Few are aware of the unpublicized story behind the surprising ‘friendliness’ of the Nilgiri tahr — a rare and highly endangered species of wild mountain goat — found in the tourism zone of the Eravikulam National Park (ENP) near Munnar. It’s indeed an enigma that has puzzled wildlife scientists and conservationists for long — how a species close to extinction can ‘befriend’ humans in the tourism zone of the park, and to the extent of allowing people to fondle them, when other herds of the same species flee at the sight of humans in other parts of the same park.
In the early 1950s poachers were found to be taking a heavy toll on the tahr at Rajamallay — now part of the tourism zone of the ENP — to the point of almost wiping them out. So, the British tea company that then owned the area in question resolutely stepped in and declared it a sanctuary. A checkpost, manned round the clock, was set up at the site of the present Forest Department outpost, and all vehicles passing through the area were unfailingly checked for firearms, snares and tahr carcasses.
This protective measure went a long way in drastically curtailing — if not stamping out — poaching, and resulted in the tahrs frequenting the area once again. Knowing the ungulates’ fondness — or, rather, weakness — for salt, the British tea company had several ‘salt-licks’ laid out to lure them to the roadside. Assured of a regular supply of their favourite ‘delicacy’, a large herd of nomadic tahrs soon took up permanent residence in the area and over the years flourished unmolested, thanks to unrelenting protection.
It is said that Walter Mackay, the manager of Rajamallay tea estate in the 1950s, used to toot his car’s horn repeatedly while driving through the sanctuary. Attracted by the familiar and reassuring sound, the herd of tahrs soon began to mob his car, quite literally, to be rewarded with handfuls of biscuits scattered by the delighted planter.
This, in fact, was the genesis of the ‘domestication’ of the Nilgiri tahr at Rajamallay — a phenomenon that has, down the decades, continued to baffle wildlife scientists and authorities alike, more so since the herds of tahrs in the core area of the Eravikulam National Park continue to be wild and extremely timid, fleeing at the sight of humans. In sharp contrast, the tahrs in the tourism zone of the park are totally unafraid and surprisingly tolerant of people — something that has to be seen to be believed. They freely mingle with tourists and allow themselves to be patted and photographed, with people excitedly thronging around them.
In the 1970s, among the many eminent wildlife scientists who visited Rajamallay to witness this heart-warming sight was Dr. George B. Schaller of the New York Zoological Society. He went on to do an exhaustive study of the ecology of the Nilgiri tahr.
Then in the early 1980s Clifford G. Rice, another American research scholar, spent three years all alone in the forbidding isolation of the Eravikulam National Park to study the Nilgiri tahr for his doctoral thesis. Over time he painstakingly managed to ‘tame’ a herd of tahrs in the core area of the park to the extent that he could squat right in their midst and, using a pole, slip identification tags around the necks of selected animals to keep track of their breeding habits. I’ve seen photographs of this rare sight — something that would warm the cockles of any conservationist’s heart.
The Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is a brown-coloured, wild mountain goat with an arresting appearance accentuated by its swept-back horns and bristly mane. Its habitat is the open montane grasslands of the upper reaches of the Western Ghats, the Nilgiris, the Anamallais and the Nelliampathies. The ENP is home to the largest concentration of Nilgiri tahrs, numbering around 1,000. Only around 2,500 are estimated to be left in the wild.
Weighing around 80-100 kg and measuring about one metre in height, the Nilgiri tahr is included in the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species. It’s popularly referred to as the Alpine ibex and feeds on a variety of herbs, shrubs and grass. Being gregarious by nature, it’s usually found in herds, sometimes numbering over 100, in the Eravikulam National Park. Amazingly sure-footed, it can negotiate sheer cliffs where any other creature would unavoidably plunge to its death.
When pursued by predators, it seeks the safety of precipices where neither man nor beast can follow it. In recent years leopards have been known to prey on the Nilgiri tahr in the Eravikulam National Park.
The Nilgiri tahr breeds from June to August during the South-west Monsoon and has a gestation period of about 6 months, with births peaking during January and February. The kids are cuddlesome and playful, appearing to literally bounce off the ground much like a rubber ball as they frolic among the boulders and crags under the watchful eyes of their mothers.
Conspicuous among the tahrs in the ENP and elsewhere are the ‘saddlebacks’ — the full-grown, ageing bucks with a distinctive white patch on their flanks that resembles a saddle. During the British era in Munnar these bucks, well past their prime, used to be culled as shikar trophies, some of which are still on display in the two local planters’ clubs.
Of course, the happy state of affairs now prevailing at Rajamallay — the result of decades of untiring and thankless vigilance — can be easily shattered should unscrupulous elements ever try to harm the trusting tahrs. The fact remains that tahr meat is a much sought-after delicacy reputed to be tastier than mutton. Tragically enough, in 1974, taking advantage of the herd’s tameness, a poacher brazenly shot and killed a buck in broad daylight at Rajamallay. He was promptly apprehended and brought to book despite his high political connections. This proved to be an effective deterrent in ridding this highly vulnerable area of the scourge of poaching.
Today, more than anything else, the Nilgiri tahr symbolises — indeed, is an outstanding example of — the success of wildlife conservation in the hills of Munnar.
Interestingly, the active involvement of Munnar’s former British tea planters in the protection of local wildlife right from the early 1900s, had set a beneficial precedent for succeeding generations of planters as well. And the practice has spread to virtually all the tea and coffee planting districts in South India where planters are in the forefront of conservation. Now it’s widely recognised that tea or coffee planting and conservation of nature do complement each other and go hand in hand.
Today, more than anything else, the Nilgiri tahr symbolises — indeed, is an outstanding example of — the success of wildlife conservation in the hills of Munnar. It’s the proud emblem of this tea town as well as the local High Range Wildlife & Environment Preservation Association — the NGO that has been primarily instrumental in protecting the Nilgiri tahr right from 1928 when it was set up by conservation-minded British tea planters.
Many reasons have been adduced for the remarkable tameness of the Nilgiri tahr in the tourism zone of the Eravikulam National Park. However, to the layman it’s obvious that, having lived in close proximity to humans down the decades, the tahrs at Rajamallay have come to regard them as friends, incapable of harming them. For, familiarity does breed trust.
As far as Munnar is concerned, the highly endangered Nilgiri tahr has undoubtedly been the catalyst that has spurred widespread awareness of the urgent need to protect biodiversity in this hot-spot in the Western Ghats.
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