In a visit to the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) in November 2014, my views on the dire need to rid the core area of human habitation was further fortified. Periyar is an entirely different reserve unlike most others, and quite similar to Sunderbans. Tigers are hard to sight. The tourists are taken around in motor boats in the two important rivers, namely Periyar and Mulla, which pass through this reserve and also form a lake – more aptly a big reservoir – caused by the Mulla-Periyar dam constructed in 1895. Travel by road in the core area is not open to the visiting public. It is a fairly large tiger reserve spread across 925 sq km with a core area of 881 sq km (95 percent) and a buffer area of 44 sq km (5 percent). The tiger reserve is full with tropical rainforests, tropical evergreen forests and moist deciduous forests.
The famous Sabarimala shrine is located in one part of the tiger reserve. This has been declared as buffer zone. Pilgrims – more than twenty million in number – visit the shrine in a short span of two months every year. While the entire tiger reserve is dominated by rainforest and is protected, an area of approximately 209 hectares called Pachakanam Estate (also called Downton Estate) is held as a private property situated in the core and critical habitat – which apart from tigers, is also home to many other wild animals like elephants, gaur, sambar, barking deer, wild boar, Nilgiri langur, lion-tailed macaque, wild dog, leopard etc. – of this tiger reserve. The area, originally an excellent patch of rainforests, has been converted into cardamom plantation. The estate is bordered by critical tiger habitat on all sides. Apart from cardamom cultivation, the area has also being converted and put to other land use. The estate management engages more than 600 local laborers. The transportation of these laborers through the 12 km stretch of roads constructed in the tiger habitat has caused severe biotic pressure and vehicular pollution. As we drove in closer to the perimeter of the Pachakanam Estate and alighted, we saw through the wired fences the hideous permanent structures in the core area of the Reserves. This seemed outrageous in the core area and completely unacceptable to a lay man, let alone the conservationists. About 100 laborers reside inside the estate in these permanent homes and at times engaged in illegal activities. Only a few years ago, five laborers were arrested for possessing illegal sambar meat.
The Periyar Tiger Reserve over the last few years had discussed the issue of transfer and acquisition of this estate from the private management by the Government. The estates management too was willing to sell the property. Though included in the annual plan of operations the past few years, it hadn’t been possible for the National Tiger Conservation Authority to mobilise funds for acquisition due to budgetary constraints under the Project Tiger’s ongoing centrally-sponsored scheme. Over time, the amount for monetary compensation had grown and in end-2014 stood at around Rs 60 crore.
“Why can’t we pay and make the area inviolate?” I asked SP. By now I was fairly aware of the imperatives of core-buffer implications. He explained the fund constraints, the lack of holistic appreciation of eco-system services that a tiger reserve offers and overall apathy to environmental concerns. In my tour report, I said that since the critical core area of tiger reserve – the go/no-go forest bounds – had been severely affected due to human intervention as also associated problems like use of fertilisers and pesticides that run off downstream affecting the pristine ecosystem, there was an acute need to acquire the property at the earliest to make the core tiger reserve area completely inviolate.
I decided to plead during my discussions for the revised estimates for 2014-15 fiscal year with Ratan Watal, then Secretary (Expenditure) in the Ministry of Finance, now Principal Adviser, Niti Aayog and member of Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. “It’s called Pachakanam or Downton Estate,” I said, by way of introduction. “The owners had opted to move out of the core area on payment of compensation for the land. All documents had been readied. The issue has been – still is – the funds, which over the years, had grown from a paltry few crores to sixty crore rupees now.” I made a strong pitch for the additional sum. The memory of my interactions with the field managers led by the energetic and enthusiastic John Mathew as we drove over to the patch of land where cardamom cultivation was carried out by a family engaged in business employing about six hundred workers, that had ravaged the core area came rushing back to my mind. “I’d request an additional 60 crore rupees be given to us for Periyar Tiger Reserve to make it completely inviolate,” I said, and explained why.
Watal and his team of officers heard me patiently, appreciating the need, though a few eyes rolled disappointedly at me for my senseless perseverance and pertinacity in the wake of clear government directives. True, the Ministry of Finance, hamstrung by the new government’s emphasis on increased devolution of funds to States, hadn’t had enough leeway to agree to my request. The focus was on slashing funds to reduce fiscal deficit, not how such acts would impact ongoing activities directly or in its rippling effects in months and years to come. Being myopic and purblind helps governance – the reason why I am not so sanguine about the formulaic sustainable development model bandied about incessantly. I feel underwhelmed.
Oddly enough, tiger safari is a clear possibility in Periyar, which receives about 7-8 lakh visitors round the year, including thousands of foreign tourists. Given its landscape, the tourists are allowed to visit the Tiger Reserve only on boats. With limits placed on numbers, many tourists frustrate upon denied entry. One possible way out of this ecotourism conundrum is the making of a tiger safari in the buffer area – just a kilometre off the Kumily town. The rewilded tigers (orphaned infant cubs, injured tigers, trained and rewilded to cope with the demands of wild living) as well as aging tigers that are often sent to the zoos could be relocated in the suggested safari much like the planned tiger safari in Kanha Tiger Reserve. Given human passion and thrill to sight tigers in the wild, this would also take the pressure off boat rides inside the Tiger Reserve. Also, given the craze for sighting tigers in the wild, the internal rate of return on the amount invested will be very high, and the investment can be recovered easily in 2-3 years’ time. It would also provide employment to the local population in ecotourism, where focus on eco-conservation could be the essence – to highlight through innovative and feasible modules such as solar-panel atop jeeps and buses to ferry tourists in this unique safari. It is entirely possible that this can work out as a win-win model for all stakeholders including frustrated tourists denied entry on account of carrying capacity limitation while simultaneously appealing to the tourists’ sense of thrill for sighting tigers in the wild.
I can’t but wax eloquent on the beauty, quietude, and serenity of Periyar, especially the two spots I visited on boat: Thanikudy and Mullakudy. In my thanksgiving email to John Mathew, the passionate Assistant Director of Periyar Tiger Reserve, I wrote:
“First up I must say that your email ID is so representative of your surrounds and the (wild) environment you work in that vividly captures, more than in one way, the pristine world of Periyar Tiger Reserve. I write to thank you for being with us all the while we’re there and showing us around the good work PTR has done. I only hope you don’t forget the few ideas I gave you: recording the gurgling music of Periyar at Thanikudy as the river bounces along on its pathway and strikes a magical tune punctuated with the birds’ myriad notes that are so mellifluous to the human ears. I can well imagine how dulcet the river’s and the nature’s notes will be in the serenity of the night when the nocturnal forest creatures would be only adding to the charm of the pitter-patter of the cascading river! As I said, the effect would be soporific to the unquiet and disquiet urban minds and should put them to sleep [call it sleeping music (Sleepsic), if you will!], apart from being a lullaby to lull the babies to sleep (Lullasic!). Record all 24 hours, chip-chop it to the best notes in a CD of 2-3 hours. It should work. The other thing: capturing the forest by night and wrapping the film on a CFL bulb would be creating/dispersing a forest ecosystem on the bedroom walls as a night light. It’ll be infinitely more apt than any night light I have seen and experienced.”
When I went next to Periyar on a private visit, a year later in end-December 2015, it hadn’t been done yet. Amid our animated chatter and bonhomie, I nudged John reminding him of our past discussions and how tiger-men need to leverage every idea coming their way to spread environmental awareness among common people.
Before I sign off, a word on the much talked about radio-collars aimed at studying tiger behaviour in the wild. We had travelled to Kanha to change the battery of the radio-collar of a particular tiger. We followed the tiger sedulously but it kept eluding us. We saw it a couple of times on the jungle path but it walked away nonchalantly, and finally climbed up the hilly terrain and went out of our vision. We couldn’t dart to sedate it; we weren’t close enough for that. It’s the first of the requirements; it affords time and opportunity to either change the battery of the earlier radio-collar or put a new collar around its neck. The evening before, I had seen radio-collars for the first time. They are rather bulky, weighing around 2.8 kg. It’s been hard finding a smarter one with transmitters and GPS. Though a well-grown adult tiger’s body weight ranges between 180-215 kg, in an anthropocentric sense any artificial appendage is likely to cause initial uneasiness, much like we feel wearing a ring the first time around. But animals, wild and domestic, adapt themselves to such accoutrements. There is no scientific study yet confirming radio-collars have disturbed the courtship or other behavioral patterns of a tiger, as classically evidenced in Panna tigers, where the reintroduced tigers were “collared” to facilitate monitoring. They are doing just fine like any others.
Postscript: On promotion, I moved over from the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Though not new to the MoD and its ways, for some strange inscrutable reason, the contrast was startling. I felt it inchmeal. As I pored over files and engaged in discussions with various stakeholders, my mind was forever ticking – my declarative and episodic memories quickly going on an overdrive. It was the financial outlay, stupid! I told myself finally – upwards of 200 times than the ones I’d gotten used to the past few years. Defence sector vs. Social sector! Here in the MoD with a whopping budget of three lakh forty-odd thousand crore rupees and ballooning year after year, sixty crore rupees was chicken feed. Such proposals didn’t even reach me, my joint secretaries were competent to concur in the proposals, while months before I was cadging – and failing, to get a move on. My mind, spaced-out, wasn’t quite prepared to accept the reality, refusing to take leave of our skewed developmental puzzlement. But such is the deigning today on social and environmental issues.
Not to speak of depredations heaped on Mother Earth for sake of development. The Madhav Gadgil Committee prescriptions to declare 64 percent of the Western Ghats – the hotspots of mega-biodiversity – as an Ecologically Sensitive Area had been whittled down to a mere 37 percent by the Kasturirangan Committee came floating back to my mind. How the polemics over the recommendations of the two Committee’s Reports had cleaved the environmental community? The hardcore conservationists battling the development-oriented realpolitik! Now, as hurricanes – Irma, Jose, Maria et al – pound the Caribbean and southern US with breathless regularity and wildfires engulf Napa valley in California, my small mind unbeknownst to me, creeps back naively to innocent times when human beings lived in the state of nature – no matter how solitary and poor, even nasty and brutish they all were – but in harmony with Mother Nature they revered. And, how often have I not wondered if this isn’t the time for us to get back to the same reverence? The role that Tiger Reserves play isn’t inconsiderable on Planet Earth.