Building Stewardship in the buffer zone to protect biodiversity - Clean KMTR Campaign

KMTR has several tourism spots that attract thousands of people to the park. This puts pressure on the ecosystem, as unregulated tourism leads to littering, pollution and general disturbance in the area. ATREE had sustained a clean-KMTR campaign to build awareness among the public about the need to stop such disturbances. The Manimuthar Falls inside the reserve are a popular tourist spot that attract several hundreds of tourists on Pongal day and during other festivals. For the last seven years, as part from the campaign for a clean KMTR, ATREE has been putting up bins, collecting garbage and assisting the Forest Department in regulating the use of non-recyclable plastic and bottles inside the reserve. Of late, people have become aware of this restriction and there is visible reduction in the use of plastic in the reserve.

Among the enclaves in the contiguous KMTR forests, Sorimuthayan Temple enclave in the heart of the tiger reserve is unique because of its cultural importance, religious fervour and the magnitude of its human footprint on the ecosystem. The temple, nestled in the middle of the forest on the banks of the Tambaraparni river and surrounded by dense dry evergreen forest, brims with biodiversity but also attracts approximately 2-3 lakh pilgrims over a week during the new moon day (aadi amavasai) in July/Aug, in addition to the regular flow of pilgrims all through the year.

Pilgrims arrive in different vehicles that pollute the environment of the serene forest. Large mammals are temporarily displaced and several thousands of small animals are run over by vehicles. Campers clear the understorey, including young trees, and destroy the habitat of rare plants. The pilgrimage leaves a large footprint the form of littering of non-decomposable polythene waste all through the Karaiyar forests, food waste in polythene that are sometimes consumed by animals, remains of slaughtered goats and fowls, open defecation and urination, mass bathing and washing leading to pollution of the Tamiraparani river, an important source of water for domestic purpose in the district. The Forest Department deputes huge human resource during the festival to patrol the area to minimize disturbance in the forest, diverting policing resources from other parts of the forest.

Since 2006 ATREE, along with the Forest Department, temple trust, ATREE’s Green Brigade and NSS volunteers from the Theerthapathi School and colleges, launched the Clean -KMTR campaign during the festival. ATREE helped the District Administration through the Forest Department to notify a ban on use of plastic within the sanctuary. The ban was announced through street plays and local radio, TV channels and newspapers. Local schools were taken through slide shows highlighting the importance of safe solid waste disposal, especially polythene. The Green Brigade and NSS volunteers helped create awareness about safe disposal of solid waste and collected the polythene litter from the camping sites.

The Forest Department actively collaborated with ATREE and other organisations to regulate polythene entry into the reserve by installing multiple check points en route to the temple. ATREE also provided cloth bags as an alternative to polythene bags. After the initial year of active campaign and checking, poly bags usage was reduced considerably.

The highlight of the 2008 and 2009 campaigns was the surveys and scientific studies to give concrete evidence to earlier speculations about the impacts of the festival on the flora, fauna and the habitat.

Science of impacts

Threat to trees

Most of the camping sites are in closed canopy forest stand of unique dry evergreen forests. This kind of forest is found only along the eastern slopes of southern Western Ghats, especially in KMTR. People clear the understorey and camp. When repeated over years, this leaves an empty understorey disabling regeneration of the species.

Traffic kills

The intense day and at night traffic during the three days of festival leads to high mortality of small animals. The road mortalities increased by 80% during the festival with a total of 1651 organisms spread across 56 species being recorded over 16 days of sampling for 28km. During the festival, the vehicles are allowed to enter the reserve all through the night, which is not permitted in non festive season. This added significantly to the nocturnal organism road kills.

Occupancy by large mammals

To study the impact on animal movements, we designed a survey by selecting five widely used animal trails. The 26 day survey was divided into three temporal sampling regimes: Pre-festival (PRF), During Festival (DRF) and Post festival (POF). Sampling effort corresponded to the number of kilometres walked and detections included animal droppings, tracks and direct sightings. The number of animals detected was high in PRF. The trails near the temple had higher sightings in the POF and PRF periods and very low during the festivals.

How many vehicles and people

Automobile traffic survey – More than 85% of the vehicles that come to the festival are privately owned, but more than 50% of the people come using public transport.

Based on vehicle census and people per vehicle estimates we estimate about 1.7 lakh people visited the temple and surroundings during the 3 days of the festival in 2007.

Pollution of river

A number of parameters including pH, temperature, turbidity, chlorides, dissolved oxygen, fluorides, phosphorous, ammonia and coliform were measured for 4 days during the festival. Coliform, which is an indication of faecal contamination, was present at all sampling points on all the days. The ph levels near the temple and downstream dipped on the 4th day as shown in figure 10. This could be due to natural reason though human-induced causes such as slaughtering of goats cannot be completely ruled out. It is worth noting that while chloride levels dipped on the fourth day both upstream and downstream, it shot up from 43 mg/l on Day 3 to 50 mg/l on day 4. It was also higher on the fourth day compared to the other 2 sampling points. This could be due to spraying of large quantities of bleaching powder to sanitise the place by the municipality that often gets blown by the wind into the river.

Socio-economic survey among the pilgrims

The social survey revealed that for most people the festival and camping in the forest has more recreational value than any cultural significance. The forest is open to all during the festival and people take this opportunity to camp where they can socialize and take a break in a cool and serene environment. This is evident from the fact that only 25% of the respondents have been attending the festival for more than 30 years. Many people come from villages around the small town of Aalangulam some 40 km from the temple in hired vehicles or public buses with an average group size of 11-20 members (see Fig). Nearly 90% of the respondents camp in the forest for more than three days in spite of the lack of any basic facilities available at the site.

Outputs from this approach was shared with the Forest Department and other NGOs in order to fine tune future strategies and build stewardship among the local community to deal with issues of high intensity pilgrimage into the tiger reserve.