National Parks and Sanctuaries : Kodaikanal


The Palnis (or Pulneys) are a north-eastern spur of the Western Ghat range south of the Palghat Gap all of which fall within the western border of Tamil Nadu State, southern India. These hills rise steeply from the plains at about 300 m to over 2000 meters.

Once a prime wilderness of jungle, grassland and shoal, the Palnis were opened up to commercial exploitation with the arrival of the British in the mid-19th Century. The open grassland of the upper reaches began to be planted with exotic monocultures of eucalyptus, wattle and pine and the ecology of the Palnis was altered forever.

The rich biotic wealth of the Palnis has long been recognized although overshadowed by the commercial compulsions that permeated the imperial Raj mindset. In 1906 the first proper Reserve Forest was created and presently the notification of a 736 sq. kms wildlife sanctuary (out of a total area of 2068 sq. kms.) is awaited.

The earliest known human inhabitants of these hills were an enigmatic megalithic people who have left their mark in the form of dolmens on the slopes of the middle and lower Palni Hills. These people were followed by tribal groups known as the Paliyans and the Puliyans and finally by British colonists, American missionaries and Indians from the plains.

Despite the prevalence of exotic flora the Palnis are home to a variety of animals such as gaur, sambar, leopard, wild dog, muntjac and several smaller mammals. The birdlife is also abundant comprising of over 200 species and the area is particularly rich in reptiles and amphibians several of which are endemic like the uropeltid snakes. The insect life is also extremely rich. Although the original shoal forests have been drastically reduced in extent, their importance in the local ecosystem and as important gene banks have been recognized and protection is now stringent.

The Palnis are amongst the most enjoyable and instructive places for the outdoorsman to visit in southern India.

Situated on the middle-western border of Tamil Nadu, the Palni Hills are an East-west running off shoot of the Western Ghats which, in their highest areas meet the political borders of Kerala State east of Munnar.

The earliest known human inhabitants of the Palni Hills were apparently a stone-lifting race whose relics transport us back into the mists of unrecorded history perhaps thousands of years before Christ. These people built shelters and enclosures of great slabs of rock in the lower elevations of the Palnis. Some of these cromlechs or dolmens were arranged in circles on the hill-slopes and some had underground chambers which may have been tombs. Interestingly these dolmens were erected only in the Middle and Lower Palnis and are absent in the upper areas. Many have been damaged over the course of time, while large numbers were broken up and used for the construction of Law's Ghat Road when it was being laid in the early years of the 1900's. A few structures still remain amidst the engulfing jungle, mute testimonials to the skills of a little-known people that inhabited these hills in a dim and distant past.

From this megalithic period we come to the era of the Paliyan and Puliyan tribals-aboriginal hunter-gatherers who inhabited the hills for millennia. Colonies of these tribals still inhabit the Lower Palnis, though modern influences have changed their life-style and outlook.

The first recorded visit of a European to the Palnis was that of Lieutenant Ward, an English officer who was sent by Government to survey the "Vurragherry" mountains (the Sanskrit name for the Palnis was Varahagiri) in 1821. In 1845 American missionaries from Madurai explored the summit of that part of the massif directly overlooking the Periyakulam district and built two shacks at the edge of a belt of dense shola growing on the eastern slopes of a marshy basin. Thus the settlement of Kodaikanal was born. As Western occupation gradually expanded in that locality, the Forest Department of the erstwhile British Government took charge of Kodaikanal, and later made 210 sq. miles of the Palnis a forest reserve. As far back as 1870 a plantation of blue gum (eucalyptus) and Australian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) was created "in order to provide Kodaikanal with firewood and save from destruction the fine shola after which it is named." These were the beginnings of the transformation of the plateau into its present temperate woodland character.

By the turn of the century, the jungle and wilderness with its wild denizens were pushed further and further back to the far end of the range. However, in 1906 four Forest ranges of the Upper Palnis were consolidated and gazetted by the British Government as a single Reserve Forest, namely Ampthill Downs R.F. The word "Downs" suggests that the bulk of the reserve consisted of grassland in those days. Ampthill Downs today totals 14,570 hectares (36,000 acres) of forest land and is the largest Reserve Forest division in the whole of the Palni Hills. The core of the proposed Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary awaiting government notification would be located within the Downs.

Despite the 1906 notification conversion of habitat and hunting of wildlife continued unabated either as official policy or illegally until the late 1980's when regulations began to be applied strictly partly as a response to lobbying by conservationists and also on account of environmental awareness seeping into the body politic. Today, bison sightings are becoming increasingly frequent even on the outskirts of Kodaikanal township.

Present day Forest Department policy is to protect what little evergreen plateau forests remain and there is a move to declare 736 sq. kms. of the Palnis-which also include extensive tracts of wattle, eucalyptus and pine-as a wildlife reserve. The proposal is pending clearance.

Present day Forest Department policy is to protect what little evergreen plateau forests remain and there is a move to declare 736 sq. kms. of the Palnis-which also include extensive tracts of wattle, eucalyptus and pine-as a wildlife reserve. The proposal is pending clearance.

The main water body within the proposed sanctuary area is Berijam Lake, a dammed reservoir with a water-spread of 0.4 sq. kms., located 24 kms. southwest of the popular hill resort of Kodaikanal. Much of the gaur and other wildlife concentrations of the plateau are to be found in the vicinity of this lake.
Area:736 sq. kms
Latitude: 10°12’ - 10°15’N
Longitude: 77°26’ - 77°33’E
Altitude: Varies. Vandaravu peak by the Kerala border is the highest point, at 2,550 m. above m.s.l., and the base of the foot-hills averages about 360 m. above m.s.l.

The Palni Hills are an eastern offshoot of the Western Ghats, radiating from the “Cardamom Hills” south of the Palghat Gap. This spur is aligned on an east-west axis with a length of 65 kms. and a maximum north-south width of 40 kms. The whole of the Palnis fall within the western border of Tamil Nadu State in southern India.

From the plains of Tamil Nadu, these hills rise in steep escarpments to a high undulating plateau, much of which lies above 2,000 metres. The Palni Hills derive their name from the temple town of Palani lying at the northern base of the hills. The original British spelling "P-a-l-n-i" has been retained in modern usage when referring to the hill range, to differentiate it from the Palani Temple Hills, which are situated within the precincts of Palani town.

The total area of the Palnis is 2,068 sq. kms. The Palni Hills can be divided into two distinct geographical zones-the Lower Palnis (up to 1500 m. altitude), and the Upper Palnis (above 1500 m. altitude). A deep ravine (at its highest point called the Neutral Saddle) running north-south separates the Lower Palnis (area 1,683 sq. kms.) in the east from the Upper Palnis (area 385 sq. kms.) in the west where they join with the main body of the Western Ghats near Munnar in Kerala State.

Climate varies over the range, but much of the plateau receives an average of more than 1500 mm. of rainfall annually, with no more than four dry months. In the higher areas mean day temperatures in the coolest months are below 17°C.

The temperature of Kodaikanal is quasi-temperate, with summer (April-May) temperatures touching 24°C. max. during the day and 13°C. min. at night. Winter (December-January) temperatures hover between 16°C. max. and 7°C. min.

Rainfall: Rainfall is well distributed throughout the year, with an average precipitation of 1300 mm. annually.

The Lower Palnis have largely been converted into plantations of coffee, cardamon and fruit orchards such as orange, banana, jack etc., with the original forest vegetation confined to patches and pockets. At the lowest levels the natural vegetation consists of scrub jungle which remains intact. Over much of the Palni plateau the natural vegetation was primarily short-grass montane savannah, often dotted with small trees of rhododendron interspersed with forest patches largely restricted to sheltered valleys on well-drained soils. Since the opening up of the Palni Hills in the 1850's large areas of the plateau have been planted with exotic 'commercial' mono-cultures consisting of species such as eucalyptus and wattle are maintained by the Forest Department to meet the needs of the pulp wood and leather tanning industries. Today many of the remaining tracts of savannah are being ploughed for vegetable cultivation.

The surviving natural evergreen forests of the upper elevations of the Palnis are divided into two main types-ridge forests and sholas. Both types survive only in small patches on the plateau and ridge forests are particularly scarce. Although forest disappearance seems to have been a long-term process, in action for thousands of years, a certain amount of shola has been felled within recent times.

Three distinct altitudinally delineated bands of vegetation are found in the Lower Palnis. From 300 m. at the base of the foot-hills up to about 800 m. where the thorn scrub jungle of the lower elevations gives way to small trees such as Cochlospermum and Givotia. From 800 m. the dry deciduous belt begins. The trees found here are Alstonia, Pterocarpus, Terminalia etc. From 1300 to 1700 m. dry evergreen forests with Alseodaphne, Alstonia, Celtis, Dimocarpus and others are found. A savannah zone of tall grasses may be noted towards the higher reaches of this tier.

The original vegetation of the undulating plateau used to be short grass downs interspersed with shola in the folds and valleys. At present almost all the grasslands of this altitude level have been replaced by temperate exotic tree cover such as wattle (Acacia mearnsii), blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) and pine (Pinus patula), with the grasslands restricted to marshy valleys. The last vestige of the original downs in all their pristine splendour can be seen in the extensive rolling meadows by Kookal Cliffs.

Sholas are isolated patches of dense jungle, greatly varied in species composition and size. The trees are characteristically stunted in height compared to the rain forest specimens found at lower elevations with the canopy generally at about 15 metres above ground level. Sholas usually have streams running through them and a typical patch would contain dominant genera of trees such as Ilex (3), Elaeocarpus (3), Syzygium (3), Turpinia, Meliosma (2) and Michelia. The figure in brackets indicates the number of species in each genus. Two species of the giant tree-fern Cyathea with umbrella-like foliage also deserve special mention as they are peculiar to the montane rain forests of the Western Ghats.


Indian Bison or Gaur (Bos gaurus) are the most striking and commonly sighted of the large mammals of the plateau. Hikes into likely habitats enhance the likelihood of seeing these majestic wild bovines. Animals ranging in number from muscular solitary bulls, trios and small family groups to large herds comprising 15-20 individuals of all sizes and age are present.

Sambar deer (Cervus unicolor) being more secretive in their habits are not as visible but are present in numbers.Barking Deer or Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) are also found here. Predators include the Asian Wild Dog or Dhole (Cuon alpinus) and the elusive Leopard (Panthera pardus). The moment of truth for an unfortunate Sambar often arrives in the form of the relentless Dhole cornering them in the cold waters of Berijam or Kookal Lake, witnessed by the resident staff and other locals. Wild Pig (Sus scrofa) and Porcupine (Hystrix indica) are abundant throughout the range.

Scattered herds of Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) have taken refuge in the lonely stretch of precipitous slopes and crags forming the natural ramparts of the Palni massif which runs roughly east-west from south of Berijam to Vandaravu on the Kerala border. There are also a few of these endangered mountain goats present in the Kookal Cliffs.Nilgiri Langur (Presbytis johni) are holding their own in most of the remote sholas around Berijam, and the presence of at least one troop has been confirmed in the Kookal Shola. Malabar Giant Squirrels (Ratufa indica maxima) are common in this shola as in most others.

The rare Grizzled Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura) is found at lower elevations by the Kudharayar River, north of Kookal, which is also the haunt of Sloth Bears (Melursus ursinus).The slopes of Manjampatti valley in the wilderness west of Kookal village are Elephant (Elephas maximus) stamping grounds. However, their presence on the plateau is at present migratory in nature. The summer months especially witness some elephant movement on the table-land. Common Otters (Lutra lutra nair), Jungle Cats (Felis chaus), Leopard Cats (Felis bengalensis), Stripe-necked Mongooses (Herpestes vitticollis) and others are among the smaller mammals resident in the hills.
There are about 200 species of birds in the Palnis, many of them being endemic to the Western Ghats. Among the raptors common to these hills are the Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malayensis), Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) and Great Horned Owl (Bubo bubo bengalensis). Different altitudes support different avifauna with species such as Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus kundoo), Purple-rumped Sunbirds (Nectarinia zeylonica), Paradise Flycatchers(Terpsiphone paradisi), Bee-eaters (Merops sp.)and so on being found at the lower elevations.

Recently, a student group out on a field visit recorded the following species during the course of a day of bird-watching in the Kookal region of the Upper Palnis:

White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosa),Grey-breasted (Palni )Laughing Thrush (Garrulax jerdoni fairbanki)Indian Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus horsfieldii),Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (Sitta frontalis),Large Green Barbet (Megalaima zeylanica),Nilgiri Flycatcher (Muscicapa albicaudata), Mountain (Maroon-backed) Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia), Grey Wagtail (Motacilla caspica), Pied Bush-chat (Saxicola caprata), Great (Grey)Tit (Parus major), Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis),Common Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Little Grebe (Podiceps ruficollis), Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), Large Coucal (Crow Pheasant) (Centropus sinensis), Long-Taiked (Rufous-backed) Shrike (Lanius schach) and White-browed (Large Pied) Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis).
Reptiles and amphibians are represented by about 100 species of snakes, 35 lizards and about 25 varieties of frogs and toads. Horsefield's Lizard (Salea anamallayana) which is a species of crested lizard endemic to the upper elevations of the Anamalais, Palnis and Nilgiris, is a common inhabitant here. Among the snakes are several species of the peculiar burrowers or shield-tails, the endemic ones being Wall's Shield-tail (Brachyophidium rhodogaster) and Palni Shield-tail (Uropeltis pulneyensis). The venomous Russell's Viper (Vipera russellii) and the 2-metre long Rat Snake (Ptyas mucosus) are sometimes encountered on the heights of the plateau and their colonization of these parts is supposedly of recent origin. The Large-scaled Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis), whose venom is mildly toxic, is another resident reptile of the Upper Palnis. Recently a new species of snake was discovered in Tiger Shola. The Krait (Bungarus caeruleus) and the Saw-scaled Viper (Echis carinatus) are found in the lower reaches.
Butterflies, moths and other insects
Stick insects over 30 cm. in length, giant spiders that compete in size with the largest in the world and a vast collection of diverse life-forms in the sholas, many of which may not even have been described by science, await the entomology enthusiast. 226 species of butterflies and over 250 of moths, comprising 30 families of the order Lepidoptera are listed for the Palni Hills. Among the butterflies, perhaps the most attractive are the Common Banded Peacock (Papilio crino), Common Map (Cyrestis thyodomas indica) and Blue Oak-leaf (Kallima philarchus horsefieldi). The Asiatic Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas), the Moon Moth (Actias selene) and the Loepa katinka, all from the strikingly handsome lepidopteran family Saturniidae offer an exciting glimpse into the little-noticed world of moths
Best time to visit
Pleasant through most of the year. January, February and March are the driest months, hence most suitable for outdoor activity. Mid October to mid December is the wettest period when there are likely to be rainy, misty, cold and damp conditions for prolonged periods of time.

How to get there
Air: Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu State.
Rail: The nearest rail station to Kodaikanal is Kodai Road, which is connected with Madras.
Road: Kodaikanal town is situated at 2,100 metres altitude in the Upper Palnis. Buses and taxis are available from Madurai (120 kms.), Coimbatore (180 kms.) and Kodai Road (80 kms.).

Forest rest houses with nominal tariffs at Berijam Lake, Poombarai and other outposts. The facilities are spartan, and no catering services are available.

Whom to contact
District Forest Officer,
Kodaikanal Forest Office,
Tamil Nadu 624 101, India.
Phone: 91-4542-40287

Private jungle lodge
Click here to go to Bison Wells

Source: George Roshan

Copyright Wildvistas 2007. Website designed by Boltzmann Consulting
Site best viewed in IE with 1024x768 resolution