Sirumalai’s flora and fauna under threat

The Sirumalai reserve forest, a rare wildlife habitat and home to rare species of medicinal plants, is being denuded of its trees for large scale cultivation.

Sirumalai also caters to the irrigation needs of scores of villages in the Dindigul union. It feeds a network of check dams that service villages dotting the foothills that stretch between A. Vellode and Vadipatti. The farmers here have been engaged for decades in horticulture and floriculture. Sirumalai, a hill station criss-crossed by private estates, has traditionally relied on streams and other natural resources for its water supply. The sinking of bore wells was banned.

Now, the State Government has sanctioned more than 20 bore wells to meet the drinking water needs of the local people. The panchayat administration has already started sinking bore wells at 20 points in Pazahiyur, Sirumalai Pudhur, Thenmalai and other populated areas. This would set a wrong precedent and tacitly permit private estates to sink bore wells illegally for their irrigation needs, local people fear.

It would have an adverse impact on the environment. Bore wells would drain the forest streams and storage in ponds. Surface water would vanish. They would disrupt and divert the natural flow of ground water, creating dry fractures in the earth. The hill station may become vulnerable to massive landslides and, in the long run, to earth quakes, cautions R. Rajasekaran, former Assistant Conservator of Forests (Retired).

The hill would lose its core strength. Vast prairies would turn dry, creating food shortage for animals. With no food and water available within the core zone, wildlife would migrate to villages and invade farmlands. Ultimately, the biodiversity would be disturbed, he adds.

The population of the Indian Gaur is high here at present. With no predator around, its population has increased manifold. Already, the Gaur has started climbing down to Natham Road, 20 km away, in search of forage and water during summer. Besides, the forest has large numbers of wild dog, bear and deer, says A. Kumara Menon, former Ranger of Sirumalai Hills.

Forest officials say there is no proper record of the tree wealth in Sirumalai. While environmentalists fear they are fighting a losing battle to preserve the reserve forest.

The Tamil Nadu Green Movement has filed a petition in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking a direction to protect the Sirumalai forests. In a landmark judgment, the Bench had directed the Forest Department to identify and demarcate the forest land and forest reserve in Sirumalai and remove all encroachments within the reserve forest.

With timber smugglers having laid mud roads inside the reserve forest to transport felled trees, the court also directed forest officials to close off all illegal roads and introduce an eight hour shift at a forest check post.

But forest officials did not take the court directions very seriously, said S. Jayachandran, Joint Secretary, Tamil Nadu Green Movement. Timber smuggling continues unabated.

Smugglers use the permits issued for cutting trees in private patta land to fell trees in the reserve forest, says a senior forest official.

Now the groundwater level has dropped and rainfall is deficient, he observes.

Sirumalai is famous for its hill banana, jack fruit and lemon varieties. Sadly, the areas under cultivation are fast shrinking.

In 2010, the State Government led by the DMK party had identified various sites in the state to establish five genetic heritage gardens. Sirumalai was identified for setting up the Mullai genetic garden. The government had earmarked 500 acres under the control of the Horticulture Department. However, the proposal went into cold storage with the change of government. The Kurinji, Marudham, Neidhal and Palai genetic gardens were to be established in Chakkotai in Thanjavur, Thirukkadaiyur in Nagapattinam and Pattinamkathan village in Ramanathapuram districts.

Says N. Arun Shankar, Secretary of the Palni Hill Conservation Council, “We should realise how important the Sirumalai and Kodaikanal hills are for Dindigul for clean air that keeps the towns cool and ensure quality of life.”