Goat's own country

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

Monarchs of the mountains. The Nilgiri tahr, once on the verge of extinction, has been restored thanks to the conservation effort of the Eravikulam National Park. - T. ANIL KUMAR

Monarchs of the mountains. The Nilgiri tahr, once on the verge of extinction, has been restored thanks to the conservation effort of the Eravikulam National Park. - T. ANIL KUMAR

The Eravikulam National Park in the Western Ghats in Kerala is home to the Nilgiri tahr.

A "CLOUD goat" looks as if lost in a daydream with her cuddly kid, an epitome of innocence, lying beside. The mother goat fondles and shields her, though no alarm is raised when a stranger intrudes and whoops. If the nanny could speak, she would ask anyone standing nearby, "Could you get me a rocking cradle to lull my baby to sleep"?

The backdrop of this scene of motherly affection is an ocean of rolling green grass, draped in clouds and mist, and high altitudes. It is cool and windy here. The nights are lovelier still. Stars seem to twinkle close by and the misty moon hangs low like a sodium vapour lamp on a city street.

This enchanting land is the Eravikulam National Park, acclaimed as the roof of Kerala and the abode of the Nilgiri tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius). The Western Ghats, identified as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, fortify the park and the Anamudi peak, at a height of 2,695 metres, stands like a sentinel nearby.

Meandering bridle paths that once led trophy-seekers up the mountain tops have been converted into trekking paths by conservationists who battled to save the tahr, which was close to extinction.

The clouds and mist clear now and then to allow the "mountain monarchs" to stage an appearance. The sure-footed goats scale rocky heights, and hence came to be called mountain goats. Often they run into passing clouds, and so the nickname "cloud goats". Some of them perch themselves on cliffs, and so are referred to as "cliff goats". It is a common sight to see tahrs roam freely, like domestic goats, in the tourism zone of the park called Rajmallay. They instantly strike a rapport with the visitors. It is striking that tahrs in the buffer zone and core areas are totally different. They are shy and afraid of strangers. They take to their heels on sensing danger and find a safe haven on the cliffs.

The tahr's expressions vary. Most of them are cheerful, restless and sporty. Some are thoughtful or melancholic. A few have marked personal charisma of their own. The sociable ones apparently like to be photographed. They even nod to the photographers as if to ask, "how is it, our smile?" The tahr has various ways of communication, one of which is the spraying of urine on itself by the male in an aggressive sexual display. Males even lock horns to impress the female.

Some are cautious. If a predator's presence is felt they raise alarm calls and whistle. The dominant males drift from the herds, and remain imposing loners. Sometimes they express burning anger and lust. A fully grown male tahr, called saddleback because of the saddle-like grey patch on its back, weighs around 100 kilograms.

In the tourism zone, the sportive ones try to grab things from the visitors. Some follow the visitors. Some others squat on the road, bringing tourist traffic to a halt. Since the sanctuary rule stipulates that the tahr should not be disturbed, the drivers wait for the goat to oblige by letting them pass. The park staff espouse the cause of nature conservation and enforce the law strictly. That is the reason for the success of the park. Here, even the powers that be do not have the courage to make any unjust requests. Four years ago, a drunken visitor threw stones and wounded a tahr in its eye. He was caught and prosecuted. This is perhaps the only incident of cruelty to the animal that has taken place in the vicinity of the park. There were instances of poaching, but these were rare. A few years ago, there was pressure to widen the trekking path in order to make it motorable. But protests by environmentalists against this prevailed.

THE Nilgiri tahr, classified in the Geneva-based World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, is endemic to the Western Ghats at altitudes around 2,500 metres. Habitat destruction and forest encroachments were the prime reasons for the dwindling tahr population. Now a viable population exists only in the Eravikulam National Park. Fragmented populations are seen in other pockets of the Western Ghats such as the Silent Valley, Parambikkulam, the Palani Hills and the Mukurthi Hills. A census held in Eravikulam in May 2005 estimated the tahr population at around 670. Professor Rajan Varghese who has been associated with the tahr census since 1984, says that tahr protection ranks very high in the park's scheme of things.

Through the bridle paths of the park, trekkers can reach vantage points of the park, though entry to the core areas is restricted. New-comers may get tired soon, but the cool atmosphere surcharged with the romance of nature, would inspire them to go ahead.

Watching sunrise and sunset radiate a visual rhythm from Anamudi is an incredible experience. The sky and the earth seem to come in contact here. The grasslands that attire the roof of the park would stir artists and writers. The grass makes waves or rolls in the wind, when tahrs graze. Herds of elephants may appear sometimes. Two years ago, Suresh Elamon, a wildlife photographer, stumbled upon a freely moving herd with babies. At another time, it was a tusker running wild and raising dust at sunset. The park offers such rare moments for wildlife enthusiasts.

In winter, the temperature in the region dips to zero. Perennial freshwater streams gush out even in blazing summer. The streams have rainbow trout fish, which were introduced by English anglers from nearby Munnar.

Dr. George B. Schaller, the acclaimed American naturalist and field biologist, who stepped into the tahr kingdom in 1969 to study the goats, has dedicated a chapter to the animals, titled "Cloud Goats", in his celebrated work Stones of Silence. "Roaming along the ridges and precipices, I searched for tahrs always hoping that clouds with which they have seemed to have a secret pact would not hide them," he wrote then. Tahrs are still a passion for him, although Schaller has studied other wildlife like tigers, gorillas and snow leopards in many countries.

K.N. Changappa, a respected conservationist, recalls: "I had the rare privilege to move and interact with George Schaller when he came to tahr country. A towering personality in nature conservation, he evokes admiration. His valuable notes on the tahr study in Eravikulam are solid."

Changappa is now settled in Kodagu, Karnataka, the paradise of spotted deer. He worked for the Kannan Devan Company in Munnar as an estate manager for more than 30 years. He was also president and secretary of the High Range Wildlife and Environment Preservation Association. The English managers of tea estates in the Western Ghats formed the association in 1928 for the protection of the grass hills, forests and wildlife, particularly of Eravikulam.

In a recent letter to the Nilgiri Tahr Foundation, a Kochi-based organisation working for tahr conservation, Schaller suggested that the "major function of the foundation should be to monitor the tahr population, to become aware of the threats before they are serious and alleviate them". When Schaller came to the tahr kingdom, it was not a national park; the land belonged to Kannan Devan Company, which owns vast tea estates. In 1971, the Kerala government brought into force an Act by which all forests and grasslands, excluding tea plantations, were vested in the government. In 1978, the Eravikulam National Park was formed with an area of 97 square kilometres for the protection of the highly endangered tahr. The national park is close to Munnar and is around four hours' drive from Kochi. Even before it was bestowed the status of national park, the English men and later Indian tea planters had maintained the area scrupulously and preserved its ecology.

Clifford G. Rice visited Eravikulam after Schaller. An American born in Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh, Cliff, as he is popularly called, studied the ecology of the place and behaviour of tahrs. He got his doctorate from A&M University, Texas. More than 20 years ago Cliff trekked the length and breadth of the park, mingled with tahrs and took down notes in his field book that can be read with abiding interest. He says "initially the tahrs ran into the mist or the nearest cliffs when strangers intruded into their territory. Later, they tolerated me." "The tahrs liked salt. I sprinkled it on the rocks. Afterwards I directly distributed it. They liked it. They started clustering around me." They had started eating out of his hand. This was an unusual, incredible phenomenon.

Cliff knew the mind of the tahr. The tahrs in turn gratefully cherished his sentiments. He had no sceptre and crown, but the tahrs became his loyal subjects. Cliff tied 67 colour-coded collars to the necks of the goats. This made his study of the social behaviour of tahrs easy.

After Cliff, Dr. P.V. Karunakaran, president of the Nilgiri Tahr Foundation, did his doctoral thesis on the ecology of grasslands of Eravikulam. A trekker of untiring zeal, he had vast field experience in the park. He says, "It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the grass patches are still virgin." He has identified around 60 species of grass. The sholas, stunted forests, are interspersed with grasslands. Eravikulam has a unique and complex ecosystem. The sholas hold water during the rains. That is why even in blazing summer the streams do not dry up, he says.

D. Hamilton, one of the earliest British visitors to this area (he came in 1854), wrote: "The hills are surpassingly grand and incomparably beautiful. Tahr herds were extremely wild because they were cornered, ruthlessly snared and shot."

In 1877, the Nilgiri Wildlife Association regulated shooting, and for nearly a century it championed the cause of the tahr. J.C. Gouldsbury, a hunter-turned conservationist, who had worked with the Kannan Devan Company, rendered invaluable contribution to tahr protection. He later became a member of the Indian Board of Wildlife. A.J.E. Steven, W.S.S. Mackey, M.R.P. Lappin, K.K. Nair (then State Chief Conservator), and Dr. Ranjithsingh (then Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Forests), would inspire generations to come with their dedicated work to save the tahr.

Eravikulam is adjudged one of the cleanest national parks in India. Littering is punishable, signboards warn. Palaniswami, a driver of the Forest Department who died recently, had an eye for the litter thrown into the bushes on the wayside. He would bring his vehicle to a screeching halt, lung into the bushes and pick out the non-biodegradable waste left by visitors. His death caused a painful loss to the department.

The tahr attracts a lot of visitors during holidays. The wildlife warden of the park, Roy P. Thomas, says, "It is time we chalked out a strategy to manage visitors, for it is so heavy." Between April 1, 2004, and March 31, 2005, more than three lakh home tourists (2,81,346 adults and 46,650 children) and 5,255 foreigners visited the park.

The tourism zone was practically deserted when the park was formed. P.B. Srikumar, the first Range Officer of the park, says no one cared for the tahr then. So, he initiated a drive to attract students from Payyannur College, in north Kerala. They were the first group to watch the tahr. Srikumar earned a meagre income of around Rs.500 a month then. Today, it is prestigious to be a wildlife warden because the government is serious about conservation.

Eravikulam is blessed with copious rains. When the rains lashed, the howling winds would deter one from reaching the vantage point, he recalls. Rains also meant a painless attack by blood-sucking leeches.

ERAVIKULAM is likely to form part of the proposed Western Ghats World Biodiversity Heritage (WBH) site cluster. The objective of the WBH, pioneered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), is, apart from strengthening biodiversity, promoting habitat integrity and areas of biological value and enhancing community and science-based management with the participation of local community and civil society. India has five such key areas - Kaziranga and Manas in Assam, Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Sunderbans in West Bengal and the Nanda Devi Valley of Flowers in Uttaranchal.

The Government of India has entrusted the responsibility of identifying the WBH sites in the Western Ghats and the Himalayan region to the Bangalore-based ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and Environment) and the Wildlife Institute of Dehra Dun respectively.

The sites proposed in the Western Ghats are (1) Kudremukh and Someswara; (2) Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri and Thalakaveri; (3) the upper Nilgiris; (4) Anamalai, including the Eravikulam grass hills, the Mannavan shola and the Chinnar Wildlife sanctuary; (5) Periyar and Ranni, including the Periyar Tiger Reserve; (6) Agasthyamalai, including the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai regions.

The proposal enhances the future of the tahr. Dr. Jagadeesh Krishnaswamy, principal investigator of the study conducted by ATREE in the Western Ghats, says, "The grassland habitats in the high elevation of Eravikulam are unique. Undisturbed grasslands interspersed with shola forests are some of the most important catchments of freshwater in the Western Ghats."

Recently, the Kerala government notified three shola parks - Mathikettan, Anamudi and Pampadum - in Idduki district, where Eravikulam is located, to protect the rare flora.

G. Shaheed is secretary of the Nilgiri Tahr Foundation and Special Correspondent of Mathrubhumi based in Kochi.

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