite mounds or ant nests.
Photo: Shashank Birla

Boulenger’s Indian gecko is a nocturnal species, so best observed post sunset. This beautiful lizard feeds primarily on insects, so is often found in the vicinity of termite mounds or ant nests. Photo: Shashank Birla

Wildlife

Amboli is a haven of biodiversity and an incredible place to appreciate smaller creatures. Larger wildlife is present but is difficult to spot. If lucky, you may see sambar deer, Indian gaur, and the nocturnal mouse deer (Indian chevrotain) and small Indian civet. Leopards and sloth bears have also been spotted by local residents. The area is a possible corridor of movement for tigers as well.

Herpetofauna: The star attractions of these evergreen forests are the diverse ‘herps’, the reptiles and amphibians. Three key species are the Malabar gliding frog, the Malabar pit viper, and the ubiquitous green vine snake.

(Left) While it may be easy to spot the Malabar gliding frog in the monsoon, it is far more difficult to observe is its gliding behaviour, as it jumps off a tree, spreading the webbing between its limbs, using it like a parachute. The enlarged discs on its fingers and toes, like suction pads, help in gripping and latching onto surfaces. Photo: Saurabh Sawant
(Right) The Malabar pit iper is a venomous species, best approached with caution. A fairly calm snake when not disturbed, it inhabits a variety of microhabitats, from low bushes, tree branches or a rocky escarpment. It is an ambush predator that relies on camouflage, waiting for unsuspecting prey such as rodents or lizards to venture close by. Photo: Shashank Birla

Other endemic species include the Amboli tiger toad, Amboli bush frog, and the brilliant pied-bellied shieldtail snake. Legless amphibians known as caecilians may also be spotted emerging from their subterranean homes (Amboli and Bombay caecilians are the ones recorded here so far). More widely distributed species such as the spectacled cobra, Indian krait, checkered keelback, Indian ratsnake, fungoid frog, and Bombay bush frog are also encountered. Spotting rare species like the ornate flying snake and olive forest snake require a fair degree of luck. In August, you may also be witness to the amazing foot-flagging behavior of the northern dancing frog.

The Amboli bush frog while endemic to the Western Ghats, has a larger range than the Amboli toad, and can be seen in certain moist evergreen habitats in Maharashtra and Karnataka. It is best identified by its ‘trrrrri’call, the vocal sac balloons when it calls out, and the dark tympanum (circular membrane behind the eye).
Photo: Saurabh Sawant

The Amboli bush frog while endemic to the Western Ghats, has a larger range than the Amboli toad, and can be seen in certain moist evergreen habitats in Maharashtra and Karnataka. It is best identified by its ‘trrrrri’call, the vocal sac balloons when it calls out, and the dark tympanum (circular membrane behind the eye). Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Flora: This is a great place to document rare species of flora including a number of ground orchids, and the unusual Ceropegia fantastica. At some spots, you may come across bio-luminiscent fungii, giving off an eerie glow in the dark.

Birds: Over 200 species of birds have been recorded including the spectacular oriental dwarf kingfisher, Indian paradise flycatcher, and the Malabar whistling thrush. Amboli supports several endemic avian species of the Western Ghats: the grey-fronted green pigeon, Malabar grey hornbill, Nilgiri wood-pigeon, and Sri Lankan frogmouth.

Getting there
By Road: Mumbai is a 492 km/9 hr drive away via Pune. Kolhapur is 120 km away, however, the road is narrow and winding as you head closer to the ghats of Amboli, so drive carefully during the monsoon.
By Train: Amboli is most conveniently visited by train, the nearest station is Sawantwadi Road (about 40 km/1 hr away).
By Air: The closest airport is in Belgaum (approx. 85 km/ 2 hr away. Another convenient option is Dabolim Airport, Goa (105 km/2.5-3 hours away).

Stay

Amboli is a popular hill station for local travellers, with numerous budget stay options: Shiv Malhar, Silver Springs, Atharv Resort, Bison Resort (Rs 500-1,500 per room per night doubles).

MTDC’s Green Valley Resort is one of the larger properties here, offering clean, standard rooms. It has a popular eatery. (Doubles from Rs 1,500-4,000 per room per night in  different categories).

The preferred option for most nature lovers and photographers is Ogale’s Whistling Woods, because of the location in a quiet lane off Amboli town. The lodge and surrounds are home to many of the sought-after species for visitors. The owner Hemant Ogale is an avid naturalist, favouring the documentation and photography of butterflies and can suggest local guides who they work with. (Doubles cost Rs 3,000-3,500)

Seasons

Amboli is great year-round, but most popular in the monsoon. Avoid weekends and holiday/festival times as it gets fairly crowded.

June to early September: torrential rain, misty, temperatures between 21-25 degrees Celsius. Best time to encounter the diversity of reptiles, amphibians, and monsoon flora and fauna.

November to early March: best time to visit without rain, day temperatures 21-25 degrees Celsius, nights are colder. Great season for birdwatching, long walks, and spotting resident and migrant avian species. Early mornings with the sun just out is perfect to observe butterflies.

April to May: Due to its elevation and forested hills Amboli remains popular hill station to kick back and relax in the summer. Best time to sight larger mammals, otherwise rarely seen. To spot gaur, sambar deer, stay near waterbodies and see Indian giant squirrel in the canopy.

The largest wild mammal in Amboli, the powerfully built Indian gaur is the largest species of cattle in the world and can weigh over one tonne. They move in herds led by a matriarch, while adult males are solitary and are only seen in the vicinity of the herd during breeding season.
Photo: Shashank Birla

The largest wild mammal in Amboli, the powerfully built Indian gaur is the largest species of cattle in the world and can weigh over one tonne. They move in herds led by a matriarch, while adult males are solitary and are only seen in the vicinity of the herd during breeding season. Photo: Shashank Birla

Tips for visitors:

1. Carry a quality raincoat/poncho and sturdy umbrella during the monsoon. Carry protection for photographic and electronic equipment

2. Avoid exploring the forested areas alone. Keep to forest department rules and timings (9 pm is the deadline). It gets pitch dark usually after 6.30-7 pm. For your safety do not visit unauthorised areas.

3. Wear leech socks and gumboots during the monsoon. Carry salt to get rid of leeches.

4. Carry a first-aid kit, flashlight/headlamp, spare batteries, and zip lock bags to keep items dry.

5. Avoid driving at night. Roads can be slippery and smaller life forms crossing roads can get killed by speeding vehicles.

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