If you want to listen to the twitter of birds – the chirp of sparrows, cuckoo of cuckoos, caw of crows, screech of parakeets – Chilakanahatti Palmyra Reserve Forest, Karnataka, is a great choice. A 20-minute drive from Hosapete (Hospet) in Bellary District lands you in this mesmerising forest – probably the only reserve forest named after the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer). This lesser-known forest is located about 4 km from Chilakanahatti village. In Telugu, ‘chilaka’ means parakeet, and in Kannada ‘hatti’ means hamlet; thus the village itself is called ‘the village of parakeets’. And it lives up to its name by being the abode of thousands of Rose-ringed Parakeets.
Tall and black trunks of palmyra trees welcome you amidst the dawn chorus of birds. Rose-ringed Parakeets, mynas, and barbets peep through their nesting holes in the dry trunks of these trees. The holes are used for nesting by many species of birds on rotation basis! And Asian Palm Swifts, seen flying restlessly around the palmyra trees, build nests on the underside of palm leaves using feathers, with their saliva being the glue.
Chilakanahatti Palmyra Reserve Forest is a unique biodiversity hotspot, and such massive and gregarious growth of palmyra trees in a single location is found nowhere else in Karnataka. This growth is not planned, but natural. A stretch of about 5 km length and 0.5 to 1 km width comprises of a majority of palmyra trees; this patch was being managed by the village panchayat until 1911. Subsequently, it was handed over to the Karnataka Forest Department and declared a reserve forest. The 343.50 hectares of this unusual forest are managed by a Deputy Range Forest Officer, a guard, and a number of watchers. The long, dense stretch of palmyra is visible from the highway and is a geo-ecological phenomenon.
The forest contains not only palmyra trees but also a number of species of plants that have adapted to the peculiar landscape. A rapid assessment found more than 90 species of trees, shrubs, climbers and herbs amidst the palmyra. Plants such as Carissa carandas (Kavale in Kannada), Canthium parviflorum (Kaare), Ziziphus oenoplia (Pargi), Annona squamosa (Seetaphal), Cardia myxa (Challe Hannu), Alangium salviifolium (Ankole), Cassia fistula (Kakke), Ziziphus mauritiana (Bore), Grewia domine (Ulupi) and many more provide fruits to birds and mammals.
Palmyra fruits have three tender, juicy, flesh-encased seeds, and are eaten by people during summer. As harvesting of fruits is not allowed inside the Palmyra Reserve, the locals only collect fruits from the trees outside the forest. These sweet and refreshing fruits are also a favourite of Sloth Bears and Wild Boars. In the neighbouring states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where these trees are also found, the sap of the tree is harvested by toddy tappers, and unfermented toddy is a popular drink. They also make jaggery from the sap. But these practices are not known in Karnataka. However, the hard timber of palmyra trees was in extensive use locally for the construction of houses, and palmyra leaves were also used as thatch for roofs and huts.
The bird-life in this tiny forest is amazing, and in winter, I have documented even 80 species of birds in a single visit. The majority amongst them is the Rose-ringed Parakeet, which can be seen at any given time on the trees and within holes in the palmyra trunk. Many other bird species too nest and roost on these trees, and even dead trees are most useful for parakeets, barbets, mynas, woodpeckers and similar hole-nesting birds. Other common birds in the forest are the Indian Peafowl, Grey Francolin, Jungle Bush Quail, Indian Rock Pigeon, Baya Weaver, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Spotted Dove, Laughing Dove and many more. Raptors such as the Shikra, Black-Shouldered Kite, Black-Kite, and Brahminy Kite are seen in and around the forest.
There are a number of lakes at the edges of Chilakanahatti Palmyra Reserve Forest – Jambayyana Kere, Nadulava Kere, Magimavinahalli Kere, Chikkere, to name a few – which support the Palmyra Reserve by retaining surface water, helping the trees flourish. These lakes also have a number of water fowl such as Comb Duck, Spot-billed Duck, Woolly-necked Stork, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, and many waders.
Palmyra is indeed a ‘kalpavruksha’ (a wish-fulfilling tree in Indian mythology) for its qualities and the abundance it provides. In ancient times, palm leaves were used as paper for writing on. The villagers had a systematic mechanism for producing this paper – palmyra leaves of a particular age and quality were collected, treated with boiled water and turmeric, and then dried and cut into a particular size. A number of these cut sheets were bundled together like a book, with thin, hard wooden plates as covers at both ends, and finally, the bundle was tied tightly with threads. Scholars bought these books from the villagers, and wrote on the leaves by carving the content with a sharp tool. Most of the ancient literature in India was written on these leaves, and people treated such bundles with reverence. Many of these palm leaf books are preserved at Hampi Kannada University. The scholars in Hampi during the Vijayanagara Empire probably used leaves from what is today Chilakanahatti Palmyra Reserve!
Chilakanahatti Palmyra Reserve Forest has the potential to attract visitors and students to learn about ecology and biodiversity. A noteworthy feature of the forest is the profuse regeneration of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer) – young seedlings have formed clusters around the mother trees. Being notified as a ‘biodiversity reserve’ would definitely be a wonderful step for this forest in the future.