Conservationists flay plans to open up Nilgiris’s eco-sensitive Pakkasuran Malai to tourism

While the Tourism Corporation plans to build a viewpoint and food court on the hill that has a historic fort atop it, conservationists have said unchecked tourism in the area could threaten the rare, native species of animals and plants found there

Updated - July 14, 2023 11:45 pm IST

Published - July 14, 2023 03:41 pm IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

A view of the Pakkasuran Malai in Coonoor

A view of the Pakkasuran Malai in Coonoor | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Conservationists are shocked over reports that the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation Limited (TTDC) plans to open up the eco-sensitive area surrounding Pakkasuran Malai, a hill near Coonoor, to tourism. They say tourism to the region could severely impact the rare, endemic biodiversity that is found in the area.

According to officials, TTDC plans to open up to toursim, Droog Fort, a historic fort on the peak of Pakkasuran Malai spread around 40 cents of land, with plans to construct a viewpoint, a toilet and food court facilities. The Fort and the hill are popular hiking spots.

However, local conservationists and wildlife biologists working in the region have strongly criticised the proposed move. A. Abinesh, a wildlife biologist who has visited the area for over a decade, said the Pakkasuran Malai was one of the few places in the Nilgiris that was home to the rare species of snake known as the Günther’s burrowing snake (Plecturus guentheri), while also being an important nesting site for the Shaheen falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator).

The area, which is primarily composed of rocks and grasslands is also home to the rare Valeriana leschenaultii, an endemic species of plant that is critically endangered and is threatened by habitat loss due to road construction and expansion of agriculture and human settlements, said Mr. Abinesh.

Mr. Abinesh also said that micro-endemic bush frogs such as the Coonoor bush frog (Raorchestes coonoorensis), as well as larger mammals like the rare Nilgiri martens, mouse deer, Indian gaurs, barking deer, leopards, sloth bears, Indian giant flying squirrels, Indian giant squirrels, brown palm civets, Indian crested porcupines, as well as a number of endemic orchids and grasses are found in the area.

The Droog Fort itself has significant historical, cultural and religious significance and qualifies as a sacred grove, said Janardhan Nanjundan, member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas. Mr. Janardhan said that the Fort and the surrounding Pakkasuran Malai need to be protected, and that it was among 15 such areas across the district that should be included in the IUCN’s green list of protected and conserved areas.

“Sacred groves are patches of primeval forest that some rural communities protect as abodes of deities. Sacred groves help in the protection of many rare, threatened and endemic species of plants and animals in the area,” said Mr. Janardhan, adding that since Pakkasuran Malai and Droog Fort are already popular hiking spots, they do not need any additional commercial promotion and development.

Azad Kamil, from the Ongil Nature Trust in Coonoor said that taking into account the impacts that tourism to the area could have on biodiversity, the Nilgiris Collector should withdraw the ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) which has been issued to get the project off-the-ground. Mr. Azad said that already, a lack of proper regulation of tourists to the area was leading to many animals that were crossing the road being killed by speeding tourist vehicles. He said that opening up the site to more tourism will have even more serious impacts on local wildlife.

‘Regulate eco-tourism’

Activists say that they are not opposed to the idea of eco-tourism in the area, but that it would have to be heavily regulated.

N. Moinudheen, an independent researcher and wildlife biologist said that the Forest Department could consider opening up the area for limited tourism, with small groups of trekkers and hikers being allowed with the Department’s permission. The Department could also depute a forest guard or staff member to accompany the group to prevent littering and any negative impact to the area.

“Many college students, who have studied wildlife biology would love the opportunity to educate children and young adults about the biodiversity of such areas. This kind of responsible tourism is the need of the hour, and no roads or buildings should come up in the area,” he added.

The proposal to divert forest land for commercial, non-forest purposes was antithetical to the government’s message about increasing forest cover and protecting wildlife areas, said N. Sadiq Ali, Founder of the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust (WNCT). Mr. Sadiq Ali said that all proposals to divert forest areas to development projects must be rejected, especially in ecologically-sensitive areas like the Nilgiris.

When contacted, District Forest Officer (Nilgiris division), S. Gowtham, said that they had not received any formal proposals for such a project, but said that a few forest staff members had accompanied the State Tourism Minister for a preliminary inspection of the proposed project site.  

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