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Mundanthurai Tiger Sanctuary
Tamil Nadu Wildlife Sanctuary
THE TRACKS AND TRAILS
OF MUNDANTHURAI SANCTUARY - TAMILNADU
Now part of the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve under Project Tiger, its total area of 800 sq km is part of the Ashambu hills of the Western Ghats, in one of the- few relatively undisturbed tropical rain forests left in our country.
The tourist zone of this Tiger Reserve is the Mundanthurai plateau (60 sq km), fed by the rivers Tamraparni and Servalar. By the riverside, near a submergible bridge against a backdrop of distant hills, is a quaint old forest bungalow built in the days of the British. The plateau is covered with scrub jungle with tall trees lining the banks of the rivers, an ideal habitat for a large variety of plants, birds and animals. As a rule. elephants, who are unpredictable, keep to the hills, where they have plentiful food and water. This make Mundanthurai safe for those who like long walks on flat terrain, even at night.
In a day’s walk in Mundanthurai, apart from innumerable birds, herds of deer and the odd sloth bear or leopard you can see all the four types of monkeys found in the South, including the slender elusive loreis. In fact, this diversity of monkeys has attracted a number of foreign as well as Indian Primatologist to this place.
The sanctuary is located in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, Near the famed Papanasam waterfalls. A hundred years ago, these falls made a grand and awesome Spectacle. Today they are only a trickle, tamed by the Papanasam hydel project. There are two dams here: upper and lower, and the area between them is, roughly speaking, the tourist zone of the sanctuary.
A dam had been constructed across the Servalar river; a storm some years ago had washed away a bridge, a large number of trees from the river bank and many people living in lowlying areas. With the commissioning of the Servalar dam, vehicular traffic had increased. And Narayanan, the son of a poor forest guard who had acted as my guide on daily wages, now had a PhD from the States, and was teaching field biology in a university there!
This was obviously a favorite drinking Spot of many animals, judging by the signs on the sand bank. For the same reason, predators also favored the place: we found the head and bones of a deer in shallow water. On the sand bank we also saw the spoor of a wild dog or jackal; and the larger pug marks of a leopard.
Another inhabitant of this riverine forest is the black Nilgiri langur, distinguishable by a white ruff round its head, found only in parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Nilgiri langurs are wary of humans because they have been extensively hunted for the supposed medicinal properties of their flesh. On seeing us, though we stood immobile, the whole troupe fled swiftly along the tree-ways. Their agility and acrobatic skills were miraculous, and we watched in awe their mighty leaps and split-second timing.
A walk in the dark can be a truly enchanting experience in Mundanthurai. From the bungalow, one can take one of three roads: to the upper camp, to the lower camp and to the Servalar dam. All three are tarred, but on either side one can expect to see wild animals.
Then there are the jungle trails, untarred paths into the forest, which give a real taste of the wilderness. One such is Puckle’s Path, a circuitous route of around 12 km which affords a good chance of wildlife viewing. Such trails are, however, better tackled in daylight, for a sudden close encounter with a leopard or a sloth bear can be dangerous. Driving slowly along the road in a car is better than walking. Animals have become habituated to the sound of motor vehicles, but not to human scent and human noise. Of course, all sightings are a matter of luck.
On The Water
If you tire of walks and watching birds and animals, Mundanthurai has diversions in the form of a long boat ride and a short trek. From the upper camp, 8 km away from the bungalow, you can hire a boat to the Banatheertham waterfalls. It takes almost an hour to cross the reservoir, though boats with an outboard motor are faster. After landing, a steep climb of about 1 km takes you to the magnificent Banatheertham falls. Immediately after the rains, the torrential descent of water is awe-inspiring. Bathing here is risky business and best avoided. The more adventurous can trek 5 or 6 km through the forest to reach the Pampanar stream, and bathe in its cool, cascading waters.
Mundanthurai is not a glamorous wildlife sanctuary with milling crowds of tourists chasing large mammals. It has no established routine of safaris for visitors. Everything is low key here, with poor infrastructure and limited facilities. In deed, thatis part oftis charm. It is an ideal place for anyone looking for Spartan fare, plenty of exercise in the open air, delicious, long baths in forest streams and peace and quiet. But all that seems to be on the verge of extinction.
A small temple, a few kilometers into the jungle, holds a festival every August which is usually attended by a few hundred local people. But last year, following a clever advertising campaign by the custodians of the temple, more than 1,00,000 people came for the festival. They spent three days and nights in the forest. In the absence of any infrastructure to cater to the needs of such huge numbers, one can imagine the colossal residue of filth and litter and pollution they left behind.
Needless to say, this kind of over-exploitation doesn’t augur well for a wildlife sanctuary. Still, as long as the charm of solitude and the lure of wild places are not completely extinguished in the mind of man, there will always be a few dedicated individuals who will do their best to preserve the inviolability of such places. And with that we have to be content.
How and Where
Mundanthurai lies in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, 45 km from Tirunelveli town, the nearest railhead. The nearest airport is at Thiruvananthapuram (160 km). Madurai, 200 kni away, also has an airport.
There are regular buses from Papanasam (10 km) to Nagercoil which is a three hour journey. Nagercoil is well connected by bus to most cities in South India.
From Thiruvananthapuram, one can reach Mundanthurai via Shencottai (160 km) or Nagercoil (190 km). The Shencottai road is usually in poor shape, so the latter is preferable. From Shencottai or Nagercoil, board the Papanasam bus, and from Papanasam, the Karayar bus will drop you right in front of the Forest Bungalow. No fast luxury coaches ply these routes, and this kind of bus journey is recommended only to the most intrepid travelers.
Alternatively, one can hire a taxi from Thiruvananthapuram or Nagercoil. There are no fixed rates and charges per kilometer and for an overnight stay, the rate must be fixed individually with the driver before the trip. The sanctuary gates are closed to private vehicles from 6 pm to 6 am.
Mundanthurai can be visited throughout the year, though the best months are probably September to February. In summer, the jungle looks wilted but animal sightings are better. The only accommodation is provided by the Forest Bungalow against prior reservation. It has two suites and one side-room, and one suite is always kept aside for visiting forest officials on duty. The rates are nominal: Rs 100 per person per day and Rs 50 for every additional occupant. There is an attached bath with an Indian-style toilet and running water. Hot water can be had on request. Guests must remember to keep the doors and windows of the room closed during daylight hours against marauding monkeys. There is also a badly built and badly maintained dormitory on the other side of the river, which one can occupy at a pinch. Arrangements for food (simple, South Indian fare at very moderate cost) can be made with the usually obliging bungalow watchman.
Permission for walking and driving within the sanctuary must be obtained from the range officer, but usually this is only a formality. Caps and walking shoes are a must. Torches, match boxes, insect repellent, etc will be useful. Boats for Banatheertham can be hired at the upper camp at Rs 150 - 250 per boat. Some bargaining is to be expected.
Emergency medical help is available at the lower camp but anything serious will have to be referred to Tirunelveli. There are no shops in Mundanthurai, so bring whatever you need when you enter the sanctuary.