ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Kerala’s ecologically fragile national park Silent Valley, the last bastion of the critically endangered Lion-tailed macaque
The wizened hand of Usanaar flicked away leeches with the panache of a carrom champion. ‘Atta’, he cackled, flashing his toothy grin, ‘hence Attapadi, or Abode of Leeches.’ As we squelched through the moist undergrowth battling bloodsuckers that clung to us like limpets, we felt fortunate to be in the company of the most experienced forest guide of Silent Valley National Park.
‘Limestone, kerosene, tobacco leaves, salt, snuff…’ he rattled off ways to protect oneself from leeches. Like a multi-linguist Usanaar was familiar with scientific Latin names, the local Malayalam equivalent as well as English epithets. He tapped a tree trunk ‘Churuli, mesua nagassarium, very hard, also called Iron Wood of the Forest.’ He inspected some scat with his toe, ‘Asiatic Wild Dog, what we call Whistling Hunter.’ Reaching a clump of gigantic foliage he patted it with pride and announced grandly, ‘Dinosaur pulpan, giant tree fern, 50 million year old living fossil’! We almost felt the hands of time turn back and freeze.
We were deep in a remote patch of Kerala’s Western Ghats, in one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest in the world. Cut off on all sides by steep ridges and escarpments, Silent Valley’s topographical isolation had allowed it to develop into what scientists call ‘an ecological island’. With an unbroken ecological history continuously evolving over millions of years, this was a unique region with immense biological and genetic wealth. Of the 960 species of flora here, seventeen are under the IUCN Red List.
First explored by Scottish botanist Robert Wight in 1847 and named after the relative absence of cicadas, Silent Valley throbs with the sounds of the forest. Far above in the towering Culinea trees, a loud whoop rang out clear. ‘Lion tailed macaque, Macaca silenus’, whispered Usanaar excitedly, alluding to the park’s flagship species. We followed his sure footsteps through the dense vegetation marveling at the wild flowers and orchids along the trail.
According to legend this wild region was once Sairandhri Vanam, an area so dense the Pandavas stayed here incognito during their agyata-vasa. The site of the once-proposed dam is called Sairandhri after the name assumed by Draupadi during exile and the river that passes through the valley is called Kuntipuzha, after the Pandavas’ mother. Visitors are permitted from the forest gate at Mukkali only up to Sairandhri, a 23 km jeep ride. We disembarked a little short of our destination and took a hike through the wilderness.
On reaching the 30 m high fire tower at Sairandhri we smiled at the sign ‘Even Toddy Cats have stopped drinking in the park’ before climbing up for a panoramic view of Katimudi, Mukkalimudi and the river cutting through the valley. A 1½ km path from Sairandhri led to the bed of the Kuntipuzha where a rusty steel suspension bridge provided the only means of crossing. A relic from the contentious hydroelectric project of the Kerala State Electricity Board, it was a symbol of the park’s conservation movement. Between its notification as a reserve forest in 1914 and declaration as a national park in 1984, lay a sustained campaign that ran for decades by environmentalists, public, media and expert committees to protect this unique habitat.
Gazing at the serene crystal waters of the Kuntipuzha gave little indication of its turbulent past. Butterflies pirouetted by the riverside and tiny fish danced in the shallows. The park harbours 25 species of mammals, 12 species of fish, 35 species of reptiles, 255 species of moths and 95 species of butterflies. Notable among these were Malabar Rose, Malabar Tree Nymph, Malabar Raven, Buddha Peacock, Fivebar Sword Tail, Southern Duffer, South Indian Blue Oakleaf, Tamil Catseye and Blue Nawab. Mukkali, the southern entrance to the valley, was the only place in Kerala where all three species of Crow butterflies – common crow, double branded crow and the brown king crow – can be found.
Of the 170 species of birds, the most sought after ones include Jerdon’s Imperial Pigeon, Peninsular Bay Owl, Shaheen Falcon, Ceylon Frogmouth, Great Indian Hornbill, Nilgiri Laughing Thrush and the elusive Malay Tiger Bittern. The lion-tailed macaque’s calls drew closer as we scanned the canopy of Culinea trees, where it shared space with Nilgiri langurs and giant grizzly squirrels. And suddenly we saw a troop of macaques silhouetted against the backlit green leaves. We whipped out our binoculars to see their inquisitive eyes staring back through a mane of white fur as their black coats shone like velvet.
Though trekking is not promoted within the national park, the buffer zones abound in numerous treks of varying distances and difficulty over undulating terrain. The Eco Development Committee organizes short hikes like the Bhavani river trail (6km) to the tributary of the Cauvery, the Karuvara waterfall trail (8km) which goes past an Irula tribal colony and the Keeripara trail (10km) to scenic grasslands. One-day treks fan out from Sairandhiri to Poochappara, Neelikkal, Punnamala and Pandarakadavu, covering 15-20km. Longer hikes of 30km lead from Mukkali to Valakkad, Poovanchola, Poochapara and Soochipara, along abandoned bridle paths and camps at anti-poaching centres. However Silent Valley is slow to reveal its secrets all at once.
We said goodbye to Usanaar and drove back with our host Dominic to Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge. Named after the highest peak in the Attapadi range stretching between Mukkali and Goolikadavu, the lodge afforded greater luxury than the basic Forest Rest House at Mukkali. Staying in rondavels (thatched circular huts) in the warm glow of hurricane lamps, we hiked to the viewpoint for an all-round view. The peaks of Perumalmudi and Velliangiri Mala rose against the mountain folds and somewhere in the distance, a lion-tailed macaque let out a loud long whoop.
Area: 237.52 sq km
Altitude: 725 m to 2383 m above sea level
Location: Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Kerala’s Palakkad district overlooking the plains of Mannarkkad (45 km). Western Ghats Silent Valley has Nilgiri and Nilambur forests to the north and Attapadi forests to the east.
Climate: The temperature shoots up to 30°C in summer. It can be very cold in winter when the temperature dips to as low as 8°C.
When to go: August to March is the main season but the best time to visit is November to February.
By air: The nearest airports are Coimbatore (74 km) and Kozhikode (92 km).
By rail: The nearest railhead is Palakkad Junction at Olavakode (60 km)
By road: Drive 40km from Palakkad to Mannarkad, pick up permissions at the Wildlife Warden’s Office and continue 20km to Mukkali, the park’s entrance. From Coimbatore, the route to Mukkali via Anaikatti is 65km while the access via Palakkad and Mannarkkad is 120km. Hop on any bus to Mannarkkad from the KSRTC bus stand on Shoranur Road in Palakkad (Ph 0491–252 7298, 252 0098).
Visitor Entry Fee: Indians Rs.35, Students Rs.25, Foreigners Rs.220
Vehicle Entry Fee: Jeep Rs.50, Mini Bus Rs.200
Camera Fee: Still Rs.25, Video Rs.200
Guide Fee: EDC Guide (Eco Development Committee) Rs.150, Honorary Guide (Forest Staff) Rs.250
Jeeps (for 6 people) can be hired from the Eco Development Committee at Mukkali to Sairandhri (23 km), for Rs.1000. All vehicles carrying visitors have to be accompanied by forest department guides.
For visitor bookings, contact
Office of the Wildlife Warden
Wildlife Division, Mannarkad
Palakkad 678 582
Ph 04924–222 056, 94473 73736
Asst. Wildlife Warden
Mukkali, Silent Valley National Park
Ph: 04924-253 225
Timings: 8 am to 12 pm
WHERE TO STAY
Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge
A beautiful jungle lodge in a 10-acre patch adjoining large tracts of forest and tribal hamlets offering thatched huts and a stunning 360 degree viewpoint. Have an enriched eco holiday with trekking, waterfall visits, rock climbing, birding, wildlife sighting, studies in tribal anthropology, hamlet visits, campfires and trips to Silent Valley National Park.
Ph 94465 72540, 94470 50701 www.malleeshwaram.com
Inspection Bungalow, Mukkali
Basic accommodation near the park entrance with three double rooms for Rs.600/day and two 8-bed dormitories at Rs.100/person, booked at the Wildlife Warden’s office in Mannarkad (Ph 04924–222 056). There are also two huts that can be booked at 04294-253 225 (Rs.1000 for stay, Rs.3000 full package for stay, food and trekking)
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Saevus Wildlife magazine.