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Unwelcome Tenants of a Tiger Reserve

Periyar lakeA wildlife enthusiast reserves a forest rest house two months in advance at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, South India. He wants to observe big game at close quarters.

The rest house is in the heart of the sanctuary with the Periyar lake  lapping its doorstep. It is not a luxury spot in the wilds. Because of its remoteness there is no electricity or tap water. You have to be dead serious about your purpose to find yourself there.

At first light the visitor combs the area for a radius of about 5 km. All he encounters are bird cries and the crunch of dead leaves underfoot.

He is about to turn back when his ears pick up a strange sound. The chatter of monkeys? He drifts in its direction.

In a clearing by the lake he comes upon a scene that leaves him cold. Docked to the bank is a line of gleaming yellow bamboo rafts swaying with the swell of the lake. Conversing in loud tones, a group of bare-bodied men briskly wind up yards of fish net. Flashing in the early morning sun are baskets of fish representing the night's catch, an illegal harvest reaped in a part of the Periyar lake hidden from public view, human activity in the centre of a tiger reserve and a National Park. You don't need to consult the tiger to realise that human presence is a crime against conservation. Besides, fishing in the lake is an offence that invites prosecution.

The outraged wildlife enthusiast confronts officials at the reserve with his "discovery". Their explanation stuns him. These fishermen until recently were special permit holders who have been allowed by the government to fish in pockets of the lake as a means of livelihood. The officials are quick to admit that the repercussions of this on the sanctuary are very serious.

The 'privileged' fishermen are tribesmen originally settled in the sanctuary area. As part of a re-settlement programme the government had them evacuated to new locations on the periphery of the sanctuary in Kumili, 4 km to the north. Settlements were also established in areas with a low animal population within the sanctuary in Pamba Valley and Vanchivayal. Each family was allotted land for cultivation.

The government measure proved futile. The Kumili tribes, called Mannans, drawn by their ancestral impulse to hunt and fish, abandoned cultivation and hit the nostalgic trail back to the sanctuary and its lake. Rather than evict them from their natural habitat, the government then decided to legalise these pursuits, turning a blind eye to the potential danger to the reserve. In addition, there was pressure from local political bosses who saw in the tribals a potential vote bank.

The ecological harm has less to do with the fact of fishing itself than with its side effects. The Mannans fish by night. Fires are lit to scare off prowling animals. These fires are often not put out in the morning, which in turn cause brush fires.

Several tiger sightings have been reported very close to the fishing area, which means the tiger is, therefore, forced to shift. Human infiltration disturbs the habitat of the tiger, a territorial animal, which could lead to a disturbance in the ecology of the region involving other forms of wildlife.

There have been three fishing colonies on the Periyar lake, at Nellikkampatti, Thondiyar and Anchurulli. The fish caught are mainly Tilopia, introduced in Periyar waters by the fisheries department some years ago. The fisherfolk are said to hunt game and steal the eggs of birds, in addition to fishing. They fan out to the interior of the forest, tainting the area with the scent of humans that sends animals scampering.

Another set of tribals, the Polayans, are traditional gatherers of honey. A common method of locating underground hives is to set the underbrush on fire. Once the foliage burns out the bees surface and the hive is detected. Officials say this method of honey collection is a grave fire hazard.

A third and more dangerous category of intruders are the Kumili locals. Cattle grazing within the sanctuary has become a permanent feature. The cattle belong to Kumili residents who set fire to overgrazed grasslands so that a fresh and richer layer of grass emerges. This homicidal spree destroys rodents and other creatures which thrive in grasslands like the pangolin, porcupine, mongoose and snakes. It is not uncommon to see birds of prey hovering above the smoking ruins of the forest.

Cattle grazing also exposes wild animals to disease. The great Rinderpest attack of 1974 was brought on by local cattle. The epidemic startlingly reduced the Gaur population. From over 1000 in 1974, Gaur now number about 150.

Lighting fires, officials say, has often led to artificial forest fires that have ravaged entire sections of the reserve. The two-hour boat journey provides glimpses of this devastation. Charred ground smears the hillsides like cinder. A trek through the forest fills one's ears with the pop and crackle of burning grass and undergrowth, like the echo of gunshots.

Fires have an added danger. They force the animal population to flee these parts and head eastward, straight into the waiting guns of peachers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

The eastern sector of the reserve is the core area, 350 sq km of dense vegetation, where the sun wrestles with treetops to reach the forest floor. The core area is also the soft underbelly of the forest administration.

The long border along the three Tamil Nadu districts of Madurai, Ramana and Tirunelveli lets in bands of marauding poachers into the core area. There are no manned security outposts guarding the border, no roads to link it with the headquarters at Thekkady, no vehicles to transport forest guards swiftly to a trouble spot. And there are too few forest guards policing 777 sq km of reserve area with communication facilities that are less than adequate.

The main points of access for poachers are Mangala Devi, Medaganam, Sivagiri and Velli Malai.Though forest guards carry superior weapons (303 rifles as against the poachers' muzzle loaders), pulling the trigger entails a barrage of explanations as nerve-shattering as a skirmish with poachers. 

The problem was compounded until recently by the presence of three private cardamom estates in the core area. These estates could well serve as retreats for poachers and have been extending their boundaries into the reserve.

What does the future bode for Periyar Tiger Reserve? The reserve is sandwiched between two religious centres: Sabarimala to the south and Mangala Devi up north, a controversial temple ruin soon to be resurrected to a major shrine along the lines of Sabarimala. There is a proposal to link the two temples by a highway running through the reserve. When religion confronts conservation, the outcome is obvious.

Building a highway across the reserve, tarring its topography, will bring the intrusion of wheels where tranquility walks. Periyar reserve is still the best opportunity in the world to observe the Asiatic elephant at close range. The tourist boat may drift to threatening distance of a herd and enjoy its tolerance. The blaring of horns and the drone of engines may put an end to that, inducing nervousness in the herd.

Birds too will pack up their nests and take the first flight out. Egrets, cormorants, storks may yield place to hordes of crows lining the highway for tidbits from cars.

The administration itself is not entirely above board. Vast funds from the central government flow into the reserve ostensibly for various development projects. Many of these projects are still-born. The construction of water-holes for animals to stave off summer drought began as an ambitious scheme meant for the deep interior of the reserve but ended up instead in makeshift earth pits too close to the tourist zone to attract wild animals.

From without and within a rich natural heritage stands threatened. Its external beauty and bearing are still untouched. The boat slicing the sinewy green water still unfolds a magical landscape to visiting eyes. The deadwood jutting out of the lake, poised like ballerinas, still fascinate. You can spot if you are lucky the alert sambar mimicking the stillness of a leaf, before vanishing over the hilltop. Or the otter raising his shiny head for a second from the water before melting in ripples.

The cliches of a wildlife preserve are still there : the herd of elephants by the lakeside, the grazing boar. But for how long? Already the lone tusker has become a memory, and gaur a fading footprint. Already the boats are disgorging weary tourists, empty-eyed and discontent. The reserve is fast becoming a picture of still -life with nothing moving but the boat.

Yet the still-life itself is so rich, so varied. Mixed deciduous forests swarm the shores of the lake and the hillsides, crowned by tall grass on the hilltops. Along the banks are open meadows. And away from the lake the land rises and falls in hills and valleys of dense evergreen forests.

This vegetation is the product of millions of years of evolution. It is gradually degrading to a secondary form of vegetation because of human interference in varied forms : tree-felling, over-grazing, poaching, collection of firewood and forest produces, fires and human presence.

In 50 years we may well see this last outpost of nature defining itself into a wasteland.

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