Proposed 'Canara trail' illegal, threat to biodiversity; scrap it

The proposal of the Forest Department to open 270 km-long trekking trail through one of the most pristine forests of Uttara Kannada is a threat to biodiversity conservation. The proposal is to open India’s longest forest trekking and canopy walk from Jog Falls in Shivamogga district to Castle Rock in Uttara Kannada  district.

The places covered on route are Jog Falls, Kattekan, Garuda Jog, Unchalli, Devimane Ghat, Shivaganga Falls, Ganesh Falls, Bedti river valley, Lalguli, Kali River, Shivapura in Anshi, Ulavi, Kumarwada, Kuveshi, Diggi and Castle Rock. The 108 km of this trek between Ulavi and Castle Rock is planned to be opened in the first phase, of which 97 km falls in Kali Tiger Reserve.

A total of 27 places for halt along the route have been proposed to be developed with camping facilities like temporary structures and tents for accommodation etc. This itself would to an ecological disaster. Already there is uncontrolled/unregulated flow of tourist in these areas and nothing is done to reverse the trend. The trail route passes through Katlekan and Malemane forest areas, rich in rare Myristica Swamps, Kumbara frogs and lion-tailed macaques. Katlekan is a highly fragile area and the roots of the swamps can get damaged with increased human activities.

Why 97-km trek route between Ulavi and Castle Rock, passing through Kali tiger reserve is illegal? With regard to Section 38V of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the core areas of the tiger reserves are inviolate forests. With this, attempts are being made to relocate villages from the core areas of all tiger reserves. Tigers being at the apex, all other species of fauna would also receive better protection if the area is freed from human and cattle population.

Whenever human activities increase in the forests, there will be degradation and fragmentation leading to loss of biodiversity including disappearance of wild animals. Experiments regarding tenure social dynamics of tigers show that it is necessary to have 800 to 1,200 sq km of inviolate forests with adequate prey population and proper connectivity for long-term conservation of tigers. Even if there are 25 breeding tigresses in such forests, the area will have a tiger population of 70 to 75 including cubs. In such a scenario, one or two poaching per year will also not threaten the extinction of the species.

The Kali Tiger Reserve, which was earlier called Anshi- Dandeli Tiger Reserve, is having a large number of human habitation in its core area. Unless these villages are relocated and the tiger reserve is freed from human and cattle pressure, there is no question of building healthy prey density and consequently a better tiger density. The management has a huge task ahead to make this tiger reserve inviolate.

The tiger density here is less that two tigers per 100 sq km and the management will have to toil a lot to bring it to the level of Bandipur and Nagarhole. While that being the case, opening a trekking trail for canopy walk for 97 km is adding further disturbance in the reserve and revival of prey and predator will be a distant reality.

Allowing tourism in core area of the tiger reserve is a matter which has been settled in the Supreme Court. After a prolonged public debate, the National Tiger Conservation Authority has formulated a guideline on the subject, which has been endorsed by the court. According to this guideline, not more than 20% of the core area in any tiger reserve or the existing area already under use for tourism, whichever is less, will only be opened for tourists’ visits.

SC guidelines

The guidelines further add that the number of visits on any day should not exceed the carrying capacity. The Kali tiger reserve has already opened some area for tourists’ visit. It will be in contravention of the Supreme Court approved guidelines, if more areas are added for the visit of the tourists.

Some Tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand had opened more than 60% core area for tourism in the past. In compliance with the guidelines, when it was incumbent on the respective management to restrict tourism area, they started computing only the area occupied by roads and view lines, which is highly misleading.

The entire core area including the habitat between any two roads will have to be included in it. When tourists’ vehicles move on the road, the habitat between the two roads is seldom used by wide ranging animals.

In the circumstances, as narrated above the proposed Canara trail has to be restricted to 173 km between Jog Falls and Shivapura in Anshi. I support education and awareness programme for the citizens, which ultimately helps the conservation. However, I am not in favour of opening long trail for canopy walk in pristine areas. Though these areas are still not included in the `protected area’ network, many of these patches are of very high biodiversity value and require as good a protection as tiger reserves.

The Forest Department must think of shorter trails without going through pristine areas and sensitive patches of myristica swamps etc. The proposal for creating temporary infrastructure for stay of tourists etc will never find a favour from conservationists.

We know that a large number of illegal trekking is already happening in Karnataka. We also hear the tourists losing way in the forests and sometimes even resulting in their death.

Private tour operators exploit them by charging a hefty sum for sending a guide and organising their stay. The trekkers are generally innocent young persons from the urban areas who go for wilderness experience and adventure.

The proposal of the department to regulate trekking in the forests should be welcomed. The proposed Canara trail requires a relook and Forest Department must discharge their main duty of conservation and development of forests and wildlife.

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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