THIN morning mist shrouded the Thunakadavu valley in the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, which is nestled between the Anamalai hills of Tamil Nadu and the Nelliyampathy hills of Kerala. The honking of great hornbills, the whooping calls of Nilgiri langurs and the splashing of blue-finned mahseer in the reservoir indicated that possibly all was well with the sanctuary.
In the last three decades, I have visited Parambikulam several times. The trip I made in October 2009 was, however, special because I was keen to record the positive changes brought about in the management of the sanctuary since Sanjayan Kumar, a young officer of the Indian Forest Service, took over as warden in 2006. I had taught Sanjayan when he was a trainee at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, in 2004-05, just before I retired from service. I also wanted to walk in areas I had not had a chance to do so before.
When Sanjayan took charge of the small, 285-square-kilometre sanctuary, it had all the problems one commonly encounters in poorly managed protected areas in the country. Tourism was unregulated, and tourists drove around in their vehicles when and where they wanted. They also discarded garbage, particularly plastic water bottles, along the forest trails. Around 500 domestic cattle grazed around the six human settlements within the sanctuary, and tourists saw more cows than the abundant wild chital or gaur. Unemployment was rife among the tribal people Kadar, Malasar, Muduvar and Maha Malasar as a result of which they resorted to illegal activities such as stealing from kills, removing antlers, collecting honey without any regulation, gill-netting, and abetting timber smugglers and poachers.
After assessing the situation, Sanjayan swung into action. He opened for ecotourists a board and lodging facility with seven tents in Anappady, the main administrative centre of the sanctuary. Six other facilities were also made available, in machans (platforms), watch towers and dilapidated foresters' quarters in the interior parts of the sanctuary, where visitors could stay or look at wildlife or just enjoy nature. Adventure trails were opened up for trekking. He restricted the number of vehicles entering the sanctuary to 30 a day. The salubrious climate, scenic splendours, excellent service provided by the various tribal committees, and frequent wildlife sightings soon turned Parambikulam into a favoured wildlife tourism destination.
In order to eliminate the plastic menace, Sanjayan made it mandatory for tourists to surrender all their plastic bags and water bottles at the entrance at Anappady. The sanctuary management instead started providing tourists with Parambikulam mineral water bottles, each costing a nominal Rs.5. The bottle has to be returned on exit, failing which a fine of Rs.100 is imposed on the tourist. A curio shop at Anappady, managed by tribal people, sells products such as honey, eucalyptus balm (made of eucalyptus oil and beeswax) and caps and T-shirts bearing the logo of the sanctuary.
Another great attraction is Parambi Cruise, a houseboat made of bamboo that sails on the placid waters of the Parambikulam reservoir. It can accommodate four persons. There are also a few rowing boats, equipped with life jackets, available for tourists who want to go wildlife-watching around the lake. It is also possible to trek along the 80-kilometre-long Cochin State Forest Tramway. The tramway was used to transport rosewood and teak timber from the Parambikulam forests to the plains of Chalakudy in the first half of the last century.
In order to cut down on the disturbances caused by the vehicles taking tourists around, the sanctuary bought four 14-seater vans on loan. The profit they fetched enabled Sanjayan to repay the loan within a short period. The number of visitors to the sanctuary is now limited to 200 a day.
The tribal people, now gainfully employed, have honoured their original agreement and sold off all their cattle. The sanctuary is now free of cattle and plastics. As a result of the reduction in disturbance, sightings of animals, particularly wild pigs, chital, sambar, gaur and elephants, have improved dramatically. Sightings are especially good in the evenings.
Following Sanjayan's interventions, nearly 45,000 tourists visited the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in 2008-09 and this generated revenue close to Rs.1 crore. The profits from all the programmes managed by tribal eco-development committees are used to pay the wages of and to buy provisions for the 200 ecotourism and anti-poaching staff. The anti-poaching watchers live in 18 well-maintained camps. Many of the camps are along the border of the Nenmara and Chalakudy Forest Divisions, where the threat of poaching is the greatest.
I wanted to walk as much as possible inside the sanctuary in the three days that I had. Raghunath, a colleague from the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, accompanied me. Sanjayan was not in station but had made all the required arrangements for our walks, which would cover a distance of 50 km in all. He explained the routes we needed to take and deputed different batches of his staff to go with us so that they could all learn some natural history from us. We did not carry any firearms.
On the first day, we went up to Vengoli Top (1,120 metres) and walked down to the reservoir. On the second day, we walked from the reservoir along the right bank of the Parambikulam river and the old tramway to Kuriarkutty and then to the Kannimara teak. This tree is 450 years old, 48.5 m in height and 6.57 m in girth and is worshipped by the tribal people. It was awarded the Mahavriksha Puraskar by the Government of India in 1994. On the way, we flushed out a sloth bear from its hiding place and saw large numbers of sambar in Anakkalvayal, a big swamp.
As we approached the Kannimara teak, the sun had set. Just as we were crossing a marshy area, we encountered a group of elephants an unplanned meeting that forced us to hurry to the road and call for our vehicles. On the third day, we drove from the reservoir to the Makalpara anti-poaching camp and then walked to the Kuttiyali anti-poaching camp. After a cup of tea, we took a short cut to Medanchal, another anti-poaching camp, and on the way we encountered a solitary elephant, most likely a bull in musth. It was midday and the elephant was unwilling to move away from its cool and shady resting spot. It expressed its agitation at our unwelcome intrusion by breaking branches of trees and trumpeting, and refused to budge from the path. We backed away to take a rather roundabout route to Medanchal. This path took us along the right bank of the Sholayar river for several kilometres. I was glad to see blue-finned mahseer, each weighing two to three kilos, swimming fearlessly in the pools.
We saw fresh signs of the tiger and the leopard on all the trails we walked and encountered several groups of sambar. The abundance of gaur tracks indicated that this ungulate was possibly much more common than the sambar in Parambikulam. Nilgiri langurs and Indian giant squirrels are common even in the teak plantations, which cover nearly 32 per cent of the sanctuary area. There could be at least 2,000 Nilgiri langurs here, a species that is important as prey for the leopard. We did not see lion-tailed macaques, confined as they are to the evergreen forests on the mountain slopes. There were worrying signs of abundance of the Zingiberales species, whose leaves are usually avoided by ungulates (its tubers are eaten by pigs), and Glycosmis pentaphylla, a species totally avoided by them. Forest staff reported that the palatable grasses in the marshy areas, crucial to sustain the populations of herbivores in the sanctuary, were being endangered by Rhynchospora corymbosa, an unpalatable sedge. We saw birds such as the Malabar pied hornbill, the Malabar trogon, the Malabar parakeet, the emerald dove, the white-bellied treepie, the greater racket-tailed drongo, the Malabar whistling-thrush, the orange-headed thrush and the hill myna.
The presence of reservoirs such as Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripallam, together covering an area of 20.66 sq km, and rivers such as the Parambikulam, the Sholayar and the Thellikal, which feed the Chalakudy river, provides the blue-finned mahseer an ample and safe habitat in the sanctuary.
My favourite trail in Parambikulam is the path along the top of the Vengoli ridge as it affords a panoramic view of the picturesque Thunakadavu reservoir below. This ridge, which towards the reservoir has a steep slope with many large patches of rocks, is continuous with the 1,800-metre-high Perungundru an excellent tahr habitat in the adjacent Anamalai Tiger Reserve. In the past, the Vengoli ridge always had the tahr. I saw 14 of them in November 1983 on my first walk along the ridge in the company of Ajay A. Desai, now the co-chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group. I also saw leopard scat at several places at that time. It is likely that leopards walk along the ridge hoping to prey on the tahr, which makes use of the steep slopes as its escape terrain. I did not see either the tahr or its pellets along the ridge during my recent walk, and even the anti-poaching staff staying in the tahr hut at the base of Vengoli Top said that they seldom saw a tahr now.
Parambikulam has been enjoying protection as a sanctuary for a little more than three decades now, and one objective of the management should be to bring the tahr back in places such as the Vengoli ridge and Karumalaigopuram (1,438 m), the highest tahr habitat within the wildlife sanctuary. I have visited Karumalaigopuram twice, once in January 1997 and once in September 2008. I did not see the tahr on either visit, but I did see a profusion of Osbeckia zeylanica, a native species, which with its large, rose-coloured flowers gave the impression of a well-manicured flower garden on the wet mountain slopes. The removal of unpalatable species such as Pteridium aquilinum (a fern), the judicious use of fire to create meadows, which are preferred by the tahr, and the regular provision of salt may attract the animal to both the Vengoli ridge and Karumalaigopuram.
Parambikulam will soon be declared a tiger reserve. It will be the 35th tiger reserve in the country and the second in Kerala, after the Periyar Tiger Reserve, and will include forest areas from the adjacent Nenmara, Vazhachal and Chalakudy Forest Divisions. It will have a core area, that is the critical tiger habitat, of about 425 sq km and a buffer zone of about 225 sq km. Critical tiger habitats are not supposed to have any human habitations, and here will lie the challenge of tiger conservation in Parambikulam. The core has six settlements, with a total human population of about 1,100. The buffer also has at least 600 people in different settlements. Tigers have a huge problem living in habitats that are disturbed by people. Highly intolerant of human proximity, a tiger may abandon its kill, made after investing enormous effort, if someone cuts wood nearby or if a group of people so much as go past the kill talking loudly.
There is a dire necessity, therefore, for at least the core area to be made free of disturbance. Sanjayan feels that this could be achieved by providing most of the able-bodied men employment, providing a barracks for their stay in the reserve, and shifting their families to the settlements outside it.
One major administrative problem in India is the lack of continuity in thought and action of successive governments. To implement conservation suggestions as mentioned above and to enable the reserve to have at least 20 breeding tigers in 10 years' time, continuity of policy is crucial. It is also important to ensure that only the most committed among officers are posted to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. If the Kerala government heeds these suggestions, one can look forward to the day when Parambikulam will be assured of its place as one of the top tiger reserves of the country.
A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.