Monday, April 4, 2011

Accidental conservation

Some recent reading got me to consider how a lot of habitat conservation in India has been guided by accident rather than policy. This brought memories of a site close to Bangalore which was perhaps among the many monuments that were saved by accidental, unilateral and undemocratic actions (more on this by Michael Lewis in his article on the conflicts at the Bharatpur national park). 

The rocky hills known in geology as the Closepet series (Closepet after Barry Close was the old name for what is now Ramanagara(m) ) was the backdrop for the Hindi film "Sholay"  and David Lean's "Passage to India". Savandurga is one of the largest monolithic outcrops in this region and is quite a spectacle and experience, perhaps more enjoyable due to its being largely off the tourist beat.

Passage to India, Savandurga scene
There is an amazing website on the making of "Passage to India", the locations and stories behind the making including the controversial creation of a "cave entrance".  The entrance hole was carved out for the movie but this was to become dynamite. A European journalist who had travelled all the way to see the shooting was denied access to the site by David Lean. Irritated, the journalists wrote about how Lean was blasting the rocks in India to make  his movie, tauntingly asking if they (the western audience) would allow Indian directors to rearrange the stones at Stonehenge. This newspaper article published in Europe apparently had a magical effect, moving the high offices in Delhi and ultimately Bangalore and getting regulation in place. Like most Indian regulations and reactions the protection quickly withered away. Only recently there were plans to carve one of the large rocks in this reion into a  Buddha so as to rival  Mount Rushmore. Defacement by painting, quarrying, building of illegal resorts are just among some of the activities that continue in this area and the periodic efforts of the few enlightened individuals to protect the region do not seem to depend on policy nor does it produce a binding policy that will continue to be followed but actions work only through the temporary usage of political rivalries that pit one force against another.

Now endangered - Indian Vulture
On one trip to Savandurga, we met a forest guard who remembers the time when the shooting was on. He remembered that carcasses were thrown near a cliff to attract vultures for one of the scenes. On finding snippets it seems clear that these are Indian Vultures Gyps indicus - notice that the underwing coverts are quite dark. A few birds continue to survive at Ramdevarabetta in Ramanagara but their continued survival seems to be dependent on safe nesting. They are now threatened by a new resort in the vicinity, whose legality seems to be highly questionable and the authorities do not seem to be interested in acting in long term interest.

The situation was similar in the case of the conservation of the unique Gulf of Mannar which was planned to be dredged to shorten a shipping route. The entire exercise apparently the solution to problems arising from low efficiency at the Mangalore port  and poor rail connectivity. What finally gave a reprieve to the dugongs and all the other sea life was Adam's Bridge and the tenuous link between geology and mythology.  Mythology clearly won this case for conservation.

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