- Over the past two decades, wildlife has recovered in the Tillari River Valley. However, commercial plantations in the region are expected to reverse these recent ecological gains.
- Large tracts of forests in this part of Maharashtra are privately or community-owned, and it is these forests that are subject to land use change by commercial plantations.
- The benefits to wildlife, with the people who left the valley two decades ago, are being negated by these plantations.
The Tillari River originates at an elevation of 750 meters (2461 feet) on the slightly westerly sloping plain at the Karnataka-Maharashtra border. It is barred on the plateau and the water is diverted to Kharari Nalla where it drops about 600 m (1969 feet) to generate electricity and is then distributed for irrigation through the right bank canal. A second project on the original course of the Tillari River has a 100m (328ft) saddle dam that diverts flow to Konal-Katta Nalla where it is barred to generate electricity and distribute water through the left bank canal.
A team of two forestry department staff, conservation biologist Girish Punjabi from the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) and his young colleague Amit Sutar set off from the dam by saddle in a boat. Frenzied blows from the engine wavered in the wind and were lost in the 16.25 square kilometers (6.27 square miles) of dammed water. The 462.17 Mcum (16.32 TMC) water body in the valley submerged vast areas of forest and displaced people from seven villages in 2002.
The boatman and his companion, both from villages submerged by the dam, transported the team to the Tillari Valley to set up camera traps for the tigers. The Maharashtra Forest Department has been monitoring tigers in this area since 2014 and the Punjabi is working with them.
Fauna naturally repopulating the Tillari area
Sutar had lived in Patye, Maharashtra, before his family moved to the village of Sal in Goa. Pointing to the dense vegetation on the slope of the hill, Sutar said, “As a child, I herded cattle on these slopes. These forests have become denser over the past 20 years and, with the disappearance of the villages, we see more animals in the forest. “
Between 2014 and 2017, the Maharashtra Forest Department conducted wildlife studies over ~ 250 square km (96.5 square miles) of the Tillari region. The results show that wild animals “naturally repopulate the region,” Punjabi says. Camera trapping studies have revealed that the area has a resident male and female tigers. They had two litters of three pups each during the study period. The herbivore population was high in areas where human and livestock disturbance was low.
On the banks of the river, in the wider parts of the valley are patches of grass surrounded by riparian forests. The steep slopes that rise from the water’s edge have moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, and the top of the laterite plateau with shallow soil depth has rich grasslands. “Large ungulates like gaur and sambar migrate high up. They graze on the meadows of the plateau during the monsoon then, the drier summers, descend into the greener valley, ”describes the Punjabi.
The past two decades have seen the recovery of wildlife in the Tillari River Valley. To offer them better protection, last year the Tillari Conservation Reserve was created. But, along with mining and poaching, land use change on community lands around the conservation reserve is expected to reverse these recent ecological gains.
Land use change impacting wildlife recovery
On relatively gentler slopes at lower elevations in this region, private forested land has been cleared for commercial plantations. Rubber, cashews and pineapples are the preferred plantation species. Replacing tropical forests with plantations decreases the biodiversity value of the land. But, when the wildlife reserve decreases, an attempt is made to present the plantations as “additional habitat” adjacent to the natural forests. In such a scenario, studies show that cashew plantations can still support wildlife to a limited extent.
However, Sanjay Natekar, a resident of Sateli Bhedshi, a village in Dodamarg taluka, is concerned about the tendency to clear forests on community lands to make way for monoculture plantations. According to him, residents of seven submerged villages practiced subsistence agriculture and sometimes hunted wild animals, but there was no commercial or recreational angle to their hunting. Now the money-conscious people have bought or rented land in the valley. “They clear these native forests to make way for plantations,” says Natekar, “The benefits to wildlife, with the people who left the valley two decades ago, are being canceled out by these plantations.”
The importance of ecosystem services can be recognized. Particularly in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to consider ecosystem services for human health.
In recent decades, evidence of diseases transmitted between animals and humans reveals the link between human health, animal health and ecosystem health. Loss of biodiversity due to deforestation, habitat fragmentation, or climate change can create opportunities for pathogens to move from wildlife reservoirs to humans and livestock hosts. Therefore, a “ ecological intervention ” to complement conventional interventions like vaccination etc. may be needed. The prevalence of Kyasanur forest disease virus (KFDV) in Dodamarg taluka since 2016 localizes this concern and underlines the need to stop the degradation of the natural forest in the region.
Preserving the biodiversity of community forests
Maharashtra Forest Department in June 2020 created a 29.53 square km (11.4 square miles) Tillari Conservation Reserve on government-owned reserve forests. It is surrounded by ~ 80 square km (30.9 square miles) of forest on private / community land. The benefits of the conservation reserve can be amplified if the land use on private / community lands is in accordance with the principles of biodiversity conservation. The consolidated area can then provide a significant ecosystem service – including protection from emerging tropical zoonoses.
The changes needed in the ecosystem are limited by social and economic factors on private / community forests. However, the impact on lives and economies of COVID-19 should pave the way for thinking that recognizes ecological health as the foundation of long-term socio-economic security.
Encouraging private forest owners is the only way to stop the degradation of the forest rich in biodiversity in monoculture plantations. Rajendra Kerkar, an environmentalist from Keri village near Tillari says that large tracts of forest in Dodamarg taluka are private / community property. “Forest plots could be ‘adopted’ under CSR and communities compensated for their preservation.”
Another possibility is to create Community conservation reserve according to the provisions made available in the 2002 Amendment to the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972). A well-designed ecotourism industry could make this initiative viable. Income can also be generated under Payment for ecosystem services projects where beneficiaries, such as a municipality, pay for water, and hydroelectric companies to prevent siltation in dams.
In the context of global concerns about biodiversity loss, these local voices for conservation are gaining enormous credibility. It is now up to the government of Maharashtra to transform these local aspirations into political will. The hope is that after turning government forests into conservation reserves, the government can come up with a model for the preservation of forests on community lands.
Punjabi, GA (2017). Conservation planning of the Tillari region in Maharashtra state for tigers and large mammals. A concise scientific report. Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune.
The author is a wildlife researcher.
Banner Image: Large ungulates like gaur and sambar migrate high in Tillari; they graze on the monsoon plateau meadows and descend into the greener valley in drier summers. Photo by Ashwin / Wikimedia Commons.