Vishal, a ranger in the Periyar National Park, is patrolling a tourist boat heading out onto Periyar Lake early in the morning. As he struts, he announces tiger facts to an increasingly confused audience. He starts each of his proclamations with a demand for our “kind attention”. Vishal has a neatly pressed olive-green uniform, a serious countenance and a black moustache so impenetrable it looks like it could deflect bullets.
“Your kind attention,” Vishal repeats, walking between the rows of seated passengers as the boat putters away from its jetty. “We have around 40 tigers here. Very strong animals. Many bison, too. No giraffes.” His final remark seems something of an afterthought: “You’ll only find giraffes in Africa. And Australia.” At this news, he certainly has my attention. “But tigers, yes, we have many. Tigers are only found here in Asia. And in South America,” he continues, incorrect again, before closing with some eyebrow-raising bragging on the felines’ behalf. “Bengal tigers are very strong — stronger than six lions,” he says. “Tigers can kill elephants, no problem.”
I don’t think Vishal wishes to mislead us, more that he’s innocently indulging in a bit of hyperbole to emphasise a point: this is tiger country and tigers aren’t to be trifled with. I’m less clear about why he mentioned the giraffes, but he speaks with such authority that no one in our small group has the guts to press him.
This much is true, however: Periyar National Park and its namesake lake lie in the highlands of Kerala, a winding five-hour drive east from the state capital of Kochi, through seemingly endless corridors of tea plantations and spice gardens. Established in 1982, the park’s status as a tourism destination, much like the wider state’s, is slowly growing, both domestically and internationally. Not that it’s possible to tell from looking at it, but the huge lake is actually man-made, dating back to 1895 when the ruling British erected the Mullaperiyar Dam, quite accidentally creating an Edenic wildlife sanctuary.
Vishal boat is one of three double-decker, park operated vessels heading off shortly after dawn in search of wildlife along the lake’s shores. “The mornings are very cold,” says Vishal, which, unlike some of his pronouncements about wildlife, is correct. “Maybe the mammals will wait until afternoon to get warm before moving,” he adds, stamping his feet. I suspect Vishal is insuring himself against the possibility of us seeing nothing during the excursion. Tigers have spent 200,000 years evolving to go unseen, and while they have been spotted from these noisy boats, sightings are incredibly rare. We’ve a much more realistic chance of spotting gaur (a wild cattle species), Asian elephants and wild dogs.
These cruises leave every morning throughout the tourist season, which starts in October and runs until June, when the monsoon makes the journey far less appealing. For the past two years, flooding (particularly severe in 2018) has meant that park has been off-limits to visitors.
In real life, the lake looks less artificial than it does on a map, its waters spreading into valleys like insidious fingers. But despite having been here for 125 years, it’s yet to erode certain vestiges of the former landscape. As we move south along one of these watery digits, our route seems to be marked by huge stakes. Initially, I think they’re markers to show boat captains which channels are shallow enough to navigate, but I soon see that they’re actually the remnants of dead trees, long since drowned by this unnatural body of water.
Indian cormorants, river terns and grey-headed fish eagles are among the species using them as perches from which to launch sorties into the water. Behind them, jungle stretches up hills and to the horizon, disappearing into the blue sky. Up here, far from the more polluted coastal areas, the sky really is blue, and most of the plants are so perfectly formed and bombastically green as to appear shop-bought. The animals clearly appreciate the conditions. Over the hour or so we’re out on the lake, we see healthy herds of gaur lumbering around the shoreline and a wild boar nervously peering through the scrub.
Later, on a nature walk beginning at the Periyar Nature Interpretation Centre — now led by a more measured guide, Subhash — I come face to face with a cranky looking gaur, almost get urinated on by a Nilgiri langur and see a small herd of sambar deer flitting though the jungle-like wraiths. Just as we begin to turn for home, we also stumble across a family of Asian elephants casually crashing through the undergrowth, apparently not in the least concerned by Vishal’s gossip that superstrength tigers are plotting to assassinate them.
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