Gopinatham. For a 1980s child from Bangalore, that name brings back memories of a gory past – of  sandalwood smuggling, elephants slaughtered for their tusks, police and forest officers being ambushed, and of course, Veerappan. Veerappan was in news almost every day, with major events like the kidnapping of matinee idol Rajkumar, and the kidnapping and death of ex-minister Nagappa; Veerappan elicited terror right until his death at the hands of the special task force in 2004.

Even today, walking around Gopinatham serves regular reminders of Veerappan’s haunting presence in that region, like Muniswamy shrine near Gopinatham Dam, where he is said to have worshipped. The path that leads away from that shrine is called P. Srinivas Road, and a drive on this road into Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary ends at an anti-poaching camp. This is where P. Srinivas, an IFS officer, was killed by Veerappan; there now stands a memorial to the officer.

But beyond all that, what you experience is the beauty of Gopinatham, surrounded by the hills of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary – Male Mahadeswara and Palar ranges – with River Cauvery flowing quietly between the hills. It is hard to imagine how so much violence could emerge from so beautiful and tranquil a place.

Gopinatham Mystery Trails, a wildlife camp by Jungle Lodges & Resorts, sits next to Gopinatham Dam, right on the border of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Arriving there one afternoon, we were greeted by the manager and introduced to the camp’s naturalist, who then guided us towards good birding paths and spots.

The bund of Gopinatham Dam is where most activity happens. One side of the bund offers stunning views of the hills of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, while on the other side are the farm-lands of the village of Gopinatham, against a backdrop of the hills of the Palar Range. Being the beginning of the northeast monsoon season, we were greeted with rain every evening, making for a grand spectacle in the lush forest.

Because of the rain, the nature walk scheduled for the evening was changed to a ride through the forest. Having received rain for a few weeks, the streams in the forest were overflowing, and the landscape wore a verdant carpet. Most of the streams were buttressed by massive Terminalia arjuna trees, known in Kannada as Holemathi. We drove to the anti-poaching camp where there is a memorial to IFS officer P. Srinivas, who was ambushed and assassinated by Veerappan at that spot in 1991. When the rains let up, we were treated to the sight of a double rainbow over the hills.

The birding in the forest was excellent, with sightings of Malabar Parakeets, a Crested Hawk-eagle and Sirkeer Malkohas. A lone male Gaur was also sighted in the rains.

Rains and thunderstorms during our stay also meant that many sightings were through pugmarks. We could see that a Sloth Bear had just passed. The presence of tigers was confirmed by pugmarks; note the gaur footprints right next to them for size comparison.

Sloth Bear pugmarks.

Evidence of a tiger and a gaur.

Each morning at Gopinatham, we woke up early for nature walks. The first morning, we walked along the bund and into the forest. The birding was bountiful, with sightings of a Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Chestnut-winged Optonias, Oriental Honey Buzzards, Pied Cuckoos and Baya Weavers.

Yellow-crowned Woodpecker.

Oriental Honey Buzzard adult with a juvenile.

I was especially excited to see a Giant Velvet Mite (Dinothrombium gigas). Mites belong to the suborder Acari under Arachnida, which includes all eight-legged forms like spiders, scorpions, harvestmen and vinegaroons.

The last morning’s walk was along the dam’s catchment area, to look for the endemic and rare White-naped Tit. We came across what looked like the pugmarks of a Rusty-spotted Cat. We hiked up to ‘Birds Viewpoint’ and took in the views from there. While descending, we heard the calls of White-naped Tits, and were fortunate to spot a few. We returned to the bund just as the sun had fully risen.

The pugmarks of a Rusty-spotted Cat.

Sunrise view from the bund.

The forest seems to be healing – something that can be said of the entire region around MM Hills, BRT Tiger Reserve, Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, and Sathyamangalam. The wounds were deep, and the scars probably still remain among the elephants that took the brunt of Veerappan’s villainy. It needs to be remembered that it has been less than twenty years since the imposing adult tuskers we may be intimidated by today, had some semblance of peace; what we are seeing are the survivors of those years of brutality.

We headed home to Bangalore after breakfast, carrying back stories of Veerappan and chance encounters with his henchmen in the village. Like the other forests of Karnataka, this place is also to be lived and experienced through multiple visits. There will always be something new to unravel at Gopinatham Mystery Trails.