Linking the Hotspot: From Silent Valley to Sinharaja
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.