Located in south-interior Karnataka and spread over 10,000 sq km, Tumkur District is host to a wide variety of wildlife. Although forests cover just about 4% of the district's geographical area, they are home to some spectacular wildlife and picturesque landscapes. Much of the tree cover and forests of the district are concentrated along two hill chains made up of metamorphic rocks, which run roughly north to south in the eastern and western parts of the district and stand on the Archean complex. The hill chain in the east is made up of Closepete Granite, a part of Dharwar group of rocks. This chain, which has some monoliths shooting over 1000 metres, hosts many important reserve forests of the district like Madhugiri, Siddarabetta, Devarayanadurga and Ujjini. The hill chain of schist rocks in the west is rich in minerals like iron. These mineral-rich hills which were even mined for gold until a couple of decades ago, are home to some of the largest contiguous forests of interior Karnataka like Bukkapatna and Manchaldore. At the other end of the spectrum, the district has some of Karnataka's best grassland habitats like Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve near Maidenahalli, where numerous blackbucks still thrive. This is near its borders with Hindupur taluk of Andhra Pradesh's Anantpur District. The district is also home to hundreds of wetlands as well as springs called Tala Paragis, which quench the thirst of humans and beasts alike and host an array of wildlife, particularly local and long-distance migrant waterfowl.
Some lesser-known wilderness areas of Tumkur District
1) Madhugiri State Forest - A taluk head quarters in Tumkur District, Madhugiri town is 105 km north-west of Bangalore. The hills around Madhugiri town echo with some of the most fascinating stories. Resplendent with fortified hills like Madhugiri, Midgeshi and Chennarayanadurga, this region is rich in human, biological and geological history and the scenery here is stunning, particularly in the monsoon and winters. The town was an important cantonment in medieval times, deriving its name from the hill located to its south. Madhugiri hill is a monolithic granite rock that has awed warriors and rock-climbers alike. This one-rock hill rises over 1500 feet from the surrounding countryside and is over 3,800 feet above mean sea level, making it among the tallest monoliths in the world. Often ruled by local chieftains, it changed hands with Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan taking control of this fort before the British captured it in 1792 along with the neighbouring Chennarayanadurga fort.
Madhugiri State Forest lies in the southern shadows of the Madhugiri hill and its environs. This dry deciduous forest with patches of moist deciduous woods along the many streams has minimal human pressure as there are hardly any roads inside it. It is contiguous with the forests around the historic hill fort of Channarayanadurga and a stone's throw away from Siddarabetta and Koli Kaalu State Forests, which are known for their medicinal plant diversity. It is home to a good number of sloth bears. While visitors to the forest in early morning or late evening are welcomed by peafowl and sambar deer, many have sighted monitor lizards sheltering amidst the shade away from the hot sun. Late evenings are a good time to see the sloth bear. Amidst the forests is the serene British-built Thimlapura Forest Bungalow constructed in 1898, which is still in use.
2) Devarayanadurga State Forest is an example of a wilderness area whose human and natural history is better-documented than many of our PAs. This 42 sq km forest is amongst the oldest-declared reserve forests in India. There are records of how the British accorded it some degree of legal protection since 1850s. Declared a reserve forest in 1907, it is remarkably well-protected for a forest which is just 6 km away from a district head-quarter; Tumkur city, in this case. The forest is home to nearly 250 species of birds and hundreds of varieties of medicinal plants. The slopes of Devarayanadurga hill are one of the best places in Karnataka to sight the endemic Yellow-throated Bulbul.
3) Located 9 km to the north-west of historic Sira town, another taluk head-quarter, Kaggaladu Heronry is the second-largest Painted Stork nesting colony in Karnataka, after Kokkre Bellur. It is an example of the many wildlife populations that are being protected by local communities across the state, away from the glare of wildlife-enthusiast crowds. In case of sites like these, the forest department and other government agencies afford legal protection to the land as they are usually located on government lands, while the protection from physical threats is provided by the local communities. As a result these are ‘least cost - high output' wilderness areas.
4) Just north-east of Kaggaladu along the Sira – Amrapura road is the Big Banyan tree (Doddaalada mara) near Bandekunte Gate. It is a roosting site for many species of owls and pigeons and attracts wildlife like Jungle cats. It is another example of a community-protected LWA.
5) The pleasure of watching the enigmatic mammal, the Slender Loris, in the wild, has been made possible by Mr. BV Gundappa, a talented school teacher. In the bamboo groves and agriculture hedge-rows around Nagavalli vilage, 16 km to the south of Tumkur city, a wild population of these creatures has been nurtured by him with support from his students from the surrounding villages. If small initiatives by a single man using meagre local resources have produced such wonderful results in one district, imagine what can be achieved in an entire landscape, if replicated by a large number of conservationists.
6) Huliyurdurga is another place of natural and human historical significance in Tumkur. The town's name, in Kannada, literally translates to fort (durga) of tigers (huli). Until a few decades ago, the place was surrounded by dense forests that echoed with the roars of the tiger. Fragmented woods are found even today in the nearby Ujjini state forest. Within a few kilometres of the town's radius are many wetlands that host a variety of waterfowl, like Nidsale kere and Deepambudhi kere. At Kestur village, along SH- 33 between Huliyurdurga and Maddur, just south of Ujni Village (southern Tumkur District), there are many road-side trees that are nesting grounds for little cormorants as well as pond herons.
7) There are many wetlands in Karnataka, particularly the jheels of old Mysore region which hold an amazing array of waterfowl diversity. The state of Karnataka has a good track record of highlighting the beauty of our wetlands through forest department sponsored conservation initiatives. Among the examples are Kukkarahalli Kere of Mysore and the many wetlands of North Karnataka like Magadi Kere of Gadag District. There are many such potential sites in Tumkur District like Tumkur Amanikere and Bheemasandra Kere (in Tumkur city), Kunigal Doddakere and Chikkakere (in Kunigal town along Bangalore - Hassan National Highway) and backwaters of Markonahalli Reservoir (just off Bangalore - Hassan National Highway).
From early to mid 2000s, I had the good fortune of visiting many wilderness areas – large and small, to observe wildlife, learn about wildlife management practices and to witness eco-tourism initiatives in many parts of east-central and eastern Canada. I have seen many LWAs that are conserved and promoted as areas of local and regional importance. One such site is the McLaughlin Wildlife Reserve, a small wooded patch of around 200 acres near Greater Toronto Area, whose protection is paid for by General Motors, Canada. With the Companies Act 2013 coming into being, similar CSR initiatives by the corporate sector will benefit LWAs in our state and indeed, the nation.
It is often said that an enlightened society is the best way to conserve wildlife because a society that has concern for its wildlife is the best shield against any threat to a wilderness area. LWAs not only hold the potential of being breeding and sheltering sites for wildlife but can also mushroom into important areas for wildlife information dissipation. As a result, LWAs have the potential to inspire our younger generation to indulge in conservation.
Many LWAs are wilderness islands that can serve as important tools in the equitable distribution of the pressure of eco-tourism, which is currently skewed towards the protected area network, particularly the tiger-bearing forests. They have the potential to showcase the entire landscape. Except for a handful of species like tiger, Asian elephant, one-horned rhino etc, LWAs offer a similar variety of wildlife. The river terns that can be so easily photographed on the islands near Palhalli village at Ranganathittu wildlife sanctuary are no different from those on the submerged brick kilns in the wetlands of Tumkur or other parts of Mandya district. Or the Red Helen, Peacock Pansy or common map butterflies that are sought after at Iruppu Falls inside the tropical rainforest of Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary can also be photographed with equal ease and lesser stress to both the photographer and butterflies, in any stream in one of the hundreds of lesser-known and lesser- visited reserve forests of the Western Ghats.
With basic protection measures, our LWAs hold the potential to become well-known not only for their ability to hold and distribute wildlife genes, but also as a source of income and wilderness education for the populations surrounding them. Any threats to these areas need to be highlighted in the media so that the decision-makers are aware and help conserve them. Daroji Bear Sanctuary and Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve are living examples of this.