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Ajith Kumar, a driver who is an ardent Ayyappa devotee, has been climbing the Sabarimala for over two decades. However, the nature lover in him has been feeling increasingly upset in recent times, the reason being the mind-boggling amount of plastic he notices during his treks.
So when he got a call from P Johnson, beat forest officer in charge of the Sannidhanam forest station, a few days ago, he didn’t think twice.
“He was almost in tears when he told me that the situation of wild animals in the forest is deplorable now from all the plastic that they have been consuming, and that the problem needed to be addressed immediately.”
Ajith Kumar immediately alerted his friends from the group of nature lovers called Guardians Of Nature (GON). “We have a loyal group of supporters, ever ready to do their bit for nature. On January 29, four of us from GON climbed to Valyanavattom and Cheriyanavattom, areas never monitored by the authorities,” he says.
The group had planned to spend a day cleaning up the area, but what they witnessed was way beyond what they had prepared for, they say.
“Since the officials usually clean only the areas along the forest paths used by pilgrims, we went deep inside the forests. To our shock, we found that there was an equally huge amount in there as well — pickle sachets, fruit juice pouches, plastic bottles and more. From the looks of it, it was evident all this has been lying there for years,” he says.
It did not take them long to realise that the four of them wouldn’t be able to do much and asked for re-enforcements. What started off as a small-scale clean-up op turned into something much bigger, with volunteers from different parts of the State, including five women joining them, besides two forest officers and some wayside vendors.
And then they came across the saddest sight of all. “We realised that we were on an elephant trail, as there was elephant dung everywhere. And in every single piece, there was plastic — toffee wrappers and more, in addition to the black dhotis used by pilgrims and even their underclothes!”‘ says Ajith Kumar.
Their worst fears came true when the forest officers informed them that a she-elephant had been found dead that day, in the middle of the Pampa.
The post-mortem report from the vet confirmed the suspicion — the elephant had died of an indigestion problem caused by too much consumption of plastic.
The forest officers reveal that this is nothing new in Sabarimala.
“The wild elephants are clueless about what’s food and what’s not. They get attracted by the salty or sugary taste of the bits left in the used pouches and eat them whole. It’s not just elephants, all kinds of wild animals fall prey to the deadly material,” says Johnson.
“Every season, there will be elephant deaths from plastic. Last season we found a sambar deer with all kinds of plastic inside it, and also a wild boar.”
The sewage plant in the area does not function properly, and the elephants regularly consume the plastic laden garbage from the plant as well. In addition, roadside vendors in the forest path leave the plastic waste strewn across the area, every single season, they say.
Johnson has an explanation why there is so much plastic so deep in the jungle.
“Pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and other states arrive a week before Makaravilakku. There are options to stay in dormitories but they camp on the banks of the Pampa, inside the forest, from where they can get a view of the Makaravilakku. We once found a group of 300 pilgrims from Tamil Nadu inside the forest. The entire area was strewn with plastic. We made them clean it all up, but they were shockingly unaware of what plastic can do to the wildlife and environment,” he says. “The waste from the sewage plant flows directly into the Pampa, which is black in colour now. The animals, including their young ones, are left with no choice but to drink that tar-like water.”
So hasn’t the plastic free Sabarimala campaign made any impact on these pilgrims? “Obviously, no. Also, even if bins are kept on the paths, the pilgrims don’t use them,” says Johnson.
The group also alleges that the Travancore Devaswom Board is conveniently turning a blind eye to the deaths of wild animals from plastic consumption, because ”business is more important for them”. “Don’t they get crores every season? Why aren’t the forests and wild animals a priority?” asks Ajith Kumar.
Meanwhile, the group has asked for five months’ time from the forest officers, and plan to visit the forests regularly to cleanse the area from Azhutha to Erumeli, bit by bit. They also plan to spread awareness among pilgrims and prevent further littering in the next season.
“The plastic you throw around carelessly is actually killing the innocent animals there. Spare a thought for them next season,” says Ajith Kumar.