Down the Dandeli road in northern Karnataka

A lesser-known part of the Western Ghats in North Karnataka, that has been an adventure travellers’ escape, today needs more responsible visitors
Leopard peers through the thick foliage: Photograph Courtesy | Joydeep Mondal
Leopard peers through the thick foliage: Photograph Courtesy | Joydeep Mondal

The morning mist lifts as we meander along the road lined with tall teak trees. The beauty of the Western Ghats magnifies in the morning sun trying to pierce through the thick foliage. Suddenly at a sharp bend, a shadow jumps onto the road forcing us to hit the brakes. A female leopard and her cub stare at us with wonder. In a split moment, both of them turn back and jump up the ridge on the other side, their rosettes shining in the golden light.

We are in Dandeli, a pristine patch of wilderness in north Karnataka. The roads pass through the Kali Tiger Reserve and Anshi National Park. Together, they form the second largest forest in the state, home to thousands of birds, including the fabled hornbills and an array of mammals such as tigers, leopards and the widely sought-after black panther (melanistic leopard). Wildlife enthusiasts, especially birders, frequent this small town to get away from the humdrum of city life.

As we return to our resort, ecstatic after the morning, another surprise waits. The premises has somehow turned into a discordant affair that goes on well into the evening. Hordes of people gather at the starting point of rafting which happen to be our abode for the weekend. This erstwhile quaint town built for lumbering in the British era is now a hotspot for adventure sports, including white water rafting, ziplining, mountain treks and more. One of the many ways to enjoy the beauty of the Western Ghats undoubtedly, but a rackety commotion nonetheless.

With this newfound popularity comes thrillseekers from far and wide, for a weekend getaway or a family vacation to enjoy the pleasant hill station-like climate. In peak season, scenes of parties at every other bend of the river, or bonfires and picnics in an untrodden path of the forest are common. It poses a serious threat to the denizens that call Dandeli home. The call of the hornbills for a mate gets drowned in the ecstatic screams of people as they raft down the rapids, and the animals waiting to cross the highway to get to the backwaters of the Supa Dam are often at the mercy of a speeding vehicle.

Occasional merrymakers intoxicated in a surge of adrenaline mixed with alcohol venture deep within the forest for an exalting thrill. Local resident Vishnumurthy Shanbagh has encountered wildlife within and well outside the protected safari routes. “Considering the leopard population in the 1,365 sq km of forest, I have been lucky to witness a few. I have actually spotted more animals on the road while travelling than on safari,” shares the wildlife photographer with concern.

With a Rs 15-crore yearly grant from the ‘Save The Tiger’ project, the forest department here is doing a decent job of protection. But conservation comes at a cost, and humans are allowed to make a ‘yatra’ during Shivratri to the famed Kavala Cave Temple to worship and offer prayers. All this together makes the case for better protection of the uniquely rich biodiversity of the region and its residents.
“For tourists, it is all about the thrill of water sports and adventure when here. The number of curious and conscious travellers is increasing, which is a good sign,” signs off Shanbagh.

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