It was my first trip to the magnificent Nilgiris and there could not have been a better introduction to the wealth and uniqueness of this mighty mountain range than a visit to Longwood Shola, a 100-odd hectare patch of “original” forest near Kotagiri, holding on tenuously amidst a landscape that is full of villages, tea estates and plantations of exotic trees.
I had barely entered the forest when my attention was drawn by some intense activity up in the canopy to my immediate left. Back and forth, here and there, a rust-and-cream creature about the size of a domestic cat scurried restlessly in the forest canopy like a VIP on the move — the Malabar Giant Squirrel (MGS) is indeed the lord of this little-known, little-understood forest world of the Western Ghats. Those familiar with the MGS might remember and recognise it; when I first saw it, my jaw dropped and I stood stunned as I watched the glorious creature. Then suddenly, the creature froze. It was looking straight at me, an intruder. It turned around in a flash and leapt along the branch, then a second leap, then another and I had lost it completely in the trees above.
The memory and the images stay imprinted like a photograph — the MGS of course, but also the endemic Nilgiri laughing thrush, the brown wood owl, a giant gaur and her little young one, a stream gurgling down the gentle slope, a tree fern lit magnificent and translucent in the morning sun, the tranquility of an ancient forest within the cacophony of the world around — a microcosm of the very idea of a biosphere.
The wonderful thing is that the Nilgiris is just one of many such richly diverse biospheres that make up the Indian subcontinent. From the mighty Himalayas to fragile tropical islands, from the tiger-rich deciduous forests of central India to ecosystems in the Western Ghats where the MGS rules, from the rich mangrove forests on either coast to the vast cold and hot deserts to rivers and grasslands, the landscape is a thriving network of these biospheres that are characterised by incredible diversity themselves. Linked inseparably to the ecological diversity is the cultural diversity of the human communities that people the landscape, influencing each other in ways that need larger understanding than we have.
One effort in this direction has been the conceptualisation of the idea of the biosphere reserve, which UNESCO describes as “areas comprising terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems with the focus being on reconciling conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.” It is indeed a daunting challenge, this reconciliation of conservation and sustainable use, and increasingly so with threats from high impact activities such as mining, road, rail and port construction, damming of rivers, industrial projects and the growing urban sprawl. Much depends on the success in meeting these challenges if we are to secure the future of these biosphere reserves. There are 699 Biosphere Reserves in 120 countries (including 16 which are trans-boundary) that have been recognised by UNESCO. Ten of these are located in India —the Nilgiris being the first in 2000, and the latest being the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve located in the southern Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Over 20 years of travelling across India has given me the opportunity of visiting many of these reserves — to see their wild wealth, meet the people who are integral parts of the biospheres and study and campaign for their conservation and protection. Accounting for this complexity and diversity is undoubtedly a difficult, if not impossible task, and the struggle to find the right language, understanding and its framing continues:
Agasthyamala: A rich repository of tropical forests and other ecosystems, this reserve includes three wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala — Shendurney, Peppara and Neyyar — and the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. It is home to about 2,300 species of higher plants.
Great Nicobar: Included in the UNESCO list in 2013, it has a wide spectrum of ecosystems, including tropical evergreen forests, coastal plains and rich marine systems. It also boasts of a diversity of fauna like the Nicobari megapode, crab-eating macaque, dugong, Nicobar tree shrew, crocodiles and turtles.
Similipal: 1,265 mostly tribal villages inhabit this reserve between the Mahanadi east coast region and the Chhotanagpur biotic province. On the 2009 UNESCO list, it is the largest zone of Sal in India.
Gulf of Mannar: Spread over 10,500 sq kms on the south-east coast of India, it was designated a biosphere under UNESCO’s programme in 2001.
Sunderbans: This is one of the most populated of the biosphere reserves in the country. Designated as a biosphere reserve in 2001, this 9,630 sq km biosphere is a stronghold of the tiger.
Nilgiris: It includes the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu and the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. It was the first from India to be included in the 2000 UNESCO biosphere list.
Nandadevi: Designated in the year 2004 and spread over 6,400 sq km, it is the only biosphere in the Indian Himalayan region. It includes the Nanda Devi, Valley of Flowers national parks. It is also home to the snow leopard, brown bear and the musk deer.
Nokrek: Spread over 820 sq km in the Tura Range of the Meghalaya plateau, it is the smallest in the country. Home to the endemic citrus spp, and the endangered slow loris, the giant flying squirrel and Hollock gibbons. It was included in the UNESCO list in the year 2009.
Pachmarhi: It is located in the Deccan Peninsula, in the Satpura mountain range. It includes the Bori and Pachmarhi wildlife sanctuaries and the Satpura National Park. It is home to 50 mammal species, 254 bird species, 30 reptile species and 50 species of butterfly.
Achanakmar-Amarkantak: Designated as an UNESCO site in 2012, the 3,835 sq km reserves showcases a diverse topography. The region has a unique geology and is home to 67 threatened faunal species including the four-horned antelope, wild dog and the white-back vulture.
* The biosphere reserve profiles are based on information provided on the UNESCO website.
Pankaj Sekhsaria is a photographer and writer and author, most recently of The Last Wave — an island novel.