Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve
Nowhere are elephants more visibly familial and vocal than here, where they gather—along with shaggy, near-sighted sloth bears, wild boars and many others—along the shores of Lake Periyar. They regularly hold long elephant conversations—trumpeting, bellowing, softly rumbling in sounds that can be startlingly humanlike—dust bathe, swim, discipline young ones, court, mate, and sling mud at one another.
Here too are endangered lion-tailed macaques with brilliant facial ruffs and tufted tails, troupes of 50 or so leaping through tall virgin forests or paddling across waterways, babies clinging to mothers’ backs.
Periyar is 300 square miles (777 km2) of marsh, rolling grasslands, and trees up to 130 feet (40 m) tall in moist forest corridors that are home to “flying” creatures of several species. Ornate “flying” snakes coil like springs and launch flattened bodies to glide long distances between treetops. Indian “flying” dragon lizards, arboreal for most of their lives, sail out on brilliant orange or yellow side-flap “wings.” “Flying” frogs “fly” by taking off and extending their toes, connected by wide webbing. “Flying” squirrels leap out on moonlit nights to stay airborne 300 yards (280 m) on furry flaps between front and hind legs.
Tigers retire to wooded thickets, digesting meals and awaiting victims, which might include a wild pig rooting through leaves, an unwary porcupine or more likely, a yearling sambar deer, smaller muntjac or barking deer, or still smaller mouse deer. Less likely prey are huge gaur, world’s largest wild cattle weighing a ton or more, or shy, rare, goatlike nilgiri tahrs.
Looking out for agile leopards in the trees are common and threatened nilgiri langur monkeys, bonnet macaques, and handsome Malabar giant squirrels, which like to eat while hanging precariously by their back feet.
Wild dogs, or dhole, signal one another with eerie whistles as they set out on a hunt. Otters and vivid kingfishers fish the shallows, ospreys in deeper places.
Flocks of great Indian hornbills whoosh by with orioles and racket-tailed drongos, to feed in blossoming and fruiting trees.
Perennial water source for all is the 10-square-mile (26-km2) reservoir formed by a dam built a century ago along the Periyar River.
Threats are from illegal timbering, overvisitation, overgrazing by domestic cattle which compete for fodder and can introduce disease, and poachers who sometimes, when unable to kill elephants easily, cruelly cripple them or hang live wires to electrocute them.
Boat is the only motorized transport. A tourist center arranges boat trips, jungle walks, and visits (daily or overnight) to watchtowers. Accommodations are available in forest rest houses and nearby hotels. Best times are drier months, February–April, when water is a special attractant for wildlife.