Biodiversity hotspot

Conservation

Biodiversity hotspot

Depleting scrub lands and increasing human interventions in the form of habitations are some of the major concerns around Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Set in the Agasthyamalai range, the landmark, the beautiful conical peak of Pothigai, is located 1,868 meters above sea level and cannot be missed from the foothills.

The Tiger Reserve was formed after unification of two adjacent wildlife sanctuaries. It is flanked by Neyyar, Peppara and Shendurny Wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala on the west, Tirunelveli Reserve in the north and Kanyakumari Wildlife sanctuary in the south. Together, it is called the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve, spread across 2000 sq. km, with one of the finest stretches of evergreen forests, rich in some rare species of flora and fauna. It is also  considered to be one of the tail patches of the Western Ghats, the richest biodiversity hotspots of the country.

In the middle of the rich forest land is located the Karaiyar-Sorimuthaian kovil, a temple located on the banks of the river Tamirabarani, a major pilgrimage centre in the region.
During aadi amavasai in July or August which is a big festival here, over two lakh people visit the place. This unregulated tourism for religious purposes and sightseeing had led to littering in the forest with polythene bags, glass bottles. Forest fires have also occurred in the region.

ATREE’s efforts
But lately, littering has been banned, and awareness has been created on the consequences of dumping, thanks to the efforts of the Forest Department, TNS Murugadasa Theerthapathi, ex-Zamin of Singampatti and three ecologists from ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment), R Ganesan, T Ganesh and M Soubadra Devy.  

Tourism poses a challenge
Pollution of rivers and increased vehicular movement over the years, especially during festivals, have come as a huge challenge. If the road proposed through the forest to Thiruvananthapuram materialises, the forests including the beautiful evergreen forests at higher elevations will be fragmented and degraded. Ecologists have called for environment friendly development around the reserve rather than conversion of grazing lands, using boulder-ridden hills and wetlands for various uses, felling of trees to fulfill the increased human demand for fodder, fuel wood and timber.

These ecologists have spent over 20 valuable years in the KMTR region exploring the sanctuary and have found that the biodiversity is unique to this part of the Western Ghats.

Explains R Ganesan, more of a botanist, “The plants here are some of the rarest and can be seen only here.” Ganesan even cites an episode from mythology according to which one of the hills here, Marunthuvazlmalai, is full of medicinal plants because, “a piece of the Sanjeevini parvatha, while being carried by Hanuman to save the life of Lakshman, happened to fall in this region.”  The journey into KMTR will tell you how diverse, pure, non-polluted and untouched the people here are by human needs. The sojourn into the jungle here begins with dry shrub forests with rare species of plants and animals.
As the journey progresses, the landscape changes into the evergreen wet forests of Agasthyamalai range.

Soubadra explains that normally, dry forests are not considered to be of great importance for conservation, but in reality, they play an important role in the pollination process in these forests. This is linked to the very existence of the higher forests. Giving an example of the “cascading effect”, Soubadra recalled one of her studies involving a rock bee that travels from the foothills to the peak of the mountain ranges in search of nectar and how it contributed to the whole pollination process in the forest.
“These bees follow flowering or nectar corridors like mammals and birds travelling through the year. The bees reach a particular part of the corridor just in time for pollination. If one such corridor gets disrupted because of disturbance, the bees might stop the part of the corridor waiting for pollination and this can have dire consequences,” she said.  

Tiger territory
The Tiger Reserve has over 100 species of plants found only in this region including ladies slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum druryi), Sevagil (Aglaia bourdillioni) and the Senkuringi (Gluta travancorica). Some rare species like lion-tailed macaque, brown palm civet, spiny dormouse, Nilgiri tahr and the black narrow-mouthed frog are all found here.
According to the recent tiger census, this area is said to have 24 tigers which can be spotted very rarely. It is also one among the few places in South India with the presence of five different primates and has ample scope to discover more species such as frogs.

Treasures on tiger tracks
These three ecologists and Bangalore based Jahnavi G Pai have gathered information on the flora and fauna of the region into a field guide book called ‘Treasures on Tiger Tracks’ recently.
This bi-lingual nature guide to KMTR in English and Tamil has listed in it 392 species belonging to six taxa. The book aims to cut across the language barrier; so that the local people especially children have the knowledge of what this rich bio-diversity of the Western Ghats comprises.
 

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