Survival, a threat

Taluk Uttar Kannada

In the interaction between nature and humans in terms of resources and habitat, humans are claiming a ‘lion’s share’

With an outburst of human population forcing itself to occupy the habitats that are homes to numerous wildlife species, the conflict between man and animal is stiffening. Western Ghats which has an exceptionally high number of biological diversity and are habitats to a few of the unique and rarest life forms, is recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity. According to the UNSECO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) website, “Western Ghats is a home to 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, and reptile and fish species. Animal diversity is found exceptional, with amphibians (up to 179 species, 65% endemic)”[1]. Considering the occurrence of diversified endemic species in the Ghats, clusters of it were declared as “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO in July 2012[2]. One among the endangered mammal include the Lion-tailed macaque (LTM).Distinguished by its white- mane around its neck, it is facing a huge threat to survival. It falls in the “Red List” of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)[3]. LTMs are is seen in Aghanashini Valley in Siddapura taluk of Uttara Kannada in Karnataka and in parts of Silent Valley in Kerala and in Valparai, Tamil Nadu.

“The Lion Tailed Macaque has a mane and a tail that resembles a lion and hence its name ‘lion-tailed’ macaque. They feed mostly on fruits and insects”, says Dr. K. Santhosh, wildlife biologist, Conservation Leadership Programme,  who has been closely studying the conservation aspects of LTMs in the Aghanashini valley  of Siddapura for about a decade. He is largely working towards sustainable harvest of forest resources.

He says, “Lion tailed macaques are one of the “key stone” species of Western Ghats. Like how bees and butterflies are important for pollination, so is LTM in the environment for seed dispersal from within the forest ensuring diversity”. He explains the degree of patience and perseverance involved in following a same groups of LTM s for several months to study their feeding and movement behaviour and patterns.

Lion tailed macaque | Photo Courtesy: K.Santhosh

Lion-tailed macaques are medium sized animals mostly living on trees, very shy for any human encounters and are highly interactive with its group members and communicate through their “coo” calls. Their numbers are highly challenged by human activities such as forest loss to development and hunting pressure. In such dismal scenario, he says timely initiatives by the Government of Karnataka led to the notification of 299.54 square kilometers of forest, which is called as ‘Aghanashini Lion-tailed Macaque Conservation Reserve’ with LTM as flagship species.

One of their important food species of these LTMs are  highly commercially value able fruit which is  a small, yellow colored pumpkin shaped called as Camboge/Malabar Tamarind (Garcinia gummi-gutta) locally known as Uppage.

Why only Uppage?

LTM expert Dr.K.Santhosh explains that rainy seasons are usually “resource crunch period” for LTMs. As the forest regions are mostly rain-fed, monkeys find it difficult to travel long distances in search of food unlike summer seasons. Hence they stay atop fruit yielding trees.The only fruit that comes to its rescue is Uppage as it ripens during monsoon seasons.

The overlapping dependency

Loads of this medicinal rich fruit lies basking in the sun at Gopichand’s house. He is one of many people who have rented their houses as godowns for storing and drying Uppage (Garcinia gummi-gutta). It is called as Uppage by Kannadigas and Kudam Puli by Keralites. The fruit is procured, dried up and grinded into powder. The powder or rind is used mainly in food items especially in fish.

Gopi says he collects Uppage from around 8-10 panchayats. Each village has ‘village agents’ who goes around houses collecting loads of this fruit. It is then collectively dumped in godowns. The fruit is dried up using firewood collected free of cost from the forests.

Uppage, one of the major non-timber forest produce fetches good amount of income for the harvesters in Siddapura | Photo Courtesy: K.Santhosh

Ganesh Bhat, a village collector/agent says that Uppageis a highly commercial and business commodity that earns good amount of money in local wholesale markets. It is highly demanded in states like Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu .It is also exported to United States. He collects Uppage from 7810 sq. km which covers regions belonging to 27 panchayats. He says “one load (100 quintals) is sold at Rs. 30,000 in the market, the profit of which keeps fluctuating every year. A family receives Rs. 70-80 per kg but their contribution to the local market is not constant as it is varied depending on weather condition, the amount of laboretc”.

While men collect Uppagefrom the forest, women involve in cutting and drying them. Women’s participation in procuring Uppage, drying up and selling them, is more than 50 per cent on par with men. The fruit is collected during monsoon seasons where the demand is high in the months of August and September. The forest department leases tender to few individuals known as tenderers for a period of two years.

The Process of drying requires lot of firewood from the forest .With an average rainfall of 6500 mm in Uttara Kannada district, the villagers find it difficult to dry the fruit in sunlight. For drying out every 1 kg of Uppage, there is required 22kg of fuelwood. As firewood is freely available, locals use it extensively.

Instead, “energy efficient dryers can be given at subsidized rates to farmers which would encourage them in cultivating more Garcinia gummi-gutta to boost their economy” says Santhosh who works towards devising a model for sustainable harvest of forest resources thereby reducing the dependency of people on forests. He mentions that dryers can help reduce farmer’s time and energy and also fuelwood from 22kg to 5 kg per 1kg of rind.

Sixty to seventy per cent of the families’ economy depends on collecting and selling this fruit. The Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) which is called secondary or non-wood forest products, turns out to be people’s main source of income.

“But over-harvesting has been a major concern for the loss of species” says Dr Santhosh who suggests ways of tackling the problem. He insists stability of the local markets that should focus on the key element of self-sustainability of a farmer who is less dependent on middle-men; incentives like loans, harvesting instruments be given to the harvesters at subsidized rates. He also emphasizes on the importance of educating harvesters in proper and timely harvesting of the fruit. “Policies should focus on systematic and step wise conservation initiatives which actually make a positive difference for monkeys on ground. Policy making should involve multi-stake holders consisting of harvesters, village-agents, middle men and forest officials for a collective approach of achieving sustainability”, he adds.

Range forest officer of Kyadgi-Sirsi division, Mr. Prabhakar. M.Kaginelli, said that after the implementation of 1980’s forest conservation act, there has been a quite wide spread of awareness for conservation of forest land among the forest dwellers and outsiders. He reinstated the fact that the Karnataka forest department had notified 299.54 square kilometers of forest cover of Aghanashini as “reserved areas” in 2011. He stated that the ‘Aghanashini Lion-tailed Macaque Conservation Reserve’ covers larger area of land compared to other conservation reserves in Karnataka. When asked about what steps had been taken to sustain the ecological balance of the existing population of LTM, he claimed to have planted many fruit yielding trees that serve as primary food for primates across the range but failed to prove the exact location and the number of such trees.

Since the dried Uppage fruits fetch a good proportion of the yearly income for forest communities of Siddapura, there is a huge competition between people to harvest more of the freely available resource from the forest.  The huge competition has therefore put pressure on the forest which is directly affecting the feeding resource for the rare Lion-tailed macaque. Globally, in the interaction between nature and humans in terms of resources, humans are claiming a ‘lion’s share’.

Threat to its habitat

Not only have human beings deprived lion-tailed macaques of sufficient food resources but has also intervened their personal space making their thriving a difficult one. Adding to it, the interaction and intervening by occupying their habitat and causing degeneration, has resulted in a “struggle for life situation” for monkeys.

Professors Sameer Ali, M D Subash Chandran and T V Ramachandra of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in their research paper – Faunal assemblages in Myristica swamps of Central Western Ghats found that “about 15 species of mammals are found in five Myristica swamps which include the endemic and endangered primate Lion tailed macaque (Macacasilenus) and is associated with the relics of the primary forests in Siddapur”[1].They have researched about the characteristics of swampy areas in Western Ghats.

LTMs are traced in swamps of Siddapura Taluk | Photo Courtesy: Shiny Kirupa

“Swamps are wetlands present especially in evergreen forests that acts a source of fresh water and oxygen for the livelihood of the region. These are habitats characterised by slow-flowing water throughout the year. The swamps that contain plant species that are members of family Myristicaceae like Myristicafatua, Semecarpus are called as Myristica swamps. Myristica swamps are unique habitats found in the Western Ghats. There are varieties of fishes, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles that are found in myristica swamps some of which are endemic and endangered” says Dr.Vasudev, Professor at College of Forestry, Sirsi and an environment conservationist.

Prabhakar.M.Kaginelli, the range forest officer says that Kyadagi range in Western Ghats has 64 swamps in total which is the highest compared to other ranges like Sirsi or Georsoppa division. While, “only less than 128 species are present in the entire Western Ghats” adds Dr.Vasudev.

One among the endangered plant species is Semicarpuskathalekanensis. It belongs to family named Myristicaceae and is found in Uttara kannada district and in some parts of Kerala .The roots of this endemic plant species, protrudes upwards from the soil allowing the plant to breathe.

 

Harshith Bharadwaj, a final year student of Botany in Sirsi college of Forestry says that Semecarpuskathalekanensis which is endemic to Western Ghats is decreasing in number. LTM act as a dispersal agent and a regenerative tool for the much endangered Semecarpuskathalekanensis.

The plant is visited by an endangered species of butterfly named Idea malabarica which helps in pollination. Also, the fruit of the plants are eaten by lion-tailed macaques which indeed play a major role of seed dispersal.

“It becomes an extremely critical association where one depends on the other. The endangered plant is dependent on two endangered species namely Idea malabarica and LTM for two major biological parameters such as pollination and seed dispersal respectively,” says Dr.Vasudev.

Fruits of Semicarpuskathalekanensis is eaten by LTMs and the seeds are dispersed by them | Photo Courtesy: Shiny Kirupa

Keshav. D. Hegde resides beside Kattalekanu swamp in Siddapur forest range, for more than a decade now. He says that LTMs are found in the forests mainly during rainy seasons. “They are scared of humans and they do not harm us during our time of worship in the scared groove.

Similarly, Narayan Hegde, a neighbour of Keshav, says that LTMs feed on fruits like Uppage and insects and are seen in rainy seasons. “When they see humans it emits sound similar to that of a bear and that its presence can be felt by the noises that it makes” he observes.

Situated 15 kms away from Siddapur is located Torme village. Prakash Hedge’s house lies nearby to a swamp. He has been living there for more than 30 years. He has diverted waters from the swamp to his arecanut plantation. The flow of water was carried by pipes that further were attached to air jets fixed on the ground. It sprinkled water to his entire arecanut plantation in required proportions. “This water is sufficient for irrigating my field throughout the year. Even when there is no rain, my land is fertile and fit for any plantation because of the presence of the swamp” he says. He agrees that swamps are important habitats for movement of LTMs.

“As swamps need water flow continuously throughout the year people tend to extend their agriculture and build houses in the region as it turns out to be well-fed with water resource”, remarks Dr.Vasudev.

He emphasises the importance of conserving the swamps. “They act as drains of Western Ghats and ultimately feed the rivers. Swamps occur as network and once an agriculture land comes in between two swamps, it stops the flow of water downstream, thereupon making the whole stretch of Ghats go dry and barren. This will endanger a lot of species endemic to swamps including LTMs” warns Dr.Vasudev. He along with his team members have helped in regeneration of swamps by manually planting the plant species in different swamps.

The natural setup of forest is widely being disturbed by involvement of human activities such as encroachment, cultivation etc. World’s most unique creatures ranging from reptiles to amphibians to birds and insects inhabit the Western Ghats. The failure to acknowledge the unique role of each of them in the environment would result in a catastrophe to both human and nature.

[1]http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/water/paper/myristica_swamps/results.htm

[1]https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1342

[2]https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

[3]http://support.iucnredlist.org/species/lion-tailed-macaque

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