Concerns over reopening of abandoned road used once by poachers, timber smugglers in the Nilgiris

Published - March 12, 2023 10:15 pm IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

The abandoned road between Vakkanamaram and Sirumugai, parts of which have been cleared of weeds recently.

The abandoned road between Vakkanamaram and Sirumugai, parts of which have been cleared of weeds recently. | Photo Credit: ROHAN PREMKUMAR

A disused road running through a critical elephant habitat from Kil Kotagiri in the Nilgiris to Sirumugai in Coimbatore, which was once used by poachers and for smuggling forest timber, is again under the spotlight.

Recent efforts to clear the road of weeds by the Forest Department has raised concerns among activists that the road may be reopened for members of the public. However, for the locals, the road would be a crucial link and drastically reduce travel time.

The road from Vakkanamaram, a remote tribal hamlet located along the Nilgiris-Coimbatore border, connects to Sirumugai in Coimbatore district. It was once known to have been used by forest brigand Veerappan to smuggle wood and ivory from the Nilgiris.

According to A. Bhoopathy, a naturalist from Kotagiri, the road was in use around 30 years ago for smuggling timber from inside tea estates and forests in Kil Kotagiri.

“The road cuts through a very important elephant habitat which is also home to leopards, tigers and rare and endangered birds as well as highly coveted forest timber,” said Mr. Bhoopathy, adding any attempt to re-open the road would only contribute to an increase in illegal timber felling and smuggling, poaching and a surge in real estate in the area.

The region lies in the intersection of important wildlife corridors in the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, the northeastern slopes of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and Thengumarahada and the Bhavani Sagar region. For local people, reopening the road would be a boon.

V. Sivaraj, an adivasi resident of Vakkanamaram, who is part of the labor force employed to clear the road of weeds and fallen trees, said he was told by the Forest Department that the road is to be reopened. “If the road is reopened, residents from around 10 tribal hamlets will stand to benefit,” he said.

Sheila Devi, president of Aracode village, said a trip to Mettupalayam from Vakkanamaram for residents totals up to 70 kilometres. “If the road is reopened, the distance will be reduced to just 8 kilometres,” she said, adding that the road had been opened to locals in the past. “We have petitioned the Collector demanding that our request for reopening and relaying the road be granted,” she said.

However, conservationists remain wary of the recent developments, arguing that any efforts to make the route navigable for trucks, vehicles and people will invariably have consequences for the wildlife in the region. “The demands of the local communities need to be balanced with environmental concerns. Rather than reopening the road that has the potential to drive up illegal anti-wildlife activities in the region, the government can ensure that there is adequate public transport available to residents, and that the existing roads from Kotagiri to Kil Kotagiri are better maintained,” said another conservationist from the Nilgiris.

S. Mari, another adivasi resident from Aracode, remains convinced that the efforts to clear the roads are the first step towards reopening the stretch between Vakkanamaram to Sirumugai. “The community enthusiastically began clearing the roads only because that is what the Forest Department promised us,” he said.

When contacted, District Forest Officer (Nilgiris Division) S. Gowtham said the roads were only being cleared on the Coimbatore side of the border. “We received information about the work, and have been informed that the roads are being cleared to establish a fire line to control the spread of forest fires, and not to reopen the road,” said Mr. Gowtham, adding the local communities had assumed the roads would be reopened for their personal interests.

District Forest Officer (Coimbatore Division), T.K.Ashok Kumar, in a statement, said only fire-line clearing work had been conducted to a distance of 5.5 kilometres from the Thattapallam area to Samakkodal at Koothamundi South Beat in the Sirumugai Range under Project Elephant Scheme 2022-23. Officials added that around 15 metres has been cleared on the Kotagiri side of the border by a private estate.

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