Tethering tourism to conservation: keeping the Sahyadris “hot”
Torna Fort, one of the renowned historical forts in the hilltops of Sahyadri, is in consideration for tourism development by the government of India as an archeological monument. The hilltops of Sahyadri, however, are also unique habitats for incredible plant diversity — including critically threatened and endemic plant species — and are facing threats of endangerment due to poor development activities and lack of awareness.
Hotspot of history and of biodiversity
With an altitude of 1,403 metres, Torna hilltop in Pune is one of the tallest peaks of the northern Western Ghats, commonly known as Sahyadri. It houses Torna Fort, a historical fort that served as the capital of Maratha dynasty for 25 years. Like many hilltop forts, the Torna Fort, too, is renowned for its architectural style, cultural heritage, and turbulent past.
The forts of Sahyadri and their adjoining areas possess specific habitats that are storehouses of extremely rich plant diversity. The topography, elevation, and distinct climatic conditions of Torna Fort make it different from other lowland plant habitats. It exhibits a high degree of variation in patterns, habits, and habitats of vegetation.
A study conducted by Mayur Nandikar and team at Torna Fort from 2012–2017 documented 399 plant species, out of which 109 species (27%) are referred to as endemic and unique to the Western Ghats and India. Torna Fort is the only repository for one of the critically endangered plant species, Barleria sepalosa C.B. Clarke (Acanthaceae), which has been rediscovered after a lapse of 128 years. The fort also houses Flemingia rollae (Fabaceae), a plant species that was earlier known to be found only in the locality of Kalsubai Hilltop in Maharashtra. Many reports on new species and additions to the state flora have been published from these hilltops during the last century.
Torn between development and subsistence
Torna Fort is in consideration for tourism development by the government of India. It is visited by tourists, trekkers, and nature-lovers during the six months of monsoon. The fort has witnessed many tourism development activities, such as clearing of roadside vegetation for construction of new roads and widening of existing ones, during the past four years. Today, a tar road brings tourist vehicles right to the middle of the fort. Local inhabitants use these hilltops and slopes for grazing and collection of fuelwood. These human activities carried out due to poor planning and lack of awareness, along with grassland fires and invasive species, are proving to be serious threats to the unique habitats and plant species of the hilltop areas.
Efforts are being made to create awareness amongst the visitors, authorities, and custodians of Torna Fort by the authors of the above-mentioned study. The presence of endemic threatened plant species and unique habitats can be adequate to advocate for further conservation measures of this biodiversity heritage site.
► Detailed studies on the endemic species of the hilltops of Sahyadri need to be carried out.
► Poor tourism development activities and overgrazing on the hilltops and slopes of Sahyadri need to be curbed.
► Efforts should be devoted to creating awareness among various stakeholders for the conservation of habitats and vegetation of Torna Hill.
Nandikar, M.D., P.T. Giranje & D.C. Jadhav (2018). Floristic enumeration of Torna Fort (Western Ghats, India): a storehouse of endemic plants. Journal of Threatened Taxa 10(7): 11895–11915; https://doi.org/10.11609/jott.3705.10.7.11895-11915