Cry in the wilderness

Print edition : January 01, 2010

The Hogenekkal falls, furious and beautiful.-PHOTOGRAPHS: A.J.T. JOHNSINGH

DRY deciduous forests flank the Cauvery river as it tumbles down the Deccan plateau along the scenic Hogenekkal falls to the plains of Tamil Nadu. The surrounding terrain is hilly with deep valleys and nallahs, and clouds swirl about the high mountain tops, several of them 1,500 metres high. This landscape constitutes almost 3,000 square kilometres of potential habitat for large mammals. It is part of one of the largest contiguous elephant habitats in Asia, which stretches from the Silent Valley National Park in the south to the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in the west and the Bannerghatta forests on the outskirts of Bangalore city in the north. The Cauvery forests, part of the Eastern Ghats, are administered by the Cauvery Wildlife Division, the Kanakapura and Kollegal Forest Divisions of Karnataka, and the Erode, Dharmapuri and Hosur Forest Divisions of Tamil Nadu.

Bone dry and hot in summer, the landscape is dotted with numerous human settlements and shrines. Thousands of pilgrims visit the popular Siva temple in the Malai Mahadeshwara Hills (MM Hills), the Hanuman temple at Muthathi and the Mariamman temple at Gopinatham. Unfortunately, the pilgrims leave behind an unsightly and polluting trail of garbage, mostly non-biodegradable stuff such as plastic bottles and bags. The major tribal inhabitants are the Sholigas, largely in Karnataka, and the Irulas, mainly in Tamil Nadu. The Sholigas especially know the terrain very well.

Cattle with beautiful patterns of white on their red and brown skins.-

In mid-July 2009, we were in the MM Hills range on the right bank of the Cauvery to carry out a rapid survey of the landscape for large mammals. Around us, the dry deciduous forest was dominated by trees such as Albizzia amara, Chloroxylon swietinia and Hardwickia binata and shrubs such as Dodonea viscosa, Carissa carandus, C. sepiaria and Fluggea leucopyrus. We tried to evade the hard, curved thorns of Pterolobium indicum the most common thorny straggler here, which can even stop elephants in their tracks. We heard grey partridges calling merrily from different directions. As the western sky turned orange, we descended to the Palar river, a tributary of the Cauvery, which forms the boundary between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. We searched for animal signs along a 3-km stretch of its white, sandy river bed and found elephant tracks and dung leading to the sliver of water in the middle of the river bed, hardly 100 m from the bridge across the river. There were many chital tracks and a few tracks of the sambar and the wild pig. There were also numerous tracks of cattle from the nearby Sholiga colony, hardly a kilometre from the inter-State boundary. We were not looking for tiger pugmarks, which are exceedingly rare in this landscape, but we hoped to see signs of the leopard and the sloth bear. We saw none.

As darkness descended, we left the river and climbed to the Salem-Mysore road. A common langur crossed the road, hurrying to its roost as we did to our vehicle parked near the bridge. The staff at the forest check post told us that some time after we had crossed the river bed a big elephant had come to the river for a drink. Since it was big, alone and tuskless, we assumed it was a makhna (a tuskless male). On the following 30-km night drive to our next destination, the forest rest house in the MM Hills, we did not see a single animal.

A grizzled giant squirrel feeding on the fruits of Flacourtia montana in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary.-

Not long ago, these forests were the haunt of the dreaded brigand K.M. Veerappan. The many caves on the now quiet mountain tops were a perfect shelter for this criminal, who held sway over the entire Cauvery forests for over two decades. His business was the smuggling of precious sandalwood and the peddling of elephant tusks. He killed several police and Forest Department personnel and innocent villagers who came in his way. Superintendent of Police Harikrishna, Sub-inspector Shakeel Ahmed and Divisional Forest Officer P. Srinivas were among the many officers who attempted to capture Veerappan alive and were killed by him. He carried a bounty of Rs.5 crore on his head, but even so for 14 long years he managed to evade the Special Task Force (STF), which was established by the States of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka expressly to catch him. The STF is rumoured to have cost Rs.20 crore for each year of its mission.

On our survey routes, the forest staff accompanying us pointed out the many places where the bandit had waylaid the STF team and murdered others. The next morning, in Sorekaimadu, huge pits on the forest road were explained as the sites where landmines blew up police vehicles in 1993, killing several STF men and maiming for life the then Superintendent of Police, Gopalakrishna. The day after that, our path crossed the Murugandi halla (nallah) where, on November 10, 1991, Srinivas was shot from behind and brutally beheaded while still alive. Srinivas, who believed in ahimsa, was winning the war against Veerappan with his good deeds in the village. Threatened, Veerappan tricked him into coming to the forest, alone and unarmed, with the message that he would like to surrender. The courageous Srinivas made the fatal mistake of believing him.

A view of Biligunda village in Anchetti range of the Hosur Forest Division.-

Legends surrounding Veerappan are indistinguishable from the truth. It was said that Veerappan was fond of langur meat and would lure the animals with calls and then shoot them. Ostensibly, he was a Robin Hood to the villagers around Gopinatham, his native village, and they are thus believed to have helped him hoodwink the forces. The truth, possibly, was not so simple. His end eventually came at the hands of the STF on October 18, 2004.

The forest guard in the MM Hills range seemed to think that Veerappans presence had deterred other poachers and that his death had emboldened new poachers to decimate the wildlife systematically. Considering the dearth of fresh wildlife signs, we were inclined to accept the guards analysis.

The Mariamman Temple built by Divisional Forest Officer P. Srinivas with his own money in Gopinatham, the native village of Veerappan. He was winning the war against Veerappan with his good deeds in the village when the brigand tricked him into coming to the forest alone and killed him.-

At the MM Hills the next morning, koels called plaintively to the monsoon, as though pleading for a full rain. Although we were well into the rainy season, the place had received only a few light showers until then. After a morning visit to Sorekaimadu and its grisly landmine pits, the forest guard took us to Aler halla where a year before guards had seen 10 gaurs. We did not see any gaur or any sign of it, but there were numerous cattle with beautiful patterns of white on their red and brown skins. Enjoying the occasional drizzle, we walked for about 3 km along the mostly dry nallah with some water in pools. The only sign of wildlife we saw was the spoor of an otter, which had walked along the nallah. We did see a lot of evidence of fishing by the local people, and most of the pools stank with fish entrails left rotting in the water.

At Palar forest bungalow we met C. Putta, a 50-year-old forest watcher, who narrated his encounter nearly 20 years ago with a mother sloth bear tending two cubs. He said how he had made the mistake of trying to scare away the bears by throwing a stone and how the mother bear charged at him and bit him on the right knee. Putta retaliated by slashing it with his knife, nearly severing its snout. At this, it screamed and ran away. The bear, unable to eat or drink, was found dead a week later.

An image of Srinivas, who is worshipped as a deity, in the temple.-

In the evening we drove to the Hogenekkal falls and returned just as it was getting dark. Although the habitat all along the road to Hogenekkal is potentially good for the chital, the sambar and the gaur, with dry deciduous forests on one side and the Cauvery on the other side, we did not see a single mammal on this 50-km drive. Just before reaching the MM Hills forest bungalow, though, we chanced upon a pair of jackals, which in the headlights of our vehicle ran across the road. Trees swayed in the howling wind as if seized by a demon as we descended from Tala betta in the MM Hills range to Gopinatham village in the Cauvery Wildlife Division. The 16-km trail dropped from 700 m to 200 m. The forest staff had told us that the valley along this trail would be the best place to see large mammals. A year ago, DFO Kumar Pushkar had seen a tiger pugmark on this trail.

Spotted babblers sang cheerfully as we walked on the tracks of the sloth bear, the leopard and the elephant. Remains in the droppings indicated that the sloth bear had eaten the fruits of Opilia amentacea. All along, unfortunately, we also saw evidence of cattle. On the last lap of our walk, a strong wind and a heavy drizzle lashed us, forcing us to race along the bund of a reservoir to our destination for the night, a century-old forest bungalow.

A memorial in the place where he was killed, against the backdrop of Mayilmalai (peacock mountain), which was one of Veerappan's hideouts.-

Having seen portions of the forests on the Karnataka side, we decided to drive back to Mysore through the forests on the left bank of the Cauvery. These fall under the Pennagaram and Hogenekkal ranges of the Dharmapuri Forest Division and the Anchetti and Urigam ranges of the Hosur Forest Division. Near Hogenekkal and Muthathi we saw numerous tourists camping by the side of the river and cooking food using firewood. A few were even cooking huge quantities of fish, obviously caught from the river illegally.

Opilia amentacea. The sloth bear relishes its fruits.-

Muthathi village was full of garbage and scrub cattle. Our stay in Bheemeshwari Fishing Camp, run by Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd, an undertaking of the Karnataka government, 5 km from Muthathi, was exceedingly useful as we could discuss conservation issues with Sundar Raj, the manager of the camp. Sundar knows the riverine tract coming under the three fishing camps of Bheemeshwari, Galibore and Doddamakali like the back of his hand. We were delighted to see several endangered grizzled giant squirrels (Ratufa macroura) around the camp. They belong to a species endemic to South India and Sri Lanka.

Adventure sports such as coracle rides and (below) rafting arranged on the Cauvery by the fishing camps attract tourists.-

On our way to the camp we had driven through nearly 300 km of forest and walked another 25 km but had seen only six chitals for all the effort. We were especially pleased, therefore, to sight nearly 100 chitals around the camp, evidently enjoying the protection offered by Sundar and his team, who keep away poachers and eliminate village dogs that prey on the chital. This demonstrated the potential of these forests to support a much higher density of the chital, the sambar and the gaur.

The limited information available shows that the status of the gaur could be exceedingly precarious in the landscape. The dry tracts on either side of the Cauvery can be an excellent place for the chowsingha, or four-horned antelope, a low-density species that cannot withstand large-scale habitat disturbance, particularly grazing. It looks like the species is very rare or may even be absent in the landscape.

Sitting in the cool shade of the riverine forest, we discussed what could be done to improve the conservation values of the landscape. The forests suffer from a natural aridity in summer, which limits the carrying capacity of the land, as well as from poaching and grazing throughout the year. We believe that the best way to go forward is to establish an inter-State Cauvery conservation reserve whose major objectives should be improved protection to forests, ungulates, elephant tuskers and the river, which harbours mahseer, the famous sport fish that makes the Cauvery fishing camps veritable showpieces for Karnataka.

Unregulated picnicking on the river banks has become a great ecological concern.-

Adventure sports such as coracle rides and rafting offered on the Cauvery by the fishing camps attract tourists. It is also important to meet the growing firewood needs of villagers, tourists and pilgrims through fuel wood plantations. The firewood needs of the visitors to the MM Hills are enormous. The Shimsha and the Arkavathy rivers, crucial for the spawning of the endangered mahseer, should be freed from commercial fishing. As is done in the fishing camps, the fishermen of the Arkavathy and the Shimsha could be employed as fish guards instead.

Pterolobium Indicum is the most common thorny straggler in the forests. It can even stop elephants in their tracks.-

Specific cooking places for tourists or pilgrims should be identified in places like Muthathi and Hogenekkal to prevent people from cutting wood and cooking anywhere on the bank of the river as they do now. Special efforts should go into strengthening the existing connectivity between the Hosur and Bannerghatta forests and that between the Hanur range and the Biligirirangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, which has the only source population of tigers in this part of the Eastern Ghats. Many such measures are required to ensure the future of the wildlife in forests on either side of the Cauvery.

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