The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), the first one for India and among the 18 biosphere reserves of India, is located in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot and more recently a UNESCO natural heritage site. The NBR is a region of rich biodiversity and cultural diversity; home to many endemic flora and fauna which co- exist with more than 20 distinct indigenous communities. Today more than 3000sq.ks of the ~5000sq km reserve is under protected area status viz. wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves. Large contiguous tracts of forests also fall under the reserved forest category; in these reserved forests indigenous people have their homes and use many wild resources for their livelihoods.
The NBR lies between 10° 45’N to 12° N and 76° E to 77° 15’ E spread across the three southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Altitude varies from 250m to 2650m, and at least four of the major rivers of south India originate in this region – the Bhavani, Moyar, Kabini and Chaliyar rivers. The intensity of the rainfall brought by the southwest and northeast monsoon winds differ across topographic and altitudinal gradients . The western ranges of the NBR receive higher precipitation (up to 4600 mm) while the eastern parts form a rain shadow, receiving less than 800 mm rainfall annually.
This range of topography and climate has resulted in sharp gradients of vegetation composition, ranging from thorny scrub forest dominating the north-eastern region and intergrading westwards into dry and moist deciduous forests and wet evergreen forests towards the western parts. Most of the major vegetation types of peninsular India occur in the NBR.
Both the Western Ghats and the NBR are home to endemic and endangered fauna like the Lion Tailed Macaque, Bengal Tiger, King Cobra, Indian Elephant, Great Indian Pied Hornbills. The Western Ghats harbors approximately 5,000 species of vascular plants belonging to nearly 2,200 genera; about 1,700 species (34 percent) are endemic (westernghats.org.in) like Cycas circinalis. Strobilanthes kunthiana, etc.
Of the estimated 20000 indigenous people of the NBR atleast 5 communities number less than 5000 and of the cholanaiken there are less than 250 surviving members.The Kurumbas, Cholanaikens and Kattunayakas are hunter gatherer communities, famous for their honey hunting skills while the Soliga and Irula practice shifting cultivation besides collecting non timber forest produce (NTFP). Pastoral communities like the Toda graze their buffaloes in the grasslands of the upper plateau.
The biological diversity of the reserve is matched with it’s cultural diversity. There are a number of pressures on the reserve which threaten it’s diversity and richness. Increased proliferation of invasive alien species, lack of scientific assessments of lesser known species, unchecked tourism, unsustainable and unplanned infrastructural development, inadequate management of water resources are some of the serious threats that the region is faced with.