- In the last two decades, wildlife has recovered in the Tillari River valley. However, commercial plantations in the area are set to negate these recent ecological gains.
- Vast tracts of forests in this part of Maharashtra are private or community-owned, and it is these forests that are subjected to land-use change from commercial plantations.
- The benefits for wildlife, with people moving out of the valley two decades ago, are getting negated by these plantations.
River Tillari originates at an altitude of 750 metres (2461 feet) on the gently west-tilted flatland at the Karnataka-Maharashtra border. It is dammed on the plateau and the water is diverted towards Kharari Nalla where it drops by ~600 m (1969 feet) to generate electricity and is then distributed for irrigation through the right bank canal. A second project on the original course of Tillari river has a saddle dam at 100 m (328 feet) elevation that diverts the flow towards Konal-Katta Nalla where it is dammed to generate power and distribute water through the left bank canal.
A team comprising of two forest department staff, conservation biologist Girish Punjabi from Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), and his junior colleague Amit Sutar had started from the saddle dam in a boat. The engine’s frantic thumps wavered in the wind and were lost on the 16.25 square kilometres (6.27 square miles) expanse of the dammed waters. The 462.17 Mcum (16.32 TMC) mass of water in the valley had submerged large tracts of forest and displaced people from seven villages in 2002.
The boatman and his companion, both from villages submerged by the dam, were ferrying the team into Tillari valley to set up camera traps for tigers. The Forest Department of Maharashtra has been monitoring tigers in this area since 2014, and Punjabi collaborates with them.
Wildlife naturally repopulating Tillari area
Sutar had lived in Patye, Maharashtra, before his family was relocated to Sal village in Goa. Pointing at the dense vegetation on the hill slope, Sutar says, “As a kid, I was herding cattle on these slopes. These forests have become denser in the last 20 years and, with villages gone, we see more animals in the forest.”
Between 2014 and 2017, Maharashtra Forest Department conducted wildlife surveys on ~250 square km (96.5 square miles) of the Tillari region. Results show that wild animals are “naturally repopulating the area,” says Punjabi. Camera trapping studies revealed that the area has a male and a female resident tigers. They had two litters of three cubs each in the study period. The population of herbivores was high in areas where human and livestock disturbance was low.
On the banks of the river, in the wider parts of the valley are grass patches surrounded by riverine forests. The steep slopes rising from the waterfront have moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, and the hilltop of the laterite plateau with shallow soil depth has rich grasslands. “Large-bodied ungulates like gaur and sambar migrate altitudinally. They graze on the grassland of the plateau in monsoon and then, in drier summers, descend into the greener valley,” describes Punjabi.
The last two decades have seen wildlife recovery in the Tillari River valley. To provide better protection to them, in the last year, Tillari Conservation Reserve was created. But, along with mining and poaching, land-use change on community lands around the Conservation Reserve is set to negate these recent ecological gains.
Land-use change impacting wildlife recovery
On relatively gentler slopes at lower elevations in this region, private lands with forest cover have been cleared for commercial plantations. Rubber, cashew, and pineapple are the favoured plantation species. Replacing tropical forests with plantations decreases the biodiversity value of land. But, when wildlife area is shrinking, there are attempts to present plantations as “supplementary habitat” adjacent to the natural forests. Under such a scenario, studies show that cashew plantations can still support wildlife to a limited extent.
However, Sanjay Natekar, a local from Sateli Bhedshi, a village in the Dodamarg taluka, is concerned by the trend of clearing forests on community land to make way for monoculture plantations. According to him, people from seven submerged villages had practiced subsistence farming and sometimes hunted wild animals, but there was no commercial or recreational angle to their hunting. Now, money-minded people have either bought or leased land in the valley. “They are clear-felling these native forests to make way for plantations,” says Natekar, “The benefits for wildlife, with people moving out of the valley two decades ago, are getting negated by these plantations.”
There can be the recognition of the importance of ecosystems services. Particularly in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is of significance to consider the ecosystem services to human health.
Over recent decades, evidence of diseases transmitted between animals and humans reveals the linkage between human health, animal health, and ecosystem health. Biodiversity loss through deforestation, habitat fragmentation, or climate change can create opportunities for pathogens to jump from wildlife reservoirs to people and livestock hosts. Therefore, an ‘ecological intervention’ to complement conventional interventions like vaccination, etc. may be required. The prevalence of Kyasanur Forest Disease Virus (KFDV) in the Dodamarg taluka since 2016 localises this concern and highlights the need for arresting the degradation of natural forest in the region.
Preserving biodiversity of community forests
The forest department of Maharashtra in June 2020 created a 29.53 square km (11.4 square miles) Tillari Conservation Reserve on government-owned Reserve Forests. It is surrounded by ~80 square km (30.9 square miles) of forest on private/community land. The benefits of Conservation Reserve can amplify if the land use on private/community land is consistent with biodiversity conservation principles. The consolidated area can then provide significant ecosystem service — including the protection against the emerging tropical zoonoses.
Making the necessary change in ecosystem is constrained by social and economic factors on private/community forests. However, impact on lives and economies from COVID-19 should usher in the thinking that recognises ecological health is the bedrock of long-term socio-economic security.
Incentivising private forest owners is the only way to stop the degradation of biodiverse forest into monoculture plantations. Rajendra Kerkar, an environmentalist from the village Keri near Tillari says that large tracts of forest in Dodamarg taluka are private/community owned. “Forest patches could be ‘adopted’ under CSR and communities compensated for preserving them.”
Another possibility is to create Community Conservation Reserve along the provisions made available in the 2002 Amendment to the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972). A well-designed eco-tourism industry could make such initiative viable. Revenue can also be generated under Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes where the beneficiaries, like a town municipality, pays for water, and hydroelectric companies for preventing siltation into dams.
In the backdrop of global concerns of biodiversity loss, such local voices for preservation gain huge credibility. Now, it is up to the Maharashtra government to shape these local aspirations into a political will. The hope is that, after getting government forests upgraded to Conservation Reserves, the government can come up with a model for preserving forests on community lands.
Punjabi, G.A. (2017). Conservation planning of Tillari region in Maharashtra state for tigers and large mammals. A concise scientific report. Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune.
The author is a wildlife researcher.
Banner image: Large-bodied ungulates like gaur and sambar migrate in Tillari altitudinally; they graze on the grassland of the plateau in monsoon and descend into the greener valley in drier summers. Photo by Ashwin/Wikimedia Commons.