Pilgrimage or carnage

come November and the surroundings of Sabarimala, the hill shrine situated in the southern part of the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, take a beating. The annual influx of over two crore pilgrims during the makaravilakku season (November to January) inflicts heavy biotic pressure and widespread environmental damage.

According to forest department officials, roughly 6,000 ha are under threat because of the devotees. Problems include illicit collection of firewood, faecal pollution of streams and rivers, dumping of plastics and other wastes, stymieing of natural regeneration of the forests and the impact of all this on the fauna of the tiger reserve and neighbouring areas.

The surrounding forests are home to the endangered tiger, giant Malabar squirrel, great Indian hornbill and the Nilgiri langur, apart from housing a number of exotic and rare plants. However, destruction of the Sabarimala forests could wreak havoc in the entire central Travancore plains and even in faraway Kuttanad, by causing floods during the monsoon and droughts during summer, due to low retention capacity of the catchment area.

The non-biodegradable plastic litter poses a threat to the fauna of the region, apart from choking water bodies. Lethal plastics has been detected in elephant faeces. Donkeys are widely used to transport goods at Sabarimala and their carcasses are part of the post-pilgrimage scenario. The Pampa river