The windows of my vehicle, moving through the heavy fog is high up, but nevertheless the cold pierces. The road takes shape slowly in the mist and so do the paddy fields on sides, the areca trees, banana plantations, coconut and bamboo. A derelict sign board announces ‘Welcome to the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary’.
The entrance and the ticket counter at the Muthanga Sanctuary were packed with mostly college students. Another bus arrives with school students. The journey into the reserve area is on a green Jeep and there is a big rush for those. The Wayanad Sanctuary is the best place in Kerala to enjoy wildlife in all its glory. It is not helpless animals behind iron bars that you see here, they are not prisoners, but roaming about, content in their own natural and peaceful surroundings.
Established in 1973, the Wayanad sanctuary is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and Muthanga falls within this reserve. Muthanga houses some of the rare and endangered species of both flora and fauna. Muthanga is one of the best places where you can get to see Asia’s largest elephant population and other wildlife include tigers, leopards, wild bison, deer, giant squirrel, monkeys and wide variety of birds and flora too.
The range officer Pradeep finds me a jeep and guide. Binu Abraham with star like looks is my driver and dormitory watcher Jabbar my guide for the day. At the start of the way into the sanctuary, a large tusker stands with its back towards us, busy procuring its food. It is Dinesh, a retired Kumki elephant with the biggest tusks. Another Kumki, Surya stands basking in the sun a little away. Kumki is the Tamil name for captive, specially trained Indian elephants, used mostly for taming and training of newly captured wild elephants and also to lead away wild elephants that stray into human settlements.
If you are interested in staying in the reserve to get the real feel of forest life; there are a couple of cottages that are rented out to visitors. The jeep moves further into the reserve through a dirt track paved with big stones. The terrain is uneven and rocky and descriptions about the forest accompany the bumpy ride. The weather is cold, with a slight breeze. Large trees and meadows, and they inform me that a tusker has been evading them for the past two days. Will see him if I am lucky.
I see a group of deer’s frolicking about and grazing; Muthanga’s deer population is pretty dense too. The jeep moves forward. Eucalyptus trees line the path, and inside it are mostly bamboo, teak, rosewood and arjuna. The darbha Grass is a favourite among the deers and elephants. The jeep comes to a stop near a large meadow. Kaakapadam is the strike site of the 2003 Muthanga incident and beyond this the endless forest area.
Jabbar tells me there is a likelihood of wildlife sightings. Right in the centre of the grassland, there is a group of wild deer. Jabbar suddenly points upwards. There is a large vulture sitting proudly on a dried up tree, awaiting its prey. The vulture poses for the camera for a second and then spreads its wings and rises up. From between the trees, a large Malaman Sambar deer emerges and disappears in seconds. A herd of wild bison is busy feasting on the grass looks up from the task.
Back to the jeep again, a few acrobatic giant squirrels amuse us with their crazy antics on the tree top. We pass some other jeeps returning with tourists. A major water source of elephants here, Kamballur is like an idyllic scene out of a watercolour painting. The thin ray of light through the mist fall on the velvet like grass bordered by bamboo trees, from the waters, the mist rises like vapours. An Arjuna tree stripped bare of leaves stand apart like a silent observer and a coral tree with its fiery red flowers adds colour to the spectacle.
From there, we keep going into the reserve. I can see a Yerumadam and many more deers. The road then leads to the Bathery-Mysore highway; to the left is the entrance of the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary. The journey ends here.
The shadows made by the sunlight dances on the tarred road, the ‘pièce de résistance’ appears shaking its long blue feathers, attempts a ramp walk and moves into the backstage that is the forest. Silence descends on the wilderness, and slowly seeps into your soul.