Home to more than 2000 species of plants, three wildlife sanctuaries and a tiger reserve, the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve has been included in UNESCO’s list of World Biosphere Reserve Network.
On International Forests Day, India gets a morale boost. Out of its 18 biosphere reserves, Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve, the tenth one, has been included in the prestigious UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve Network. Resting half in Kerala and half in Tamil Nadu along the Western Ghats, the reserve is a perfect example of India’s success in preserving and maintaining a forest biosphere.
It covers about 3500 square kilometres, and is part of Tirunalveli and Kankyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Patanamthitta in Kerala. Agastya Mala, the peak after which the reserve is named, rises up to almost 1868 metres above sea level, in Thiruvananthapuram.
In 2001, the then-Union Minister for Environment and Forest T R Balu had announced plans of designating the region as a biosphere reserve. This move was widely popular, owing to its biographical richness that needed to be preserved.
Almost 15 years later, UNESCO granted it a place in the Biosphere Reserve Network.
Limited Human Activity
With roaring waterfalls, thick green covers, sparkling streams, and chilly atmosphere, parts of the Agasthyamala Reserve are also tourist spots. Humans are allowed only in the buffer zone of the reserve. The peak, which is a two-day trek, is located in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, and is also a popular pilgrimage spot. The forest department allows trekking to the peak only in the months of January and February. A limit of 100 people a day is also kept to ensure that the routes aren’t clogged.
Almost 1/4th of all of India’s plant species are found here. The reserve consists of mainly tropical forests, home to over 2000 species of plants, of which 400 are native. Most of these are medicinal plants, while 50 species are endangered. Arogyapacha, a medicinal herb used by tribals, is available in plenty here.
Cardamom, jamun, pepper, plantain and nutmeg plants are cultivated within the reserve.
Kanikkarans, the Original Settlers
Tribal settlements within the reserve rely on the forests and its 14 rivers for their livelihood. Kanikkarans, the area’s indigenous tribe, rely on agriculture, fishing and hunting. They live in huts made of bamboo and are known for medicinal healing through plants. However, while most of them have moved out of forests, there is still a small population that lives around the Agasthyamala region. To promote sustainability, several programs have been setup to reduce the 3000-strong tribal population from using up all the resources, according to the UNESCO. Some of them also take up employment with the government as guides for tourists coming to the sanctuaries.
Three Wildlife Reserves Within
The lush forests provides for three wildlife sanctuaries within the reserve, Shendurney, Peppara, and Neyyar. The Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve was recently included as part of the biosphere reserve. Being Tamil Nadu’s first tiger reserve, it is also one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country. It rains here for almost eight months out of a year. Besides the eponymous tigers, the reserve is also home to Asiatic elephants, Indian bisons, leopards, various species of bats, and over 200 species of birds.
At the Neyyar sanctuary, a crocodile park was opened in 1977.
The UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves are exemplary of biospheres where people and nature have a harmonious relationship. The first of India’s reserves to make it to UNESCO’s list was Tamil Nadu’s Niligiri Biosphere Reserve in 2000. Besides this, West Bengal’s tiger-territory Sunderbans, Meghalaya’s Nokrek (home to the red panda) and the Great Nicobar (known for its saltwater crocodiles) have been included in the Network over the years.