One of the largest national parks in India, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (also known as the Periyar Tiger Reserve) occupies 925 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 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, Periyar 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 that 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 ecotourism 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 Scout” 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, 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.
Kumily has accommodation to suit all pockets, with a number of small homestay guesthouses on the fringes of the village offering particularly good value; the three KTDC-run hotels inside the park are either ludicrously expensive or shabby, or both. The forest department has a decent campsite, just beyond Vallakkadavu checkpoint; they also offer camping inside the park on their “Tiger Trail” trek (contact the ecotourism centre).
As beds inside the wildlife sanctuary are in short supply, most visitors to Periyar stay in nearby Kumily, a typical High Range town, centred on a hectic roadside market, 1km or so north of the main park entrance (known as Thekkady). Hotels and Kashmiri handicrafts emporia have spread south from the bazaar to within a stone’s throw of the park, and tourism now rivals the spice trade as the area’s main source of income. That said, you’ll still see plenty of little shops selling local herbs, essential oils and cooking spices, while in the busy cardamom sorting yard behind the Spice Village resort, rows of Manna women sift through heaps of fragrant green pods using heart-shaped baskets.
Centred on a vast artificial lake created by the British in 1895 to supply water to the drier parts of neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary lies at altitudes of between 900m and 1800m, and is correspondingly cool: temperatures range from 15°C to 30°C. The royal family of Travancore, anxious to preserve favourite hunting grounds from the encroachment of tea plantations, declared it a forest reserve, and built the Edapalayam Lake Palace to accommodate their guests in 1899.
Seventy percent of the protected area, which is divided into core, buffer and tourist zones, is covered with evergreen and semi-evergreen forest. The tourist zone – logically enough, the part accessible to casual visitors – surrounds the lake, and consists mostly of semi-evergreen and deciduous woodland interspersed with grassland, both on hilltops and in the valleys. Although excursions on the lake (either by diesel-powered launch or paddle-powered bamboo raft) are the standard ways to experience the park, you can get much more out of a visit by walking with a local guide in a small group away from the crowd. However, avoid the period immediately after the monsoons, when leeches make hiking virtually impossible. The best time to visit is between December and April, when the dry weather draws animals from the forest to drink at the lakeside.
By far the best option for wildlife viewing from the lake is to sign up for one of the Forest Department’s excellent bamboo rafting trips, which start with a short hike from the boat jetty at 8am, with the half-day trip returning at 2pm and the full-day option at 5pm. The rafts carry four or five people and, because they’re paddled rather than motor-driven, can approach the lakeshore in silence, allowing you to get closer to the grazing animals and birds. Tickets cost ₹2000 per person for a full day and may be booked in advance from the ecotourism centre on Ambadi Junction. Note that during busy periods places sell out quickly, so reserve as far ahead as possible.
Although boat tours are considerably less expensive than the bamboo rafting trips, they can come as a disappointment. It’s unusual to see many animals – engine noise and the presence of dozens of other people make sure of that. To maximize your chances of sighting elephants, wild boar or sambar grazing by the water’s edge, take the 7.30am service (for which you’ll need to wear warm clothing in winter).
Trips are run by the Forest Department and KTDC and depart at the same times (7.30am, 9.30am, 11.15am, 1.45pm & 3.30pm; ₹250). Since the 2009 Thekkady disaster, however, only twenty people are permitted to travel on the upper decks and tickets sell out very fast; you’ll need to be at the lakeside at least two hours before the scheduled departure time (or 1hr 30min for the 7.30am boat) or book online in advance. Sales counters are just above the main visitor centre, next to the boat jetty; the Forest Department will issue two seats per person. You’ll need to fill in an indemnity form, and wear a life-jacket at all times.
Although you can – leeches permitting – trek freely around the fringes of Periyar, access to the sanctuary itself on foot is strictly controlled by the Forest Department. Their community-based ecotourism programme offers a variety of structured walking tours, ranging from short rambles to three-day expeditions, all guided by local Manna tribal wardens. Tickets should be booked in advance from the ecotourism centre on Ambadi Junction (see below), where you can also pick up information on the trips.
Top image: Touristic boat on the lake in the Periyar National Park, India © aaabbbccc/Shutterstock