Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills
Over the last year a group of scientists, conservationists, photographers and citizens have been working on a unique collaborative project to document and map the remaining grasslands of the Palani Hills. Montane grassland and shola habitats are a distinct feature of the upper Western Ghats and have been the focus of my personal explorations, writing and photography of/about the area. The grasslands mapping project, supported by INTACH, seeks to quantify the change in montane grasslands and draw attention to areas that can be restored. Robin Vijayan, now on faculty at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISERT,) in Tirupati is the coordinator. Other key stakeholders are associated with ATREE, NCBS and the Kodaikanal-based Vattakanal Conservation Trust. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is a key partner and will be able to use the results to better plan restoration and management in the newly gazetted Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. Regular readers of this space will see that there are familiar themes highlighted in past posts, notably the post on the plantations symposium in December 2014 and the “preliminary visual assessment” post from April that year. This post highlights efforts of the group and a visit to the southern escarpment to ground truth areas that had been mapped with satellite data.
In July I had a chance to participate in a four-day survey of montane grasslands in the remote Palani Hills as part of the grasslands mapping project. For several months of this year the grasslands mapping project has employed two young and energetic GIS/RS technicians Arasu and Danish. They have been systematically classifying the Landsat data from 1973 and 2014 and then “ground truthing” land cover across the Palani Hills. The result has been a series of computer-based maps and data sets that show historical grassland compared to their current extent. It is an unprecedented enterprise in the Palanis and the results are startling. The data and maps will eventually be available for key stakeholders and the wider public once there has been a rigorous review process.
Danish and Arasu had ground truthed most of the upper Palanis Hills areas by June but the high plateau between Berijam and Vandaarvu was un-surveyed due to strict permissions regarding access to this core area of the sanctuary. It is an area that I have been visiting on and off since I was a student at Kodaikanal International School in the early 1980s –thus my role was to guide the group to some of the key places where there are still grasslands. We were joined by National Geographic explorer Prasenjeet Yadav who has been contributing his time and photographic talents to document the themes of the project.
The Berijam to Vandaravu area has experienced significant change as grasslands have been replaced with non-native plantations during the last 40 years. In the last two decades I have been more systematically documenting landscapes and key aspects of the ecology in the Palanis Hills and wider Western Ghats. Land cover changes are a particular interest brought about by personal experience (several generations of our family have explored the ranges). I have traditionally used a camera to document observations but increasingly I have been turning to remotely sensed images that can be used to monitor and measure land cover change.
The visit to Kathcikiriodai and Ibex Peak in July gave our small party a good sense of how little natural grasslands are left in the Palani Hills while also appreciating the complexities that the plantation ecology have brought about. Initially we were delayed by fallen pine trees on the road (the old Kodai-Cochin road) and our team had to spend the night at the Berijam FD bungalow. On the second day Bob & Tanya drove us up to the road blocks and then we trekked into Kathcikiriodai. On our walk to Kathcikiriodai it occurred to me that there are only two types of grasslands surviving in this area: marsh grasslands and patches of non-native grasses growing on areas that used to be coop camps for woodcutters (when the area was actively logged). Otherwise everything else is plantation with virtually no shola (Marion Shola has a healthy shola and there must be a few others away from the road).
On the afternoon of Day 2 we visited Marion Shola, its dilapidated bungalow and the nearby cliffs. There had been a fire on the cliff edge-formerly grasslands abut now invaded with mostly eucalyptus. We revisited the site on the last day and were able to get a much better sense of the habitat, land use and awesome cliffs. We spotted a small herd of Nilgiri tahr (in close proximity to a bonnet macaque troop) several hundred meters below us. We appreciated the significant montane grasslands that crown the Agamalai range to the south – not in our study as they fall in the Theni district.
We had our most significant day on Tuesday July 19th when we trekked with four forest guards out to the Ibex Peak cliffs. We were blessed with sunshine and clear weather for the first crucial hours of the trip. On the way we passed though a few native grasslands patches as well as areas where grasses coexisted under thin eucalyptus plantation (Danish mapped and photographed all of these). I was alarmed at the cliff edge where it seems to me the wattle and pine is making advances into the strip of 30m or so grasslands that was never originally planted. The 2013 restoration efforts were visible (dead, leafless pine, and trunks with rings). However, as Bob Stewart later reiterated, it can not be a single effort and more, regular work needs to be done if these last grasslands are going to be saved. We walked up to Ibex Peak (2, 517 m), explored the marsh below it, which is still in very good shape and then headed back to Kathcikiriodai a little after noon. By that time the whole cliff area was covered in mist.
Interestingly, we heard some of the key shola species as we walked through the plantations-White Bellied Blue Robin (Myiomela albiventris), Black and Orange Flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa), Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Columba elphinstonii) and Kerala Laughing Thrush (Trochalopteron or Strophocincla fairbanki). There was a pair of Nilgiri pipits (Anthus nilghiriensis) at Kathcikiriodai -apparently content amongst the non-native grasses and remnant marsh habitat. We photographed two different shrub frogs, found a Salea sp. (most likely anamallayana) in the burnt out eucalyptus and came across a shieldtail on the walk out (near one of the coop patches). The only gaur we saw was a herd from near Ibex Peak. There was significant elephant dropping evidence along the roads.
The four forest guards provided important support to our group and I gained a new appreciation for their role. Two accompanied us from Berijam and another two were based at Kathcikiriodai. They are clued into restoration and removed pine saplings from our path to Ibex Peak (at least one of them had worked with VCT on the cliff restoration initiative four years ago). They are however not well supported and have minimal equipment. They had no working wireless and with no cell phone connectivity and they are completely on their own! After trekking with forest guards and staff in other PAs in south India I feel that much more could be done for these men and their important work.
We made several important observations over the course of our survey:
- Almost all the plateau’s montane grasslands area from Berijam to Vandaravu was planted with non-native timber plantations species in the last 40 years. This is supported by satellite evidence and terrestrial photographs from the 1960s and 70s. There are virtually no unplanted grasslands areas unless they contained shola or the soil was too thin.
- There are several small grasslands patches on the road to Kathcikiriodai and Marion Shola. Remembering experiences from my school hiking days I am reminded that these are former coop shed camps that housed labor (often Sri Lankan repatriates) planting and harvesting timber. The patches do not support native grasslands but appear to provide fodder for herbivores (gaur, sambar).
- Several large and medium-sized marshes in the area were left unplanted (for obvious reasons). These still exist, though there is some invasions of pine. One large marsh (10.168704° N, 77.366623°E) was dammed to provide drinking water (Konalar dam) for Poondi and Kavanji villages. Its lake now extends all the way to what used to be known as First Trout’s Stream.
- Shola regeneration in the plantations between Berijam and Kathcikiriodai is extremely limited other than the beginning where plantations adjoin the Temple Shola near the Berijam FD camp. It illustrates the apparent fact that without a “mother shola” there is limited spread into plantations.
- Plantations appear to have been planted to approximately 30 meters of the escarpment edge (a very abrupt border). These edges once supported remnant montane grasslands and were important for Nilgiri tahr and other herbivore populations. However, most of these edges have now been invaded by plantation species. The Ibex Peak cliff to Ullam Pari grasslands are some of the last remaining patches but these are experiencing invasion (see photos).
- The May 2012 restoration work by VCT arrested some of this invasion in a limited area. However, it needs to be a regular intervention if these critical grasslands are to be saved from being overtaken by plantation trees.
In conclusion, I want to put in a special word of thanks to VCT for organizing the permissions and the drop off and pick up. My colleagues Prasen and Danish were excellent company. We are grateful to the TN Forest Department for facilitating the survey and providing us with the guards and accommodation at Kathcikiriodai. I am looking forward to making further contributions to the project and effort to protect this part of the Western Ghats.
The maps that are referred to earlier, as well as my own tinkering with spatial data, will be shared in a future post.
PAST BLOG POSTS & PUBLICATIONS
Lockwood, Ian. “Recent Publications.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 11 November 2015. Web.
“ “Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation: A Symposium in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. December 2014. Web.
“ “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 4 April 2014. Web.
“ “Landscape and ecology in India’s Western Ghats: A Personal Odyssey.” Asian Geographic. July 2008. Print & Web.
“ “Restoring Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills. Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2012. Web.
“ “On the southern rim of the Palani Hills (Part II). Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.
“ “On the southern rim of the Palani Hills (Part 1). Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.