Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka: The fascinating Brahmagiris
(This story 'Fascinating Brahmagiris' was originally published in Sanctuary Asia magazine, August 2002 issue)
“Hulidu, Saar”, said Jobiah, the forest guard, pointing to a two-day-old tiger scat on the leaf litter, deep in the Brahmagiri Sanctuary in Karnataka. After a hard trek through hills and shola grasslands near the Kerala State border, we forgot our weariness when confronted with this evidence of tiger presence. Earlier that day, we had parked our four-wheel drive vehicle at the Range Forest Officer’s (RFO) quarters at Srimangala town and departed for the Iruppu temple, at the eastern edge of the Brahmagiri Sanctuary.
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It was Christmas Eve, 2001 and a panoramic view of the Brahmagiris unfolded before us as we moved through densely wooded coffee plantations. Our walk to the Iruppu falls behind the Iruppu temple brought back teenage memories, when I would regularly visit this tropical paradise, wading knee-deep through lush green paddy fields that suddenly gave way to dark rainforests. Images came back to me, like snapshots from heaven… the crystal clear waters of
the Lakshmanthirtha stream gushing over slippery rocks, Red Helens, Blue Mormons, Paris Peacocks and Blue Bottles calmly mud puddling... Hill Mynas calling their hearts out while flitting through the canopy, a Racket-tailed Drongo mimicking them, and the roar of the sparkling Iruppu falls. I owe a lot to this forest and intend repaying my debt in full.
The forest-clothed, cloud-kissed Kodagu district (formerly Coorg) in Karnataka is among the few that have preserved their beauty and rich wildlife. The high forest cover is represented by three wildlife sanctuaries and the world-famous Nagarahole National Park.The district’s main rainforests are distributed along its western boundary in the form of a crescent. The northern part of the crescent is the Pushpagiri Sanctuary, Talacauvery is in the middle and Brahmagiri lies to the south. All three are well connected by reserve forests.The 181 sq. km. Brahmagiri sanctuary is divided into two ranges – Srimangala to the east and Makut in the west. The Srimangala range sports an exquisite 4.5 km. trekking path from the Iruppu Falls (800 m. above sea level) to Narimale (1,340 m.). After reaching Narimale, trekkers usually climb to the Brahmagiri peak and Pakshipatalam caves across the border in Kerala’s Wayanad district. The five of us (Harish Bhat from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Praveen Karanth, wildlife researcher, and software professionals Sameer Mudaye and Akbar Saleem) planned to walk through the sanctuary from east to west over the next two days. Since there are hardly any trails after either the Brahmagiri peak or the Pakshipatalam caves, Lakshman, the knowledgeable RFO of Srimangala, advised us to walk along the narrow clearing that marks the boundary between Karnataka and Kerala.
Ahead of us, the gently rolling slopes were clothed in dense forest. As we ascended, the sounds of civilisation faded, as did the roar of the falls. Most of the local staff are opposed to the proposed Iruppu hydroelectric project above the falls, so this was the main topic of discussion. The story here is no different from hundreds of other projects along the Western Ghats that have devoured pristine forests. There was the usual token lip service paid to ‘development’, for which ‘sacrifices’ have to be made. No one could answer who would sacrifice how much and for whose development! The cursory Environmental Impact Assessment reports had already declared that the area had ‘no significant wildlife’. Part of the reason for this trek was to nail the EIA consultants’ lie.Quite apart from the tiger scat and dozens of signs of other mammals, the sheer botanical diversity we encountered was astonishing. Even Harish, who has studied the Western Ghats for more than a decade now, was unable to identify some species. His presence was a blessing as he pointed out several rare plants endemic to the ghats. The forest staff too provided a wealth of information on local names and uses. Every once in a while we crossed small springs and often saw the hoof marks of sambar. In some places we also saw elephant dung. Hundreds of such habitats are threatened in our country because decision makers have not experienced them or appreciated their worth as biodiversity vaults and water catchments.After a steep climb for about an hour, the mid elevation rainforests gave way to shola-grasslands. Walking along the grassland edge we could see below us the large evergreen patch through which the Lakshman Thirtha flew. Taken aback by our sudden appearance, a female sambar froze in its tracks, right fore limb raised. It then dashed off into the forest, belling its alarm.The guards were debating the extent of forest that would be destroyed by the project when a rumbling sound drew our attention to the grasslands to our left. Not far from where the sambar had been a few minutes ago, a herd of five elephants appeared as if from nowhere, a calf among them. Detecting our presence, the cow faced us, as the rest of the herd escorted the young one back to the safety of the forest.Though we had been walking for only a couple of hours, every passing minute turned up something new and wondrous. From small, unidentified insects on towering indigenous trees to beautiful birds and mighty elephants. Walking through Narimale shola-grasslands we reached the Narimale trekking shed, built to shelter forest staff and visitors. Stowing our backpacks here, we climbed a gradually sloping nearby hill, surrounded on all sides by rolling grasslands. To the south, the massive Brahmagiri peak loomed. To the northwest, the clear sky permitted a glimpse of the Pushpagiri-Kumaraparvat range. The light was beginning to fade and the high-pitched calls of frogs were the perfect symphony to end the eventful day.
Scenes from paradise
After breakfast, we made for the Munikallu caves, to the accompaniment of the flute-like calls of the Malabar Whistling Thrush. The dense fog added an element of mystery, shrouding all around us. The terrain was typical shola-grassland with waist-high grasses such Themada, Chrysopogon, Cymbopogon, Arundeinella and stunted sholas whose silence was broken by the murmur of gently flowing streams. Gradually, the veil lifted and the sun-kissed grass began to glow. Ahead, we could see a strip roughly cut through the grass, only a few metres wide – the interstate boundary. As we followed this ‘path’ a deep booming call echoed through the wooded valley to our right. A careful search through our field glasses located a troupe of Nilgiri langurs in the canopy, less than 100 metres from us. Further on, Harish drew our attention to the loud chatter of a flock of Malabar Pied Hornbills.By now, the sun was high in the heavens and we walked along the ridge, encircled by forested hills and valleys. If we had chosen to head southward through deep, densely-wooded hills and valleys we would have reached Kerala. To the north were the gently folding slopes of Karnataka, dominated by the Brahmagiri peak. These forests were watered by the Somahole stream whose course was dotted by massive trees such as Aphananthe, Cinnomomun, Elaeocarpus, Chrysophyllum, Holigarna, Dipterocarpus and Myristica.We stuck to the clearing that marked the state boundary. Thick forests grew with abandon on either side of us. Clearly not many people used this route. In places, the sun was barely able to reach the forest floor. Though the air was full of birdsong, the birds themselves were difficult to spot. As we crested a ridge, a dozen stunted evergreen trees lined up to welcome us, rays from the sun illuminating their moss-encased trunks, creating a magical illusion in green. Shades of green, twisted trunks glowing in the sun, cold, clean air, occasional whispers of White-eyes, glimpses of the sky above and the unending forest below and around us… this was trekking at its best! We crossed over a small but steep valley and looked ahead at the panoramic vista presented by the western and northern aspects of the Brahmagiri sanctuary. A steep drop led to the valley through which the Somahole flowed – our next destination, where we planned to halt for lunch. After that it was off to the hamlet of Teralu, hopefully before sundown! The walk down was invigorating, steep and wild. In places, we had to cut our way through the dense ground vegetation. Often the noise we made resulted in the forest resounding to the booming ‘oop, oop’ calls of Nilgiri Langurs. We spent some time photographing Balanophora indica, a rare flowering plant and root parasite that grew on the forest floor. We had no idea at all how long it would take us to reach our destination for the day. Tired and hungry, we decided to rest and grab a bite at a small stream at Beetagundu at around 4 pm. At this point one of the forest watchers spoke of a shortcut by way of little-known trail off the regular route. Relying on physical landmarks, including trees, he hoped to lead us to an abandoned settlement called Aabylu. If we didn’t reach by dark, we would be stranded. Just the motivation we all needed to opt for the shortcut! We followed him along the path less taken.Sanctuaries like Brahmagiri are a safe haven for dozens of species of wild animals and thousands of plants and insects. These forests are fortified by towering ranges and are protected by a dedicated, but poorly equipped forest department. As we walked through this fragile haven the thought kept occurring to us that all of the Western Ghats must once have been just as rich. With a botanist as part of our team we were able to appreciate the botanical changes through which we passed each time we traversed from valley to hill top. The towering trees and high humidity at less than a hundred metres above sea level, at Makut for instance, gave way to mid-elevation forests that finally turned into cold and stunted forests and rolling grasslands near the remote Brahmagiri peak.We moved into the forest once more and soon came to the slippery and rapid flowing Somahole. We moved across the undulating terrain at a fast pace and finally entered Aabylu, an expansive stretch of grassland at about 800 m elevation. Once a human settlement, a few structures could still be seen through the grass that has overwhelmed much of the area, turning it into an excellent meadow for herbivores. To the west, the orange ball of the sinking sun touched the sky with a million golden highlights and opposite that was the hill range we had just descended, painted gold by the sun, an unforgettable image that I will treasure forever.The light had long since faded as we walked along the old village track from Abylu to Teralu village. We were in elephant country and the most experienced forest watcher therefore took the lead. This was one of the most exciting parts of our trek. At the slightest rustle we would halt abruptly, hoping for a glimpse of wildlife, yet filled with uncertainty about confronting frightened tuskers, or a tigress with cubs. This was also king cobra country. Though we did fear the giant reptile, we knew it would most probably make good its retreat on hearing us blundering through its normally quiet haven. It was almost 8 p.m. before we came across the forest department jeep, a little before Teralu. We had loved every second in this amazing forest, but were equally pleased to be able to take the weight of our legs. We emerged from the central part of the sanctuary and departed for Srimangala town, via Birunani village.We had spent two days trekking these green cathedrals. Except for three herb collectors, who were instantly escorted out of the sanctuary by the guards, we did not see a single human being, or a domestic animal. The forests are relatively undisturbed and well-protected with no sign of forest fires or even campfires. On the periphery of the forest, of course, biotic pressures abound. Despite the best of forest department’s efforts, encroachers occasionally clear patches for ganja (marijuana) plantations, elephant poachers sneak in from time to time and ‘sport’ hunting by planters in the forest adjoining their estates add to the woes of the wild animals ensconced within.Despite all these problems, the sanctuary has survived these many years. And generations yet to be born will be grateful for this fact because the rolling hills and thickly wooded valleys are likely to be their most valuable water sources for centuries to come.Even today Brahmagiri supplies water to surrounding habitations through 22 major streams (10 perennial) and countless smaller ones. Destroying these forests for short-sighted projects such as the Iruppu hydroelectric scheme makes neither ecological nor economic sense.I only hope that the vibrant collective comprising individuals, NGOs and the forest department that exists, is able to ward off all external threats, so that this sanctuary is able to fulfil its ecological destiny for future generations as it has for the past.
Upgraded from a reserve forest into sanctuary on 5th June 1974
Area: 181.29 Sq. KM (Core: 60 sq km)
District: Kodagu (Coorg)
Nearest Town: Virajpet (7 KM)
Nearest Air and Rail: Mysore (140 KM)
Geographical Co-ordinates: Lat: 11 55’ 49” to 12 08’ 57” N Long: 75 44’ 12” to 76 03’ 22” E
Boundaries and corridors: Kerala lies on the southern border of the sanctuary, and part of it is contiguous with the Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary. A densely forested corridor connects it to Talakaveri and Pushpagiri sanctuaries to the northwest and also Wayanad and through it Nagarahole to the east.
Importance: This sanctuary is the birthplace of many perennial streams, including the Lakshman Thirtha which forms the 60 m. high Iruppu falls.
Wildlife: Tiger, elephant, gaur, chital, sambur, dhole, leopard and common langur are found here. Once the northern limit of the endangered Nilgiri tahr, the sanctuary today has healthy populations of endemic species such as the Nilgiri langur and Lion tailed macaque. Clawless otters and rare, endemic birds, butterflies, amphibians and reptiles are also seen.
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