Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Landscape & Ecology in the Nilgiri Hills: A Spatial Exploration

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View form Mettupalayam train station looking north to the slopes of the Nilgiri Hills. The famous Nilgiri Mountain railway with its stem engine is warming up for the morning ride up to Conoor. Composite digital image taken in 2009.

View form Mettupalayam train station looking north to the slopes of the Nilgiri Hills. The famous Nilgiri Mountain railway steam engine is warming up for the morning ride up to Conoor. Thirty minutes later it took Lenny, Merrick and me up the hill. (Composite digital image taken in July 2009).

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.

Nilgiri HIlls relief & elevation map.

Nilgiri Hills relief & elevation map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 version).

Cairn Hills Shola in the Nilgiri Hills (left side of image) with adjoining eucalyptus plantations and former grasslands converted to agricultural plots.

Cairn Hills Shola in the Nilgiri Hills (left side of image) with adjoining eucalyptus plantations and former grasslands converted to agricultural plots. (Digital image, June 2006)

Emerald Reservoir, one of several large hydroelectric projects in the upper Nilgiri Hills. Tea is grown in the foreground, where as further back there are large non-native timber (eucalyptus) plantations. The monsoon mists hide the protected grasslands and sholas of Mukkurthy National park.

Emerald Reservoir, one of several large hydroelectric projects in the upper Nilgiri Hills. Tea is grown in the foreground, whereas further back there are large non-native timber (eucalyptus) plantations. The monsoon mist hides the protected grasslands and sholas of Mukkurthy National park. (Digital image, June 2006).

Toda home near Avalanche in the south-western Nilgiri Hills. Note the large shola in the background. The grasslands here have been converted into vegetable plots.

Toda home near Avalanche in the south-western Nilgiri Hills. Note the large shola in the background. The grasslands here have been converted into vegetable plots. (Digital image, June 2006).

Looking south, south-west from the Western Catchment area in Mukkurthy National Park towards Bangittapal. This is part o the Nilgiris-known as the Kundhas-has some of the most dramatic scenery in the entire Western Ghats. As is evident in the picture Mukkurthy supports significant areas of montane grasslands interspersed with shola pockets and lone Rhododendron trees. After hydroelectric dams were built here in the 1960s the Western Catchment area was became a popular site for Hindi and Tamil film makers. It is now off limits to movie makers and the general public and is protected for its biodiversity (notably Nilgiri tahr as well as large predators such as tigers). It took me significant time and effort to obtain the permissions to visit and make these few photographs (taken during a very short ½ day visit in January 1995).

Looking south, south-west from the Western Catchment area in Mukkurthy National Park towards Bangittapal. This part of the Nilgiris -known as the Kundhas- has some of the most dramatic scenery in the entire Western Ghats. As is evident in the picture, Mukkurthy supports significant areas of montane grasslands interspersed with shola pockets and lone Rhododendron trees. After hydroelectric dams were built here in the 1960s the Western Catchment area became a popular site for Hindi and Tamil film makers. It is now off limits to movie makers and the general public and is protected for its biodiversity (notably Nilgiri tahr as well as large predators such as tigers). It took me significant time and effort to obtain the permissions to visit and make these few photographs (taken during a very short ½ day visit in January 1995).(120 film image scanned)

Devil’s Gap at Western Catchment. Here granite cliffs drop precipitously into the Nilambur Valley in Kerala. A chasm is hidden along the line of shola vegetation parallel to the cliff. With the montane grasslands and Rhododendron trees and cliffs in the background Devil’s Gap makes for a most unusual Western Ghats landscape. I find similarities between this site and Devil’s Kitchen in the Palani Hills. At Devil’s Kitchen the encroaching plantations have obliterated the feel of the grasslands surrounding wind-sculpted sholas growing around the deep, hidden gorges. Taken on T-max 100 film using a Fujica 6x9 fixed lens camera. (January 1995).

Devil’s Gap at Western Catchment. Here granite cliffs drop precipitously into the Nilambur Valley in Kerala. A chasm is hidden along the line of shola vegetation parallel to the cliff. With the montane grasslands, Rhododendron trees and cliffs in the background, Devil’s Gap makes for a most unusual Western Ghats landscape. I find similarities between this site and Devil’s Kitchen in the Palani Hills. At Devil’s Kitchen the encroaching plantations have obliterated the feel of the grasslands surrounding wind-sculpted sholas growing around the deep, hidden gorges. Taken on T-max 100 film using a Fujica 6×9 120 fixed lens camera. (January 1995).

Looking north to Devil’s Gap from the escarpment at Western Catchment in Mukkurthy National Park. Note the undulating hills supporting montane grasslands free of non-native timber plantations. As seen in the maps below there are few areas left in the Nilgiri Hills where this once dominant vegetation still exists. Significant work is now being conducted by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and NGOs to protect and restore montane grasslands in the Nilgiris. (Taken on Kodak T-max 100 120 film using a Fujica 6x9 fixed lens camera in January 1995).

Looking north to Devil’s Gap from the escarpment at Western Catchment in Mukkurthy National Park. Note the undulating hills supporting montane grasslands free of non-native timber plantations. As seen in the maps below, there are few areas left in the Nilgiri Hills where this once dominant vegetation still exists. Significant work is now being conducted by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and NGOs to protect and restore montane grasslands in the Nilgiris. (Taken on Kodak T-max 100 film using a Fujica 120 6×9 fixed lens camera in January 1995).

Looking south from Masinagudi to the Nilgiri Plateau.

Looking south from Masinagudi to the Nilgiri Plateau. (Digital image, June 2006)

Nilgiri Hills Vegetation Map

Nilgiri Hills Vegetation & Land Cover Map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 version)

1973 Landsat image of Nilgiri Hills (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

1973 Landsat image of Nilgiri Hills (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

2014 Landsat Nilgiri Hills map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

2014 Landsat Nilgiri Hills map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

REFERENCES

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.

Written by ianlockwood

2016-05-31 at 12:10 am

2 Responses

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  1. Great stuff, Ian. Hi, this is deepak dalal from Pune. I studied in a boarding school in the Nilgiris – Lawrence School, Lovedale and have some super memories of the area. Would love to visit the hills with an expert like you one day. Are you still in Sri Lanka?

    Deepak

    Deepak Dalal

    2016-06-01 at 3:03 pm

  2. Hi there, Ian.

    You’ve done it again. Another fine contribution. The maps and pictures create a curious desire to want to visit the area. Am watching “Indian Summers” which is set in Simla, when Delhi people were in the hills. Had not realized that Ooty was where Madras Presidency people went. Oh, and apparently Darjeeling was where people went for the summer from Calcutta when it was the capital and before it was moved to New Delhi. The maps you have are quite marvelous.

    Best regards to you and your family,
    Ted

    Sent from my iPad
    Ted C Essebaggers, Gladvollveien Oslo, Norway.

    Ted C Essebaggers

    2016-06-01 at 7:04 pm


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