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Wildlife in Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve suffers from lack of a transition zone

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in southern India acts as a conduit between the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats, a mountain range parallel to the western coast of India and its eastern counterpart, the Eastern Ghats. Established in 1986 by Government of India, the 5,520 square kilometer reserve was recognized by UNESCO in 2000. However a new study in’s open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science finds that the lack of a transition zone in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve has undercut the aims of this crucial protected area.

The important role of local populations in the conservation of biodiversity has been recognized across the world. UNESCO brought in the Man and Biosphere Program acknowledging this pivotal role, and provided guidelines for establishing biosphere reserves. Such reserves have sustainable development as the main aim—to bring about economic and social development through “partnerships between people and nature.”

These biosphere reserves are supposed to be divided into 3 zones: a securely protected core area to conserve biodiversity, ensuring minimal disturbance; a buffer zone surrounding the core used for ecotourism and environmental education; and a transition zone for use by local communities and settlements. The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve does have a 1,240 square kilometers core and a 4,280 square kilometer buffer zone, but it does not have a transition zone.

The Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is endemic to the region. This species is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Sreeraj PS/Creative Commons 3.0.

The authors of the study Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar further state that the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is an umbrella reserve, i.e. merely a medley of constituent protected areas, which were—and still are—not connected. Boundaries are for administrative convenience and not based on wildlife needs. Also, some of these protected areas are tiger reserves and have buffer zones, while others do not, leaving a lot of confusion over terminology. Furthermore, the researchers argue that without a transition zone, the area has sharp boundaries that increase rates of human-wildlife conflict.

The authors examined three case studies that showcase what happens without a transition zone.

In 2009, the government wanted to start a $167 million project for studying neutrinos in the heart of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. This would have meant a huge detector built with 17,000 tons of iron, deep under the ground where neutrinos can be detected. Also, the construction itself, and the community that would have come about—would have both disturbed this sensitive habitat. Fortunately for the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh shifted the project to a less sensitive area.

A particular region of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, near the town of Masinagudi, has been developing rapidly as a tourist destination. To bring in a framework for regulation of tourism, the forest department designated the area as an “elephant corridor.” The tourism department said the designation was arbitrary. Caught in the crossfire, the area has continued to develop without regulation. The authors argue that the corridor is essential for elephant movement.

Finally, the authors interviewed about 30 tour operators in the area, to get a sense of how sensitive they were to the natural wealth around them. Only three operators knew the concept of ecotourism, four wanted to protect resources, while eleven agreed that they had an interest in protecting wildlife.

There was awareness among the operators that their businesses depended on a healthy environment. But, they had little knowledge of sustainability, resulting in “tragedy of the commons” with habitat degradation and noisy tourists. A transition zone, if implemented in the area, could bring with it guidelines, awareness, and better practices, according to the researchers.

The Western Ghats is part of the so-called Western Ghats – Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot, while the Eastern Ghats connects southern India with the north-eastern part of India, acting as a route of passage for Indo-Chinese and Malayan species to enter the peninsula. With extensive topographic and climatic diversity, the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve has a large number of endemic species—150 out of nearly 4,000 plants, and 150 out of 700 vertebrates.