In the safety of a sanctuary

Print edition : July 16, 2004

A view of the Periyar river on the way to Mila Parai. -

A journey across the Periyar Tiger Reserve unravels a fascinating story of efficient protection and management of biodiversity.

`MILA PARAI,' or "Sambar Rock", is an anti-poaching camp in the heart of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, situated on the right bank of the Periyar river, at an altitude of 915 metres. Its environs bustled with human activity until the three cardamom estates that flourished in the area were acquired by the Kerala Forest Department in 1984, after the 777-square-kilometre tiger reserve, the country's tenth, was established in 1978.

I stayed in Mila Parai for a night in mid-February and fulfilled my long-cherished desire to walk across the famed reserve. Anil Bhardwaj, who is the Field Director of the reserve, organised an anti-poaching party to accompany me.

The picturesque upper Manalar estate in the Theni Forest Division.-

There are two ways of cutting across the reserve area with Mila Parai as the starting point. One is to walk along the Periyar river and reach the border of the Tirunelveli North Forest Division in Tamil Nadu on the evening of the third day. The other is to trek for a day and reach the Vellimalai cardamom estate (Silver Mountain, 1,650 m) on the border of the Theni Forest Division in Tamil Nadu. Owing to time constraints, I opted for the latter, which involved a 30-km-long walk.

The best way to reach Mila Parai is to make a two-hour-long journey by motorboat from Kumili (Thekkady) across the Periyar reservoir and then walk 10 km. If the water level is high, it is possible, and is recommended, to break journey at the Thanikudi forest bungalow, on the right bank of the river about a kilometre from the reservoir's edge and then take a leisurely walk down to the anti-poaching camp the next day. The bungalow, now used as an anti-poaching camp, was built by the Maharaja of Travancore in 1943. The river is home to the blue-finned mahseer (Tor khudree), a sport fish, currently on the list of endangered species. The trail to Mila Parai consists of a bridle path that goes through some of the finest habitats of the elephant, the gaur, the tiger and the sloth bear in the southern Western Ghats. Therefore it is advisable to be on one's guard, particularly in places where there is rank growth of vegetation on either side of the trail.

Impaticus maculate, which adorns the banks of the rivulets.-

Impaticus maculate

I spent a night at the forest bungalow. The mid-day journey by boat from Kumili provided opportunities to see wild pigs, a group of seven elephants, and two groups of gaur. A sub-adult tusker in the elephant group was an encouraging sight as the reserve has suffered from ivory poaching for several decades. Owing to the concerted conservation programmes initiated by the Kerala and Tamil Nadu Forest Departments, ivory poaching seems to be on the decline. An osprey, a grey-headed fishing eagle, a pair of brahmini kites - species that have been decimated in agricultural landscapes because of the heavy use of pesticides - and a couple of river terns were spotted. However, the most pleasing sight during the boat journey was the vibrant display of colours by the various tree species. The fruits of Terminalia paniculata had a rusty red colour; the canopy of jamun trees was bright green; the young leaves of Mesua ferrea and Schleichera oleosa were a conspicuous red; and Vernonia arborea, one of the two tree species of the family Compositae (or Asteraceae, the family having the largest number of species in the plant kingdom), bore pinkish and ash-coloured flowers. The most attractive tree was Elaeocarpus serratus, an evergreen species. It had a mix of mature dark green leaves and ripe leaves that looked as if they were dipped in fresh blood.

After stepping out of the boat, we had to walk for about 5 km to reach Thanikudi because the water level in the reservoir was extremely low owing to poor rainfall. The afternoon sun was more than warm and the trail had abundant signs of elephant and gaur. The staff who arrived by the next boat spotted a leopard while walking from the reservoir to the bungalow. Late in the evening, after a refreshing swim in the river and a meal of rice and fish curry, I went to sleep early listening to the murmur of the river and the chirping of a colony of crickets.

Flowers of Vernonia arborea, one of the two tree species of the family Compositae.-

Vernonia arborea

In the morning I woke up to the calls of spurfowls and grey jungle cocks. As I sat sipping black coffee in the verandah, Thanikudi stood shrouded in dense mist. Soon the hills, where the grass was turning yellow and brown, was bathed in the golden light of the morning sun. It prompted numerous bird species - bulbuls, barbets, hill mynahs and crow-pheasants - to begin their orchestra. An Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica) raised an alarm from the riverine forest as if to warn the jungle of a predator, either a bird of prey or a leopard. I realised how appropriate the adage of the reserve was: "To listen to the music of the forest your silence is a must".

After breakfast, we walked along the bridle path for an hour and then went along the river evaluating the status of the mahseer. Owing to the lack of water, the staff said, the larger fish (weighing more than 5 kg) had taken refuge in the reservoir. However, the river was full of the smaller varieties. Along the river, there were pug marks of the leopard and the tiger and numerous tracks of the diminutive mouse deer and monitor lizards. The otter had left signs of having fished in the river. One bend up, on a hill slope, a mother sloth bear and its half-grown cub were feeding, their healthy tar-black coat shining under the noon sun. The Mila Parai camp, protected by a well-maintained elephant-proof trench, gives the security one would require in a jungle that has elephants. Sitting near the campfire that evening under a large fig tree (Ficus tsjahela) and learning about the reserve from the staff was enjoyable and educative.

Impatiens verticillata.-

Impatiens verticillata

UNTIL A.D. 1100, the present-day reserve was part of the kingdom of the Pandyas, who ruled from the temple city of Madurai. In 1895, the Mullai-Periyar dam was built. The reservoir has a maximum water spread of 26 sq km. In 1934, the approximately 500-sq km Nelliyampathy Game Reserve was established. The reservoir irrigates thousands of acres in the adjoining Theni and Madurai districts of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu government should therefore support every step taken by the Kerala government to strengthen conservation in the reserve. In 1991, the tiger reserve became part of the Periyar-Madurai Elephant Reserve (3,300 sq km), which holds about 1,500 elephants. Today, the reserve has at least 40 tigers. It has drawn national and international attention through its India Ecodevelopment Project started in January 1998. A team of motivated and well-trained officials and staff of the reserve, supported by an enlightened public and government, has made this project a model to be emulated in other protected areas. The basic mantra of the project is "sharing of power and not show of power".

The project has led to the formation of 72 Eco-Development Committees (EDCs), which benefit 5,540 families. By empowering the EDCs to collect and market pepper, middlemen have been eliminated, and this has resulted in a significant increase in the income of the tribal people living in and around Kumili. The dependence of the tribal people on the forests for a living by collecting and selling firewood has come down by 90 per cent. Another noteworthy achievement is the conversion of cinnamon bark poachers, who almost wiped out the species (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) from the reserve, into eco-tourist guides. They take adventure tourists along the tiger trail, enriching the visitors' experiences with their in-depth knowledge of the jungle, earning revenue for the EDCs and ensuring themselves a steady income. The Eco-Development Project authorities have even started a dialogue with the smugglers and poachers across the border in Tamil Nadu who were responsible for the drastic decline of tuskers in the reserve.

Reflections in the Periyar river.-

However, there are a few issues of concern. One is the exploitation of the fish population in the reservoir. Gill netting, which is permitted for the exotic tilappia (Tilappia mossambica) and gold fish (Cyprinus caprio communis), is taking a heavy toll of the endangered mahseer. The Travancore Devaswom Board is putting pressure on the government to denotify 5 sq km of forest area for the construction of a township for the 20-30 million pilgrims who visit the Sabarimala temple every year. Another worry should be the inability of the government to acquire the 208-hectare Downton estate at Pachakanam, which, if not acquired, can develop into a tourism township and seriously disrupt the connectivity the reserve has with the wildlife-rich Goodrikal range under the Ranni Forest Division. Besides, the 70 or so tribal watchers of the reserve, who form the backbone of the anti-poaching programme, do not get their monthly salaries of Rs.3,000-3,500 on time. If the nearly 30 resorts in Kumili, which are reported to be thriving, step in and establish a Tribal Watchers' Welfare Fund, this problem can perhaps be solved.

Gill netting results in the killing of the blue-finned mahseer in large numbers.-

Our walk to Vellimalai the next day through semi-evergreen forests was seven hours long. We covered at least 15 km. Noisy flocks of blue-winged parakeets, metallic calls of the southern tree pie, and musical flute-like calls of the Travancore scimitar babblers gave rhythm to the walk. The resonant tok-tok call of a great Indian hornbill reverberated through the forest. Tiger scats along the trail, claw marks on the soft bark of Bischofia javanica trees, and numerous old and fresh elephant signs reminded us that we should be cautious. Fallen fruits of Cullenia exarillata, a favourite food of the endangered lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), indicated that we were in the habitat of this rare primate. The Nilgiri langur (Semnopithecus johnii), another endangered primate, was frequently seen on the trail; we even came across the remains of a langur possibly killed by a leopard. The floral wealth - reed brakes, stately trees of many different species festooned with giant climbers, medicinal plants and colourful balsams dancing near the streams - announced that the reserve was a heritage site for all mankind.

Boat ride in the scenic Periyar reservoir.-

From Vellimalai camp, we drove for about 90 minutes to the Upper Manalar guard station (1,550 m) for a night halt. This and the drive next day to the plains gave me an opportunity to see some splendid wildlife habitats and aesthetically and scientifically managed tea gardens in the Theni Forest Division. The mountains here are popularly called the High Wavy Mountains or the Megamalai Range. There is a long-pending proposal with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to establish a wildlife sanctuary, the Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, on 600 sq km of forest in the division, a task that needs to be completed urgently. Priority tasks in the sanctuary should be the control of poaching and the use of pesticides, the elimination of ganja (Cannabis sativa) and the cultivation and scientific management of watersheds. The Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary can be an excellent buffer to the Periyar Tiger Reserve and can immensely strengthen conservation in the southern Western Ghats, the range of hills south of the Palakad Gap.

A productive habitat for the gaur and the elephant.-

The Periyar Tiger Reserve ably performs the functions expected of a premier tiger reserve. It protects biodiversity, provides watersheds, gives employment to its indigenous people, and serves as a breeding ground for tigers. There have been problems impeding the reserve from performing these functions, but to a great extent, with the commitment of the Kerala Forest Department, they are being solved. Now the focus should be on establishing and strengthening corridor linkages with wildlife habitats such as Ashambu Hills and Anamalai Hills. The establishment of corridors between the above landscapes would enable us to manage the southern Western Ghats (approximately 10,000 sq km), a peerless biodiversity-rich area in Asia, as one single conservation unit.

Elaeocarpus serratus, with blood-red leaves.-

Elaeocarpus serratus

A.J.T. Johnsingh is Dean, Faculty of Wildlife Sciences, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.

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