Serendipitously Spotting Sloth Bear and Leopard in BR Hills, Karnataka

From Bangalore to BR Hills – Venturing Into the Hearts of Karnataka Jungles.

Biligiri Rangana Betta hills or popularly known as BR hills lie about 180 km south of Bengaluru. 

Just a 4–5 hours drive away from Bangalore, it is no surprise that the hills make for a perfect weekend getaway. Having been stuck in the city for two months straight for personal reasons, I was in desperate-need-of-greenery-and-fresh-air and quickly finalized upon Biligiri Hills as my weekend destination. The trip was with my husband so it had to be short to accommodate his full-time job. But even a 2–3 days road trip soaked us in so much nature that we savored it through the next few months of the dry pandemic era in which even stepping out of our tiny abode for groceries felt like a luxury.

I hadn’t expected to see much wildlife in BR hills, as my ventures into the hearts of the Karnataka jungles (such as the Dandeli Sanctuary) before hadn’t borne me much fruit, or, to say, I never saw the big cats or even the tail of an errant elephant. But little did I know that my desire to see Karnataka wildlife would finally come to color in the Biligiri Rangana Hills, officially known as the BR Hills Wildlife Sanctuary which was formed in 1974. 

At an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level, BR hills stand where the Western Ghats meets the Eastern Ghats, and make for an ecological hotspot. In addition to the location exoticism, the BRT wildlife sanctuary is quite large, 540 km² in the area to be precise, and is also an official tiger reserve.

 

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Map of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve(part of Western Ghats). Source: http://www.cepf.net/ / CC BY-SA

 

Not only did we see two sloth bears, at different times, sprinting across in front of our jeep, but we also spotted a leopard hidden behind the thickets, wild bisons appearing all macho, mama and baby chital(spotted deers), an Indian grey mongoose tottering around, a tortoise couple resting on a log in a pond, vultures and owls perched on high and dry tree branches, lone sambhar deers, barking deers melting us with their innocent eyes, Malabar squirrels nibbling through nuts perpetually, colorful birds of various kinds, langurs, wild monkeys, and wild boar. Phew. 

But taking you through this tedious list isn’t doing good to either your reader’s gratification or to my creativity. So let me narrate the story of my visit to the Biligiri hills, staying at the Kyathdevaraya Gudi Wilderness Camp(BR hills jungle lodges), and how I encountered these majestic living beings one after another in the thick Karnataka jungle.

Oh, if you are confused by the name BR hills, I should tell you that BR stands short for Biligiri Ranganatha/Billigiri Rangana/Billigiri Ranga, and the name is most probably either given after the Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple(Lord Vishnu’s temple) that stands at the top of the hills or from the white mist and the silver clouds that cover the Biligiri Rangana hills for most of the year as Biligiri means white hill in Kannada. (BRT wildlife sanctuary is short for Biligiri RangaSwamy Temple wildlife sanctuary.)

Also Read: If you love nature and want to see more of green Karnataka, visit Coorg.

Now moving on.

It was almost the end of February.

The journey from Bangalore to BR hills was green and soothing. We took about 5.5 hours for the drive including a break for coffee. The drive was simple apart from one bad stretch. A long and simple drive is rare for us as mostly one unplanned turn into a village off the highway often leads us on mud roads devoid of GPS, fuel, and communication(I am still inadequate in making conversations in Kannada). 

Regardless of the time or those moody drives, I always find driving through Karnataka roads a bliss. Maybe because I am from Uttar Pradesh where driving on highways with deep forests on both sides while not worrying about getting looted could only happen in a dream. 

We arrived at the Biligiri Ranga hills by noon and straightaway headed to the BR hills Jungle Lodges that we had booked for one night.

I have already introduced the Jungle Lodges through my article on Kali Adventure Camp. But to summarize, it should be sufficient to say that jungle lodges have large comfortable tents, food is included in the package, a coracle ride is guaranteed if there is a river in the vicinity, at least two jungle safaris(mostly in a jeep as forest hills in Karnataka are dense with animals), a nature walk, and a campfire come along with knowledgable and humble guides.

Now BR hills wildlife sanctuary isn’t as popular as Bandipur, Nagarhole, or Kabini, but quite a few huts were occupied by families and nature lovers. We also perched inside a tent that was surrounded by tall and rustling Arjuna and sal trees.

Noon means lunch at the jungle lodges, and you cannot expect anything less than a buffet full of vegetarian, non-vegetarian, and dessert options. After a hearty lunch at the food Gol Ghar, we relaxed for a bit in the sun, as at that time of the year sun feels pleasant in Karnataka. The banks of a muddy swamp near the huts served as our pillow, while boars frolicked around unabashedly. 

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A shallow pond in the K Gudi Wilderness Camp, BR Hills

 

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Soon we hopped onto a jeep for the BR hills safari that was to last for about three hours. 

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Rains had been away from the forest for months now, and we found ourselves driving on ochre paths fringed by thick and tall trees on both sides. 

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But as this was one of my most successful wildlife-spotting safaris, it was only a few minutes until we started seeing the lovely and shy chital and sambhar deer. They would stare at us for a second and then gallop away into the forest. A lone mongoose couldn’t hide away from us for long. We are also guilty of barging in on a tortoise couple resting on a log half-submerged in a shallow pond.

 

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In contemplation.

 

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Here he is.

 

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Now he is running into the forest.

 

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Here he is. Or maybe she.
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And now dashing away.

 

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The mongoose being mongoosy.

 

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And there was no chance we would have this missed this cool bison chilling by himself on the edge of yet another waterhole that had survived the dry months of winter.

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Look at him with his I-don’t-care attitude.

My neck was already aching by constantly craning to see the Indian spotted eagles, crested serpent eagle, amongst many other predators, perched peacefully at the top of the tallest deciduous trees.

But hey, I shouldn’t complain.

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Indian Spotted Eagle with a yellow beak.

 

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Crested Serpent Eagle

 

We drove on further on a quiet path, and suddenly all of us almost sprang into the air to get the last glimpse of a sloth bear that hadn’t sensed our jeep and could only sprint away at the last minute. Obviously, I don’t have a photo. 

We were sad to have interrupted his sweet search for honey but also thrilled to have come face to face(or jeep to face?) with a wild bear who are known to be shy and mostly stay in hiding. (It was only after waiting for about 3 hours, that we saw any sloth bears in the Daroji sanctuary near Hampi.)

We hadn’t even come out of our euphoria, that we saw some tiger footprints in the dry earth. Estimates say that there are about 62 tigers in the Biligiri Hills Sanctuary, but there could be many more.

 

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Can you see the footprints?

 

Some more chital and sambhar later, we ran into a barking deer that stared at us with the most innocent eyes before turning around and running away.

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So shy and sweet.

 

The sun had started dipping towards the horizon, and the skies were a mix of orange and blue.

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A crescent like sun.

 

I was almost slowing down when the biggest surprise of the day was unveiled by the guides.

 

There is a leopard in that direction behind the thick bushes. He whispered while pointing to my 11’o clock.

Of course we jumped up again clutching hard onto our DSLRs and tiptoeing to get a view while almost falling into each other in the jeep that suddenly seemed crowded. But irrespective of how intensely I peered through the stunted shola trees, I couldn’t spot the sly cat. 

Camera zoom in. Remove. See with the naked eye. Spot some shadows. Zoom in. Remove. Repeat. Fumble. Request the guide to show you the leopard. Raise yourself on your toes. Feel like you will miss a lifetime opportunity. Repeat. Raise. Feel like hitting the people who claimed to have spotted it.

Well, my husband who can’t find the spoon kept right in front of him, finally spotted the leopard, took a few pictures, and tried hard to show her to me. 

I called in all the leftover energy, transferred it to my gaze, and spotted the glorious being. It was right there. But only behind some dense shrubs. 

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Do you see her?

 

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And in this one?

 

Almost an hour later when we were too tired of trying to spot her behind the dry foliage, we drove on. The molten sunset soothed the eyes, but our safari wasn’t over yet. 

One more sloth bear was right there in front of us on the road and this one posed for a minute before dashing away.

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His face is not clear, but I felt the unbridled joy of running into a wild bear.

 

A few birds and a brown fish owl later, we were home. Oh, it had been some day!

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Asian Brown Flycatcher resting peacefully.

 

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Going at the honeysuckle plant devoid of any care for the world. Which bird is this?

 

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I see you, he said. Brown Fish Owl.

 

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Another look that would kill thousands. How is he still single?

 

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Like a painting. Each sunset is unique.

 

We were greeted by a bonfire back at the camps. At the jungle lodges, an informative and fun video always accompanies the ginger chai and snacks in the evening. The warmth of the bonfire relaxed our tired bodies, and the heavy buffet dinner(yes, after the snacks) almost thrust us to our beds.

I set out early morning on yet another safari hoping to see a leopard in full view, but this trip was not going to be that exciting. We saw owls, langurs, wild monkeys, wild boars, and some more deers waking up to the rising sun. Oh, these seem like a fair lot to see on a morning safari.

 

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Another tiny Chital. Just posing or being or planning to scurry away. Who knows.

 

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We share the eye color.

 

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A wild boar.

 

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A mama and baby sambhal.

 

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Isn’t he gorgeous?

 

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Wild flowers.

 

After a heavy breakfast and playing around in the camp for a while, we headed back on the road.

It is time to show some monkeys and birds of the camp.

 

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The Gol Ghar, BR Hills Jungle Lodges. This is where all the food is served.

 

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Looking for food, are we?

 

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Fight or flight?

 

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Flight.

 

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I’m just monkeying away. Don’t be jealous.

 

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Jacaranda, you purple my heart.

 

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Oh, he found it.

 

We also drove up to the famous BR hills temple but didn’t climb up in the afternoon sun. The view was already pretty good from the top of the hill.

The Biligiri Ranga hills had put one of the best wildlife shows I had ever seen, and I couldn’t be more pumped to go to another wildlife park soon. And then pandemic happened.

But life is getting back to normal slowly, and it shouldn’t be long when I would venture into the jungles if only for a day or two with a mask and gloves. Well, better be safe than sorry.

Until the next time then.

Also Read: If you love trodding along in nature, have a look at this guide to Belligundi waterfalls, Sharavathi Valley: Offbeat India

 

How to go to Biligiri Hills, Karnataka?

By road, Mysore to BR hills is about 90 kilometers (56 miles). BR hills distance from Bangalore is about 180 kilometers (112 miles). Either you can drive or take a bus to one of the nearest cities to the hills. Chamarajnagar, Kanakapura, and Kollegal are the closest cities to Biligiri Rangana.

You can also take a train to Chamarajanagar, which is about 40 kilometers away. From there, a taxi or a local bus would be the best commute option for the sanctuary.

Where to stay in Biligiri Rangana Hills, Karnataka?

BR Hills stays are of many kinds. From Airbnb’s to hotels to tents, you would find them all. 

I stayed at the BR Hills jungle lodges and loved the stay. The service is always good at the Karnataka jungle lodge, but I have also always found a few guards and porters or other service people to be a bit pushy about tips and lunchtime. If only, they gave their guests a little more space. We are anyways always preemptive in giving tips to the people who help us get around. No complaints otherwise. 

Oh, lunch is also just quite a large spread. It is hard to keep your eyes open after a one-hour sit-down affair at about 1–2 pm. I always feel that the jungle lodges can reduce their meal size, and hence their package cost, and let the tourists feel a little more energetic when they venture into the jungle. Of course, I can eat less but have you seen the colorful curries in the as-much-as-you-want buffet? Please don’t blame me.

The price for one person for a day was about INR 6,000 (about $80) which is on a higher side, and I only took it for it was a special weekend for us, and the packed included everything.

Also check out BR hills homestay options if you would love to stay with a family, eat home-cooked food, and generally get to know the local life better.

If you don’t want to stay at the jungle lodges, you can opt for one of the many BR hills resorts. But as they have to be booked separately from their websites, I am putting down two properties (from Booking) that look promising: Gorukana BR hills resorts and this KSTDC hotel (both with great reviews).

 

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Jungle Lodges BR Hills.

What is the best time to visit BR Hills in Karnataka?

The best time to visit the Biligiri hills would be from October to March. BR hills weather would be the most pleasant in these mostly dry summer and winter months.

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Have you been to the Biligiri Rangana Betta hills? Would you go now?

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