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Silent Valley, 'world's natural heritage site'

By C.V. Gopalakrishnan

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, JULY 28. The State Government's reported interest in reviving the controversial Silent Valley hydroelectric project seems to have been prompted by second thoughts about its perceptions that the gains from the project would be far greater than just the generation of 120 MW of power.

There has been a response to the fears stirred up by its protagonists about the economic development of the entire Malabar region suffering a major setback from the dropping of the project. It was argued that apart from producing 120 MW power and irrigating 10,000 hectares of land, the project would generate employment opportunities to some 15,000 people. The area which would be submerged, it was further argued, was very much exaggerated and would actually not be more than 1,022 hectares of which 150 ha would be grasslands, affecting only 10 per ent of the valley's eco-system. The reaction of the conservationists to this plea is that it is absurd to talk about a mere 10 per cent loss while what is involved is a closely inter-related and interdependent ecosystem. It has been further pointed out that the promised employment generation for a period of five to ten years would not be wholly a blessing since it could unleash illegal wood felling, cattle grazing, illegal cultivation, poaching and encroachment of forest land.

The campaign against the 120 MW project would, however, seem to have been a late awakening since the ravages on the Silent Valley had started much earlier and would still seem to be going on. A 15-year working plan from 1943 to 1958 drawn up by a Dutch consultant, Van Haeftan, presented a "selective felling cycle" of 15 years and he prescribed a maximum number of felling to 675 "mesua" tees. He also laid down a maximum of 11 trees per acre for the non-sleeper species. But the plan did not provide, as it should have for regeneration of trees for the replacement of the felled ones, though it recommended a concentrated form of tending the trees. The selective felling is estimated to have led to the cutting down of as much as 25 per cent of the trees of the Silent Valley though the protagonists for the project derive some consolation from as much as 75 per cent remaining untouched.

The agitation against the Silent Valley project has led to an awareness of the Valley's claims to be regarded as a World's Natural Heritage Site. "Being an area which remained with little or no anthropogenic disturbances," says a report of the Kerala Government's Forest Department, "its geomorphic and physiographic peculiarities can be subjected to deeper studies to unearth the mysteries of earth's history and its geological processes."

The valley is regarded as the "crucible of evolution in the core area of Nilgiri Biosphere".

The lion-tailed monkey on which a great deal of attention has been focused by the ecologists because of fears that it would be completely wiped out by the flooding of the Valley required for the proposed 120 MW hydroelectric station emerges as a "natural" conservator of its lush vegetation. Its consumption of flowers, fruits and foliage provided for the regeneration of the species through natural seeding. Part of the process of preservation is the very low preference shown to foliage by the lion-tailed monkey. Apart from the lion-tailed monkey which seems to have got the "lion's share" of the attention from the conservationists and the general public because of the threat posed to their survival by the proposed hydro-electric project, there are as many as 25 mammalian species excluding bats, rats and mice. Among these are the panthers, Nilgiri langur, elephant, and the wild dog which are in the category of endangered species. The enumeration of the species carried out by the Kerala Forest Research Institute identified 99 species of birds. The numbers for the species given in a tabulated statement are: mammals (34), birds (192), reptiles (31), amphibia (22), fishes (13), beetles (128), flies (15), bugs (41), crickets and grasshoppers (33), moths and butterflies (500) and earthworms and leeches (3). The tabulation also records the identification of four new species oramphibia, one for fishes, nine for beetles, one for flies and 12 for bugs. The lion-tailed monkeys reside in the so far 14 identified "troops" accounting for 275 of them.

Quite a large number of bird groups have been sighted at three sites of the Silent Valley and these are raptors, pigeons, parakeets, cuckoos, woodpeckers, drogos, mynas, woodshrikes, bulbuls, babblers, flycatchers, warblers and sunbirds. Apart from these species found to be living in groups, there are a very large group of them living independently. Silent Valley "has the highest abundance of the lesser carnivores both in numbers and species. It is in the wet evergreen forests, the dominant vegetation in the Silent Valley, that civets, the most primitive among the carnivores, reach their highest species richness and abundance. What supports most other species of the lesser carnivores in the Valley is not the wet evergreen forest per se but a number of micro-habitats that occur in small patches within it. The grass-covered rocky hill tops among the evergreen forests have an abundance of the lesser cats supported by the abundance of rodents. The brownmongoose is reported mostly from the evergreen forests and the striped-necked mongoose from near the numerous perennial streams and marshes in the wet evergreen forests". Their greenery keeps the streams and marshes perennial.

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