Almost a year after the Karnataka high court stayed the project that had further threatened the already endangered lion tailed macaque (LTM) ((Macaca silenus), endemic to the Sharavathi river valley nestled in the Western Ghats; the sword of Damocles continues to hang over the primates. The Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) had launched a geothermal survey with heavy machines to ascertain if the 2000 MW underground pump storage hydro-electric project was feasible. Besides LTM, the Sharavathi river valley is also home to a diverse array of species and sustains very rich biodiversity. Though the court stay continues, the south Indian state has not yet withdrawn the project. For the time being, the power project may not have been in the priority list of the government after the change in the political guard, it continues to stare at LTM menacingly.
Sharavathi Valley, a Jewel in the Western Ghats
The project was proposed within the core area of 902 sq km in the Sharavathi Valley LTM Sanctuary, also home to the Myristica Swamps and great Indian Hornbills. Besides, it is also home to other endemic and endangered species of fauna like mouse deer and civet cat and also 140 species of birds and 130 species of butterflies.
In 2019, considering the importance of the valley to the LTM, ranked among the rarest and most threatened primates in the world, Karnataka notified the Sharavathi wildlife sanctuary’s border to be extended to include the reserve forests of the Honnavar and Sagar divisions as well as the Aghanashini LTM Conservation Reserve spread over Uttara Kannada and Shivamogga districts. And it was rechristened as Sharavathi Valley LTM Sanctuary. The extended jungle became the largest protected area of the tropical evergreen forest in the fragile Western Ghats, one of the eight hottest of the hotspots for biodiversity conservation in the world.Located in the Sharavathi river valley of Sagar taluk in Shivamogga district, the sanctuary is also home to tiger, bison, spotted deer ,leopards , malabar giant squirrels among others . Like many other wildlife destinations, the best time to visit here is from September to April . Sharavati river makes a spectacular drop of 830 ft in four distinct cascades to create one of the highest waterfalls in Asia. Mangalore is the nearest airport (216 km) for the tourists while the capital city of Bengaluru is 331 kms away from the sanctuary
Threat Still Looms Large
The KPCL wanted 360 acres of these biodiversity-rich forests to be diverted for the project. Environmental activists apprehend that construction would have become a “death knell” for Sharavathi river. The idea behind a pumped-storage power plant was to generate additional power required to meet the electricity demand for the peak hours of the day for which it utilises the surplus electricity during the night to pump water from a lower reservoir to the higher level reservoir. So, in reality, pumped storage would be in operation for only about 20 percent of the time as against a hydel power plant that operates for more than 60 percent of the time, the government sources said. After conservationists questioned the legality of carrying out a feasibility survey for this power plant by the KPCL inside the sanctuary and filed a petition against the survey and geo technical investigation for the project, the court stayed it .
But by the time the stay orders were issued, a major part of the survey was already over. Environmental activist Akhilesh Chipli, general secretary of SWAN and Man (Save-Wild-Atmosphere-Nature and Man)who has also been fighting for the cause, said, “ stay is just a momentary relief, the risk continues. We would want the project to be rolled back”. He said that unless the project is cancelled, the LTM would continue to face the danger.
The Shrinking Kingdom
Of the 17 species of primates found in the Indian sub continent, the LTM is a relatively small-sized macaque . The most fascinating feature of the LTM also known as ‘wanderoo’ in vernacular is its lion-like tail and mane. A furless black face and a silvery -white mane make the Macaque the most unique. The animal spends most of its life on tree-canopies of the Western Ghats rainforests only and nowhere else in the world.
There was a time when its kingdom was spread over the entire stretch of Western Ghats, from Kerala to. But like many other wild animals, its territory also shrank in the forests and now they are confined only between the Kalakkad Hills in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu to north of the Sharavathi River in Karnataka that too increasingly isolated and fragmented by the spread of agriculture and tea, coffee, teak and cinchona plantations and also construction of reservoirs for irrigation and power generation . The habitat destruction has led to massive decline of their population. Remember from 1977 to 1980, public concern over their endangered status became the focal point of Save Silent Valley, also termed as one fiercest environmental debate of India. There are estimated 3000-4,500 individuals remaining in the wild. The Kerala and Karnataka forest departments have also been engaged in long-term scientific monitoring efforts to track the populations of the LTM.
Macaques of Sharavathi Valley Versus Tigers of Panna
The Macaques of the Western Ghats may have got some momentary relief, but not the tigers of Panna. Over 1700 kms away from the Sharavathi Valley LTM Sanctuary, Panna may soon witness the beginning of a river linking project. It is also being termed as the beginning of the end of a tiger country.
Ken and Betwa rivers would be linked and a dam to come up right inside the core area of the forest submerging the best of the tiger habitat in Panna tiger reserve. Prime minister Narendra Modi is expected to launch the project in November this year amidst cries over the environmental hazards and pleas to protect felling of over 25 lakh trees in the forest. It is an interstate project involving the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh . It is claimed that it would resolve the issue of water scarcity in the downstream of the parched lands of Bundelkhand, a claim always challenged by the environmentalists. Several petitions against the project are still pending and green permissions required to be cleared. That way, Macaques of Western Ghats are more fortunate than the tigers of Panna.
Cover Picture of lion tailed macaque : Vinayak SG