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Periyar National Park
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Celebrated for its vast stretches of dense evergreen forest and large mammal populations, Periyar could be called the flagship of Kerala's protected area network. Situated in the Cardamom hill ranges of Idukki district, this area was first declared a sanctuary in 1934 at the instigation of the Maharajah of Travancore. It was renotified and enlarged from 600 sq km to its present size of 777 sq km in 1950. In 1978 Periyar became Kerala's only tiger reserve covering this area of 777 sq km. In 1982 the first notification to make the core area (350 sq km) a national park was issued. The remaining 427 sq km constitutes the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The Periyar river was dammed in 1895, submerging 26 sq km of evergreen forest, and the resulting reservoir was leased to the erstwhile Government of Madras for 999 years. Periyar became Kerala's only tiger reserve in 1978. The area is drained by the Periyar and Mullayar river systems. The altitudinal range is 79-1,987 m and the annual average rainfall is approximately 3,289 mm.

Periyar Tiger Reserve and the contiguous tracts of Ranni and Konni reserve forests contain some of the best, relatively undisturbed tracts of tropical wet evergreen forests in the southern Western Ghats (Pascal 1988). The main vegetation types in this protected area are-low elevation evergreen forests (Dipterocarpus indicus-Dipterocarpus bourdilloni-Strombosia ceylanica type), medium elevation evergreen forests(Cullenia exarillata-Mesua ferrea-Palaquium ellipticum type), Nageia wallichiana facies, ochlandra reeds, high elevation evergreen forests(Bhesa indica-Gomphandra coriacea-Litsea spp. type), secondary moist deciduous forests (Lagerstroemia microcarpa-Tectona grandis-Dillenia pentagyna type) and eucalyptus plantations (Ramesh et al. 1997). Studies in Periyar have recorded 1,966 species of angiosperms, three gymnosperm species and 170 species of pteridophytes; including at least three taxa endemic to the region (Mucuna pruriens thekkadiensis, Habenaria periyarensis and Syzygium periyarensis). A large part of this diversity resides in the extensive tropical wet evergreen rainforests and semi-evergreen forests in the region. Periyar Tiger Reserve itself has nearly 75% of its area under tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, followed by 13% under moist deciduous forests and around 1.5% under grasslands. The remaining area includes eucalyptus plantations (7%) and the Periyar reservoir (3.5%) (MoEF 2006).

Periyar Tiger Reserve has been designated as an Important Bird Area owing to the presence of two 'Critically Endangered' species-the Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) and five 'Vulnerable' species - the greater spotted eagle (Aquila clanga), wood snipe (Gallinago nemoricola), Nilgiri wood-pigeon (Columba elphinstonii), white-bellied shortwing (Brachypteryx major) and broad-tailed grass-warbler (Schoenicola platyura); the latter three are also Western Ghats endemics. A total of 315 species of birds have been recorded from Periyar. It has 14 of the 16 Western Ghats endemics and 13 of the 15 species whose distributions are largely or wholly confined to the Indian Peninsula Tropical Moist Forest biome (Islam and Rahmani 2004). The sanctuary is also an important wintering site for long distance migrants such as the Tickell's leaf warbler (Phylloscopus affinis), large-billed leaf warbler (P. magnirostris) and rufous-tailed flycatcher (Muscicapa ruficauda). This extraordinary diversity makes Periyar one of the most popular birding sites in the Western Ghats (Islam and Rahmani 2004).

Periyar holds valuable habitats for threatened mammal species including the endangered and endemic lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), Nilgiri langur (Trachypithecus johnii), Nilgiri marten (Martes gwatkinsi), Travancore flying squirrel (Petinomys fuscocapillus), tiger (Panthera tigris), wild dog (Cuon alpinus), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and gaur (Bos gaurus). It is also an important elephant reserve under the Government of India's Project Elephant scheme. Other vertebrate fauna of the Periyar region include 45 species of reptiles, 27 species of amphibians and 38 species of fishes. The reptiles of Periyar Tiger Reserve include 30 species of snakes, 13 species of lizards and two species of turtles, including the endangered king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), endemic pit vipers and four endemic lizard species. Of the 27 species of amphibians recorded thus far, 10 are endemic to Western Ghats (e.g., dusky torrent frog Micrixalus fuscus, fungoid frog Rana malabarica, short webbed frog Rana brevipalmata and Malabar flying or gliding frog Rhacophorus malabaricus (Daniels 2005). Of the fishes, four species are endemic to Periyar Tiger Reserve (Periyar trout Lepidopygopsis typus, Periyar lattia Crossocheilus periyarensis, Periyar barb Puntius micropogon periyarensis and Noemacheilus menoni) (MoEF 2006).

Five tribal communities live in the region (Mannan, Paliya, Urali, Mala-araya and Malampandaram), with most of them now practicing settled agriculture on the outskirts of Periyar. The Malampandarams are a small nomadic community living off the forests, collecting fruits and tubers, and occasionally fishing deep inside the forests of the tiger reserve (MoEF 2006).

There are a number of threats to this sanctuary that include, illegal ganja cultivation in the interior forests, involving clearing of prime forests as well as associated damages such as poaching. Pachakkanam Cardamom Estate (2.086 sq km) exists on the boundary of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. There is also a proposed railway line to Sabarimala. The Sabarimala Ayyappan Temple in Periyar Tiger Reserve attracts 5 million pilgrims during the annual 60 day duration of the pilgrimage. This brings with it associated problems such as fuelwood collection from forest, garbage, degradation of forests and demand for more land. However, the Kerala Forest Department has initiated steps in collaboration with the local communities to provision alternate fuel to the pilgrims, as well as enlisted local community support to reduce untoward impacts of high pilgrim influx (litter, fire hazards and fuelwood extraction). The Kerala Tourism Development Corporation runs three luxury hotels and five boats as an independent agency in the Periyar area (MoEF 2006).

Periyar was one of seven protected areas in India where the World Bank funded eco-development project was implemented. Seventy-two Eco-development Committees were constituted in the Periyar area targeting a population of around 58,000 people. The project aimed to involve local people in conservation efforts, improve socio-economic conditions and livelihoods, reduce dependence and pressures of natural resources, and augment positive interactions and associations with the park management (MoEF 2006). New and innovative models of co-management were developed under this project which allowed the local communities to benefit from the thriving eco-tourism industry and popular pilgrimage routes.

References

Daniels, R. J. 2005. Amphibians of Peninsular India. Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

Islam, M. Z. and Rahmani, A. R. 2004. Important bird areas in India: priority sites for conservation. Indian Bird Conservation Network: Bombay Natural History Society and Birdlife International, UK.

MoEF. 2006. India's Tentative List of Natural Heritage Properties to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. UNESCO, Paris, France.

Pascal, J. P. 1988. Wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India: ecology, structure, floristic composition and succession. Institut Franšais de PondichÚry, Pondicherry, India.

Ramesh, B.R., Franceschi, D. and Pascal, J.P. 1997. Forest map of South India: Thirvananthapuram-Tirunelveli. French Institute, Pondicherry, India.

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