A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter
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.