Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Talking Hill Station Sustainability In Munnar

leave a comment »

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 on 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

with 2 comments

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

Hills of Murugan on Display

leave a comment »

Amer and Mohan skillfully putting up some of the last of the 32 frames in the Varija Gallery at DakshinaChitra on the morning of July 6th.

DakshinaChitra’s Vajira Gallery hosted The  Hills of Murugan from July 6th-30th. The solo exhibition highlighted themes of changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills as seen in photographs and satellite imagery. The choice of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, for this show was important.  I expected that most visitors would be familiar the Palani Hills as a site of the popular hill station of Kodaikanal but that few of them would be aware of the degree of ecological change taking place in this sensitive Western Ghats landscape. The exhibition received good press coverage and seem to appreciate the choice of black & white fine art prints and conservation-centric approach.

The idea that significant ecological change is happening in our own lifetimes was an important message to share with the audience. The choices of images highlighted undistributed aspects of the Palani Hills, scenes of tree ferns and water and shola/grasslands systems. These were followed up with images of non-native timber plantations agriculture, hill station expansion and other signs of modern human impact. The final images emphasized scenes of hope: restoration work by the Vattakanal Conservation Trust and the tenacious shola species taking seed under a canopy of eucalyptus.

My principal medium continues to be black & white imagery and in the Hills of Murugan the main gallery featured 32 fine art prints originally exposed on film and digital cameras. Karthik V’s superior printing helped deliver the kind of exhibition print experience that I had envisioned after my training with George Tice at the Maine Photographic Workshops. Focus Gallery did a fine job with the framing and presentation. I supported the educational objectives of the show with a second gallery of color images, annotated maps and illustrated information posters. The maps were created on ArcGIS using a variety of data sources including Sentinel 2 and Landsat data as well as high-resolution elevation models. I included a poster highlighting the work of the montane grasslands group and, in a sense, the exhibition was a visual experience highlighting the themes of this study.

Raina, Lenny and Amy and I were there a few days ahead of time to pick up the frames and get things organized. We enjoyed being part of the DakshinaChitra community and participating in the ebb and flow of their days. DakshinaChitra’s team worked hard to get the space ready and then hang the show. Sharath Nambiar, the deputy director helped organize our accommodation and the repainting of the gallery.  The final picture hanging was completed by Amer their multi-talented gallery supervisor.  The opening on the 6th proceeded on schedule, though we were disappointed not to have Rom Whitaker to help inaugurate the show (he and Janiki were stranded in Chengalpattu when their car broke down the morning of the exhibition). There were, however, several friends working in conservation who joined us for the opening. Robin Vijayan and his team of students and friends from the nascent Bombay Shola field station hosted at KIS were in attendance. That included Arasumani the principal author of our grasslands study. Vasanth Bosco from the Nilgiris, who was with me on a memorable Kukkal adventures features in the show, came out. Karthik V., who did the fine art printing and his colleague Suresh Menon were in the audience. We lit a lamp, said a few welcome notes and then I gave an illustrated talk on the themes of change in the landscape and ecosystems of the Palani Hills.

Information posters: Landscape, Ecology & Change.

We stayed at DakshinaChitra for several days and then headed out to Mizoram to be with family. The frames came down at the end of July. The feedback from visitors was positive. I would have liked some of my friends in the TN Forest Department to make it out and have realized that I need to share the show further and in other venues in order to reach a wider audience. Some of the framed images have now gone to Focus Gallery (who did the framing) and Karthik’s new photo studio in Neelankarai. The annotated maps and information posters are going to Kodai where they will be a part of a new Palani Hills/Sky Islands interpretation center being set up on KIS’s Swedish House property. The work of educating people better about the ecological changes is only just beginning…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

Lockwood, Ian. “Fine Art Photography as a tool for Education & Conservation.” Better Photography. 2 July 2018. Print & Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “The Hills of Murugan.” Sanctuary Asia. August 2018. Print & Web.

Nath, Parshathy J. “It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood.” The Hindu. 9 July 2018. Web(not sure if I have been quoted correctly here…but you get the idea)

Saju, MT. “Shooting the changing scenes on Palani Hills.” The Times of India city. 6 July 2018. Web.  (well timed, but not all factually correct)

 

Exhibition poster fo the Hills of Murugan.

 

Written by ianlockwood

2018-09-04 at 9:11 pm

Sinharaja 2017 & 18 Geography IA Field Studies

with 4 comments

Milky_Way_Sinharaja_1a(MR)(05_17)

Sinharaja’s rainforest canopy under the Milky Way- an unusual sight given that high humidity often prevents clear view of the heavens. (May 2017).

Two successful OSC Geography field studies have come and gone in the last 15 months. Both learning experiences gave an opportunity for small groups of motivated DP1 students to investigate an individual research question in a rural Sri Lankan landscape.  Sinharaja rainforest, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site, is located the south-western “wet zone” of the country and is well known for its rich biodiversity. OSC classes have been conducting field work in Sinharaja since 2005. The location offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. Many years ago, we used to do more ecology/ecosystems studies but the changes in the DP Geography syllabus has influenced how students craft their research questions around human aspects of the landscape. On both trips we were privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijeysinghe’s Forest Lodge; it continues to offer an ideal base for student field work, with access to the protected area, a range of habitats and home gardens.

The Sinharaja canopy from Moulawella showing the extensive rainforest over the core part of the World Heritage Site. (May 2017)

May 2017 Experience

The Class of 2018 geography class included eight enthusiastic students representing a diverse range of countries (eight different nationalities, with half the class being dual nationals). They embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches (it was relatively dry this year) and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Sri Lankan cuisine cooked up by Martin’s daughter. In 2017 Kamila Sahideen provided support in the interviews and was once active with finding frogs and other forest creatures. We were also happy to have Salman Siddiqui (Malaika and Maha’s father) along for one night. With his role as the head of IWMI’s GIS unit, I appreciated having Salman’s insights on how we might better use GIS/RS & drones to emphasize spatial dimensions of our data collection.

May 2018 Experience

The Class of 2019 geography class was slightly smaller but no less enthusiastic. There were six students and we were supported by Sandali Handagama, OSC’s multi-talented math teacher (and a former student of OSC). We hired four Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in translating the surveys and helping the students to better understand the area. We have now developed a strong relationships and they have played a key role in the success of OSC’s field work in Sinharaja. Most of the surveys were gathered on foot but at times we hired local jeeps to take us further away from the ticket office at Kudawa.

Each of the students explored an individual geographic research question but pooled all of their sub-questions into a single survey that all could run. The actual survey of 45-50 questions could take up to 20-30 minutes with introductions and a look around home garden properties. The respondents were gracious with their time and several OSC teams were invited to have tea. With several different teams going in different directions we collected 72 different interviews in 2017 and 42 in 2018. We collected responses using Survey 123 a GIS-enabled data gathering app that all the students could run off their phones (we also recorded every response on paper). This allows students to map their results and do basic spatial analysis on the findings using ArcGIS, the GIS software package that they learn to operate in my class.

Paradoxurus_zeylonensis_Sinharaja_1(MR)(05_18)

The elusive and rarely seen Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) making a short visit to Martin’s Lodge during the course of our final meal of idiyappam (string hoppers) and kiri hodi (potato curry).Food was dropped in a slightly messy panic in order to trigger the camera and flashes during its brief time with us.

Frogmouth_Collage_1(MR)(05_18)

Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) female on left and male on the right in a patch of tree ferns. These pictures are only possible-like almost any frogmouth image-with the sharp eyes of a guide! I was assisted by Thandula, Ratnasiri and several others. Students got impressive pictures with their phones. (May 2018).

In addition to conducting the surveys, students got a flavor of being ecotourists in a tropical forest. They walked the different forest trails, encountered mixed species feeding flocks, appreciated small rainforest creatures and soaked their feet in jungle streams. Looking for frogs, insects and snakes at night is always a special treat. On the 2017 trip the class had me wake them up in the middle of the night to take in the majesty of the Milky Way in unusually clear, moisture-free skies. A highlight of the 2018 trip was having an encounter with a rare Golden Civet Cat (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) while eating dinner at Martin’s. The shy nocturnal mammal graced us for a few brief minutes and fed on bananas put out by our hosts. We completed our Sinharaja visits with a hike up to Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of the Sinharaja rainforest landscape. The views in 2017 were especially clear but 2018 also offered the team a chance to take in this remarkable rainforest and home garden landscape.

Sinharaja_guides &_class_1(MR)(05_18)

Class of 2019 DP Geography Class and several of the Sinharaja guides (May 2018).

The Class of 2018 DP Geography Class with Martin at his Forest Lodge. Back Row: Easmond, Thiany, Aanaath, Zoe, Adrian & Ian.  Bottom Row: Malaika, Salman S, Martin, Kamila, Fatma & Yuki. (May 2017)

The Class of 2019 DP Geography Class with Martin at his Forest Lodge. Back Row: Joran, Dominic, Devin, Lukas, Martin’s grandson and granddaughter. Middle Row: Sandali, Martin, his wife and daughter. Bottom Row: Sarah, Maha and Ian (May 2018)

 

Past Blog Posts on Sinharaja

Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

General Sinharaja Reflections

 

SELECTED REFERENCES

Abeywickrama. Asanga, Sinharaja Rainforest Sri LankaWeb. 2009.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site.Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Harrison, John. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000). Colombo: 2015. Maps & Spatial Data.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-08-27 at 10:50 pm

The Hills of Murugan: An Exhibition on the Palani Hills

with 2 comments

Hills of Murugan (Horizontal poster)

In a few days I am getting ready to put on an exhibition of fine art prints and annotated maps at Chennai’s  DakshinaChitra gallery. The show is entitled The Hills of Murugan: Landscape, Ecology & Change in the Palani Hills and will be open to visitors from July 6th-30th.

The exhibition is a compilation of nearly 30 years of documentation and 48 years of experience exploring in the Palani Hills (see list of related publications below). My past exhibitions in India focused on the broader range of the southern Western Ghats and this is a more narrowly focused series of images that emphasize one range. In the Hills of Murugan I highlight themes of changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills as seen in photographs and satellite imagery. Seasoned readers of this blog know that these are ideas that I have explored in published articles,  exhibitions and posts on my blog.  My work attempts to bridge science with art and conservation and I am mindful that it should not be confused with picturesque approaches to beautiful locations in India.

Samples of the 20″x 20″ prints fresh from Karthik’s printer and just signed. These are printed on Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310 GSM, the leading papers for monochrome printing. They will be part of the main gallery of roughly 30 black & white fine art prints in square, rectangular and panoramic format.

The upcoming show marks  an important step forward with my photographic printing. For the last 15 years I have been struggling with how best to print and share my work. For the Drik and IIC  exhibitions in 2000-02 I showed work that I had completed in a traditional wet darkroom. Even though I was using medium format film that produced detailed black & white negatives, the print size was limited by the availability of photographic paper (carried from the US in luggage) and the tray sizes. My largest prints were 16”x 20” and most were 10”x 10”. With the digital revolution and the advent of digital printing my darkroom was mothballed and I tinkered with learning new skills to make black & white prints. Printing has been straight forward in Colombo’s commercial labs but the paper quality was not up to my old darkroom standards where I employed fiber-based archival paper. It has been easier to communicate my photographic work on electronic media-my blog, website and in occasional published articles. However, I’m still a believer in the idea that the photographic fine art print is the ultimate expression of the process.

For the Hills of Murugan show I was able to make contact with V. Karthik, India’s leading fine art printer. As someone with a long record of working in photographic the industry and specializing in archival restoration and printing, Karthik has developed a refined knowledge and work flow with printing fine art photographic prints. He knows the different papers, the printers and has a special appreciation for black & white work. Two weeks ago I met Karthik and we worked together with my files. Based on his guidance I had 32 different images printed that will be on display at the exhibition.

Family friend, Indian snake man and Padma Shri awardee Rom Whitaker will be inaugurating the show on July 6th at 4:30. Rom was a natural choice-he grew up in the Palanis and did some his early snake catching there. His years at Kodai school in the 1950s overlapped with my parents, Merrick and Sara Ann. My uncle, Charles Emerson, was Rom’s roommate when he was keeping snakes under his dormitory bed and I have strong memories of outings with Rom to go fishing and looking for snakes during m school years in the 1980s.  DakshinaChitra is on the same East Coast road as the Croc Bank, the site that was a key part of Rom’s work with reptiles. The team at DakshinaChitra, with guidance from curator Gita and support from Sharat Nambiar and Debbie Thiagarajan has helped facilitate the show after I proposed the idea in January. I had an affiliation with DakshinaChitra through my uncle Dr. Michael Lockwood who has contributed antique brass pieces to the galleries. I have gained a new appreciation for DakshinaChitra’s vital role in preserving and sustaining key aspects of south India’s rich cultural heritage. The Hills of Murugan has an ecological rather than cultural focus. However, through the choice of images one can better understand that the landscape and ecology provide a foundation for the livelihoods of the people living in the Palani Hills.  My wife Raina and children Lenny and Amy are putting up with me during this busy time and providing advice on the images and how best to arrange things.

The main exhibition is composed of 32 black & white fine art prints. These framed prints are designed to be a body of work that stand alone but that illustrate the themes of landscape, ecology and change in the Palani Hills. In DakshinaChitra’s side gallery I have compiled a series of annotated posters, maps and mini posters highlighting key species from the Palani Hills landscape. The goal here is more ambitious: it is designed to be  educational, such that visitors come away with a better sense of the area’s biodiversity, ecology and hydrology. Through annotated maps and posters I make references to recent history and ecological change. The theme of ecological changes resulting from non-native plantation efforts are presented and there are suggestions on the important work that needs to be done to protect the Palani Hills in the future.

The Hills of Murugan opens on July 6th at 4:30 and the show is open until the 30th of July (Tuesdays are holidays). I hope to see you there!

 

Palani Hills selection of shola/grasslands species. These are printed as A2 posters to accompany information posters in an adjoining room next to the main gallery.

Palani Hills 1973 Overlay (150)

For the exhibition I produced a series of new maps to accompany the information side of the presentation. This is a map depicting the earliest Landsat image of the Palani HIlls area. It is printed as an A1 size poster that will be in a smaller gallery next to the main hall of fine art prints.

Palani Hills Elevation Version 2a 2018 (150)

The elevation map is based on a digital elevation model of 30 meter data that I have processed from NASA raw data. I have also added key points and settlements but have left out roads and other human impacts so as to emphasize the topographical features of the Palani Hills landscape.

REFERENCES (Key articles by the author on the Palani Hills)

Lockwood, Ian. “Metamorphosis of a Landscape. ”Nature in Focus. January 2017. digital story format

           ”           . “Plantation Paradox.” Frontline. November 2015. (PDF)

           ”           . “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas.” Frontline. 20 April 2012. (PDF)

           ”           . “Fragile Heritage.” Frontline. October 2009. (PDF)

           ”           . “The Next Big Thing” Sanctuary Asia, June 2006. (PDF)

           ”           . “The Palni Hills: On the Danger List. ”Frontline. August 2003. (WEB)

 

also

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-07-01 at 5:32 pm

Kurinji Flowering in the Southern Western Ghats-Anticipation

with 2 comments

A collage of four images taken of Strobilanthes kunthiana (Kurinji) flowering in the remote Palani Hills during the 2006 mass flowering. These were taken on 6×6 cm medium format color negatives and then scanned.

2018 is an important year in the high reaches of the southern Western Ghats. The gregarious flowers of Strobilanthes kunthiana* or Kurinji plant (also Neelakurinji) is set for its once-in-12 years mass blooming. The Strobilanthes genus is widespread in tropical Asian forests where most of the 350+ species are found in forest understory systems. They have unusual flowering cycles and they experience mass flowering, dieback and then regeneration. Amongst these, there are very few Strobilanthes species that exclusively occur in grasslands habitats. Strobilanthes kunthiana* is native to the montane grasslands that are an important part of the shola/grassland mosaic in the southern Western Ghats. Every twelve years the flowering of Strobilanthes kunthiana and the extent to which they flower is an excellent gauge of the health of montane grasslands.

Unfortunately, as has been recorded in this space before, shola/grasslands ecosystems in key ranges such as the Nilgiri and Palani hills are under assault from a number of anthropocentric factors. The clearing of grasslands for timber plantations, agricultural fields and residential developments in Kurinji habitats is a significant cause of loss of habitat. Interestingly (and tragically) the grasslands habitat that Kurinji thrive in was long categorized as “wasteland” an unfortunate categorization that still persists in many vegetation maps of hill areas in the Western Ghats. In the Palani Hills, most of the plateau area’s montane grasslands have been replaced by timber plantations (see Arasumonai et al.). Now the unplanned spread of non-native plantations species threatens Kurinji habitat on the difficult-to-access cliff and escarpment edges. Thus, the next task for conservationists and the Forest Department is to give priority to protecting these last bastions of a vanishing landscape and ecosystem.

Kurinji flowering in 2018 is expected in areas with healthy shola/grasslands habitats. The least disturbed montane grasslands systems in the southern Western Ghats are in Kerala’s Eravikulam National Park (NP), Mukurthi NP and the Anamalais Tiger Reserve (both in Tamil Nadu). However, pressure on these protected areas is significant and there is a worry that a flood of visitors will damage the sensitive grasslands habitat. For an experience of Kurinji, the popular Coaker’s Walk in Kodaikanal should be a good place to view the flowering during the months of the South West Monsoon (June-September).

Strobilanthes kunthiana (Kurinji) flowering in the remote Palani Hills

Frontline spread with Kurinji Crown article (2006). Click on image for PDF copy.

Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowering on Coaker’s Walk in Kodaikanal with Perumalmalai in the background. July 2006.

One of the easiest places to see Kurinji flowering in Tamil Nadu is on Coaker’s Walk in Kodaikanal. The slopes below the walkways used to have a variety of montane grass species and bloomed with Kurinji every 12 years. Today they have been invaded by non-native trees species and weeds. The Forest Department has made an effort to plant Kurinji in sections near to the walkway. This picture is from the 2006 flowering.

A NOTE ON “PALANI” vs “PALNI”: In this and other posts I have used the spelling of “Palani” based on linguistic recommendations made by Dr. Clarence Maloney. Other organizations such as the PHCC and individuals continue to use the “Palni” version. I’m not aware of an ultimate authority on the correct English spelling of Tamil locational names, but the town of Palani is so named and Dr. Maloney is quite adamant that this represents the closest English translation of the name of the hill/mountain range.

*NOTE: In recent scientific literature kunthiana now seems to be replaced by kunthianus (see Catalog of Life link below), a change I need to verify before I adjust my usage here.

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Arsumanoi, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Botanical Survey of India. ENVIS Centre on Floral DiversityWeb.

Carine, Mark A.  et al. “A Revision of the Strobilanthes kunthiana-Group (Phlebophyllum sensu Bremekamp) (Acanthaceae)/” Kew Bulletin.  2004. Web.

Catalog of Life. “Strobilanthes kunthianus.” Web.

EFloraofIndia. “Strobilanthes kunthiana” Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kurinji Crown.” Frontline. August 26-Sept 8, 2006. Print and Web.

Mukherjee, Pippa. Flora of the Southern Western Ghats and Palnis: A Field Guide. Niyogi Books, 2017. Print.

Sharma, Manju et al. “Reproductive strategies of Strobilanthes kunthianus, an endemic, semelparous species in southern Western Ghats, India.” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 2008. 28 April 2008. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-06-09 at 8:51 pm

Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study

leave a comment »

Lenny & Prasen on Dolphin’s Nose with Perumal peak in the far left. A panoramic composite image from January 2016.

The grasslands mapping project that took shape at the plantations conference in Kodaikanal in December 2014 produced a report that was published earlier this year. This is important work and represents the combined efforts of several disparate individuals, organizations and funding agencies. The preliminary visual assessment of Landsat imagery by the author showed that satellite data held spatial evidence of dramatic land cover change in the Western Ghats and Palani Hills but that it needed to be quantified. Robin Vijayan of ISER Tirupati put into motion a study in 2016 with key field work and spatial analysis being done by M. Arasumani and Danesh Khan. Further academic guidance was provided by Arundhati Das, Milind Bunyan and several others. Bob Stewart & Tanya Balcar, of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust, provided key insights on shola regeneration in plantations-the topic that originally brought everyone together. INTACH and ISER Tirupati helped provide funding of the field work. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department was an important stakeholder and helped provide permissions for the field work. Prasen Yadav joined the project to document the work and produce a video of the findings. The study was peer reviewed and published in January 2018.  It is publicly available on PLOS One, including access to all the tables of data and charts (see link below).

My involvement with the grasslands mapping brings together several interests and is the latest chapter in my ongoing interest and love affair with the Palani Hills. An alarming conclusion of the study is the great extent to which the montane grasslands have been taken over by non-native trees and weeds. Those of us who have been walking in the hills have had a sense of this but the satellite images providing damning proof. It is also clear that the plantations have spread far beyond the original boundaries that they were originally designed to be in. Most of the southern escarpment has a fire line etched into its grasslands and now plantations species are spreading beyond this boundary and down the steep slopes of montane grasslands. This leads to clear conclusion that where possible efforts need to be made to preserve these last remaining vestiges of montane grasslands. The challenge is that, in spite of the surprising resilience of shola tree species, the last montane grasslands are being steadily consumed by plantation (and some shola) species.

Our study concludes:

  1. Identify and conserve core grasslands: Core grassland areas consist of a few to many hectares of grassland encompassing hillocks, streams, marshes and rock outcrops. These areas, even when nestled in a plantation matrix, should be protected and form the core around which grassland restoration efforts should focus.
  2. Check invasion in sparsely invaded grasslands: These areas are often characterized by young plantations located in grasslands where grass cover is still extensive. Here, we recommend physical removal of invasive species. Forest departments often have access to significant funding through the Compensatory Afforestation (Bill passed in 2016) funds and these could be utilized for these activities. Such funds could be used for the restoration of marshes, existing grasslands and to manage the invasive plantations.
  3. Review indiscriminate removal of mature plantations: Mature plantations often have native shola forest regenerating under them and lack native grass cover. Grassland restoration here is likely to be very resource-intensive. Conservation efforts should focus on sparsely invaded and pristine grasslands. In mature plantations, we recommend conducting experimental or controlled studies (like at Vattavada, Munnar Kerala), perhaps also examining the role of fire, and monitoring soil and moisture conditions in these areas. Moreover, removal of mature plantations could stimulate regeneration of plantation species from saturated soil seed banks. Monitoring of these areas is important to assess the effectiveness of plantation removal.
  4. Contain agriculture: Our field surveys indicate that paddy cultivation has been discontinued in some marshes. Given the critical role of these marshes in regulating local hydrology, efforts should be made to contain agriculture to the current extent and restore these marshes using a community-led conservation effort.

Several other writes have reviewed the PLOS article in the popular press and I have listed articles in the Wire by Janaki Lenin, Mohan Rao in the Hindu and Pendharkar, Vrushal in Mongabay.

This year is a special year since it marks the cycle of Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus) blooming that only happens every 12 years. Kurinji plants, more than any other grasslands species, are closely associated with healthy montane grassland systems. The extent of this year’s flowering will be a good gauge of the health of the grasslands of the Palani Hills.

My next personal chapter in this process to better understand the landscape and ecology of the Palani Hills is to present and share an exhibition of photographs and annotated maps at DakshinaChitra, Chennai this July. The next post will highlight this significant endeavor.

Southern escarpment on a very clear day looking west to the Agamalai range and beyond. January 2016.

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Lenin, Janaki “You’d Think Cutting Kodai Plantations Will Save Its Grasslands. It Won’t.” The Wire. 19 September 2017. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2016. Web.

“         “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 4 April 2014. Web.

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution in Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Pendharkar, Vrushal. “Palani Hills: Where have the grasslands gone?” Mongabay. 20 February 2018. Web.

Rao, Mohan. “Missing the grass for the trees in Western Ghats.” The Hindu. 17 January 2018. Web.

Yadav, Prasenjeet. “Save our Shola Grasslands.” YouTube. Web-Video. 16 September 2017.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-05-28 at 11:56 pm