The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR) and adjoining forest areas span a vast area of over 6,000 sq km across the three states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The NBR is one of the largest networks of Protected Areas (PA) in South Asia. Apart from being a prime habitat for wildlife, it also provides vital hydrological services to South India in terms of watersheds and catchment areas.
Moreover, NBR can also be viewed as a vitally important component in providing resilience to the impending effects of climate change in this region of South India, which is home to several million people. Against this background, it is a matter of serious concern that the sharp escalation of human-animal conflict, especially human-elephant conflict in areas adjoining the NBR indicates high levels of habitat degradation. A ‘business as usual’ attitude will lead to serious consequences in the coming decades. One of the major challenges this area faces is that of forest degradation, which is caused due to various reasons such as:
Teak monoculture:Vast portions of the NBR and adjoining areas are under teak monoculture, which have changed the original forest regime and adversely affected the microclimate. Teak also deprives fodder for elephants and ironically, they have now been compelled to feed on teak bark. It restricts natural regeneration of other indigenous tree species and the dry teak leaves form a thick carpet on the forest floor. Thus forest fires in teak-dominated areas are very intense and extremely difficult to control.
Invasive weeds: Massive proliferation of invasive weed species such as Lantana camara and Eupatorium perfoliatum are principal causes of forest degradation. These species spread aggressively in the forests, resulting in a stifling of indigenous tree and plant species.
Forest fires: Large scale forest fires occur frequently in the dry season and destroy large areas of forests. It results in the proliferation of invasive weed species. There is a need to establish a proper integrated system for prevention and tackling of forest fires.
Grazing pressures: Grazing pressures by livestock prevents natural forest rejuvenation and is a potential threat to herbivores through spread of diseases such as foot and mouth disease that could wipe out entire herds of wildlife. The local communities need to be provided alternative grazing areas and training and capacity building for stall-fed cattle and diary cooperatives. The model developed by Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra is a perfect example for stall-fed cattle and dairy cooperatives for rural areas. Encroachments and disruption of elephant migratory routes also add to the mess.
Land encroachment: Improper implementation of the Forest Rights Act has resulted in a situation where large settlements have sprung up in forest areas, blocking elephant movement and forcing the elephants to move out into areas outside the forests. While it is a politically sensitive issue, this trend must be checked before the situation gets worse.
Damaging development: Linear constructions have led to further degradation of elephant corridors. Although this does not affect PAs, adjoining forest areas are prone to degradation. Large swathes of forests are also lost due to forest conversion for construction projects.
Moreover, animal migration routes have been blocked due to development projects. There is a need to analyse the feasibility of restoring these routes at least partially. Urgent action is required to implement measures to restore and preserve the NBR and adjoining forest areas. A coordinated effort by all agencies concerned will offer hope about the future of the area. The success of this programme will also serve as a model for other degraded forest areas, both in India and other regions of the world.