On the danger list

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

The steep southern escarpment of the Palni Hills, with native grasslands in the foreground. This stunning terrain was once home to large herds of Nilgiri tahr. -

The steep southern escarpment of the Palni Hills, with native grasslands in the foreground. This stunning terrain was once home to large herds of Nilgiri tahr. -

The Palni Hills, which have lost much of the native flora and fauna owing to `development' and encroachment, await government action on a proposal to declare the area a national park or a wildlife sanctuary.

IN the early 1990s, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department submitted a proposal to the State government to protect much of the Palni Hills by declaring the area a wildlife sanctuary or a national park. The proposal was the result of a remarkable collaborative effort by the State Forest Department, the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) and several concerned individuals. Ten years later, the area still awaits the notification in this regard. In the meantime, mounting pressure on the habitat from encroachment and increased tourist inflow has taken its toll on the hills.

The Palni Hills, an eastern spur of the Western Ghats, are located in central western Tamil Nadu. Spread over 2,068 sq km, the Palni Hills are contiguous with the high range Anamalai and Cardamom Hills and form an imposing range of mountains in Dindigul district. Like other mountain ranges such as the Nilgiris in the southern part of the Western Ghats, the Palni Hills are made up of pre-Cambrian gneisses, charnockites and schists, making them one of the oldest mountain ranges in India. In the southwest, the Palni Hills rise abruptly from the plains to form an elevated plateau around 1,800-2,500 metres high; its eastern half is composed of hills 1,000-1,500 m high.

The Palni Hills sustain four major vegetation types - the scrub forests and dry and moist deciduous forests of the low- and mid-elevations, and montane evergreen forests, known as sholas, and native grasslands, a unique feature of the Western Ghats ecosystem, of the upper Palni Hills. The grasslands-shola ecosystem used to be found at all high-altitude areas in the southern half of the Western Ghats. The native grasslands are famous for the Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus) flowers, which blossom once in 12 years. Besides providing habitats to several important species of mammals such as the Nilgiri tahr (Hermitragus hylocrius) and the Grizzled Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macoura) that are endemic to the Western Ghats, the Palni Hills are home to many endemic species of plants, amphibians, butterflies and birds. Of great importance to the people of Tamil Nadu is the role played by the Palni Hills as a critical watershed; streams in the Palni Hills flow into the Vaigai and the Amaravathi (a tributary of the Cauvery) rivers.

Historically, the Palni Hills have been an island of biodiversity, little affected by the centuries of human history on the distant plains below. The physical nature of their steep slopes and thick jungles combined with the diseases associated with the lower forests kept most people away from exploring the hills. Dolmens in the mid-altitudes of the hills attest to a group of megalithic-era people who were the first known human inhabitants of the Palni Hills. Much later, two groups of people, the Puliayans and the Paliyans, arrived. Until very recently, their offspring practised shifting cultivation and lived off wild fruits and honey. In the last 500 years, small groups of Tamil-speaking plains people settled in a few pockets in the hills, such as Poombari, Vellagavi and Mannavanur. However, most of the hills retained an unblemished quality, which survived until the mid-19th century when the upper Kodaikanal plateau was developed as a colonial-era hill station. Thus, the Palni Hills were a veritable Garden of Eden that remained isolated in a land with an ancient, widespread and well-developed human civilisation. Elements of this lost garden survive today and it is for this reason that conservationists are eager to secure an official notification to protect the hills.

In 1845, the hill station of Kodaikanal was established by American missionaries and British officers based in Madurai. Since then significant changes have occurred in the landscape and the ecology of the hills. A small settlement soon developed by the side of a basin on the edge of the steep southern escarpment. The first houses were built near the edge of a large, thick forest, now known as Bombay Shola. Next to the shola was a large and undulating basin of wild grasses and marshes. After several years, the marsh was dammed up, forming the lake that is the focal point for tourists visiting Kodai today.

WHEN the settlement of Kodaikanal came into being 150 years ago, the Palni Hills benefited from the fact that Ooty in the Nilgiri Hills received more attention and consequently attracted development and destruction. However, in the past 20 years, Kodaikanal and the rest of Palni Hills have experienced an explosion in tourist population, jeopardising the peaceful nature of the region that once made it famous.

The emergence of Kodaikanal as a popular hill station has had a disastrous effect on the region's ecology. Human settlements have spread over large areas around the town and forest land has been encroached upon. Many species of animals, such as the bear, the tiger and the Nilgiri tahr, have died out. (Names such as "Tiger Shola" certify that these species existed in the region.) Even the Nilgiri langur, a species that was once common, has died out in the shola forests around Kodaikanal. The growing number of people living and visiting the hill station has resulted in the mountains of half-burnt waste that are currently being dumped in nearby Blackburn Shola. Despite effective bans on plastic and the construction of a waste treatment plant, pollution remains a major concern. The age of disposables has left the environs of Kodaikanal littered with plastics, used batteries, construction debris and other detritus. Meanwhile, the water that passes from the lake through the town to Silver Cascade and down to the pilgrim town of Palani is foul with human waste, rags, plastics and other debris. Loudspeakers blaring out both religious and secular music in every corner of the town drown out the sounds of cicadas and endemic shola birds.

There seems to be no limit to the number of tourists visiting the hill station and it is a rare day when the roads are not clogged with tour buses, vans, cars and motorcycles - all jostling for scant parking space in a hill station designed for walking and horse riding. Worse, there are proposals afloat to construct two to three new ghat roads. For a hill station that has already been pushed beyond its carrying capacity in terms of people and vehicles, these are reckless ideas.

FOR the hills surrounding Kodaikanal, the news is a little better but not great. The Palni Hills border the large Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) in the Anamalais and is thus linked to the Chinnar WLS, the Eravikulam National Park and the Parambikulam WLS. Wildlife roaming into the Palni Hills from these protected areas is at risk, without any legal protection. Thus, poaching of wildlife remains a serious but undocumented fact of life in the Palni Hills. The proposal to declare Palni Hills a protected area seeks to address this serious threat to India's biodiversity.

The biggest tragedy is that the extensive grasslands of the upper Palni Hills have been replaced with a swathe of monoculture plantations. Fast-growing non-native trees, which were first introduced from Australia in 1852, drain marshy areas, provide fuelwood and cover the "barren hills". Three major foreign tree species were introduced to replace the grasslands: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), wattle (Acacia mearnsii) and pine (Pinus patula). In post-Independence India, high-altitude grasslands were classified as "wastelands" and the planting of exotic trees gathered great momentum. By the mid-1990s, when the Forest Department had changed its view on natural grasslands, most of the upper Palni Hills had been covered with monoculture plantations.

In the past decades, the native tree plantations of the Palni Hills were logged by rotation. Although a Supreme Court order put a halt to this activity in the 1990s, the hills were left awash with non-native species of trees that are spreading farther than the original plantations because of natural seeding. Paradoxically, it is illegal to harvest or weed out the non-native species, which are causing much disruption in the hills. This writer was alarmed to see wattle and pine encroaching on some of the last virgin grasslands in the Palni Hills. Clearly, this law needs to be clarified in order to facilitate the preservation of native flora and the culling on non-native plant species.

The plantations have caused a discernable loss in water flow to the plains and a decline in the biodiversity. Natural grasslands and sholas form a complex natural sponge that absorbs the torrential monsoon rainwater and provides water to the plains through perennial streams. In contrast, streams in plantations are dry at all times except the rainy season. The plantations (especially eucalyptus) have much higher rates of transpiration than shola and grasslands species. Plantations of exotic trees are not able to retain the water. They guzzle much of the ground water because of their higher rates of transpiration. In the plantations, logging is done by clear cutting, which encourages large-scale erosion of precious topsoil. The plantations of exotic species also discourage biodiversity. In fact, they are virtual "green deserts", places that birds, insects and animals avoid. This writer has observed frustrated elephants pulling out wattle trees from grassy slopes in the Vandaravu area. Pachyderms, so famously wise, are obviously aware of the value of grasslands and the danger posed by the self-seeding imports.

A trip up the scenic ghat roads gives a newcomer an amazing introduction to the different vegetation types on the Palni Hills. However, anyone who knows this road well would attest to the loss of natural habitat as plantations, resorts and institutions have encroached into forest land. Ganja (marijuana) plantations, which are illegal, continue to thrive along the steep escarpments and near the district border. In fact, this writer saw a bustling ganja plantation on a perilous, nearly vertical, cliff under Ibex Peak. Virgin sholas have been hacked off to make room for the plantations, and wildlife butchered. There is strong evidence that the poaching of large herbivores (gaur and sambar) is taking place in the remote upper Palni Hills near the Kerala border. This and, perhaps, the loss of grasslands explain why gaurs have been increasingly visiting the township limits of Kodaikanal. Protecting and restoring the grasslands/shola ecosystem will go a long way in addressing the well-documented human-animal conflict.

THANKS to an active citizenry concerned with environmental and social issues in the hills, there is hope. The Anglade Institute of Natural History in Shembaganur, formed by Jesuit priests, has been documenting the flora and fauna of the hills for more than 100 years. Their environmental centre runs workshops for villagers, students, teachers and lay people. Dr. K.M. Matthew, the director of the institute, has been at the forefront of documenting the flora of the hills and has been a strong voice in advocating national park or sanctuary status for the Palni Hills.

When the PHCC was formed by concerned residents in 1985, one of its first goals was to support and push for the creation of a national park or a wildlife sanctuary in the Palni Hills. Zafar Futehally and M.S. Viraraghavan were the key movers in the process. The PHCC made a clear connection between natural forests and water security and coined the phrase: "The health of the hills is the wealth of the plains." In the years following its formation, the PHCC conducted studies in the hills and generated a proposal to be used by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. One of the council's major contributions has been the creation of nurseries for indigenous trees at different altitudes of the Palni Hills. Today, thanks to its efforts, young shola trees thrive on the campuses of several enlightened Kodai institutions and in private gardens. In the 1990s, the organisation got involved in several landmark legal cases that sought to restrict unsustainable building development in the town. The PHCC has been active in the case against Hindustan Lever, which concerns the mercury contamination of the once beautiful Pambar Shola on the edge of the Kodai township. Today, the organisation lacks some of the energy and sense of purpose that characterised it earlier, but its original ideas live on. A small but effective organisation is the Vatakanal Conservation Trust, which has been working successfully with the Forest Department to protect and restore the Pambar Shola. Their work provides a field-tested example for further extension through the Palni Hills and the Western Ghats.

ECOLOGICAL restoration is a process whereby native primary vegetation is revived in an area damaged by human activities and plant imports. It seeks to reverse past invasions of non-native species, through a well-planned strategy of culling exotic vegetation (and animals, if necessary) and replanting native species. It is being carried out in sensitive habitats such as the Florida everglades and the Hawaiian rainforest, places that have experienced invasion by non-native plants that came with colonisation. Raising shola nurseries is an important element in the restoration process. However, nowhere in the Western Ghats has there been any effort to restore native grasslands, perhaps because there is hardly any appreciation for their water-holding capabilities.

Preserving the Palni Hills in their present state will solve only part of the problem they face. However, a programme to restore the hills to their pre-colonisation state would go a long way in encouraging the hills' biodiversity and increasing the water supply to the plains. A restoration programme is needed to weed out immediately pine, eucalyptus and wattle trees that are swiftly spreading into the grasslands that remain. Exotic trees have to be cut and attempts made to propagate native grasslands and shola species. But this challenging task will be made especially difficult because the blanket ban that has been imposed on tree-felling does not differentiate between native and exotic flora. Culling back the exotic trees and replanting native species will provide employment, and the sale of wood could easily finance much of the programme. Some plantations would have to be retained to provide a sustainable source of energy for the communities that live on the hills. Ecological restoration in the upper Palnis is an idea that will require more than a lifetime to implement. It will need further studies and abundant patience, but it is certainly something that needs to be attempted for the sake of the hills, their wildlife, and human communities that depend on water from the hills.

ONE lingering concern relates to the tribal settlements in or near the proposed park boundary. Fearing eviction, several groups, especially in the eastern lower Palnis, have opposed the proposal vocally. The tribal people, long ignored by society and government, worry that a national park or sanctuary would jeopardise their very existence. In the recent past, India's indigenous inhabitants have paid a stiff price for the setting up of large development projects and the creation of protected areas. There is strong evidence to suggest that the tribal issue is being used by vested interests, who seek to use potential eviction as a way to try and scare off interest in the national park and maintain the status quo. The proposed park boundary includes only reserve forest land and specifically leaves out human habitation. Thus eviction should not be a serious issue in most of the proposed protected area.

There are several instances where protected areas in southern India have benefited local communities; these could be role models worth emulating. The Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) has been running a highly effective eco-development project in villages on its periphery. Villagers, once neglected and dependent on illegal activities in the forest, have become stakeholders in the Tiger Reserve because of education and schemes launched to improve their economic condition. A similar relationship is highly desirable in the case of the Palni Hills too. Among cases where a relocation of villages is advisable, the successful project in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve (Karnataka) is worth mentioning. In this case, non-governmental organisations worked with the village leaders and the Forest Department and found better land for villagers who lived in the core of the sanctuary.

The villagers moved out voluntarily, because they were a part of the process and could see clearly the benefits from such a move. Both Kalakad-Mundanthurai and Bhadra illustrate that conservation does not have to be "anti-people" and that the stakeholders can be empowered to benefit from the notification of a protected area.

The proposed protected area in the Palni Hills will be a pro-people wildlife sanctuary, and communities living around the hills will have a great stake in it. In a drought-prone area, one of the strongest reasons to protect the Palni Hills is its critical role as a watershed. In fact, there is a proposal that the Palni Hills be called both a biodiversity reserve and watershed reserve in recognition of its important role in providing water to surrounding drought-prone plains. At the same time, the sanctuary or national park will help conserve rare biodiversity, one of India's great treasures and an important legacy for future generations. Through restoration activities, eco-development and low-impact eco-tourism, the proposed sanctuary will be able to provide job opportunities that will not endanger the fragile hill environment. It remains uncertain whether the proposal to protect the Palni Hills will be approved before 2006, when the Kurinji flowers are expected to bloom once again.

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