The Sharavathi is no ordinary river. Originating at Ambutheertha in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district at an altitude of 730 m, this river once flowed through some of the country’s finest wet, evergreen forests, plummeted off a cliff to form the famous Jog falls (253 m), spread through the coastal plains, and peacefully flowed into the Arabian sea at Honnavar. I say that in the past tense because the Sharavathi, like most rivers of India, has had its share of encounters with humankind. Some a mere blip, others not so harmless.
I was drawn to this river and its ecological history. Tropical, wet evergreen forests and the even rarer Myristica swamps once cloaked the Sharavathi landscape on its westward journey to the sea. Stretching on both banks, to higher plateaus and undulating hills, these forests were at the heart of the Western Ghats, hosting an incredible diversity of lifeforms, and also ancient kingdoms. The forests have been home to large numbers of the endangered lion-tailed macaques whose soft “coo” calls along with the sounds of Malabar whistling thrushes, frogs living in the canopy, and cicadas resonated through the wilderness.
Four hydroelectric dams have been constructed along the short 140-km course of the Sharavathi. These dams have silenced a river that was full of life. Everything that survives now, hangs on by a thin thread. Vast reservoirs, powerlines, and roads have fragmented the landscape, displaced thousands of people, and submerged vast stretches of forests. Ironically, the most biodiverse regions along the river are the areas that have been dammed. The fragmented habitats along these stretches of river form part of the Sharavathi Lion-tailed Macaque Wildlife Sanctuary. Beyond the last dam at Gerusoppa, the river enters the coastal plains.