River Vaigai, seminal to Tamil literature, culture and civilisation, is now almost a dead river in Madurai, a city where it has been the lifeline since the ancient Sangam era. The once perennial river is now completely dry and animals in large numbers graze on its riverbed. In many parts, Vaigai is a parking lot for vehicles reaching the south Indian city famous for its historic Meenakshi Amman temple.

“We were hopeless about its revival till a few weeks ago as our pleas so far had fallen on deaf ears,” said CP Rajkumar, founder of Vaigai Association for Nature Resources and Mountain Ranges. “There was nobody to listen to our cry that the death of the river would affect future generations.”

“Now we are hopeful about its revival soon as Tamil Nadu’s fifth tiger sanctuary is coming up at the origins of Vaigai,” Rajkumar said. “Enhanced conservation activities in Meghamalai and other parts of evergreen Varusanadu hills where the river originates would replenish the river and that would help the Madurai region to regain the balance of its ecosystem.”

The Union government has recently approved Tamil Nadu’s request to integrate Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary and Srivilliputhur Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary and together declare them as the state’s fifth tiger reserve.

According to S Janakiraman, president of South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, rapid urbanisation has severely affected the river across its length from Meghamalai to Uchipuli near Rameswaram. “The riverine system got severely damaged when the tourism and plantation industry thrived in its origins through rampant deforestation,” he said. “The water crisis prevailing in Madurai region is simply a manifestation of the worst situation at the river.”

As per available data, the Vaigai river basin covers an area of about 7,000 square kilometres. It once had numerous tributaries in the Western Ghats region, and they augmented its flow during the British period. As a result, the British had built a drinking water project named Vaigai Dam in 1898 and linked it with Mullaperiyar Dam of present Kerala to meet the drinking water and irrigation needs of the whole Madurai region.

“The Meghamalai-Srivilliputhur Tiger Reserve is now turning into a reality with Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change giving its final nod,” said Rajkumar. “The reserve is critical for the protection and revitalisation of Vaigai. For the people of Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, Sivaganga, and Ramanathapuram districts, Vaigai Dam is the only source of water.”

Hope for Vaigai

According to sources in the Tamil Nadu forest department, they identified 14 tigers in the Meghamalai and Srivilliputhur wildlife sanctuaries using camera traps. In the last four years, the officials have also analysed scat samples facilitating dietary analysis, which also confirmed the presence of at least 14 tigers.

Known for vast extracts of tea and cardamom plantations, Meghamalai has a large population of ungulates (hoofed mammals), spotted deer, Indian gaurs, wild boars and other carnivores.

The adjoining Srivilliputhur hosts grizzled giant squirrels, flying squirrels, leopards, Nilgiri tars, jungle cats, Sambars, elephants, lion-tailed macaques and many species of birds. Now, conservationists say, that by declaring the Meghamalai-Srivilliputhur Tiger reserve, there will be more significant chances of Vaigai river rejuvenation.

Origins of Vaigai river in Meghamalai, which forms part of Varusanadu hills. Photo credit: Jimmy Kamballur

“At present, 85% of water stored in Vaigai dam comes from Mullaperiyar, an inter-state dam in dispute because of Kerala’s long-pending demand for decommissioning on safety grounds. The Vaigai river presently contributes hardly 15% of water being supplied in the Madurai region. When the Mullaperiyar dam gets decommissioned, lakhs of people in the five districts would have to depend only on 15% of water received from the Vaigai. So, we must increase the flow in Vaigai,” says Rajkumar.

According to him, large-scale encroachments are happening in the Meghamalai, and they reduce the water flow in the river to three to four months in a year. Till 1965, the flow was visible for seven to nine months.

Once the tiger reserve gets operational, poaching and encroachments are expected to end and grazing, which also threatens the ecosystem, would not be allowed.

A tea plantation in Meghamalai. Environmentalists are terming the tea and cardamom plantations in Meghamalai as ‘green deserts’. Photo credit: Jimmy Kamballur

According to Rajkumar, there would not be any water in Vaigai in the future if Meghamalai is not protected. He said there must be a civil society movement for conservation, and it must work along with the forest department. He also says he hopes the tiger reserve status would help protect the remaining shola forests of Meghamalai, and that would help increase water flow.

According to a medical practitioner turned river protection activist M Manivannan, the river and Meghamalai have a significant history of protecting civilisations. The erstwhile Pandya rulers had utilised every drop of the river to meet the drinking and irrigation needs of the region, he pointed out. Ancient river civilisations existed in 153 spots on the river’s course, and the one at Keezhadi is 2,300 years old as per carbon tests, he said.

Following severe famine that occurred at the end of the 18th century, there was a need to augment water flow in Vaigai and as a result, the Mullaperiyar dam was conceived. Now the Vaigai dam with waters from Mullaperiyar and Vaigai river meet the drinking water and irrigation needs of over one crore people in five districts of Tamil Nadu.

But the biggest challenge the proposed tiger reserve is facing in Meghamalai is 12,436 acres of private plantations. As per preliminary estimates, 150 sq km of forests have been infringed.

Water theft from rivers, indiscriminate dumping of plastic wastes, wild animals getting killed by speeding vehicles, hunting, and grazing, are also killing Meghamalai, say, forest officials.

According to wildlife veterinarian N Kalaivanan, the decision to combine Meghamalai wildlife sanctuary and Srivilliputhur Grizzled Squirrel Sanctuary as a typical tiger reserve would help augment conservation efforts more rapidly. In addition, some parts of the Theni and Madurai forest divisions will also come under the reserve.

One of the new tiger reserve advantages is its location as it is contiguous to Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, one of the well-protected reserves across India.

A grizzled squirrel inside Srivilliputhur forests. Photo credit: Jimmy Kamballur

According to conservationist TS Raja, the river’s source is completely encroached upon in Varusanadu by villagers. “Over-usage by estate owners has also contributed to the situation in which the river has lost most of its glory,” he said.

In his opinion, the presence of estates inside the Meghamalai reserve forest causes a shrinking of the shola grasslands, which were instrumental in creating the river. “Normally, the grasslands are acting as a sponge absorbing rainwater,” he explained. “Then this rainwater gets released in the form of streams in the sholas. These natural streams are coming together in the form of waterfalls and then trickle down to create the river.”

“The best way to rejuvenate the river and the tiger reserve is the removal of encroachments,” says Raja. “The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, calls for the protection of the landscape at all costs.” However, the removal of encroachments, likely, will be a complicated process.

With the government announcing the tiger reserve, oppositions have also started surfacing. Several local people grow a native cattle breed called Malai Madu. They demand grazing passes for 100 cattle of each farmer for meeting the daily fodder requirement. As per the Wildlife Protection Act, cattle grazing inside the wildlife sanctuary is prohibited.

An aerial view of the proposed Meghamalai-Srivilliputhur tiger reserve. Photo credit: Jimmy Kamballur

Recurring wildfires are another matter of concern. About 35 wildfire incidents were reported inside the wildlife sanctuary this year, according to Meghamalai Wildlife Warden Sachin Bhosale. However, in the case of Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary at Srivilliputhur, there is no grazing threat. Forest fires are also less there.

A contiguous corridor

Irresponsible tourism is another issue. In Srivilliputhur, a long road was laid facilitating forest fringe tourism resorts, mostly on encroached lands. The region is an elephant corridor and part of the significant elephant corridors identified by the Wildlife Trust of India.

The tiger reserve will protect Vaigai and its catchment areas, said S Nagarathinam, professor and head, Department of Communication, Madurai Kamaraj University.

“Vaigai has been battling a range of issues over the years, but the tiger reserve will help improve the ecology of this region,” he said.

“Formation of tiger reserves have helped make rivers perennial,” said S Kannan, Chairperson of the School of Energy, Environment and Natural Resources at Madurai Kamaraj University. “The major example is river Tamirabarani supported by Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve.”

According to him, the new reserve will link Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala with Tirunelveli Wildlife Sanctuary and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, a contiguous corridor where the big cats and elephants can thrive.

“It is a proven fact that setting up of Periyar and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserves have helped address several southern districts’ water needs in Tamil Nadu,” said TS Subramaniya Raja of Wildlife Association of Rajapalayam. “A similar thing will happen here once the Srivilliputhur – Meghamalai Tiger Reserve in place, the local forests get better protected, and the rivers and streams will start the flow again.”

Employment opportunities

According to officials, the existing squirrel sanctuary has one of the best-preserved forests south of the Palghat gap. This sanctuary forms an essential landscape for elephant conservation in the Periyar tiger reserve. Owing to its extensive contiguous forests and connectivity with adjoining reserve forests, it is the habitat of large mammals, said a senior wildlife official.

As per the initial plan, the new tiger reserve will be spread over 1.01 lakh hectares. Of this, 64,186.21 hectares will be the core area, and 37,470.92 hectares will fall under the buffer zone. The new tiger reserve has Madurai territorial forest division in the north, Virudhunagar and Madurai district revenue areas on its east, Tirunelveli forest division, and Periyar tiger reserve (Kerala) in south and Theni revenue district, Theni territorial forest division, and partly Periyar reserve on its west as boundaries.

Four years ago, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had dismissed a set of writ petitions challenging the notification of Meghamalai as a reserve forest. It has prompted the Forest Department to evict encroachers who have been occupying the forest for decades. Now, just 19 tribal families have the right to stay inside the forest, the court declared.

“Once the tiger reserve is operational, security will be beefed up,” said Raja. “In the case of enhancing the quality of the forests, there will be a higher flow of resources, particularly funds from the National Tiger Conservation Authority which manages Project Tiger. It will incentivise relocation for residents, and without cultivation in the estates, the source of the Vaigai too can be safeguarded.” According to him, the tiger reserve can provide employment opportunities to the Adivasis to become anti-poaching watchers.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.