You'll meet the locals as well as wildlife at this new reserve

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Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary is the final link in a chain of reserves across southern India. And it's not just for rich tourists, says Sarah Barrell

'Nothing stinks and everything is pleasant." So concludes the welcome film at India's newest tiger reserve. I'm at base camp in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, a little-known, recently created conservation area in eastern Kerala.

Myself and some 15 Indian tourists are jockeying for position in front of a screen in the spanking new interpretation centre watching a list of "dos and don'ts" aimed at those unfamiliar with the conventions of a nature reserve. That goes for most of the group.

Wildlife safaris are new to India's domestic travel market, partly because posh lodges in tiger tourism hub states such as Madhya Pradesh price out many local visitors. Day-tripping was the only easy way to visit Parambikulam until last year when basic camp facilities were added. Apart from my British companion and me, visitors to the reserve today are all from Kerala and neighbouring Indian states. A minibus transports us en masse, from the broiling Tamil Nadu town of Annamalai, past orderly groves of coconut palms, teeming villages and litter-strewn streams.

An hour later we bump on to the sole Forest Department road that climbs up through the wilderness of the Western Ghats towards the park. On arrival in camp, first impressions are of an old Indian army base renovated to resemble a child's playground. "That looks like one I might have made," says my companion, raising an eyebrow to a roughly hewn wooden table.

The same could have been said about the bamboo raft we clambered on to later. Somewhat alarmingly, the craft is used for croc-spotting; its gap-tooth, rustic finish generously allowing us to track the hefty mugger crocodile as it slips off the bank and passes beneath us. Parambikulam was created in 2007, but India's Environment and Forests Minister declared the reserve officially open only last year. It's just beginning to turn its hand to tourism.

But should tourists be here at all? Last year, in the face of plummeting tiger numbers, there were rumblings from the Indian government about severely limiting travel to the subcontinent's 38 big cat reserves. The debate is raging about the place for tourism in India's national parks: is it aiding or adding to the problem of the country's diminishing tiger numbers? Wildlife tourists are traditionally wealthy and foreign – their money often funding smart lodges rather than the conservation of the animals they've come to see. Apart from scientists and rangers, say critics, humans shouldn't be present in India's parks at all.

The more informed side of the argument, a view that Parambikulam shares, is that managed carefully, tourism is an essential part of promoting, protecting and sustaining India's wildlife and tribal communities, as it has been in the best South African and Amazonian reserves. Parambikulam was created to form the missing link in a chain of seven conservation areas stretching 4,000sq km across the middle of southern India. It's partly run by indigenous tribes who live on the land, and entrance is restricted to 30 vehicles a day, most of those aboard regulated buses that must come and go before sunset. Movement around the park is very restricted, too. Wildlife-watching is done in the equivalent of a public bus, along more or less the same prescribed route and only at dusk.

"I don't want vehicles running all over the park," says Sanjayan Kumar, Parambikulam's passionate district forest officer. "But tourists are important to us. They are ambassadors. In many ways, I'd like to see more international visitors – they are educated, enthusiastic and easier to manage. But it's not ethical. Everyone should be allowed to enjoy the park, and also take responsibility for it." Parambikulam relies on its tourists for data, allowing them to join full moon tiger population counts. "We are one of the rare parks where this is working – helped by our remote locale. There are no private interests encroaching on our land."

There are anywhere from 10 to 23 tigers living within the reserve's 285sq km. Its leopard count is even more impressive: 55 in total, one of the highest tallies in India. But big cats aren't the only creatures that tourists come here to see. The Western Ghats are among the world's 34 biodiversity hot spots. There are 39 mammal species here, including huge herds of elephant and gaur (the world's largest bovine), which we see daily, plus several species of monkey and deer. It's also home to the first ever scientifically managed teak plantation. Kannimara, one of the planet's oldest and tallest teak trees, lives here, a superlative draw for the domestic day-trippers who make up the mainstay of visitors to the park.

Shortly after our close brush with the crocs, the bus makes one of its scheduled evening stops at the reserve's village, a crossroads of bamboo shacks and small concrete structures. I'm itching to get back on the road to make the most of prime wildlife-spotting time. But it's time for tea. Even though we're spending a few nights in the new, tented camp, we have no special dispensation to go off on a tiger hunt. So we get with the day-tripping programme and order a chai. "You just don't see them like this much any more," says a woman from northern Kerala, clearly charmed by the shack's wooden simplicity and the chai man's expert "metre long" traditional pouring technique.

By morning the charm has worn off for some. The northern Keralan lady and her family have departed, unimpressed by the lack of cat sightings; another group has left in fear of its proximity to the mammals. Some pretty big bumps in the night could be heard through the thin canvas of our tents, although most likely from rootling wild boar rather than a tiger coming for tea.

The morning's promised meditation class fails to materialise, so a small group of us goes birding instead. Climbing to high ground, we find an overnight elephant camp with trampled undergrowth and the tragicomically flattened corpse of a rabbit. It's tinderbox dry and at 7am already blisteringly hot; live animals are few and far between. Before we head back for breakfast our guide manages to spot a treepie, a myna bird and we can't miss a couple of peacocks crashing about like frantic moths in the treetops.

Breakfast is, like all meals in camp, excellent. We have "ada", a moist rice pancake steamed in banana leaves, filled with melted jaggery (palm sugar) and coconut milk, along with "idli", little pillows of rice flour that can be dunked in delicious Keralan curry sauce. Food is sourced locally and water, plentiful in the park, is purified on site to minimise plastic. Other eco-initiatives

taken on by the park's tribes people include making beeswax and honey from fallen combs on the park's peripheries, recycling plastic into cute, tiger pugmark-shaped key-ring souvenirs, and tailoring uniforms for the rangers. About 500 of the 1,000 villagers are employed by the reserve, so poaching is low. And with a school funded by the park on site, literacy and eco-awareness are high. The park aims to be self-sufficient within five years.

Dusk: time to get back on the bus. It's Friday and the start of the school holidays, so a fresh group of tourists has arrived. Little girls in vivid saris and tinkling anklets hop on and off the bus backboard; boys chase teeny chipmunks into the bushes. The customary chaos of waiting to depart seems more heightened than usual. A confusion of rangers to-ing and fro-ing makes me impatient, until I realise that the delay is to evict a whacking great snake from the back seat. No one seems to want to confirm what it is. We pile on board with the words "king cobra" forming a collective speech-bubble above the bus.

Herds of elephants gather in the dusk; a small group within 10m gives us a desultory trumpet before showing their backsides and ambling off. The rain is coming. Do the animals know? Langur monkeys and macaques have retreated into the trees, their tails hanging down like bell ropes. Huge monitor lizards bask on the tarmac; the heat is oppressive. In the village, the chai lady and her enigmatic husband seem a bit hot and dejected. She is upset we haven't yet seen a leopard, a cat she maintains she sometimes has to shoo off the road so buses can pass. She leans forward on to an empty stool, head dramatically bowed: "Tonight you will see a leopard."

She is utterly charming, but I'm not convinced, and still less as the skies darken. We pull out for the evening's circuit: the teak tree, the dam and valley viewpoint. People are beginning to doze when a lady behind me squeals and tries to stammer out some words: there's a leopard sunning itself on the ravine above us. He slinks off soundlessly behind some tall grass, his long body flickering through the blades where he stays, facing us in a standoff for five minutes before seemingly vanishing into thin air. We're grinning like kids; some people are hugging each other. We finally pull away reluctantly to be met with yet another magnificent feline, a few metres on. This time, no more than 30m away, he moves between the trees showing his full muscular length, baring his teeth before striking into the undergrowth.

Now confident in the substance if not quite the style of the reserve, we quickly fall into its rhythm. Days are spent on sunny treks to mountain ridges, and out along the old tram tracks that historically transported teak down the mountainside to the plains of Chalakudy, some 40km north of the vast port of Cochin. The lush, humming backwaters of Kerala's coast, where we had begun our trip, seem somehow much further away. The heat doesn't let up but we rock-hop across streams overhung by flaming yellow laburnum and purple jacaranda trees, sitting barefoot in the water to watch an unlikely natural sideshow. Racket-tailed drongo birds are chasing fully grown bonnet macaques across the river, aided in this bullying by their uncanny ability to mimicking the harsh alarm call of the myna.

It's exotic stuff yet we don't see a tiger before we leave. We do, however, spot more leopards and find ourselves eager to share stories over a sunset cuppa at the chai shack. Back in camp, dinners of freshly baked roti and superbly flavoursome Keralan curry have us rolling into our beds, smirking every time at the linen, surely intended for a child. We fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle, snug under sheets illustrated with puppies in baseball caps, safe in the knowledge that we are having a very Indian experience.

Compact Facts

How to get there

A 14-day trip to Kerala costs £1,565 per person, based on two sharing, with TransIndus (020-8566 2729; transindus.co.uk), including return flights and a mix of B&B and full-board accommodation, with two nights in Cochin, two in Valparai, two in Munnar, three in Parambikulam, a night on a riceboat and two nights at Mararikulam.

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