One of the largest national parks in India, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary occupies 777 square kilometres of the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats. The majority of its visitors come in the hope of seeing wild elephants – or even a rare glimpse of a tiger – grazing the shores of the reservoir at the heart of the reserve. Daily safari boats ferry hundreds of day-trippers around this sprawling, labyrinthine lake, where sightings are most likely at the height of the dry season in April. However, for the rest of the year, wildlife is less abundant than you might expect given Periyar’s overwhelming popularity.
Just a few hours by road from the Keralan coastal cities, and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, it ranks among India’s busiest reserves, attracting thousands of visitors over holiday periods. The park’s ageing infrastructure, however, has struggled to cope with the recent upsurge in numbers. Just how overburdened facilities had become was horribly revealed in September 2009 when an excursion boat capsized on the lake, killing 45 tourists. Since the so-called Thekkady disaster, strict restrictions have been imposed, but the lake safari experience hasn’t improved; most foreign visitors leave disappointed, not merely with the park, but also its heavily commercialized surroundings and apparent paucity of wildlife.
That said, if you’re prepared to trek into the forest, Periyar can still be worth a stay. Elephant, sambar, Malabar giant squirrel, gaur, stripe-necked mongoose and wild boar are still commonly spotted in areas deeper into the park, where birdlife is also prolific. Another selling point is Periyar’s much vaunted eco-tourism initiative. Instead of earning their livelihoods through poaching and illegal sandalwood extraction, local Manna people are these days employed by the Forest Department to protect vulnerable parts of the sanctuary. Schemes such as “Border Hiking”, “Tiger Trail” and “Jungle Patrol” tours, in which visitors accompany tribal wardens on their duties, serve to promote community welfare and generate income for conservation work.
In addition, the area around Periyar holds plenty of engaging day-trip destinations, such as spice plantations and an elephant camp, as well as lots of scope for trekking in the surrounding hills and forest. It’s also a lot cooler up here than down on the more humid coast, and many foreign visitors are glad of the break from the heat.