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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
     CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 25, 2006
 
   ENVIRONMENT: NILGIRI TAHR
 

The Grassland's Great Hope

A public-private partnership and initiatives by local people have helped conserve the Nilgiri tahr

 
  PICTURE SPEAK

HOME, SWEET HOME: Western Ghat grasslands are tahr's natural habitat

"Conservation of the tahr must include the ecosystems and the protection of its habitats."

MOHAN ALEMBATH, PRESIDENT, NILGIRI TAHR TRUST, KOCHI

Amidst news of spiralling conservation crises, the endangered Nilgiri tahr, a species of mountain goats, is today the bearer of good news. Found along the 400-km range of the southern end of the Western Ghats in Kerala and the grasslands of Tamil Nadu, tahr numbers now touch 2,000. This is a significant improvement from a low of 1,200-the tahr count in early 1970s. It has taken 30 years and a unique participatory management conservation programme in the 97-sq-km Eravikulam National Park (ENP) near Munnar, Kerala to push numbers up from 500 to 800 in this single park.

In a first of its kind public-private cooperation in wildlife conservation, the watershed programme was run by the High Range Wildlife and Environment Preservation Associa-tion (hrwepa), made up mostly of nature buffs from the Tata Tea plantations that dominate the Kannan Devan Hills (KDH), and the Forest Department of Kerala. Under the programme, tea planters informally doubled as wildlife wardens keeping extra vigil even as concepts like nature education and participatory management of wildlife gained currency amongst the local people.

"Conservation of the tahr must include the ecosystems and the protection of its habitats as also participation from local people," says Mohan Alembath, president, Nilgiri Tahr Trust, Kochi. Alembath is a former wildlife warden of Kerala who oversaw conservation measures launched at the ENP. This private-public partnership is a dramatic turnaround from the days when shooting the tahrs was a favoured sport among planters and hunters. At that time, the planting of eucalyptus on the grasslands too had adversely affected the tahr as it led to the erosion of its habitat.

CALL OF THE WILD
The Nilgiri tahr, Nilgiritragus hylocrius or goat antelope to biologists, is red-listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. A full grown male stands 100 cm tall at the shoulder and weighs about 100 kg. Females are slightly smaller in size and weight. Both sexes have curved horns, which are larger in the males, reaching up to 40 cm for males and 30 cm for females. Grey in colour, the animal is paler on the under-surface. Older males are known as saddlebacks due to the whitish hair that develop on the rump in the shape of a saddle as they age. The Nilgiri tahr live in herds ranging from six to 104 animals, with average group sizes of nine for all-female groups and 27 for mixed herds. Nearly half the population is in the Eravikulam National Park near Munnar.

A key group involved in the conservation programme were the Muthuvans group of tribals, the original inhabitants of Munnar. Some of them are enlisted as watchers by the state forest department. "People's participation in environmental preservation and their interest in the tahr have contributed significantly to its conservation," says M.K.Prasad, environmental activist of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad.

When the Kerala government declared the ENP as a protected sanctuary in 1972, it set in motion a chain of events that have led to healthier tahr numbers today. The expanse of the tea gardens in the region have inadvertently aided the conservation effort. The agro-ecological system, where tea was the prime produce with a large expanse of interspersed wilderness, provided ample space for the tahr and other fauna.

The tahr is among the few species of mountain goats that have adapted to a cold and wet tropical environment of the kind that is confined to an area not bigger than 5 per cent of the Western Ghats. The tahr prefers a habitat that is predominantly of grasslands adequately sheltered by rocky cliffs, enjoys a short dry season and receives over 1,500 mm of rainfall a year. Such a unique tropical habitat is restricted to just seven of the high altitude landscapes (1,200 m to 2,600 m above sea level) in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, particularly the one found in the southern Western Ghats between the Nilgiri Hills and Kanyakumari Hills.

Yet, in spite of the increase in numbers, the tahr still faces many threats to its survival: habitat destruction, competition and disease transmission from domestic livestock and poaching for meat or commercial products. In order to protect the species, experts believe other issues too need attention. Some of these include institutionalisation of the management system, increasing the size of the tropical grassland ecosystem and developing the landscape approach as also the preparation of a comprehensive ecosystem plan still needs to be put in place.

Experts on the tahr and other hoofed grazers, who had gathered for the fourth World Congress of Mountain Ungulates at Munnar, have recommended the extension of the ENP to the ecological boundary of the Nilgiri tahr population. This is easier said than done. It will mean establishing protected corridors in the Western Ghats and ensure that forest tourism and other activities respect conservation measures. There is also a plan to extend the ENP by 30 sq km and reintroduce the tahr in some areas from where it had disappeared. Further, a protocol for monitoring the tahr population and its habitat has to be developed to evaluate the economic impact of tourism and put in place a preventive action plan against accidents such as an outbreak of fire in the ENP.

There is also the fear that any disease of epidemic proportions could wipe out the animal. That is why experts are against the tahr tracts being opened for tourists except the Rajamalai fringe of the ENP where visitors are taken up the slopes in the park's vans. The tahr in this area of the park is not alarmed by the presence of human beings, which is also a grim pointer of its vulnerability to hunting and poaching. Also, the staff strength of the national park is very poor considering its remoteness and rugged terrain. "Protected areas have become the only beacons of hope for the long-term survival of the Niligiri tahr as with all wild animals of Asia," says M.K. Ranjitsinh of the Wildlife Trust of India.

A DNA profile of the tahr and a stock-taking of its scattered population outside the ENP is critical to guard against what Alembath calls "genetic erosion". In order to obtain DNA samples of the tahr, researchers from the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have begun non-invasive sampling by collecting the tahr's dung from locations across the Western Ghats.

The state governments too have begun to show greater interest. R.J. Ranjit Daniels, director, Care Earth, Chennai, points out that Kerala has set up the Nilgiri Tahr Trust and Tamil Nadu has put the animal on the cover of a book on the state's biodiversity suggesting that the tahr occupies a significant position in the state's wildlife conservation plan.

However, the pioneers in protecting the tahr, Tata Tea and hrwepa favour conservation through better management of the flora and fauna. "The tahr has contributed to tourism and generating funds for management through regulated eco-tourism is the only way," says T. Damu, vice-president, Taj Group of Hotels. They are keen to promote private ownership and management of the tahr tracts and going by their track record in this project, few would bet against their success.

 

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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
CURRENT ISSUE
DECEMBER 25, 2006
 IN THIS ISSUE
COVER STORY

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Getting Personal

Hanging in the Middle

Why We Should Go Ahead

Against National Interest

Ending the Isolation

Internal Injury

Withering Away

Investment Speedbreaker

Deep Waters

Southern Express

For Home, A Fistful Of Dollars

Life After 14k Surviving The Ride

Dancing On Safe Ground

The Grassland's Great Hope

Outclassed, Outrun

Divisional Managers

Sales Pitch

Mate Value

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