Forest Department has asked temple authorities to make it a ‘low-key’ event

Although serious concerns remain over the possibility that the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle could soon hit wildlife, Bandipur Tiger Reserve is set to receive thousands of cattle during the annual festival at Belladakuppe Mahadeshwara temple starting on Sunday. The two-day festival, organised by the Belladakuppe temple, located in Bandipur’s core area (Hediyala range), generally sees around 2 lakh pilgrims. And cattle, which are considered central to this annual ‘Kartika’ month ritual, are brought into the forest in thousands.

But this year, with the severe foot-and-mouth disease outbreak among domestic cattle, especially in southern Karnataka, the Forest Department has asked the temple authority to make the event “low key” to prevent the virus spreading to wild herbivores. Elephants, wild boar, deer and bison are particularly susceptible to contracting the air-borne disease from infected cattle, Conservator of Forests, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, K.C. Kantharaju told The Hindu. A few years ago, the bison population in the Biligiriranga Hills was virtually wiped out by the disease.

“We cannot cancel the event because it is a religious matter. But we have asked the temple committee to restrict the scale of the event this year, especially in terms of the number of cattle allowed in,” he said.

A ‘special task force’ will be deployed to monitor entry points to the national park, and the temple authorities had also been asked to cancel fire-walking this year and to not set up shops and install loudspeakers, “in order to tone down event,” he added.

Temples and tigers

While several elements of the annual festival — such as the use of loudspeakers and diesel generators — would typically be illegal in national parks under the Wildlife Protection Act, “banning a traditional practice will be strongly opposed” said wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi. “In such cases we need to find a middle path where traditional practices can continue in some form without impacting wildlife.”

Bandipur has 11 places of worship, of which at least three temples — Belladakuppe Mahadeshwara, Himavad Gopalaswamy and Ainur Marigudi — are hugely popular and closing them to the public would not be easy, he added.

And Bandipur is not the only tiger reserve that hosts large festivals and pilgrimages in Karnataka. The Ulavi Channabasaveshwara temple in the Dandeli Tiger Reserve draws a much larger crowd in February every year. But none of these can beat the scale of operations of the Sabarimala pilgrimage through Kerala’s Periya Tiger Reserve, Mr. Gubbi said.

Meanwhile, according to Deputy Director of the Animal Husbandry Department Sriram Reddy, there have been no reports of cattle infected with foot-and-mouth disease in villages around Bandipur.

The disease “is under control” in the State and restricted now to a few south Karnataka districts, he said.

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