Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Bamboolands: Scales & More on Two Visits to Mizoram

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Trimeresurus grouping at the MZU Department of Zoology.

In the winter of 2017 and then summer of 2018 our family was in Mizoram for family weddings. Both visits gave me an opportunity to reconnect with like-minded naturalists look for and photograph some of the area’s unique biodiversity. This post share some of the visual highlights.

My brother in law, Kuka (a.k.a Rochamliana  or Khuluaia Aineh) now spends a good deal of time photographing different species, especially birds across the state. In the last year he has also been collaborating with others on an effort to get a birdwatching guest house set up at Sailam (about fours south of Aizawl). Through Kuka I met Phelly Pachuau and several other young wildlife photographers. Phelly and her husband found the Green Cat Snake (Boiga cyanea) that was photographed at Kuka’s home. Another important contact in Aizawl is HT Lalramsenga of Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology. He and his team (Bza Chawngthu and Lal Muan Sanga) gave us a tour of their lab and allowed me to photograph the pit vipers and other interesting residents.

Green Cat Snake(Boiga cyanea), Aizawl, Mizoram

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Spot-tailed Pit Viper (Trimeresurus erythrurus) at Aizawl. (December 2017)

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Striped Trinket Snake (Orthriophis taeniurus) at Aizawl. (July 2017)

Pope’s Pit Viper (Trimeresurus popeiorum).(July 2018)

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Tails of pit vipers (Trimeresurus popeiorum & T. erythrurus) at the Department of Zoology at Mizoram University. (July 2018)

PAST MIZORAM POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “New Hope for Wildlife in Mizoram.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  July 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Bamboolands: Land Use Patterns in Mizoram’s Rural & Urban Areas.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  March 2012. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Bamboolands…Mizoram in the winter of 2008.” Ian Lockwood Blog.  March 2009. Web.

REFERENCES

Ahmeed, Firoz, Abhijit Das and Shushil Kr. Datta. Reptiles & Amphibians of the North East: A Photographic Guide. Guwahati: Aaranyak, 2009. Print.

Das, Indraneil. A Field Guide to the Snakes of Southeast Asia. London: Bloomsbury Natural History, 2016. Print.

Das, Indraneil. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Snakes of Southeast Asia. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2015. Print.

Grimmett, Richard, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, 2nd Edition. Helms Field Guides. 2011. Print.

Lalremsanga, H.T. & Sailo, Saipari & , Chinliansiama. “Diversity of Snakes (Reptilia: Squamata) and Role of Environmental Factors in Their Distribution in Mizoram, Northeast India.” Conference: Advances in Environmental Chemistry.  September 2018. Web.

Mathew, R., and N. Sen. 2010. Pictorial Guide to Amphibians of North East India.  Kolkata, India: Zoological Survey of India.

Snakes of India. Web.

Whitaker Romulus & Captain, Ashok. Snakes of India: The Field Guide. Draco Books, Print. 2004.

Written by ianlockwood

2019-03-31 at 9:34 pm

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2019

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Horton Plains cloud forest canopy study in black & white.

In the third week of January every year I have the opportunity and privilege of being involved in some rather cool teaching and learning in our home of Sri Lanka. The Experience Sri Lanka! Week Without Walls program gives OSC teachers the opportunity to share our passion for adventure, discovery and learning beyond the barriers of our classrooms. This year I once again led a group of students and teachers in and around the Central Highlands while exploring themes of landscape an ecology through an interdisciplinary unit involving visual arts and science (ecology).

The Sri Lanka Central Highlands trip, was an experience of significance with many important group and individual learning highlights. This choice WWW learning experience is part of the broader secondary school Week Without Walls program that I have been coordinating since its inception. OSC’s WWW program was first run in January 2010 as an outgrowth of the MYP outdoor education program (2003-2010) and has now matured into a key experiential learning highlight for all of the secondary school. Through a variety of grade-level and choice experiences there are several goals that define the program:

  • Fulfill the OSC mission statement of developing the whole person within a safe environment.
  • Expose students to our host country Sri Lanka’s culture and environment.
  • Enable opportunities for service learning and outdoor education.
  • Use Interdisciplinary Units (IDUs) to support and strengthen existing secondary curriculum (including the DP CAS program) for the benefit of student learning.

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. All of the students had some sort of DSLR or point and shoot camera where they could learn basic controls and composition as we had different encounters. This year we had 13 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Loretta Duncan and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Pseudophilautus femoralis at Nuwara_Eliya.

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Montane Hour Class Fog (Taruga eques) at St. Andrews/Pidurutalagala.

We experienced consistently clear, beautiful weather with classic, crisp winter conditions. There had been frost earlier in the month but by the time that we got to the high reaches of the dormitory neat Mahaeliya bungalow in Horton Plains it was at least 10-15 degrees C° above freezing. The highlight of the time in Horton Plains was climbing the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in Sri Lanka. Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) was the focus of a seven-hour round trip hike on Wednesday and Totupola Kanda (2,360m) was a short walk that we did on Thursday morning. For good measure we visited Sri Lanka’s highest peak Pidurutalagala (albeit by van, as walking is not allowed) on the final morning of the experience. On all of these morning we were blessed with exquisitely clear conditions that allowed for crystal clear views to Sri Pada and the neigboring ridges.

Early morning view to Sri Pada from the slopes of Thotupola.

Kirigalpotta adn Horton Plains from Thotupola Kanda.

 

PAST WWW TRIPS

*** for this blog post I have borrowed reflections (written by me) from past Highlands excursions.***

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanisha Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2017. Print.

De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Print.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle”. The Sunday Times. 8 August 2010. Web.

Senevirathna, Ishanda. The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya. Colombo: Jetwings, 2018. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira & Nilusha. Lizards of Sri Lanka: A Colour Guide With Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira 2009. Print.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Aerial & Terrestrial Snapshots of the Southern Western Ghats

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Madurai airport publicity with classic Coaker’s Walk view (misidentified as Theni). (January 2019)

Southern India and Sri Lanka’s winter months provide unique opportunities to look deep, across ridges and forested valleys to ranges of hills that are normally obscured in clouds and haze. The retreating North East monsoon leaves the hills lush and the air washed clean just as temperatures drop to relatively low levels. People unfamiliar with the area can sometimes be surprised at the grandeur of the southern Western Ghats and neighboring Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Viewpoints and high mountain peaks in Kodaikanal, Ooty, Nuwara Eliya and other places are the best terrestrial places to take in the landscape. Timing is everything and most of these same places mist up while dust and pollution on the plains rises up in the afternoons.

An ideal way to appreciate the mountains in this biodiversity hotspot is to fly over or alongside the mountains. My family and I had the good fortune to be on a London-Colombo flight on January 1st just after the sun had risen over the Nilgiri Hills. Our plane crossed southern India just north of Cochin (Kochi) and then traversed the Cardamom Hills giving the left side a fine view over the High Range and Palani Hills (see flight path image below). Just 24 hours later I flew on a different flight to Madurai for a short visit to Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills. The snapshots in this post were taken from the flights and this short trip. Later on the month I led students to the Central Highlands – the subject of an upcoming post. I also worked on processing several raw Sentinel data files last year of the same area (used in the Hills of Murugan exhibition). The common denominator of these experiences was the crisp clear air and unique opportunities to appreciate and document sublime landscape.

Aerial shot looking east through a not-so-clean window to the Malabar Coast and Nilgiri Hills. The Camel’s Hump mountains are in the far left. The Bangitappal ridge and other points in Mukurthi National Park were distantly visible on this clear morning ! (1 January 2019)

Aerial shot looking north at key points in the Palani Hills and High Range from the UL 508 flight at about 10,000 meters. Note the fire in Eravkulam’s grasslands and key points such as Cloud Lands Peak and Pampalam Malai (Kukkal). (1 January 2019)

Screen shot of the airplane map monitor as we were over the Cardamom Hills looking north to the High Range and Palani HiIls. (1 January 2019)

Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking south towards the flight path that I had been on a few days earlier. (4 January 2019)

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Sky Islands as seen from the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills. The distant ranges include the Highwavies (Megamalai). The Agamalai range is just over the Vattakanal-Vilagavi ridge.

Sentinel imagery from February 2018. Processed by the author for the Hills of Murugan exhibition at DakshinaChitra in July 2018. Click on image for A3 150 dpi image

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Flying back to Colombo from Madurai with views to the Ashambu Hills on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Tuticorin and Gulf of Mannar coastline is visible in the lower image. (5 January 2019)

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Lockwood, Ian. “Palani Hills from the Air.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 22 April 2010.  Web.

 

 

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2019-02-12 at 9:06 am

Knuckles Explorations

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High peaks of the Knuckles and Meemure valley from Corbet’s Gap. (April 2007)

The Knuckles or Dumbara Kanduvetiya mountain range is a vital refuge for Sri Lankan biodiversity. Cloaked in mist, both literally and figuratively, they sit at the center of the island but are one of the least-understood natural landscapes in Sri Lanka. In 2010 UNESCO recognized the Knuckles conservation area as part of the Sri Lankan Central Highlands World Heritage Site  (UNESCO). That helped draw positive attention to the area. Located north-east of Kandy, the range is spread over about 210 square kilometers and includes a collection of rugged peaks just under 2,000 meters. I’ve been interested in the Knuckles for some time, especially since there is a strong ecological and geological affinity with the Southern Western Ghats. Last term’s school break and a family road trip gave me a chance to continue my explorations that first started in 2005.

It is difficult to move through the Knuckles area, a landscape dominated by steep escarpments, craggy peaks and isolated valleys. Dense forest makes movement difficult. I have thus far visited the two different corners on four separate family trips and I feel like we are just starting to scratch the surface of getting to know the area. When we first arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005 our family took two short visits to the Corbet’s Gap side of the Knuckles range. Now, in the last two years, we have been to the Riverston area twice. I was particularly interested to observe and document parallels in the landscape and ecology of the Knuckles with the southernmost Western Ghats. I had heard anecdotal  reports that the Agasthyamalai range, one of the richest biological zones in the Western Ghats, shares affinity with the Knuckles area. Thus, I was interested to see the pantanas and see to what extent they mirrored patterns of mid-elevation grasslands in the southern Western Ghats. These links continue to drive my ongoing interest in the Knuckles.

 

The Knuckles or Dumbara range, as seen from the summit of Sri Pada on a crisp December morning in 2013.

 

On our recent visit we took an afternoon to visit the Pitawala pantana, an area of mid elevation grasslands that is home to several rare species. Most notable is the presence of a population of the rare Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata). We found tadpoles on the stream surface but did not actually see an adult. That was disappointing but it gives us a reason to revisit the area in the next year. We were give excellent guidance by Nadeera Weerasinghe the manager of Sir John’s Bungalow, the fine accommodation that we stayed at for two nights. He also helped us identify the large Knuckles Bent Toed Geckos (Crytodactylus soba) that frequented the bungalow at night. The best shot, however was found while walking with the kids on the Riverston road at night

There are several species of reptiles and amphibians that are closely associated with the Knuckles area and are, in fact, endemic to the range. The Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) and Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara) were on my list and with advice from Nadeera we found several individuals on the Riverston pass. In the coming months we plan to return to learn more about this fascinating corner of Sri Lanka.

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The endemic and rare Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Cophotis dumbara) photographed at Riverston. November 2018

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Crestless lizard juvenile (Calotes liocephalus) at Riverston.

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Shades of the shola/grasslands mosaic? These are mid-elevation pantanas (@700-1200 m) with coarse grasses on the Riverston road.

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Morning view looking north from the Riverston road. The foreground is dominated by the pantanas- native grasslands at a mid-elevation (@700-1200 m) with coarse grasses.

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Author’s map of the Knuckles region (updated version)

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The broad sweep of the Knuckles range seen from the border of Wasguma National Park looking due south. October 2016.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

Bambaradeniya Channa and S P Ekanayake. A Guide to the Biodiversity of the Knuckles Forest Range. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toad Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. Print.

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

Ekanayake, Sarath and Channa Bambaradeniya. Trekking in the Knuckles Forest: A Trekking Guide to Alugallena, Dekinda and Nitre Cave Nature Trails. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

Lakdasun Trips. “Knuckles.” ND. Web.

Lindström, Sara.  Eskil Mattsson and S.P.Nissanka. “Forest cover change in Sri Lanka: The role of small scale farmers.” Applied Geography. May 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al.  “Amphibian Research in Sri Lanka.” Froglog. (via ResearchGate). January 2014. Web.

Somaweera, Ruchira and Nilusha Somaweera. Lizards of Sri Lanka. A Colour Guide with Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira, 2009. Print.

Weerawardhena, Senarathge R. and Anthony P. Russell.  “Historical land-use patterns in relation to conservation strategies for the Riverstone area, the Knuckles massif, Sri Lanka: insights gained from the recovery of anuran communities.” Taprobanica. October 2012. Web.

 

Written by ianlockwood

2019-01-12 at 9:14 pm

Urban Air Quality (AQI) Studies at a Local and Regional Level

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Screen grab of AQICN’s Colombo page (based on US Embassy data on Tuesday 27 November 2018)

The issue of air quality has been in the news lately with the destructive Camp Fire in northern California and resulting air pollution in the San Francisco Bay area. Poor air quality is nothing new, of course, and has been a fixture of the less desirable side of urban development and agricultural practices. In our Asian neighborhood, cities like New Delhi and Beijing, have regularly been in the news for their frightening air pollution. South East Asia has faced serious problems from the clearing and burning of tropical forest for agricultural expansion (see the articles below by Adam Voiland). Colombo Sri Lanka, where I am based, has much less of a problem but there are development plans and changes that could contribute to an increase in poor air quality. The OSC IB Environmental Systems class is currently completing their internal assessment on air quality in topic 6 (Atmospheric Systems & Societies). This post considers and shares resources for monitoring air quality at a variety of scales that I have been exploring with the students. The goal is to document resources to understanding air quality measurements and work to reduce causes with interested readers, students and teachers.

MEASURING AQI

Many countries have been monitoring and reporting on air quality for some time.The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure used to measure and monitor the quality of air. However, there is not necessarily a common standard scale, even though most are called “AQI” (see Wikipedia’s page for a summary of the different AQIs). For example, India’s AQI is on a scale of 0-500 with eight different components measured (NAQI). The UK is on a scale of 0-10 with five major pollutants (UK AIR). China’s AQI measures six pollutants on a scale of 0-300. Thus, it has been difficult to compare values on a global scale.

For the purposes of our student work we have used the AQI established by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States. It is based on measures of the following five pollutants.

  • ground-level ozone (O3)
  • particle pollution (particulate matter) (PM2 or PM10)
  • carbon monoxide (CO)
  • sulfur dioxide (SO2)
  • nitrogen dioxide (NO2)

Each of the pollution segments has a standard, set by the EPA. This is used to evaluate the quality of the air based on the measurement. The scale of the AQI runs from 0-500 but, in reality many cities are off these charts and getting close to 1,000! For example, today (November 27th at 2:00 pm) Delhi has an AQI of 492 and several places in China in the Beijing area have an AQI of 999!

Screen grabs from India’s National AQI data portal (Chennai on 29 November 2018).

Screen grabs from India’s National AQI data portal (New Delhi on 29 November 2018).

US EMBASSY DATA

There are now  online tools to help students, teachers and other interested citizens become more aware of the spatial extent of the problem using a single AQI measure. The US State Department is recording and sharing AQI data at their global network of embassies and consulates. AirNow (of the EPA) has a website where the current data from these embassies and consulates is layered on an OpenStreetMap. If you click on this link you can input a city with a US embassy/consulate and then access both current and historical data. Many places have yearly data, collected every hour going back to 2015! This is an ideal resource for science teachers looking to find meaningful secondary data for students to use in analysis.

Screen grab of Colombo data showing hourly progression (15 November 2018).

Screen grab from AIR NOW’s US Embassy portal showing AQI in Dhaka Bangladesh (29 November 2018).

Portal to the World Air Quality Index site.

You can also look up global data sets at the World Air Quality Index project’s site at www.aqicn.org . This site, based in China, compiles AQI data from around the world and maps it. Thus far, I have not been able to download historical data from the site. They do have several useful links including an Asian forecast page.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where many people are exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution, as the links above share. It is hoped that the data and the knowledge of these patterns will help our communities look for meaningful changes in our daily lives such that we reduce and eliminate the cause of human induced air pollution.

 

Special thanks to students Camille-anh Goulet and Jordan Wright and OSC parent Michael Cragun for sharing links and ideas that have contributed to our understanding of AQI.

REFERENCES

Al Mukhtar, Sarah et al. “Hell on Earth” New York Times. 18 November 2018. Web.

Camp Fire Spreads Foul Air in California. NASA Earth Observatory. 11 November 2018. Web.

India National Air Quality Index Portal. Web.

US Environmental Protection Agency. Air Now. Data Portal. Web.

US Environmental Protection Agency. Air Now: US Embassies & Consulates. Data Portal. Web.

Voiland, Adam. “It’s Fire Season in South East Asia.” NASA Earth Observatory. 1 March 2018. Web.

Voiland, Adam. “Smoke Blankets Indonesia. NASA Earth Observatory. 27 September 2015. Web.

World Air Pollution: Real Time Air Quality Index Portal. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-12-04 at 7:00 pm

Talking Hill Station Sustainability In Munnar

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Opening slide from the author’s presentation exploring sustainability opportunities and challenges in the hill stations of southern India.

The Sustainable Munnar-Vison 2050 conference held this last July reviewed a variety of issues and made recommendations about a way forward for what is becoming a threatened hill station in an exquisitely beautiful part of southern India. The conference was organized by the High Range Wildlife Preservation Association with support of the Kanan Devan Hills (Ripple Tea) company. The conference date at the end of July meant that rainfall and flooding events soon took over the headlines in Kerala and unfortunately little has been published about the important conversations and presentations. I was privileged to participate in the conference on the invitation of the association’s members Jojo Guha Thakurta and Mohan Varghese. In this post I review some of the key points of discussion and a few images from my days in the High Range.

A History of Conservation Initiatives

Twelve years ago, the High Range Wildlife & Environment Preservation Association hosted the 4th World Conference on Mountain Ungulates. At the time, Mohan Alembath, the former Kerala wildlife officer who set up the Tahr Foundation had brought together key people to discuss themes of ecology and mountain landscapes with a special focus on the Nilgiri tahr. The meeting was timed for the 2006 Kurinji flowering. Luminaries such as George Schaller and Cliff Rice were in attendance. I had communicated with both of them when I was putting together my articles on Nilgiri tahr in the 1990s (published in Environ and Sanctuary Asia). Thus, I was disappointed to miss the conference for unavoidable reasons (our daughter Amy was about to be born in Colombo). The 2018 Sustainable Munnar conference offered me a chance to make up and spend time with my friends in the Munnar /Kerala wildlife circles.

The impetus for the conference this year was the issue of tourism in the High Range and the changes that its rapid growth has thrust on the landscape. As with other places in India, the explosion of tourism has been both brought mixed blessings. There has been a veritable explosion of hotels and other facilities trying to cater to a cliental of domestic (and some foreign) tourists looking for a hill station experiences in the High Range. Ironically, Munnar, a sleepy plantation crossroads town started in the late 19th Century, was never a “hill station” in the way that we understand it. In fact Munnar, spent its first 150 years blissfully isolated and unknown. Visitors wanting a hill station experience in southern India, traditionally headed to Ooty, other Nilgiri Hills destinations, Kodaikanal and  Yercaud. However with the advent of globalization in the last 20 years. -namely improved transport networks, higher incomes for an emerging middle class and widespread private vehicle ownership, Munnar’s fate has been dramatically reshaped.

Sustainability in the hills of Kerala has been a topic of interest in the past. Scientists, individuals and the Kerala Wildlife Department have a solid track record of promoting conservation initiatives and trying to limit the negative impacts of tourism growth and ill planned development schemes.  The UNDP-sponsored High Range Landscape Project, in fact ,sought to set up a management plan for the entire landscape. Unfortunately, that enterprise never came to fruition because of resistance from local politicians concerned about losing control of land rights (see articles and reports below).

Sign board at Eravikulam National Park’s Rajamalai tourism zone. This is arguably one of India’s best protected areas from the point of view of management dealing with high numbers of visitors and using innovative solutions to mitigate negative tourist impacts while offering them an opportunity to witness an incredible landscape and key endemic Western Ghats species.

Sustainable Munnar

It was a wet, windy monsoon morning in Munnar when participants and speakers gathered at the KTDC Tea County hotel above the town center. Several of us had taken a short visit up to Rajamalai before the conference (see photos). Members of the High Range Wildlife & Environment Preservation Association greeted participants and dignitaries. The chief guest was Tom Jose, the Chief Secretary to the Government of Kerala. KP Matthew the PCCF from the Kerala Forest Department and K. Matthew Abraham the managing director of KDHP were on stage to give felicitations.

Vivek Menon, the founding director of Wildlife Trust of India, was the first speaker. He discussed a variety of themes in “Complete Conservation: Ecologically Sensitive Development, a Global Perspective.” Vivek is based in New Delhi and has Kerala roots, which gave him an important perspective when speaking to the audience. I know of him from his classic field guide to Mammals of India but this was my first time getting to spend time with Vivek. A key point from his presentation was the idea of learning conservation lessons from other places around the world and he he shared insights and case studies from around the world that would be of interest to manager and planners in the Indian conservation context.

My talk was entitled Sustainability Challenges and Opportunities in South India’s Hills Stations. Using concepts from the IB classes that I teach, I started with an exploration of sustainability and carrying capacity before detailing a brief history of the hill station in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The main thrust was to use the case study of Kodaikanal as an example of what not to do. Our home in the Palani Hills faces clear and imminent challenges from uncontrolled growth/sprawl, unchecked visitor numbers and a lack of planning  (implementation of master plans) with no clear players empowered to lead efforts to move Kodai on a sustainable path forward. Managing solid waste and water resources is a major challenge with little meaningful action taken thus far. I highlighted the fact that the High Range has the advantage of clear stakeholders in the plantation sector (where most private land is owned) and a forest department with its strong track record of conservation initiatives (in Eravikulam, Chinnar, Meesapulimalai and Pampadum).

After a lunch break Dr. P.S Easa, the distinguished former director of the Kerala Forest Research Institute gave a talk entitled “Human Wildlife Conflicts-Reflections and Mitigation Strategies.” Jose Dominic spoke about his experience with the Spice Village group in a talk entitled” Responsible Tourism-Vision & Strategies.” His narration of the experience of setting up the first ecotourism ventures in the Lakshadweep islands and the Coconut Lagoon, Cochin was insightful. I have long admired the initiatives taken by the company at Spice Village in Kumily/Periyar so it was good to hear him speak about it from a historical and personal point of view.

P.V. Karunakaran, my friend from many years ago who is now a principal scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), provided the final presentation on the theme of “grasslands-ecological services and biodiversity values.” It was good to see how Karu’s long term affinity with the High Range and Munnar has helped him collect very interesting data and finings. I especially appreciated the many charts and maps that were generated with GIS that illustrated his them of the importance of the High Range shola and grasslands mosaic systems.

James Zacharias, the distinguished former wildlife warden to Eravikulam National Park, with forest guards on duty at the Rajamalai tourism. We did a short visit up here on the day of the Munnar conference.

The audience included several important living legends in High Range conservation. The current wildlife warden R. Lekshmi and several of her staff were present. James Zacharias, an assistant and then wildlife warden on several different tours at Eravikulam, was in attendance as was his colleague Mohan Alempath (warden during an unforgettable winter visit to Eravikulam in 1997). A highlight for me was accompanying these friends and senior wildlife managers up to the Rajamalai tourism zone on two different outings. We were also joined by Vivek, Karunakarn and photographer Anil Kumar. A  commercial photographer based in Cochin, Anil’s passion is the High Range and he has taken some of the finest Kurinji landscape shots. I enjoyed having a fellow photographer to compare notes with. Of course, it was too early for the full flowering of the Kurinji and I realized that I would have to plan a visit back in order to see the gregarious blooming in one of the finest grasslands/shola mosaic landscapes in the Western Ghats.

I spent an extra day in the High Range, taking a productive visit to Gravel Banks and then back to Pampadum. Through the support of the High Range Wildlife & Environment society and KDH Tea I was able to revisit and further document several important areas. I am indebted to Jojo, Mohan and the team in Munnar that made this visit possible.

Back at Inspiration Point near Top Station and the Yellapatty estate the day after conference.

Calotes grandisquamis , the large-scaled forest lizard on a shade tree in tea estates near Top Station.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

High Range Landscape Project (Project Document). UNDP. 2015. Web.

India High Range Landscape Project. Advisory Review into Allegations of Non-Compliance with the Social and Environmental Standards and other Relevant Policies Relating to the India High Range Landscape Project in the Western Ghats of Kerala, India.  21 November 2016. Web.

Karunakaran, P.V; G.S. Rawat and U.K. Unniyal. Ecology and  conservation of the grasslands of Eravikulam National Park. Western Ghats. Wild life Institute of India. Chandrabheni, Dehra Dun,1997. Print.

Karunakaran, P.V  and Mathew K Sebastian. Land use and Management Plan for Production Landscape in Munnar. SACON/UNDP, 2015. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Renewal in the high Range & Eravikulam.” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2014. Web.

“Munnar to host 4th World Congress on Mountain Ungulates.” The Hindu. June 19 2006. Web.

UNDP. Final Report Hydrological Investigations in the Munnar High Range Mountain Landscape The Project on: India High Range Landscape Project, Munnar, Kerala. 2015. Web (via FLIPHTML5).

On the Kurangani Valley Rim

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Panoramic view of the Kurangani valley as seen from “inspiration point” on the western edge near to Top Station and the Yellapatty estate (part of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company). (July 2018)

The Western Ghats, host numerous areas with unique biodiversity and play a key role in the peninsula’s hydrology but for stunning landscapes one of my favorite places is the confluence of ranges and their cliffs and valleys that surround the small hamlet of Kurangani. My relationship with the area has, thus far, been from the western-most Palani Hills though I had visited Top Station and Meesapulimalai (the 2nd highest peak in the Western Ghats) in the 1990s. Over the last 35 or so years I have been privileged to explore and hike the last vestiges of shola/grasslands in the Palanis. Along the edge of the Palani Hills boundary with Theni district and then Kerala we looked into the Kurangani valley and across the slopes and peaks near Kolukkumalai and Meesapulimalai. On several epic treks with my father and friends we witnessed the South West Monsoon breaking across Kerala. The rain-laden clouds billowed over the ridge of the Cardamom Hills only to be brought to an abrupt halt at where the lip of the Ghats drops into the pancake-flat, semi-arid valley surrounding Bodinayakanur and Theni.

Hidden Hills Pan(2002)(MR)(2017 ed)

The Hidden Hills. The last of the shola/grasslands habitat in the far west Palani Hills with clear views to Meesapulimalai, Kolukkumalai and the Kurangani valley. The Bodi plains are int he far left. Taken with a Noblex 120 panoramic camera and KodakT-max film. (June 2002)

In recent years there has been a growing interest in this area and Kurangani and Top Station have become a popular center for trekking and camping. The awesome landscape, with steep slopes of montane grasslands studded with occasional Rhododendron trees, and valleys of dense shola are classic Western Ghats. Most of the trekking and camping happens in Tamil Nadu but the base of operation has been from Munnar in Kerala where the exponential growth of tourism has opened up areas outside of major protected areas (Eravikulam, Pampadum, Chinar etc.). Some camp site and trails are in private estates bordering the Kurangani valley-places where some tea companies are looking to diversify their sources of income. The growth of outdoor providers has been rapid, catering to a new demand by a mobile, affluent generation eager for outdoor experiences. The interest in outdoor and environmental experience is a welcome development but one that has risks when not planned carefully. Kurangani became infamous earlier this year when a group of hikers were tragically killed by a fast moving brush fire on the grassy western slopes overlooking the valley. The trekking community, camp providers and forest department in Tamil Nadu were forced to do a good deal of soul searching to ensure that similar accidents are avoided.

 

 

Gecko (Hemidactylus sp.) to be fully identified shortly at Betweenpatti (Bodi).

Circumnavigating the Palanis

This summer, the summer of the Kurinji flowering, I returned to the High Range to look for rare flowers, meet old friends and reconnect with a landscape that had shaped my worldview. I did this over two relatively short trips and on the first one I was able to bring our son Lenny along to share in the experience. The floods that would devastate so much of the state of Kerala had not started and these journeys were characterized by happy reunions, nostalgic reminiscences and encounters with rugged Western Ghats landscapes and species. During the first visit I combined family visits with my own landscape and ecology explorations. We were initially based in Kodaikanal, where the Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowers had burst into flower in mid-June. On the five day trip we used a hired car to drive to Bodi to spend time with our friends Bruce and Tamar Dejong at their delightful home. There were many highlights for all of us and we were given an intimate introduction to Euphorbia sp. both in Bruce’s garden and on the road up to Kurangani. Bruce has become one of the most knowledgeable experts on this interesting genus of plants native to South America, southern Africa, South and South East Asia. He pointed out numerous individuals as we drove up the road surrounded by the awesome cliffs of Kolukkumalai, Top Station and Akka and Thankgachi (the same “Twin Peaks” in many of my medium format black & white images).

Euphorbia_on_Kurangani_road_(AM)_1a(MR2)(06_18)

Euphorbia antiquorum in the Kurangani valley floor. Looking west to the Kolukkumalai estate and Meesapulimalai (in clouds).(June 2018)

Akka and Thankgachi (Twin Peaks) from the road to Kurangani.(June 2018)

Lenny on the Kurangani Valley edge next to an unnamed (!/!) peak to the east of Kolukkumalai tea estate.(June 2018)

Suryanelli & Munnar

Lenny and I continued on our own to Munnar via Boidimetu and the Suryanelli estate. An overnight stay at the windy Black Eagle camp gave us a chance hike up to “sunrise point” and to look down at Kurangani and across to Ullam Pari. The Kurinji was not yet in bloom but the monsoon was active just to the west in the High Range and Cardamom Hills. Looking towards the Kolukkumalai estate, home to the “world’s highest grown tea” I appreciated the cliffside grasslands/shola but also noted with alarm the steady invasion of the grasslands by wattle (Acacia mearnsii).

Near to “sunrise point” at Kolukkumalai estate looking east. (June 2018)

Our next two nights were spent in Munnar, which was experiencing the full force of the South West Monsoon. The rains would continue for the next two months and contribute to the overflowing rivers and dams giving rise to unprecedented flooding. During our visit at the end of June Munnar was wet and enveloped in clouds but not dangerous. Lenny and I made a courtesy call on Ms. Lexshmi R., the new wildlife warden at Eravikulam National Park and spent a morning dodging rain and photographing tahr at the Rajamalai tourism zone. Facilitated by  Jayashree Kumar in Kodai we also reconnected with my friends at the High Range Wildlife Association-Jojo Thakurta and Mohan Varghese (see blog post from September 2014). Our discussion eventually played a role in me revisiting Munnar- something that will be the subject of the next blog post.

 

Martes_gwatkinsii_at_Pampadum_Shola_NP_1a(MR)(06_18)

Nilgiri Marten (Martes gwatkinsii) at Pampadum Shola National Park east of Munnar. We had a surprise encounter with a group of three crossing the road in front of our vehicle. (June 2018)

Boundary between a non-native eucalyptus plantation and shola at Pampadum Shola national park.

Top Station/Yellapatty Estate/ Pampadum National Park

A highlight of the circumnavigation was taking a day trip to Top Station and Pampadum National Park. I first had looked down on the dense shola canopy of Pampadum from Vandaravu in 1985 during the annual 80-Mile Round hike. Seven years later, Merrick and I rode our trusty 100cc Hero Honda on the old Goshen Road to Munnar through Pampadum. At the time it was a wild, forlorn area with a veritable river bed for a motorable road (“the highest south of the Himalaya,” many old timers will remember). There was no formal protected area and the forest was known as a hotbed of illegal plantation activities and smuggling. We returned several other times (the images above are from the 1997 trip to Munnar, Chinnar and Eravikulam). Today Pampadum is one of seven national parks in Kerala and offers visitors a chance to experience exemplary shola ecology. Pampadum is located in the  rain shadow of the South West monsoon (like Top Station and the Palani Hill) and is significantly drier than Munnar. We had excellent sightings of animals (Nilgiri langur, gaur, Malabar Giant Squirrels etc.) and shola birds on a short drive through Pampadum towards the Vatavada exit. A delightful experience was having three very rare Nilgiri Martens (Martes gwatkinsii) cross in front of our vehicle while we were paused on the road.  Pampadum, it turns out, is one of the best places to see this endemic weasel-like species.

12-part composite image of the emblematic shola tree at “inspiration point” near Top Station and Yellapaty tea estate. A very large file reduced for this presentation… (July 2018)

Just before Top Station, if the weather is clear, one has a chance to experience a sublime, classic Western Ghats landscape. In fact this vista has been widely photographed and it is widely published . Variations of the view appear in the backdrop of the film  Before the Rains. The view  east from Yellapatty estate over the Kurangani valley is sublime, bringing to mind a Western Ghats version of Yosemite’s Inspiration Point. On my four previous visits (between 1993 and 1997) to Top Station, Yellapatty and the view had always been mired in fog. On the June trip Lenny and I got a taste for the magic of the viewpoint. While Munnar had limited visibility and torrential rain, the Top Station area was bathed in sunshine. We explored the area and figured out several good angles but I ended up getting my best images in early July when I was back in Munnar briefly.

 

In Murugan’s Footsteps

We returned to Kodai via the northern route and Palani, the town that gives the hills their names and is famous for its Murugan temple. In fact, in the mythology of the much-adored Murugan (also known as Kartikeya north of Tamil Nadu), he and his brother Ganesh are challenged to circle the world three times. The reward is a divine mango giving knowledge. Murugan embarks on an adventurous journey around the world only to return to find that his brother has won the bet by simply walking around his parents, Siva and Parvathi. In spite of not winning this challenge, Murugan is remembered as an adorable, divine child.

Murugan temple at Palani overshadowed by the hills that take their name from the shrine.

Northern slopes of the Palani Hills looking to the setting sun and the very distant Anamalai Hills. The importance of the hills as a source of life-giving water for the drier plains is clearly illustrated here.

 

Our trip was far less arduous. Lenny and I left Munnar going north to Marayur and into the Chinnar (Wildlife Sanctuary) Valley. The Chinnar river crossing, where KIS’s Manjampati Tahr Camps trek emerged after three amazing days in the forest, is more developed with a few shops catering to the Muduvan and Paliyan  groups that maintain villages in what is now the Anamalais Tiger Reserve. Across to the east, we could see the distant peaks above Kukkal caves that had been the point of previous explorations.  On the plains at Amarvathi Dam we used small roads to cut alongside the northern edge of the Palani Hills before ascending to the refreshingly cool air of Kodaikanal.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

ARKive. “Western Ghats.” Web. (note the authorship on several of the key landscape photographs taken in the Top Station/Vandaravu area)

Manupriya. “Getting to know the Nilgiri Marten, a rare small mammal from the Western Ghats.” Mongabay. 10 April 2018. Web.

Poorvaja, S and Aravind Kumar.  “The ember of Kurangani.” The Hindu. 17 March 2018. Web.

“Pampadum Shola National Park Official Website.” Kerala Forest Department. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-10-18 at 10:30 pm