Nagarhole was ruled by the Lingayat kings of Kodagu and their feudatories until the British colonial administration established hegemony in the 1850s, soon after the defeat of Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The presence of derelict irrigation tanks suggests that there were agricultural enclaves within the forested landscape. While the Lingayat kings maintained nominal control, the forests were considered common property and swidden agriculture (slash and burn technique) and collection of forest produce by the tribes residing within the forested landscape was widespread.
The colonial administration established the Forest Department in 1860 with a mandate to restrict forest burning, control swidden agriculture, prevent agricultural encroachments, carry out sustainable harvest of timber and to raise teak plantations. From the 1890s, the forests were gradually demarcated and notified as government owned reserved forests.
After Indian independence, the Govt. of India laid great emphasis on the production of food and the harvesting of timber, which led to the importation and settlement of tribal and non- tribal groups into the hadlus or swampy clearings, to provide cheap labour for forestry operations and for the cultivation of rice. In 1955, a 285 sq km area was gazetted as the Nagarhole Game Sanctuary. The same was extended in 1974 with some reserved forests from the Mysore district being added to bring the total area to the present 644 sq km. This was also accorded the status of a National Park in 1974.