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| Last Updated:: 13/08/2014

Nature-unfriendly pilgrims

 Festivals in forests give a nightmare not only to wildlife but also to forest officials


The Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple lies in the core, but fragile, habitat of the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR).

At this time every year, the forests are opened up for pilgrims for 11 days. About three lakh devotees invade the deep jungles, a centuries-old ritual, in more than 4,000 vehicles. On Friday, 30,000 pilgrims came. The same night, 50,000 would camp in the forests.

The Forest Department is on tenterhooks during the festival. It has imposed a slew of restrictions on the movement of vehicles in the reserve at night to avoid the death of nocturnal animals, the pitching of tents outside the temple land, the use of firewood in the forest.

But the devotees, backed by a few Hindu outfits here, neutralise such conservation measures, say Forest Department officials. At the end of last year’s festivity, the Forest Department personnel, with the help of volunteers from schools, collected 22 truckloads of garbage dumped by devotees who had stayed around the temple.

This year is no exception. Tents have been pitched outside the temple on 21 acres; firewood is being used; open defecation can’t be controlled as the makeshift toilets installed don’t match the number of pilgrims; and vehicles are being parked in the tiger reserve.

KMTR Field Director Mita Banerjee and Deputy Director (Ambasamudram Division) R. Kanchana have been camping in the reserve for the past few days to enforce restrictions. Plastic, liquor and other banned products are seized at the entrance in Papanasam itself. Vehicles are being sent back to the foothills. As always, there are some who continue to park vehicles in the forests illegally, officials say.

“We are not getting the wholehearted support of the Tirunelveli district administration to enforce the restrictions vigorously,” says a Forest Department official.

There could be serious health hazards, too.

Professor A.G. Murugesan of the Centre of Excellence in Environmental Sciences, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, says the pathological quality of the Tamaraparani peaks when lakhs of pilgrims gather at Kaaraiyaar for the festival. Open defecation is common. The gut content of thousands of animals and discarded tissues are left in the river, he says.

During and after the festival last year, the total and faecal coliform levels were greater than 2,400 MPN (Most Probable Number)/100ml invariably at all sampling points. That is the level he could measure with his equipment.

So much is the pollution that the Kani tribals, the original inhabitants of the forests, stop using the river water for a month after the festival, say Forest Department officials.