A Heritage tag that could save the Western Ghats hills

As many as 39 sites in the Western Ghats are in the UNESCO list of natural world heritage sites. Ten sites out of these are in Karnataka, observes Kodira A Kushalappa. The Western Ghats has recently been included in the list of natural world heritage sites by UNESCO after six years of campaigning. It is not that the entire Western Ghats area has been included but only 39 sites in the region, of which ten sites are in Karnataka. The UN body has, since 1972, been involved in identifying, protecting and preserving both natural and cultural heritage sites of outstanding value to humanity. So far, it has listed 962 world heritage sites of which 745 are cultural, 188 natural and 29 mixed properties and are included in the World Heritage Convention.

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Western Ghats, Gujarat to Kanyakumari

Western Ghats hillsThe six natural sites listed in the country are Kaziranga National Park (Assam), Keoladeo National Park (bird sanctuary) (Rajasthan), Manas Tiger Reserve (Assam), Sundarbans National Park (West Bengal), Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Park (Uttaranchal), and now, the Western Ghats. The Western Ghats is about 1,600-km long, stretch from Surat in Gujarat to Kanyakumari in Tamilnadu. The total area is about 1,60,000 sq km, of which about 8,000 sq km (five per cent) have now been declared heritage sites, on the recommendation of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

Though the Western Ghats area is spread over six states, 60 per cent of that area is in Karnataka. The area coverage of ten sites in Karnataka is about 1,721.35 sq km (1.8 per cent) of which Kodagu's five sites cover an area of 641.99 sq km (37 per cent). These climatic-climax forest types are ecologically more sensitive, being in a high rainfall zone and on rugged terrain, with high peaks and deep valleys.

Rich Wealth

The Western Ghats is one of the ten biological hotspots of the world. It harbours about 5,000 plant species, 650 tree species, 179 species of amphibians, 157 species of reptiles, 508 bird species and 219 species of fishes.

Five forest areas of Kodagu in Karnataka are in the world heritage list. Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, spread across 181.29 sq km, from where River Irpu originates and becomes Lakshmanatirtha, a tributary of River Cauvery. The region has grasslands and shola ecosystem. Pushpagiri is the second highest peak (1712 m) in Kodagu (next to Thadiyandamol, 1748 m).

The peak is in Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary where River Kumaradhara originates. The area is about 92.65 sq km. Brahmagiri hill located in Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area of 105.05 sq km and is the third highest peak in Kodagu. It is here that River Cauvery originates.

The Talacauvery sacred grove which consists of rich floral biodiversity is a part of this sanctuary. The region is home to a few jamma malais and coffee plantations. Padinalknadu Reserve Forest is the largest reserve forest with an area of 184 sq km in Kodagu and consists of hills and valleys abutting Kerala. Small portions in patches as enclosures, are still in the occupation of jamma malai and coffee-saguvali malai holders.

Many endemic plant species are listed in this evergreen forest type, better known as rain forests. The Pattighat Reserve Forest adjoining this site is not included. Kerty Reserve Forest covers an area of 79 sq km and with compact evergreen forests, bordering Kerala and contiguous to Padinalknadu Reserve Forest.

Five natural sites are listed from other districts. They include Kudremukh National Park, rich in iron ore. A portion of it was mined for 20 years and now closed under the direction of the Supreme Court. This park covers an area of 600 sq km, and was recently declared a tiger reserve. River Tunga and Bhadra originate here.

The national park has the second highest peak in Karnataka (1894 m) and is known as Kudremukh. Rich in flora and fauna with shola forests and sub-montane grasslands, the region receives the second highest rainfall after Agumbe. Someshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and Someshwar Reserve Forest are two units with evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, covering an area of 88.40 and 112.92 sq km respectively.

Agumbe Reserve Forest covers an area of 57.09 sq km and is home to the black cobra. It is also the highest rainfall zone in the Western Ghats after Chirrapunji. Balehally Reserve Forest adjoins Agumbe. Covering an area of 220.63 sq km, it is rich in medicinal plants and floral biodiversity. The forests are inhabited by the lion-tailed macaque, an endangered species.

Hotspots in other states

In Maharashtra, only four sites are identified as heritage sites. They include Kas Plateau, Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, Chandoli National Park and Radha Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary. In Tamil Nadu, six sites including Grass hills, Karian Shola and Mukurti, which are all national parks, Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, Srivilliputtur Wildlife Sanctuary and Tirunelveli North Forest Division.

In Kerala, 19 heritage sites listed are Silent Valley and Eravikulam National Park, Shendurney, Neyyar, Peppara, Chinar and Aralam Wildlife Sanctuaries; Periyar Tiger Reserve; Karian shola and Mannavan Shola Reserve Forests; Ranni, Konni and Achencoil Forest Divisions; Kulathupuza, Palode, Mankulam and Kalikavu Forest Ranges and New Arambalam and Attapady RF.

There are some voices of opposition to the list in Karnataka. Some people fear displacement, and are worried that plantations will be abandoned, and that permission for repairing roads, lopping of trees, etc will be denied all over Kodagu.

Even otherwise, because the areas in the list are already notified as reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries or tiger reserves, no development activities such as roads, buildings, dams, railway lines, HT power lines, etc will be allowed through these sites.

A committee will be formed with the involvement of local people and a site-specific management plan will be drafted for implementation. The inclusion of these sites in the UNESCO list should be seen as an opportunity to conserve and protect our forests. Appreciation and support from an international body are now at India's doorstep. It would be an ideal opportunity for our leaders, politicians, forest officers, NGOs and others concerned to visit these sites and study their status critically.

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