Wildlife and changing lifestyles in the “biodiversity hotspots” of the Nilgiri hills (Western Ghats) – Tamil Nadu and Kerala

Tarsh Thekaekara,  New Delhi, Sun Jul 15 2012

I grew up in a small town on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, cradled in the Nilgiri hills. I now work as a conservationist in the same area. Gudalur sits at the start of the mountains, at the edge of the Mudumalai Reserve. Till about 10 years ago, few roads, and only a handful of jeeps passed through the area. The forests and the land belonged to wildlife, and to elephants in particular. They routinely broke down fences and houses, damaged crops, chased jeeps and were the centre of most conversations. Electric fences were introduced only in the last decade, but the elephants invariably outsmarted them — a tusker learnt his tusks were electricity-proof, and used them to carefully snap the wires and a matriarch learnt dead wood could be used to smash through the fencing. But they were respected animals, whose rights were recognised as they never attacked or damaged property without reason.

Wildlife sightings routinely happened from my home […]

But life has changed over the years. It was once a wild landscape in which a few people lived. Now it is a human landscape in which a few animals manage to survive. In the last decade, the human population has increased, tourists come in troves and the small town has become a big town, where everyone is less keen on having biodiverse homes.

Over the years, I have learnt a lot more about this wider landscape, and have come to appreciate it more. The Nilgiri hills are a part of the Western Ghats, a 150-million-year-old rock formation, that is more than twice as old as the Himalayas. It is one of the world’s eight hottest biodiversity hotspots, with over 2,000 endemic plants species. It encompasses a host of protected areas, some UNESCO biosphere reserves, and is home to some of India’s largest populations of elephants and tigers. After deliberations in St Petersburg, the World Heritage Committee recently added the Western Ghats to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and the fuzzy feeling has not yet subsided among conservation and environmental circles.

Though they rise above 2,600 m, geological experts don’t classify the Western Ghats as true mountains. They were formed when the Gondwana landmass broke up about 150 million years ago, and India began to move away from Madagascar. The high altitudes meant that plants and animals evolved very differently in these hills from the rest of the country. These mountain forests are like little islands in the sky, teeming with plant and animal life. Even casual observers, once they look past the tigers and elephants, will notice the phenomenal diversity. Within a 30 km radius, the landscape changes from African grasslands to lush dense rainforests to windy hilly slopes. […]

Though a tiger hunts only about once a week, it could theoretically hunt a blackbuck for breakfast in an almost arid scrub jungle, walk about 20 km up the hills into a sky island, and hunt a Nilgiri tahr for dinner! The megafaunal diversity is just the tip of the iceberg. Ecstatic naturalists have written volumes about the flowers (orchids in particular), butterflies and insects, trees, plants, grasses and even the mosses and lichen.

And this is just in the Nilgiris. The Western Ghats start with the Satpura Range in the north, coming around Daman and Diu and Mumbai as far as the Sahyadris, they continue into the Anamalai hills into Kodaikanal in the east and south to Munnar, going all the way past Thiruvananthapuram. They run for about 1,600 km long, and cover about 1,40,000 sq km.

Numerous ethnic groups live in this region, and it is safe to say this is also one of the most culturally diverse places on the earth. Paul Hockings, a British anthropologist at the University of Illinois, at Chicago, has just compiled a multi-volume encyclopedia on the Nilgiris alone. In a somewhat simplistic summary of the early colonial writing on the region, he describes it as a place with a “variety of tribal people — hunters, foragers, pastoralists, swidden farmers, sorcerers, peasant farmers, mahouts — and with the most exotic customs one could think of”.

While we must celebrate this ethnic and environmental diversity of the Western Ghats, we must first understand the implications of a “World Heritage Site” tag. The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted by UNESCO in 1972. It was a unique global agreement, that for the first time brought together the conservation of both nature and culture. The Egyptian Pyramids, for example, are also a WHS. India is also signatory to this convention, and all states that are party to it are encouraged to nominate sites to the World Heritage Committee to be considered for inclusion in the World Heritage List. UNESCO provides technical guidance to help countries protect their cultural and natural heritage, and also gives some financial assistance through the World Heritage Fund (annually about US$4 million for the 962 WHSs, according to the UNESCO WHS website). More than the financial assistance, it raises the global conservation profile of the site, and helps generate awareness both locally and internationally. Sustainable development for the people living in these heritage landscapes is a central tenant of WHS. But the downside is that the convention is not hard law. So despite all the fanfare, there is not going to be any added legal provisions by which the Western Ghats can now be protected.

So will this tag change ground realities? On one hand, the tag on its own will not ensure that the cluster of 39 World Heritage Sites in the in the Western Ghats will be much better protected. Some conservationists are concerned that the selection of only 39 sites (8,000 sq km) within the Ghats is arbitrary, and will open up the remaining 1,32,000 sq km for destruction. But the tag will also bring in more international attention, and can be used by conservationists and civil society groups to stall some of the large-scale industrial and mining processes that are destroying the hills, so that the elephants might once more roam free into the mist.

The author is founder of The Shola Trust, working on people-based nature conservation in the Nilgiris.

Source: Where Elephants are Kings – Indian Express
Address : http://www.indianexpress.com/news/where-elephants-are-kings/974450/0
Date Visited: Tue Sep 25 2012 11:31:24 GMT+0200 (CEST)

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