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A few hundred yards away from Sigur bridge, where the Sigurhalla River descends from Kalhatti ghat, a herd of Sambar deer suddenly darts out from a small bamboo thicket and takes off into the forest.
This sighting would have been near impossible just a few months ago, when an extreme drought in the Nilgiris had dried up this small yet vital water body completely, pushing wildlife into the core of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and towards the Moyar River in Tamil Nadu. The situation was so grave that many elephants in the Sigur and Singara Forest Ranges dropped dead from the lack of water and fodder.
Since then, the forest department, with the help of ecologists and environmentalists, has been working on a plan to rejuvenate the once perennial Sigurhalla River, and the efforts are already bearing fruit.
Sigurhalla, which originates at Sandynallah reservoir and flows more than 30 kilometres down to the Sigur plateau, was once replete with wildlife—otters, fish, even marsh crocodiles—before the Kamaraj Sagar Dam was built in the 1970s, completely drying up the river for four months each year.
This caused nothing short of a minor “ecological disaster” in the area, according to Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, an ecologist who runs the Sigur Nature Trust: many species of endemic fish and other animals dependent on the river began disappearing or moving further into the core area of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.
But over the past six months, when elephants began dying in significant numbers in Sigur, the forest department, the Nilgiris district administration and the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation came to an understanding.
They decided the river must be restored and made perennial again.
Starting February, two cusecs of water have been released every day from Kamaraj Sagar Dam: it may be a minuscule amount compared to the storage capacity of the 400 acre, but it has revived the river and transformed the landscape.
Since then, the forests along Sigurhalla have begun to spring back to life, and with that, many species of wildlife have begun to congregate near the river.
Forest staff report seeing otters, tigers, leopards, deer and elephants with increasing frequency.
Puyravaud says the restoration of the river was extremely important for local wildlife to thrive.
“Since the river was restored, elephants have started to disperse to areas along its course. This can only be a good thing, as it means there is more vegetation for them to eat, and as a consequence, the carrying capacity of the forests also increases.”
Indigenous communities who inhabit the lower slopes of the Nilgiris, including the Irulars and Kurumbars, have also benefited by the restoration of the river.
T. Deivamma, an Irular woman from Chokkanalli, a tribal hamlet by the Sigurhalla, says the water level in the percolation pit they dug in January (when the drought was most acute) has filled up, and the well has also recharged. “We used to get maybe two or three pots of water a day, but now there is much more water available for all of us,” she says.
Stitch in time
Their livestock, which were dying in large numbers until a few months ago, are also doing much better. P. Mari, from Chemmanatham, another Irular hamlet bordering the river, says that he lost eight heads of cattle because there was no water at all in the river last year.
“We feared that the few that survived would die too. But fortunately the water was released from the dam and they are alive.”
S. Kalanidhi, District Forest Officer, Nilgiris North Division, says that since the restoration, the number of people injured or killed in conflicts with wild animals, especially elephants, has also come down.
“There were around 20–25 instances of conflict recorded in the Nilgiris North Division in 2016, but we have had almost no incident this year.”
The forest department has proposed more restoration initiatives. If sanctioned, the plans would entail strengthening bunds and check dams, desilting and removing exotic species that have sprouted on the banks after the restoration.
“We hope the river revival is successful and the model can be replicated across Tamil Nadu and India,” says Kalanidhi.