Status and Distribution of Malabar Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica in Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India

Chapter 8 Conservation of Malabar Giant Squirrel in Western Ghats of Maharashtra

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Chapter 8

Conservation of Malabar Giant Squirrel in Western Ghats of Maharashtra

8.1 Current Land-use in the Study Area
The forest in Western Ghats of Maharashtra have not received much conservation focus and research planning as in southern Western Ghats but has attracted much attention from developmental and commercial projects. Area-wise details on projects undertaken in forest area are included in Chapter 6. The section below describes major commercial and developmental activities undertaken in the forest area in Maharashtra.
Rapid Industrial Development: Maharashtra is known as a ‘progressive’ state in terms of large number of industries it has. The Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) has initiated several industrial projects in rural areas of Thane, Sahapur, Lonavala, Nashik, Pune, Raigad, Roha, Mulshi, Karjat and Satara. Availability of land, water and cheap labour has attracted investments in these areas. Reserved Forests in these areas are patchy and isolated because of sanctioning of land for small and large scale industries. Mining industry is posing a serious threat to the region. The Maharashtra Western Ghats are well known for its bauxite mining companies. Mining has fragmented the forests in the area and in absence of appropriate restoration policies, is adding to degradation of the remaining forests on the mined plateaus.
Extensive Road Networks: New roads and expansion of existing roads have fragmented the forests all along the landscape. Demands for new road, link roads, highways, bye passes and railways have been increasing and many of the projects are being implemented without proper EIAs resulting in further isolation of forests.
Windmills on Plateaus: Windmills are seen throughout the rocky plateaus of Maharashtra Western Ghats from Pune onwards to Kolhapur. The rocky plateaus in Maharashtra are specialized habitats (Sadas) as they support seasonal ephemeral flora and related biodiversity. The project authorities and even the Forest Department are often ignorant about the values of these apparently barren sites. Windmill farms are a source of renewable energy but their presence on all available hill tops and crestline has marred the beauty and naturalness of the area. Also, the approach road to the windmill sites passes through the forests leading to substantial loss of trees causing fragmentation. The construction companies are handed over the windmill sites but there is no monitoring of forests in the area for the entire period.
Damming of Rivers: Several hydroelectric projects are implemented in Maharashtra Western Ghats. The catchment areas and their reservoirs have created isolation of forest patches in most of the areas. The reservoirs which are usually in the Ghats region have submerged acres of primary forests which are difficult to regenerate in the present conditions. There are hardly any large valleys in Maharashtra that have remained intact.
Exploitation of Private Forests: There are large areas of private forests in Maharashtra Western Ghats, also known as malki forests. Wherever these forests are often found in good condition they provide habitat for giant squirrel. However private forests are often badly managed and found in a degraded condition. In many areas these forests are felled and the wood sold for timber and firewood. They are also used for various other reasons such as domestic firewood, Raab (wood-ash) burning, shifting cultivation and pasture. Businessmen are buying private forests on a large scale for future investment. In some regions of Satara private forests have been sold to windmill companies. In hill stations such as Amba and Amboli they have been sold for creation of resorts. In Tokavde Range of Thane Division we found that private forests were being converted to resorts and farmhouses. Protection of private forests is important for conservation of giant squirrel.
Exotic and Commercial Plantations: Forest Department’s policy to plant fast growing exotics like Eucalyptus , Gliricidia sepium, Acacia auriculiformis, Casurina equisitifolia and Leucaena leucocephala has led to creating on scanty forests that do not offer required habitat to any species in the area. Many farmers in Sindhudurg have sold their private land to farmers from south India. These farmers have good know-how of cultivating oil palm, rubber, coconut and bananas and slowly the landscape is acquiring completely different vegetation. The original semi-evergreen forests can be seen in smaller patches surrounded by commercial plantations in this area.
Spread of Urbanization: Maharashtra Western Ghats has picturesque locations in the form of hill tops, plateaus and valleys. Developers have begun to acquire these areas for making fancy townships and luxury farmhouses. Mega projects such as Amby valley and Lavasa in Pune and Mulshi Talukas have been created at the cost of major violation of environmental norms. The trend of neo-rich residents of Maharashtra is to acquire land from original inhabitants at a cheap rate, covert it in to satellite townships or resorts and disturb the ecology and economy of the area by flouting the rules. This trend is responsible for increasing rural landless people and encroachment of forest land in the area.

8.2 Important Areas for Giant Squirrel in the Study Area
The forests in Maharashtra Western Ghats are largely and inadequately protected leading to isolation of PAs from each other unlike in the Southern Western Ghats. Except Koyna and Chandoli and Radhanagri, other PAs are relatively small is size, isolated with porous boundaries and have settlements inside. However, being declared as a PA gives it certain immunity against the ills of non-protected forests.
SGNP and Tungareshwar WLS are partly located in the mega-metropolis city of Mumbai and have several issues of encroachment, forest degradation and quarrying. Historically, these areas have never been inhabited by giant squirrel possibly because of isolation from the main forests and its urban surroundings.
Since the extinction of R .i. dealbata from Gujarat, now the northern-most range of giant squirrel is represented by Harishchandragad Kalsubai WLS. Within the HKS, Rajur Range located in south-east region of the sanctuary supports giant squirrel habitat and has giant squirrel population. The northern and western region of the sanctuary has very low signs of squirrel presence. The forests in the region are patchy and degraded due to fragmentation. Since it is Protected Area, people do not easily divulge information of hunting but a few locals from Ratanwadi admitted to indulge in opportunistic hunting of squirrels. Villagers from Thakurwadi use catapult for hunting birds and small mammals (Mehta and Kulkarni 2010) but did not reveal information on hunting of squirrels. Borges et al (1998) had reported endangered status of squirrel from this area but since then no action has been taken by the Forest Department. In HKS, areas such as Tolar Khind, Kothale, Lawle, Ratanwadi, Thakurwadi requires intensive monitoring on hunting and land-use practices by local people. The Forest Department should initiate a long-term conservation program in the area to address the needs of locals and improving the status of forests in the area.
Bhimashankar WLS remains the stronghold of Malabar giant squirrel in Maharashtra. During 1992-93, Borges et al reported a decline in 30 % of the population and an increase in the home range of the individual squirrels as a consequence of fragmentation and tree cutting pressure. During the current survey, many signs of tree-cutting and herbivore poaching was recorded from Bhimashankar. In spite of this, giant squirrels are seen in good numbers in Bhimashankar and from their behavior it appears that they are not afraid of human presence indicating that people do not hunt squirrels in Bhimashankar. Tree cutting was also observed from HKS also but in absence of hunting, giant squirrels are present in higher numbers in Bhimashankar. Hunting is a serious threat to giant squirrels and needs to be controlled.

Phansad WLS is small in area but supports good population of giant squirrels. With its evergreen vegetation and lower anthropogenic influences, Phansad has the potential to support giant squirrels in good numbers. The forests of Koyna, Chandoli and Radhanagri WLS offer good habitat to giant squirrel because it is well protected due to natural barriers, has very few villages inside and supports continuous patches of evergreen forests. Hunting of giant squirrel has not been reported from these PAs.

There are major State Highways passing through Phansad (Murud-Alibaug-Roha), Koyna and Chandoli (Karad-Chiplun) Radhanagri (Kankwali-Kolhapur-Vaibhavwadi) which has already disrupted the forest continuity and often contribute to road kills. Most PAs have large dams. Koyna Dam in Koyna WLS, Shausagar Dam in Chandoli, Radhanagri Dam in Radhanagri, Wadeshwar and Dimbhe Dam in Bhimashankar and Vihur and Phansad Dam in Phansad WLS exist since last 3 to 4 decades. Although now the dams offer good protection as natural barrier, it has submerged extensive forest area in the past. Overall, giant squirrel population in PAs is safe and is likely to remain so if protection levels are maintained and demands for development projects are not met with.
The Reserved Forests of Junnar and Wadgaon Range of Pune Division has good population of giant squirrel. These areas support large continuous tracts of forests and pressures are relatively low. Better protection will ensure long-term presence of giant squirrels in these areas.
Forests of Thane, Roha, Mulshi, Lonavala, Matheran, Kolhapur and Raigad are rapidly being converted for commercial projects. Rapid action program is required to monitor the scale of forest loss and implementation of conservation planning. All these areas above are vital for maintaining viable population of giant squirrel in the study area.
8.3 Suggestions for Conservation of Giant Squirrel in the Study Area
Two factors govern the present distribution of giant squirrels in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. First, the integrity of the moist and semi-evergreen forests and second is the intensity of squirrel hunting. We discuss the suggested conservation strategy under the given points
Maintaining the Integrity of Giant squirrel Habitat in Western Ghats

In past 10 years, several committees have been constituted to recommend measures to protect the integrity of forests in Maharashtra Western Ghats. The measures include recommendations for identifying Multiple Use Area (MUA) and Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) that can be utilized judiciously with long-term conservation benefits (Kapoor et al 2009). The ESAs in Maharashtra includes all PAs, a 10 kilometer buffer around each Protected Area and the three hill stations of Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani.

The EZA rule has banned any developmental activities in the 10 km radius around the PA but it has not been successful in stalling developmental projects in the area. Recently, the Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) has relaxed these guidelines to reduce the zone of activity from 100 m to 2 km radius around the PAs depending on the type of forests it supports. This is a very general guideline and is likely to be misused contributing further in hastening the process of forest degradation in the area.
Utilization of forested habitat for non-forest purpose should be made on site-specific basis and must be commensurate with ecological value of the forest area. Permissions for using forest land for non-forest activities must not be issued unless there is a commitment for retaining natural vegetation and connectivity to larger forests in the area.
Review of the Least Concern Category of Giant Squirrel

Presence of giant squirrel in the Reserved Forests is not considered to be significant by authorities seeking clearance for roads, mining, and dams as the species is considered to be of “Least Concern”. It is argued that giant squirrels are commonly encountered across the landscape and the population is present in high densities therefore they will not be adversely affected by loss of habitat.

The least concern category is suitable for species that are generalist and able to occupy a wide range of habitats. The results of our occupancy analysis indicate that giant squirrels though widely distributed, occupy only the moist and semi-evergreen forests with canopy connectivity. In that sense they are habitat specialists and cannot survive in dry, degraded forests or monocultures. Inclusion of Malabar giant squirrel under the Least Concern category outweighs its importance as an indicator of undisturbed forests.

Secondly, the density estimates prove that squirrels are present in high densities only in Protected Areas and outside they exist in much lower densities. The densities in semi-evergreen forests are as low as those in drier forests in southern Western Ghats. Considering the trend of lower and probably declining squirrel population from Maharashtra Western Ghats, it is important to review the Least Concern status of Malabar giant squirrel at the international and national level.

Setting Aside Important Areas for Giant Squirrel

In Maharashtra, the status of Reserved Forest is changing rapidly. In the vast landscape of Maharashtra with its demanding economy, it may not be possible to protect all populations of giant squirrel though it is highly desirable to do so. Nonetheless, it is possible to set aside important areas that can support viable population of giant squirrel. Reserved Forests that are diverse, largely intact, and connected to PAs can serve as potential areas for long-term conservation of giant squirrels. Areas outside Koyna, Chandoli, Bhimashankar and Radhanagri are vital for giant squirrel conservation. The forests in this region should not be compromised for any developmental activities. A systematic EIA must be carried out in areas assigned for non-forest use to assess the implications of upcoming projects. The EIA should be conducted by genuine and reputed NGOs who can give unbiased and scientific assessment report. Sanction of the project should be based on the recommendations in the report

Restoration of Degraded Forests

Maintaining connectivity of forests outside PAs is very essential for preserving corridors. Afforestation or restoration projects should be made mandatory for mining and irrigation projects. Plantation of species similar to that found in the adjacent forests will help in recovering from the effects of fragmentation and degradation over a period of time. Similarly, scientific and well managed restorations can help recreating native vegetation and help in re-colonizing of biodiversity in the area.

Incentive based protection of forests

Although conceptually sound, the project of Joint Forest Management (JFM) did not yield desired results in India. Incentive-based management of reserved forests and private forests can help in maintaining integrity of the intervening forests and corridors. Offering income-generating but conservation oriented incentives will help in reducing degradation of forests in the area. This is most applicable in Private Forests Private forest owners should be encourage to develop sustainable management plan for their forests so they get continuous income from their forest without jeopardizing the ecology of the forests (Kulkarni et al 2012).

Control on Hunting of Giant Squirrel

Hunting of giant squirrels for meat and trade is reported from Maharashtra Western Ghats. Tribal’s livings close to the forests are more likely to hunt squirrels since it is part of their traditional life style. Urban people also indulge in hunting for meat and for keeping them as a pet. However it is a well-documented fact that persistent hunting suppresses animal densities and can lead to local, regional and finally total extinction of a species Areas facing the pressures of habitat degradation and fragmentation have a hope to regenerate in future if corrective measures are taken to restore the vegetation but in presence of intense hunting the species has no hope for survival. Lower abundance of important seed-dispersals such as the giant squirrel can impact regeneration and thereby modify the vegetation composition in the forests (Madhusudan and Karanth 2000, Karanth et al. 2009). It is difficult to control hunting but a serious attempt should be made by intensive enforcement and stepping up protection in RFs coupled with awareness programs among local people.

Generating Awareness on the status of giant squirrel in Maharashtra

Awareness about the issues concerning giant squirrel conservation is important among the senior Forest Officers and local communities. The findings of the project will be shared with Forest Department and conservation organizations.

A few newspaper articles on the project have been published by the reporters in English and Marathi daily. In February 2012, a poster on the project was presented at a national biodiversity conservation conference in Pune. The PI has written a popular article highlighting the conservation issues for WWF magazine. A twenty minute film on line transect sampling method has been prepared by Mr. Jayant Kulkarni from WRCS with the support of Mr. Kondal Rao, CCF Pune. The film can be used for generating awareness and training the staff in population monitoring methods.
8.4 Further Work
Except in Harishchandragad-Kalsubai WLS, the Malabar Giant Squirrel population is considerably safe in all other PAs of Maharashtra Western Ghats. Owing to faulty policies, neglected concerns and unplanned forest management, the populations from Reserved Forests is certainly declining. The concerns and actions for protection of giant squirrel need to be invested on priority basis in the Reserved Forests. The Forest Department can start a regular monitoring program on giant squirrels in the RF areas. Training of Forest Staff in scientific methods of monitoring giant squirrel in their areas is very essential. Large areas can be monitored for population monitoring with the help of local volunteers and students from education institutes
Existing policies and law have not been effective in protection of the giant squirrels in Maharashtra Western Ghats. New and innovative strategies need to be implemented for the conservation of this beautiful and charismatic species in Maharashtra.

Prachi Mehta

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