The Nilgiris, forming a part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in the Western Ghats is home to moist, dry, evergreen and montane (shola) tropical forests. The Western Ghats, and the Nilgiris in particular, harbour a wealth of flora and fauna; much of which is restricted to the region. e.g. the endagered lion tailed macaque and the Nilgiri tahr. The Nilgiris forest ecosystem is, however, under pressures, e.g. from tea and coffee plantations, illegal, logging and commercial tree plantations with exotics initiated by the Forest Department. It also has a significant tribal population, dependent on natural resources for their livelihood; including the only surviving hunter-gatherers of the Indian sub-continent the Sholanaikans in the New Amarambalam region of Nilgiris. Given its distinct character, the Nilgiris forms part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (declared under the Man and Biosphere Programme of UNESCO).

Diversity of Forests

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve includes all the important forest types that are to be found in South India as well as some that are just peculiar to the belt such as Tropical Thorn Forest, Tropical Dry Deciduous Forests, Tropical Moist Deciduous Forests, Tropical Semi Evergreen Forests, Sub Tropical Broad Leaved Forests, Tropical Wet Evergreen Forests, Southern Montane Wet Temperate Forests, Southern Montane Wet Grasslands and Subtropical Hill Savannas.

Forest Divisions
The NBR is spread over a large within three states and varied climatic zones. The forest divisions are as follows:
Coimbatore Division                    Nilgiri South Division
Nilgiri South Division                    Erode Division
Satyamangalam Division              Nilambur Division
Mudumalai Sanctuary                  Wyanad Division
Palghat Division                          Chamrajnagar Division
Project Tiger Bandipur                  Mysore Division
Hunsur Division
Protected Areas
The large contiguous extent of forest has the highest density of protected areas in the entire nation for so small an area.
No. Name District
Area (ha)
Perceived Threats
1 Mudumalai WLS & NP Nilgiris 21776 27.01.1940 Exotics, anthropogenic pressures
2 Mukurthi NP Nilgiris 7846 15.10.1991 Introduction of exotics, poaching
3 Wyanad Wyanad 34444 03.05.1973 Degradation, Biotic pressures
4 Bandipur NP Mysore 87420 15.03.1985 Uncontrolled tourism
5 Nagarhole NP Mysore & Kodagu 64339 01.04.1983 Uncontrolled tourism
6 Silent Valley NP Palakkad 8952 15.11.1984 Extraction of medicinal plants, removal of timber & poaching

People of the NBR

The Biosphere has a large number of indigenous communities, most of them forest dwellers and hunter gatherers. These distinct ethnic groups have small populations and live in geographical concentrations. It forms home to several adivasi communities, including the only surviving hunter gatherers of the Indian Sub-continent – the Cholanaikans in the New Amarambalam area. Apart from the Todas – a well known pastoral group in the upper Nilgiris, other groups include the Paniyas, Irulas, Kurumbas, Kuruchiyans, Mullukurumbas, Adiyans and Alyars. Its richness in terms of people is incomparable – history goes back a long way!. Their unique cultural and social characteristics sets them apart.

Forest Types

The forests of NBR are spread over a vast area and cover various ecotypes. The following pages explain the difference in forest types and its relevance to the culture and ecology of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

The overall classification of the different forest types are as follows

  1. Evergreen
  2. Semi Evergreen
  3. Moist Deciduous
  4. Shola
  5. Dry Deciduous
  6. Dry Scrub Woodland
  7. Grasslands

Evergreen Forest

These forests form a major portion of the western part of the reserve and are characterized by giant trees, multilayered species variation and luxuriant vegetation. The giant lofty trees can go upto a height of 150 feet or more and are oftern supported by huge buttresses. These trees offer refuge to a multitude of life forms including mosses, ferns, epiphytes, orchids, birds and often small animals. The annual rainfall is more than 200 mm with a maximum of 4 -5 dry months, and the mean temperature higher than 150 C throughout the year. The soil is loamy laterite. The main NTFPs are wild nutmeg (Myristica spp.), cinnamom (Cinnamonum spp.), cane (Calamus spp.), Piper longum, honey and other herbs. These forest are located in Silent Valley, Attapadi Reserve Forest, New Amarambalam, Nilambur Special Division and small pockets of Coimbatore Division in Tamil Nadu. Its ecology is that of the Cullenia-Mesua-Paaquim series.

Semi Evergreen

These forests are moist and occur as a transition zone between the Evergreen Forests and the Moist Deciduous Forests. The trees are slightly lower in height as compared to Evergreen Forests. They are usually found in the lower or more accessible regions of the Evergreen Forests. Buttressed trees are quite common, lianas are also abundant. There are 2 possible transition zones for these forests – either they secondary forests moving towards the evergreen climax or they are the degraded forms of the Evergreen Forests. In some degraded areas around habitations, bamboo (Bambusa arundinacea) and sandalwood (Santanalis spp.) are also found. Lagerstroemia lanceolata is the predominant deciduous species. The otehr main species are Bischofia javanica, Calophylum polyanthum, Tetrameles nudiflora, Artocarpus gomezianus and Dalbergia sissoides.

Moist Deciduous

These forests are restricted to parts of Nilambur valley and even here they have been mostly converted to teak plantations. Wyanad plateau, the south western part of Nagarhole National Park, and western part of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary also contain remnants of this type. Rainfall is around 3000-4000 mm with a dry season of 3-4 months. The soil is generally red lateritic loam. They are also classified as moist deciduous teak type and under this, the TectonaDilleniaLagerstroemia lanceolataTerminalia paniculata series.

The undergrowth includes many evergreen shrubs and small trees. The trees reach a height of 25-30 m. Buttresses, lianas and dense undergrowth are common. Some species are common to the dry deciduous forest type also. The common trees include Tetrameles nudiflora, Steriospermum personatum, Dysoxylum binectariferum, Ficus nevosa, Ficus glomerata, Pterocarpus marsupium, Salmalia malabarica, Terminalia bellerica, Terminalia tomentosa.

Shola Montane

Sholas are found intensively in the Nilgiri South Division and adjacent areas of Kerala in the upper reaches of Silent Valley, Attapadi and New Amarambalam. They are also highly concentrated in the Western catchment area, forming part of the Mukurthi National Park. They are accompanied by grasslands and are frequently the origin of most of the rivers of the zone. The trees are short to medium height (7-20 m), have small dense leaves and make a thick canopy. There is a thick concentration of mosses and ferns. They have a high water retention capacity. They are also classified as the Shola Montane forest type due to their slow growth, high susceptibility and confined geographical area – they are referred to as `Living Fossils’. The average rainfall is around 1000-1200 m with a maximum dry season of not more than one month. The main trees in this forest are Michellia niligarica, Bischofia javanica, Calophyllum tomentosa, Cedrela toona, Eugenia spp., Ficus glomerata, Mallotus spp., Rhododendron spp., Machilus macarantha, Litea spp., etc.

Betta Kurumbas

The Betta Kurumbas live in northern parts of Gudalur, extending into the Mysore district in the north. These people live in large settlements of 60-80 households. Most have no land and depend on wage labour and NTFP collection for a large part of the year. With the rapid change to tea cultivation in Gudalur area, these adivasis have become daily wage workers. Many of them have found employment with the Forest Department as watchers and elephant mahouts. Some of them are skilled bamboo workers. Today, the Betta Kurumbas have access to government schemes and help from other agencies. During the season, they go into the forest to mainly collect shikakai (Acacia concinna), kodampuli (Garcinia gummigutta) and some medicinal plants. They are not good honey collectors and like the Irulas, cover a wide area and collect small volumes; the more specialized/skilled collection of herbs and honey is left for the Kattunaikans.

Jenu Kurumba

Living in the northern part of the reserve, they are named such due to their skill in honey collection – jenu means honey. These communities are concentrated in the Mysore and Kodagu districts in the Karnataka part of the NBR. Cultivable land has been given to these communities, though they are traditionally hunter-gatherers. Some of the people undertake seasonal agriculture or else depend on wage labour. They collect forest produce, mainly honey, during the season and travel sometimes across the forest to Kerala to sell it. They are socially organized into groups and sangams in different zones. There are approximately 40,000 Jenu Kurumbas in the NBR.


Anthropologists do not consider them original inhabitants of hills. They have moved up to the mountains either for wage labour or while doing slash and burn agriculture. Usually, the Irulas have very little link to the other adivasis in the region, except with the Kurumbas. They have a more plains-ward movement and associate with agricultural and trading communities in the adjacent plains around the hills. Hunting, food gathering and agriculture form a distinctive way of making a living, which they now carry out, mainly for commerce.

They usually go in groups into the forest and collect items for sale to traders. Till now, the hunting for small game and eating of roots from the forest is common. They collect honey from the Roch Bee from trees and from the combs of the smaller bee – Apis cerana. They have a more widespread foraging strategy, collecting more volume for trade by covering vast areas. They too have knowledge of various medicinal plants, which they use. However, they hold the Kurumbas in awe for their skill in sorcery and medicine.


Though very few in number, approximately 1500 people, this community is well known for their distinct features and traditions. They are scattered over 40 settlements in the Nilgiris. They are pastoralists, breeding buffaloes for both custom and livelihood. Their traditional huts, like igloos, are made of different products from the forest. Due to the nature of their activities, they traditionally commanded large stretches of land for grazing. These were mainly in the upper areas of the Nilgiris, with grasslands and shola vegetation. After the advent of the British and the introduction of exotic plantations of acacia and eucalyptus, their pastures are lost and many of their traditional landmarks become meaningless.


The Cholanaickans live in the Karulai Forest Range of Nilambur in Kerala, forming part of the western NBR. They are the most primitive indigenous community, still in the pre-agricultural level of development. The people live in temporary shelters alongside rivers and shift to caves in the monsoons. Their lives are closely linked to the semi evergreen and moist deciduous forests around that area. They collect NTFPs and sell them to the Co-operative Society of Nilambur. They collect honey, black dammer, mosses, nutmeg, shikakai from the forest and take back rice, tobacco, salt, oil and other necessities from the Society. Now, they number approximately 426 and continue their lifestyle, though slowly being drawn into modern market economies. Very few development programmes address this community and since they are so few in number, they also marry into other communities, especially the Padinaickens.


The Malasars are found both in the district of Coimbatore and in the adjoining parts of Kerala. These people are a forest community, living on marginal cultivation (slash & burn), and collection of NTFPs. A large part of their diet also consists of wild yam (Dioscorea spp.). The Malasars live in low elevations and almost down to the plains. Some of the villages have good access and infrastructure facilities. Most of the younger generation is getting educated and some are working on regular jobs. A vast difference is found in the economic status of the adivasis in different settlements. Some of the Malasars practice settled agriculture, whereas most earn their livelihood through daily wage jobs.


Mostly residing in the southern and eastern belts of the Nilgiris, this group was historically known for their sorcery powers and providing medicine from the forest. They were the `people of the jungle’ and lived in caves inside thick forests. Kurumbas collected myrobalans, barks and roots, both for personal use and exchange for grain and salt. They also practiced slash and burn cultivation with millet, chillies and pumpkin. Today, these Kurumbas are settled in villages, adjacent to forests, eking out their living, partly by working on their own lands, working for wages in nearby estates or from collections from the forest. These people are today becoming part of the world around them – e.g. the adivasis of Joghi Kombei have shifted from their remote village of Erukal Kombei. The homesteads are often unkept, close to large rocks which they use for various chores like drying, cleaning, washing sharpening tools, cutting firewood, etc. Some of the Kurumbas villages have house made by the government – in rows with flat drying yards in the front. The settlement size varies from 3-60 households, with an average of 14 households and a population of 40 people. These are usually dispersed settlements.


They live in the forested Wyanad region of the NBR. This is a matriarchal society and the women participate in agricultural operations, fishing, animal husbandry, fuel collection, etc. Most land is owned by lineages, wheras there are a few individual owners now. Traditionally, they were shifting cultivators and hunters but now they mostly farm or are farm labourers. Some Kuruchians are also in government jobs and in the defence. Government schemes and programmes have reached out to these communities.


The Kattunaicken get their name from the words `kadu'(forests) & nayakan (leader/chief) and live in parts of Gudalur. They live as a nuclear family and follow patriarchy. However, land ownership is not common. The primary occupation of this community is based on hunting and gathering, especially honey. The Kattunaikans, now live near or inside estates or are settled just outside the Mudumalai and Wynad Sanctuaries. Their settlement sizes are very small, with an average of 5-8 households; sometimes just 1-2 families can be found living together.

Some Naickens, especially those living inside the Mudumalai Sanctuary and in Wyanad, have special affiliations with the Mandan Chettis and Mappilas, working in their paddy fields and supplying with forest produce, including firewood. Till today, these Naickens live with very few assets in small bamboo huts and are extremely shy in meeting outsiders. Around their houses, they grow a little ginger, coffee, pepper, tapioca and yam – but are generally not cultivators. They collect NTFP during the season, but not in large quantities. Honey is the main collection item, other items being forest pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Like the Alu Kurumbas, they have a strategy of less volume, high value collection. They have demarcated boundaries within which they forage, often the husband and wife leaving together. Now, they also work in Coorg, where there is seasonal demand for labour in coffee estates.

Mullu Kurumbas

The Mullu Kurumbas are concentrated in the Wyanad region, including parts of Gudalur. Known more for their hunting and bird catching traditions, they now practise agriculture in the vyals of Wyanad. The women engage in fishing traditionally. Today, most people are educated and hold jobs. They take advantage of government schemes and their special status. A lot of the culture is now borrowed from the Nayars of Kerala, though they have an animistic form of worship.


The Kasavas live in the northern part of the Nilgiri District and have large settlements, averaging 80 households. Their houses are small and neat. Presently, they are mainly built with the support of the Panchayat or the Forest Department. Living close to a wildlife rich area, these adivasis are adept in the forest. They are good NTFP collectors and have a high economic dependence on this activity. Most of the adivasis have land, which is left barren due to lack of water facilities. Since the land is rocky, it is seasonally planted with millet and vegetables. Crop destruction from wild animals is also a constant threat to them. They too, like the Irulas, collect NTFP in bulk and sell it to traders. They collect honey from trees and small rocks. They also hunt small game. The Kasavas are also herdsmen, looking after herds of cows, owned by the Badaga community from whom they get wages. However, this has created an extensive overgrazing pressure in the area. The whole area in which the Kasavas live, is under consideration for being declared a protected area.


Small but significant populations of Chettis are found in the region. These are both Wynad Chettis and the Mandhadan Chettis. The latter live in the Gudalur region around the Mudumalai Sanctuary. They practice paddy cultivation and have links with other communities of the region.


This community is significant in the Wynad region. They number approximately 6000 and many of them were (are) bonded labourers to landlords in Wynad. They have now been rehabilitated but a large number do not have land and go back as labourers. In recent times, protests in the Muthanga area of Wyanad were related to access to land and included the Paniya community, amongst other adivasis. Access to land and work, living conditions are the major issues facing this community.


This community mainly lives in the Mysore district of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, just north of the area where most Betta Kurumbas are located. It is difficult to distinguish between the two communities as they are very similar in their lifestyle. However, detailed studies of kinship reveal different communities. These people also depend on different means of wage work, forest collection and mixed agriculture. They are good bamboo basket makers and are also skilled in forest labour work including the trapping of wild elephants. Their approximate population is 15,000.


These hunter-gatherers are mainly located in the Karnataka part of the NBR, bordering towards Biligiri Rangan Betta. This area is covered with forests, which is their largest resource base for livelihood and sustenance. They also practice shifting cultivation but are now settled in villages, where they undertake seasonal agriculture. They are good honey collectors from trees and undertake basket weaving.


The largest single ethno minority in the Nilgiri District of the NBR, this community numbers approximately 2,00,000. Principally tillers and herdsmen, now the community members are in all walks of life. They are supposed to have come to the Nilgiris, after the break up of the Vijaynagar Empire in 1565 and settled here. After the British came to Nilgiris, it was the Badagas who took to change and modernity. However, even today, they maintain their ethnic distinction which is reflected in language, settlements and costume. The Badagas play an important role in the cultural landscape of the area. They are not classified as `tribe’ by the government, but as `backward class’.


The Kotas are the artisanal adivasis of the Nilgiris. There are 7 Kota Villages in the hills. They are skilled as blacksmiths, silversmiths and carpenters. The women practice pottery. The Kotas also cultivated their own lands and were known to be good musicians. During earlier times, this community supplied tools, pots and other artisanal services mainly to Badagas and Todas. Now these occupations are not followed, as modern equipments have taken over. Some pottery is still done for ritualistic purposes. This community is now mostly educated and can be seen holding government jobs, owning tea gardens or running small businesses. They now number approximately 1900 people only.


The Muduvars are a small population in the NBR, close to the Boluvampatty Area. This community is considered to be at the top in the hierarchy of adivasis in this area and are believed to come from the Madurai area during the Pandiyan times. They practice agriculture and have control over large areas of land for both cash and food crops. Most of their villages are in the upper plateau areas, adjacent to tropical evergreen forests. Most of the Muduvars grow beans, pepper and cardamom and also have vayal areas in the valley for paddy cultivation. These people are self-sufficient and well off. They also have good knowledge of the forest for medicinal plants and collect large amounts of Canarium strictum for their rituals and for sale.