As conflicts and mercury rise, forest conservation on unprecedented crest

Scientists and environmentalists respond to Metro Vaartha reports on inter-state cooperation in managing water crisis and nature conservation
As conflicts and mercury rise, forest conservation on unprecedented crest
As conflicts and mercury rise, forest conservation on unprecedented crest

Ajayan

As the tragic toll of human-animal conflicts mounts and Kerala swelters under the relentless summer sun, the urgency of environmental conservation is becoming increasingly apparent. Climatologists unequivocally link the region's extreme weather patterns to climate change, underscoring the critical need for immediate measures.

Reports in Metro Vaartha highlighting the imperative of intra-State coordination to preserve forests and restore vital water sources, such as those in Wayanad, have garnered widespread support among scientists and environmentalists.

The forest department recently convened a significant brainstorming session to develop long-term conservation strategies. Collaborative efforts among State Governments have become crucial, as highlighted in these columns. A case in point is that Wayanad's rivers are integral as a primary water source for the Cauvery, which in turn sustains agriculture in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and provides drinking water to millions.

Tthe recent increase in human-wildlife conflicts was a direct result of the declining quality of forests
RV Varma

RV Varma, former chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board and member of the Gadgil committee, told Metro Vaartha that the recent increase in human-wildlife conflicts was a direct result of the declining quality of forests. He highlighted a viral video from Wayanad depicting a tragic incident where a man was fatally trampled by a wild elephant in front of his home. Varma emphasized that the footage does not reveal the events leading up to the attack, leaving the reasons behind the tusker's deadly assault a mystery.

Human intrusion into forests should be strictly prohibited
Sabu Jahas

In this context, wildlife biologist Sabu Jahas, who conducted extensive research in the region years ago, reminisces about a time when human-animal conflicts were rare, with such incidents few and far between. "After field visits, I would ride my bike back home late at night in the very area where the tragic incident took place, and it was always a safe journey," he fondly recalls. Human intrusion into forests should be strictly prohibited, he contends, advocating for the forest department to manage fringe areas. He believes that the department should only intervene in the core area during emergencies.

Varma advocates for the imperative to keep human activities away from forested areas, emphasizing that proper rehabilitation is the only viable solution. He underscores the importance of adhering strictly to existing Acts and rules. Regarding culling, he acknowledges that it may be necessary when animal populations exceed the forest carrying capacity, but insists that any such actions should be accompanied by appropriate amendments and consumption of wild animal meat should not be promoted.

No river originates from towns or cities; rather, it is the role of forests in storing and releasing water that sustains life in large urban areas
TV Sajeev

Renowned scientist from the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) TV Sajeev emphasizes that no river originates from towns or cities; rather, it is the role of forests in storing and releasing water that sustains life in large urban areas. When forests diminish, this crucial life support system weakens, as evidenced by the situation in the city of Bengaluru.

Even as scientific data is awaited, preliminary observations suggest that the escalating temperatures and the aftermath of intense rains in 2018 and 2019 have left a profound imprint. The once robust water retention capacity of Kerala's forests has notably declined. In the undulating landscapes of the State, the natural aquifers nestled within the Western Ghats are the lifeblood of the mid and lowlands and there is a pressing need to enhance water retention measures.

Despite appearances, Sajeev believes that rivers are not squandering their water into the sea. He explains that this flow, both above and below the surface, serves a critical purpose: preventing saltwater intrusion from the sea. Rather than diverting river water, the focus should be on maintaining the ecological flow of all rivers. This can be achieved by facilitating forest regeneration, allowing them to reclaim their vital role as major water providers.

Tribal communities do not react with panic when a tiger or leopard claims their livestock. Instead, they perceive the cattle as intruders in wildlife habitats, absolving the leopard or tiger of blame
E. Kunhikrishnan

E. Kunhikrishnan, a conservationist and resource person for the forest department and the State Council for Science, views human-animal conflict as a clash of attitudes. He observes that tribal communities do not react with panic when a tiger or leopard claims their livestock. Instead, they perceive the cattle as intruders in wildlife habitats, absolving the leopard or tiger of blame.

He highlights the significant levels of tension and disruption caused by human interference deep within forest habitats and wildlife corridors, particularly in the name of tourism, which often results in animals being displaced. He cites the example of Wayanad, which is part of a broader tiger and elephant habitat extending into the Biligirirangan and Sathyamangalam tiger reserves. This illustrates the continuity of animal populations beyond the political boundaries imposed by humans. He notes that one-third of the Wayanad sanctuary consists of man-made plantations heavily infested with exotic invasive plants.

Regarding Wayanad's role in supplying water to Bengaluru, he acknowledges that while it is true the city relies on Cauvery water, the Kabani River from Wayanad is situated much further south. Bengaluru also heavily relies on water from the northern tributaries. However, there is the view that conserving the waters and forests of Wayanad can prove immensely beneficial, especially considering the extensive arid regions in Karnataka.

As conflicts and mercury rise, forest conservation on unprecedented crest
Wayanad can quench Bengaluru’s thirst

While acknowledging that incentivizing conservation is a commendable notion, he raises doubts about whether the forest department is entitled to royalties, noting that the department is a component of the larger government system. However, there is also an argument in favour of granting royalties to the custodial forest department for the use of its natural resources.

Reflecting on his tenure, Nelson Thomas, a former forest department official renowned for his scientific acumen, recalls a stark contrast in the mindset of officers when he joined in the early 1980s. Back then, wildlife conservation received scant attention, and he laments that their awareness in this regard was almost comical. The primary focus was on plantation management, a trend that was further bolstered by the advent of social forestry. Unfortunately, this led to the transformation of invaluable grasslands and swamps into monoculture plantations.

Even KFRI, the organization tasked with advising department officers, failed to foresee the repercussions of these actions. This was despite warnings from experts like scientist Dr Sathish Chandran Nair, who played a pivotal role in the successful agitation against the dam proposal in Silent Valley. Nelson observes that even Nair could not have predicted the extent of the repercussions we see today. He highlights heavily funded programmes, such as grassland afforestation initiatives, as contributing factors to the systematic and ongoing destruction of nearly all habitats, including many protected areas, over the course of decades.

The current predicament is the culmination of a gradual deterioration of the habitat, and reversing this trend to restore the pristine level is an immensely challenging task, he asserts. Such efforts could potentially exacerbate issues like soil erosion and other associated problems. A conventional approach to ecological restoration, he adds, is unlikely to yield significant results. Nelson expresses concern that due to the department's limited capacity to sustain long-term commitment to this cause, the entire endeavour may end up being incomplete and ineffective.

Each forest landscape in Kerala necessitates tailored solutions for water management and vegetation rejuvenation
Shaju Thomas

Environmentalist and scholar Shaju Thomas emphasizes that each forest landscape in Kerala necessitates tailored solutions for water management and vegetation rejuvenation. He advocates for year-round monitoring of forests, particularly during the monsoon, to comprehend water dynamics and formulate effective water conservation strategies, a crucial practice that is often neglected. During the dry summer the lament is over water scarcity, often resulting in the construction of large ponds that serve little purpose in conserving water during monsoon

Essential to this effort is adhering to a regeneration plan for the forest undergrowth and eliminating invasive species. Shaju bats for a collaboration between the forest department and researchers to identify challenges and devise sustainable solutions. He emphasizes the importance of engaging local communities and leveraging traditional knowledge to develop solutions tailored to specific localities.

By conserving water, these water sources can not only satisfy the thirst of wildlife but also facilitate the growth of plants and shrubs, providing essential sustenance to animals.
Suresh Elamon

Suresh Elamon, wildlife photographer and biographer of Kerala’s birdman Induchoodan emphasizes the importance of conserving water at its source. He believes that by doing so, these water sources can not only satisfy the thirst of wildlife but also facilitate the growth of plants and shrubs, providing essential sustenance to animals. He acknowledges that this approach will prevent animals from venturing into human habitats and additionally aid in replenishing the groundwater table, ensuring the thriving of ecological balance.

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