The Guide: Wild Wayanad

Kerala’s Wayanad district is a splendid wilderness area that is a hotbed of amazing creatures large and small

By Shashank Birla

By the time I was 16 I was already an inveterate wildlife enthusiast. My family and I were on a holiday exploring Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in Wayanad, Kerala. With binoculars around my neck and camera ready, I began what was to become one of my most unforgettable safaris. During our time there, we were lucky to spot a great diversity of animals and birds: spotted deer, sambar deer, stripe-necked mongoose, Malabar giant squirrel, greater racket-tailed drongo, Indian paradise flycatcher. But what overwhelmed my young heart the most was the sight of elephants. From a watchtower, I saw the biggest tusker I have ever seen. Another time, we spent a few worried minutes, as an elephant matriarch charged a jeep in front of us, and then the jeep behind us (sparing our vehicle). While this was happening we watched a herd crossing behind our jeep, and I recall my brother tried to suppress a cough, for fear of angering the matriarch with an unfamiliar noise.

Shy and retreating, the endemic Nilgiri marten (top) is difficult to see at the best of times. These omnivores hunt a variety of prey such as giant squirrels, grey junglefowl, monitor lizards and other reptiles and amphibians as well. They seem to have a sweet tooth, partaking of fruits and honey when possible. This unusual-looking frog, the Ochlandra reed frog (above), gets its name from the species of bamboo reeds (Ochlandra setigera) in which it resides and lays its eggs. Kakkayam in Wayanad is the where the original specimen was first described for this species. Photo: Naseef Gafoor - CC BY-SA 3.0 (top), Shashank Birla (above)
Asian elephants rely strongly on their sense of smell, hearing, and touch. Their peripheral vision however seems to be poor due to the location and size of their eyes, they do not have tear ducts and since any excess moisture in the eyes does not get drained internally, it is not uncommon to see fluid running below their eyes giving an impression that they are ‘crying’. Cover photo: Shashank Birla

I have visited Wayanad a few more times since and never know what to expect. One could spot a psychedelic-eyed Ochlandra reed frog or hear stories from friends of seeing the elusive Nilgiri marten right beside a temple. Or more recently, I’ve seen a viral video of a tiger charging a pair of motorbikers, who must have got the scare of their lives.
With its strategic location and penchant for surprises, ‘Wild Wayanad’ truly deserves its moniker. Once witnessed its unpredictable, raw beauty, magical clouds over a dense evergreen canopy, moist deciduous forests, gurgle of streams, and roar of waterfalls are all unlikely to be forgotten.

The Soochipara/Soojipara waterfalls are a popular tourist attraction in Wayanad. At a picturesque location surrounded by forest. You can take a dip near the base of the falls, subject to the water flow and local weather conditions, and undertaken only under the supervision of the forest department staff or guides. Photo: Kajin/ Shutterstock

Located in the Nilgiri Hills of Kerala, Wayanad district is spread over about 2,000 sq km, and receives 2,600 mm rain annually. Altitudes range from 700-2,100 m, and it is a popular hill station, though with a secret. If you pop open a map, you will see that the district is surrounded by national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. In fact, Wayanad forms part of the approximately 5,500 sq km Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest tracts of protected forest in India.

Much of the wilderness in Wayanad comes under the definition of a ‘cloud forest’. Tropical forests like this area near Aranmala peak in Wayanad, are often covered with a form of low cloud cover just above the tree canopy through a process known as evapotranspiration (the movement of water vapour into the atmosphere from land). Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Much of the wilderness is best explored on foot and a good guide is vital. Many lodgings have either dedicated naturalists, enthusiastic hosts, or local guides to help you spot birds, reptiles, amphibians and more.
To visit the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary, the entry for which is at Kakkayam (forest department: 0495-2666788/0496-2619014) you need to inform them in advance. The forest department may be able to assist with a ranger/guide to help you explore this unspoilt wilderness. Another popular trek route for nature enthusiasts is the seven-km Pakshipathalam route from Thirunelly temple, traversing a mosaic of streams, waterfalls, shola grasslands, forests, and even caves. The trek can be a bit strenuous as the climb is initially uphill. Exploration after dark is not allowed due to large animal movement, so you must return before 6 pm.
The popular Pookode Lake is a good place to go birdwatching. There is a walking track around the lake or boat rides to view aquatic birds. To avoid crowds at the lake, head there very early in the morning.

Pookode Lake is a great place for a serene boat ride (if you can avoid the crowds). A perennial water body, it’s best explored on a rowboat or pedal boat. In certain spots notice the banks fringed with gorgeous blue star water lilies (Nymphaea nouchali). Photo: Irshadpp - CC BY-SA 3.0

Depending on where you are staying, you can plan a visit to the Tholpetty or Muthanga forest ranges of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary for a short jeep safari. These two parks probably represent your best chance of seeing the larger wildlife in Wayanad. Note that safari infrastructure isn’t as well developed as in the reserves of Central India.
Timings: Open from 7-10 am and 2-5 pm.
Cost: Tickets are bought at the counters near the gates for both sanctuaries. Tickets cost Rs 150 per person (Indians/Rs 200 per person for international travellers) in addition to Rs 800 for the jeep hire.
Duration: A safari is typically one-hour-long.

Wayanad has a rich diversity of habitats ranging from dry deciduous to moist deciduous forests on the lower slopes, to the ‘vayals’ (small meadows in the forest, often waterlogged and marshy, which attract a variety of wildlife), freshwater lakes to high-elevation sholas (montane evergreen forests interspersed with vast grasslands). Naturally, with this range of habitats, the biodiversity here is incredibly varied, with each species often adapted to a specific niche. Flowering plants abound, including delicate balsams and an excellent diversity of approximately 170 orchid species. The discovery of a variety of new species of frogs, orchids, and spiders in the last few years shows that this is still a wilderness of mysteries.

The forest floor thrums with life and a host of small life forms due to its high content of organic matter including humus and leaf litter. Predators like this huntsman spider rely on ambush to hunt their prey of insects, tiny reptiles, and amphibians. Photo: Shashank Birla

Approximately 45 species of mammals, over 330 species of birds, over 55 species of reptiles and amphibians, 170 species of butterflies and a diversity of other flora and fauna have been recorded in Wayanad. There are endemic species aplenty including the Wayanad laughing thrush, the Wayanad keelback snake, Perrotet’s wood snake, and Ochlandra reed frog, all exclusively found in Wayanad district and some neighbouring areas.

The sight of an imposing white-bellied woodpecker in these forests is a treasured one. Second only in size to the slaty woodpecker found in north India, this striking species fits itself in an enclosed tree hollows to roost. Photo: Shashank Birla

Birds: Some of the popular avian visitors one can hope to sight here include the crimson-backed sunbird, Malabar grey hornbill, orange minivet, yellow-browed bulbul, southern hill myna, Malabar whistling thrush and orange-headed thrush. Deeper in the forest you may spot the white-bellied woodpecker (one of the largest species of woodpecker in India), the brilliantly shaded Malabar trogon, the flame-throated bulbul, and the curious-looking Ceylon frogmouth (keep your ears open for its unusual screeching at night).

Dazzlingly brilliant avian species can be found in the verdant forests of Wayanad. The blue-capped rock thrush (left) is a winter migrant to the area, arriving in Kerala usually during early September-late October and staying on until summer. The Malabar whistling thrush (right) on the other hand is a resident species found year-round. Its peculiar whistling calls, have given it the nickname, the ‘whistling schoolboy’. Photos: Shashank Birla

Herpetofauna: Both coffee plantations and forest areas are great places to sight reptiles and amphibians, especially at night (only with a guide). Some species often encountered are: Malabar gliding frog, small tree frog, Wayanad bush frog, fungoid frog, checkered keelback snake, vine snakes, Malabar pit viper and southern gliding lizard. More elusive species include the black torrent toad, king cobra, striped coral snake, Horsfield’s spiny lizard, and the Indian chameleon.

When night falls, wildlife which has been shy and retreating during the day, now actively forages and hunts. This is particularly true for most of the reptiles and especially amphibians, such as this Rao’s intermediate golden-backed frog (top) and Beddome’s caecilian (bottom left) which need to keep their skin moist and hence will avoid prolonged direct exposure to sunlight. With the profusion of invertebrate life, there is plenty on offer for the frogs, toads, caecilians, lizards and in turn for the snakes like this cat snake (bottom right), who prey on them. Photos: Shashank Birla

Mammals: Larger animals though present are somewhat harder to see due to the dense forest areas and limited safari options. However, if you spend enough time, you will likely spot elephants, gaur, sambar, spotted deer, Malabar giant squirrel, and Hanuman langur. Some elusive, endemic species of the Western Ghats that may be encountered on a trek: the endangered lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur, and the rarely seen weasel-like predator, the Nilgiri marten. While tigers, leopards, and wild dogs inhabit these forests, few have been lucky to see them. There are also some anecdotal reports of black panthers (melanistic leopards) inhabiting these dense evergreen jungles.

Wayanad’s landscape hasn’t been spared from the effects of climate change, devastating floods hit the area in 2018 and 2019. With so many endemic flora and fauna species, threats loom large for the long-term preservation of such pristine habitats. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Air: Kozhikode, Kerala is the closest airport, approximately 75 km/2.5 hr away.\
Road: Kochi in Kerala and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu are both about 200 km/6 hr away.
Train: Koyilandy is the closest train station, 60 km away, but Kozhikode has better connectivity.

Because Wayanad district is a popular tourist area dotted with numerous towns, you will have plenty of choices for your stay. Accommodation can vary from large high-end hotels, boutique lodges, and small homestays, to plantation houses. Sultan Bathery, Vythiri, Kalpetta, and Mananthavady are the major towns where the tourist infrastructure is centred. Many popular stay options are surrounded by forests, some interspersed with coffee plantations, both havens for biodiversity.
Inspection bungalows: The Tholpetty and Muthanga wildlife sanctuaries have inspection bungalows available to rent (doubles Rs 3,000). Facilities are basic, and electricity and water supply erratic. You need to bring your own provisions etc. This is recommended only for experienced wildlife travellers on a budget. (Contact the range offices. Muthanga: 04936 271010, +91 9048098374; Tholpetty: 04935 250853, +91 08547603561.
Mid-range: A few mid-range hotels are located near the entrance of Tholpetty (Tholpetty Wildlife Resort) and Muthanga (Emerald Wild West and Wild Tusker) sanctuaries (doubles from Rs 3,000-3,500).
Wayanad Wild: For an immersive, guided wilderness experience, consider Wayanad Wild. Day or night walks with the in-house naturalist are great for discovering the wilderness areas, its many species and spectacular diversity of birds, reptiles, and amphibians (doubles approximately Rs 10,000).
Fringe Ford: Close to the Tholpetty Sanctuary, this property has its own huge forest, within which you may encounter some of the larger animals on foot (doubles about Rs 10,000).
Vythiri Resort: A great wilderness option this is an award-winning property, where you can enjoy guided walks (doubles from Rs 15,000 doubles).

Wayanad is a popular getaway year-round as the temperature doesn’t change much and is largely dictated by cloud cover. It gets rain from two sources, the southwest monsoon between May and July/August and the northeastern monsoon during September-October.
June to early September: Expect torrential rain, misty weather with temperatures between 23-32 degrees Celsius. This is the best time to encounter the diversity of reptiles, amphibians, and monsoon flora and fauna.

Wayanad’s misty winding roads offer a prelude to the mysteries of the ancient Western Ghats that are waiting to be uncovered by those who wish to walk on the wild side. Photo: Shashank Birla

November to early March: A largely rain-free season with day temperatures ranging from 18-30 degrees Celsius; nights are colder. Great season for birdwatching and trekking specially for seeing winter migrant birds including flycatchers and warblers. Water bodies have migrating duck species such as garganeys, and northern shovellers flying in from Eastern Europe and northern Asia. Tiger sightings see a bit of an uptick during this time.
April to May: Though temperatures can reach the high 30s, this is probably the best time of the year to spot mammals because vegetation density is reduced and water sources are fewer.
Safari timings: 7-10 am and 3-5 pm

Tips for visitors:
• Travel times provided on apps such as Google Maps are best not relied on due to bad roads in certain spots and traffic jams at entry and exit points into the district. Plan with some buffer time.
• For Tholpetty and Muthanga sanctuaries, plan to reach the gate an hour before opening time especially during the holiday season. Long queues form well before the opening time and the number of vehicle permits each day are limited.
• Access roads to Tholpetty and Muthanga sanctuaries are surrounded by forest, no stopping is allowed on these roads. Drive slow to avoid hurting crossing wildlife.
• If exploring the forest on foot, carry a first-aid kit, flashlight/headlamp, spare batteries, leech socks, and zip-lock bags to keep items dry. Carry salt or tobacco powder to get rid of leeches. In the monsoon, a poncho and sturdy umbrella are highly recommended.
• Never venture into the woods alone, day or night.
• In the summer, if exploring on foot, be careful as animals sometimes become water-stressed during this period and may be aggressive.
• Avoid driving at night. Roads are narrow and winding in many places, and there is a lot of elephant movement at night.

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