Saving the unique mountain ungulates of the Nilgiris

Posted on
25 December 2015
WWF-India report studies the status and distribution of the endangered Nilgiri tahr to establish best conservation measures in the Western Ghats forests
Coimbatore: In the montane grasslands and rocky cliffs of the Western Ghats rain forests, at elevations of about 300m to 2600m above sea level, lives the endangered mountain goat, the Nilgiri tahr. Deft climbers and a social animal living in herds, tahrs are the prey species of the leopards in this area. Tigers and dholes are also known to occasionally feed on them.
Once known to have been spread across the entire extent of the Western Ghats, their population has declined over the years. In 1996, the tahr made it to the IUCN Red List as “Endangered”. The reason quoted was: “because its population size is estimated to number fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, there is an observed continuing decline in the number of mature individuals, and no sub-population contains more than 250 mature individuals”.
This decline has been largely attributed to uncontrolled hunting, conflict with livestock grazing and habitat loss, however, there has been no comprehensive data to support this observation so far. Today, the animal’s range is highly fragmented, restricted along a narrow stretchof 400km between Nilgiri Hills and Ashambu Hills. Mukurthi National Park (see map ‘Group I’) and Eravikulam National Park (see map ‘Group III’) together support the highest population of the Nilgiri tahr. Smaller populations are distributed in the Anamalai Hills, Periyar National Park, Palni Hills and other pockets in the Western Ghats, south of Eravikulam, and almost up to India’s southern tip. (The adjoining map represents the distribution of tahr sub-populations across pockets in the region.)
Considering the dire threat of extinction that this mountain ungulate is faced with, there was an urgent need to conduct a systematic study on its habitat, status and distribution today.WWF-India has now released a first-of-its-kind estimation exercise of the Nilgiri tahr population in recent times in the Western Ghats.The study titled Status and Distribution of the Nilgiri tahr in the Western Ghats, recently launched in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has gauged the current population of the ungulates at 3,122 individuals, with potential of reaching 5,000 tahrs with diligent conservation planning.
The report is a culmination of collaborative surveys by WWF-India field teams and the forest departments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. To carry out the study, field teams and biologists were specially trained at Eravikulam National Park on survey techniques and on observing tahr and its behaviour. Following an intensive training, the team systematically surveyed potential tahr habitat from the northern most part of the Nilgiris to the southernmost part, extending up to Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary along the Western Ghats.
Few of the methods used for the survey included: collecting secondary data on the potential tahr habitat, conducting stakeholders meeting to collate current information on the distribution and status of the species, intensive and regular field surveys from 2007 to 2011, collaborative surveys with the forest department and local stakeholders, understanding and recording threats and by identifying the potential habitat of the animal by using the acclaimed Maximum Entropy (MaxEnt) modelling approach.
The study has discovered17 unrecorded pockets of Nilgiri tahr habitat, inhabited by 131 Nilgiri tahr individuals. These potential areas had not been surveyed in the past due to their rugged terrain that remains inaccessible for over half the year, owing to heavy rains, mist and fog.
To initiate strong conservation strategies, WWF-India has also identified key threats to the tahr populations in the newly discovered pockets. The study recommends periodic monitoring of these units as one of the several measures for the conservation of the Nilgiri tahr in the Western Ghats. Charting the way forward, the study suggests a thorough assessment of genetic and habitat linkages of tahr populations in the various pockets as well as an effort to arrest habitat degradation and enable active habitat management. For this, it lays stress on a three-pronged conservation plan involving community engagement, better patrolling to curb illegal activities and continuous monitoring.
The report also highlights the need to monitor several other influencing factors -- like livestock-grazing pressures and potential disease transfer between domestic livestock and the tahr, community supported mechanisms to control accidental and deliberate fires, and so on. Other conservation measures suggested include preparing a tahr conservation plan; strengthening the Nilgiri tahr Alliance – a group of stakeholders such as tahr experts, tahr area mangers, local NGOs and individuals; improved and further research; reintroduction of tahr to parts of their original range; and use of better monitoring protocols.
WWF-India believes that the study chalks out a roadmap towards securing the future of this endemic species in the region. The key findings of this report are envisioned to enable greater understanding of the status and distribution of the tahr across its range in the Nilgiris forest.
Courtesy: Western Ghats-Nilgiris Landscape, WWF-India 


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