New threats to Sharavati Valley

New threats to Sharavati Valley

In Perspective

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Sharavati river and the valley play a crucial role in providing economic and ecological security to the people of Karnataka, helping generate clean hydro-power of 1,500 MW that serves the power needs of the industrial and service sectors.

In comparison to mighty Cauvery, Sharavati is a short river, flowing just 132 kms, originating at Ambutheertha in Teerthalli, Shivamogga district, and joining the Arabian Sea at Honnavar in Uttara Kannada district. With a catchment area of 2,774 sq kms, the west-flowing river provides water for agriculture, wildlife and, last but not the least, its aquatic life.

As it flows down the crest line of the Western Ghats, it forms the world-famous Jog waterfall.

Considering the invaluable services provided by the catchment forests, in 1978, a part of this was declared as Sharavati Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. In June 2019, an additional area – the Aghanashini Valley in Uttara Kannada was included, and notification was issued to form the Sharavathi Valley LTM (lion-tailed macaque) Sanctuary.

In the gazette notification, it was specifically mentioned that “the landscape is covered by climax tropical evergreen forests that are extremely rich in flora and fauna, especially the presence of lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), Great Indian Hornbill and Myristica swamps.” Further, it adds that this region is part of a global biodiversity hotspot, and there is need to conserve this precious and irreplaceable unique landscape. It would thus provide a better wildlife habitat and movement of wildlife corridor.

This proactive decision was historic as it is the only sanctuary in the world to be set up for the rare, endangered species of lion-tailed macaque.

Sharavati is also known as the Silent Valley of Karnataka.

The Silent Valley in Kerala was declared as a National Park in 1986 after the long-drawn struggle against the building of a proposed hydel dam. The presence of lion-tailed macaque in Silent Valley was one of the main reasons for former prime minister Indira Gandhi jettisoning the hydel project.

New Threats

The BJP government in the state is keen to build a 2,000-MW Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Project in the midst of the Sharavati Valley. This will take a toll on the forests, the habitat of the lion-tailed macaque, as well as disturb the riverbed, adversely impacting the fragile ecosystem.

Increasing fragmentation of the lion-tailed macaque habitat will impact the exclusively arboreal species modifying their behaviour, forcing them to descend to the ground in search of food.

The spread of ‘monkey fever’ or Kyasanoor Forest Disease (KFD) virus in Sharavati Valley has taken a toll of humans and monkeys. There is every possibility that this virus may also get transmitted to the lion-tailed macaque, leading to their decimation.

Further, the BJP-led pressure group in Uttara Kannada is lobbying with the chief minister to denotify the areas of Aghanashini Valley that were added to increase the habitat of the LTM sanctuary. Though the existing boundaries of the present sanctuary exclude the revenue villages and private lands and is applicable only to reserved forests, there is apprehension among people that they will be relocated.

It will be unfortunate if petty power politics is allowed to cause a reduction in the LTM habitat. For these endemic species that are found in small rainforests of the Western Ghats, the larger contiguous forest canopy is what is crucial for their survival, not man-made boundaries.

It will be a retrograde step if the State Wildlife Board is used to denotify the LTM Sanctuary area. The tall claims made during the earlier notification, with the main purpose of “propagating and developing wildlife and its environment” will sound hollow and reveal that the present government is not serious about protecting and conserving Sharavati Valley and its wildlife habitats, which are powerless in front of the brute force of the government.

The Gerusoppa Valley that forms part of Sharavati was once known as ‘pepper queen’ due to the abundance of wild pepper in the forests, which was exported.  However, the rich biodiverse catchment forests have been replaced by monoculture acacia and teak plantations, converting the ‘pepper queen’ to ‘timber queen’!

This reduction of diversity has had a negative impact on the water flow as well as on the wildlife habitats.

Dam-building across the Sharavati has also caused irreversible damage to the catchment regions. The free flow of the river is just 14 kms from its origin, Ambuthreetha, as most of the river is submerged under the dam waters of the Linganmakki reservoir.

There is an urgent need to conserve the remaining natural, old-growth biodiversity-rich tropical forests in Sharavati Valley. It not only protects the habitat of the mute lion-tailed macaques, but also builds natural immunity and resilience, reducing the negative impact of climate change.

Large-scale human intervention has already decimated the waterfall in Jog, which we see only for a few days in the monsoon. If we allow further destruction of the Sharavati Valley, the rare and endangered lion-tailed macaque will also be decimated.

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