A strong odour of cattle dung hit us even before our eyes caught sight of it littered everywhere like shopping freaks in Bangalore's Mall. And here we were in the middle of a thick scrub jungle come to do a census on the flora and fauna of the Hosur Forests also called as Melagiris. Kenneth Anderson Nature Society together with Asian Nature Conservation Foundation have taken up several surveys in this region that spreads over an area of almost 1200 sq kms containing a mix of several vegetation but mainly abounded by the dry scrub forest to study these forests and restore the region back to its original state.
These forests face manifold threats and perhaps the one by cattle grazing tops the list. Cattle here are grazed in large numbers and pegged down in large cattle-pen called pattis. The absence of large carnivores and a blind eye by the forest department has made the Hosur forests a cattle grazing grounds for the locals. There is a suspicion that the cattle that's been grazed belongs to the wealthier families in Tamil Nadu living far away from Hosur employing the services of the local. While the locals are allowed to graze cattle and sheep, grazing goats is illegal, though one can frequently come across goats grazing in the Melagiris. This has been made illegal because while the cattle/sheep feed mainly on grass the goat eats up tender shoots thus denying the forests to rejuvenate.
Chital that is so abundant in the other side of the Cauvery, on the Karnataka side, that you yawn when you sight herd after herd thudding away in your wake has in this region become a sight to feast on. So why have the herbivores been thinning out even as the forests remain? Answer, human interference and Cattle Grazing. These herbivores have been hunted down for meat and skin. Also since they naturally avoid man increased human interference has made them to flee these forests. The dwindling grass cover by the cattle even as it sprouts and the foot and mouth disease, poaching for meat has all played a major role in wiping out the larger population of the herbivores. With such a small prey base and poaching has wiped out the tigers, not to mention cattle-kill poisoning carried out by their distraught owners long ago. Although we have recorded pug marks of leopards and wild dogs, tigers and hyena have are no longer to be found although the locals claim to have seen one or two a while.
Thick lantana jungle has sprung up everywhere wiping away the native plant species. Its likely that these dry bushes catch up fire at the slightest chance building up into a roaring furnace and destroying the forest. KANS (Kenneth Anderson Nature Society) has drawn plans to employ locals to remove this invasive weed from the roots. However no amount of de-weeding can remove them forever, the seeds of lantana are spread by birds and need but a brief spell of rain to grow back to numbers. A sustained effort over time only can put a cap on the lantana jungle.
Man-Elephant conflict is on steady rise. The Elephants have taken to crop-raiding due to a variety of reasons - perhaps because the farms have replaced their original forests? or because they face shortage of food within forests due to expansive cattle grazing? Some also say the Elephants have taken a liking to easily available farm produce while others vehemently deny it stating elephants are shy of humans and do everything in their power to avoid human habitation. And having experienced that first hand I must say I agree with the latter belief. Human death toll is getting higher too. Unwary locals and forest guards have been trampled by bulls occasionally.
At several places Villages have taken permanent residence within the forest boundaries. Re-settling these villages from the Melagiris is essential to give the forests and wildlife a chance to revive. However this is a very sensitive issue, the tribals in this region have been living in the forests are called Poojaries and have since time immemorial developed a culture that is deeply associated with the forests. It is indeed very difficult to separate the original settlers from the new families that must have taken residence in the recent past. A fair approach must be followed and enough compensation must be given for the families to persuade them to move out of the forests. A few of the natives could be soaked in as the forest staff as their knowledge of these forests is exhaustive and indispensable towards studying and protecting them.
The locals have been using the forests to extract a variety of forest produce including firewood, tamarind pods, honey to list a few. KANS has drawn up plans to provide LPG gas to the families to cut down on the firewood gathering. Farmlands are extending their tentacles into the forest lands steadily. When the Melagiris assume Sanctuary status, with enough security, it can be said that Timber extraction, poaching and such illegal activities can be capped.
Reckless Tourism is another contributing factor. Although Melagiris are relatively unknown patch of forests it can be predicted that with all the conservation activities in progress, the limelight on the flora and fauna will inevitably attract a steady stream of picnic-goers. Already tourists are seen loitering around. At a prominent lake where the elephants usually gather in large numbers at dusk tourists unmindful of the danger have been seen in groups. Although there is no straight forward solution to the Tourism issue but it must be handled with caution.
Although the list of threats does not end here, they are not new. Our forests throughout India are reeling under the same tell-tale signs. We have only around 3% land under forest cover protecting a fragile eco-system. New lands are almost impossible to secure for the already threatened plants and animals and the majority of the forests in this 3% fall as reserved forests. The forest staff are few, they are underpaid and not well equipped to fight the poachers. There are many problems and many more solutions. Today the cry of the hour is to guarantee the security of our remaining forests, to guarantee a life to the many beasts and wild plants that abound our lands. The time is to act.