THOOTHUKUDI: In the last column of the two-part series that focuses on the shrinking Thamirabarani grasslands, experts talk about threat to the flora and fauna. For the uninitiated, Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre, an unit of Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), conducted a five-year research on the grasslands of Thamirabarani river plains. The study declared that the grasslands are steadily being converted for other purposes such as industries.
Senior Research Assosiate Mathivanan said, “The grazing fields here are considered as degraded thorn forests due to historical grazing. The presence of isolated trees such as Dalbergia coromandeliana and Canthium parviflorum are evidence to the fact that these grasslands were historically a scrub forest or a dry deciduous forest.” These grazing fields are rich in wildlife like Indian fox Jungle cat, Golden jackal and Common Grey mongoose. It was a home to the now-extinct Asiatic Cheetah or ‘Shivangi’ which preys on Black buck deer. The Black bucks still survive in Vallanadu hills.
The area also supports Madras hedgehog, which is an endemic species particularly common in the region.
Thamirabarani grasslands are home to about 100 bird species, and of them, 65 species are 100% dependent on grasslands. Of the 65 bird species, about 18 per cent are protected under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Thamirabarani grasslands are southern limits for the rare Eurasian White Storks and for other migrant species such as the Greater short-toed larks. Among these winged visitors is a unique group called Harriers – raptors (birds of prey) that exclusively need grasslands for foraging and roosting.
“Population of harriers has crashed as grasslands have been incessantly destroyed,” said Mathivanan and added that Paruthipadu grassland is one of the major roosts of Harriers in Tamil Nadu. The Paruthipadu grassland belonging to Nellaiappar Temple sprawls across 1,200 acre. It is a converging place for over 20,000 sheep and 5,000 cattle from 14 villages. The grassland has shrunk after the HR&CE Department leased out to Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited to raise eucalyptus trees for pulp production in 2016. “The conversion has aggravated decline in cattle grazing,” he said.
He said the research on land utilisation by comparing the satellite imagery of year 2000 with 2016 reveals a drastic decrease of grasslands in Thamirabarani basin. Taluk-wise analysis shows decrease of over 40 per cent grasslands in Tiruchendur and over 20 per cent in Radhapuram and Sathankulam taluks, he said.
However, comparing the data available with the Sate government recorded in 1996-97 and 2008-09 reveals that the 9,807-hectare permanent pasture lands in Tirunelveli district shrunk to 5,271 hectare, while 5,001 hectare of permanent pastures in Thoothukudi rose to 5,132 hectare.
Converting wastelands into pasture lands would boost rural economy, said a senior officer. The disappearance of grazing fields puts pressure on cultivable lands to produce fodder, he claimed. Questions were posed to many revenue taluks under RTI Act. Sathankulam tahsildar said there were no records of Meichal porambokku, while many did not respond. As per the replies, Radhapuram has 511.30 hectare grasslands, while Tenkasi has 30 hectares. Shencottai has 1.54 hectares and Sankarankovil has 169.84 hectares.
Mathivanan said windmills obstruct the grazing route since those are fenced. Herders are often forced to shepherd cattle along roads leading to road mishaps, he said. Lead researcher Dr M Soubadra Devi said the grasslands balance the food chain, absorb carbon dioxide and protect groundwater table. The herders of various places said they could not voice concerns since they are sparsely populated. When asked, officials claimed fields were not given to industries, while animal husbandry officials fixed the onus on revenue department.