The scars on the face of Sahyadri

The month of November with its fresh coffee blossoms, blankets of mist left behind by the monsoon and of course the bone chilling feel of the ‘Scotland of India’ attracts tourists from near and far, like swarms of bees. The localites get busy at this time labeling fancy spice bottles and adultering honey, to sell at sky rocketing prices. Lines of unfamiliar numbered vehicles speed by the roads to the next busiest tourist destination. No rock is left unturned by these queer explorers, climbing the sun-kissed tall mountains and taking a dip in the nearest water source dropping from a height. But there are again two different people, a traveler and a tourist, the difference between the both being more than just a thin line. One with binoculars around the neck while the other with sunglasses on.

Nevertheless, these visitors take memories of the luscious greens along with them when they return and also leave behind scars on the face of Sahyadri. These scars sometimes run deep enough to expose the red fleshy laterite bed rock underneath, adorned by small specks of plastic bits left behind, stuck amongst her facial hair like grasses. And again, these naive tourists aren’t quite to blame because the forest department in the name of collecting revenue, has made a common road for them to trek on from years together, leading to profuse soil compaction and destructive soil erosion.

The construction of home stays on places with the best views also are the most susceptible to land slides. Building of roads to reach the destination cuts triple the number of trees than the avenue plantings done. The wildlife is getting ‘disturbed and domesticated’ in the name of empathetic visitors feeding parle-g biscuits to ‘hungry’ monkeys, who have forgotten to climb trees.

Severe gully erosion on the trail to Tadiyandamol

Our trek to Tadiandamol, the highest peak in Kodagu turned out great because it was closed to general public at that time. We the students of forestry college had permission and were accompanied by a guide from the department. Along with encountering heaps of plastic along the roads, wild exposed roots and deep gorges of eroded soil along the tracks, we also came across several snakes and birds, some very near to the constantly taken road. This again arose the question of how relevant is it to let humans enter their natural habitat, in the name of ‘recreation disguised as environmental degradation‘.

Human intervention in the top grasslands isn’t a recently introduced concept. In fact, back in those days, people grazed their cattle in these very patches of greens. But the difference being that the gorges of constant erosion was something unheard of at that time. And how on earth is that? How is trekking to the hills now different from grazing during those days?

Back in thise days, soon as the paddy fields were ploughed and transplanted, the patches for the cattle to feed on were no more. Thus, as soon as the rains hit the parched soil, the cattle were driven to the hills with luscious grasses for them to munch on. As soon as the dawn breaks, the women in the house milk the cows and then the teenagers, with a stick in one hand and a sickle on another, take the cattle on a long trek. The cattle lead the road to the bottom of the hill while the Gopal followed, supervising if any of them strayed out of the line.

As soon as they reached the bottom of the hill, the cows scattered all across the hill. The Gopal then returns back home and waits till dusk. Weren’t the cattle taking the same road like the tourists to the hill? Isn’t the compaction by the hooves of the cattle more than that of people’s woodland shoes? Well, the answer is simple. Like I’d mentioned, the cows scattered throughout the hill and none of them followed a same path to climb uphill. They grazed on the yummy greens to their hearts content. Then again, doesn’t grazing also lead to erosion?

Well, grazing was done between June to December, meaning that it was the time for the grasses to grow tall and fast, with the constant rains. Thus, no matter how much the cattle grazed, equal number of grasses rose high and tall. Then again, won’t the regular path taken to the bottom of the hill be compacted? Of course yes, infact the regularly taken paths were compacted and resulted in some amount of sheet erosion. But the cows had ethics too. Due to walking on the same path for too long, it becomes hard and rocky making it hard to walk on with their hooves. Thus, they made new trails through the jungle abandoning the old ones, also giving it the time to heal. And even before the dusk hits and the lazy gopal comes back, one cow, usually the oldest in the herd leads them down the hill. So when the Gopal returned munching on jackfruit appam, the cows are halfway down the hill. And then he would take them back to their sheds with green grasses waiting for them and to be milked.

The tales of the cows of those times are still sung, praising their intellect and the affectionate bonding between the Gopal and the cows. It is said that the cows that grazed on the hills usually had a sweet grassy scent, the reason of which is unknown. Today, this system has nearly gone extinct, one because of the lack of that generation of cows and another because of the lack of Gopals. Today, the indigenous breeds of cows are slowly being replaced by hybrids in the name of higher yields of milk. And that again is us digging our own graves.

The milk produced by the exotic breeds due to constant mutation has lead to the presence of A1 beta-casein, which leads to lactose intolerance in many people on consumption. This protein is absent in the indigenous varieties of cows and instead has the natural milk protein called A2 milk, which is healthy and easily digestible. People are slowly shifting back to the indigenous breeds but the rate of their extinction is also high.

Grazing during those days were done in a sustainable manner with a regularly followed cycle, with a break of atleast half a year when the hills were left untouched, during which the hills healed. It wasn’t that much of a feasible practice because of the time consumption and also loss of cattle as prey to wild animals like dholes and tigers on top of the hill. Nevertheless, people thought it as a way of life and nature, and followed it. Needless to say, it was in fact a traditional grassland management system.

Today, the practice of grazing is seen as a taboo and can be banned any moment. But isn’t the harm caused by tourism much more than that of grazing? Won’t the problem of land degradation ring a bell when humans leave behind trails of plastic and make quicker ways for the water to gush down, all in the name of a selfie? Then again, tourism can’t be banned because it supports the fragile economy and right to a good life. This is a problem that needs to be thought upon. The solution of which can be learnt from our ancestors methods which balanced the time between utilisation and natural healing.

Ban on building roads and infrastructure in ecosensitive zones should be strictly implemented, planting of better soil holding species on hill tops, prohibition of carrying plastics and regular cleaning of the areas and most importantly, teaching people to see the beauty through their eyes and not through screens can be achieved by creating awareness. 

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