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Periyar Lake in India's State of Kerala is one of the few places you can view Asian elephants and tigers in their natural habitat from the water. The 6425-acre reservoir is home to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, located within the Periyar National Park. The tiger reserve was created soon after the dam was originally built in 1895. Originally part of a game reserve, the tiger reserve was combined into the Periyar National Park, which has expanded to 300 square miles and consolidated a huge area of protected tropical forest along the shores of the former Periyar River.
Built under British colonial rule, the dam across the Periyar River collected a storage pool of water from which a tunnel removed water across the Western Ghatt mountains into arid Tamil Nadu. Located in the rain shadow of the mountains, Tamil Nadu was desperate for water to irrigate crops. So, although the dam and reservoir are within Kerala, the dam is controlled by the government of Tamil Nadu under a 999-year lease. This is rural India and is far more relaxed and less hurried than the more populated parts of the country. The area surround the lake and National Park primarily consists of tea and spice plantations.
The Periyar Lake region is the natural habitat for a variety of exotic and endangered species. Many of the people of the region originally made their livelihood hunting, fishing and harvesting forest products. Encouraging the local people to protect the endangered animals and plants required some alternate form of income. In what has been considered a successful effort, former poachers now guard the forest trails against poaching, and lead visitors along the jungle trails on their rounds. Government and private funding set up many of the locals in the spice and tea agriculture business, and a great many of them have now found work in the tourism trade as more and more visitors enjoy the local eco-tourism.
Some eco-tours offer 'bamboo raft' excursions on the lake, while others lead nature tours and jungle treks. The close historical relationship the local guides have with the native landscape makes them excellent and highly-informative. Many of the expeditions require visitors to be physically fit as they are quite strenuous. Night trekking under armed guard is popular with adventurous visitors. Most forest treks are somewhat primitive, with a favorite form of lodging being a night in a 'tree-house'. These spartan accommodations consist of only a bare box in a tree to which a guide will accompany visitors on one morning and come back to collect them the next. All food and sleeping gear must be carried in, but the opportunity to view wandering, hunting and grazing wildlife from a hidden vantage point among the leaves offers an opportunity that can be experienced in few other places.
Few visitors to Periyar Lake will want to miss a boat cruise to view the local wildlife. The small launches are somewhat loosely scheduled, and ticketing must be done at the launch site about two hours before the cruise departs. The wait and inconvenience are worth it, particularly for those who take either the earliest or the latest boat of the day. These are the times when many animals come down to the water's edge to drink and bathe, providing the best opportunities for great photographs and exciting scenes from the safety of the boat. The boat cruises are located within the National Park, only a short distance from Thekkady and the park entrance. Experts suggest that visits to the National Park are best during September to May, as inland water holes dry up during the dry season and more animals venture to the lakeshore. This area of India is one of the most authentic in terms of natural habitat and memorable ambiance.
On land, treks along the Periyar Tiger Trail can be arranged under the direction of local guides. Again, the jungle trail is strenuous, and trekkers must meet medical standards. A huge number of native species inhabit the national park, including gaur, bison, sambar (horse deer), barking deer, mouse deer, dholes (Indian wild dogs), mongoose, foxes, leopards and the elusive Nilgiri tahr. Nearly 1000 elephants live in the preserve, along with over 50 tigers. The forests alternate with extensive patches of grasslands. Periyar's rich birdlife includes the giant hornbill, cormorant, darter, osprey and racket-tailed drongo. The Indian python and king cobra are among the reptilian fauna. Four primate species live in the preserve also.
Visitors to Periyar Lake who wish a less strenuous activity can always take an elephant ride, or tour the countryside in a traditional bullock cart. Jeep tours can also be arranged, and there are organized tours to local tea and spice plantations. Some visitors check into one of the local camps or lodges and tour the local country roads via bicycle. Camping within the National Park is permitted under stringent regulation, and those planning to camp should speak with the proper authorities well in advance of their stay. Although Thekkady is the largest village along the lake, many Indian tour agencies make Periyar Lake a regular part of their tours. There is little formal literature available about tourism opportunities in the region except that of advertising put out by area tour companies, so it is wise to arrange a visit with a knowledgeable tourism firm. Some of the lodgings advertised are quite opulent for such a remote region, offering spas, fine dining and well-appointed rooms. Lodgings are likely plentiful, but a first-time visitor may need some assistance in locating just the right place.
Periyar Lake is used for commercial fishing locally, primarily for carp and tilapia. As yet, there is little in the way of sport fishing, but local officials are considering developing the activity. The many wetlands along the shores offer fine spawning and nesting grounds for both fish and waterfowl, and the many submerged trees left standing when the area was flooded offer fine underwater habitat that could likely support a sport fishery.
The 100-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam has survived Indian Independence, regional disagreements over water levels and water usage, and losses of contracts between the States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The water level was lowered after an earthquake did minor damage to the structure in 1979. Since that time, the two states have argued over the optimal water levels to be maintained in the storage pool, with Kerala expressing concern for people downstream in the case of a breach, and Tamil Nadu desiring to bring the water levels up to full capacity of "152 feet" (it is not clear at what point this depth is measured). Recent earthquake activity in the area has apparently settled the issue: engineering studies show the old dam will likely not survive a strong quake. A new dam will be built downstream, while the old dam is partially demolished. This will relieve pressure on the old dam, yet maintain both the water resources for the Periyar National Park and irrigation needs in Tamil Nadu. It is unclear at this point how far the water levels will be lowered on a permanent basis, but wildlife welfare agencies are lobbying to protect the valuable water resources of the National Park and Periyar Tiger Reserve. Meanwhile, the elephants, tigers and other wildlife enjoy their tranquil life along the lakeshore, oblivious to the problems human attempt to solve in their behalf. And, they are expecting your visit. So come to Periyar Lake and enjoy the lovely lake and local wildlife in their perfect habitat.
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