Green crusader T.S. Subramaniya Raja tells us about his relentless efforts to protect the wildlife-rich Ayyanar Koil forest area in Rajapalayam

“Every small act in nature has a balance in it,” says environmental activist T.S. Subramaniya Raja who has a deep-rooted love for the wildlife. Every day, he strides into the thickets and wades through the thorny bushes as if it’s his lair. “I know the forest by heart. This was where I saw a stag tusker last week,” he says casually, pointing to the broken branches of the Bael (Vilwam) tree and some elephant poop on the ground. “Elephants are like bulldozers in the jungle. They clear fresh patches of land as they move ahead and a new bed of grass grows on those places,” says Subramaniya Raja. In recognition of his service to environment protection, Sanctuary Asia, one of the country’s leading wildlife and nature conservation magazines, honoured him with the Wildlife Service Award last year. He was also presented with a ‘Special Conservation Award’ at the M. Krishnan Centenary Year Celebrations in 2012.

Born in the foothills of the Western Ghats, Subramaniya Raja launched the Wildlife Association of Rajapalayam (WAR) for Nature in response to the mindless mass destruction inflicted on the fragile landscape he loved. WAR is a group of nature enthusiasts working towards preservation of the forest range. “It was a tough battle against the bureaucratic system and the insensitive public,” he says.

Rajapalayam is an industrial town in Virudhunagar district and borders the eastern slope of the Western Ghats. The forest area here is home to chital deer, bisons, giant grizzled squirrels, elephants, leopards and a range of snakes. Numerous brooks trickle down the mountain slopes to join the one wild stream at the foothills, called the Ayyanar theertham.

“Once, near the stream, I saw a dead Gaur. A glass piece had pierced its hoof and it had bled to death,” recalls Raja. The incident led his war against nature depletion. Noticing broken pieces of glass bottles strewn all over the forestland that inflicted injuries on both man and animal, Raja has provided first aid boxes to treat them.

When he was in school Subramaniya Raja won the first prize in a nature-themed drawing competition conducted by the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu. He drew a spotted deer that he had seen on a greeting card. That prize motivated him to read more stories about wildlife.

“As kids, we used to play in the forest area and inform the forest officials about fishermen catching egrets. Without knowing the importance of conservation, we were protecting them,” he recounts. “My fascination for wildlife was further heightened by photographer P.M. Subburaja, who subscribed to National Geographic and had a rich collection of BBC’s wildlife videos.”

Today, Subramaniya Raja gathers students and cleans the forest area by picking plastic litter. Much of his preservation work is focused on the southern Western Ghats, through campaigns, nature education and research. He played a key role in stopping people from destroying animal habitat in a portion of the Srivilliputur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary.

“We faced stiff resistance. But we ran several campaigns with the support of the then DFO Durvasan.” As a result, a check post was installed and severe restrictions were imposed on people movement.

“Nothing less than a war could protect the forests of India that are being lost,” says Raja, who has won public support as he exposed illegalities in the Rajapalayam forest which is now a tiger buffer zone to the Periyar Tiger reserve.

WAR provides periodical training to the Paliyar tribals and involves them in environment protection campaigns. Efforts are also on to include the forest fringe as a tiger reserve as it is not a protected area yet. Regular census also takes place in this area to track the presence and movement of tigers. The organization now funds students of M.Sc. Wildlife Biology, to encourage research.

Since he believes that educating young people is the only solution to safeguard the future of the forests and wildlife of India, he reaches out to them in various walks of life through programmes on nature education where he highlights the importance of wildlife and the forests.