Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve

Efforts to conserve the forests  of the Nilgiri Hills have altered the lives and undermined the livelihoods of indigenous peoples who have hunted and farmed and grazed the region for thousands of years. And now increased tourism poses risks to conservation. A proposed railway to carry tourists through the area would cut through a rare expanse of elephant habitat, endangering thousands of elephants.

In the clamor to protect endangered species, who’s watching out for the species homo sapiens? The Nilgiri Hills of south India shelter over a million individuals from various indigenous peoples, hunter-gatherers and forest dwellers who depend upon the forests for their survival. What we call poaching and illegal logging are simply ancient, honorable ways of life to them.

Balancing these interests is an ongoing debate here in south India. Named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1986, the 5,520-sq.-km (2,131-sq.-mile) Nilgiri preserve spreads across the intersection of three states—Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The forests that blanket the steep slopes of the western Ghats constitute a spectrum of forest habitats, rainforest giving way to moist evergreens, then thorn forest and scrub, morphing into grassland and the short, dense Shola forest—often referred to as “living fossils”—atop the plateau. The various phases offer everything you’d expect in a tropical forest: Mosses, ferns, and orchids grow thickly; heavy lianas drape from the canopy; and buttresses support the giant trunks. Along with tigers and elephants, it’s a protected home for the Nilgiri tahr, the glossy black Nilgiri langar, and the endangered lion-tailed macaque. Of its 3,330 species, 1,232 are endemic.

Just south of Mysore, three superb wildlife sanctuaries—Bandipur National Park, Nagarhole National Park, and Mudumalai National Park—show off tigers and elephants and leopards to nearly 200,000 visitors a year. Other parks within the reserve are known for their bird-watching or for their rare orchids; the hilltop park Mukurthi in Tamil Nadu gets migrating birds from the Himalayas November to March, and there’s even a narrow-gauge train climbing to the charming old hill station of Ooty. This humid tropical wilderness is so rich in flora and fauna, cameras and binoculars can barely catch it all.

Meanwhile, peoples such as the Todas, the Malasars, Sholigas, Paniyas, various subgroups of Kurumbas, and the nearly extinct primitive Cholanaikens hunt small game; weave baskets; and forage spices, honey, and medicinal plants from the forest. Those who once herded buffalo have seen their grasslands dwindle; those who lived by slash-and-burn agriculture depend now on wage work on local tea and teak plantations, or on government handouts. New jobs may be created by increased tourism, but will they spoil the traditional cultural practices?

The newest threat to the region is a proposed 156km (97-mile) broad-gauge railway from Chamarajanagar to Mettupalayam, cutting a broad swath through the Sathyamangalam forests, a corridor of woodlands that’s home to some 2,500 elephants. It’s all in the name of tourism development, of course—but since when was destroying elephant habitat good for tourism?