India’s wildlife is stepping into the open as forests stay tourist-free

A camp elephant at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu   | Photo Credit: M Sathyamoorthy

When the lockdown was in full force, an eerie silence fell upon even our busiest cities. Deep in our forests, the situation has been much the same. “There is a cool breeze every morning and evening. With no vehicle movement on forest roads, everything is absolutely still,” says N Naveen Kumar, a Forest Range Officer in Attakatti. “Animals roam freely, since they do not sense vibrations from vehicles on the road,” he adds.

Naveen has been witness to some rather unusual sightings as a result. “I was able to spot animals in broad daylight; I saw the shy jungle fowl, the sighting of which requires luck, by the road.” Birds such as wood pigeons have plucked up the courage to wander along forest roads. “I also saw hare, that usually venture out only when there are no people around. There is visible change. Animals are at ease,” he says.

Around the early 2000s, V Ganesan, who has since retired as Field Director of Anamalai Tiger Reserve, says he saw a panther by the road in Anamalai during the day. “We were closed for a few months for maintenance. Animals can get a sense of what is happening around them; the moment they realised there was no disturbance, they started coming out,” he recalls. “The situation is similar now, since there are no tourists visiting our tiger reserves and sanctuaries.”

Elephants and gaur are also trundling about fearlessly now. Sachin Bhosale, Wildlife Warden, Meghamalai Division, reports spotting them along the Theni – Meghamalai road.

In the Nilgiris, sloth bears and leopards are happily roaming past estate bungalows, according to conservationist N Arun Shankar. Elsewhere in Uttarakhand, conservation biologist Bivash Pandav recently spoke, over a Zoom call, about a couple of elephants he spotted along the edge of Rajaji Tiger Reserve. (You normally need to drive deep in to spot wild animals.)

A tiger cub crossing a road stretch which is now decommissioned and is re-routed to skirt Nagarahole

A tiger cub crossing a road stretch which is now decommissioned and is re-routed to skirt Nagarahole   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“Animals always keep some boundaries that they do not cross,” says award-winning wildlife photographer Senthil Kumaran, adding that now, they are rethinking those boundaries. Another positive outcome of the lockdown, for wildlife, is the considerable reduction in the number of animal roadkills. “Along the Kallar corridor national highway, 8,000 vehicles pass by on one day,” he points out. “A number of small animals get run over by these vehicles every day. Even bigger ones like pythons become road kill. Why, a few years ago, an elephant was hit by a bus in Hosur.” With fewer vehicles plying through the forests, crossing the road is not a suicide mission for animals any more.

The hunt is on

Bivash is now documenting wildlife “in the vicinity of a section of National Highway 307 leading to Dehradun [linking it with Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh], that is proposed for expansion” using camera traps.

He says that the lockdown has discouraged the organised gangs of poachers as well. “A complete ban on public transport and strict vigilance by the police on the movement of private vehicles has affected the mobility of poachers,” he says, adding, “No major episodes of tiger, leopard and elephant poaching have been recorded during the lockdown period.”

Tourism and tribal people
  • According to Senthil Kumaran, tribal people living near protected areas are now having a tough time, since a lot of them depend on tourism for their income.
  • In Kerala’s Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, for instance, they are involved in eco-tourism activities, such as acting as guides for visitors on treks inside the forest.
  • At Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, tribal women call the shots at Banyan, a restaurant that is jointly run by the Tribal Eco Development Committee and the Mudumalai Tiger Conservation Foundation.

However, smaller animals such as black-naped hare are not having it that easy. “In Dindigul [Tamil Nadu], we have recorded around six cases in which animals were hunted for meat,” says Arun Shankar, who was the former vice president of Palani Hills Conservation Council. “This can be related to the price of mutton and chicken going up and the difficulty in accessing them.”

Sachin notes that he has documented eight cases of wildlife offences over the past two months alone. “Theni district is home to poachers,” he points out, adding, “A lot of people have come back to their home towns and are hunting as a hobby and for meat. We are having a tough time, but are keeping vigilant.”

Meanwhile, the safari animals of Top Slip, such as Mariappan, are finally getting a chance to put their feet up, since their routine of ferrying noisy tourists for a small trip in the forest, has now been put on hold. The tourists will surely be back, and in full force in all probability. But for now, it is eat-stroll-sleep-eat-stroll-sleep for Mariappan.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 4:10:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/silence-of-the-forest/article31600922.ece

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