Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Threatened ungulates in focus

They are sometimes horned, always hooved and herbivorous. They graze the slippery slopes of the world's hilly, and occasionally snow-covered, grasslands. They form a global family of mammals known as ungulates that is under increasing threat from war, encroachment or human greed.

For three days from September 13, over 100 naturalists from a dozen nations will meet at Munnar, Kerala, home to arguably the best conserved of the Indian ungulates — the Nilgiri tahr.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is holding the World Congress on Mountain Ungulates (WCMU), the fourth since 1989 and the first in Asia, near the Eravikulam National Park. The park, with its tropical grassland ecosystem, is today home to over 700 of the 2,000-odd tahr that are in the Anamalai region of the Western Ghats.

"Conservation efforts are afoot in over 20 countries — and they target such diverse ungulates like the Tibetan gazelle and the yak in Ladakh; the Iberian Ibex in Portugal; and its Nubian cousin in Yemen; the Alpine chamois in Italy and Switzerland; the Rocky Mountain goat of Canada and the U.S. and the Korean goral," explains Mohan Alembath, president of the Nilgiri Tahr Trust.

He is a conservationist who served the Kerala Forest Department until 2001. During a nine-year tenure as Wild Life Warden, he helped make Eravikulam one of the rare success stories in conservation this country has seen.

The event is hosted by the Munnar-based High Range Wildlife and Environment Preservation Association, largely staffed by nature-loving members of the Tata Tea plantations that dominate the Kannan Devan Hills.


The partnership between the Association and the State Forest Department has been a model of public-private cooperation in conservation.

The delegates will be able to assess the results first-hand: the tahr's calving season is just over and the fresh count is just in. Their visit also coincides with the 12-yearly flowering of the neela kurinji, which is turning the Munnar hills into a blue blaze of colour.


The discussions will include the need to create a Pamir Peace Park where China, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, to help conserve the Marco Polo sheep now less than 6,000 in number.

It will discuss why the Swedish moose is under threat from its most formidable predator, the European brown bear.

It will consider what the disturbed environment in Kashmir is doing to the lifestyle and very existence of the Kashmir stag or hangul.

Hopefully, the exchange of experience and results will help the world's hooved grazers cling on a mite more firmly to their precarious and increasingly threatened grazing lands.


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