CHENNAI: An expert appraisal committee of the Union Environment Ministry has approved the Tamil Nadu government's revised proposal on declaration of an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, which has registered the highest growth in tiger numbers in the country and is home to 83 tigers as per the 2019 census.
The 43rd meeting of the committee was held recently and it "agreed that the draft notification may be finalised." Total protected area of the STR is 1,411.6094 sq.km and the ESZ area would be 209.4634 sq.km with an extent of zero to 1 km.
A presentation was made by the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) before the expert committee, which earlier has advised Tamil Nadu government to explore inclusion of more areas towards the south-eastern boundary of the protected area in the ESZ and furnish a revised proposal.
The proposal has been revised accordingly from the initial 187.603 sq.km to 209.4634 sq km, consisting of 29 villages. "The zero extent is due to the fact that it adjoins Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka on the northern side. On the south west side is the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and on the western side is the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. It was also stated that with the revision now made, the gap of less than 1 km in the south-eastern side has filled," officials said.
The forest department claimed that the public comments received by the central and state governments have been duly considered.
However, many local activists allege that influential mining lobby was at play to reduce the ESZ from the default 10 km radius to zero or at best one kilometre. STR is the gateway between the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats. It is crucial to protect the areas, which are also important elephant corridors, around STR as an ESZ for better management and protection of wildlife.
Activists have pointed out that last year about 10 projects, including granite quarries and building construction projects, were approved near STR even as the ESZ was not finalised. The projects proposed in the private lands adjacent to Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve were also appraised by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and got the nod.
Going by the official records, available with The New Indian Express, most of the projects near the tiger reserve are granite cutting and polishing units, which fall under orange category classified as industrial units. All of them are coming up in a cluster at Mallakuzhi in Thalavadi taluk of Erode and the area is frequented by wild elephants, which is highlighted in the NTCA recommendation report.
The NTCA said, "Since the area is frequently used by elephants for movement, no industrial and mining activity should be carried out in between sunset and sunrise (6 pm to 8 am) throughout the year. The project proponents should also prepare a mining management plan and impact mitigation plan and get them approved by the Chief Wildlife Warden, Tamil Nadu."
What is ESZ?
1. Eco-sensitive zones act as “shock absorbers” to protected areas.
2. The basic aim is to regulate certain activities around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries so as to minimise the negative impacts of such activities on the fragile ecosystem encompassing the protected areas.
3. Activities, including commercial mining, setting of saw mills and industries causing pollution, commercial use of firewood and major hydro-power projects, are prohibited in such areas.
4. However, it would not hinder ongoing agriculture and horticulture practices by local communities, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, adoption of green technology and use of renewable energy sources.