Of Honey Hunters and their Habitat
Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains
Post Box 35, Groves Hill Road, Kotagiri – 643217. Rs.395
Review for THE HINDU
Having evolved over millions of years, the Western Ghats are a treasure trove of biodiversity, and have been recognized as an ecological ‘hot spot’ of global significance. The altitudinal gradient of the mountains, combined with their orientation to the monsoons, has led to the evolution of a wide variety of interconnected ecosystems that range from scrub jungle in the rain shadow regions to moist evergreen forests on the rain drenched slopes and, at the very top, montane shola forests nestled in the folds of undulating grasslands. This varied habitat mosaic is home to over 4000 plant species, and an extraordinary variety of creatures great and small, including elephant, tiger, Nilgiri tahr and lion tailed macaque. It is also home to many indigenous adivasi communities, who lived in traditional equilibrium with the land until the influx of hundreds of thousands of people from the plains during the last few decades.
The adivasis now eke out a living as daily labour on estates and plantations, and by collecting Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) for supply to markets. One of the most important NTFPs from the hill forests is honey, with which virtually all the indigenous communities here have deep-rooted cultural connections. ‘Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains’ chronicles these connections, whilst providing us with a larger picture of the region.
A labour of love
Since 1995, Keystone Foundation, a Non Governmental Organization, has been working with the adivasi communities in the Nilgiris to document their traditional knowledge, particularly, of bees and honey. The book under review is, according to the authors, the result of three years of work on their ‘Honey Hunters of the Western Ghats’ Programme, which was supported by the IUCN – Netherlands Committee. The data collected, and insights gathered, during this period have been compiled into a valuable reference book for all those who are interested in the ecology, anthropology and land use of this region. The book focuses its attention on the 5520 sq. km. block of landscape known as the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), which straddles the three south India states of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
The book is divided into two sections and is illustrated with colour and black and white photographs, maps and line drawings. The first section gives a broad overview of the Biosphere Reserve, including its ecology, people, NTFPs and livelihood issues. The second section delves into each of the nine eco-regions that make up the NBR, and provides an analysis of their ecology, economy and land use patterns. The chapters contain interesting and useful nuggets of information in the form of many tables that provide details of NTFPs collected, major honey zones in the Nilgiris and major nesting trees for bees. There are also numerous boxes that recount adivasi lore and go into a bit of extra detail about the honey collection practices of particular tribes. Six annexures at the end provide information on a range of subjects, including geology and soils, endemic species and forest classification. However, an index would have been useful, as also, captions for all the photographs. The legends and place names on some of the maps are so tiny as to be unreadable and this needs fixing. Hopefully, these minor problems will be rectified in the next edition.
Fresh impetus needed
Designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1986 under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme, the goal of the NBR is to conserve genetic diversity of species, restore degraded ecosystems to their natural conditions, provide baseline data for ecological and environmental research and education, and function as an alternative model for sustainable development. Sadly, lacking collective vision on the part of the three states, little has happened in the last two decades to further these objectives. This book will hopefully provide a fresh impetus to meet these objectives, as it brings together varied streams of information into one handy volume, and could serve as a launch pad for further investigation and action. ‘Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains’ is an important work that deserves to be read widely, particularly, by decision makers, and all those who have a role to play in the NBR.