Silent Valley to soon get a conservation ring around it

  • Almost 40 years after India’s first mass mobilisation for an environmental cause had turned Silent Valley as one among the well-protected biodiversity-rich forest regions of the country, Kerala government has decided to declare its buffer zone as a wildlife sanctuary to augment conservation efforts.
  • The proposed Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary would soon turn to be Kerala’s 25th protected area. Spread across 148 square kilometres, Bhavani will encompass parts of Mannarkkad and Nilambur (South) forest divisions, which are in fact continuations of the Silent Valley National Park.
  • The new wildlife sanctuary is a major step in the direction of establishing a National Rainforest Biosphere Reserve mooted first by renowned scientist M.S. Swaminathan while occupying the post of secretary in the union ministry of agriculture.

When Scottish botanist Robert Wright reached Sairandhri Valley on the banks of river Kunthi in the present Palakkad district of Kerala way back in 1847, what baffled him most was the lack of the noise of cicadas common in other parts of Western Ghats forests. Wright was exploring evergreen forests under the then Madras Presidency, and he found the prevailing silence in the valley even after dark as quite fascinating. So, he renamed Sairandhri as Silent Valley. 

“Sairandhri is another name of Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas who constitute the major characters in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The river flowing through it is named after their mother. Curiously, the silence that baffled Wright is no more in existence. Cicadas are back in the valley in the last few decades mainly due to climate change. Gurgling brooks, buzzing insects, chirping giant grizzly squirrels and the whooping lion-tailed macaques are also contributing to the breaking of the supposed silence here,” said Maari, a tribal forest protective staff who is known widely as a living encyclopaedia on the rich flora and fauna of Silent Valley.

As per local legends, the Pandavas had lived in these forests during their secret exile necessitated by the defeat in major gambling involving their bête noire Kauravas.  Pathrakadavu, a spot inside the valley, is regarded as the location where the mythical ‘akshayapatra’ was washed.

Though the legends are aplenty, what makes this largest habitat of highly endangered lion-tailed macaques is the ecological importance it holds. Notified as a reserve forest in 1914 and declared as a national park in 1984, the valley owes the credit for its safe protection to a protracted and sustained campaign involving environmentalists, social activists, the general public, media and students. Incidentally, the campaign that opposed the construction of a major hydel power project across Kunthi deep inside the valley was the first of its kind environmental activism in entire India.

A portion of newly planned Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala’s 25th protected area, that lies in the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park. Photo by K A Shaji.
A portion of newly planned Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala’s 25th protected area, that lies in the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park. Photo by K A Shaji.

Read more: Controversy returns to Athirappilly as Kerala government reactivates the hydel project proposal

Silent Valley is among the most biodiversity-rich forests

Now, Silent Valley remains as one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforests across the world. The topographical isolation facilitated by the surrounding steep ridges, hills and escarpments has helped these forests to develop into a rich biodiversity reserve untouched hitherto by humans. It has over 960 species of flora with 17 among them coming under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. 

Of the 315 species of fauna found here, the valley’s flagship species is the lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus). The primary food source of the macaques is the unique vedichakka fruit of the tall Culinea tree. As per a rough estimate, over half of the global population of these macaques can be found inside these forests. The valley is also home to 25 species of mammals, 35 species of snakes, 12 species of fish, 255 species of moths and 100 species of butterflies, including many endemic to the region like Malabar rose, Malabar tree nymph, Malabar raven, Buddha peacock, South Indian blue oakleaf and Tamil Catseye. Valley’s entrance Mukkali is the only place in Kerala where all three species of crow butterflies – common, double-branded and brown king – are found.

Since the 1980s, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a strong position against the construction of the controversial hydel power project jeopardising the valley’s rich biodiversity, these evergreen forests in the Western Ghats valley, have started winning worldwide attention. What forced India Gandhi to take such a strong stand was India’s first environmental protection campaign that was organised in the 1970s against the repeated attempts of Kerala state electricity board to establish the project at any cost. 

Now, years after the historical struggle that turned Silent Valley as one among the well-protected biodiversity-rich regions of the country, Kerala government is in the process of converting its buffer zone as a wildlife sanctuary to ensure foolproof protection. The proposed Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary comprising the entire buffer zone of Silent Valley would soon turn to be Kerala’s 25th protected area.

“We are all set to declare the 148 square kilometres buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park as Bhavani wildlife sanctuary with the objective of further cementing the on-going conservation efforts. The sanctuary will encompass parts of Mannarkkad and Nilambur (South) forest divisions, which are in fact continuations of Silent Valley,’’ Kerala Government’s Forest Minister K. Raju told Mongabay India.

It was a recent meeting of Kerala State Board of Wildlife headed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan that recommended notification of the region as a wildlife sanctuary. In a way, it’s a major step in the direction of establishing a National Rainforest Biosphere Reserve mooted by renowned scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who was the then secretary to the Department of Agriculture. In 1979, he had suggested the establishment of such a reserve spread across 390 square kilometres (sq. km.) and it included Silent Valley forests (89.52 sq. km.), New Amarambalam Reserve Forests (80 sq. km.) and Attappadi Reserve forest (120 km. sq.) in Kerala along with Kunda forests in Tamilnadu (100 sq. km.). He said such a reserve would help prevent erosion of valuable genes from the area. 

Despite a strong recommendation and continued campaigns by environmental activists, boundaries of Silent Valley Park were not expanded so far and the buffer zone was not strengthened properly. At present, Silent Valley National Park’s core area is spread in about 89 sq. km. The boundaries remain the same fixed way back in 1914 by Britishers.

The lion-tailed macaque, a key species in Silent Valley, in the buffer zone near Mannarkkad. Photo by K A Shaji.
The lion-tailed macaque, a key species in Silent Valley, in the buffer zone near Mannarkkad. Photo by K A Shaji.

Read more: Vanishing forests drive lion-tailed macaques to search for food in people’s homes

A long-term plan needed to protect Silent Valley 

According to veteran environmental activist M. K. Prasad, who played a crucial role in the Silent Valley campaign, the park is, in fact, an extension of the ecologically meaningful landscapes of biodiversity-rich forest tracts in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu on the west and ridges and valleys in Kerala coming under Mannarkkad and Nilambur divisions. The biodiversity value of Silent Valley is not confined to the 89 sq. km. national park area. According to him, the mere safeguarding of the national park area alone would not guarantee the long-term protection of the ecosystem and its species diversity.

In fact, the wildlife sanctuary proposal was active for the last ten years with environmentalists and forest experts strongly advocating it. Making the process much easier, the local residents comprising mainly four ethnic groups and spread in 20 gram panchayats (village council) have backed the move. As per forest department figures, around 560 aborigine families are residing in the six tribal settlements coming inside the proposed sanctuary.

“For generations, we coexisted with these forests. Our people are open to the establishment of the reserve, in a way protecting our traditional forest rights. We are also hopeful that the government would involve us in the formation of eco-development committees in the sanctuary and thus ensure our economic stability,’’ said tribal community leader K. A. Ramu, who hails from Attappady area in the buffer zone of the Silent Valley.

According to activists, the new wildlife sanctuary is a remarkable achievement ever since the historic dropping of the plan to establish the 120-megawatt hydroelectric project, which might have submerged a 240 sq. km. area comprising one of the most ecologically diverse forests on the planet. In general, the Silent Valley movement was the precursor to the country’s major conservation campaigns including the one against the Tehri dam in Uttarakhand and the Narmada Bachao Andolan against the massive Sardar Sarovar project spread in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh states.

“I heard about Silent Valley for the first time in 1972 when newspapers had carried articles announcing  Kerala government’s plan to build the controversial hydropower project,” said Prasad,  who was then a teacher of botany at a college in Kozhikode. On his subsequent visit to the forests along with a few experts, he found that the dam construction would spell a disaster. “We found the forests as impenetrable and largely undisturbed. If that dam was permitted, the environmental casualty might have been immense,’’ he said.

When the movement against the dam started turning into a mass movement, the lion-tailed macaque became its mascot. Present widely in the valley and its buffer zones, the macaques are one of the most endangered primates on the planet. “The movement has deeply influenced the developmental and environmental priorities of the state. It’s very difficult in Kerala even now to push forward environmentally unfriendly measures,’’ points out Advocate Harish Vasudevan, who works on environmental issues.

According to Kerala’s forest minister, the traditional rights of the tribal people in the region will not be affected when the buffer zone is being converted into a wildlife sanctuary. Kerala is strongly implementing provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 in both reserved forest and wildlife sanctuary areas.

“The local community will benefit from increased surveillance. They will also get more livelihood opportunities,’’ said the minister. The new sanctuary comprises an area that has a huge population of dragonflies and damselflies.

“The sanctuary will be a great recognition for the remarkable people’s movement that saved the pristine moist evergreen forest from being destroyed by the hydroelectric project. The battle that lasted for over a decade had involved thousands of people even from far away corners of the state. Though the campaign lacked any centralised planning, it became a mass movement.  People pressured the government at that time by using every possible means available,’’ said Harish Vasudevan.

It was in January 1981 when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared that the Silent Valley and its biodiversity will be protected. But it took three more years for the state government to officially abandon the hydroelectric project. In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the Silent Valley National Park. 

Kerala’s former forest minister and Rajya Sabha member Binoy Viswam, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, credits Silent Valley struggle for the enactment of Central act for forest protection, which effectively curbed the encroachment of forests to a large extent. He hoped that the Bhavani sanctuary will further strengthen the conservation efforts in Silent Valley.

Read more: Silent Valley: A controversy that focused global attention on a rainforest 40 years ago. 

Banner image: Forest department officials in the buffer zone of Silent Valley, one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforests in the world. Photo by K A Shaji.

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