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On The Ground In The Nilgiris

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

The Nilgiris mountain range in South India is home to India’s first biosphere and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Behind the thick green and biodiversity, however, different pictures emerge and all is not well with the region.

Over the centuries, a number of players have exerted their influence on the ecosystem - from British colonialists who introduced invasive species of trees from other countries to a generally misguided forest department that doesn’t quite seem to cohesively adapt to the real needs of the jungle. Various efforts are now being made to redress the imbalance, each facing varying degrees of scepticism, and meeting different levels of success.

Here are a few experiences and perspectives from those on the ground, closest to the forest and all that inhabit it.

K.J.Raju, Mathematics Teacher & Secretary of LSWC

The Regeneration Movement

"To grow a forest, we should not enter it. This is the only solution. Shola (forests) will look after its own regeneration," says K. J. Raju, Secretary of Longwood Shola Watchdog Committee (LSWC).

The Longwood Shola Reserve Forest is one of few remaining natural grasslands in the Nilgiris. Its battle against invasive species, first introduced by the British, have been helped in no small part to locals and passionate fighters like Raju. Their efforts over more than two decades have helped preserve the natural diversity of the forest.

“It is a kind of exotic pollution,” says Raju, of the spread of eucalyptus and acacia all over the region. He contends that the notion that grasslands are wastelands that fuels ill-conceived plans to plant foreign trees and plants is why wild animals are venturing out of the jungle in search of food and familiarity.

The LSWC started as an experiment by clearing 14 acres and planting native species. “As a teacher, I planted about 500 trees and I made a pakka forest behind the Cordite Factory School in Aruvankadu. The general manager saw it and said, ‘you useless fellow! You have created a jungle inside a forest!’”

The committee also serves as an educational institution of sorts, especially to the local villagers and tribespeople in the vicinity of the forest. “We appointed a person to walk along the forest and check if anybody was picking sticks. First thing in the morning, at 6 o'clock, these ladies would come but we did not let them in and shooed them away from picking sticks up. Of course it’s pathetic, but we had to do it. That's how we could teach them.”

Their results are bearing fruit as more of the region slowly returns to its once-glorious richness. "For me...for us...we are emotionally attached to this forest. Every single leaf and every other thing is like our relative. We would touch and feel them at least once a week or we would never be able to sleep. We don't want to lose that attachment," says Raju.

Mani Ranga Gowda, Bakery Owner & Retired Postal Employee

Mani Ranga Gowda, a retired postal employee, runs Royal Bakery in the Nilgiris region. The bakery attracts all sorts of wild animals, but bears are the biggest problem. Gowda had one break in through two strong doors in search of food and recounts stories of another attacking a couple in a neighbouring village near Kotagiri. While cognizant of their danger to humans, he is also sympathetic to their plight.

“About 90 percent of the forest is destroyed. There's no food there inside. So it comes here. Also, there has been no rainfall for the past two years. So it may also come in search of water. It sees people here and tries to adapt to this environment. When we first saw wild buffalo, we thought it's some kind of huge animal like an elephant. But now we have gotten used to it. Now, even bears have gotten closer to humans than cows. They walk casually on the streets around here. The smell of oil and baking attracts bears. Bears have a very strong sense of smell, which is why they often go to places like bakeries, tea shops and temples,” says Gowda.

So whose fault is it really?

“These wild animals have been coming out of the forests only in the last 8-10 years. I wouldn’t say it is my fault; we have been running this bakery for 80 years. However, it is our (villagers) fault that we have destroyed the forest and this is forcing animals out of the forest,” he says.

“The government didn’t want us to harm the four-legged creatures. So they should be doing something to solve this issue. They put a cage here asking us to inform the Forest Department if a bear was caught in it. A dog went in once and got caught. They gave us fruits to put inside the cage to lure the bear, but instead monkeys ate the fruits and left. So we dropped the idea of keeping fruits and lure them with oil instead.”

Ravichandran, 59, Construction Labourer

The construction labourer emigrated to Tamil Nadu from Srilanka in 1976. “It is only after 1997 that I first saw animals like wild buffaloes, Gaurs (Indian Bison), and bears. Until then, they all lived in the solai (tropical rainforest).”

He says there is no point sowing new trees or plants now because it takes many years for them to grow. “Since there is no fodder left to feed the buffaloes, they would go and graze there, trampling the freshly planted plants,” he adds.

“When the entire forest gets destroyed where will the animals go?”

Boopathy, Agriculturist & Ecotourism Businessman

The concretisation of the jungle

“There used to be buffer zones down the hills where we lived. Around the house, there was space for the cattle to graze and then agricultural land, beyond which were the grasslands. But now there is nothing. You have only concrete jungles everywhere,” says Boopathy, an agriculturalist who also runs a part-time eco-tourism business.

“There were laws on urbanization, which set certain limits. These laws were implemented strictly during British rule. Once the law came into our hands, the politicians changed it all. They have started building wherever they want. If a tiger passes by in the night, people kill it. Where else will the animals go? Is there any other place on the planet for them? Can we take them and put them on a new planet?

Lots of people talk about man-animal conflict. The word ‘conflict’ is only for, and between, humans. It is not for animals because they do not have and know of any conflict at all. The word 'conflict' is very easily and casually used by people and media against animals, while it is the humans really who are creating a lot of damage.”

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