A trek into Sirumalai reserve forest highlights the need for knowing and taking care of forest wealth within our immediate surroundings.

It’s summer and that means it’s time to take a break from routine. More young people are hitting the roads and taking long drives to places far from civilisation. Trekking on the hills, cycling and biking along beaches, valley-crossing and bungee jumping have become the new way to spend vacations. Increasingly, people are visiting places of natural beauty, green consciousness is the new buzzword and appears to have gripped the youth in particular.

While the lesser known valleys have become the new weekend getaways, greenery right here in our backyard is crying for attention. Last Sunday, a group of environmentalists took a walk into the Sirumalai reserve forest under the Sholavandan range of Madurai district forest division. The isolated patch of semi-evergreen forest sprawling over 7,000 hectares is sandwiched between the Madurai and Dindigul districts. Sirumalai is home to thousands of plant species and wild animals such as Indian Gaur, wild boar, sambar deer, wild dogs, giant squirels and monkeys.

Around 20 people participated in the walk organized by Naanal Nanbargal Kuzhu and highlighted the need to protect forest wealth. “Sirumalai is reeling under acute water shortage. It hasn’t rained for the past two years,” says forest guard P. Sankara Narayanan. He points to the largely dried shrubs and trees with bare branches. “Once Sirumalai used be green round-the-year. It was a self-sustained ecosystem.”

Throughout the walk, the group members sighted animal scats, kills, pug marks while the birds called out from tree tops and the insects buzzed past. But no sighting of wildlife! “The animals of Sirumalai must be under great stress. Even the scats and kills appear few months old and not fresh,” points out wildlife enthusiast Ilanchezhian. “They must have fled the area in search of water.” “Earlier, the wild dog packs used to come even up to the Punyavarsh foothills. Now, we hardly spot them. The villagers say that there were foxes and bears too in Sirumalai. But in the recent years, we have never come across them,” says N. Anantharajan, a forest watcher.

To attract the animals back to Sirumalai, the forest department has erected 10 water troughs at various places. “We are planning to bring water tankers and fill these troughs,” says Anantharajan. However, the Dindigul slope of Sirumalai is believed to be greener than the Madurai slope. A number of estates and resorts also exist on the other slope. “The banana is very famous. But the yield has come down owing to failure of monsoons,” he informs. Ripping through the entire landscape, a wide brook runs down the hill and winds its way to the neighbouring villages of Ramakavundanpatti and Valayapatti near Palamedu. “This forest river originates from the Thazhakadai peak and joins the various other streams to become Sathaiyar river which culminates at the Sathaiyar dam,” says U. Oomathurai, forest field officer. Another river namely Santhanavarthini also originates from Sirumalai and flows down on the Dindigul side. Apart from mammals, Sirumalai is a birder’s paradise too as a number of raptors and warblers are found. “Birds like eagle and shrike must be common in a forest like this. They mostly feed on smaller insect-eating birds or reptiles,” says Raveendran, an avid bird watcher. Some of the birds spotted during the walk were White bellied drongo, blue-face malkoha, chestnut bee-eater, hanging parakeet, flame-backed woodpecker, nightjar, bayback shrike and collared scops owl.

Sirumalai hills nurtures a wide range of medicinal herbs, ornamental shrubs and huge trees. Some of the native species found here are Thanaku, Vilwam, tamarind trees, neermarudhu and vaagai. To increase tree cover, the forestry also takes up afforestation initiatives. In 2006, around 4000 teak trees were planted, but they have all dried up today. One of the plant species found in abundance in Sirumalai is Lantana Camara, a small perennial shrub.

“This won’t allow the native species to grow easily. The growth of these kinds of weed plants should be controlled,” says Ilanchezhian.

The group that visited Sirumalai for the first time was bowled over by the richness and beauty of the forest but was pained by the sordid state it’s going through.“We are sad and shocked to see a semi-evergreen forest rapidly turning into a dry barren land. More local people should be involved in saving forests. Instead of visiting far off places to enjoy the company of nature, people should start appreciating greenery in the vicinity of the city they live in,” says Tamil Dasan, a member.

The group is planning to conduct a detailed bio-diversity study in Sirumalai, roping in experts from various fields. The members also pointed out the need to develop eco sensitivity in places like Sirumalai and making them a stamping ground for nature lovers.

Sirumalai hills nurtures a wide range of medicinal herbs, ornamental shrubs and huge trees.