Yes, that's a picture of a dead fish floating in a pond. And with the exception of a troop of monkeys, that was all the wildlife available during a full day safari in Periyar National Park, India.
The differences between here and Africa were profound.
While Africa receives most of the press about endangered wildlife, I walked away from every park I visited filled with awe and optimism for the future of species at risk. Periyar felt dead, and even though it apparently boasts healthy populations elephants and tigers, there were few signs of life. Meanwhile, the wilderness experience was compromised by the carnivorous appetite of the jungle's overwhelming leech population.
The Lonely Planet guidebook (which now borders on useless thanks to some key format changes, I'm switching to Footprint) advises that "leeches may be present following rain". That's sporting of them to pass on the tip (Rough Guide failed to do that much), but any review of the park falls short without an precise explanation of what this means...
The tour began at 5:15 am on the heels of week long rains from the nearby town of Kumily. By 7 o'clock we were squinting at a shadowy dot on the horizon that was meant to be a deer (I'm still not convinced) and noticed a few leeches scattered on the roadway. Unlike the slug-like variety you've seen around your local swimming hole, these creatures spring across open ground like Slinkys down stairs, and as we were to find out shortly, nothing short of the tightest woven fabric will halt their march to bare skin, and these few roadside specimens were the first in a plague of near biblical proportions once we reached the jungle proper.
Once at the park's headquarters we donned our 'leech proof socks' - a kind of canvas gaiter worn like a knee high sock inside your shoe - and were rowed across to the far side of the lake for the start of a three hour trek. Twenty feet down the path each of us had a half dozen leeches on our shoes. One hundred feet the ground crawling with, not a handful, not a dozen, but hundreds of marching, swarming worms. The jungle floor was alive and everybody's legs were covered up to the knees, with more disappearing through the leather and canvas of each available shoe.
We turned back then and there having seen no more than a hundred feet of forest and a single troop of monkeys in the canopy above. The downside of the retreat was looking like colossal cowards for calling it quits after a mere five minutes. I'm not worried. The intrepid explorers that kept on enjoyed three hours of soaking rain and annelid infestation to see no more wildlife than we did in the first hundred feet. I'm calling it a victory for our hides and our nerves.
Later that day we headed deeper into the forest via jeep, but the story was the same. With the exception of a few more monkeys and the dead fish expertly framed above, the jungle offered no wildlife while the leeches continued their assault, appearing inexplicably in our covered jeep, on our sleeves, and pasted to our faces.
Granted, I'm more than a bit squeamish of the creepy crawlies of the world, but in addition to the abysmal wildlife experience, the concerted lack of information on trekking conditions bordered on negligence. Periyar is India's most visited national park. I doubt this would be the case if park officials, and tourist guide books, ponied up valid information about the Periyar experience.
I'm interested in other's experiences here. For now, I recommend it to no one. Head to Ranthambore instead where two years ago I saw a tiger and an array of other Indian wildlife.