Home Conservation Field Reports KMTR’s ‘One-Mile’ Corridor

KMTR’s ‘One-Mile’ Corridor

KMTR’s ‘One-Mile’ Corridor

Pankaj Sekhsaria follows the work of two American primatologists to trace the history of a small evergreen patch of forest within Tamil Nadu’s Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Now the scene of path-breaking ecological studies, he writes about the ecological worth of a narrow forested lifeline that lives on tenuously in an area under assault by commercial plantations.

Under the dense, evergreen and semi-evergreen forest canopy of the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, spread across almost 900 sq. km. in southern Tamil Nadu, hide incredibly diverse forms of plant and animal life. Photo: Seshadri K.S.

The drive into the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) from the Manimuthar side is truly fascinating. The air gets cooler as one leaves behind the dry scrubby forests of the plains and climbs steeply up the mountains, the vegetation gets greener and richer, and the species of birds and animals encountered also change progressively. The world that this drive leads into is rare and unique. Watered by both the southwest and the northeast monsoons, and shrouded for a large part of the year in a mysterious and ephemeral mist, this is the dense, evergreen and semi-evergreen forest that clothes the crest of the Western Ghats. Spread across almost 900 sq. km. in southern Tamil Nadu, KMTR is a rich mosaic of forest types and a treasure trove of climatic, geological, plant and animal diversity.

It is, however, not just these different forest types that make up this mosaic, and the first indication of this anomaly, if one can call it that, is clearly visible even in maps. Bang in the heart of what is now a tiger reserve is an important, even indelible part of this landscape – the estate of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC), a smaller mosaic of tea, coffee and cardamom plantations, human settlements, and natural forests. Spread over an area of 34 sq. km., the estate stands on land leased in 1929 to the BBTC by the then zamindar of Singampatti for a lease period of 99 years. A closer look (see map) reveals further complexity. There are two distinct units that constitute the BBTC estate, and they are separated by a strip of thickly-forested land known as the ‘one-mile corridor’. Connecting the upper parts of the Kalakad Reserve Forests with the Singampatti forests, this fragile patch of evergreen forest is a crucial wildlife corridor, where pioneering research in recent times has offered a number of unexpected ecological insights. It is a strip of forest, however, that almost never was, and thereby hangs this intriguing and little-known tale of India’s contemporary conservation history.

American primatologist Steven Green pretends to ‘groom’ his partner Karen Minkowski in the manner of the lion-tailed macaques they were studying in Kalakad in April 1975. Photo: John Oates.

Primatologists to the rescue

At the heart of this story is the work of Steven Green, an American primatologist who came here in the early 70s from the Rockefeller University in New York to study the lion-tailed macaque, the endangered, enigmatic and endemic canopy-dwelling primate of the Western Ghats. The project was locally supported by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), and Green was hosted by the BBTC during the 18 months he spent studying the macaques. His observations suggested that this forest corridor, which was small even then, was crucial for the monkeys. It turned out, however, that this important macaque habitat was due for felling as per the original lease agreement, and that a timber contractor contracted by the BBTC was already logging the forest. The full details were published eventually in Green and Karen Minkowski’s contribution to the 1977 edited book Primate Conservation that was published by the New York-based Academic Press.

While in India, Green had tried hard to convince the estate officials and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department (TNFD) to stop the logging because of the importance of this corridor for the lion-tailed macaques. His efforts fell on deaf ears and what is more is that he and his research assistant, Karen Minkowski, also became suspect in the eyes of the authorities (see interview with Green). The story of what transpired is also narrated in detail in Myth and Reality in the Rain Forest, a book published in 1999 by John Oates, another primatologist who came to India as a post-doctoral fellow in 1975 on Green’s invitation. “Green and Minkowski,” writes Oates, “were accused by the police – probably at the instigation of the logging contractor – of being spies, and heard rumours of threats to their lives. Their walkie-talkie radios, with which they communicated in the forest, had to be surrendered to the police, and although they were able to continue their work, they kept out of sight of the timber operations.”

Green left in April 1975, and though the BBTC was not happy with what was happening, Oates took forward Green’s efforts to save the forest corridor. “I tried to continue the work that Green and his partner Karen Minkowski had initiated to protect the Kalakad-Mundanthurai forest corridor,” the 70-year-old Oates wrote in an email from England, where he now leads a retired life, “but it was very much Steve and Karen who led the way.” Rauf Ali, who was part of the same research team, continued long-term monitoring of the lion-tailed macaque groups and says that Oates too played a vital role, bearing the brunt of the environmental battle that ensued. “The controversy over felling in the one-mile corridor,” Ali says further, “was probably the first major environmental controversy in India, predating even the epic Silent Valley battle.”

A stream gurgles past the edges of the one-mile corridor. The KMTR forests are crucial to the water security of the lower plains of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts.
Photo: Pankaj Sekhsaria.

A Prime Minister intervenes

The campaign to save the corridor was eventually supported by the Bombay Natural History Society and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – India (now the World Wide Fund for Nature). Dilnavaz Variava who was then the CEO of WWF-India, and active later in the struggle to save Silent Valley remembers that the BBTC top brass in Bombay was cooperative and even hosted her as a guest at the plantation when she visited to look into the matter. “The plantation manager,” says Variava, “was sensitive to the issue, but his performance was assessed on the strength of the profitability of the estate and so there was a resistance to halting felling, and replanting the corridor.” The campaign was also supported by Dr. Sálim Ali, who had introduced Green to a senior officer in then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s secretariat. Gandhi expressed her personal concern when the matter was brought to her notice, and action was taken a few months later. She had imposed emergency in the country by then and this made her task that much easier. The Tamil Nadu Assembly was dissolved in January 1976 on charges of corruption, maladministration and misuse of power, and the felling of trees in the BBTC estate was stopped within a month. The Kalakad Reserved Forest was subsequently declared a wildlife sanctuary in March 1976 and the BBTC and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department signed an agreement by November to protect an area of 4.45 sq. km., including the ‘one-mile corridor’ and parts of the neighbouring Oothu Estate, all in the interests of the lion-tailed macaque.

John Oates visited Kalakad in 1975 on Steven Green’s invitation. This is his image of a lion-tailed macaque feeding on a jackfruit. Photo: John Oates.

Saving a forest

The patch of forest that Green helped protect is part of a larger landscape where path-breaking ecological studies are now taking place. More than 20 doctoral projects on various ecological aspects have been conducted here over the years by some of the most prominent wildlife researchers in the country. Contributions by many of them can be seen in the special section on KMTR that was carried in the 2001 issue of Current Science and in a commemorative volume of research papers published by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in 2013.

The ‘one-mile corridor’ is the site, for instance, of the first long-term rainforest canopy research and monitoring project in India being undertaken by M. Soubadra Devy, T. Ganesh, and R. Ganesan of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

Theirs was the first comprehensive study that showed the intricate relationship between the forest’s frugivore species and the flowering of Cullenia exarillata that is known locally as Vedipala. “Knowing the full account of how this patch was protected has increased my respect for Green many fold,” says Devy, who first came to these forests in 1989 as a student from the Sálim Ali School of Ecology, Pondicherry University. She too had to deal with antagonism from the tea estate authorities, a legacy of a decade-old conflict that still simmers. “The trees we are studying,” she speculates, “could be the very trees that Green studied when working on lion-tailed macaques.” Ganesh and Devy have also met a few of the older generation here who have vivid memories of Green. “For them,” says Ganesh, “any research that happens here is manthi (monkey) research.”

It was also in these forests that Ganesan along with Seshadri K. S. of ATREE and S. D. Biju of Delhi University rediscovered the rare green frog Raorchestes chalazodes in 2011. Known as the bubble nest frog, the only known record of it was from 136 years ago. Seshadri is now studying the breeding behaviour of the frog as part of his doctoral work at the National University of Singapore and has already described a new reproductive mode practiced by the frog. Discussing the Steven ‘Green Trail’, in a 2012 blogpost, Seshadri writes, “Recently, I was walking a trail in KMTR known as the ‘Green Trail’. Though, the name does not exist on official records, we use the name. On some of the trails in this area, one will come across boards which bear alphabets N, S, E and W. These palm-sized boards painted in red and nailed to trees have stood the test of time. They must have served as a route mark for Green and his assistants when they were on foot, following monkeys in the thick forest.” Though it could not be ascertained who had put up these specific tags, Green confirmed in an e-mail that they had indeed put up aluminium tags to mark the intersections of trails that they had cut so that they could be referenced to the maps they produced. Satellite or aerial photos were not available on account of defence regulations and they had to, therefore, map the place using their own system of hand-held compasses and measuring tapes.

Pioneering research in these forests have thrown up many a surprise including the rediscovery of the rare green frog in 2011 by R. Ganesan, Seshadri K. S. of ATREE and S. D. Biju of the Delhi University. Photo: Seshadri K.S.

Miles To Go

Steven Green has clearly not been forgotten. There is an important ecological legacy that he and others like John Oates have left behind. While this legacy lives on in different ways, a number of different legal battles continue to be fought between the BBTC and the Forest Department, particularly over the status of the lease that expires in 2028. In a significant order passed in the first week of October 2015, the Tirunelveli Sessions Court stated that the government was the owner of the land of the tea estates and the BBTC was only a lessee. It is the first step in the land coming back to the Forest Department in 2028. The matter, however, is far from settled and these are only expected to intensify as the end of the lease period draws nearer. The historical conflict notwithstanding, Ali is of the opinion that the BBTC has been an important player in conservation here in the past, and continues to be so in the present. There is also the issue of the economic activity of the tea estate as thousands of livelihoods are dependent on it. One can only hope as we move on into the future that decisions will be taken that are in the best interests of the forests that constitute the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve and the rich and varied wildlife that finds refuge here.

Palm-sized aluminium tags had been put up by Green and his assistants to mark the intersections of trails. Similar boards such as this one from the Kodayar forests, perhaps placed by later researchers or the Forest Department, continue to serve as route markers. Photo: Seshadri K.S.

Green Bytes

Professor Steven Green, 72-years-old, is currently Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Miami. He has a tete-a-tete with Pankaj Sekhsaria via e-mail about his work in Kalakad-Mundanthurai.

What were the key ecological and conservation challenges faced then?

There was a lack of understanding at all levels that lion-tailed macaques are not common and widespread but rather extremely localised and severely endangered. There was also widespread suspicion on account of the prevailing tensions between the Government of India and the U.S.A. related to the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict. My research site was “raided” by the local authorities and my walkie-talkie gear was seized after being accused as being “suspect”. The weekly tabloid, Blitz (published in Bombay), had a feature about my supposedly being a spy. My memory is that they somehow tied together a number of items related to the BNHS and the Smithsonian including tracking birds migrating over the Himalaya from China along with my being able to “see” and monitor the rocket-launching site in Kerala from my position on the Agasthyamalai! Of course there were other local challenges such as the difficulty of the terrain – such as steep slopes, the leeches and king cobras that frequently lurked by our jeep.

Who do you credit with the eventual turnaround that resulted in the corridor’s protection?

Several people in India played key roles – from the BNHS, the Forest Department, even the BBTC, to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat – in protecting that patch of forest, resulting in my work. The whole project resulted in me always ensuring that all my behaviour-ecological research always had a conservation element or focus.

Any particular incidents that are a lasting memory?

I was near the ridge trail in the mid-afternoon when the lion-tailed troupe was napping (as usual). I too lay down in a meadow and put my head on my backpack. I dozed off and when I woke up, I was surrounded by a pack of about seven dholes, with the nearest one only about three metres from me. Gorgeous animals! It was a little frightening to find predators of substantial size standing so near. They bolted when I raised myself, so it was obviously frightening to them as well.

Another incident that I remember is when Karen and I were walking through an elephant trail in thick bamboo. I suddenly realised that the swaying of the bamboo, a dozen or so metres beyond us, was produced by more than just the mild breeze. We quickly stepped off the trail (not easy to do in thick bamboo) and a female elephant and calf sauntered by, fortunately, without noticing us.

Why is it called the one-mile corridor?

My (perhaps faulty) memory is that the ‘one-mile’ came later, I introduced the “corridor” notion to make clear that for lasting protection, one would need to connect what might otherwise be isolated patches, both for genetic exchange and also to permit the extremely wide range exhibited by this species. I was greatly influenced by the (then) recent explosion of literature emphasising both biogeography and population biology and was impressed by their implications for conservation and the design of wildlife reserves.

 Map Courtesy: French Institute, Pondicherry, and ATREE.

Author: Pankaj Sekhsaria, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.

Pankaj Sekhsaria is member, Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group and author of The Last Wave – An Island Novel, published in 2014. The article is part of a series on conservation issues in the Tambaraparani River Basin as part of the FEJI-ATREE media fellowship 2015. 


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