A range of fauna

The big cat is doing well in the large core zone of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in spite of the considerable human presence in its vicinity. A trek in the reserve offers an abundance of animal signs and sightings.

Published : Dec 24, 2014 12:30 IST

A male tiger resting near the Moyar river.

A male tiger resting near the Moyar river.

AROUND 3 A.M. on June 12, 2014, a young man was sitting quietly among the bushes beside the Sathyamangalam-Dhimbam Ghat Highway in Tamil Nadu waiting for two of his friends who were searching for spare parts that had spilled out of a vehicle when it overturned near the 25th hairpin bend on the road. A male leopard hunting in the area, mistaking him for prey, killed and carried him away. When his friends returned a little later, he was missing. Since there had been an incident of a leopard attacking a two-wheeler rider on the highway a few days earlier, his friends panicked and reported the matter to the Forest Department. A search was launched in the morning, and the body was found with part of the neck and sternum eaten. It was perhaps the first reported incident of a leopard eating a human in the Sathyamangalam forest.

Nearly a month later, the leopard struck again, this time around 7 p.m. The victim was a 56-year-old forest guard on duty at the Dhimbam-Thalaimalai check post. The Forest Department swung into action. Camera traps were placed around the second kill site. The leopard, which was in the habit of hunting langur along the highway, was identified by a conspicuous mark on its body. By using cage traps with dogs as bait, the animal was caught on July 24 and sent to the Aringar Anna Zoological Park at Vandaloor near Chennai.

There was no reason for the leopard in its prime, with no injury and all its canines intact, to go for a human kill in an area where there was sufficient prey in the form of langurs, barking deer, chowsingha, sambar, wild pigs and cattle. It had perhaps learnt from killing the young man that humans were easy prey.

The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, with an area of approximately 1,400 square kilometres (the core area being 790 sq km and the buffer zone 610 sq km), is the largest reserve in Tamil Nadu. It has seven forest ranges. Doli Parai in the Germalam range is the highest location (5,800 feet, or 1,767 metres). By virtue of its location, the reserve plays a crucial role in forming a link between the Eastern and the Western Ghats. In the north and the west, it is contiguous with the Biligiri Rangaswamy and Bandipur Tiger Reserves of Karnataka and in the east and the south with the Erode Forest Division and the Nilgiri North and Coimbatore Forest Divisions in Tamil Nadu. All these forest areas form part of the greater Nilgiris landscape.

We have made several visits to the Sathyamangalam tiger landscape over the years. In May 2008, we walked from Congress Mattam in Sigur to Mangalapatti, braving the heat, and also trekked from Kulithuraipatti to Thalavadi along the road taken by Tipu Sultan. In July 2008, we visited the Thukka Naickan Palayan range, which had many settlements, and the Germalam range, which looked much like the Western Ghats. We realised that the best habitat for the blackbuck and the chital in the entire Sathyamangalam tiger landscape was the flat and undulating Bhavani Sagar range, which, however, has been taken over by the exotic erect prickly pear, Opuntia dillenii , and the mesquite, Prosopis juliflora .

One of our memorable walks was on August 15, 2014. We trekked from the Thalavadi Forest range boundary near Gettavadi village, about three kilometres from the Jeeraha Halli forest bungalow. Our destination was the Kulithuraipatti-Thengumarahada road, 15 km away. The travel to Jeeraha Halli from Hasanur took us across very fine wildlife habitat, which, on that day, stood shrouded in rain and mist.

When we were out of the forest, we saw the fertile Igloor valley, with some of the finest productive lands in the country displaying magnificent banyan, tamarind, and jamun trees. Our attention was particularly drawn to an Indian plum tree, Zizyphus mauritiana , which is one of the most important forage species in our wildlife habitats. The tree, which could be 300 years old, is probably the largest of its kind in southern India. Its girth measured 363 centimetres.

Our walk from the forest boundary close to Gettavadi village initially took us through a thorn scrub habitat with species such as Canthium parviflorum, Carissa carandus, Dodonaea viscosa, Erythroxylon monogynum and Pterolobium hexapetalum . In the beginning, there were hare, porcupine, cattle and peafowl tracks, and soon we came across the pug marks of a tiger amidst tracks of the gaur and the four-horned antelope. The trail was along an abandoned road, which had been built by the Forest Department for plantation activities. The staff told us that Tipu Sultan used that path when he travelled from Mysore to the Gajalgatti dargah, not far from the Moyar valley. Rice traders travelling between Coimbatore and Mysore also used this route in the past.

The common birdcalls we heard during the trek were that of the grey partridge and the ring dove. An hour later we approached the Alagow kuttai ( kuttai means pond in Tamil), which had some muddy and green-coloured water. There was elephant dung around the pond. Elephants cool themselves with such muddy water but may not drink it. There were tracks of the gaur and the sambar around the kuttai . We walked slowly and quietly along the bund of the pond and were rewarded with a sighting of a male chowsingha, east of the bund. It got wind of us as the cool south-west monsoon breeze blowing over the pond carried our scent towards it. It was nervous, but we managed to take a picture before it disappeared into the bushes. It is interesting to note that while the male chowsingha of northern India has two sets of horns, the anterior shorter and the posterior longer, the south Indian species is reported to have only the well-developed posterior horns. The anterior set may be either absent or rudimentary. The male we photographed had only the posterior horns, which were well developed.

Immediately after leaving the pond, we saw signs of the sloth bear (tracks and droppings) and evidence of the tiger (pug marks, scrapes and scats). The landscape beyond the pond was one of rolling hills, with uniform growth of short grass and sparse tree cover. It was ideal chowsingha country, with many pellet groups of this solitary, low-density antelope. We saw three of them scurrying away in different directions. We reached the edge of the plateau and had a magnificent view of the valley along which the Moyar river flows. In the past, the range of the blackbuck and the cheetah (now extinct in India) overlapped and so it is most likely that the cheetah would have ranged in the Moyar valley and its adjoining areas where the blackbuck occurred. Beyond the valley, the Nilgiri hills rose to an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet (1,828 m). We came across a rocky area with a large flat rock with a 3.5-metre-deep pit, more like a well but without water. The staff said it used to be a halting place for Tipu Sultan’s horses as the pit in the past had copious amounts of water. Beyond the pit, our trail ascended to the top of the ridge and descended into the Moyar valley. This stretch had an abundance of sambar signs (pellets and resting sites) and more signs of the tiger and the leopard. Before going down to the valley, we had a clear view of the prosperous and emerald green Thengumarahada village on the bank of the Moyar in the Nilgiris Eastern Slopes range of the Nilgiri North Forest Division. This village can be resettled outside the tiger reserve area as there is sufficient fertile land available on the right bank of the Bhavani river in the Bhavani Sagar range (Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve) and the Sirumugai range (Coimbatore Forest Division).

With suitable incentives, the people could be encouraged to move to the suggested resettlement site. Surely, they will be happy in the new settlement as they will have easy access to roads, markets, schools and hospitals. At present, the last lap of the road journey to Thengumarahada is bumpy, and in order to reach the village one must cross the Moyar by a coracle.

Three plant species have invaded the Sathyamangalam landscape: mesquite and erect prickly pear in the drier lower belt and Cassia spectabilis in the moist Hasanur plateau. The moist habitats are extremely vital for species such as the wild pig, the barking deer and the sambar. On August 15, while trekking from the Jeeraha Halli forest bungalow to the Kulithuraipatti-Thengumarahada road, we saw an abundance of prickly pear in the Hanjigere area. Can nature-loving mechanical/automotive engineers of Coimbatore produce a small form of the earth excavator, JCB, to help uproot these species? In areas where the JCB cannot reach, mesquite and prickly pear should be uprooted manually. Burning is reported to help control mesquite. Uprooted, dry mesquite branches and twigs should be used to burn the living mesquite trees and shrubs. Fire hazard is not a problem in the mesquite-growing area as there is no grass to cause forest fires. Control measures should include revisiting the areas to ensure that the invasive plants have been totally removed.

In the Hasanur plateau, adult C. spectabilis trees should be killed by barking the trunk for up to one metre above the ground and applying kerosene on the barked area. This noxious species, which is not eaten by animals and below which no other plant grows, is capable of sprouting from the base of the stem. So various methods should be attempted to kill the tree. One suggestion is to cut down the tree, and make a large hole on the top of the trunk, one foot above the ground, and place a kilogram of rock salt in the hole. The salt will hopefully destroy the entire trunk and the root system. Permissible herbicides should also be tried in a similar way. The villagers should be involved periodically in manually removing the seedlings and saplings of C. spectabilis .

Relocation of human settlements from the reserve will not be possible as there are 19 revenue and nine tribal settlements with a total population of a little over 7,000. It appears that in spite of such a large human population, tigers are reportedly doing well in the reserve because of a large core area: their number is reported to be around 50. Also, there are frequent reports of tigers raising four cubs.

In April 2014, a tigress was camera-trapped with five jackal-sized cubs. The tiger conservation programme in the reserve, therefore, must include the villagers in all possible ways. Most of the anti-poaching watchers come from these settlements (150 watchers who manage 25 anti-poaching camps). The villagers can also be involved in programmes such as eradication of the invasive plant species by providing them free firewood, which could be obtained by harvesting the abundant Cassia siamea and eucalyptus trees on the plateau. People could also be allowed, under the watchful eyes of the Forest Department, to uproot and sell Prosopis juliflora , and thereby help eradicate the species from the blackbuck-chital habitat. Such a programme has been carried out successfully in the Bharatpur (Rajasthan) and Velavadar (Gujarat) National Parks. Care should be taken not to weed out umbrella thorn ( Acacia planifrons ), which is a native species and does not spread, and whose pods provide nutrition to ungulates.

Reintroduction of species One management goal for the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve should be to bring back the nilgai ( Boselaphus tragocamelus ) and the chinkara ( Gazella bennettii ). According to E.G. Phythian Adams (1951), a retired army officer who lived in Udhagamandalam (Ooty) and served as the secretary of the erstwhile Nilgiri Game Association, these two species were reported to occur in this landscape. He had seen the nilgai on the Mettupalayam road and reported that there were more in the Moyar valley. He also wrote about the reported occurrence of the chinkara in the Coimbatore Forest Division. The nilgai can be easily brought from the Mysore Zoo where there are nearly 80 of them. The selected animals should be made disease-free before reintroduction.

The programme to reintroduce the nilgai in the landscape between the Western and Eastern Ghats should be a collaborative effort between the Forest Departments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. As road connectivity is good between Anaikatty in the Sigur range of the Nilgiri North Forest Division and Mysore, about 100 km away, the animals can be easily brought to Anaikatty for soft release. The animals will gradually disperse in the landscape as their population increases. The problem of crop raiding by the nilgai will be minimal as there are not many villages in the potential (flat to undulating) nilgai habitat. The chinkara will have to be brought from north India for reintroduction. Sustained, dedicated and well-planned efforts by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department are a must in this regard.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is Eminent Wildlife Biologist, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and Adviser, Species and Landscapes Program, WWF-India. R. Raghunath is Project Manager, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. This article will be one of the 23 articles contained in Walking the Western Ghats by A.J.T. Johnsingh, which is to be published by the Bombay Natural History Society and Oxford University Press.

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