April 29, 2019

A Land devoid of Kurunjis

The undulating mass of land lying south to the fertile Mysore region has a life that is it's own. The Nilgiris remains to this day alive and throbbing. It still is the land of honey and milk, where the giant rock bees nest in abundance and the soil nourishes all.

Known throughout the world for a blue tinge that covered the mountain sides on a twelve year cycle, these embodiment of the Nilgiris spirit has now come to a loss. The Kurinjis are vanishing and so is the spirit of the man who inhabits these hills.

The Nilgiris lies at the trijunction of the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala and harbours unique flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the Nilgiris. The Nilgiris also boast of the being the first declared Biosphere Reserve under the man and Biosphere programme of UNESCO in 1986 and to this day, remains the only biosphere that has been officialy recognised by the United Nations Body.

The Nilgiris was formed as a result of upheaval in Pleistocene era that resulted in the churning out of the huge mass of rock as we see the Nilgiris today. yet, with stability came a price - a price of soft upper strata that is highly vulnerable to modifications and disturbance. the charnockite rock layer on the upper strata makes Nilgiris unstable. And the soft rock layer on the upper surface also makes the rock vulnerable to illegal mining for housing purposes. The scourge of mining which had devastated large tracts of the nation has been, somewhat satisfactorily

Yet, the Nilgiri Ecology is in decline today. Unfettered development, adoption os a high energy dependent lifestyle and reverse migration are some of the factors that are contributing to the ongoing degradation of the Nilgiris.

However, the Nilgiris that meets the eye and the Nilgiris that remains tucked in far from the prying eyes of the outsider are two different worlds and much effort needs to be put in to conserve that other world, that other world of the mystical, beautiful Nilgiris. The other world in the Nilgiris is a world which belongs to the adivasis and to the mountains, it belongs to the rivers and the tigers. And this is the Nilgiris which lend to it that particular aura bringing hundreds of conscious worshippers to the place.

The challenge today is that the Nilgiris must be accorded a degree of protection that goes beyond mere lip sync and is carried forward to a level where the ecology is seen together and efforts made to protect that ecology

April 25, 2019


Human-Wildlife Conflict can consume the Forest Department in the long run - Abhijit Dutta and Kunal Sharma

The past year has been one to forget for the wildlife in India. A terrified elephant calf engulfed in a fire-ball was photographed following its equally terrified mother, chased by an angry mob of villagers. ‘Man-eater’ Avni, the tiger, was killed in a cold-blooded, politically motivated operation that involved a controversial sharpshooter, leaving behind her two immature cubs orphaned. The Lalgarh tiger, whom the forest department couldn’t track and capture, and the tiger who supposedly scripted a historic migration from Bandhavgarh to Lalgarh, got killed in the ugliest of fashions - a spear right through his face by a group of villagers who tracked it before the forest department could. The forest department in most states had few answers to the above episodes.

460 leopards died in 2018, mostly due to unnatural, man-made causes, highest in any year till date. 35 elephants died due to electrocution in in the same year. Nearly half of the tigers that died in 2018, were found dead outside protected areas. While the country was celebrating the Wildlife week in October 2018, Gujarat celebrated it in a rather unusual manner - by letting the world know that 23 Gir lions have died due to canine distemper disease, a disease that could have been dealt with efficient precautionary measures. The story of the Great Indian Bustard in 2018 was even more morose, probably hinting at its heartbreaking extinction before 2020. In the shadow of this eternal grief, countless projects were cleared by the “regulating” agencies, paving the way for the destruction of the Aarey forests and mangrove sanctuary in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

In the shadow of providing support to indigenous communities, who have been custodians of forests since ancient times, land was snatched from right beneath their feet in Hasdeo Arand for setting up a coal mine in one of the last pristine forests left in India. In the shadow of good forest governance, from 2012 to 2017, 162 forest rangers had to lose their lives guarding the forests of India, three times more than second placed Democratic Republic of Congo.

Reports of human wildlife conflict has been spiralling out of control and as has been the case of media coverage on biodiversity related issues, there has been negligible focus on the extreme human reactions to wildlife straying into populated areas. But small snatches of news that filters out from the hinterlands of India shows a disturbing trend. Visuals of leopards being burnt at stakes or elephants being bombed in the own forests are also accompanied by increasing incidents of arson against the forest department. Most reportage almost synonymously puts the onus of extreme conflict on a forest department official who is invariably photographed sizing up against hordes of stick yielding mobs.

However, this phenomenon is not the result of an overnight outburst of emotions. Since the past 20-25 years and possibly from the time of independence, the forest department has not been popular among the masses. From implementing Joint Forest Management to the interpretation of the Forest Rights Act, communities have accused the department of rampant corruption, oppression and denial of basic rights. On the other hand, the department has always considered the forest and the wildlife as its property. Since time immemorial, a plethora of schemes meant for the forest-fringe population have not managed to deliver a fraction of their intended agenda, leaving rural communities dissatisfied.

But the fact remains that the despite overwhelming odds, innumerable officials within the department have gone out of their way to preserve our forests. Bureaucratically, the department is loathed by officials of other arms of the government who see it as an obstruction to their own development related work. Bravely, in spite of frequent setbacks, the forest department has steadfastly stood against diversion of forest land, poaching, encroachment and fragmentation and will go down in history as one of the key reasons for saving whatever is left of India’s biodiversity.

This is a double edged and highly serrated sword where officials of the forest department fight for the forest at the risk of their own lives and at the same time works tirelessly and perhaps involuntarily to alienate communities who are integral to the forest ecosystem. This has led to feeding enemies on both the sides. In the villages, irate mobs see each transgression by the unfortunate tiger as an act of revenge against the forest department and the latent anger is fueled into revenge killings, forest fires and arson. In other circles, the department is increasingly vilified for inadept crisis management that is lapped by the media as best manifested by the incident of Avni’s murder where the national media pushed the state forest department into a corner. It is surprising, but intellectuals talk of ‘Human-wildlife conflict’ now, more than any time before, as another demonstration of inept bureaucracy although it has been a constant management issue as India began its march towards progress after independence.

As the department goes into a huddle after each rescue attempt, showing a lack of willingness to engage with communities and keeps losing public support, it compounds the cascading negative impacts of ‘Human-wildlife interaction’. It is high time that we realize, from recent events in the Indian biodiversity sphere, that this oft neglected issue of ‘Human-wildlife conflict’ is responsible for increasing incidents of man-made forest fires, deforestation, resettlement retaliation like in Melghat, regular road-kills, aggressive offspring, stressed wild animals and many more. Not only does the department need to actively chalk down strategies for managing conflict situations in the future but they should also be seen to actively engage with stakeholders to bring down such incidences.

The onus lies on the department to take up active mitigation measures to reduce such incidences and come up with universally applicable protocols while managing volatile theaters of conflict. The thorn around paying cattle-kill compensation needs to be swiftly addressed. Already, a successful model exists in and around Bandipur Tiger Reserve where the Mariamma Charitable Trust preempts an outburst of anger by disbursing aid money within a few hours of each kill. Above all, an oft repeated suggestion has been to carefully sift through the lower rungs of the department and appoint culturally sensitive officials who have demonstrated that they work in the service out of a sense of heightened duty and not merely because wildlife postings are considered plum opportunities in the current setup.

April 22, 2019

A Forest Conservation Perspectve

Karnataka is home to the diverse forests including the famed Western Ghats that cuts a swathe through more than nine districts while nurturing some of the most fascinating landscapes man has ever known. These forests harbour a bewildering wealth of flora and fauna: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and freshwater fishes; much of which is endemic to the region. As early as 1988, people like Myers mentioned that the high level of diversity and endemism in the Western Ghats has given it the status of one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. Forests in Karnataka are spread across landscapes ranging from Evergreen, Semi-Evergreen, Moist, Dry and Shola forests resulting in a paradise for botanists, researchers, tourists and forest lovers in general. These forests are the source of several rivers, streams, swamps and marshes cumulatively bringing water to the parched land and ensuring a lifeline to millions across the state.

Often, forests mean many things to many people. It is a source for food for some, the supply of medicinal plants for others and a valuable economic source of timber for many. All these are traditional demands that have been met by the forest since life began on earth. There would be infact few forests that do not provide benefits to either man or animal, in one way or the other. This role of the forest as a mutual agent of assistance is acknowledged by millions countrywide. For them, the forest is the omnipresent philanthropist, always ready to give.

However, even the most generous donor has a threshold and the wild is in a terminal decline today, leading to an ever-increasing clamour to protect these fragile resources. Citizens, especially those who receive the benefits of forestry resources sitting in distant locations have grudgingly acknowledged that these resources need to be conserved, providing a significant urban-based push for the environment movement over the past few years. There are a plethora of voices when it comes to focus on reversing the degradation of natural resources. Some advocates of conservation promote exclusion of forest-dependent people from their homes in the so-called larger interest of the society, a concept that is opposed by groups who actively demand that indigenous people be allowed to stay in their ancestral lands and allowed to have rights over these lands.

This leads us to question whether forests are to be conserved for the benefit of urban conglomerations in commercial markets or is it to be conserved for people who live in adjacent areas and subsist on them, or is to be conserved to protect the invaluable wild flora and fauna that enrich the planets’ biodiversity.

These issues are related to the ownership, use and management of the forests. How will the resources be utilized and by whom, for whom? The State, representing many interests, including that of the demand of the distant consumer, has larger concerns in mind to meet the larger objectives. Dams, logging, mining and large projects are undertaken to meet these goals and permanently alter these areas and their ecology. On the other hand, the forests are home to indigenous communities who have traditionally been dependent upon natural resources, utilizing and surviving on forest resources for a long period of time. These are some of the pulls and tugs that forest areas are now subject to.

This is a wide variety of choices people have made for themselves, forgetting that the forests inherently comprise three elements – flora or trees and shrubs, fauna or animals and man. These three are intrinsic to the very identity of the forests. But in the divide between many interest groups, it is easy to focus on the importance of any of these three components individually. Through an isolated window, focus on either one of the three is likely to lead to an imminent collapse of the forest ecosystem. Forests will then cease to exist as they do now and remain but a mere plantation or a forest village or a zoo or a research station, for the three complements each other and the alienation of one will inevitably alter the character of the forests as we know them. Just as it is necessary to provide a safe refuge to the diverse fauna, it is difficult to ignore the communities who have traditionally lived by the forests and accessed it for their livelihood. Can they be made partners in forest management and continue to protect its resources, undertaking the least damaging activity of NTFP collection, rather than large scale mutilation of forest regions? It is indeed difficult to imagine The Bilgiri Rangana Sanctuary without the Solegas or parts of Uttar Kannada without the Siddhis. Of course, a need to provide inviolate spaces need to be provided in some national parks and people may be asked to relocate but these incidences are few and far between. Indigenous people should, therefore, be allowed to stay within their traditional domains and not shifted due to the misjudged perception of some, especially based on a general sweep that categorises all of them as being inordinately exploitative in nature. The indigenous people, if made a modern-day guardian, will result in being the pre-eminent defender of the forest, augmenting the efforts of the solitary forest guard, significantly.

Old diary entries - Old emotions

April 19, 2019

To write.. it needs... more than... a wish!!!!

How does one start. Some switch on the plug and start typing, some just take a smoke, some wait for the darkness to fall, while others add a litle fuel to their systems. Somebody said a long time back and said it so correctly, that starting is not the problem, reaching the destination is.

To start is like the millions of things that we as humans do, but personal findings suggest that the fuel is very expensive and of scarce availability to continue.

And one just cant start writing. No writers' block, it is the start. Trying tricks, not one but many, yet he falters in his attempts, wondering at the ingenuity of those who churn out a thousand references in their single lifetimes, all so very mystical -this job of writing, of quality writing. It is similar to scorning a housewife for doing negligent work but failing abysmally as you start doing it yourself, similar is the tryst with writing. A sputtering old diesel engine would do better.. We are on and then off and then on again, yet never fully running to full capacity.

Budding writers are all sputtering, ramshacled engines. Nowehere to go, nothing to do, nothing in sight and nothing feels right.

April 17, 2019

Article in Mongabay-India


April 16, 2019

Uncontrolled Tourism in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve

And then there is uncontrolled tourism, the one which India as a nation is most familiar with.

Uncontrolled not as a result of the large hordes of tourists but because of the abysmal state of tourism management in place. Amongst popular zones of tourism in South India, the Nilgiris region counts high and each year, an increasing number of inland and foreign tourists come to the hills to escape the heat of the plains or to simply experience the large swathes of forests that cover the region.

Infact, not all zones are popular and some receive an unduly large number of tourists as compared to other equally beautiful regions. A cursory look at the map of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve can help demarcate certain regions which are high tourist zones. Major zones include the Siruvani Waterfall, with mostly local tourists who visit for recreation and leave behind solid waste in the form of plastic wrappers, bottles and more.

The next major tourism belt is the Upper Nilgiri region based around the towns of Coonoor and Ooty. The visitors include visitors from outside the state, foreigners and day visitors from cities and towns of Tamil Nadu. The Ooty-Coonoor region is the hub of most tourist activities with the estimated number of people touching more than 1.2 million annually.

The third zone is Sigur Plateau where wildlife tourism is in vogue. A consequent spin-off of the wildlife tourism enterprise are widespread reports of night safari and increased pressures on the meagre resources of this dry plateau.

The fourth zone is Bandipur belt where a number of resorts have come up, adjacent to the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. This comprises visitors from parts of Karnataka and outstation visitors from other parts of India.

The fifth zone is Nagarhole where a majority of the tourists are willing to pay more for high-end services that include luxury-settings.

The sixth zone is Wynaad where there have been recent developments in tourism and a number of middle to high-end resorts have come up that cater to varying clientele.

The seventh zone is Silent Valley National Park where only a limited number of tourists are permitted and is visited mostly by serious trekkers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Of these seven zones, the Sigur plateau and upper areas of Nilgiri hills are under severe pressure. Lack of civic sense among visitors to these places is felt in the wildlife environs. In Sigur and Nagarhole, it also leads to reports of firewood collection to meet the demands of the tourist. This ‘green greed’ - has led to the mushrooming of several wildlife resorts, guest houses and campsites, especially in Sigur. Erstwhile estates have converted to this lucrative business. e.g. in Sigur there are about thirty wildlife resorts and hotels which put severe pressure for resources in that plateau.

Besides, there is a little restriction on the number and kinds of vehicles that are let into the protected areas, especially in Mudumalai. Roads have proven to be a major source of degradation of the forest regions and in fast-forwarding exposure of Adivasis to jet setters from all over the nation. One particular example is the road that passes through Masinagudi and up to Ooty through the forested regions of Sigur. This road is exposed to vehicles that seek to avoid the long travelling time on the main Gudalur-Mysore highway, consequently surpassing the carrying capacity of the region. These stories repeat themselves again in various forms.

The large influx of tourists, as we are witnessing in Ooty has led to severe pressures on the natural ecosystems. While the revenue generated by tourism is welcomed by the administration, one is left wondering about the negative ripple effects that have already converted several tourist-friendly zones into strict no-no’s now.

Hampi Uninterrupted