Nagarahole is a dream no matter the season. The air is cleaner here, fresher, full of possibilities. The earth is moist and holds memories of padded paws, of caked blood from kills past and present, of the dragging gait of the elephants that saunter through the forest trails unheeding of human presence. Nagarahole has character too; its dense depths are brimming with endangered, endemic wildlife and its edges provide shelter and resources to the hundreds of villages that pepper the landscape. This is a complex wilderness, one that is a matrix of wild and domestic, but one that is inherently wild and therefore, inherently unpredictable.
I know Nagarahole intimately, having traversed its depths and marked its edges during five months of immersive fieldwork in the Bandipur-Nagarahole landscape. And I have driven through this moist deciduous forest enough times to have collected a veritable album’s worth of wildlife photographs. The beauty of Nagarahole is that one can sense the presence of wildlife even as the forest appears empty. Villages crop up at the strangest points in the forest buffer zone and children run alongside the jeep cheering and waving. Some carry bundles of herbs to try and persuade motorists to stop and purchase them. The older men are more serious; a lifetime living alongside wildlife has added fine lines to their browned faces and given them a wary expression. Life is hard in and around the forest.
As we drove through Nagarahole, we often came across wildlife and brilliantly plumaged birds. Here are some of the marvellous species that call this forest home:
The Bengal Tiger:
A trip to Nagarahole is coveted due to the high density of tigers living within this park. Nearly 9 tigers roam over every 100 sq. km of this lush park that spreads over 643 sq. km in Kodagu and Mysuru districts. The tiger is the apex predator in this landscape, and its favoured prey includes gaur, sambar deer, chital, and wild boar. When hunting, they use a stalk-and-pounce technique much like the domestic cat; they approach the victim from the side or from behind until close enough to attack and grasp the prey’s throat with powerful jaws. They follow a “feast or famine” pattern of eating, with the ability to consume 18-40 kg meat at one time. Tigers are solitary animals, although cubs will accompany their mother until they are old enough to establish their own territories. A male tiger will keep a large territory that overlaps with the territories of multiple females to ensure successful breeding opportunities. The biggest threat to the tiger population in Nagarahole and other national parks within the Western Ghats landscape is that people reside within these parks, encroaching on the space and resources that this large cat needs in order to survive and proliferate.
This elusive spotted cat is the most ubiquitous big cat in India. In Nagarahole, leopards coexist with tigers and wild dogs (dholes), often overlapping in prey selection with the latter. In Gujarat, the leopard coexists with the Asiatic lion, and is found alongside the snow leopard up to 5,200 m above sea level. In Northeast India, it occupies overlapping habitat with its smaller cousin, the clouded leopard. With a less-bulky build than the tiger, the leopard seeks shelter in trees and is known to drag carcasses of kills into tall trees to avoid thievery by other predators and scavengers. This cat is an opportunistic hunter and solitary, except during the mating season. In 2015, the India leopard census recorded 1,129 leopards in Karnataka, making it the state with the second-highest leopard population after Madhya Pradesh. In Nagarahole, tigers often drive leopards to hunt closer to human settlements, making this cat a key player in human-wildlife conflict in villages along the forest edges. In India, the leopard’s biggest threat is poaching for its fur and internal organs.
The Asiatic Wild Dog (Dhole):
Made famous (or infamous, more accurately) by Rudyard Kipling’s Second Jungle Book short story titled “Red Dog,” the dhole is India’s least-understood wild canid. A hypercarnivore (an animal that solely consumes meat), the dhole is a gregarious animal, living in packs that can exceed 40 wild dogs. Unlike the big cats, the dhole is a diurnal hunter, targeting medium- and large-sized ungulates such as sambar deer and chital. Its hunting style is similar to that of the better-known African painted dog, with pack members spreading out and separating out a weaker individual from a herd of prey before cooperatively bringing it down. In Nagarahole, the dhole chiefly competes with the tiger and the leopard. Unlike wolves and domestic dogs, but like red foxes, the dhole produces an eerie whistling sound while communicating with other pack members. They do not howl or bark. As far as conflict with humans goes, dholes tend to avoid preying on cattle and there are no records of dholes attacking humans.
The Asian Elephant:
India’s National Heritage Animal is easily the largest species one can find in Nagarahole. On various occasions, I have stumbled across elephants bathing in the Nugu or Kabini backwaters or crossing forest roads with an ambling carelessness that belies their aggression towards cars or people that venture too close. Elephants consume up to 150 kg vegetation matter each day and are both grazers and browsers. They are also migratory, with ancient migration paths that they follow each year. Knowledge of these migration routes is passed down from generation to generation. However, due to the expansion of human settlements and agriculture, leading to habitat fragmentation and degradation, many ancient migration routes are no longer usable by these megaherbivores, leading to conflict between humans and elephants. Crop raiding is a common occurrence on the outskirts of Nagarahole given the number of villages dotting the boundaries of the forest. As elephants forage, they come across easily accessible croplands and can destroy entire fields in a single night. This leads to retaliation from distraught farmers, often ending in injury or death for man, elephant, or both.
Gaur (Indian Bison):
The gaur is the tallest wild cattle species in the world and the largest extant bovid in India. It is found in South and Southeast Asia, largely in evergreen or moist deciduous forests. The Western Ghats landscape, especially the Wayanad – Nagarahole – Mudumalai – Bandipur complex, is a stronghold for the species in India with approximately 2,000 individuals recorded in Nagarahole and Bandipur alone. Gaur are largely diurnal, though individuals in regions with high levels of human disturbance have turned nocturnal. Herds are led by a matriarch, much like elephants, while adult males are mostly solitary. Dominance among males is determined largely by size. The gaur is a massive species, with males recorded at over 800 kg and females averaging 700 kg. Both sexes have horns. Gaurs have few natural predators apart from tigers and adult saltwater crocodiles, although these predators typically target older or sickly gaurs or calves. Much like buffalo species around the world, when facing a predator, adult gaur will surround the young and the weak and defend them.
The Sloth Bear:
Old Baloo from The Jungle Book is quite at home in the forests of Nagarahole. Sloth bears are native to the Indian subcontinent and feed mainly on fruits, ants, and termites. They have long, shaggy fur and sickle-shaped claws. This is India’s most aggressive bear, known for rushing tigers and humans when provoked or chanced upon and startled. I have come across a chance occasion of a tiger killed by a sloth bear in Rajasthan. Asian elephants, surprisingly, are known to not tolerate sloth bears near their territories and will charge them if sighted. This is also seen with the Indian rhinoceros and sloth bears in Northeast India and Bengal. The sloth bear is also the famous (infamous?) dancing bear of India, with captive bears owned by Kalandars (the caste typically associated with training bears) performing for the entertainment of rulers and the British. A ban was enacted on this practice in 1972.
The Striped Hyena:
With the bite force to splinter a camel’s thigh bone, the striped hyena is highly adept at its job of cleaning up the remains of other carnivores’ kills. A shy, nocturnal creature, this is the smallest of the true hyenas and retains many viverrid characteristics. While it still chatters and howls much like the better-known spotted hyena of Africa, it is less vocal overall than its relative. The hyena is a misunderstood species, with people associating it with death and decay due to its unique feeding habits. However, this is a shy, unassuming animal, one that is known to wander with wolves peacefully in many parts of India and can coexist with a remarkable range of predators. Nagarahole, while not a stronghold for the striped hyena in India, does have a sizable hyena population, but these animals are rarely spotted during the daytime and are thus less-documented than Nagarahole’s more-charismatic fauna.
Nagarahole holds many jewels in the form of its flora and fauna. Tourists to this park are heavily attracted to the prospect of seeing one of the big three – the tiger, the leopard, and the elephant – and thus miss out on the teeming wildlife that can be found around each bend in the forest road. Gorgeous birds flutter from tree to tree, and one can easily spot a Crested Serpent Eagle perched regally on prominent branches in the forest. Woodpeckers, sunbirds, bee-eaters, Malabar whistling thrushes, and scarlet minivets brighten up the greens and browns of forest vegetation.
One can easily spot chital, India’s most beautiful deer species, grazing or resting in open patches of forest, and the Hanuman langurs that rest near them in a unique mutualistic relationship to avoid surprise attacks by predators. Jungle cats and leopard cats slink through the dense undergrowth, avoiding the human eye, hunting birds and small mammals. Mongooses and porcupines waddle about foraging for grubs and roots. The tiny, elusive mouse deer or chevrotain scurries unseen through the forest, and barking deer cry out in alarm when the safari bus suddenly startles them from their grazing. Sambar keep a sharp lookout for their nemesis, the tiger, and let out a sharp dhonk of alarm when that striped cat is scented on the air. Cream-and-purple Malabar giant squirrels hang by the tail from tree branches and feed voraciously on jackfruit in the canopy. And the world’s most exploited animal, the pangolin, seeks refuge in this emerald paradise on the banks of the Kabini River, a world relatively untouched by human greed and thus a last safe haunt for many of India’s endemic, endangered wildlife.
Nagarahole derives its name from the words naga meaning “snake” and hole meaning “streams” (the latter is a Kannada word). This fertile forest is watered by the graceful Kabini River, a tributary of the Kaveri, and hosts numerous lakes, tanks, and streams in its depths. By the Kabini backwaters, one can try to spot the famed black panther of Nagarahole and currently, a tigress and her three tiny cubs have made their home by the backwaters as well. Water is key to life in the Western Ghats, these monsoon mountains, and Nagarahole is an ecosystem in and of itself.