Saturday, February 02, 2013

What ails the Forest Department?

The Tamil Nadu Forest Department provides us with the following data on their Organizational Structure.

Department Staff
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) = 2 (incl Chief Wildlife Warden - CWLW)
Additional PCCFs = 10
Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) = 26
Conservator of Forests (CF) = 18
Deputy CF = 68
Assistant CF = 75
Total = 199 nos.
Ministerial Staff = 5393 nos.

making it a total of 5592 who manage desk jobs.

Field Staff
Rangers = 562
Foresters = 1312
Forest Guards = 2349
Forest Watchers = 1362
Total = 5585 nos.

Of the above field staff over 50% of them are above the age of 50 and hardly venture into the forest for monitoring their respective habitat. A classic example was that during the wildlife census in 2011, our field volunteers ventured into one such beat, with a forester, two guards and an anti-poaching watcher and got lost. This area is supposed to be their regular beat and they were lost! It took my friend a compass to register his bearings and bring them out to safety! Their justification - 'Yaana kaadu, Saar' meaning 'Forest filled with elephants'.

For an organization to succeed, the structure of the same should be a pyramid with a single leader on top followed by more of his junior staff ending with the largest amount of forest watchers. Unfortunately, the situation here is an inverted pyramid with a very weak base.

Add to the equation, the hand-in-glove attitude of quite a few in collusion with offenders (land grabbers, poachers, revellers), we can clearly understand where our forests are heading.

Is all lost or will someone look at change?

Friday, November 30, 2012

RTI filed 4 months ago - No reply yet

Filed an RTI with the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) 4 months ago with no response. Filed an appeal with the Appellate Authority 2 months ago and still no response. Forwarded my complaint to the State Information Commission (SIC) and waiting now.

Patience is indeed a virtue :)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Animal facts of Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary

1. The highest density of tigers in India.
2. One of the few places where the Striped Hyena exists in the South.
3. A very good population of Blackbuck.
4. Another rare species of deer, the four-horned antelope or Chowsingha is found here.
5. Last known safe haven for vultures in Tamil Nadu.
6. Home to truly wild (not introduced) mugger crocodiles.
7. Excellent prey base for the tiger, consisting of sambhar, spotted deer and gaur, one of the reasons for the high density.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Forests - Whose right is it anyway?

Of late, we come across a lot of activism for tribal rights, forest rights, non-timber forest produce (NTFP) rights and grazing rights. I use the term 'people' from hereon, but it broadly means tribals, forest dwellers, villagers adjoining forests. Before we start, it would be worth mentioning that the protected areas (PAs) in the form of wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, tiger reserves form just 3% of our country's total land mass.

The arguments are placed in more or less these terms -
· Allow people to do what they have been doing for generations.
· Only an inclusive approach will aid conservation and not alienating people.
· They consider the forest to be their God and worship it. Hence wildlife and habitat is much safer with people than with the Forest Department.
· The people have been grazing their cattle in the forests for generations. To remove grazing rights, is to remove their source of living.

While the claims look seemingly right and just, there are a few things to take note of, in today's scenario. I cite examples from personal experiences with evidence. I would like to start out with the issue of temples and dargahs inside protected areas first. This is one major cause for concern that is threatening our forests today. Before you dub me an activist who is against poor people, I would like to clearly state that I have no inclination to belittle one cause and elevate another.

Temples inside Protected Areas:
The Moyar valley, part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and forming part the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. This is probably the richest haven for wildlife in all of Tamil Nadu today in terms of density and diversity. This is also the last known refuge for the critically endangered vultures and the highest tiger density. This is the only place in Tamil Nadu with an abundance of ungulates, spotted deer, sambar, the rare and endangered four-horned antelope and the endangered blackbuck. Among the various temples in this area, the two major temples bringing in large numbers of people are the Karuvannarayar Temple near Kulithorapatti and Masi Temple near Siriyur.

Karuvannarayar Temple:
Google Map showing distance from Checkpost to Temple.
The temple is 17.66 kms from the checkpost of Sujjal Kuttai near the Bhavanisagar Dam, the only approach road inside the sanctuary. The stream near the temple is perennial and flows into the Moyar River finally joining the Bhavanisagar Dam catchments. The temple festival is conducted during the first week of March every year. The photographs that follow were taken this year when the festival was held between 6th and 8th March 2012.

Temple from the back
Front view of the temple
My friends went there a day in advance to keep track of the event and also volunteer for the forest department. They visited the temple and found fresh tiger scat very close to the temple. Plenty of elephant dung was also found around the stream adjoining the temple. Early in the morning, the temple still wears a deserted look. And soon the cavalry starts coming in.
Large ear-splitting speakers, this is just one of them.

The cavalry arrives at high speed.

Tribal festival or college hangout?

View of the spectacular jungle enroute.
The crowd starts coming in.

Forest or town bus stand?
Large speakers are installed to blare out devotional and film songs to entertain the public.

As the people start coming in, the area looks more and more like a bus stand inside the heart of some big town. Barely a few hours later, litter starts piling up in different places. As we can clearly see, not all the visitors are poor tribals or villagers.
Crowds yet to land but litter is already piling up.

More and more vehicles and people.
Liquor confiscated (top) Hidden between seats (below)

Playing cards and liquor confiscated at the gate.

Two wheelers are not allowed into PAs, but hey, who cares?

What's a festival without shopping?
Soon there are plenty of vendors selling watermelons, coconuts and other cheap plastic toys. Entertainment for the kids in the form of  merry-go-rounds and others, candies, ice-cream and sweets are available in plenty.

At the checkpost, incoming vehicles are screened for liquor and other contraband. Often the bottles are concealed behind seats and other upholstery. Sometimes in between the legs of women. This confirms that this is no tribal pilgrimage but a day of partying.

As the vehicles start piling up, the search is abandoned as people are getting restless and abusive. The few guards and volunteers are overwhelmed by the swarming crowds. Two-wheelers are banned inside PAs, except for local residents inside, but that's not for this day.

Goat sacrifice - One of many, the ground bears truth.
Breaking branches from the nearby scrub.
More wood - the children join too.
The festival begins and the sacrificial lambs and poultry are brought in and slaughtered one by one. The soil turns black with the spilled blood, but the slaughtering continues.

Piled up for the cooking. People waiting in anticipation.
Elsewhere, people are busy cutting down branches and tree trunks and from all around the temple and bring them down, piling them up in different places.

Large vessels are brought out and the cooking begins. The slaughtered produce is then cleaned in the stream, feathers and insides are discarded at will.
Old and young bring in large chunks of wood.
Cooking with firewood and gas cylinders.
Others eagerly wait in anticipation playing cards, drinking, while a few more end up taking a dip in the once clear stream. A few venture out to the nearby hills in search of NTFP and other items that they can lay hands on. Afterall, how many times would they be given a free run inside a protected area?
Cooking too close to vegetation is a recipe for disaster.
A ground fire breaks out
Friends (volunteers) try hard to put it out.
But the wind and the dry brush catch up easily.
When the cooking is complete, the vessels are put aside and the fires are not clearly put out in many of the makeshift stoves. The wood is still burning and the embers soon spark off a small brush fire. Friends rush in to put the fire out. But the breeze and the dry bush stoke the fire.

The destruction is visible after the fire dies out.
More areas lost to fire.
Tiger Scat partially burnt. Luckily it wasn't a tiger.
It takes a while before the fire is finally put out and the damage is there for all to see. The panoramic view below clearly shows the extent of damage caused by this fire. It can also be noticed that there are no shrubs anywhere near the foreground. One simple explanation would be that previous fires could have destroyed the shrubs here. This is not an exaggeration, as from the pictures, one can clearly see that there is substantial damage caused to the shrubs and undergrowth as well.

The area of damage was not quantified, but if the volunteers had not done what they did, this could have easily ended up being a major fire causing loss of wildlife and human as well.
Panoramic view of the burnt area with the temple seen at the middle left background.
Dancing in front of the deity oblivious to the disaster.
Hill near the temple

Oblivious to the disaster caused, the 'pilgrims' begin dancing in front of the deity. At the end of festivities, people can be seen going around the place and having a 'good time'.
Men in search of treasure? May be!
Women too!
Forest stream or what!
Bathing and washing - Clean bodies, polluted stream.

The stream bears the brunt of all the damage, with open defecation on the rocks, liquor bottles thrown around, bodies and clothes being washed and cleaned with soap.
Soap bars - abandoned.

Remnants of Tipu's era - The bridge, not the feathers!
Chicken legs and feathers polluting the stream.
Scores of flesh, left to rot and contaminate.
Prayer to the deity, Hair to the forest!
Leftover food and plastic
Empty liquor bottles can cause elephant death!
Traffic jam in the jungle.

Offerings of hair to the deity were left lying on the rocks, the slaughtered meat cleaned in the stream, the waste and insides of the animals thrown around and soap bars being abandoned on the rocks. What was a beautiful crystal clear stream the previous day, becomes a disaster zone in just a day.
Drunken stupor leads to brawls.

One more such incident.

Checkpost officially closes at 6pm - then how this?

A war zone!

People still moving out in the morning!

Huge jam - some people walk out!

1. The total number of visitors was in the range of 70,000.
2. The number of large vehicles - buses, trucks, vans, minivans - was about 700.
3. A majority of the visitors were not forest dwellers, but people from cities and towns who were out having a 'good' time. Hardly any tribal from the neighbouring village of Hallimoyar attended this festival.
4. Violations and illegal activities were part and parcel of this festival.
5. The Forest Department is ill-equipped to handle this kind of 'temple tourism'.

Environment Impact:
1. Widespread disturbance to wildlife to an area of over 30 around the temple.
2. The route to the temple witnessed non-stop traffic hindering free animal movement and access to water even at night.
3. WWF India has recorded the highest density of tigers in this valley. The disturbance would have made resident tigers move to other areas and get in to conflict, resulting in injury or death.
4. The Moyar river is already polluted by industries upstream in the Nilgiris. The perennial stream near the temple is pure and most frequented by wildlife in this area. The festival has caused massive pollution and contaminated this stream to the utmost possible.
5. The slaughter waste can cause sickness to carnivorous animals. The risk of disease is also omnipotent.
6. The liquor bottles could break and injure a soft-footed animal like the elephant which would eventually lead to its death.
7. The plastic waste could itself cause death if any animal injested it.
8. It would take a much longer time for wildlife to repopulate the area.

How to mitigate this:
I am no expert in this field, but I do believe that genuine pilgrims can be allowed to go ahead with their worship on certain conditions. A strict enforcement of the rules is necessary. Animal slaughter, Cooking and private vehicles should be strictly banned as it is illegal according to the Wildlife Protection Act. Access to the stream should be restricted. Pilgrims can be allowed a few hours to pray. Buses can be hired to pick up and drop pilgrims from the checkpost. A special task force should be in place to maintain peace and avoid untoward incidents and illegal activities.

Awareness can be spread by publishing articles in leading newspapers and magazines from at least 3 months before the festival to ensure that people comply. It may be asked how a few buses would cater to 70,000 visitors. My answer - If the rules are properly enforced, the number of actual pilgrims would be less than 10%.

I am grateful to my friends who volunteered at the festival and came back with amazing footage. They also restricted the amount of damage caused by the fire. All of them are in the early 20s and it is their enthusiasm that strengthens me. Thank you, guys!