On Veerappan's trail

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By Varuna Verma reports" response.write intro %>
  • Published 15.05.05

The biggest mystery on the ‘Mystery Trail’ is to locate the take-off point of the trek. The trekking guide points towards a patch of thick undergrowth. “We walk down from here,” he announces.

In the middle of the dense deciduous forests of the BR Hills wildlife sanctuary, in south Karnataka, you have little choice but to treat the tribal boy as boss. He pulls out an outsize chopping knife, beats down a few bushes and walks into the undergrowth. It’s important to follow him closely, never mind the steep, obstacle-laden, almost invisible path. After all, the guide is carrying the rifle ? and honey-hunting sloth bears are prone to attacking in these parts.

The high-adrenaline adventure element of hiking down the same path that Veerappan walked takes a back seat. This is an obstacle race to keep up with the guide.

If all goes as per the forest department’s plans, tourists will be racing down the non-existent mountain track by the year-end.

The ‘Mystery Trail’ ? announced last month ? is one of six jungle treks in BR Hills, identified for hiking buffs. It is a part of the department’s plan to position the sanctuary as Karnataka’s wildest vacationing spot. “We plan to market the sanctuary as an ideal eco-tourism destination,” says Dr R. Raju, deputy conservator of forest for Chamrajnagar district, where the sanctuary is situated.

Located 235 km south of Bangalore, the sanctuary should have been buzzing with city-bred nature freaks. But till last year, BR Hills ? short for Biligiri Rangana Betta ? was a mere temple town on a hillock, with a rarely-visited wildlife sanctuary around it. Since trigger-happy Veerappan called BR Hills home, tourists preferred to keep away. A lone eight-cottage resort comfortably catered to the sprawling 570-sq-km sanctuary’s trickling tourist inflow.

With Veerappan gone, BR Hills is back in business. Come weekends, and Toyotas and Tata Indicas roll into the jungle resort. The in-house elephant works overtime giving joy rides to eco-tourists. The roar of the generator drowns out the sound of the nocturnal crickets.

Forest officials are loving the audio-visual shift. The forthcoming ‘Forest Management Plan’ for BR Hills proposes to position the sanctuary as an eco-tourism hotspot. “Tourism will be synonymous with prosperity,” says Raju.

And since every good marketing exercise needs an able brand ambassador, BR Hills will have the forest’s famous mustachioed, rifle-totting former resident as its mascot.

Veerappan lives on as a phenomenon in BR Hills. Local guides introduce the sanctuary as ‘Veerappan country’ to first-time tourists. A signboard at the entry point into the jungles declares it a prohibited area. Movement on the sanctuary’s roads is banned from sunset to sunrise. Small-time smugglers continue to keep Veerappan’s trade secrets alive. “Petty poaching of spotted deer, hare and fowl is rampant,” says Raju.

Raju believes tourism will weed out such smuggling. The forest department has finalised a multi-pronged plan of action to promote eco-tourism in the sanctuary.

Brand endorser Veerappan hogs centre-stage in the plan. Six trekking trails have been identified for tourists looking for jungle hikes. Two of these ? the ‘Mystery Trails’ ? are routes the brigand used. “Veerappan moved on these routes when he took abducted forest guards across the state border,” says Raju. The steep trail cuts across the Eastern Ghats to the Satyamangalam forests, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Raju is expecting a trail-blazing response to the trek. At the same time, he insists the forest department is not encashing on the Veerappan brand name. The trek is only to tell the doubting Thomases why it took the joint forces of two states so long to nab one man. “It was like hunting for a needle in a haystack,” says Raju.

Plans are also afoot to highlight the huge animal population of the sanctuary. BR Hills boasts of 900 elephants and any number of bison, bears and spotted deer. It’s not safe to venture out of the guesthouse after dark ? locals warn of marauding elephants.

But pillaging pachyderms were never a problem. BR Hills’ only problem was a man with a twirled moustache.