Archive for May 2015
Two weeks ago OSC’s IB Diploma Geography class spent four days conducting field research in Sinharaja rainforest. This UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site located the south-western wet zone of the country is well known for its rich biodiversity. This was a significant trip -not only for the eight students and their two teachers- but for the 57 year-old school. This is the 10th anniversary of OSC geography field work in Sinharaja -a location that offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work.
I had first visited Sinharaja in 2000 on a birding trip with my cousin Anna. It seemed like a natural choice of locations when I was asked to design the DP Geography Internal assessment (requiring field work) when I was hired to teach at OSC. When we first started taking students to Sinharaja in 2005 we did so under the guidance of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka and their intrepid leader Professor Sarath Kotagama. Professor Kotagama, as well as dragonfly expert (and OSC parent) Karen Conniff, helped guide the original group of geography students. The focus of the early years’ field work was on ecosystems and biodiversity. This changed when the IB syllabus was revised and we transitioned to socio-economic, tourist and land-use studies. We’ve been privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijeysinghe’s Jungle Lodge during all this time. It continues to offer an ideal base for student field work, with access to the protected area, a range of habitats and home gardens.
Here is a brief review of the themes of ecology and geography that we have looked at over the years:
- Tropical Rainforest Biodiversity in a “Biodiversity Hotspot.” Sinharaja is know as an exemplar lowland rainforest with very high levels of terrestrial diversity. Studies by notable academics at Peradeniya University, the University of Colombo and the Yale School of Forestry have documented and tracked plant diversity within Sinharaja. Others have studied the avian, amphibian, reptile and mammalian fauna. Professor Kotagama thinks that few other single forests have been as well documented as Sinharaja. Put together this provides a wealth of baseline data and information for any studies of the area.
- Natural recovery of cleared forest areas: It was only 40 years ago that the area that is now well-trodden by ecotourists was being systematically destroyed as a part of a large-scale mechanical logging operation. Paradigms and attitudes about tropical forests have radically changed and today the same area has been allowed to recover. The recovery of the once logged areas is, frankly, mind-blowing! There is no perceptible evidence of the logging operations in Sinharaja today. It is a remarkable case study in tropical forest recovery with very little active attempts to restore the habitat. In recent years the Forest Department has been successfully working to thin pine plantations and restore native lowland rainforest species.
- A model case study of ecotourism: Without intentionally trying, Sinharaja offers some of the most authentic opportunities for ecotourism in South Asia. The design of activities (walking, bird watching etc.), the low-impact accommodation and clear, benefit to the local community (through guiding and locally owned accommodation) help contribute to this. Sinharaja’s Kudawa gate on the north-west border is its most popular entry point. OSC students have been able to track numbers of visitors in the last 5-10 years and seen a steady growth of visitors. The calendar year has key high seasons with the winter (December to February) being the peak for visitor numbers. There are at least 3-4 times as many Sri Lankan visitors as foreigners, but because of ticket prices foreign visitors contribute more to the revenue. While some visitors are naturalists and bird-watchers most foreigners are curious beach revelers taking a day to explore a rainforest within reach of the coastal resorts.
- Land use in the buffer and border areas of the protected area. The areas surrounding the PA boundary of Sinharaja highlight challenges to conservation. Many of these areas were only cleared for agriculture in the last 50-100 years. The dominant land use type is of home gardens (small land holding with a diverse range of fruit, vegetable and plantation species that are largely used for subsistence). Tea is now the most preferred crop in many of the Sinharaja border areas. Unlike the high-grown tea, the tea in the Rakwana Hills is cultivated in small holdings (1-2 acres) by individual households (rather than large estates with their own labor, factories etc.). To better understand the cropping patterns we have been using 1:50,000 land use data from the Sri Lanka Survey Department in our GIS mapping of the area. This data is dated and we hope to acquire more up-to-date land use data to better understand trends in agriculture and land use.
- Socio-economic studies of communities living on the edge of Sinharaja: OSC students have been able to conduct basics socio-economic surveys of communities living in the shadow of Sinharaja’s north-western border. DP Geography students have focused on energy choices, education, ecological footprints, housing and nutrition (for the first time this year).
The Class of 2016 geography class was a stellar group to take to Sinharaja. They embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches, lack of cell phone connectivity and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Sri Lankan cuisine cooked up by Martin’s daughter. Each of them explored an individual research question with the Sinhala speakers working overtime to help others with the translations of survey questions. Once again the Sinharaja guides were essential in helping us to better understand the area. They are a key bridge to the surrounding communities. Dr. Indrika Senaratna provided support in the interviews and fully took part in all aspects of the study. We look forward to many more years of OSC field work Sinharaja.
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.
Ishwaran, Natarajan and Walter Erdelen. “Conserving Sinharaja: An Experiment in Sustainable Development in Sri Lanka.” Ambio. Vol. 19, No. 5. August 1990. Web.
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 & 81 (1:50,000). Colombo: 1994. 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.
Last week Kodaikanal International School hosted the launch of a landmark publication on the town’s history, architecture and ecology. Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the sky was officially released at the KMU by principal Corey Stixrud and the team that put the book together. The book is the result of a collaboration of different authors, photographers, architects and the Kodai chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). It was edited by Pradeep Chakaravarthy, Anil Choudhry, Jayashree Kumar and Girija Viraraghavan – all members of the Kodai community with a variety of important talents and interests.
The title reference to “sky islands” pays tribute to an idea proposed by Robin Vijayan and now widely used amongst many of us working in ecology and conservation in the southern Western Ghats. Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust contributed the chapters on the natural heritage of the area. Pippa Mukherjee supported this with important natural history contributions.
One of my favorites aspects of the book is the fine architectural drawings of the older bungalows and buildings in Kodai. INTACH commissioned these drawings and sent a team of young architects to make the drawings on site in 2013. The details and presentation of the drawings makes for interesting reading (though you may need the help of a magnifying class as they have been shrunk down to fit the 10” x 10” pages). The chapter on Poombarai village, with its rich illustrations and narratives, illuminates the early, pre-colonial agricultural settlements in the remote Palani Hills. Like many other chapters in the book, it brings forth facts and details about the town and hills that are otherwise not well known.
In general this is a must-have book for anyone interested in Kodaikanal, its history and location in the Palani Hills. As a contributor (of several landscape and wildlife images) I am slightly irritated that the individual articles and images in the book are unacknowledged (a decision made by the printer, apparently). The quality of maps is disappointing, given the options available. Aside from these minor quibbles, this is a book worth having on your coffee table.
REFERENCES & FURTHER LINKS
Lockwood, Ian. “Palani Hills: Then and Now.” Ian Lockwood blog. September 2013. Web.
“ “Up Close and Personal with Trimeresurus macrolepis.”Ian Lockwood blog. September 2009. Web.
Mitchell, Nora. The Indian Hill Station Kodaikanal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. Print
Niyogi Book webpage on Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the sky. Web.
Wyckoff, Charlotte Chandler. Kodaikanal 1845-1945.London: London Mission Press, 1945. Print & Web.
Documenting the landscapes, ecology and cultures of India’s Western Ghats continues to be a life-preserving passion project for me. In recent years I’ve had less time to devote to this as teaching and family commitments have occupied most of my time. However, I try to take several field visits into the Ghats every year in order to explore locations – both well-known and unfamiliar- in new light. These trips nurture and energize my classroom instruction as well as contributing to my growing body of work on the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to revisit the Anamalai (also spelt “Anaimalai”) Hills with my daughter Amy and parents Merrick and Sara Ann. The numerous bends in the ghat -something usually associated with nausea -were the source of much happiness with sighting of charismatic Western Ghats species such as Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) and Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis).
The Anamalais are a critical area for biodiversity in the 1,600 long Western Ghats chain. They host important forest areas including wet evergreen forests and shola/grassland systems in the higher reaches. The northern slopes are relatively dry while the Valparai plateau area has one of Tamil Nadu’s highest recorded rainfall records. The Anamalais have several anthropogenic-dominated landscapes mainly revolving around plantation agriculture. Tea is a particularly important cash crop and expansive tea estates and non-native eucalyptus plantations now cover large areas of the Valparai plateau at the heart of the Anamalai Hills. Several large hydroelectric dams have been built in the hills for electricity generation and irrigation purposes.
As on my 2010 visit with Lenny, a key element on this visit was spending time with members of the Nature Conservation Foundation. They have been working in the Anamalais for the last 15+ years with a focus on a variety of key issues including rainforest restoration, mitigation of human-animal conflict and species-specific studies. Their staff has grown from a handful of enthusiastic individuals and volunteers and the group is now recognized as one of the most effective science-based conservation groups operating in India. While I was putting together this post the news came in that M. Ananda Kumar has been awarded the 2015 Whitley Prize (UK WWF) for his work (though NCF) with reducing human-elephant conflict using an innovative SMS warning system.
On this visit we spent a morning exploring a mid-elevation evergreen forest fragment near Valparai with a team from NCF. The walk was on behalf of David Westcott and Soumya Prasad who were on a brief visit and we were lucky to tag along. Shankar “Sridar” Raman led us down a disused forest road and was soon picking out hard to identify species from calls and distant movements. A pair of GPHs was calling and gave us a decent view. We logged in views and sightings of a variety of mid-high altitude species including a Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Black & Orange Flycatcher, Black-naped monarch and several others. Mixed species flocks with nuthatches and flycatchers, drongos and Fairy Blubirds were conspicuous. S Vijay Kumar, M. Ananda Kumar and P Jegananthan were along and it was great to have so many sets of eyes scanning all levels of the forest. On our return to Valparai we were caught in a violent storm and took refuge in Jegan’s home. That night David (and Soumya) shared a presentation on the seed dispersal roles of flying foxes in Australia. Ananda and his colleague Ganesh Ragunathan also shared the work with SMSs as highlighted in a new short film.
During the next day Merrick and I explored out from Valparai to several views points to look for views of the higher ranges and birds. We had several superb views up to Grasslhills and Eravikulam. Anai Mudi overshadows the whole Valparai Plateau –something I remember from the 2002 tahr census hikes up southern India’s highest peak. During those visits I sat for hours on the peak scanning the lower landscape for wildlife and took in the full majesty of the rolling plateaus and dense forested valleys. With Amy and Sara Ann, we spent an afternoon observing a GPH nest near the NCF nursery. We were rewarded with fine sightings of the hornbill parents flying in to feed their chick the female had apparently come out of the nest shortly before we arrived. It was a much too short a visit and we left with promises to return to learn more about the Anamalais. On the way out one of the, now famous, LTM troops was at the roadside in the Puduttotam forest fragment patch. The pictures below demonstrate how close you can get, as well as the challenge that human communities pose to these endangered primates.
Hamilton, Douglas. Records of sport in southern India chiefly on the Annamullay, Nielgherry and Pulney mountains, also including notes on Singapore, Java and Labuan. London: R.H. Porter. 1892. Print & Web.
Kumar, Ananda M. Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman. “Asian elephant Elephas maximus habitat use and ranging in fragmented rainforest and plantations in the Anamalai Hills, India. Tropical Conservation Science. June 210. Web. 4 May 2015.
Lockwood, Ian. “Restoration & Revival in the Anaimalais.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2010. Web.