Illegal trekking in reserve forests remains a challenge for the Forest Department despite efforts to curb it. Often, illegal trekking comes to light only during tragedies like the one in Coimbatore on Sunday, when a woman was trampled to death by a wild elephant.
The Forest Department permits trekking only in a few places of the forest division, that too under the supervision of its staff.
“In Coimbatore, trekking through forests is allowed only in a places like the Vellingiri hills and the Melmudi Ranganathar temple, with certain restrictions. Other hill shrines like the Maruthamalai temple are connected by good roads, through which vehicles are permitted. Tragedies happen when people ignore warnings, get out of vehicles and trespass into forests,” said Coimbatore District Forest Officer D. Venkatesh.
The Department does not allow private adventure trip operators to conduct treks anywhere in Coimbatore. It conducts jungle trails as part of an eco-tourism initiative in a few places, in the presence of its staff. In the Nilgiris, crackdowns on illegal treks into reserve forests have been limited to crucial wildlife habitats in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and parts of the Nilgiris forest division.
D. Guruswamy, District Forest Officer, Nilgiris division, told The Hindu that though no cases were registered for trespassing into reserve forests in 2019, the Department had closed two “trekking routes” used by private resorts and private safari operators. “For all intents and purposes, treks are not allowed at all in the Nilgiris forest division, except at a few designated areas,” he said.
At Vellingiri hills in Coimbatore, pilgrims are screened at the check post near the Poondi temple before being allowed to trek the seven hills. Visitors are allowed only in groups on special days, that too only through designated routes.
“In Glenmorgan and Sholur in the Nilgiris, we have warned resort owners who organise illegal treks and safaris,” said Mr. Guruswamy.
A forest range officer acknowledged that there have been isolated incidents of illegal trekking in Coimbatore. Manpower constraint is among the challenges in curbing this. In Coimbatore, the frontline staff of the Department are limited to 136 anti-poaching watchers and a ten-member Rapid Response Team.
Recently, Additional Principal Conservator of Forests Debasis Jana, (Chief Conservator of Forests, Coimbatore Circle), said that the Department was working with 65% of the sanctioned strength of forest staff in the Nilgiris, Gudalur and Coimbatore forest divisions.
Policing every square kilometer of reserve forest in the Nilgiris was next to impossible, with forest officials focusing on preventing entry into especially dangerous areas, and also building lines of communication between local communities to share information about illegal trekkers entering forests with the department.
G. Janardhanan, president of the Ooty Public Awareness Association, said that in recent years, youngsters had begun entering forested areas to take photographs and selfies.
“Many areas, such as the Catherine Waterfalls in Kotagiri and Kalhatty falls near Udhagamandalam, have been notified as being off-limits to the public, but people still venture into these areas with impunity,” said Mr. Janardhanan.
K. Kalidasan of Coimbatore-based Osai, an environmental NGO, said trekking in forest for any purpose, including animal census or research, should be done with the assistance of forest staff who know the forest area. Environmental activist K. Mohanraj wanted the Department to step up surveillance in forest areas like Palamalai.