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A walk in the Nilgiris

Last updated: 30 November, 2009

Forest ecology Kunal Sharma covers the entire Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, starting from the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Karnataka, and moves on to Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wyanad, Mudumalai and the Sathyamangalam forest regions. Apart from gathering interesting information on honey bee populations, the ecological walk also gives insights on the state of the forests, and the man-animal conflicts in the region

Standing over the high ridge of the Nilgiri Tahr Mukurthi National Park, I realised that walking across an area of 5,520 sq km was not going to be easy. But in the light of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve representing a microcosm of the diverse forests of Southern India, it was worth the effort.

Our plan was to estimate wild honey bee colonies in the region. Starting from the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Karnataka, we moved downwards to cover the entire biosphere. In the process, we gathered interesting information on honey bee populations and gained a larger perspective about the state of the forests in the Reserve.
Spending the last days of summer in Nagarhole is magical as the forest has an air of expectancy. Rain-bearing clouds appeared as we began the survey that would take us through pristine forests. A large population of mammals guaranteed many close encounters. Once, a tigress taken aback by our intrusion into her waterhole, responded by jumping in front of a team member causing him severe discomfort. The elephants decided to ignore us as we pushed our limits in their territory and as suddenly as it began, our survey in Nagarhole got over and it was time to move on.

A gem of the Western Ghats
From Nagarhole, we covered the Bandipur National Park and Wyanad sanctuary. Though Bandipur is famous for its large mammals, I consider Wyanad to be one of the gems of the Western Ghats. Except for the sanctuary, which is also fragmented between ranges, much of the remaining forests of Wyanad district are highly disturbed with ancient migratory routes of elephants permanently broken. This has resulted in severe conflicts and losses for both animals as well as human groups. As a local person put it aptly, there is “no space; either for human beings or for elephants”.

Man-animal conflict
In these forests, human-wildlife conflicts have a far-reaching environmental impact. Elephants are electrocuted or fall in deep ditches meant to protect human settlements. Snakes, deer and small mammals are crushed under speeding vehicles. Loss of natural habitat coupled with habitat fragmentation is the most overriding cause of animal injury and death. This conflict causes immense damage to human groups too.
A local study suggests that most conflicts occur within the reserve forest boundary which forms part of the home range of large mammals, especially elephants. In these cases, people who have encroached upon these reserve forests face maximum conflict. The concern of repercussions of this conflict lingered on as we moved out of Wyanad, where we had conducted the survey with the help of a dedicated young conservationist, Vinayan. People like him embody the spirit of wild Wyanad as they have taken up cudgels to preserve the remaining forests through education, proactive liaisoning with the forest department and community based afforestation activities.

At Mudumalai...
We soon moved on to the adjoining Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and intensively searched for bee nests and recorded several such colonies. The presence of a large number of colonies adjacent to riverine areas with a predominance of high trees gives the belief that bees prefer high trees in moist forests and cliffs in dry forests, where high trees are rarely found, though this result is yet to be scientifically analysed.
Mudumalai lies at the northern boundary of Tamil Nadu and is one of the oldest protected areas in the country. More than 70 years of protection has resulted in a high fauna density as well as adequate natural regeneration. Though protected, the sanctuary is not bereft of problems. Fortunate to be shielded on two sides by Bandipur and Wyanad, it continues to reel under rapidly increasingly biotic pressure from the east and south. Towns like Masinagudi and Singara pose a huge threat to the fragile ecosystem, besides many villages along Gudalur.

Plantations creep right up to the forest boundary, leaving no scope for a buffer zone. Locals and marginal farmers have devised unique ways to live in this strange framework and are up against the elements as well as the pachyderms that constantly invade their fields.

A recent phenomenon in the Mudumalai region is the mushrooming of resorts and home stays. This activity, being conducted in legally held revenue lands has its pros and cons in the context of conservation and is open to debate. But activities like excessive firewood extraction, safaris and treks for large groups in the reserve forest adjoining the sanctuary is taking a toll on the fragile dry forests. Efforts to enthuse resorts to take up environmentally sound principles for their operations is likely to have an impact in the longer run.

Mudumalai and Sigur are important elephant habitats besides being home to small indigenous groups. A creative policy initiative to restrict use of revenue land for non-forest activities is the only feasible solution to an otherwise attractive real estate destination that Sigur is rapidly turning into.
As the honey bee count in Mudumalai came to an end, groups spread out to Silent Valley National Park, Nilambur forests and the Sathyamangalam region in the eastern part of the biosphere reserve.

Erstwhile Veerappan territory
At Sathyamangalam, there are several cliffs harbouring a large number of combs and the team, aided by students of the Mettupalayam forest college, counted more than 600 combs in a matter of few days. With claims to fame that includes a high density of wild elephants and brigands like Veerappan, Sathyamangalam has been blessed with some of the largest contiguous forest patches in the Nilgiri Biosphere and has been a laboratory for successful initiatives of forest management under the hands of dynamic forest officers.

Co-existing for long, adivasis and animals have thrived, but the future of both is at a crossroads and sometimes pulling at opposite directions. There is a proposal for a railway line that will cut through some of the best preserved forests and it is possible that the Sathy forest, as they are so called, will rapidly disintegrate. It is but imperative that it should be allowed to flourish.

Finally, the season for counting combs was coming to an end and I went back to where it all started, the Mukurthi National Park, the cynosure of the Nilgiris. It was a fitting end to an exhaustive and educative trip through these ancient forests.

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