Dry days: a seven part series on water scarcity in South India

Animals struggling to cope with ‘driest’ year

Parched pachyderms: Elephants slaking their thirst at a watering hole in Kabini, Karnataka.

Parched pachyderms: Elephants slaking their thirst at a watering hole in Kabini, Karnataka.   | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.

As intensifying heat grips the hilly forests of Tamil Nadu in the summer months, thirst-driven animals in these areas are facing higher mortality rates, and sometimes wander into human habitations

With 2016 now officially classified as the driest year since records began more than half a century ago, the lack of rainfall in the Nilgiris had a significant impact on the animals here.

According to estimates, five to seven elephants may have died in various parts of the Nilgiris in 2017 due to a lack of green fodder, accentuated by the drought-like conditions, while it is hard to estimate how many other herbivores died over the last three months.

An analysis of rainfall patterns in Udhagamandalam since 1965, by principal scientist Dr. S. Manivanan and scientist

V. Kasthuri Thilagam of the Indian Institute of Soil and Water Conservation (IISWC) Research Center in Udhagamandalam, has shown that apart from being the driest year on record, 2016 was the only year, since records began, during which the northeast and the southwest monsoon failed in the same year.

“While the average rainfall since 1965 stands at 1,269 mm of rain, only 613.8 mm of rain or 48% of average rainfall was recorded in 2016,” Dr. Manivanan said to The Hindu.

Moreover, the number of “rainy days,” the days during which rainfall was recorded during the year, also saw a steep decline in 2016, with just 52 days of rain, compared to the average of 120 days of rain every year.

Srinivas R. Reddy, Field Director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, admits that the elephants look thinner than usual, and that the drought has been worse than first feared. “The fodder availability looks slightly less than previous years, with less green fodder and more dry fodder for elephants,” he said.

In this context, Dr. Manivanan called for mitigation strategies to protect both animals as well as the people who live in the Nilgiris, including groundwater replenishment as well as switching to less water-, fertiliser- and pesticide-dependent agriculture. He also called for dams to be desilted so that their storage capacity increases, allowing more water to be stored for use during lean spells.

To rejuvenate stream

S. Kalanidhi, District Forest Officer (Nilgiris North Division), has spearheaded a plan to rejuvenate a seasonal stream flowing into the Sigur plateau. Known as the Sigurhalla, the once-perennial river began going dry during summer after the Kamaraj Sagar Dam was built further upstream.

So long as there is a minimal outflow of water, there is hope that the river will rejuvenate itself and, in turn, this could ensure adequate fodder sprouting near the stream so animals may have sufficient food in the summer. Numerous artificial watering holes and check-dams have also been constructed to help meet the water needs of the animals, said Mr. Kalanidhi.

“There needs to be a holistic plan to ensure that the effects of such droughts are mitigated, starting with the rejuvenation of streams and water bodies. Grasslands also need better conservation as they act as sponges that conserve water,” said S. Jayachandran, joint secretary of the Tamil Nadu Green Movement. - Rohan Premkumar

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Andhra Pradesh: Conflicts driven by drought

While the acute drinking water scarcity in the perennially drought-hit Anantapur district is adversely affecting people, it is also bringing wild animals into direct conflict with humans in their search for food and water.

A little over six months ago, a leopard ventured into the outskirts of the Rayadurgam municipality and mandal headquarters town creating panic amongst the residents. Fortunately, no one was harmed.

In the last three years, more than 30 such incidents involving wild animals such as leopards, jackals, wild dogs, hyenas and bears have occurred, and the people in villages fear for their lives.

Forest officials attribute the increased frequency of such incidents to the drought of the past six years.

Raghaviah, an IFS officer who worked as the District Forest Officer of Anantapur, said, “The lack of rains for the last six years… meant drying up of all kinds of water resources in the deep forests, shrinking of green belts and consequently the population of herbivores, depriving the large predators such as leopards of prey, forcing them to cross over into the human habitations in search of food and water.” - V.K.Rakesh Reddy

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Karnataka: Quitting the forest in search of water

The unprecedented drought that has gripped wildlife reserves in Karnataka this year has turned the landscape into a tinderbox, the drying forest primed to turn into an inferno, sending herbivores and carnivores out of protected areas in search of water.

In recent months, at least two elephants were found dead, killed by suspected dehydration, around the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, and herbivores have been migrating to dense human habitations due to thirst. Barely three out of 162 tanks are full here.

K.D. Srinivasaiah, Assistant Conservator of Forests, says the near-perennial Doddalla, a crucial feeder channel into the Cauvery, went dry by November last year.

In Bandipur National Park, barely 30 of 373 watering holes have water for the wild animals.

At Nagarahole National Park, 91 out of 157 such sites are dry.

As the prime tiger habitat hosting about 221 of the big cats, water scarcity in this 1,515 sq. km. area is particularly worrying, given the prospect of forest fires.

Innovations to fight drought

For the first time in three years, tankers have been deployed to fill pits in the watering holes – a system that is, however, insufficient to quench the thirst of animals. “We have tried lifting water from the Lakshmantheertha river but even that cannot be done... We drilled 30-odd bore wells, but more than half of them failed,” said S. Manikandan, Nagarahole’s Park Director.

In the northern reaches of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, mobile generators are used to power nearly 18 bore wells. - Mohit M. Rao

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Telangana: Solar-powered water sources

The rapid depletion of deciduous forests in recent years has added to the harshness of the summer in undivided Adilabad district in Telangana, and wild animals have no respite from water scarcity during the dry season.

The Kawal Tiger Reserve (KTR), its core spread over an area of 893 square kilometres and surrounded by 1,122 square kilometres of buffer, falling in Nirmal, Mancherial, Kumram Bheem Asifabad and Adilabad districts, has become a refuge for thirsty animals, thanks to measures initiated by the park management.

The KTR’s sizeable animal population, as per the 2016 census, has herbivores numbering 1,339, including 673 chitals, 339 nilgais, 198 gaurs, 72 chowsinghas, 42 sambhars and 15 chinkaras, besides 25 leopards at the top of the tiny carnivore population. Additionally, there are wild dogs, foxes and hyenas, but tigers have not been seen recently.

A few years ago, scarcity drove wild animals into human habitations to quench their thirst, but now there is a new approach in place to mitigate this situation.

Power of the sun

“We have about 20 solar water pumps continuously replenishing the water holes at strategic locations like Gondgua and Mallial inside the reserve,” said Project Tiger field director C. Saravanan.

“As many as 17 of the solar water pumps are in Jannaram and Indhanpalli ranges, which boast of a majority of the wild animal population,” pointed out Mancherial District Forest Officer B. Prabhakar. “We constantly monitor the functioning of these pumps,” he observed. - S. Harpal Singh

This is the third of a seven- part series

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 10:14:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/animals-struggling-to-cope-with-driest-year/article18282704.ece

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