Trekking is not countryside walking. The way it is practised in our country, it is a mad rush from one place to another, often in wilderness areas for the thrill of it. Its practitioners barely find time to observe anything in nature, or take time to enjoy the smell, sound and the tranquillity of it. The recent death of a youngster in the Ragihalli forest of the Bannerghatta range and the missing trekkers sometime back in Sakleshpura are pointers to a larger malaise that of eco-tourism.
In a bid to promote eco-tourism, the Karnataka government has established its own chain of hotels called Jungle Lodges and Resorts, which has been granted exclusive use of many tracts. Also, local communities, businessmen, NGOs, and even researchers, are in the fray. All out to conquer that last frontier called the wild.
The government and the people, are literally stripping the wild animals and plants of their home. In the big chase for stakeholders’ rights, we have turned all wild animals and plants into tenants in their own territory. All for revenue. Meanwhile, we are doing enormous damage to our ecosystems. An urgent need is to sit up and take note.
Karnataka has 38,284 sq km of forest area, which is about 19.96 per cent of its geographical area. Karnataka is also blessed with 60 per cent of the Western Ghats, a world heritage site. Human settlements in and around many of wilderness areas are a common feature. In recent times, these areas are encircled by resorts and lodges which cater to large urban crowds. In addition, there are adventure groups in urban areas which organise trekking in wilderness areas both during the day and night throughout the year. The forest department is not far behind in this race. There are official designated routes in many of our wilderness areas. Some of the popular trekking routes include Kukke Subramanya to Pushpagiri route, Kakkabe to Tadiyandamol, Samse to Kudremukh peak, etc.
Trekking is believed to be an ecologically sound way of experiencing nature and is much advocated. However, this is far from the truth. Trekking, the way it is practised in Karnataka is damaging to the ecology. The immediate effects are visible - broken liquor bottles, aluminium cans, plastic covers, gutka sachets, paper, etc on the waysides of trails and in our water bodies. These often are not because of the trekkers themselves, but by people who visit these areas made famous by trekkers. These impacts are less damaging, can be controlled easily by way of ensuring that visitors don’t litter the place. The damage can also be rectified by organising a collection drive to clean up the place. But prevention is always better than cure.
The long-term impacts on the habitats have unfortunately not got adequate attention from researchers and authorities. There is hardly any research done to understand the damage occurring in any of our wilderness areas.
Destruction of vegetation to clear thickets to make way for easy movement and trampling of seedlings is the largest form of destruction of the habitat. Usually trekkers carry a machete and a common practice is to clear thorny vegetation and protruding branches, or bushes that protrude into the trail. The regeneration of plants and trees get affected enormously. Over time, one can notice in most of the trekking routes that the width of these trekking corridors widen progressively. This is very significant ecologically. In many cases, these trekking routes have slowly been converted into pucca roads. This is also the start of a process called fragmentation of habitats.
The other profound impact is soil compaction. As people walk on trails, there is a progressive compaction of soil. Compaction of the soil and leaf litter can lead to the reduction of air spaces within the soil structure. This change in the soil structure prevents germination of seeds as a good flow of water and air are important for root penetration. Walking repeatedly on vegetation over time can also kill iy. It can take decades to reverse this compaction process naturally.
Trampling also directly kills smaller organisms like ants, earthworms, millipedes and bugs, crucial to maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and quality. It could damage fruiting bodies of fungi (mushrooms and toadstools), key to nutrient recycling in a forest. Exposure and drying of the soil can destroy ectomycorrhiza associated with specific plants, existing for millions of years through evolutionary time. These fungi in heavy rainfall zones penetrate fallen leaves and litter, and transport minerals and nutrients directly to the plant/tree roots, before there is a chance of heavy rain washing it off. In drier zones, ectomycorrhiza help in mobilising phosphorus, an essential element for both plants and animals, and make it available to plants.
Threat of invasive species
Trekking trails provide an access point for colonising species from outside the wilderness area. For example, the fire ant (Solenopsis) gets into these trails because of human presence. So will the odour ant (tapinoma), and the crazy ant (anaplolepis).
Food waste draws animals to the trail while a noisy trekking group can disturb birds and animals. Most of the shy bird species such as warblers, babblers, spider hunters and all the mammals such as deer, sambhar, tiger, leopard, elephant, etc try to avoid the trekking area. Research studies prove that long-term effects of noise pollution could lead to birds failing to nest in the area and avoiding the area fully. Forest fires due to cigarettes and campsites are another major threat to our dry deciduous and scrub forests.
What needs to be done
While the Karnataka Forest Department is trying to install signboards indicating the movement of large mammals and warning trekkers to keep away from illegally entering protected areas, more needs to be done. Most of the efforts appear to be geared towards the safety of trekkers. There is a greater need to exercise the legal provisions efficiently under the wildlife and forest conservation acts for violations. The forest department should, with the help of researchers, periodically assess damages to habitats and the ecosystem, and close routes or lower traffic so that the habitats can recuperate. Trekking should be strongly discouraged when the soils are wet (during monsoon) as it could lead to soil erosion. However blocking access totally would encourage unauthorised entry, so it just needs to be regulated.
To preserve our ecosystems there is a larger need to orient trekking and other activities from being a mere endurance sport to an educative activity. We all have to play our role in conservation. It could be so informative to walk on a route where important and noticeable ecological features are flagged, both on a hand out map and on the trail, as watch points (thankfully not as watch towers!). We could then look forward to insightful education, rather than mere entertainment. This article was co-authored with Dr. M B Krishna and appeared in Deccan Herald on 24th July, 2012.
Bellary is changing the course of history. While the huge deposits of iron ore in Bellary are rewriting the political history and geography of the state, a chain of hills close to Bellary is adding to the interesting history and culture of human settlements in India.
About eight km from Bellary is the Sanganakallu complex of hills (also referred to as peacock hills) where archaeologists have discovered one of the earliest village settlements in South India. These settlements date from the Neolithic period (3000 BC – to the beginning of the Christian era).
The first settlers here are said to be the ones who established the first villages in South India. These settlers traded stone tools among the Neolithic people in that region. The region is considered the largest stone tool producing centre anywhere in South India.
Neolithic art on boulders
The Sanganakallu village settlement, spread over an area of 1,000 acres, is considered the largest village complex known so far. The rock art that can be seen on the boulders of the hill chain is evidence of rituals and social ceremonies involving ringing rocks, still preserved by way of hand-percussion marks.
Grinding grooves where stone axes were polished, shallow concave surfaces on boulders where grain was processed, and dykes where the dolerite was exploited to manufacture stone tools on a large scale bears testimony to the rich Neolithic culture and the skills of the people.
The people who settled at Sanganakallu were the earliest agriculturists who cultivated small millets and pulses. They kept cattle, and sheep and cattle domestication was prevalent in the area. They erected separate areas for dumping dung, including sheep and goat dung. These heaps have survived till today in the form of ash mounds. One can see them at Kupgal, Kudathini, etc. The people of Sanganakallu traded stone tools to the other Neolithic people in the wider Rayalaseema region. By about 2000 BC, this settlement was the largest stone tool producing centre anywhere in South India. The hill complex of Sanganakallu preserves the earliest houses of mud and stone, rock art evidence for rituals and social ceremonies. By 1500 BC, cemeteries were created to bury the dead. In fact different types of burial structures have been documented from these hills.
Sanganakallu has been an archaeologist’s delight because of a high concentration of findings in a small area. In fact, archaelogists from the Karnatak University and Cambridge University have been working at this site since 1997. Over the years, they have carried out a series of multidisciplinary investigations. Many archaeologists from all over the country and abroad have worked in this area and the findings have been published in many leading journals devoted to archaeology.
Many publications are in progress including a 1,000 page scientific study. The entire area has been digitally mapped and every millimeter of the cultural landscape has been recorded on these maps.
Sanganakallu is not the only interesting archaeological site in Bellary. There are several more. But many of them are getting destroyed due to widespread quarrying and mining activities in Bellary. Luckily, for Sanganakallu and other sites, a museum similar to that in Hampi is coming up at the Kannada and Culture complex, adjacent to the Deputy Commissioner’s residence in Patel Nagar, Bellary. A fully built two-storied building (about 8000 sq ft) has been made available by the district administration for the museum. Many of the findings from the Sanganakallu site will be displayed at this museum.
The proposed museum complex aims to bring into focus the history and cultural heritage of Bellary and its environs. It aims to inculcate in the people a commitment to preserving their heritage with a deep sense of pride and concern. There are also plans to create an audio-visual time capsule of landmark of the people of the region through the ages.
This article was co-authored with B M Subbalakshmi.
Blue bananas, golden rice, software programs for drug design... the world of biology has expanded way beyond the cell and its functions. With technology aiding the exploration of the miniscular world, the potentials thrown up are mind boggling as a recent workshop revealed.
The next time you want to immunize yourself against Hepatitis, you may not need to take a shot. Instead all you would have to do is eat a blue banana. Similarly, for protecting yourself from Tuberculosis all you have to do is eat a tomato. If you want that extra dose of Vitamin A in your diet, try eating the Golden Rice. Welcome to the world of biotechnology, a most happening research in science on which most of us including students of biology know little.
Researchers all over the world are now focusing on to insert other genes into plants to produce vaccines, which can be taken orally. Those plants are selected which can be eaten uncooked and can easily be eaten by children such as muskmelon, tomatoes, bananas. The vaccine is expressed in the fruit that can be eaten to get the desired effect. Researchers in a research institute in New Delhi are trying to produce transgenic tomato plants, which can produce vaccines against Tuberculosis. Similarly, researchers at the University of Agricultural Sciences have produced a transgenic muskmelon plant that produces vaccine against rabies. But permission is awaited for its trial on dogs, says Dr P H Ramanjini Gowda of UAS, Bangalore who delivered a lecture on 'Novel compounds from plants'.
Apart from the Bt cotton, another controversial transgenic has been the Golden Rice, which has been claimed to provide sufficient Vitamin A and so can be used to elimiinnate night blindness among people. The Rice developed by scientists Inges and Potrykus has genes for Beta-carotene taken from daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). The genome of a japonica variety of rice has been injected with the daffodil gene using Agrobacterium tumefaciens as a vector to effect the transfer. The rice is called as Golden Rice because these rice grains appear pale yellow due to Beta-carotene, which is a precursor to Vitamin A. Dr C Kameshwar Rao of FBAE gave a lecture on the Golden Rice, comparative levels of carotenoids in vegetables and oils, and the relevance of Golden Rice.
This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 18th December, 2001
A stroll in the Konagal hills (about six km from Ramanagaram town) in Bangalore Rural district can take you back in time from the stone-age to the rule of chieftains in 16th and 17 century and to the present. Amidst the huge granite boulders, weathered rocks and shrub vegetation, remnants of artifacts used by the stone-age man can be found. Apart from Piklihal in north Karnataka and Rajaghatta in Doddaballapur, this is said to be the third spot that is known to have housed the stone-age man. The discovery has pushed back the date of earliest human settlements in the region to about 20,000 years.
Half way on the top of the hill (from the village which is at the base), to the right side, is the Angadimala - a five acre area where several stone implements such as hammers, axe and clivers have been discovered. In the area to the left of the Angadimala smelted metal crumbs, which is a proof that the area may have housed a smelter, have been unearthed. Some pieces can still be found if you scratch the earth surface. A metal idol was also found here which bears some resemblance to Cholan art.
All along the path from the base of the hill to the top, pieces of pottery and decorative items, bangles and coins have been found.
Excavations in the Konegal hills by Anthropologist and amateur historian M Byregowda have yielded more than 200 pieces of primitive tools used by the early humans in their day to day living. Some of the stone implements weigh up to five kg. Interestingly, these implements were found right under the first layer of the soil.
In the other two places in the State, excavation had to be carried out through several layers to find these implements.
Mr Byregowda, who came across the site about three-years ago, says: “We have found hundreds of stone implements and supportive evidences to prove that stone-age settlements existed in this area. Some of the implements were subjected to radiocarbon dating test which show that they must be 16,000 to 20,000 years old.”
There are several natural caves in the hills which could have sheltered the stone-age humans from the harsh elements of nature. Mr Byregowda points out that the hills are rich in water sources and vegetation. “I have identified a few caves surrounded by vegetation where the Palaeolithic man could have lived,” says Byregowda.
But the hills also behold other treasures. There are broken walls of a fort on the top of the hill. Chieftains who ruled the area in the 16th and 17th century apparently built the fort. In addition, there are two small ponds and a temple that was built in recent times.
Apart from being an archeological treat, the hills also harbour a wide variety of medicinal plants that are slowly vanishing due to indiscriminate extraction. A climb to the hill top is indeed a journey into the past!
This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 8th February, 2005.
In the early 1990s, Kodagu saw a large-scale illegal felling of trees by various gangs in connivance with the forest officials resulting in the loss of several hundred crores. Now the same story is being repeated in Belgaum, albeit with a different cast. The forest cover at Belgaum is now reduced to mostly the moist deciduous and evergreen forests in south-western portion where the district touches the crestline of the Western Ghats and the dry forests to the east of Belgaum city. The forests, especially, in Khanapur taluk as well as areas bordering Goa and Maharashtra are said to be among the richest bio-diversity areas in the country. The region is rich in flora including rare medicinal plants and harbours endangered fauna like tiger, giant squirrel, flying squirrel, hornbills and king cobra.
It is also the habitat for the critically endangered bats that roost in the caves of the region. The Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat (Otomops wroughtoni) is found only in the Barapede caves (between Krishnapur and Talevadi) in the entire world. While the Krishnapur caves, which is close by, is one among the three places in India where the Theobalds Tomb Bat (Taphozous theobaldi) is found, the Talevadi caves are home to the rare Megaderma spasma bats, found only in four other places in the world.
In the last eight years, the district is slowly being stripped of its forest cover. There has been large-scale felling of trees on private malki lands and adjoining forests areas around Khanapur taluk. Warnings about deforestation and illegal mining in the Mahadayi valley in Belgaum Forest Division came from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) working in the area.
People for environment The Samaja Parivarthana Samudaya, the National Committee for Protection of Natural Resources, Belgaum Nature Lovers Club and Paryavarni has been raising the issue with the forest department since 1997 but to no avail. In many cases, the forest department officials played mute spectators to illegal activities, in violation of the Supreme Court’s 1996 interim order which prohibited the felling of trees in any forest land - private or state owned and prohibited the diversion of forest land to non forestry purposes.
The environmentalists have been demanding the creation of a wildlife sanctuary as a way out to prevent deforestation for long. Bowing to pressure, the Forest Department at that time made a proposal to demark 550 sq km of forest for the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in 2000. Inexplicably the proposal has been gathering dust since then.
In the early part of 2004, illegal tree felling and mining, and burning of forests were discovered in 12 areas in the Belgaum Forest Division. The forest department woke up only when a local conservation NGO Paryavarni carried out a probe and submitted a report about the illegal activity to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.
Later, in a bid to cover up their lack of vigil, the officials filed FIRs in 5 of the 12 cases. An inspection done by the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF, Western Ghats Forestry and Environmental Project) in response to the petition revealed the charges to be true in all 10 cases, including the two mining cases. (See Box : It’s a shame)
Following the CCF report, the PCCF issued showcause notices to five forest officials and has transferred the Belgaum DCF. A senior forest official of the rank of additional PCCF is carrying out another probe into the matter. On several occasions, the Central Empowered Committee of the SC has warned the State that tardy compliance could invite contempt proceedings.
Medicinal plants The disturbing factor is that, even as we await the last word on who is to blame, our rich, life-giving forests are being stripped systematically. A new kind of business is thriving in Belgaum’s forests, the smuggling of medicinal plants. The issue dawned on the forest department when officials on September 17, 2004, found 234 bags (of 100 kg each) filled with non-timber produce (a climber of the species Salacia chinensis which is called Eknaikan Beru in Kannada) stored in Londa Forest Range. The climber is used for its medicinal properties to treat diabetes and liver disorders, sells in the local market at Rs 300 per kg. Based on a tip-off by Paryavarni, an environmental NGO based in Belgaum, about the illegal extraction of the medicinal plants, the Chief Conservator of Forests B K Singh sent a team along with the members of the NGO for inspection.
The team found 152 gunny bags stored near Degoan village, 200 mtrs from the main road, hidden in the bushes. Near Gavali village, they found over 20 gunny bags of medicinal plants and at Mendil village, more than 40 bags were found.
The climbers are an integral part of the forest ecosystem and take many years to grow. They play a significant role in providing food and shelter for numerous species of mammals, birds and insects. Besides, the extraction disturbs the forests due to movement of people and trucks, posing a threat to the endangered species in the area.
Planned devastation Organised gangs assign the job of extraction to the poor villagers, who see this as an employment option. They are paid Rs 3 per kg, while the gangs sell it at Rs 300 per kg. The illegal operators are also suspected to be supplying the extracted medicinal plants to companies or manufacturers of such medicines.
“The fact that 234 bags of 100 kg each) were found from 11 am to 6 pm in one day bears witness to the extent of damage done to the forest. It is possible that more material was stripped from the forest but was not detected. Even a rough calculation will indicate that about 40-50 tonnes of material is being removed from the forest. The market value of which will amount to Rs 1.2 to 1.5 crore,” the members of the Paryavarni tell us.
Pointing an accusing finger at the forest department officials, they add: “Such large-scale operations (especially around the villages and along the main roads) cannot go undetected without the active involvement of the forest staff. There are lots of evidence of illegal activities (truck tracks and debris of medicinal plants) in many areas.”
The issue has been brought to the notice of the State chief secretary; principal secretary (Environment Ecology and Forest); principal chief conservator of forests (Wildlife); chief conservator of forests, regional office, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Bangalore; and Secretary, MoEF, New Delhi.
In December 2004, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) issued showcause notices to five forest officers; Londa Range Forest Officer S Balakrishna, Kankumbi Range Forest Officer, Khanapur Range Forest Officer B N Chowhan, Assistant Conservator of Forests Khanapur subdivision K V Nayak and Khanapur Division Deputy Conservator of Forests Ashok Baskarkod. In the notices to these officials, the PCCF has said that large-scale illegal felling, removal of valuable trees and encroachment of forest land had taken place as the forest had been set on fire. “The irregularities in the forest area prima-facie prove that you have failed to discharge your legitimate duties,” he said. The PCCF also sought an explanation from the Conservator of Forests (CF) Belgaum Division B Nadagowdar on the issue. The PCCF said that if the CF had made frequent visits to the forests under his control and if he had disciplined the officers and staff such irregularities in the forest land could have been avoided. The PCCF has asked the CF why the government should not initiate action against him for the lapses on his part.
IT’S A SHAME...
The report of the Chief Conservator of Forest says that some of the earlier cases booked by the department were eye-wash and that most of the recent cases booked have been just a cover up. The report points out that the illegal burning has not been restricted to the Malki lands as claimed by the local forest officials but has extended to the reserve forest. In one case, the report of the Deputy Conservator of Forest indicates that local forest officials had booked a case for burning 3 acres while the Chief Conservator of Forest in reality found 125 to 250 acres of evergreen forest having been burnt. The report states that such burning cannot happen overnight and the department is responsible for turning a blind eye to such activities. Referring to the permission granted for felling trees in steep sloppy regions in the catchment area of Mahadayi river, the Chief Conservator of Forests states: “I cannot find any justification for the grant of permission for felling of trees in such areas. It is a shame on the part of forest officers, who are originally responsible for destroying the areas.”
This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 11th January 2005
The Ayurveda system attributes the cure of an ailment to the entire plant or its crude extract containing multiple chemicals, while the allopathy system attempts to extract the particular chemical from the plant or other organisms, purifies and prepares it as a tablet or capsule. According to the latter system, there is one chemical for one cure and emphasis is laid on purity of the chemical, while the former aims at utilising all possible chemicals.
A similar dichotomy prevails in the use of pesticides in agriculture. Farmers have traditionally used crude extracts from plants as pesticides, while the modern pesticide industry emphasises the use of the particular chemical responsible for the action. The stress is on purifying and concentrating the chemical in commercial formulations. Which is a better option? The crude extract or the purified chemical? This has been a subject of debate for a long time in both medicine and agriculture.
A recent publication in the journal, Current Science (June 2003), by a team of scientists namely A R V Kumar, K Chandrashekara, H C Jayadevi and H J Ashoka at the Department of Ento-mology, University of Agricultural Sciences addresses this issue using neem and its most active insecticidal chemical azadir-achtin as the model system.
Neem (Azadirachta indica) is widely recommended for use in agriculture as an alternative to synthetic insecticides. It leads the list of plants with the highest potential to control pests largely because it contains a variety of biologically active compounds. These compounds together called limonoids, are present in various parts of the plant including the leaf, bark and seeds. However the seeds contain the highest quantities.
Crude water extract of neem seed kernels has been widely used traditionally for pest management in crops as in Ayurveda and is shown to be a highly potent pesticide. The crude extracts are known to contain more than 100 chemicals of which many are biologically active against insects. Neem has multiple modes of action against insects including repellence, feeding deterrence, growth disruption, reduced fecundity, mating disruption, etc. Much of this activity is however, attributed to azadirachtin, the most abundant limonoid in neem.
Employing modern chemical technology, like in Allopathy, extracts of azadirachtin (which is found in high concentrations in the seed) have been extensively used in commercial neem formulations (CNFs). In the last decade farmers have had access to several azadirachtin based formulations available in the market in the form of liquids or water-soluble powders. Earlier, products with azadirachtin concentrations of 300 and 1,500 parts per million (ppm) were available. Of late, CNFs are available with concentrations as high as 65,000 ppm. On the face of it, formulations with higher azadirachtin content should fare better as a pesticide than formulations having lower content. But the UAS scientists have found some surprising results.
They carried out two separate studies to understand the effects of azadirachtin at varying concentrations on the diamond moth (Plutella xyloste-lla), which is a notorious pest on cabbage. The researchers chose eight brands of CNFs prepared using different formulation techniques and having a wide range of concentrations (from 300 to 50,000 ppm) of azadirachtin. Bioassay tests were carried out using the leaf dip method to understand the amount of azadirachtin required for obtaining 50 per cent kill of the insect for all the products under test. To their surprise, they found that the quantity of azadirachtin required for obtaining 50 per cent kill of the test insect increased with the concentration of the azadirachtin in the CNF. Repeated tests confirmed the results and clearly indicated a commensurate reduction in the biological efficiency of azadirachtin in products with higher concentration. Why is this so?
According to the researchers, neem has a bouquet of limonoids. Many of them are biologically as active as azadirachtin. Besides, many compounds related to azadirachtin might act as synergists in enhancing its biological activity. But during the process of concentration of azadirachtin in the development of commercial formulations, it is likely that other potent chemicals are lost. As a result, greater the concentration of azadirachtin, lower will be the diversity of other biologically active compounds leading to the loss of other potent chemicals and the possible synergists of azadirachtin. Eventually, this leads to decrease in effectiveness of the chemical at higher concentration thus making CNFs with higher azadirachtin content to be less biologically efficient than crude extracts.
These surprising results have made the investigators to intensify their efforts to get a better understanding of the process at work which determines the efficiency of azadirachtin based formulations vis-à-vis crude neem extracts. Other field studies by the team has also shown the superiority of home made crude aqueous extract of neem seed kernels (NSKE) in managing the caterpillar pests and thus the call for the farming community to make full use of the local neem resources.
Drawing parallels, the researchers also feel that the phenomenon could be much more widespread than being limited to neem and its formulations. Recent studies at the Bangalore based Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), on Brahmi plant and its extracts seem to agree with the findings of UAS team. Brahmi plant is known to contain Bacosides, the memory enhancing drugs.
Bacosides are now extracted, formulated into pills and marketed in India under various brand names. Preliminary studies carried out at FRLHT have indicated that the fresh leaves of Brahmi have more memory enhancing activity as compared to the extracts (Amita Kaushal in Amruth, September- October, 2003, Vol. 7, issue 5).
For more details, contact Department of Entomology, UAS, Bangalore.
This n article appeared in Deccan Herald on 2nd December, 2003.