Archive for September 2014
Horton Plains National Park in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands is a unique high elevation ecosystem with intriguing parallels to the uplands of India’s southern Western Ghats. I was reminded of its mazing biodiversity and similarities with the shola/grasslands systems of the Western Ghats on a recent visit with my daughter Amy and friends Britton & Tracy. Our aim was to visit the plains, climb Kirigalpotta, stay in Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) quarters, and assess the suitability of the place for a future OSC Week Without Walls experiential learning visit.
Kirigalpotta is Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak at 2,390 meters. Given that there is a military radar station on Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak (2,524m) and it is out of bounds, Kirigalpotta offers the next best opportunity to get seriously high in Sri Lanka! The table land of Horton Plains is already at almost 2,100 meters so there is not much of an elevation gain as you do the Kirigalpotta hike but it offers an unparalleled experience in walking though relatively undisturbed cloud forest and patanas (grasslands).
Since my first visit to Sri Lanka as an adult I have been drawn to the Central Highlands for their montane landscapes, unique biodiversity and similarities to the higher ranges of the southern Western Ghats. In 2010 the Central Highlands were recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Now after nearly a decade here I have had the opportunity to visit Horton Plains on a number of personal visits with friends and family. This school year I am getting ready to introduce a new Week Without Walls learning experience that will highlight the geography and ecology of the Central Highlands. Horton Plains and its peaks will feature largely in the planned experience.
Most people visiting HPNP-and there are a lot of them on weekends-make the long journey up to the Plains in order to do the leisurely World End trail. We had booked into the Maheliya bungalow through the DWC and were able to wake up in the Plains and head to the trail before the van loads and buses arrived. The Kirigalpotta trail starts at the same museum and parking lot (once known as Farr Inn) that is at the center of HPNP. There is a sign (see pictures below) and it leads off down the hill and along several long stretches of marshy patanas in a south-westerly direction. The path is well worn and on this trip we walked it without a guide. The patanas are intriguing with their different grasses, dwarf bamboo (Arundinaria densifolia) and scattered Rhododendron arboreum trees. Unlike in the south Indian highlands the cloud forest is on ridgelines and the patanas (grasslands) are in the valleys. I had made a memorable trip here with colleagues Ray Lewis and Dan Snyder and on that first trip it had been helpful to have a guide.
The path crosses a tributary of the Belihul Oya and after some exquisite patana walking you dip in and out of the cloud forest. There had been a major flowering of the Strobilanthes in the understory a year ago (something I regrettably missed –see the Sunday Observer and Sunday Times) and on this visit the forest floor was covered in their dried out, woody detritus. The trail is at times rather muddy and Tracy and Britton took turns handing Amy across or just carrying her through these obstructions. After about a leisurely two hours the bath crosses a small rivulet and then makes the final climb up to the ridge and summit of Kirigalpotta. On the final stretch it follows the exposed ridge amongst mossy rock faces and stunted, dwarf trees and shrubs. We experienced a mix of sun and brief showers as we made the climb. On the Kirigalpotta ridge we got a brief view looking back towards the plains and Totopula Kanda (see panoramic images below). Amy zipped along with the careful attention of Tracy shadowing her as they negotiated the slippery ridgeline. The summit is composed of a small clearing in dense vegetation and a window over the western edge. On a boulder there are barely discernable markings of the Survey Department, left from their 19th Century survey of Ceylon. The serenity and natural state is a reminder of what the summit of Sri Pada probably once looked like. We enjoyed a quick snack, took a few snap shots and then decided to head back as clouds rolled in and brought with them rain.
In 2012 Rohan Pethiyagoda of the Wildlife Heritage Trust published the seminal book Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. It is an exquisite publication both in production and the sweeping content that examines ecological, historical and contemporary aspects of the park. While Rohan is the editor and force behind the book Horton Plains includes articles and contributions by the leading natural history personalities in Sri Lanka. The book is supported with a dazzling wealth of color photographs, line drawing, aerial shots and high-resolution satellite (IKONOS) images of the Plains. The fine photography of Vimukthi Weeratunga is featured and stands out in the book. The book has intriguing chapters on the history of the Plains and articles on the ecological origins of the patanas (an anthropocentric-influenced system or a climax natural system?….you’ll have to read the book to see what conclusion is arrived at!). For anyone interested in the ecology and landscape of the Central Highlands and their similar systems in the southern Western Ghats in India, the book is a must have resource.
SELECTED REFERENCES & FURTHER LINKS
De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Colombo. Print.
Lockwood, Ian. “In the High Altitude Grasslands of Horton Plains.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 28 February 2011. Web.
Pethiyagoda, Rohan, Ed. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2012. Print. Weblink.
Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle.” 8 August Sunday Times. 2010. Web.
Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: WHT, 2001. Print.
NOTE: With regards to spelling you will see “Kirigalpotta” spelt in several different ways. I have used the spelling from the Wildlife Heritage Trust’s publications.
The rugged, granite mountains that overshadow the tea-planting town of Munnar are a sublime, little-disturbed example of the high altitude Western Ghats landscape. The High Ranges and Anaimalais, which are contagious with the Palani Hills, host important remnant shola/grasslands ecosystems. The area hosts a mix of different landscapes and ecosystems, including large-scale tea and fuel wood plantations. Eravikulam National Park, established to protect the red listed (endangered) Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is a critical protected area in the Western Ghats. This summer I had a chance to revisit the area after a prolonged period of exile. The High Range and Eravikulam National Park played a key role in my interest in documenting the Western Ghats and it was a homecoming, of sorts…
In the early 1990s, and through to the millennium. I regularly visited Munnar and the High Range, seeking out a better understanding of the area’s ecology and landscape. The story of those trips and learning adventures are described in several articles and the High Range Diaries (a series of blog posts that are in production). The area had a signification impact on me, as it has on naturalists, photographers and other dreamers before and after my time. I read about landmark studies and then communicated with naturalists such as ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Clifford Rice who had spent time in Eravikulam in past years. Rom & Zai Whitaker, Belinda Wright and others who have contributed to India’s conservation story shared anecdotes of their visits to Eravikulam with me. I made contact with contemporary scientists, such as PV Karunakaran, studying ecological aspects of the park. The Kerala Forest Department who were taking over all management activities from the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society (HRWPS) in the 1990s, helped facilitate my understanding. I was privileged to take shelter with forest guards on my first visit in 1993 and later participated in an annual tahr census. Wardens of Eravikulam starting with Sivadas, James Zacharias, and Mohan Alembath were key facilitators as I sought to explore Eravikulam and study it from the Western Ghats perspective. The HRWPS under the patronage of Tata Tea then and led by the incomparable KN Changappa, was supportive and always interested in working to support landscape-based approaches to conservation in the High Range-Anaiamalais-Palanis bloc. It was in Eravikulam that I found the extension of the Palani Hills and discovered myself and a path to follow in life. Numerous excursions followed my first visit to the High Range and I was fortunate to have my cousin Anna, parents Merrick & Sara Ann and several other friends as companions on those memorable visits.
This summer I was accompanied by my seven-year old daughter Amy and I was looking to renew contact with friends, the wildlife and landscape. It has been many long years since I had stayed in Munnar and I was wary of going back to a place that I had known well before the onslaught of the “God’s Own Country” Kerala tourism campaign. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the monsoon season and the rain had flushed the tourists off the hills (as we like to think in Kodai), but the area wasn’t as crowded as I had expected. Munnar had grown significantly with the proliferation of high-end hotels and resorts in the vicinity. Prasad, my old friend who distributes Thaliyar tea and is a correspondent of the Malayalam Manorma, filled me in on developments in the hills since my last visit.
Eravikulam is important for a number of reasons:
- It hosts the most extensive and least disturbed examples of the shola/grasslands mosaic. This high altitude ecosystem that is unique to the southern Western Ghats has been decimated by the introduction of non-native timber plantations, hydroelectric dams, mines and expanding hill stations in other ranges of the Western Ghats. Eravikulam tells a story of a landscape prior to these changes.
- Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) have one of their most secure homes in Eravikulam and it has been estimated that half of the wild population (still roughly pegged at 2,000-2,500) of this endangered ungulate are found within its borders. That was the situation when ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Cliff Rice conducted their surveys and studies (during the 1960s-80s). As far as I know, that ratio has not changed. There have been significant population recoveries in Mukkurthy National Park in the Nilgiri Hills, but in many remote tahr habitats they are under pressure from poachers and habitat change. WWF India is now conducing the most comprehensive studies of Nilgiri tahr populations in the Western Ghats.
- Conservation management has been a unique story of success involving government agencies (the Kerala Forest Department’s wildlife wing) and NGOs (HRWPS). There are few examples in India or South Asia where such an effective partnership has been put in place for the benefit of biodiversity conservation (see my articles below for a more detailed exploration of the history and circumstances that helped contribute to this).
On our trip Amy, John (our friend, guide and driver on many Western Ghats adventuress) did a long loop that took us from the Kodaikanal down to Palani, west to Udumalpet and then south to Munnar through the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve, Chinnar WLS and Marayoor valley. We returned the southern way through Devikulam, Bodimetu, Bodi, Theni and Periyakulam. The contrast between the parched dry hills near the plains and the wet highlands was striking. In Munnar I had a chance to take Amy up to the Rajamalai tourist zone on both mornings and we were thrilled to have several intimate encounters with tahr. When you’ve hiked through the whole Palani Hills ranges just to glimpse a shadow or dropping of these sure-footed ungulates, the sight of them feeding next to you in Rajamalai is a bit disconcerting! I was impressed with the effective controls in place from the Forest Department to manage visitor numbers. There weren’t any signs of waste dropped by carless tourists. To access the tourist zone we had to ride a bus that helps the authorities control numbers. Visitors are kept on the road and not allowed to stray up the slopes. This is a welcome change from the free-for-all of the late 1990s when Munnar had been “discovered” as a tourist destination and the forest department and HRWPS were struggling to enact management controls. A highlight during our short visit was interacting and spending time with the warden Prasad and his deputy Sanjayan. We enjoyed an early morning together at Rajamalai looking for saddlebacks who had descended from the misty cliffs to seek out females in heat. There was a light drizzle and we had several close encounters with White Bellied Shortwings (Brachypteryx major) in addition to a dozen or so tahr. Soon after, the tourists started arriving and Amy and I said our thank yous and headed south though valleys of tea towards Bodi. We promised to spend longer on the next visit.
Alembath, Mohan. Nilgiri tahr Info. Website.
Eravikulam National Park. Web.
Lockwood, Ian. “Twilight of an Ecosystem.” The India Magazine. July 1994. Print (PDF)
Lockwood, Ian. “South India’s Elusive Nilgiri Tahr. Environ. (PDF)
Lockwood, Ian. High Range Photography. “Eravikulam and the Anaimalais.” Web.
Lockwood, Ian. “Of Tea & Tahr.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2000. Print. (Sanctuary) Of_Tea_and_Tahr(2000 06)
Karunakaran, P.V. Ecology and conservation of the grasslands of Eravikulam National Park, Western Ghats. Dehra Dun, Wildlife Institute of India, 1998. Print.
Nair, Satish Chandra. The Southern Western Ghats: A Biodiversity Conservation Plan. New Delhi, INTACH, 1991. Print.
Schaller, George B. Stones of Silence: Travels in the Himalaya. University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print (see “Cloud Goats” on page 150 for a detailed account of Nilgiri tahr).
Rice, Clifford G. (1988). Reproductive biology of Nilgiri Tahr. Journal of Zoology, London, 214: 269-284. Web.
Shaheed, G. “Goats Own Country.” Frontline. 11-2 February 2006. Web.
Vergis, Sharon et al. “Survey of Isolated Populations of Nilgiri tahr in Kerala India.” Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 108. Jan-June 2011. Web.