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Thursday, August 16, 2001

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Bio-diversity facing extinction threat

THE RE-ERUPTION of the earlier controversy over the threat of extinction of a rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats region in the wake of the Kerala Government's move to revive the Silent Valley hydro-electric throws up a number of important issues. The first one is : What could have induced the the Kerala Government to seek the Centre's approval for executing the project which was earlier envisaged to have a generation fapacity of 240 megawatts consisting of four sets of 60 mws each though what is now being talked about Is is 120 mws with two units of 60 mws.

The cost of the project should now be several times higher than the Rs. 70 crores estimated in the seventees. It could offer irrigation faciliteis for 10,000 hectares of land. Is there a justification even on economic grounds to set up a hydro-electric power station with such a meagre generation capacity at a huge cost of destroying the rich biodiveristy of the Silent Valley? (Incidentally it is a little mystifying that it is called Silent Valley in spite of its teeming with animal and bird life which should be filling it with a rich symphony of billing and cooing, cackles and roar).

, which is the title of an arresting book by Raphael Carson projecting the creepy scene in a habitation from where the birds had either fled or killed.

The protagonists of the Silent Valley hydro-electric project do not believe that it could result in such a destruction of the biosphere feared by the ecologists. The project would trigger economic growth especially in the Malabar area. They have not merely scoffed at them but also gone to the extent of charging them with serving the interests of western lobbies disguising themselves in the garb of international champions - like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and World Life Interntional - with the object of denying developing countries the benefits from the generation of power.

If the protagonists had really believed that there would be no ecological destruction, they should have had no difficulty in persuading every one that the flora and fauna of the valley could be fully protected and they would continue to enrich the biosphere. They do not seem to be able to make such a claim since it would be very silly to pretend that the flooding of a huge area like the Silent Valley for building the power project could leave animal and plant life intact.

Their defence, therefore, is that they are actually at the tail end of a queue of destroyers who have been playing havoc with the ecology of the valley. Steven Green and Kren Minkwiski who had spent nineteen months in the valley have been quoted as having written that lare areas of the forest have already disappeared as they could not locate them from the fifty-year old Survey of India maps. Whoever was responsible for their disapperance and destruction - and they were from the plantation industries which had earlier ravaged the valley with their destruction of timber - had denuded the forests. ``In general'', wrote Green and Minkwiski,``maps and figures in forest department working plans greatly overestimated (italics added) the existence of the remaining Ghat evergreen forests. Forests cleared were replanted with teak.'' They had reported that reduction in forest land was brought out by fires and there had been widescale encroachment of forest land for shifting cultivation were all included with figures for evergreen forests. Vast areas recently flooded for reservoirs were also sometimes still listed as forested``.

If, as these writers no doubt rightly point out, this is a ''sordid commentary on the efficiency of our forest administration``, the attention drawn to their writing by the supporters of the Silent Valley hydro-electric project could only be that it should not very much matter if its greenery suffers a little more devastation. It will be difficult to cite another example of such cynicism. If the plant and animal species facing extinction from the submerging of the forest areas which have long supported them are to be saved, this would depend on the ''proximity or availability of corridors`` which the flooding of the Silent Valley cannot ensure. However, the protagonists would of the hydro-electric project would not let themselves be argued out in this manner. They have taken the stand that ''while considering a large tract of tropical evergreen forest occupying the same geographical and climatic region, it is unlikely that a destruction of a small portion of the forest would result in a significant loss of life forms.

`` However, the acceptability of this point of view is also questioned when it is promptly pointed out that ''given the complexity and non-linearities of influences in biological communities, destruction of even a small portion could have major conseqeunces, for instance, if this portion contains some unique habitats or is vital to the maintenance of the integrity of the whole``.

There have, however, been efforts at the preservation of Silent Valley's biodiversity through ''Selective Felling`` of trees for purposes of ensuring availability of timber has been aimed at preserving the flora and the thick vegetation of the Valley. Such selective felling, restricted to three trees per acre, has so far led to the cutting of 48,000 cubic metres of timber from an area of about 2000 hectares.

The rich biodiversity of the Silent Valley could be seen from its having 1000 flowering plants and an equal number of non-flowing plants. They include medicinal plants, not so well known edible and ornamental plants, pulses and yams. The major vegetation in the Silent Valley is preserved in the moist deciduous forests, riparian evergreen forests, sub-tropical temperate forests (sholas) and grasslands of particular significance.

The species facing the threat of extinction of the rich biodiversity of the Silent Valley posed by the 120 mw hydro- electric project is mainly the lion-tailed monkey which has been hitting the headlines.

The other endangered species of primates is the the Nilgiri langur (Trachypithecus). A gain from the raging controversy sparked of by the Silent Valley project is the enrichment of knowledge brought about by the extensive scholarly studies about their evolution as part of the present eco-system of the Silent Valley. Apart from the lion-tailed monkey and the Nilgiri langur, the Silent Valley has preserved several other endangered species. They include insects, fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

A few very primitive groups of animals``, says Silent Valley : Whispers of Reason, a recent publication of the Kerala Forest Department (ital), ''which can throw light on the phylogenetic relations of higher taxa such as Caecilians, Dictyopterans and Coleopterans and Caecilians which have been exterminated from many pockets long ago are represented here (Silent Valley) by viable populations.

`` The other endangered and rare species which are found only in the Silent Valley are the Indian monitor and Rock python. The rich and rare flora of the valley '' include 966 species of angiosperms belonging to 559 genre and 134 families. Many Indo- Malayan as well as Sri Lankan elements have found a safe abode for themselves in Silent Valley``.

A cynical question which has been raised is : why there should be so much hue and cry over the possible extinction of such a species since this is only part of the evolutionary process which planet Earth has witnessed during the last several million years of its coming into existence after the Big Bang. The answer would be that the kind of existence and survival of the lion-tailed monkey and the Nilgiri langurs ensured by their feeding on the fruits of the trees in their habitat and the natural seeding which it brings about itself sustains the ecological chain and preserves the rich and thick tropical vegetation of the rain forests.

Their food resources have come from about 13 species of trees, two species of shrubs and one species of climber. Among the tree species, Palaquium Ellipticum is the most dominant accounting for a total number of 698 trees followed by 331 numbers of Myristica dactyloides and 209 of cullenia exarillata (ital).

The other species are mesua nagassarium, Elaeocarpus tuberculatus, Meliosma pinnata and Olea dioica (ital) representively accounting for 108, 99, 56 and 33. The lion-tailed monkey and teh Nilgiri langur do not feed on all the species available to them in the tropical rain forests. Their preferences are restricted to less than 1/5 of species.

The primates also depended on flowers for food. The extinction of these primates brought about by the flooding of the Valley for the proposed project would make destruction of the rain forests irreversible..

C.V.Gopalakrishnan

in Thiruvananthapuram

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