Vazhachal is a small rainforest-clad region in Kerala located near the Anamalai hills. It forms a contiguous stretch of forest extending almost 2400 sq. km. through Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary to the north and thereafter through Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Eravikulam National Park. It is among the last wild habitats in Kerala where all manner of wildlife can still be observed despite not coming under the ambit of Protected Areas. Vazhachal can be approached by the Anamalai road either from the little town of Valparai in Tamil Nadu or from the city of Chalakudy in Kerala. The former approach passes through scenic terrain and dense rainforests teeming with elephants while the habitat along the latter stretch is largely degraded and full of settlements and plantations. Traffic along the 65 km Valparai approach of the Anamalai road is restricted to a few buses and Forest Department vehicles with the occasional tourist cars and bikes. I have had the opportunity to traverse this stretch several times and never have I failed to sight some interesting wildlife.
I first visited Vazhachal in February 2008 with some of our Western Ghats research team comprising Raghunath and Drs. A.J.T. Johnsingh and M.D. Madhusudan. We approached from Chalakudy and reached the Forest Rest House near the Athirapally falls by late afternoon. The Chalakudy river negotiates big rocks at Athirapally and cascades down in three big plumes. This water then rushes down in a torrent just outside the rest house before continuing its journey through the Vazhachal forests. Even inside the rest house, the muffled roar of the water is always audible. We were surveying the Parambikulam – Vazhachal region to assess the status of the habitat for large mammals. The next day we intended to drive to Valparai but in the interim, we decided that it would be worth taking a short night drive to see if we could spot some wildlife. Soon after we left the falls, we ran into a herd of four elephants with a small calf. Startled by the sudden appearance of our headlights, the pachyderms were decidedly nervous, pondering whether to cross the road or bide their time, their jerky movements and staccato trumpeting reflecting their mood. Vinod, the Forest Guard who had been assigned to accompany us, muttered nervously as we crawled forward. Without warning, a lone motorcyclist came around a bend from the opposite direction and, unaware of the danger lurking a few feet away, passed within arm’s length of the herd. The elephants appeared taken aback which is probably why they did not react. As one of us used a flashgun, the elephants started in alarm, making Vinod mumble frenziedly, convinced of an imminent fatal charge. The matriarch moved towards us truculently while the others closed protectively around the calf. We were forced to reverse the vehicle around 300 m, where we switched off the headlights and watched in silence for a quarter of an hour as the herd crossed in the moonlight.
Along this road to Vazhachal, there is hardly a spot where elephant signs are not visible. They are everywhere in the form of fresh and old dung, strips of bark ripped off tree trunks, broken and twisted reed culms and occasionally, the strong unmistakable smell of elephants close at hand albeit out of sight. On several occasions, I have been stopped by nervous bikers, inquiring about the presence of elephants on the road I had just passed through. Nilgiri langurs are also ubiquitous along this stretch of forest, the silence being frequently punctuated by their joyous whoomps. At any point along the route, if one waits a while in silence, there is a fair chance that one will spot a troop feeding or cavorting in the canopy. The Vazhachal forests are also rich in hornbills, with all four species of peninsular India, the Malabar grey, Indian grey, Malabar pied and great hornbills reportedly occurring. Other than the Indian grey hornbill, I have had quite a few sightings of each of the other three species in these forests. The resonating calls and booming wing beats of great hornbills are also frequently audible here. I remember one evening drive being particularly fruitful, when we saw seven Nilgiri langur troops and a solitary great hornbill before dusk and 13 sambar, a porcupine, two sloth bears and two leopards by the time we reached the rest house at around 8:00 PM. I have also seen the southern birdwing, India’s largest butterfly species, here.
Once when going to a tribal settlement located near this road, I came across a group of Kadar tribals accompanied by around 20 dogs of all sizes, colours and ages. This was obviously a hunting party. The tribesmen initially denied that they were out on a hunt but under friendly questioning aided by copious quantities of biscuits and peanut candy, finally admitted that they would catch small animals such as monitor lizards, hares and mouse deer if they chanced upon them. Without a doubt, such a large pack of dogs would have had no problem in bringing down even large-bodied species such as the sambar. Hunting is a major threat for wildlife in Kerala and has resulted in the “empty forest” syndrome in many parts of the state where habitat exists but wildlife populations have largely been decimated. Although the tribal population may be hunting in a more sustainable manner by meeting only their immediate consumption needs, it is a moot point as to whether the same can be said of the local settlers who have immigrated from other parts of Kerala and from neighbouring Tamil Nadu to take up residence in and around these forests.
Regrettably, the continued existence of this road in its present state has been jeopardized by a proposal for its widening and upgradation into a National Highway connecting Pollachi in Tamil Nadu with Chalakudy. It does not need much imagination to think of the disastrous consequences of increased traffic volumes and associated human activities on this pristine habitat and its fauna. However, the most serious threat to the existence of the Vazhachal forests is the Athirapally Hydroelectric Project, a 163 megawatt project that was proposed by the Kerala State Electricity Board in 1994. The Government of Kerala is proceeding with this proposal to build a dam five kilometres upstream of the Athirapally falls and 400 m upstream of the Vazhachal rapids at a cost of Rs. 675 crore. However, environmental groups have opposed the project on grounds that the dam will require the diversion of forest land, elephant corridors will be cut off, the picturesque Athirapally waterfalls may eventually fade into insignificance, people downstream of the dam may not get enough drinking water and the composition of the fish fauna of the Chalakudy river will be altered. The Athirapally area recently came into prominence with the discovery of Lagenandra nairii, a new species of fish. Besides, Gymnema khandalense, a rare medicinal plant earlier thought to be restricted to the Sahayadri region of the northern Western Ghats, reportedly occurs here. The Athirapally River Forum, supported by other NGOs, has filed a petition against the construction of this dam in the Kerala High Court. Over harvesting of reeds (Ochlandra sp.) to the tune of 200 metric tonnes annually, human encroachments of forest land, penstock pipelines disrupting connectivity for terrestrial mammals and high-tension powerlines disrupting canopy contiguity for arboreal mammals are some of the other threats to the forests of Vazhachal.
Much of the Vazhachal forests are due to be added as a buffer to the proposed Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. This is certainly a blessing since only its inclusion as a Critical Tiger Habitat will prevent the exploitation of these forests, a very important stretch for the movement of elephants and also among the best established breeding habitats for Malabar pied and great hornbills in the Western Ghats. However, much time has passed and the final notification of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve is still pending owing to ongoing boundary disputes and negotiations. In the interest of conservation, it is imperative that a decision be reached soon.
On a humorous note, I was once unable to procure a room in one of the rest houses in Vazhachal due to tourist bookings and was forced to spend a night in a Forest Department dormitory. Although the rest houses are well maintained, the same cannot be said of the dormitories which have fallen into a state of disrepair and resemble haunted buildings. Fortunately, I was accompanied by Sasi, my trusty field assistant, that night. We retired early after a simple dinner at a local stall. The rooms were stuffy, there was no electricity and the musty mattresses were riddled with gaping holes and crawling with bedbugs. We dragged a couple of the relatively better-looking mattresses onto the verandah, closed the collapsible gate in case an elephant or a leopard decided to pay a visit and dozed off. Sometime later, I was woken by a sensation of something nibbling at my toes. A flash of my torch revealed a large black rat. My yell of disgust awoke Sasi, who started shouting frantically from the other end of the verandah, certain that something was attacking me. We did not sleep thereafter, and spent the rest of the night swatting bedbugs and watching out for rats. At daybreak we hit the road again with alacrity, the invigorating air refreshing us within a few minutes.