Sustainable resource use and Forest Conservation by the Kaani indigenous community of Kanyakumari forest in the Western Ghats – Tamil Nadu

Courtesy Davidson Sargunam 17 August 2016

The Kaani indigenous people live in 48 Settlements in the deep jungles, forests and hills of Kanyakumari in the biological Hot spot of the Western Ghats in India. The district receives two Monsoons and maintains a mediocre climate between 22 C to 32 C.

The Kaani indigenous people live in 48 Settlements in the deep jungles, forests and hills of Kanyakumari in the biological Hot spot of the Western Ghats in India. The district receives two Monsoons and maintains a mediocre climate between 22 C to 32 C.


They derive everything from the forests for their sustenance, survival and livelihood and live in consonance with Nature, according to the cycles in Nature.

They used to cultivate tubers of many kinds including tapioca and banana, rubber, coconut, areca nut, pine apple, vegetables and spices as pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf, cloves and nut mug. They hunt wild honey, mushrooms, tubers and minor wild animals as bandicoot, white rat, mouse deer, tortoise, bats, squirrels and wild boar. Due to ban on hunting, they have refrained from hunting now.

Hyena, fox, wolf have been completely decimated and the population of tigers, leopards, wild dogs (dhole) and wild cats have been drastically reduced, while there is radical reduction in the number of snakes as vipers, cobra and king cobra that has resulted in severe distortions in eco-balance of animals and increase of animals as bonnet monkey, wild boar, hare, mountain goat, squirrels, bandicoot and rats that destroy the existing  agricultural crops.

Owing to increase in some of the minor vermin animal population as wild boar, porcupine and  monkey consequent to eco-imbalance and strict conservation efforts, the ratio of Predator versus Pest is heavily distorted and Human Versus Animal Conflict is increasing that wreaks a high degree of damage, destruction and devastation to agricultural crops. Due to this, majority of the tribal people have stopped practicing agriculture. The existing paradox is Rich Lands, Poor People.

As majority of them abandoned practicing agriculture, they depend on the distribution of free rice of 35 Kg. per month per family for those below the Poverty Line. Many of them go as coolie laborers in private plantations and migrate to nearby villages, towns and neighboring State seeking new pastures as coolie labor.


The Kaani people live in traditional air-cooled bamboo thatched huts with a single room without ventilation. The kitchen using forest firewood is located outside the hut. The huts are made of bamboo and forest wood, thatched with grass, reed leaves and woven coconut leaves. Majority of them have no toilet.

Water in the hill streams are channelized by hose and use the surface rain water, which is not purified and not distilled.

While conducting Medicals Camps in various settlements by Tribal Foundation, it is revealed that diabetes and BP are comparatively very low, just 2 to 3 percent. No case of cholesterol, obesity and over-weight are reported. It was revealed in our analysis that people with diabetes are those who maintain social intercourse with people in the plains i.e. non-indigenous people and used to consume food in hotels and take liquor from Government liquor shops.( made of chemicals).

There is no caesarian case and deliveries take place in the huts. They never consume packed food, bottled drinks and fast food.

At the attainment of puberty, may be at the age of 13 or 14, girls are married. Consequently, many abortions are reported. Infant mortality is very high and the new born babies weigh 1.7 to 2.2 kgs, majority of whom eventually die. Pre-natal and post-natal care are unknown to them. They never administer inoculation, vaccination and resort to preventive measures.

Both the sexes consume the illegally brewed indigenous liquor and palm wine illegally extracted from palms in the jungles. Many men consume liquor in the morning itself and both sexes use pan, a mixture of betel leaves, raw areca nut, raw tobacco with a pinch of calcium.


The Kaani people have strong attachments to Nature. They are traditional Animists and Nature worshippers. They participate in conservation activities endorsing the efforts of the Forest Department in serving as guides, informants and resource persons for researchers and academicians. They check poaching and hunting by reporting any move to the Forest Department and report any suspicious move by non-tribesmen into the forests.

Conservation and ecology

While collecting herbs, they pluck only the top portions, leaving part of the plant for regeneration and conservation of species.

The indigenous people are used by the Forest Department to track, rescue and treat wild elephants, big cats and other animals as the Kaani people have traditional innate knowledge and skill in elephant tracking and vast knowledge of the flora and fauna, besides thorough knowledge of the forest terrain.

While hunting edible mushroom, they do not pluck all the mushroom in a place, but leave part of them for regeneration to propagate its species.

They do not use chemical fertilizers, insecticides, weedicides, herbicides and thus conserve the fertility and health of the soil.

They use spade, pick-axe and indigenous, innovative tools to till the ground and season the soil and avoid mechanized plough and do not use tractors and other powered mechanized equipment.

Presently the indigenous people feel the impact of Global Warming and attendant Climate Change. For 4 years from 2010 to 2014 August, they experienced erratic monsoons and monsoon failure and consequently drought and terrible water scarcity were felt. All hill streams dried and the dam registered just 4 feet instead of its maximum capacity of 48 feet.

Global Warming has its impact in affecting the population and nesting of wild honey bees, growth and regeneration of mushrooms, breeding of wild hare, breeding of human-friendly butterflies, ferns, mosses, orchid species and minor animals as observed and revealed by the indigenous people. Teams of scientists and environmentalists have also made this observation of heavy damage to bio-diversity by Climate Change.

During this drought period, unidentified viruses affect the people and physicians treated them for the usual virus infection, according to the tribal community. Physicians reported that viruses would have attained the process of mutation.

There is a vast change in the Rain Pattern that during Summer i.e. From February to May end, there is rain that destroys honey bees, creating infection in honey bee colonies, affect breeding of birds by making the eggs impotent etc. The South west Monsoon should start from the First day of June, but is delayed or fails. Erratic monsoon, drought and truant monsoon are felt, the impacts of Global Warming and Climate Change.

Medicinal plants

The Kaani people are a rich repository of ethno-botany having knowledge of over 300 medicinal plants and their uses. Kanyakumari district has about 1,200 indigenous medical practitioners, apart from the Kaani tribal people. Some of them have studied in colleges with registered degrees recognized by the Government.

The Government has banned hunting and the indigenous people have refrained from hunting. They rear country chicken at home to meet their need of meat, in addition to buying from markets in nearby villages, by travelling to villages.

Ban on cutting bamboo and forest timber is in force and they have switched over to building houses with cement hollow bricks.

Human Versus Animal Conflict is increasing and they depend on the free distribution of rice from the Government.

As they are not doing agriculture in a full- fledged manner, both men and women go to work in private rubber plantations on daily wages, while some work in Government plantation as daily wages to eke out their living.

The government gives priorities to them on community basis in education and employment as they are under the Poverty Line and considering their poor socio-economic status (the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life).

The Indian Forest Act of 1972 , with follow-up amendments that aim at conservation of forests, the flora and fauna, waterways and everything that exist in the forest. Though some of the provisions of the Act are detrimental and an infringement of the traditional rights of the indigenous people, they pay due respect to the laws of the land and participate in forest conservation.

Sociologically, this indigenous community is non-violent, peace loving and law abiding and act according to the Forest Laws. But, recently land mafia gangs, encroachers, vested interests and disgruntled politicians of opposition parties instigate the innocent, illiterate and gullible tribal people to agitate and demonstrate against the Government.


The Kaani people have some equipment to use to drive away animals, to save their agricultural crops. They use the following tool:

1. Adi-udukku: A piece of bamboo, measuring about 3 feet with part of the top portion removed .Then a cut is made perpendicular in the bamboo. When it is operated manually, one half moves upwards & strikes the other bottom half, creating noise that animals are scared and ran away from the field. This tool is used to scare the wild animals as monkeys and squirrels that destroy the crops.

2. Herb to chase Wild Honey bees: They use a herb to ward off the wild honey bees, while they hunt honey. They use the herbal leaves as a Smoker to chase the bees and smear the paste of the tuber on the physique that bees do not stink them. In this process, they do not kill the bees, that they help in conservation of the bees and bio-diversity conservation.

3. Kudukkai: This is a piece of bamboo about 3 feet with a reaper of one foot is attached at the middle, tied to a string. When the tool is in operation, the attached wooden piece strikes at the central bamboo creating noise, that scares the animals to leave the agricultural fields. During day, it is operated manually and during night it is attached to a tree branch and a bit of a coconut leaf or a twig is attached down below, which moves in the wind during night. When the branch moves, the middle stick strikes at the base structure of the bamboo that creates noise, that scares and chases the wild animals that intrude into the fields. During day, monkey, squirrels are driven away and during night wild boar, sambar, mountain goat, porcupine and  hare are chased out.

4. Kal- Vil (Stone bow) : This consists of a Bow with 2 strings and in between the strings at the middle, they are united.  In the strings, for 2 inches there is a rectangular space covered by woven thread, where a stone can be attached. Instead of an arrow, a round stone is used. This bow is used to expel monkeys and squirrels that destroy the crops during day.

5. Nanthini : This is a bamboo tool that serve to eliminate animals from agricultural areas, by creating noise during day. It is made of bamboo of 3 feet, where part of the top portion is cut off. Down below a small area is left out and below that an area of One inch is cut off and removed. When the user strikes the top portion with 2 sticks each measuring 1 foot, it creates noise to scare the animals.

6. Thoori:  This is an equipment to hunt fish at the ponds, river streams and banks of dams in shallow waters. It is 4 feet in length, made of bamboo and reeds with the ribs of coconut palm leaves. It has a locking system that once a fish gets inside of it, it gets automatically locked up and can never escape from the equipment.

7. Powdering Grains: Use of Mortar & Pestle: They use wooden Mortar & Pestle to powder rice, dried tapioca, edible nuts and other food materials with manual operation. They carve both the tools manually. There is no need of electricity or any other mechanization to operate this.

8. Grinding tool: For wet grinding to make coconut paste and masala paste (various ingredients as chili, pepper, cumin, turmeric and salt to make a paste, which is added to food while cooking). They use indigenously carved granite stones, one for the base and another for applying for pressure on the top to grind. It needs no energy or any sort of mechanization to operate.

Other Technologies:

1. Knowledge in Ethno-botany: The Kaani people have a rich knowledge in ethno-botany, with knowledge of 300 herbal medicinal plants. There are many traditional, indigenous physicians among them.

2. Sun drying of Agricultural Produce: The indigenous people adopt the Sun Drying Technology to de-water their agricultural products. In this technology, there is no need for electric energy, no need of machines, thus saving power, economy and space.

3. Avoiding Fertilizers & Insecticides: They do not use fertilizers and insecticides, saying they are poison. They never resort to these and are satisfied with the traditional way of farming practices. They apply a concoction of neem leaves, pungu leaves as organic bio-pesticides. They also use a concoction of raw tobacco and spray it on the affected plants.

The Kaani people have made a shift in their TK adopting innovations towards conservation efforts, some of the innovations are listed here.

Shift in TK & Innovations towards Forest bio-diversity Conservation:

1. Use of CDs & DVDs to drive out wild Animals : They use discarded CDs & DVDs to drive out wild animals that destroy the crops during night. They hang them in ropes in the boundaries and when they rotate by the winds, wild animals are scared as light is reflected by the discarded materials. During night, sambar, wild goat are scared by these. This is an innovative technology.

2. Use of used colored Sarees:

They use, used color sarees with strong, dark colors as blue, red, yellow and dark colors other than green and brown etc. to expel  animals as sambar, which is a timid animal, which has proved success. They buy used sarees from Hawker Shops , who sell used sarees as seconds.

3. Shift to in situ Cultivation: Herbal medicinal plants and ulathi(Caryota urensare in great demand. As conservation efforts, they are gradually shifting to in situ cultivation of in their residential areas to conserve the herbs and the palms in the forests and jungles. The inflorescence of Ulathi is used as a decorative material in marriage functions at the hall entrance as a symbol of regeneration. Harvesting it in the wild,  checks regeneration of the palm tree. So, Tribal Foundation has convinced them to grow in in situ condition, which is successfully executed by some indigenous people. Consequently, the palms in the wild are not affected by harvesting the inflorescence.

4. Mushroom Culture: Owing to Global Warming and Climate change, the sensitive plants as mushrooms and ferns are greatly affected in the wild and are threatened. Our team of environmentalists led by Davidson has identified 10 edible mushrooms in the wild and a student has done her PhD thesis on one of the mushrooms  through Chennai University in Tamil Nadu, India . To conserve the wild mushrooms, Tribal Foundation imparts training in mushroom culture of Pleurotus species, which suits the tropical climate of Kanyakumari forests.


The intangible cultural heritage can be used for the development of humanity if considered relevant and adaptable.

The tools and practices may be documented as it lacks proper documentation and vanishing now. Owing to the cultural transformation through the mass media, communication revolution, free trade, the younger generation is not showing interest in their culture.

The tools, product of the ILK, are useful to counter Human Versus Animal Conflict  without harming the forest bio-diversity and  promote sustainability , which may be replicated if found feasible.

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