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Conservationists call for regulating temple tourism inside Mudumalai Tiger Reserve 

The temple festivals, attracting thousands of devotees several times a year, lead to a proliferation of garbage inside protected wildlife zones; they also pose a risk to devotees themselves say conservationists in the Nilgiris; the Forest Department must regulate numbers and ensure litter is cleared promptly, they say

January 23, 2023 04:48 pm | Updated January 26, 2023 10:11 am IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

A file photograph of the annual Bokkapuram temple car festival at the Bokkapuram Temple near the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, which attracts hundreds of devotees.

A file photograph of the annual Bokkapuram temple car festival at the Bokkapuram Temple near the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, which attracts hundreds of devotees. | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

With a series of temple festivals set to commence in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) starting from February, conservationists have appealed to the government to implement restrictions on pilgrims to minimise the impact of “unregulated temple tourism” on the wildlife and on local habitats.

The temple festivals, including the ones organised at Bokkapuram, Chokkanalli, Anaikkal and Siriyur, attract anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 people into the tiger reserve each year. During these days, tonnes of garbage, including plastic and liquor bottles are carelessly discarded inside reserve forests, impacting wildlife within the reserve.

S. Bharathidasan, secretary of Arulagam, a conservation NGO working for the protection of vultures, said that a study conducted in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR), which is a habitat contiguous with MTR, revealed serious impacts from temple tourism to local wildlife.

Dumping of garbage

“Our study of the impact of pilgrimage tourism to the Bannari Amman Temple in Erode in STR showed severe impacts in the form of air pollution from the entry of thousands of vehicles during temple festivals, dumping of tonnes of garbage within the reserve, including medical waste such as sanitary napkins, diapers, needles and medicines as well as e-waste such as CDs, DVDs, mobile phone chargers, batteries and other items,” Mr. Bharathidasan said.

The NGO has also noted that in the last two decades, that nesting sites of critically endangered vulture species in Siriyur and the Anaikkal Mariamman Temple in MTR have been abandoned. An increase in the number of pilgrims, or changes in behaviour of the devotees could be factors behind the abandoning of the nesting sites,” he said.

“The remains of food waste, food containing excessive salt and the residues of flesh of sacrificial animals attract wildlife. As they consume the food remains along with polythene bags without being able to segregate them, it becomes detrimental to their health.

Not only that, wildlife gets attracted to these food items which is available quite easily to them around the temple premises when compared to regular food in the forest. Once wild animals gets habituated to food waste, there are chances of human-animal conflict as and when these requisite food items are unavailable to them,” said Mr. Bharathidasan.

Danger to devotees too

The lack of regulation of devotees into forest areas also poses a danger to them. Late last year, four women devotees drowned, after being washed away in a flash flood while they were crossing the Kedarhalla River in the buffer zone of the MTR, while attending a temple puja at the Anaikkal Mariamman temple in Sigur. More than 200 people had to be rescued at the time.

N. Mohanraj, a Nilgiris-based conservationist said that in the past, the temple festivals only attracted local residents from the Badaga community, and tribal people belonging to the Toda, Kota, Kurumba and Irula communities.

“However, this stopped being the case some years ago, with the festival now attracting people from other districts who otherwise would not be legally able to enter these forests,” he said.

Mr. Mohanraj stated that previously, the Bokkapuram festival would only be opened periodically, and that only local devotees who have a historical link to the temple should be allowed, failing which, pilgrimage would only increase to temples located in an “extremely important elephant corridor” in the coming years, and lead to more pressures on wildlife.

‘Forest Department must regulate vehicle flow’  

Conservationists have suggested that the Forest Department stop private vehicles from descending the Kalhatti Ghat Road, with pilgrims wanting to attend the festival being allowed only into these areas in bus services offered by the Forest Department and the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation.

“This will discourage casual tourists from using the temple festivals as an excuse to enter wildlife habitats,” they said. They also said that temple authorities conducting the festivals should be given only 24 hours to completely clean up the waste generated during the festival, failing which they should face severe fines.

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