‘Project Nilgiri Tahr’, with an initial allocation of ₹10 crore announced in the Tamil Nadu Budget for conservation and expansion of habitat for the State animal, has come at a time when its population has started declining in parts of its highly fragmented range.
It has been formulated as a comprehensive, long-term strategy to ensure the survival of the Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius). Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change and Forests, said, “The time has come to protect this endangered, enigmatic animal and its habitat. Very little is known about this species, and there are not even any accurate estimates of its population.” An extensive survey of the species and its habitat in Tamil Nadu and the pressures it faces will be made in the coming months. “We are also looking at reintroducing the species from where it has disappeared in the recent past and involving local communities in their protection,” she explained.
Sanket Bhale, team leader, Western Ghats Landscape at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-India), says the main threat the Nilgiri tahr faces is habitat fragmentation. “We have identified five distinct blocks where populations exist, which are possibly not interconnected.”
In the Nilgiris district, the latest census conducted in 2019 has indicated that the population has risen to more than 600 individuals, primarily in the Mukurthi National Park and Avalanche, said B. Ramakrishnan, Assistant Professor at the Department of Wildlife Biology in the Government Arts College in Udhagamandalam. “One way to help the population keep growing in the Nilgiris would be to continue eco-restoration and removal of exotic and invasive flora, such as wattle, pine and eucalyptus in habitats suitable for the tahr,” said Mr. Ramakrishnan. “Habitats from where the species has disappeared, like in Glenmorgan and the Wenlock Downs, can also be reassessed and the species could be reintroduced there in the long term,” he added.
The montane grasslands of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR) are estimated to be the second biggest habitat for the tahr after Eravikulam National Park in Kerala. ATR has an estimated population of 510 individuals in 35 groups, a survey conducted by researchers of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in 2018 indicated. The Grass Hills National Park in ATR is home to the largest population, believed to be over 200 individuals.
WWF-India conducted a landscape-wide survey of the Nilgiri tahr, and in 2015, estimated that there were more than 3,100 animals left in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While recent surveys indicate that the population continues to rise in certain pockets, like in the Nilgiris and Anamalai Hills, researchers have noted population declines in other parts of the State.
“This could be due to a variety of reasons — forest fires, disease or inbreeding depression — which will require further studies. The budget announcement has come in at the perfect time so that real-time monitoring of the populations can be done and site-specific conservation programmes can be implemented,” said M.A. Predit, coordinator for the Nilgiri tahr conservation programme for WWF-India.
“The Nilgiri tahr, listed as ‘endangered’ in the IUCN Red List, definitely deserves a comprehensive conservation strategy as we have for the tiger and other keystone species,” said M. Ananda Kumar, a scientist with NCF, who has studied the tahr in the Anamalai hills over two decades.
“It is a flagship species of the grassland-shola ecosystem. Conserving the tahr through the protection of the grasslands will also benefit several other species. This requires a scientific understanding of the ecosystem for long-term management,” pointed out Mr. Kumar.
S. Ramasubramanian, Field Director, ATR, claimed that habitats of the Nilgiri tahr in ATR were mostly free from poaching as they inhabit high-elevation grasslands and cliffs in protected areas. According to A.J.T. Johnsingh, a senior wildlife biologist and former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India, many forest areas in Tamil Nadu have the potential for the re-introduction of the Nilgiri tahr.
“Despite a proposal for the reintroduction of Nilgiri tahr in Glenmorgan in The Nilgiris and Thirukurungudi in the Kalakad- Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve being approved in 2012, no efforts were initiated,” he said. Areas in the Srivilliputhur Tiger Reserve and a few other parts, including parts of Agasthyamala in Tamil Nadu, also have the potential to be home for at least 1,000 tahr. “The Department should also engage in dialogue with the Kerala government to form effective conservation policies,” he added.