Cauvery and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuaries are spread over nearly 2000 square kilometres, part of one the largest contiguous protected areas in India, sharing a boundary with BRT and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves and Bannerghatta National Park. Situated at the intersection of the Western and Eastern Ghats, these two sanctuaries are showered with rain from both the south-west and north-east monsoon winds, albeit poorly. The vegetation here is mainly dry-deciduous. Cauvery and MM Hills together serve as the watershed for some of Karnataka’s prominent rivers like Cauvery, Palar and Arkavathi. This region suffered for decades during Veerappan’s rise to notoriety in wildlife poaching and sandalwood smuggling. Today, poaching, excessive cattle grazing and forest fires are the threats to wildlife in this region.

Camera trap studies conducted by Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) have established the presence of large carnivores like tigers and leopards, besides a healthy population of elephants, gaur and other herbivores. During our interaction with the people living in and around these two sanctuaries, as part of the larger engagement with them for wildlife conservation outreach in Chamarajanagar District, we realised that most of the published literature on the wildlife of this region was woefully inadequate. With species like the Kollegal Ground Gecko rediscovered in MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary and the Honey Badger rediscovered in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, we were determined to put together some scientifically reliable material.

Articles written in the regional language – Kannada – by wildlife scientist Sanjay Gubbi from NCF, and Girish Babu, chief reporter with the newspaper Udayavani, were put together as a handbook by HC.Poornesha. This handbook celebrates the wildlife of Chamarajanagar District, particularly from Cauvery and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuaries. The handbook can be downloaded from NCF’s website: http://ncf-india.org/publications/941

The handbook’s front cover.

Gaur – an illustration from the handbook

Sloth Bear – an illustration from the handbook

I have been sketching since I was a child. I started with pencil sketches, moved on to watercolour, then oil colours, and now back to sketches. Working with graphite and charcoal pencils was fun, when I began sketching the iconic species covered in the handbook, some of which were recorded in this region during camera trapping exercises.

The handbook follows the journey of a female tiger cub that was camera-trapped during an initial survey in 2014 in MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, illustrated here with her mother in the background. It was heartening indeed to find her again, all grown up and with a mate in 2015-16, demonstrating the potential of MM Hills and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuaries as good habitats for tigers.

In 2014, Sanjay Gubbi and his team were ecstatic when the Honey Badger (Ratel) was photographed by camera traps in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) for the very first time in Karnataka, setting a new record. Camera trap studies have revealed that this mammal’s range extends from Bannerghatta to Sathyamanagalam. The existence of this shy nocturnal creature in these regions would have remained unknown to science if not for the camera trap technology.

Ratel

The handbook also provides the reader a glimpse of other rare and no less charismatic species endemic to this landscape. One such species, the Hump-backed Mahaseer, endemic to River Cauvery, is highly endangered today. The population of this mammoth fish – weighing over 50 kgs and over 100 cms in length from head to tail fin – has been dwindling largely due to the introduction of a fast breeder, the non-native Blue-finned Mahaseer. Thanks to the sanctuary status of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, illegal fishing of the Hump-backed Mahaseer has now been curbed.

Hump-backed Mahaseer

The Madras Tree Shrew is a very curious animal that looks like a squirrel but is actually closely related to primates. It is endemic to peninsular India, and is found in both dry and moist deciduous forests. The existence of this species was established in Karnataka only as recently as 2009.

Madras Tree Shrew

The Grizzled Giant Squirrel’s name is suggestive of its appearance – greyish brown hair interspersed with white, giving it a grizzled appearance. The most diminutive amongst all the giant squirrel species, this squirrel occurs in small numbers in just over three states of southern India and Sri Lanka. They are known for their role as seed dispersers. The population of Grizzled Giant Squirrels has reduced by 30% in the last 25 years, leading to them being classified as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN.

Grizzled Giant Squirrel (Original photograph by Karthikeyan S)

The Kollegal Ground Gecko, a ground dwelling gecko, was discovered at the foothills of BRT in 1870. This species was re-discovered in MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary by Ishan Agarwal in 2013; he also established that this particular species that was previously known to have occupied peninsular India is actually not the same, but with at least seven additional un-described species under the genus Geckoella, sharing similar colour pattern elements and overall body size.

Kollegal Ground Gecko (Original photograph by Ishan Agarwal)