Umayar is a beautiful location at the eastern corner of the Thenmala reservoir, within Shendurney wildlife sanctuary (beautiful photos here). Like other reservoirs it is a great place to sit and watch elephants, as they come down to drink from the almost impenetrable reed (Ochlandra Sp.) filled semi-evergreen forests around. I visited Umayar a few times while doing my PhD research and always enjoyed it. Note: tourists are not allowed there because of the remoteness and the danger, and it’s a part of the sanctuary core to be left as undisturbed as possible.
The Kerala Forest Department has a small anti-poaching shed here, which was set up with great difficulty because elephants would keep coming and pulling off its roof! Things were particularly difficult in the monsoon. They finally managed to build a wide enough elephant trench (and a rubble wall) around it, and now the elephants can only stare longingly at the roof and dream about pulling it down.
The journey to Umayar involves a 2 hour, truly bone-jarring ride on a 4WD jeep from the nearest highway, followed by a 2.5 hour trek along the edge of the reservoir. You pass through places like the aptly named ‘Anachandai’ (elephant market) – because its so crowded with elephants. When you look up, one of the mountains is called ‘Ratta mala’ (blood mountain) and the one behind it is called ‘Shava kattu theri’ (graveyard mountain). If you get charged by an elephant, then you need to quickly drop the 25 kg of rice, dal and camera traps that you are carrying, and make a quick run for it.
The funniest experience I had was once when we had to take a painfully circuitous route to avoid a herd of elephants standing on the path. We circumvented them and came down back to the path, hands full of reed splinters but congratulating ourselves on avoiding a confrontation. We then realized that the two large rocks partly hidden by reeds about 5m in front of us were gently swaying, and there seemed to be some localised thunder. It took a couple of seconds to convince our brains that these were elephants and we were hearing their stomachs rumbling (or their warning rumbles). We turned around with superhuman agility, but the elephants were even quicker. They realized that they had been spotted, and ran at full speed – in the opposite direction from us. Later of course we all accused each other of being the wimp that started running first.
Once you get to Umayar, you are treated to a beautiful view of the reservoir, with lots of terns flying around. If it is summer, then you start hearing the elephants coming down the mountain slopes by around 3pm, breaking the reeds on the way. It is interesting to see how careful they are about actually leaving cover and coming down to the shore (about 150m from the forest edge). They are especially vigilant if they have calves, and they will often spend an hour or more, right at the edge of the forest, sniffing the air with their upraised trunks, before they decide to cross this open area. And of course they always make sure the calves are in the middle and well protected.
The surrounding areas are some of the most important parts of Shendurney, for the protection of a wide range of species from amphibians to tigers. Twice, tigers have walked right by camp at night without us knowing. But this is not just about conserving biodiversity – its also about human well being. The forest pays back the protection given to it many times over: by ensuring a clean, steady supply of water from the mountains to Kollam district in Kerala and Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. It is both impressive and essential that areas such as this still exist in a country as crowded as India.