Towards the end of the school year and before the South West monsoon set in OSC’s DP1 Geography class took its annual IA field study to Sinharaja rainforest. This was the 11th OSC field study at Sinharaja (the 2015 trip was our 10 year anniversary) and, like past visits, it offered an unparalleled opportunity for the students to engage in field work inside and along the edges of a protected Sri Lankan rainforest.
Keeping in mind the protected area and the impressive forest area that Sinharaja hosts, my students focused on investigating questions relating to human communities on the park boundaries. Using questionnaires and 1:1 interviews with residents they explored cropping, land use, water resources and tea patterns in the study area. There were strong spatial elements in the study that were later incorporated into their reports using GIS. This year we used relatively new 1:10,000 digital vector data from the Sri Lanka Survey Department as well as the most current population and housing data from the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics.
Once again we stayed at Martin’s Wijeysinghe’s Jungle Lodge. Martin provided one of our first interviews, which helped set the stage for many more fruitful conversations. The Sinharaja Forest Department guides played a critical role in translating and being a bridge between our group and the local community. In many cases they took us to visit neighbors as well as their own families. We estimate that we were able to interview roughly 60% of the households in the Kudawa area. On our first full day of field work we were in the Kudaa village area and had a traditional lunch with Martin’s daughter’s family. On the second day we explored eastwards up a little used road to the family that has Sri Lanka spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) visitors every morning. We only heard the bird but the students conducted several memorable interviews that morning. Our group of students was supported by Kamilla who joined us as a female chaperone and frog locater par excellence.
The field work was balanced with down time spent soaking tired feet in the nearby stream and climbing Moulawella on the final day. On our way out we had the good fortune to see a rare Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) in a fern thicket. By that time the students had been inundated with views of rare birds, frogs, snakes but I hope that one day they’ll look back and realize what a special final sighting this was!
Past Blog Posts on Sinharaja
Abeywickrama. Asanga, Sinharaja Rainforest Sri Lanka. Web. 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.
Sri Lanka’s primate city of Colombo has been growing rapidly in recent years. What were once the hinterlands of Colombo are now being absorbed into the urban expanse as it radiates outwards in all directions (including into the Indian Ocean where the controversial Port City project has resumed). Colombo has its origins as a spice trading port that developed under colonial rule and later become the capital of independent Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The land that the city would eventually occupy was low and much of the city is a few meters above sea level. The Kelani River and its drainage basin form a northern boundary to the city center. While some wetlands were filled in and built up during the early history of Colombo’s development, significant wetland areas have been maintained to mitigate flood events and (more recently) to protect biodiversity. This is especially true in the area around the new capital at Sri Jayewardenepura. The Overseas School of Colombo , which is just above a kilometer from parliament, is located within close proximity to several of these wetland areas and these sites have become important outdoor classrooms for student learning.
Colombo’s wetlands are faced with several challenges.
- Illegal filling in of wetlands: This is done to facilitate property and real estate development. With the growth of the city there is significant pressure on wetland area
- Water/effluent pollution: The wetlands are on the receiving end of effluents and other water pollution that is fed through municipal drains. Many of the wetlands in downtown Colombo are virtually dead as a result of this.
- Waste dumping: The illegal dumping of municipal solid waste (MSW) is a growing problem in the Colombo areas and wetland areas are unfortunately popular with individuals and groups that dump bags of mixed waste.
- Poaching of animals: It’s not fully clear how significant a problem this is but there is some evidence of poaching of small mammals, water-fowl and reptiles in what are otherwise biodiverse rich wetland areas.
Here is a listing of wetlands study sites located in OSC/Pelawatte vicinity:
Study Site 1: Talangama Wetlands
The Talangama Wetlands located east of the school campus (6.888894° N, 79.947727°E) have provided our oldest wetlands learning site. This is a historic irrigation tank that was designed to help provide farmers with water during dry periods, but it also harbors significant wetland areas. It is a rich area for wetland biodiversity, namely bird species. OSC works collaboratively with the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka to raise funds to promote conservation awareness in the area. In 2005 OSC and FOGSL published Student’s Wetland Pictorial Resource Book: Talangama Wetlands Tank. For many years the school and its PTA hosted an annual “Walk for the Wetlands” though this has regrettably not happened recently. In more recent years the DP Environmental Systems & Societies class has been studying water quality in Talangama. For several years the DP Group IV project has been hosted at the wetlands where a variety of student led studies have explored themes of plants, invasive species, water quality and biodiversity in the area. The site is managed by the Irrigation Department, whose mission involves water management rather than biodiversity protection.
Study Site 2: Beddagana Wetland Park
The Beddagana Wetland Park (6.891418° N, 79.909080°E) is a newly designated protected area on the western edge of the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte /Diyawanna (parliament) lake. It was set over the last few years up by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) with support of the World Bank. Beddagana’s forests are actually part of the Sri Jayewardenepura Wildlife Sanctuary that is managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The area has walkways, hides and towers that offer unprecedented access to different micro-habitats in the wetlands.
Study Site 3: Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda
This is the newest wetland study site to be designated and is the closest to the OSC campus. At the time of writing the Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda (6.880016°N, 79.930402°) had not been officially opened. It is being sponsored by the Land Reclamation and Development Corporation and hosts a series of islands and channels that offer excellent study opportunities. OSC participated in an Urban Fishing Cat workshop led by Anya Ratnayake and hosted by the Environment Foundation Ltd. in early September 2016. We are looking forward to its formal inauguration and opening to the public.
Study Site 4: Water’s Edge area
The area around Water’s Edge (6.905529°N, 79.910093°E) was once an un-managed wetland and then a golf course before being converted by the UDA into a multiple-role recreational area. There are still several fine patches of wetland vegetation with convenient walkways that facilitate observation of wetland species but the area experiences large numbers of visitors that can reduce wildlife sightings.
Bedjanič, Matjaž et al. Dragonfly Fauna of Sri Lanka: Distribution and Biology With Threat Status of its Endemics. Sofia, Bulgaria: Pensoft, 2014. Print.
Boyle, Richard. “Diyawanna Oya: A Suburban Wetland To Savour.” Serendib. October 2014. Web.
Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka. Student’s Wetland Pictorial Resource Book: Talangama Wetlands Tank. Colombo: FOGSL, 2005. Print.
Land Reclamation and Development Corporation. Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda. Web. Also
Malawatte, Vinod. “The Urban Wetlands Of Colombo: A Spongy Wildlife Refuge Within The City.” Roar.lk. 26 February 2016. Web.
Ramsar. Sri Lanka Profile. Web.
Urban Development Authority. Beddagana Wetlands Park. Web.
Urban Development Authority. Environmental Management Plan (January 2014).
Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project. Facebook Page.
Wijeyeratne, GehanDe Silva. Sri Lanka Wildlife. Bucks, England, Bradt, 2007. Print. (see page 20 for review of Talangama).
World Bank. Beddaganna Wetlands Park Fact Sheet. 17 June 2016. Web.
The west coast of Sri Lanka looms large in myth, ecology and geography. Ecologically-speaking, the west coast is defined by its dry and semi-arid climatic zone. The coastal area supports several important fisheries and a string of human communities live off these resources from Negombo to Puttalam and Mannar. Offshore there are surviving coral reefs that can be reached from the Kalpitiya peninsula. Inland from the Gulf of Mannar is Wilpattu National Park, located in the north-west portion of the island. Adam’s Bridge, the string of shallow sandbanks that separates Sri Lanka from India, is linked to the epic Ramayana. These shoals and islands are said to be the remnants of a bridge that Hanuman’s army built for Rama in their pursuit of defeating Ravana and rescuing Sita from captivity in Lanka. The area is equally important in the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of the Sinhalese. It records the founder of the Sinhalese Prince Vijaya landing on the copper-colored shores of Tambapanni (today known as Kudramalai) (Mahavimsa).
The name “Wilpattu” is connected with the large bodies of water that dot the densely forested landscape of this part of Sri Lanka. Wilu or villu is translated in Tamil as a natural pond. For anyone familiar with the dry plains of Tamil Nadu there are striking parallels in the climate, soil and ecology. Except, in Wilpattu the natural vegetation is intact and the protected area is a living examples of what the plains south of Chennai must have once looked like before they were cleared in ancient days for croplands and other hallmarks of civilization.
Since hostilities came to an end in 2009 my family and I have been slowly exploring the west coast of Sri Lanka. During the last three years we have had a chance to visit Kalpitiya, Wilpattu National Park and Mannar Island. Wilpattu has become a special destination for a number of reasons. I grew up with stories of my father’s childhood visits there in the 1940s and 1950s. My grandmother Dorothy recalls family trips with sloth bear and chital encounters in her chronicle Glimpses: The Lockwoods 1928-1980. Wilpattu was Sri Lanka’s first national park (established in 1938) and being roughly half way between Jaffna and Colombo it was a favorite place to visit on road trips. When we first moved to Sri Lanka Wilpattu was closed because of fighting and the very real danger of landmines. In the years since we have been getting to know the area better. We have usually stayed outside of the park and then hired local jeeps for the day. There are a series of DWC bungalows that I am looking forward to staying at when the opportunity arises. I still feel like we are just scratching the surface and I’m looking forward to further explorations and longer periods in Wilpattu’s magical forests.
Gunatilleke, Nimal et al. Sri Lanka’s Forests-Nature at Your Service. Colombo: Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014. Print.
“Sri Lanka’s Wilpattu Ramsar Wetland Cluster.” Ramsar. 28 January 2013. Web.
“Trips Filed under Wilpattu.” Lankdasun. web.
Wikramanayake, Eric D. and Savithri Gunatilleke. “Southern Asia: Island of Sri Lanka off the coast of India. WWF Ecoregions. ND. Web.
Wijesinghe, Mahil. “Wilpattu…… in the times of Kuveni.” Sunday Observer. 23 May 2015. Web.
Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva. Sri Lankan Wildlife. Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 2007. Print.
“Wilpattu certified as a wetland of world importance.” Sunday Times. 10 February 2013. Web.
Over the last year a group of scientists, conservationists, photographers and citizens have been working on a unique collaborative project to document and map the remaining grasslands of the Palani Hills. Montane grassland and shola habitats are a distinct feature of the upper Western Ghats and have been the focus of my personal explorations, writing and photography of/about the area. The grasslands mapping project, supported by INTACH, seeks to quantify the change in montane grasslands and draw attention to areas that can be restored. Robin Vijayan, now on faculty at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISERT,) in Tirupati is the coordinator. Other key stakeholders are associated with ATREE, NCBS and the Kodaikanal-based Vattakanal Conservation Trust. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is a key partner and will be able to use the results to better plan restoration and management in the newly gazetted Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. Regular readers of this space will see that there are familiar themes highlighted in past posts, notably the post on the plantations symposium in December 2014 and the “preliminary visual assessment” post from April that year. This post highlights efforts of the group and a visit to the southern escarpment to ground truth areas that had been mapped with satellite data.
In July I had a chance to participate in a four-day survey of montane grasslands in the remote Palani Hills as part of the grasslands mapping project. For several months of this year the grasslands mapping project has employed two young and energetic GIS/RS technicians Arasu and Danish. They have been systematically classifying the Landsat data from 1973 and 2014 and then “ground truthing” land cover across the Palani Hills. The result has been a series of computer-based maps and data sets that show historical grassland compared to their current extent. It is an unprecedented enterprise in the Palanis and the results are startling. The data and maps will eventually be available for key stakeholders and the wider public once there has been a rigorous review process.
Danish and Arasu had ground truthed most of the upper Palanis Hills areas by June but the high plateau between Berijam and Vandaarvu was un-surveyed due to strict permissions regarding access to this core area of the sanctuary. It is an area that I have been visiting on and off since I was a student at Kodaikanal International School in the early 1980s –thus my role was to guide the group to some of the key places where there are still grasslands. We were joined by National Geographic explorer Prasenjeet Yadav who has been contributing his time and photographic talents to document the themes of the project.
The Berijam to Vandaravu area has experienced significant change as grasslands have been replaced with non-native plantations during the last 40 years. In the last two decades I have been more systematically documenting landscapes and key aspects of the ecology in the Palanis Hills and wider Western Ghats. Land cover changes are a particular interest brought about by personal experience (several generations of our family have explored the ranges). I have traditionally used a camera to document observations but increasingly I have been turning to remotely sensed images that can be used to monitor and measure land cover change.
The visit to Kathcikiriodai and Ibex Peak in July gave our small party a good sense of how little natural grasslands are left in the Palani Hills while also appreciating the complexities that the plantation ecology have brought about. Initially we were delayed by fallen pine trees on the road (the old Kodai-Cochin road) and our team had to spend the night at the Berijam FD bungalow. On the second day Bob & Tanya drove us up to the road blocks and then we trekked into Kathcikiriodai. On our walk to Kathcikiriodai it occurred to me that there are only two types of grasslands surviving in this area: marsh grasslands and patches of non-native grasses growing on areas that used to be coop camps for woodcutters (when the area was actively logged). Otherwise everything else is plantation with virtually no shola (Marion Shola has a healthy shola and there must be a few others away from the road).
On the afternoon of Day 2 we visited Marion Shola, its dilapidated bungalow and the nearby cliffs. There had been a fire on the cliff edge-formerly grasslands abut now invaded with mostly eucalyptus. We revisited the site on the last day and were able to get a much better sense of the habitat, land use and awesome cliffs. We spotted a small herd of Nilgiri tahr (in close proximity to a bonnet macaque troop) several hundred meters below us. We appreciated the significant montane grasslands that crown the Agamalai range to the south – not in our study as they fall in the Theni district.
We had our most significant day on Tuesday July 19th when we trekked with four forest guards out to the Ibex Peak cliffs. We were blessed with sunshine and clear weather for the first crucial hours of the trip. On the way we passed though a few native grasslands patches as well as areas where grasses coexisted under thin eucalyptus plantation (Danish mapped and photographed all of these). I was alarmed at the cliff edge where it seems to me the wattle and pine is making advances into the strip of 30m or so grasslands that was never originally planted. The 2013 restoration efforts were visible (dead, leafless pine, and trunks with rings). However, as Bob Stewart later reiterated, it can not be a single effort and more, regular work needs to be done if these last grasslands are going to be saved. We walked up to Ibex Peak (2, 517 m), explored the marsh below it, which is still in very good shape and then headed back to Kathcikiriodai a little after noon. By that time the whole cliff area was covered in mist.
Interestingly, we heard some of the key shola species as we walked through the plantations-White Bellied Blue Robin (Myiomela albiventris), Black and Orange Flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa), Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Columba elphinstonii) and Kerala Laughing Thrush (Trochalopteron or Strophocincla fairbanki). There was a pair of Nilgiri pipits (Anthus nilghiriensis) at Kathcikiriodai -apparently content amongst the non-native grasses and remnant marsh habitat. We photographed two different shrub frogs, found a Salea sp. (most likely anamallayana) in the burnt out eucalyptus and came across a shieldtail on the walk out (near one of the coop patches). The only gaur we saw was a herd from near Ibex Peak. There was significant elephant dropping evidence along the roads.
The four forest guards provided important support to our group and I gained a new appreciation for their role. Two accompanied us from Berijam and another two were based at Kathcikiriodai. They are clued into restoration and removed pine saplings from our path to Ibex Peak (at least one of them had worked with VCT on the cliff restoration initiative four years ago). They are however not well supported and have minimal equipment. They had no working wireless and with no cell phone connectivity and they are completely on their own! After trekking with forest guards and staff in other PAs in south India I feel that much more could be done for these men and their important work.
We made several important observations over the course of our survey:
- Almost all the plateau’s montane grasslands area from Berijam to Vandaravu was planted with non-native timber plantations species in the last 40 years. This is supported by satellite evidence and terrestrial photographs from the 1960s and 70s. There are virtually no unplanted grasslands areas unless they contained shola or the soil was too thin.
- There are several small grasslands patches on the road to Kathcikiriodai and Marion Shola. Remembering experiences from my school hiking days I am reminded that these are former coop shed camps that housed labor (often Sri Lankan repatriates) planting and harvesting timber. The patches do not support native grasslands but appear to provide fodder for herbivores (gaur, sambar).
- Several large and medium-sized marshes in the area were left unplanted (for obvious reasons). These still exist, though there is some invasions of pine. One large marsh (10.168704° N, 77.366623°E) was dammed to provide drinking water (Konalar dam) for Poondi and Kavanji villages. Its lake now extends all the way to what used to be known as First Trout’s Stream.
- Shola regeneration in the plantations between Berijam and Kathcikiriodai is extremely limited other than the beginning where plantations adjoin the Temple Shola near the Berijam FD camp. It illustrates the apparent fact that without a “mother shola” there is limited spread into plantations.
- Plantations appear to have been planted to approximately 30 meters of the escarpment edge (a very abrupt border). These edges once supported remnant montane grasslands and were important for Nilgiri tahr and other herbivore populations. However, most of these edges have now been invaded by plantation species. The Ibex Peak cliff to Ullam Pari grasslands are some of the last remaining patches but these are experiencing invasion (see photos).
- The May 2012 restoration work by VCT arrested some of this invasion in a limited area. However, it needs to be a regular intervention if these critical grasslands are to be saved from being overtaken by plantation trees.
In conclusion, I want to put in a special word of thanks to VCT for organizing the permissions and the drop off and pick up. My colleagues Prasen and Danish were excellent company. We are grateful to the TN Forest Department for facilitating the survey and providing us with the guards and accommodation at Kathcikiriodai. I am looking forward to making further contributions to the project and effort to protect this part of the Western Ghats.
The maps that are referred to earlier, as well as my own tinkering with spatial data, will be shared in a future post.
PAST BLOG POSTS & PUBLICATIONS
Lockwood, Ian. “Recent Publications.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 11 November 2015. Web.
“ “Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation: A Symposium in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. December 2014. Web.
“ “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 4 April 2014. Web.
“ “Landscape and ecology in India’s Western Ghats: A Personal Odyssey.” Asian Geographic. July 2008. Print & Web.
“ “Restoring Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills. Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2012. Web.
“ “On the southern rim of the Palani Hills (Part II). Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.
“ “On the southern rim of the Palani Hills (Part 1). Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.
The Nilgiri Hills are an important range in the Western Ghats range. The broader Nilgiris area, located at the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, contains a variety of contrasting ecosystems and have the largest elevated plateau area in the Western Ghats. The Nilgiri Hills have been designated a “biosphere reserve” and include key protected areas including Silent Valley, Mukkurthy, Mudumalai and Bandipur National Parks (see the Keystone Foundations’ page for details). The Nagarhole, Wayanad and Satyamangalam forests adjoin the Nilgiris and thus it represses a vast protected area. Several important groups of people have lived in the hilly area prior to colonization by the British in the early 19th Century. The town of Ooty (Udhagamandalam) became the summer capital of the Madras Presidency and was the largest, most cosmopolitan hill station in southern imperial India. Many of the early scientific investigations of Western Ghats flora and fauna were conducted in the Nilgiris and adjoining areas. In fact, according to Paul Hocking, the leading authority on the area, the Nilgiris are said to be one of the most studied areas in Asia (see his interview in One Earth Foundation).
I’ve had a chance to visit the Nilgiris on several occasions since my first trip in the early 1990s. Initially I went on behalf the PHCC to make contact with individuals and groups working on conservation issues. On the first visit I had the opportunity to interact with Richard Radcliffe, a key figure in the post independence conservation movement in the Nilgiris. Later I returned on my own to work on recording landscapes as part of my ongoing Western Ghats documentation project. Most of the landscapes in this post are from those visits. On a recent trip to Silent Valley and Ooty (see previous blog post) I was immersed in the area’s ecology and landscapes and decided to work with some of the spatial data that I have gathered from various web portals.
My interest in the cartography of the Nilgiri Hills was sparked by an exquisite early 20th Century wall map in the Nilgiri Library. Roughly two meters wide it depicted relief, land use, hydrology, settlements, transport and other key elements. It was most likely a Survey of India product reflecting the high-end cartography that they made available to the public in an age before digital mapping and map restrictions related to security. There are few maps (and almost none that are publically available of the Western Ghats ranges) that come close to the science and art in those early SOI maps. I looked for it on this trip but the wall map has apparently been put away and is not publicly displayed anymore.
Two of the attached maps below utilize the 30 m SRTM Digital Elevation Model released by NASA/USGS in 2014 (Bhuvan also has DEMs available but they have voids and gaps that make it difficult to get a seamless base layer)(see announcement). The attached maps also highlight land cover data from the Western Ghats Biodiversity portal courtesy of my friend Prabhakar and his colleague J.P. Pascal (French Institute Pondicherry). The two NASA Landsat images look at the same area in 1973 and 2014. This provides a visual overview of changes similar to what I did in my “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment” blog post from April 2014. The issue of land cover changes, as evidenced in satellite imagery and terrestrial photos, continues to be an issue that I am interested in investigating using GIS and photo documentation.
Chhabra, Tarun. The Toda Landscape: Explorations in Cultural Ecology. New Delhi: Oriental Black Swan/Harvard, 2015. Print.
Hockings, Paul. Encyclopedia of the Nilgiri Hills: Parts 1 & 2. New Delhi: Manohar, 2012. Print.
Lakshumanan, C. et al. “Landuse/Land cover dynamics study in Nilgiris district part of Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu.” International Journal of Geomatics and Geosciences. Volume 2, No. 3 2012. Web.
Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Blue Mountains on Steam Power.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 7 September 2009. Web.
Lockwood, Ian. “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 4 April 2014. Web.
Lockwood, Ian. “Landscape and ecology in India’s Western Ghats: A Personal Odyssey.” Asian Geographic. July 2008. Print & Web.
Nalina, P. et al. “Land Use Land Cover Dynamics of Nilgiris District, India Inferred From Satellite Imageries.” American Journal of Applied Sciences. 11 (3) 455-461, 2014. Web.
Satish, K.V. et al. “Geospatial assessment and monitoring of historical forest cover changes (1920–2012) in Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Western Ghats, India.” Environmental Monitoring Assessment. 12 August 2014. Web.
Walker, Anthony R. The Toda of South India: A New Look. Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation, 1986. Print.
Varma, Kalyan. “Revisiting Nilgiris’ Peaks and Passes.” Kalyan Varma Website. 7 August 2009. Web.
The Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot encompasses a swathe of area running down the western coast of India across the Palk Straits to Sri Lanka and its southernmost point at Dondra Head. The heterogeneous landscape-composed of rugged hills, river valleys, wetlands and coastal plains there host a variety of vegetation types. Being a hotspot, there are unfortunately anthropocentric pressures: dense human populations, mining, damming, plantation agriculture and expanding human settlements to name a few. There is also impressive work that has been done in protecting key parts of the hotspot. A significant type of vegetation is the tropical wet evergreen forest that are found in high rainfall areas along the hotspot.
This blog is a personal narrative exploring two exemplary tropical rainforest habitats in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot-Silent Valley in the Indian sate of Kerala and Sinharaja in south-western Sri Lanka. By good fortune our school had two breaks over a course of March/April this year that allowed me the opportunity to explore both of these seminal protected areas with our two children. Amy-eight years old and enthusiastic about learning, art and sports -accompanied me to Sinharaja in March. Lenny, in middle school and now approaching his teen years is involved in theater productions and has a sharp eye for the wildlife in our Malabe neighborhood. He joined me on the Silent Valley exploration in April.
Silent Valley sits high amongst India’s most important protected areas. Not only does it preserve one of the largest tracts of undisturbed tropical rainforest in the Western Ghats, it is a symbol for a people’s movement to protect wilderness areas from misguided “development.” In the 1970s a plan to dam the Kunthipuzha River that runs from the Nilgiri plateau to the Arabian Sea galvanized a people’s anti-dam movement in Kerala in favor of protecting the forest. It was not an easy fight – in addition to agitation from citizen’s groups in Kerala, luminaries such as Salam Ali and the strong will of Indira Gandhi played a key role in Silent Valley’s notification as a national park in 1985. The area is now zealously protected and is one of the finest tracts of rainforests in the Western Ghats. Shekar Dattatri’s 1991 film Silent Valley: An Indian Rainforest helped introduce many of us to the area. His article (listed below) presents a timeline of events that led to the area’s protection.
During the longer Sinhala & Tamil new year break this year Lenny and I journeyed to south India and Silent Valley for an exhilarating four day visit. We were the guests of Silpa Kumar, the wildlife warden of SVNP who Lenny and I met a year and a half ago in Kerala’s other national park, Eravikulam. I was interested in revisiting SVNP (22 years ago I made a very brief foray into the forest) and I also wanted to introduce Lenny to the wonders of a Western Ghats rainforest. This was hard work-his friends were going to amusement parks in Singapore or beach resorts in the Maldives and Lenny was going on another adventure with his father. With a few incentives, he was a good camper and played a vital role in helping to spot birds and mamals.
Of course, it’s some way from Colombo to the Kerala side of the Nilgiri Hills. Silent Valley sits in the south-west portion in a relatively inaccessible part of the greater Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Our journey took us to Madurai, the Palani Hills and then on across the scorching hot and bone-dry Palghat Gap to Mananarkad, the nearest large settlement to the Valley. We were warmly received by Silpa and set up for an amazing visit. That afternoon we journeyed to the Mukali gate and then into the core zone in a forest department jeep. We spent the next three days based around the old proposed dam site at Sairandhri. A young and energetic officer/Wildlife of India Institute graduate Aneesh accompanied us and helped us learn more about the area.
On one of our full days we walked the trail to the Poochipara forest station. It crosses the Kunthipuzha and then continues through gorgeous, towering rainforest to a forest guard hut. Back in the Sairandhri vicinity I was able to record rare and colorful creatures-most that I had seen in past years but was never able to photograph properly. Highlights included sightings of Malabar Trogons, Southern Treepies, White Bellied Blue Flycatchers, Fairy Bluebirds, Gray Headed Bulbuls, Great Pied Hornbills, Lion Tailed Macaques, Nilgiri Langurs, Draco lizards and much more. We shared the forest guesthouse with Aneesh and three young women from the College of Forestry in Trissur Kerala. They were conducting population studies of bats, rodents and small carnivores. Lenny was able to observe them setting up mist nets and catching bats. Ever the prankster, Lenny photo-bombed one of Devika’s camera trap-a device that a few weeks earlier had captured a tiger and black panther (a melanic form of the leopard) moving on different nights.
Like Silent Valley, Sinharaja’s status as a protected area was born from controversy. The area that makes up what visitors know of the park was part of a larger belt of lowland rainforest in the Rakwana Hills. The lore associated with the forest stretches back to a time before recorded history. Much of this hilly area was converted into plantation agriculture in the 20th Century but Sinharaja enjoyed natural protection because of the rugged topography of its boundaries. However, in the 1960s roads were built into its heart and mechanical logging was started to feed a large paper mill located in Avisawella. It was a time when this sort of project elicited praise for improving the prospect for “development.” Awareness about ecological matters-concepts like biodiversity, deforestation, ecosystem services and watershed management were not in the public discourse of the age.
As the name suggests, Sinharaja (“lion king”) evokes pride in the Sinhalese and by the 1970s groups of citizens, university professors and students had started to raise awareness about the deforestation and need to protect the forest. The March for Conservation group was a key actor in raising public awareness. It took Julius Jayewardene’s 1977 election for that to happen. The logging soon stopped and Sinharaja was protected first as a sanctuary in 1978 and then as a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site in 1988. Since then it has become one of the most studied rainforests in Asia. The area that was once logged has made a remarkable recovery and Sinharaja illustrates the potential for rainforest recovery after human disturbance.
In March I did a short three-day visit to Sinharaja with our daughter Amy. The goal was to experience the forest and see and photograph as many birds (and other creatures) as possible. In recent years most of my visits have been with students as part of our DP Geography field work and it was good to have an opportunity to explore other places in the area for personal reasons. It was quite hot and dry- in fact dry enough that there were no leeches! Amy and I were lucky to have Thandula as our guide on this visit. We walked to the research center, observed a few mixed species flocks and journeyed to see a Green-billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos) next and the rare Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata). Many of the birds were busy nesting but the migrants (paradise flycatchers etc.) were still around, which we appreciated. The highlight was a superb encounter with the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni), a bird brought to public notice by Deepal Warakagoda in 1998. Thandula had worked in Sinharaja with Deepal and it was thanks to him that we saw this shy bird. As usual, we stayed at Martin’s where we are treated like family and Amy was showered with special attention. Her favorite part was spending time exploring the stream below Martin’s.
There are fascinating parallels in Sinharaja and Silent Valley that are worth highlighting briefly here. Both have conservation histories that started in controversy, elicited a ground swelling of public support and resulted in their protection. From my perspective, both demonstrate effective management strategies. Silent Valley is blessed with a team of enthusiastic and committed personnel that love what they do. This stretches from the top level -who are more often in the field than office- to the forest guards manning remote posts. The Kerala Wildlife Department runs a tight operation and I was impressed by the commitment and love for their rainforest that they espoused. In Sinharaja. a similar pride in the protected area is evident in the forest guides that take tourists along trails at the Kudawa and Deniaya entrances. Their livelihoods are closely connected to the protected forest. Ecological succession is happening in both places and the recovery of the rainforest is remarkable. There have been important studies conducted on this recovery as well as other aspects of the forest areas but there are opportunities to delve deeper. Both case studies demonstrate the power of protecting South Asian rainforests for ecological, aesthetic and even economic reasons.
Bawa, Kamal, Arundathi Das and Jagdish Krishnaswamy. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, May 2007. Web.
Dattatri , Shekar. “Silent Valley – A People’s Movement That Saved A Forest.” Conservation India. 25 September 2015. Web.
de Zoysa, Neela Ryhana Raheem. Sinharaja, a rain forest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.
Global Forest Watch. Web. ( a helpful site to investigate change in forest cover on a variety of scales)
Louve, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 2005. Print.
Manoharan, T.M. Silent Valley: Whispers of Reason. Thiruvanthapuram: Kerala Forest Department & KFRI, 1999. Print.
Ramachandran, K.K. Ecology and Population Dynamics of Endangered Primates in Silent Valley National Park. Trissur: Kerala Forest Research Institute, March 1988. Web.
Silent Valley National Park. Thiruvanthapuram: Kerala Forest Department. Web. (the official site for the park-very useful!)
“The Legendary Sinharaja.” WWW Virtual Library-Sri Lanka. Web. (excerpts form the de Zoysa book)
Western Ghats Biodiversity Portal (Beta). Web.
“Western Ghats.” ARKive. Web.
WWF Ecoregions. Southwestern Ghats Moist Forests and Sri Lanka Web.
WWF Ecoregions. Sri Lankan Moist Forests. Web.