Monday, July 25, 2011

Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary

The second biosphere reserve on our itinerary was the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a massive 5,500 square km area straddling the borders of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. Encompassing about eight separate yet contiguous protected areas of various designations, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve preserves a variety of grassland and forest types in the hilly landscape of the Western Ghats in southwest India. One unique characteristic of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is the prevalence of indigenous tribes, or adivasi, in and around the forests.                                                                                                  
Our first taste of the Nilgiri was through a wonderful visit to the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area in Karnataka several hours from Bangalore. The Bangalore-based NGO and research organization ATREE (the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment) invited us to visit their field research station in the wildlife sanctuary. Never ones to turn down invitations to wild and wonderful places, we hopped on a bus from Bangalore to Mysore and then onward to a series of small villages inside the sanctuary  And a sanctuary it is - we actually saw wild elephants from the public bus on the way to the field station!

The wildlife sanctuary is named for and located around the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Ranganatha, locally known as Biligiriranga. Sitting perched on top of a hill with a commanding view over the sanctuary's forested hills, the temple supports an abundance of simian entertainment. Walking through the monkey-infested temple grounds at the top of the hill was rather like making your way through a minefield - unpredictable monkeys rushing here, chasing each other and occasionally showing an unseemly interest in bananas I may or may not have had in my backpack.  

While staying at ATREE's field station we took a safari or two into the surrounding jungle. On our first trip we met a rather feisty young male elephant.  Lurking in the trees just off the road, he first watched our jeep for a moment and then lumbered out, head swinging and looking a mite aggressive. Our driver responded promptly, gunning the jeep down the rutted road, not enthusiastic about what an angry 10,000 lb mammal could do to his vehicle (and passengers). Also seen's include the ubiquitous langur and rhesus monkeys, chital deer, and a most impressive animal I've seen nowhere else, the Indian gaur. The gaur is the largest species of wild cattle in the world, bigger than the Cape Buffalo or American Bison. These truly massive animals are very shy, and we caught just a glimpse of two individuals as they faded into the lantana in the dim dawn light.           After the bustle of Bangalore, the BRT was a glorious retreat - the blare of bus horns replaced by bird song, the  smell of half-combusted disel fuel replaced with fresh mountain breezes.

One of ATREE’s partner organizations in the Biligiri Rangaswamy landscape is an NGO called Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK), a social entrepreneurship organization dedicated to the sustainable development of the tribal people living in and around the biosphere reserve. In the BRT the VGKK works mostly with the Soliga, a tribal group who have lived in the forests of the BRT for thousands of years.  Their lives and livelihoods are inexorably linked to the forest in which they hunt, gather wood and forage. This largely sustainable use came under threat in the 1970s from strict wildlife and forest conservation policies instigated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The 1972 Wildlife Conservation Act and the initiation of Project Tiger in 1973 have been responsible for tremendous conservation successes. However the “inviolate area” theory upon which Indian wildlife conservation is based has done enormous damage to tribal groups who suddenly find themselves evicted from land they have lived on for centuries.

Within the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary VGKK has built an “organic village” complex containing a school for Soliga children, a community hospital, and a vocational training center. The Soliga school sounds like a very rigorous institution: the children’s schedule keeps them busy from 5am until 9pm! ATREE and VGKK have also involved the Soliga in a participatory resource monitoring program, building on Soliga traditional knowledge to promote environmental education and ensure the sustainable harvest of forest resources.

The success of this community-based conservation experiment has high stakes – in January 2011 the wildlife sanctuary was designated as a “Tiger Reserve”, a very restrictive conservation category that excludes all human use of the area. This designation requires that all 574.82 sq km of the BRT be free from human habitation. In effect, 1,500 people will be evicted for the benefit of the estimated 35 tigers living in the reserve. Although the evictees will be compensated with money and property outside the reserve, many do not want to leave their ancestral land.  ATREE is helping the Soliga present a case to the Forest Department that their innovative participatory conservation strategies will protect the tigers without requiring mass relocations. The outcome of this legislation is being closely watched by conservationists of every persuasion and could well mark the beginning of a new trend in Indian wildlife conservation policy.

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