The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is ecologically sensitive and vulnerable to changes that constantly threaten to engulf this fragile region. These include grazing pressure, demand for fuelwood, demand for small timber, fire, especially when recurrent, demand for green manure, encroachment, demand for Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), poaching and smuggling, development projects, land use practices, pesticides, soil erosion and water logging, increase in population density, pilgrimage and mining and quarrying. Some of these are discussed here.
Human wildlife conflicts have far reaching environmental impacts. Threat to particular specie is one consequence as animals are not able to cope with pressures on their natural habitat. A number of elephants in the region are electrocuted or fall in deep ditches meant to protect human settlements. Snakes, deer and small mammals are being crushed under speeding vehicles. Loss of natural habitat coupled with habitat fragmentation is the most overriding cause of animal injury and death in the entire biosphere reserve. This conflict causes immense damage to human groups too. Most forest villages suffer from crop depredation and damage to physical infrastrutucure such as water pipes, electrical installations and livestock damage. A study suggests that most conflicts occur within the reserve forest boundary which forms part of the home range of large mammals, especially elephants. In these cases, people who have encroached upon these reserve forests face maximum conflict situation (Sumin Thomas, 2006).
To mitigate losses, several measures have been taken to prevent animals from crop raiding and entering human habitations, the main ones being elephant trenches and electric fencing. Presently, some organisations, environmental and peoples’ groups are trying out effective ways to tackle the problem of conflict. In the recent years such attempts include eco-restoration, removal of exotics, joining fragmented corridors through purchase of private land, promoting sustainable NTFP collection and ensuring effective wildlife protection.
There is a high influx of tourists in the NBR region. The major tourism zones include the Siruvani Waterfall with mostly local tourists who visit with an intent of a picnic and leave behind solid waste in the form of plastic wrappers, bottles and more. The next major tourism belt is that of the Upper Nilgiri region based around the towns of Coonoor and Ooty. The visitors include visitors from outside the state, foreigners and day visitors from cities and towns of Tamil Nadu. The Ooty- Coonoor region is the hub of most tourist activities with the estimated number of people touching more than twelve lakh persons in a year. The third major zone is that of the Sigur Plateau where wildlife tourism is in the vogue. A consequent spin-off of the wildlife tourism enterprise is that of widespread reports of night safari, attempts at domestication of wild animals and increased pressures on the meager resources of this dry plateau. The fourth zone is that of the Bandipur- Gundulpet belt where a number of resorts have come up, adjacent to the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. This comprises of visitors from parts of Karnataka and outstation visitors from other parts of India. The Fifth zone is in Nagarhole where the majority of the tourists are willing to pay more for high end services that include luxury settings. The sixth zone is that of Wyanad where there has been recent developments in tourism and a number of middle to high end resorts have come up that cater to varying clientele. The seventh zone is the Silent Valley National park where a limited number of tourists are allowed.
Of these seven zones, the Sigur plateau, Ooty Plateau and Bandipur region are under severe pressure. A large number of tourists arrive with an intention to enjoy, with minimal respect for the environment. Rowdiness is rampant and these tourists are especially uncontrolled during the summer season in the plateau region of Ooty. The brunt of uncontrolled tourism is most felt in the wildlife areas like Sigur and Nagarhole, where it leads to firewood cutting for tourist needs, night jeep rides for animal sighting, etc. This `green greed’ – has led to the mushrooming of several wildlife resorts, guest houses and camp sites in the area. Many private estates have converted to this lucrative business. E.g. in Sigur sub region there are more than thirty wild life resorts and hotels which put severe pressure for resources in that plateau (Keystone, Water Resources and Land Use Survey, 2006).
Besides, there is little restriction on the number and kinds of vehicles that are let into the protected areas, especially in Mudumalai (Daniel, 1996). Roads have proven to be a major source of degradation of the forest regions and in fast forwarding exposure of adivasis to jetsetters from all over the nation. One particular example is the road that passes through Masinagudi and upto Ooty through the forested regions of Sigur, this being a road that witness more vehicles than the main Gudalur- Mysore highway. Tourists coming from different areas exert pressure on the eco-system by excessive traffic, demand for goods and services and solid waste pollution.
Rivers, reservoirs, streams, springs and ground water are all tapped in this region. Due to population pressures, demands from plantations and vegetable industry, water resources are over exploited. However, dry land agriculture is still common in the NBR as most of the major rivers have been tapped for hydro-electrical production, culminating in reservoirs which feed the plains. Examples of these include the Nugu, Kabini and Bhavani Sagar Reservoirs. Reservoirs in the upper Nilgiri plateau are the major sources of irrigation and hydroelectric potential for the people of the plains of Tamil Nadu. Pollution of water sources from human population concentrations (urban areas) and from the extensive use of pesticides is also high. Nilgiri and adjacent districts are among the highest users of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in Tamil Nadu state. The region has a number of factories with approximately seven major industries and 175 tea and other small scale industries (Daniel, 1996).
Besides, there are several industries in the base of the hills, which pollute river water extensively. Most of them are along the River Bhavani and fall in Tamil Nadu state. These include dyeing and spinning units, paper factories and sugar manufacturing. In the past, a major polluting industry – the South India Viscose factory was closed down due to the environmental lobby of the Nilgiris. Small manufacturing units are often more polluting and need to be studied in more detail. There is a need to address these issues, with catchments treatment work and protection of sources.
The Forests of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve have suffered the onslaught of selective cutting of valuable timber (teak, sandalwood, rosewood) for more than two centuries. Introduction of exotic species for making army barracks and railways during World War times was also widespread. Across-the-board plantations of wattle, eucalyptus and cinchona took over grasslands, removing distinct vegetation and the pasture lands of indigenous pastoral communities. In addition, extensive modification of the natural vegetation was undertaken by the Forest Department with the introduction of exotic commercial tree crop plantations and tea plantations.
After much pressure from environmental groups – all such activities have been stopped in the NBR, except in the Nilambur region, where teak plantations thrive and are regularly replenished by the Kerala Forest Department. However, tell-tale signs exist in the form of Coupes (Forest areas marked for felling), where timber logging was regularly done. These coupes have left their mark not only on the condition of the forests, but also on the names of settlements, some of which are even presently referred to as Kil Coupe or Mel Coupe.
Plantations and Agriculture
Much of the pristine vegetation of the NBR has been replaced by plantations of tea and coffee, marshes converted into vegetable fields and vast stretches of high altitude wilderness planted with commercial forests. A large extent of the land use is flawed as the steep terrain of the region has been utilized for agriculture with little consideration for erosion.
In the Nilgiri district, tea governs the economy of the region. Previously forested lands were cleared for tea plantations to employ the migrants in general. This activity resulted in an economic boon, but an ecological disaster – promoting mono-culture, excessive use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and an extremely dependent population. World prices determine the local price of tea, which fell drastically in 2003-04, causing an economic drought and subsequent wide scale protests by small and marginal farmers in the plateau.
Besides tea, cultivation of vegetables on steep slopes is undertaken, which leads to soil erosion and lack of water retention. Potato, carrots, cauliflowers, cabbage, beans, beetroot are the main vegetables cultivated, all of which are grown with excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Large agricultural tracts – like those around Nagarhole, lie close to forests. The threat of encroachment, use of chemicals in cash crop cultivation and grazing by domestic cattle are common in these areas.
Illegal Harvesting of NTFPs
A major occupation within the forests of the NBR, is that of collection of NTFPs, including medicinal plants. Always treated as a minor activity by the Forest Department – this activity has increased in the region, over the past few years. The collection of these products is often unsustainable, leading to their low populations and sometimes total disappearance of species from these areas. This is especially true of medicinal plants like Rauvolfia serpentina and Saraca asoka, which have become rare. The rules of collection vary from state to state, making it convenient to have cross border transactions. As the markets of these products are often informal and traditional, this is difficult to change. This problem is widespread in all forest areas of the NBR, but more pronounced in regions such as Sathyamangalam, Pillur, Wyanad, Nilambur and Attapadi.
Despite several measures being undertaken by the Government under Joint Forestry Management, NTFPs are controlled by traders and middlemen. The system is largely exploitative of the adivasi collector and unsustainable for the resource itself.
Other Major Issues
Incidences of fire are common across the NBR in the dry season extending from January-March. Fires due to natural or manmade reasons cause wide scale damage in these areas and negatively impact wildlife. Such incidences are common in the Mudumalai Sanctuary and the Sigur Ghat.
Incidences of illegal timber felling and poaching are also high in the NBR. Most of the threats are from the Western side – in the border areas between Kerala and Tamil Nadu and between Kerala and Karnataka. This makes the entire complex of national parks and sanctuaries, especially Wyanad, Nagarhole, Bandipur and Mudumalai susceptible to poachers. Nagarhole reports high poaching of elephants and had received huge amounts of negative publicity when frequent news of elephant poaching came to the fore. Organised poaching of mammals is rampant in the remoter parts of the biosphere reserve, especially in the eastern part of the Moyar River. The Moyar gorge region is isolated in nature and hence uncomplicated for poachers to carry out their activities. Reports of large fish and mammals being hunted occur regularly from these parts.
Grazing is a major concern in these areas. Farming communities often keep large herds of cattle for manure. This practice is traditional and often has links with other communities, mainly adivasi, who take the cattle for grazing in the forests, can sell the milk and have to give the manure to the farmer owner. This system is called `pattis’ and exists in the Sigur, Bandipur and Nagarhole regions. Of late, these cultural links are broken due to land use change and crop preferences, so this manure is commercially sold in lorry loads to buyers in the region. However, the large numbers of cattle dependent on a shrinking forest base are a cause of worry. Managers and environmentalists have been working towards reducing the grazing pressure in these forests. In Sigur and adjacent Mudumalai area this practice has drastically reduced over the past three years. However in parts of Nagarhole, it is still common to see wild elephant and cattle grazing together on the banks of the Kabini.