Walking the Western Ghats
Walking the Western Ghats

At a time when the Western Ghats is facing tremendous pressure from vested lobbies, India's renowned conservation biologist A J T Johnsingh has put together an insightful book with collections from his walking trails over the decades in the Western Ghats (WG).

In the book titled 'Walking the Western Ghats' he identifies challenges and interventions to improve the resilience of the mountains which he calls "legacy for humankind" whose destruction "should not be permitted any longer".

As John Seidensticker, from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, notes in the foreword, the ghats represent the struggles India faces in keeping intact the last five percent of wild India.

Public good will towards conservation will not be enough to save the wilderness from India's rapid economic growth and urbanisation.

The Unesco has declared seven clusters with 39 sites as world heritage sites. It is the birthplace of so many rivers supplying vital water to millions and generating hydel power.

The book spans Johnsingh's walk covering the entire span from the Kanyakumari hills to Bhimshankar sanctuary in the Sahyadris. A first-hand experience from a master who has climbed all the peaks in the range spanning up to 6300 feet in height.

Johnsingh's tryst with the jungles goes back to childhood when he often accompanied his dad and siblings into the Thirukurungudi range near home. From then on he kept the ghats well within his sight for much of his career as wildlife biologist.

A doctorate later, he went for a stint at Smithsonian institute and returned to work with BNHS and the Wildlife Institute of India. After retiring from WII in 2005 he undertook the present survey of the ghats.

Around 10,000 km of the forest was covered by vehicle and 1100 km walked through. The book features some of his adventures with wildlife and the wilderness.

From being trapped metres away between two elephant herds, to sharing the space with a sloth bear, meeting poachers, tahr sightings, night spent shivering on a rock in the stream to avoid the leech infested jungle of Muthukuzhivayal in Kalakkad range, climbing, sliding, slipping down mountain slopes, the reader gets a sample of it all.

While transporting the reader to the WG for a virtual taste of high adventure, the book is perhaps most useful as a bible for policy makers wishing to save the life-sustaining ghats.

While noting the six vital corridors in the central WG down to details like how electric fences in Kutta Thorapalli road should be removed to ensure wildlife passage between Nagarhole and Brahmagiri sanctuaries, or how wildlife thrives at Rajapalyam range after a sanctuary was established, suggestions for improving tiger density by controlling prey poaching and ensuring habitat continuity at Dandeli-Anshi or Agasthyamalai reserves, creating breeding habitats for tigers in Silent Valley, or the creation of a Kuzhathupuzha reserve, a corridor for Ariankavu – Johnsingh is talking about a region he knows perhaps even better than the back of his hand.

Recommending the use of Campa funds for land compensation in buying corridors, a buffer for the Periyar reserve and a tiger reserve declared in Srivilliputhur and Megamalai and linked farther to Kalakkad down south, silent patrols and camps to make core areas free of poaching, cool season burning for dry deciduous forest to prevent bigger fires, need to address the threat from too many resorts in the Sahyadris, or the warning over Lakya dam wall in Kudremukh which could release mining waste in a catastrophic mudslide, these are well-thought over.

Johnsingh's extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of each region in the WG is evident be it regarding gliding or night frogs, pit viper or the tahr, plant species invasion in Sathyamangalam , dhole behaviour when chasing sambars, or the proliferation of unpalatable plant species like lantana and cassia for ungulates.

Why poachers have the upper hand is that "forest field staff do not any more walk around their turf" notes Johnsingh. Walking in the jungles however is dangerous if one is inexperienced, he is quick to point to anyone who may be tempted by his adventures.

When the author says that farmers in Tamil Nadu living downstream of Mullaperiyar should be grateful to Kerala for protecting the forests that harvest life-giving water for them, there can be no controversy as he cites solid evidence.

So also when he is saddened by the littering of the jungles around Sabarimala temple and the move to denotify part of the forest to build a township, and comments that the followers are chasing away the very tigers the lord is believed to consort with.

Anthropogenic pressures cited by Johnsingh are also the same pointed in new research by Wildlife Conservation Society India Program that found elephants restricted to less than half of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, primarily due to human disturbances. Of the 38,000 km2 landscape, about 17,000 km2 was deemed unsuitable as elephant habitat, due to high human-density settlements or intensive agriculture. The WG is the last stronghold of the national heritage animal.

The Indian government proposed in 2011 that the WG be designated as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA) and managed by an ecology authority. Since then two panels have submitted their suggestions for the area. Both face opposition from various lobbies seeking to dilute the definition of ESA to permit plantations, agricultural land and holdings other than 'mining and major polluting' industries.

The government has last week assured MPs from the region that the final notification on earmarking ESA will not affect the basic economic activities of people living in the earmarked zone. How this conflict between protecting forests and protecting people's economic interests will resolve and what it holds for one of the world's few biodiversity hotspots with over 5,000flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibian species is to be seen.

A compulsory reading of the book can definitely help ministry officials and bureaucrats get a clear picture of the Western Ghats.