Tamil Nadu as a tourist destination is usually associated with its breathtaking built heritage, millennia-old culture and stunning coastline, but it’s also home to some of India’s best wildlife destinations, making it a paradise for nature and wildlife lovers.
The landform varies from coast to plateau to high mountain ranges in the Eastern and Western Ghats. These mountain ranges along with ecological hotspots host a diversity of flora and fauna. Forests range from evergreen, moist deciduous, dry deciduous, dry evergreen, bamboo brakes, grasslands to littoral and mangrove forests.
Besides, Tamil Nadu’s long coastline supports ecosystems like beaches, lagoons, mangroves, mudflats and coral reefs. The small islands along the coast are rich in marine flora and fauna. The inland wetlands harbour rich avifauna, with several bird species migrating from far-off countries in large numbers.
Tamil Nadu’s extensive protected-area network consists of three biosphere reserves, and several tiger reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries and conservation reserves. Tamil Nadu has the unique distinction of establishing the first terrestrial as well as marine biosphere reserve in India, namely, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve.
TTDC has set up an Eco-Tourism wing, for the sustainable management of tourism centres in wilderness areas.
These are some of the major national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and bird sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu:
MUDUMALAI NATIONAL PARK
The second oldest national park in India, Mudumalai National Park is located in the Nilgiris and covers an area of 321 sqkm at an elevation range of 850–1,250 m. A part of it protected since 1940, the national park has been part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve since 1986 and was declared a tiger reserve in 2007. Mudumalai’s tropical and subtropical moist broad leaf forests are home to over 260 bird species and several major mammals. Large fauna includes an excellent population of leopards and tigers. The park is also home to jungle cat, rusty-spotted cat and leopard cat, dhole (Indian wild dog), golden jackal,sloth bear, Asian elephant, gaur, etc.
MEGAMALAI WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Megamalai, also known as the High Wavy Mountains, is a mountain range in the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu’s Theni District, noted for its tea and cardamom plantations. Set at about 1,500 mabove sea level, Megamalai’s pristine evergreen forests are rich in flora and fauna. Bird species include Oriental honey buzzard, great pied hornbill, white-bellied short-wing, black-naped monarch and pied thrush. Fauna includes Indian brown mongoose, Jerdon’s palm civet, gaur, tiger, leopard, Asian elephant, mouse deer, etc.
GUINDY NATIONAL PARK
At 2.70 sqkm and located in Chennai, Guindy is the eighth-smallest national park in India and one of the very few situated inside a city. An extension of the grounds surrounding Raj Bhavan, formerly called ‘Guindy Lodge’, the park extends deep inside the governor’s estate, enclosing forests, scrubland, lakes and streams. It is home to blackbuck, spotted deer and jackals, as well as snakes, geckos, tortoises, over 130 bird species and 60 butterfly species. Guindy Snake Parkis next door.
GULF OF MANNAR MARINE NATIONAL PARK
A protected area consisting of 21 small islands (islets) and adjacent coral reefs in the Gulf of Mannar, this national park lies 1-10 km away from the Tamil Nadu coast, for 160 km between Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) and Dhanushkodi. The park, which was established in 1986, is the core area of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve. The park has a high diversity of plants and animals in its marine, intertidal and near-shore habitats. The park includes coral reefs, seaweed communities and sea grasses, with mangroves dominating the intertidal zones of the park’s islands.
The dugong, a vulnerable marine mammal, is the flagship mammal of the park. Also seen are a number of dolphin and whale species. About a quarter of the fish species found in Indian waters are found here, making it the most diverse fish habitat in India. Fish spotted around the coral reefs include butterfly fish, parrotfish,clown fish,squirrel fish,snappers and sergeant majors. Balanoglossus, a living fossil, is a unique endemic species. Green turtles and Olive Ridley turtles are also found here.
ANAIMALAI TIGER RESERVE
This protected area in the Anaimalai Hills occupies a core area of over 950 sqkm and a buffer area of over 500 sq km. Heavy rainfall makes the area an important watershed for agricultural activities and hydropower generation. Several major reservoirs are located in the area, fed by perennial rivers which originate from the Reserve. The flora of the park is typical of the southern Western Ghats, and includes tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, dry evergreen forests, montane shola-grassland, etc. Podocarpus wallichianus, a rare south Indian species of conifer can be seen here.
Mammals in the Anaimalai Tiger Reserve include Bengal tiger, Indian elephant, Indian leopard, dhole, Nilgiritahr, lion-tailed macaque, gaur, Nilgiri langur, sambar, sloth bear, wild boar, etc. Most bird species endemic to the Western Ghats can be found here. Amphibians and reptiles include endemic forms, like the purple frog, Nilgiri forest lizard and Travancore tortoises. Besides that, there are over 300 species of butterflies. This is truly a biodiversity hotspot.
MUKURTHI NATIONAL PARK
This 78sqkm park west of Ooty was created to protect the Nilgiritahr. The topography is characterised by montane grasslands and shrublands interspersed with sholas in a high-altitude area. It is home to an array of wildlife, including the Bengal tiger and Asian elephant, but its main mammalian attraction is the Nilgiritahr. The park is also part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India’s first International Biosphere Reserve. As part of the Western Ghats, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012.
KALAKKAD MUNDANTHURAI TIGER RESERVE
Also known as KMTR, this Reserve is located in the rain forests of the South Western Ghats montane in Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts. It is the second-largest protected area in Tamil Nadu and is part of the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve. KMTR was created in 1988 by combining Kalakkad Wildlife Sanctuary and Mundanthurai Wildlife Sanctuary, which were both established in 1962.
Besides tigers, KMTR is also home to leopards, elephants, Nilgiritahr, Nilgiri langur, wild boar, chital, sambar deer, leopard cat, jungle cat and several other mammals.
POINT CALIMERE WILDLIFE AND BIRD SANCTUARY
This 21sqkm protected area is set along the Palk Strait where it meets the Bay of Bengal at Point Calimere. The site is a mix of salt swamps, mangroves, backwaters, mudflats, grasslands and tropical dry evergreen forests. Created in 1967 to protect the blackbuck, the sanctuary is also famous for large congregations of waterbirds, especially greater flamingos. Notable animals include spotted deer, jackal, bonnet monkey, wild boar and monitor lizard. Bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen along the shore. The beaches are a regular nesting site of the Olive Ridley turtle. This sanctuary also hosts a large congregation of migratory waterbirds, with a peak population in excess of 100,000. The birds arrive each winter from as far as Siberia, Central Asia and parts of Europe, and include spot-billed pelican, Nordmann’s greenshank, spoonbill sandpiper and black-necked stork. The sanctuary is also home to several land birds, like white-browed bulbul, Brahminy kite, small green-billed malkoha, crow pheasant, rose-ringed parakeet, blue-tailed bee-eater, etc.
SATHYAMANGALAM TIGER RESERVE
According to the 2019 census, this protected area in the Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu’s Erode District has a tiger population of 83 individuals and a leopard population of 111 individuals. Considered the Gateway to the Eastern Ghats, patches of the Sathyamangalam forests have also been notified as Sandalwood Reserves. With a total area of over 1,400 sq km, the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve is the third largest tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu. The Sathyamangalam forests link the Eastern Ghats and Western Ghats allowing gene flow between the fauna of the two eco-regions. Apart from tigers and leopards, the forests here are home to elephants, gaur, spotted deer, blackbuck, sambar, barking deer, wild boars, etc. There are herds of feral buffaloes too which can be seen near the Moyar River. As per the 2011 census, the Sathyamangalam forests were home to over 850 Indian elephants and are part of a protected area which consists of the largest Asian elephant population in the world.
OTHER NOTABLE WILDLIFE SANCTUARIES OF TAMIL NADU
The Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as Srivilliputhur Wildlife Sanctuary, was established in 1988 to protect the near-threatened grizzled giant squirrel. Occupying an area of 485sq km, it is bordered on the southwest by the Periyar Tiger Reserve and is one of the best preserved forests south of the Palghat Gap. The topography consists of high hills and valleys, with a number of peaks reaching up to 1,800 metres.
Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary is a 402sqkm protected area in Kanniyakumari District, established in 2008. A tiger habitat, the region is one of the most biodiverse locations in India. Several new species of plants, amphibians and insects discovered here are found nowhere else, making it an endemic region too. The area is a wildlife corridor with high biodiversity, and in addition to tigers, is home to Indian bison, elephant, Indian rock python, lion-tailed macaque, mouse deer, Nilgiritahr and sambar deer.
The Cauvery North Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in the Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts of Tamil Nadu, and was declared a sanctuary in 2014. The sanctuary comes under the Melagiri Hill ranges, a significant wildlife corridor.
Situated in Tirunelveli District, the densely forested Nellai Wildlife Sanctuary was notified in 2015 and is known for its famous mountain peaks. Sivagiri Mala is considered the highest point.
Located on an isolated hillock in Vallanadu village of Srivaikundam Taluk, Vallanadu Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect the blackbuck antelope. It is the southernmost place in India where a natural population of blackbuck can be found.
MAJOR BIRD SANCTUARIES OF TAMIL NADU
Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary: Pulicat Lake is the second-largest brackish-water eco-system in India after Odisha’s Chilika Lake. Noted for its bio diversity, Pulicat Lake which is partly in Tamil Nadu and partly in Andhra Pradesh attracts many migratory birds including greater flamingos. It is also a feeding and nesting ground for aquatic and terrestrial birds such as pelicans, storks, etc.
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, which has the honour of being the oldest water bird sanctuary in India, is a 30-hectare protected area in the Madurantakam Taluk of Chengalpattu District. More than 40,000 birds (including 26 rare species), from various parts of the world, visit the sanctuary during the migratory season every year. Designated a Ramsar site in 2022, Vedanthangal sees migratory bird species like pintail, garganey, grey wagtail, blue-winged teal, common sandpiper, etc.
OTHER BIRD SANCTUARIES OF TAMIL NADU
Vettangudi Bird Sanctuary is a small protected area near Thirupattur in the Sivaganga District that includes three irrigation tanks which fill up between October and December, when the northeast monsoon brings lots of rain. It attracts more than 8,000 winter migratory birds belonging to 217 species, mostly from European and North Asian countries. It is a breeding habitat for grey herons, darters, spoonbills, white ibis, Asian openbill stork, and night herons. Indigenous species include painted stork, grey heron, darter, little cormorant,flamingos, etc.
A Ramsar site since 2022, Karikili Bird Sanctuary is located in Kancheepuram District. Just 10 km from Vedanthangal, about 100 bird species have been recorded here, including Northern Pintail, Garganey, and Common Sandpiper. Along with Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, Karikili Bird Sanctuary has been identified as one of the Important Bird Areas of Tamil Nadu.
Part of Chitrangudi village in Ramanathapuram District, Chitrangudi Bird Sanctuary was declared protected in 1989, and is adjacent to Kanjirankulam Bird Sanctuary. It is notable as a nesting site for several migratory heron species that roost in the babul trees here. Migratory waterbirds arriving here include spot-billed pelican, Asian openbill stork, grey heron, purple heron, pond heron, little egret and great egret.
Vaduvoor Bird Sanctuary is located on VaduvoorLake in Thiruvarur District, and is about 25 kilometres from Thanjavur. Created in 1999, the irrigation tank here attracts numerous foreign birds from Europe and America.
Udayamarthandapuram Bird Sanctuary was designated a protected Ramsar site in 2022, and is noted for the large number of purple moorhen and openbill storks arriving here during February and March.
Tamil Nadu’s extensive protected-area network consists of three biosphere reserves, and several tiger reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries and conservation reserves.
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Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary in Tirunelveli Districtwas designated in 1994. Consisting of twoirrigation tanks, this is the largest reserve for breeding water birds in South India and is a Ramsar site since 2021. Noteworthy bird species include bar-headed goose, common sandpiper, common teal, coot, green sandpiper, and northern pintail from Siberia, greater flamingo from northern India and white stork from Central Asia.
Vellode Bird Sanctuary is located in Erode District and was designated a Ramsar site in 2022. Just 15 km from Erode Central Bus Terminus, the sanctuary consists of a large lake surrounded by semi-dark bushes. Thousands of birds arrive here in winter, including cormorants, teals, pintail ducks, pelicans, and darters.
The Karaivetti Bird Sanctuary in Ariyalur District is about 25 kilometres from Thanjavur. This freshwater lake attracts thousands of birds every year. Migratory birds spotted here include bar-headed goose, northern pintail, white stork, northern shoveler, garganey, blue-winged teal, osprey and common sandpiper. Globally threatened species such as greater spotted eagle, oriental darter, black-headed ibis and spot-billed pelican have also been seen here.
With its plethora of wildlife destinations and experiences, Tamil Nadu is truly a destination for wildlife enthusiasts. So come and discover Tamil Nadu’s wild side!
(Website: www.tamilnadutourism.tn.gov.in; Social Media: @tntourismoffclUdayamarthandapuram)