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| Last Updated::07/05/2018

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Data Base on Eco-restoration of Mel Chengam Forest

PREPARATION OF DATA BASE ON ECORESTORATION OF MELCHENGAM FOREST
 
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
1. Forests of arid, and semi-arid tropical regions across global nations face intensive repression of habitats due to heavier people-dependence on natural resources, the demands usually surpassing the capacity of such ecosystems. The resultant has been the loss of habitat, diminution of habitat quality, fragmentation of habitats and so on, depriving their ability to provide various goods and services. For such degraded forest ecosystems to sustain uninterrupted supply of tangible goods and intangible services, concerted ecological restoration efforts are the need of the hour. Chengam landscape in Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu has a rich past, as evidenced from profuse reference to the landscape with a detailed account of its dark hills, deep clefts, dangerous slopes and steep valleys, swift streams, bright waterfalls, gloomy caves, and rough tracks, endowed with various plants and animals in Malaipadukatam, one of the ten idylls of Sangam period dating back to two millennia ago. This part of Javadhi hill forest also saw an abundance of higher mammals like elephants, tigers etc in the past. But such diversity has been threatened over time. Understanding the causes for the gradual decline of the vast and rich forest ecosystem of Chengam region with reference to historical time frame is considered relevant, so as to conceptualize and conceive a comprehensive eco restoration plan for the area.
2. Unlike the forests in the inaccessible slopes of the Javadhis and its plateau, plain forests along its foot hills suffered unabated abstraction of different forest resources like fuel wood, small timber, fodder, green manure, Non-timber forest produce, grazing etc for long, either by way of enjoyment of customary rights or through illegal means. Anandavadi and Melchengam Reserve forests, extending over 3,904 ha are typical representatives of such lowland forests. These lower elevation, plain forests were put under the fuel working system for more than half a century up to 1980, where the entire vegetation in the demarcated fuel coupe was clear felled except the standard trees in a thirty year felling cycle. Fuel wood yields were too low as compared to many other forests of the Presidency. Forests were also opened for grazing on payment of certain grazing fee. Practice of removal of firewood by head loads, cut fodder, grass, green-manure and NTFP was also prevalent. Though goats were forbidden in the forests after 1920s, illegal goat browsing was of severe intensity. Recurrent annual forest fires, including incendiary fires took their own toll of forest biodiversity. In addition, Melchengam RF, classified as Class III forests or ‘ryot’ forests, was handed over to panchayat management in 1930s, throwing it open to uncontrolled exploitation of resources. When the area was returned to the Forest department two decades after, it was in a highly devastated condition.
3. While the agents of forest degradation continued to operate, efforts to rejuvenate the Melchengam forests in the post independence decades were of cosmetic nature. Other than planting some patch of forests with species like Eucalyptus and bamboo, no worthwhile attempt was made to restock the forests with any indigenous tree species. Those plantations were also recorded to have failed in general. Furthermore, the worked fuel coupes had failed to reestablish through coppice due to continued existence of depletive activities. As ground conditions didn’t allow the secondary succession to proceed in these areas, a very poor sub-climax type of vegetation, comprising of rank growth of invaders like Lantana camara, Pterolobium indicum, Acacia intsia etc. has firmly established. The forests here are represented by southern dry deciduous scrub and southern thorn scrub types, with dry tropical riverine type, occurring along the monsoon streams.
4. Forests of Anandavadi and Melchengam RFs particularly faced additional pressure from leasing these areas for agri-horticultural development to a Central Government seed agency (Central Farm Corporation) for over three decades between 1971 and 2001, when the agency developed agricultural and horticultural crops over an extent of 838 ha. Some semblance of forestry management was visible in few of the teak and bamboo plantations, established successfully during the regime of this Corporation. The remaining part of these RFs was not put under any scientific management during this period. Later on in 2006 these RFs were leased to TAFCORN, a state forest enterprise for pushing through a mono-culture plantation management. TAFCORN pursued only Eucalyptus planting and harvest programme since the time of its take- over and so far raised Eucalyptus plantations in about 1744 ha. A feeble attempt of diversification by way of raising two teak plantations was made by TAFCORN. In the absence of any management input, forest in the undeveloped part by and large, except in the seven small hillocks dotting the area, has become poorer in density as well as diversity. Mel Chengam forest underwent vast changes in its ecological make-up.
5. Proximity of these reserve forests to over a score of villages (between 0 and 2 km from the forest boundary) with sizeable agrarian population and their cattle herds accelerated the pace of forest degradation in the last half a century. This is evident from considerable number of forest violations in the area of illicit cutting of wood, goat browsing, hunting of wildlife, removal of minerals like sand etc. A need has arisento revive the native biodiversity and restore the forest to its original ecological status, so that the forest is able to render various ecosystem services. Intensive restorative efforts are called for in the Mel Chengam forest to recreate environmental conditions that will favour natural succession processes. With this background, the present study has been commissioned with an objective of preparing the database required for developing a detailed action plan for the eco restoration of Mel Chengam forest.
6. The preparation of database involved collection of secondary data from various sources that included the published documents, reports and data available with the Forest department, TAFCORN and the revenue department of Tiruvannamalai district. Secondary data was compiled to provide an account of the topographical, climatological and sociological features of the study site so as to gain an insight into the various factors operating in the area that have a bearing on the current biodiversity status of the Mel Chengam area. The primary data collection was carried out by marking one sq.km grids, spread over the two RFs and 33 sample plots, representing one plot per grid. From the sample point locations vegetation assessment, including that of trees, shrubs, herbs and climbers was made following standard protocols.
7. The tree diversity has been worked out to give information of frequency, density, abundance, relative frequency, relative density, relative abundance and importance value index, besides Shanon-Wiener Index and Simpson Index. In respect of lesser plant forms, occurrence of species and their frequency of presence were assessed by ocular means and presented. Of the 33 sample plots, 17 fell in the undeveloped forest portion, while 16 of them were in the Eucalyptus planted area. The area recorded 38 tree species (excluding Eucalyptus), 13 shrubs, 12 herbs and 11 climbers. In terms of frequency, density and important value index, only four species viz., Chloroxylon swetenia, Albizzia amara, Acacia sundra and Azadirachta indica seem to constitute the predominant tree species. Overall biodiversity parameters are showing the poor status of the area. Eucalyptus plantations have placed considerable restriction on the native vegetation. Because of degraded vegetation, the distribution and density of wild animal population, including bird life is sparse. The overall vegetation of Mel Chengam area presents a mixed landscape with distinct mosaic of native vegetation and plantation crops.
8. From the current status of the Mel Chengm area, it is considered that there is an urgent need to launch eco restoration measures so as to revive the original vegetation and bring the ecosystem back to the path of recovery and resurrection. Taking clue from the vegetation analysis and the result of the past plantation practices, various biological interventions and areas suitable for such interventions are suggested. They include restoration forestry, stream enrichment forestry, RF-Road margin interface forestry, Production forestry, NTFP augmentation forestry, sacred groves and fodder bank. Various engineering measures along the stream banks, on the slopes and in the plains have been suggested to prevent soil erosion and build a healthy soil and hydrological regime in the area.
9. The Mel Chengam forest is positioned at a strategic location in terms of its nearness to many tourism destinations of the region and its easy accessibility, being situated on a busy National Highway linking Pondicherry with Bangalore. The suggested restoration measures are expected to improve the resilience of Mel Chengam forest ecosystem. The project envisages an immense scope and potential in promoting a set of in situ ecotourism initiatives by way of nature walk, bird watching, forest camping, walk and jog around the lakes, board walk on the ponds, coracle ride, religious tourism, zoological park, elephant safari etc. The rich ancient past of Chengam region can be explored by re-enacting the trek trail of Malaipadukatam, that has been identified. Linking the nearby existing tourism areas to Mel Chengam will make it a viable and vibrant eco tourism nucleus centre. Development of appropriate infrastructure and enlisting participation of the local communities in the eco tourism enterprise have been suggested to make the venture sustainable.
10. The proposed activities are expected to bring many positive outcomes in terms of ecological up gradation and enrichment of the area, enhanced soil health and augmented hydrological regime, improved economical and social conditions of the adjoining communities by providing alternate, sustainable livelihood opportunities. The various data generated from the current study will provide a base for developing a project for eco restoration of the Mel Chengam area. The data will also serve as a bench mark to evaluate the impacts of the eco restoration project during and after its implementation.