Lure of the wild

Published : Mar 12, 2010 00:00 IST

A view of the Moyar valley from the Sigur plateau.-

A view of the Moyar valley from the Sigur plateau.-

It was a blistering summer day in May 2008 and the rocks radiated heat. We were on a trek from Congress Mattam in the Sigur forest range in the Nilgiri North Forest Division to Mangalapatti, which houses the camp of the Special Task Force (STF) that hunted down the brigand Veerappan, in the newly established Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. The hilly terrain was sparsely vegetated, and in spite of the oppressive heat, we were rewarded with sightings of numerous gaur and sambar. What baffled us was that while the dark gaur bulls stood in the open and fed themselves unmindful of the hot sun, a group of feral buffaloes near the Moyar river was wallowing in a large pool of mud and turbid water. After encountering the feral buffaloes and watching several groups of blackbucks and chitals, we spent the night in the WWF-India field station in Thengumarahada village. The next morning we drove to Gulithoraipatti to trek to the Thalaimalai plateau along the road used by Tippu Sultan nearly 250 years ago.

While driving between Thengumarahada and Gulithoraipatti, a tiger suddenly appeared on the road, and before the cameras could be focussed, the agile cat crossed the road and stood behind a bush, watching us. This encounter with the tiger and the sightings of numerous blackbucks made us realise that probably the Sigur range and adjoining forests (the Moyar range of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary) were the only landscape in India where the magnificent tiger and the elegant antelope coexisted. In the Kanha (Madhya Pradesh) and Katerniaghat tiger reserves (Uttar Pradesh), where there was this kind of coexistence, the blackbuck became extinct several decades ago. Interestingly, Major Phythian Adams, who hunted in the Nilgiris in the first half of the last century, writes about the occurrence of the chinkara and the nilgai, two more antelope species, in this landscape. The chowsingha, a low-density antelope species, still occurs here.

The Sigur range and the adjacent Singara range were where one of us [Johnsingh] initiated his research on dholes, or Asiatic wild dogs, in the early 1970s. This was soon after tiger hunting was banned in the country, when there were numerous cattle camps in this landscape, and when villagers resorted to poisoning of the kills in order to eliminate the tigers that preyed on cattle. Poisoning killed not just the cattle-lifter but other tigers that scavenged on the kills and also several other carnivore species that have the habit of scavenging. As a result, tigers were wiped out from this landscape of about 500 square kilometres, as it happened in many other parts of the country.

The researcher never saw tiger signs during the five months of his wanderings in the Sigur and Singara ranges. The recovery of tigers in this landscape is remarkable. A little over a year ago, Ajay Desai, co-chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, and a few members of the WWF-India team saw six tigers in the Sigur range, a mother and four large cubs and an adult male. One morning in mid-August 2009, while driving from Vazhaithottam to Anaikatty in the company of Dr Bivash Pandav, WWF-International, as the brilliant light of the morning sun was dispelling the mist from the majestic Nilgiris, we saw two large tigers in a green meadow. Both glowed golden in the morning sun.

There are three reasons for the reappearance of tigers in the Sigur range and in adjacent areas: the removal of cattle camps from the forests by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department; improved protection, largely offered by the meagrely and irregularly paid tribal anti-poaching watchers; and excellent breeding in the adjacent wildlife areas of the Mudumalai Wildlife Santuary, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Nagarhole National Park, which resulted in the dispersal of tigers seeking new territories. The Sigur range, with its abundance of forage species (for example, Anogeissus latifolia, Randia dumetorum, Zizyphus xylopyrus and plenty of palatable and nutritious grass), always had a sizable population of the chital, the sambar and the gaur. The dispersing tigers easily found a home here to settle down.

It was the beginning of winter in 2009 when we decided to spend three days walking through as much of the area as possible to improve our understanding of the landscape. The entire lower Nilgiri plateau basked in the golden light of the winter sun as we started our walk from Sirur to Thengumarahada village, a distance of 20 km. The hills looked refreshingly green after the rains. Our trail went over the hills and along the valleys. In the valleys, we found that the visibility was low because of the dense vegetation. There were fresh signs of large mammals that occurred there, including the tiger and the hyena. We were unarmed, and the fresh dung and feeding signs of elephants in the valleys made us exceedingly nervous. We encountered one group of elephants and several groups of gaur, but surprisingly very few chitals and sambar. Gloriosa superba flowers with bright red petals and golden yellow bands were conspicuous amidst the greenery.

The Thulukkampatti anti-poaching camp was deserted as there was no potable water nearby. We could see the impact of Thengumarahada on the forest even 5 km from the village, as cattle were grazing and a lone grazier was periodically shouting while herding them. Thengumarahada, watered by the Moyar, supports a population of about 500 families who keep the village emerald green by growing paddy, banana and coconut. The land in the village was originally leased to some families of the Badaga community for 100 years, but they sub-leased their property to outsiders and moved away to cities. After 30 years or so, the government may have to decide whether to renew the lease or allow forests and wildlife to take over the village area again. There are many potential problems to this tiger landscape from this village, which is likely to grow into a small town.

One of the fish species presumed to be endemic to the Moyar is the orange-finned mahseer, locally called velimeen and scientifically, Tor moyarensis. Selvam, an expert fisherman at Thengumarahada, informed us that at the moment the habitat of the mahseer was restricted to a few kilometres upstream and downstream of Velimeenkadavu, which was said to be the favourite location of the fish. The upstream mahseer habitat is exploited by the people of Moyar village and the downstream habitat by the STF camp and the Thengumarahada villagers. We were keen to get a picture of the mahseer.

On the second day, just as the sun was rising, we crossed the Moyar by the suspension bridge near the STF camp and started our trek to Velimeenkadavu 7 km away. We walked as silently as possible; our dictum in the jungle is to see the animals before they see us and hear them before they hear us. Our path went along the narrow, sparsely vegetated valley between the Sigur hills and the Moyar river. We were walking against the wind and the sun was directly behind us. Three gaur (a cow, a calf and a bull), blinded by the sun and unaided by the wind to smell us, almost walked into us, giving us an opportunity to photograph them. We saw numerous blackbucks, chitals and common langurs along the way.

Close to Velimeenkadavu, excited alarm calls of the langur and the Indian giant squirrel alerted us, and our silent approach was rewarded with the sighting of a tigress resting 20 metres away on our path. Behind a nearby bush, two large house cat-sized cubs were playing. We took cover behind a rock and photographed the tiger as it was facing away from us. Tigers have an extraordinary sense of hearing, and possibly a rustle made by one of us alerted the tigress, which sprang to its feet and looked in our direction. Alarmed by the sight of a bunch of men crouching behind the rock, the tigress growled, a warning to us as well as to the cubs, which in their confusion ran to the cover of a large bush hardly 5 m from us. The tigress retreated into cover, remained there growling, while we stepped back about 100 m, had our breakfast near the river and continued our walk to Velimeenkadavu.

While returning, we waded and swam across the river, reported to have a population of 100 adult mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris), and walked along the valley in the Moyar range to Mangalapatti. We found the habitat in the Moyar range very open, totally devoid of Prosopis juliflora and Opuntia dilleni, both exotics from the New World. Prolific regeneration of P. juliflora (its fruits are eaten by all the ungulates, and the seeds deposited along with the dung germinate well) makes the vegetation cover denser and the habitat unsuitable for the blackbuck and the chital. O. dilleni, with its needle-sharp thorns and the habit of spreading on the forest floor, reduces the grazing area available to both these ungulates. Both plants are a huge problem in the newly established Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary, as O. dilleni is in the Sigur range. We did not encounter either species in the Moyar range, which may be why we saw nearly 200 blackbucks.

The Nilgiris Eastern Slope range is a large range in the Nilgiris, stretching across the steep slopes between the Upper and Lower Nilgiri plateau. Habitats on the steep mountain slopes do not support the chital, and there is at the most a low density of the wild pig, the sambar and the gaur. Such habitats, although they do not serve as breeding habitats for tigers, provide refuge to dispersing tigers that are on the lookout for new territories. On the third day of our field work, in the dim light of dawn, we started our trek from Hallimoyar village (400 m) to Medanad Estate (1,400 m), 9 km away. As we ascended, in the dark interior of a semi-evergreen forest, a magnificent gaur bull startled us with its loud and frightening snorting, followed by a thundering galloping. This behaviour, which can even startle a stalking tiger, alarmed a group of common langurs and an Indian giant squirrel.

As we climbed up, we were pleased to see the common langur up to an altitude of 1,000 m but were disappointed to see only one sambar feeding on a mountain slope. The anti-poaching staff accompanying us said that until 15 years ago ganja (Cannabis sativa) was cultivated in this range. Poaching usually accompanies such illegal activities, and this may be the reason for the near absence of sambar in this stretch of habitat. Recovery of the sambar, an important prey for the tiger, is extremely crucial to enable tigers to survive in such mountainous ranges.

The Sigur range and the adjoining forest areas form an enchanting stretch of wildlife habitat in India, with a negligible presence of lantana (another exotic from the New World, a menace that needs to be replaced with native palatable species in our protected areas) and an abundance of large mammals. The best way to manage these forests on the Tamil Nadu side is to include the Sigur range, the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary and the Nilgiris Eastern Slope range as part of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve so that sufficient funds will be available for their protection. The priority here should be the eradication of O. dilleni and the control of P. juliflora.

Irulas, an indigenous tribe of this area who live in many villages such as Sirur and Gulithoraipatti, could be profitably employed in the eradication and control of these two problem species. The tribal anti-poaching watchers, who enforce protection by patrolling the forest on foot, need better care in the form of timely and increased salary, medical support, retirement benefits and necessary field equipment.

As the threat from Veerappan is gone, the STF camp could be shifted from the wildlife sanctuary to Athikadavu in the Coimbatore Forest Division, where the commandos of the STF can be given the additional task of assisting the Forest Department in protecting wildlife, which has been severely decimated by poachers in this division.

The people of Moyar village should be educated not to decimate the fish in the river when water flow from the Moyar power house is stopped for repair and maintenance. Steps should also be initiated to reintroduce the chinkara and the nilgai, as nearly 600 sq km of habitat is available to these species. If the above suggestions are implemented with utmost sincerity and without any delay, the mahseer, the mugger crocodile, the blackbuck and the tiger will continue to thrive in this fascinating wilderness. Reintroduction of the nilgai, the largest antelope in India, and the graceful chinkara would make the peninsular antelope species list complete for this unique landscape.

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