Standing over the high ridge of the Nilgiri Tahr Mukurthi national park, it struck me that walking across an area of 5520 sq km was not going to be an easy task. But in the light of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve representing a microcosm of the vast forests of Southern India, including all the forest types known to the region and thriving in endemism, a survey of this kind was worth the effort. The region encompasses several protected areas and large stretches of reserve forests that straddle three states, namely Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The plan was to cover as much forest area in the region as possible, to be able to correctly estimate wild honey bee colonies in the region. A study of this kind is rarely commissioned wherein bees have been studied across a wide expanse. Starting from the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Karnataka, we moved downwards to cover the Silent Valley National Park as well. And in the process, we learnt valuable lessons that aided in gathering information about honey bee populations as well as gaining a larger perspective about the state of the forests in the Biosphere Reserve. We were to follow a simple methodology, two 5 km transects across selected ranges in a particular forest area and then repeating the activity in the next nesting season.
A few days to be spent in the Rajiv Gandhi National Park and the hunt for colonies is on. To visit Nagarhole is an exhilarating opportunity and to do so when the dry season is about to end is a dream come true. We reached the Hunsur division office as the rain clouds appeared over the horizon from Wynaad. The rains followed as we shifted to our temporary home inside the park. Starting with Anechowker which is the northernmost range, we began our work in tune with the music of the rains. At Anechowker and aided by a very helpful Range officer and smart guards, we began our survey. At this stage, the survey was meant to put together a brief knowledge bank that would tell us the locations of the bee nests. Starting from the boundary of the Virajpet forest division, we began a transect that would take us more than ten kilometers inside the park, walking through the some pristine forests. We looked for major trees that would have populations of the bees and kept walking. In this manner, we spent a week in the national park counting combs and basking in the thrill of the forest. A large population of mammals in the region, coupled with plentiful drinking water sources during this season, guaranteed numerous close encounters. Once, a tigress taken aback by our intrusion into her water hole responded by jumping in front of a team member causing him severe discomfort. Several elephants decided to ignore us as we constantly pushed our limits in their territory. Walking through Nagarhole is a reminder that the need to preserve inviolate habitats benefits not only wildlife but also in gaining scientific knowledge, much of which still remains hidden inside the forests.
From Nagarhole, we covered Bandipur NP and Wynaad sanctuary. Though Bandipur is famous for its large mammals, I consider Wynaad to be one of the gems of the Western Ghats. Wherever they are protected in good measure, the forests thrive with abundant flora and a diversity of large animals. Encountering a wild elephant is not an exception but the rule here and by the time, our survey finished in these forests, I had thoroughly mastered the art of avoiding the pachyderms without causing any harm to self. But Wynaad also tells the story of the effects of fragmentation. Except for the sanctuary, which infact is also fragmented between ranges, much of the remaining forest of Wynaad district is highly disturbed with ancient migratory routes of elephants permanently broken. This has resulted in severe cases of conflicts and losses for both animals as well as human groups. As a local person put it aptly, there is 'No Space for neither Humans nor Elephants'. The histories behind these conflicts is disturbing but save for a band of interested groups and dedicated forest officials, there would be little attention on the status of these forests.
In Wynaad as well as in the neighbouring forests, human wildlife conflicts have far reaching environmental impacts. Threats to particular species is one consequence as animals are not able to cope with pressures on their natural habitat. 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. Most forest villages suffer from crop depredation and damage to physical infrastructure such as water pipes, electrical installations and livestock. 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 situation. And as population increases, the high pitched conflict between various actors of the debate is likely to cross over to more damage to the mute wild animals.
The concern of future repercussions of this conflict lingered on as we moved out of Wynaad, where we had conducted the survey with the help of a dedicated young conservationist, Vinayan who conducted most of the remaining surveys single handedly. The story of Wynaad where destruction had taken over environmental consciousness is unique, for it is from here that answers to these problems are emerging. And people like Vinayan embody the spirit of wild Wynaad as they have taken up cudgels to preserve remaining forests through education, proactive liaisoning with the forest department and community based afforestation activities.
Disjointed thoughts about Wynaad stayed on as the survey was conducted in the adjoining Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Though there was significant disturbance to habitat in unprotected forests in Wynaad, yet the status of honey bee colonies was preliminary deduced to be healthy and this was an encouraging sign. In Mudumalai too, we 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 rise to the hypothesis that bees prefer high trees in moist forests while preferring cliffs in dry forests, where high trees are rarely found.
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 have resulted in a high faunal density as well as adequate natural regeneration. Though protected, the sanctuary is not bereft of problems. Fortunate enough to be shielded on two sides by Bandipur and Wynaad, it continues to reel under rapidly increasingly biotic pressure from the east and south. Small towns like Masinagudi and Singara pose immense threat to the fragile ecosystem, besides the numerous villages that dot the area along Gudalur. Largely, plantations creep right up to the forest boundary, leaving no scope for a buffer zone. Locals and marginal farmers have devised unique ways of living in this strange lifestyle and are up against the elements as well as the giant pachyderms that constantly threat to invade their fields. To watch them sandwiched between plantations and the forest is a lesson in survival, both from human interests and giant elephants.
A recent phenomenon in areas adjoining Mudumalai is the mushrooming of resorts and home stays. This activity, being conducted in legally held revenue lands has its pros and cons in the larger context of conservation and is open to debate. But activities like excessive firewood extraction, safaris and treks for large groups in reserve forest adjoining the sanctuary is taking a toll on the health of the fragile dry forests, efforts to enthuse resorts to undertake environmentally sound principles for their operations is likely to aid in the longer run. Mudumalai and Sigur are an important elephant habitat besides being home to small groups of indigenous people and a largely 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 with healthy populations in several areas, there remained still several regions that were required to be surveyed. Groups spread out to Silent Valley National Park, Nilambur forests and the Sathyamangalam region in the eastern part of the biosphere reserve.
At Sathyamangalam, there are several cliffs harbouring a large number of combs and the team counted more than 600 combs in a matter of few days. Aided by students of the Mettupalayam forest college, for whom it was a valuable field exercise, the study resulted in gaining much needed knowledge about the less studied ecology of bees. The Sathyamangalam region lies to the east of the district of Nilgiris. With claims to fame that includes a high density of wild elephants, an almost total control of resources in the hands of the people and the legacy of brigands like Veerappan, Sathyamangalam has been blessed with some of the largest contiguous forest patches in the Nilgiri Biosphere region and has been a laboratory for successful initiatives of forest management under the able hands of dynamic forest officers.
The region is considered to be among the prime habitats of the Asian elephant. Co-existing for long, adivasis and animals have thrived till today, 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 of the region, a threat to the very identity of the region. Coupled with rapidly increasing pressure on the forests, it is a plausible certainty that the Sathy forests, as they are so called will rapidly disintegrate. Not as a warning of gloom but as a reminder of the doom that has affected far too many places in the nation, it is but imperative that Sathy and the large forest that have continued to thrive 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 much educative trip through these ancient forests of Southern India. Though I have been to most of these forests at different times, it felt strangely rewarding to cover the entire region in a short span of time. Quite a few impressions were formed during this foray and standing in the Nilgiri peak region of Mukurthi, several crossed my mind as we went out to count bees for the one last time in the valleys adjoining the Nilgiri peak. It is a different matter that this transect proved disastrous as we lost our way in the evergreen forests of Kerala and had to climb up back to the peak and somehow make our way to civilization. This final strain and subsequent exhaustion, however was a final reminder of the difficulties to understand nature as a material object and the need to let nature be as it is and not be interfered upon as so many of us are keen to.
That night, somewhere in a dry rivulet with the Nilgiri Peak towering above, it struck me that though the rights of the voiceless amongst humans is recognized, what will happen to the looming trees above me as the century old onslaught on them continues. Forests, the omnipresent philanthropist is scheduled to be phased out soon. Crushed between debates and opinions, most forget that the forest inherently comprises of two elements – flora or trees and shrubs, fauna or animals, with mankind being a latter addition. These three are intrinsic to the very identity of the forest. But in the divide between interest groups, importance of either component is looked at through the benefits they can accrue to man. This policy as we know it has an inevitable conclusion with erstwhile forests likely to be henceforth known as plantations, forest villages or maybe, just a nature park.