February 2012: Darwin taught us all about ‘adaptation’ and its connection with the survival of species. This lion-tailed macaque Macaca silenus, aggressively baring its fangs, exemplifies such lessons. A fruit and seed disperser, this omnivorous monkey descended from a wider-ranging ancestor roughly five million years ago. A survivor that managed to overcome every natural challenge thrown at it, the macaque has met its match in Homo sapiens.
In the 1970s, Dr. Sálim Ali, birdman extraordinaire, approached the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, to ask that a Kerala State Electricity Board proposal for a 140 MW hydroelectric project on the Kunthipuzha river be abandoned as it would drown part of a 50-million-year-old, biodiverse shola and grassland habitat populated by tigers, elephants… and lion-tailed macaques. The last named, he emphasised, lived only in the Western Ghats forests of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The timing was right. Mrs. Gandhi, greatly moved by her recent experience at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, had taken to heart the proclamation that: “humans bear a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.” She stopped the dam after a long and torturous series of investigations, in 1984 (shortly before she was assassinated). And Silent Valley (so named because of the absence of cicadas and the loud drone of their love songs) was declared a national park.
Kerala’s short-sighted engineers and politicians were aghast. “Does she care more about monkeys than humans?” they plaintively asked behind closed doors and then, soon after she was assassinated, began plotting to drown an adjacent valley under the infamous Pathrakadavu dam. In the event, Dr. V.S. Vijayan of the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) and Dr. M.K. Prasad of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) and renowned biologist Dr. Sathis Chandra Nair won the day. Silent Valley was saved.
In hindsight, four decades down the line, with the climate change writing on the wall, protecting Silent Valley was fortuitous. In a warming world, the climate moderation and the water supply contribution of such forests is virtually all that stand between millions of Indians and starvation. While agro-scientists busy themselves by trying to figure out how climate change will affect food grains, pulses and what have you, they continue to miss the glaring signals being sent to them by nature. Among other indicators, these include early and late flowering, early and late migrations, and early and late nesting.
India’s leaders, who are being assailed at so many levels by a public tired of their shenanigans, should ideally be heeding such ‘blinking lights’ to prepare us for an uncertain future. Instead they have chosen to bare their fangs all over again. In January 2012, Kerala Electricity Minister Aryadan Muhammed again asked for the Pathrakadavu Hydroelectric Project to be constructed, knowing it lies in Silent Valley’s buffer zone.
So the alarm call has rung and the old battle must be relaunched.
Stalwarts such as Dr. Sathis Chandra Nair, M.K. Prasad and V.S. Vijayan could do with some help from some of the younger conservationists in India. If any Sanctuary readers wish to know more or support these nation builders, we will gladly put you in touch with them if you write to: The Editor, Sanctuary Asia,
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 1, February 2012