A vegetative guard for man-animal conflicts

Bandipur Tiger Reserve (TR) has come a long way since 1931 when it was declared as a game sanctuary by the then Maharaja of erstwhile Mysore State.

Initially, the area was spread over 90 sq km and was reserved exclusively for hunting. As the years passed by, in 1941, the Reserve was named as Venugopala Wildlife Park and an area of 60 sq km was allocated for the animals where all forestry operations was prohibited. In 1973, Government of India launched the ambitious Project Tiger programme and Bandipur became one of the nine tiger reserves created under it.

Situated in the foothills of Nilgiris, Bandipur has a tropical climate with the average rainfall being 625mm and the temperature ranging between 22 to 27 degree celsius.

The status report in the 1970s on the Bandipur sanctuary by the then Head of the Forest Department, YML Sharma suggests that vegetation in Bandipur Reserve Forest was suitable for herbivores like elephants, bison, sambar, chital, four horned antelopes, barking deer and wild boars who in turn led to the survival of predators like tigers, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas. A host other reptiles, amphibians, fishes and birds also thrived in this Reserve.

Exotic yet invasive

The gregarious flowering of bamboo was said to have happened in 1960 and the dead bamboo was harvested by Mysore Paper Mills, Bhadravathi. Natural regeneration of bamboo was on the upside in the zone and they started flowering in huge numbers in 2010. Slowly, the vegetation improved in the zone.

These dry deciduous forests had abundant fodder for the herbivores. These herbivores were in such large numbers that they could be seen for nearly a km from the roads till 1980. The only obstruction were the tall elephant grasses.

By 1980s, the vegetation was showing an all-round improvement with sufficient fodder grass regeneration. The beautiful flowering plant of Lantana camara started occupying the fringes of forests,stream banks and plantations of teak and eucalyptus.

Additionally, Eupatorium odorata and Parthenium hysterophorus were creeping up. The fruits of these plants attracted many animals and birds and they also acted as a natural protectional cover for them. Since they had so many advantages, the Reserve officials didn’t keep a check on their growth. In fact, they were treated as a part of succession along with in-situ weed species like Desmodiums, Indigoferas, Ixora, Lea chinensis, Termerics etc.

By 1990s, the ecological succession of vegetation further improved exhibiting different paradigms of vegetation. The regeneration of tree species, with lot of Kydia calycina was liked by elephants. The Lantana was picking up fast and the Eupatorium started establishing in patches with Parthenium.

The extensive vegetation cover was enough to make Bandipur as one of the best habitats for wildlife in the State. Adding to this, the water regime of the area also improved remarkably. Still, no plan was initiated to keep these exotic yet invasive weeds in check.

The dawn of 21st century brought forth aged trees and a general lack of regeneration. The exotic weeds (Lantana, Eupatorium & Parthenium) became rampant and started occupying the forest floors in large numbers, giving no scope for the grasses (light demanders) to survive. By 2010, the vegetation started dwindling.

Lack of regeneration led to dead trees. These trees became fuel for forest fires thus, destroying more vegetation. Moreover, dead bamboo and a thick mat of undergrowths like Lantana, Eupatorium and Parthenium wiped out the grasses and the local weeds beneath them which proved to be a dangerous situation for the survival of herbivorous animals.

Currently, tigers cannot dream of crossing the vegetation without getting hurt. Even the elephant paths have been covered by prickly weeds. It is the same with other animals too. The dense mat of exotic weeds prevents all animals from accessing the vegetation below them. Unfortunately, both herbivores and carnivores are forced to forage in the open meadows where they become easy targets.

Since the vegetation inside the forests became inaccessible, the animals started moving around to feed themselves. In this search for food, they chanced upon the fringes of the forests which gave birth to man-animal conflicts.

This development poses serious challenge to the wildlife. Animals become easy targets and increase the human-animal conflicts. But it can be resolved by reviewing the existing practices of ‘leave the habitat to nature’. By controlling the growth of weeds, removing wood load and rejuvenating the tree cover and other plants, we can ensure the animals get proper food and the natural eco-cycle returns to its original form.

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