Ian Lockwood

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Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands WWW Experience 2018

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OSC’s annual Sri Lanka Central Highlands trip, was once again an experience of significance with many important group and individual learning highlights. This choice WWW learning experience is part of the broader secondary school Week Without Walls program that I have had the privilege of coordinating since its inception. OSC’s WWW program was first run in January 2010 as an outgrowth of the MYP outdoor education program (2003-2010) and has now matured into a key experiential learning highlight for all of the secondary school. Through a variety of grade-level and choice experiences there are several goals that define the program:

  • Fulfill the OSC mission statement of developing the whole person within a safe environment.
  • Expose students to our host country Sri Lanka’s culture and environment.
  • Enable opportunities for service learning and outdoor education.
  • Use Interdisciplinary Units (IDUs) to support and strengthen existing secondary curriculum (including the DP CAS program) for the benefit of student learning.

Cloud forest at Horton Plains National Park

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning beyond the normal confines of a classroom. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. This year we had a smaller sized group-10 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Kamila Sahideen and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two veteran drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Belihuloya_hike_1(01_18)

The five-day excursion into Sri Lanka’s high elevation interior exemplified some of the best outcomes of field-based learning. The learning focus was on using photo documentation to better understand the ecology and landscape of Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior. All of the students had some sort of DSLR or point and shoot camera where they could learn basic controls and composition as we had different encounters. This year we had a smaller sized group-10 students and three of us adults to guide them. I was supported by Kamila Sahideen and Desline Attanayake who both played key roles in organization and participating in all of our activities. We also had two veteran drivers from Yamuna Travels who got us to our different destinations safely. The students were enthusiastic and cooperative as we took on new challenges every day. Accommodation for the first three nights was on the cozy-rustic side of things, but on the last night the group was treated to very comfortable rooms in Nuwara Eliya’s St. Andrew’s Jetwing hotel.

Weather in the Central Highlands is always hard to predict but this year we were blessed with classic, crisp winter conditions. There had been frost earlier in the month but by the time that we got to the high reaches of Mahaeliya bungalow in Horton Plains it was at least 10-15 degrees C° above freezing. The highlight of the time in Horton Plains was climbing the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in Sri Lanka. Kirigalpotta (2,388 m) was the focus of a seven-hour round trip hike on Wednesday and Totupola Kanda (2,360m) was a short walk that we did on Thursday morning. For good measure we visited Sri Lanka’s highest peak Pidurutalagala (albeit by van, as walking is not allowed) on the final morning of the experience.

Grasshopper_love_fest_Mosaic

Grasshopper (Orthoptera sp.?) love fest near Lanka Ella Falls on Day 2 of the Highlands experience.

Ceratophora_stoddartii_at_HPNP_Mosaic

Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora_stoddartii) at Horton Plains National Park on Day 3, views from the same image file.

Encounters with biodiversity were integral to the Highlands experience. On the first day as we hiked along the Belihuloya stream we had sighting of several eagles (Black, Crested Hawk and Serpent). In Horton Plains we appreciated cloud forest flora and endemic lizards (Rhino horned and). On our final afternoon we visited Victoria Park to observe Pied Thrushes and other rare birds. That evening before dinner Ishanda Senevirathna took us on the amazing frog tour behind St. Andrew’s. The students were extra enthusiastic and we were able to see all of the six highlighted endemic species. This has become a real highlight of the highlands WWW experience, something that has been written up in Ishanda’s newly published book The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya.

OSC_Group_at_T_P_Kanda_1a(MR)(01_18).jpg

2018 Highlands group on Totupola Kanda (2,360m)  with view to Ambawella, Pidurutalagala and the north behind them.

The Horton Plains area as seen with a Planet Dove 3m multi-spectral satellite. Imagery acquired soon after our visit and then processed by the author to emphasize vegetation and land use patterns.

PAST WWW TRIPS

EXEMPLARY STUDENT CAS REFLECTIONS (HIGHLANDS)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanisha Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2017. Print.

De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Print.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle”. The Sunday Times. 8 August 2010. Web.

Senevirathna, Ishanda. The Peeping Frogs of Nuwara Eliya. Colombo: Jetwings, 2018. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira & Nilusha. Lizards of Sri Lanka: A Colour Guide With Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira 2009. Print.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Naraikadu- The Grey Forest

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Amy accompanies a Dhonavur sister on a walk through the community campus.

In a few weeks the Dhonavur Fellowship will celebrate 100 years of Naraikadu-the grey forest in the southernmost Western Ghats that they have been the guardians of for the last century. I have had the privilege of being their guest and visiting Naraikadu with Dhonavur communities on several occasions. This week to help mark the event and acknowledge the unique conservation effort by non-state actors and citizens working with the Forest Department I have contributed a short photo-essay and narrative on Naraikadu in Frontline, the respected newsmagazine of the Hindu newspaper group.

Fronline Screen Grab

The association that I have with Naraikadu is very personal. Over the last 25 years I have been fortunate to make several visits to Dhonavur, Naraikadu and parts of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) with my friends in the community. I first wrote to David Rajamanian in 1995 about visiting. Through his sons Jerry and Ezekiel and their families I got to know the area and its history and made my first visits to Naraikadu. We have taken unforgettable journeys into the area, notably two epic journeys to Pothigai (Agasthyamalai) in 2002 and we are planning further forays into this little understood area of the Western Ghats. I have also had a chance to take several members of my family there including my wife Raina who fell in love with Nariakadu after cursing me on the hike up (with good reason-she was carrying 1.5 year old Lenny on her back). When our daughter Amy Zopari was born 11 years ago we named her in honor of Amy Carmichael in recognition for her remarkable personality and dedication to the wilderness area of Naraikadu.

Earlier this year, during our April Sinhala and Tamil New Year break, Amy accompanied me on a week-long adventure to Kodai, Dhonavur and Naraikadu. The season of heat had set in on southern India and the area was experiencing a severe drought. The highlight was a three-day hike to Naraikadu. It was this visit and the experience of taking Amy back (she had visited on two prior occasions) that set in motion the conversations that led to the article being written. You can read the full article on Frontline’s website.

The photo essay in the Frontline article utilizes a variety of evolving camera technology: there are 6×6 black & white film and digital SLR pictures but most of the key images were taken on a phone. I created two maps of the area for the article. The first shows elevation and utilizes high resolution digital elevation models and Swiss shade tints in ArcGIS. There was too much information in it for the article so I simplified it. The first map is  included here.

The physical geography of the area plays an important part in the story of Narikadu. To understand the southernmost Western Ghats one needs to appreciate the diversity of geography and consequently ecosystem diversity that exists in a relatively small area. The Tirunelveli plains are flat and separated from the wet western coast of Kerala by the rugged Ashambu ranges of the Western Ghats.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Carmichael, Amy. Lotus Buds. Dhonavur, India: 1909.  Web version on Gutenberg

Ganesh, T. et al. Treasures on Tiger Tracks: A Bilingual Nature Guide to Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Bangalore, ATREE 2009. Print. Web Link.

Gazetteer of the Tinnevelly District. Madras 1917. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. “The Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve: A global heritage of biological diversity.” Current Science. February 2001. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. Walking the Western Ghats. Mumbai: BNHS & Oxford, 2015. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 1)” July 2010. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 2)” July 2010. Web.

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.

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2016-05-31 at 12:10 am

Linking the Hotspot: From Silent Valley to Sinharaja

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Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) male and female photographed in Sairandhri zone of Silent Valley National Park. This is one of the most beautiful birds from the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka hotspot and is found in many parts of the Ghats as well as in most evergreen forests (both wet and dry) in Sri Lanka. It is quite shy but can be photographed with patience. In Sinharaja rainforest Malabar trogons are often found in the mixed-species feeding flocks that are a key feature. Some of my best sightings are from Sinharaja trails and it was thrilling to have the long encounter in SVNP with Aneesh CR that produced these images.

Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus), male and female, photographed in the Sairandhri zone of Silent Valley National Park. This is one of the most beautiful birds from the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka hotspot and is found in many parts of the Ghats as well as in most evergreen forests (both wet and dry) in Sri Lanka. It is quite shy but can be photographed with patience. In Sinharaja rainforest Malabar trogons are often found in the mixed-species feeding flocks that are a key feature. Some of my best sightings are from Sinharaja trails and it was thrilling to have the long encounter in SVNP with Aneesh CR that produced these images.

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.

The rare Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) photographed at a day-time roost in Sinharaja captured in in a beam of afternoon light with the able guidance of Thandula. The species was only identified 12 years ago by Sri Lankan ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda.

The rare Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) photographed at a day-time roost in Sinharaja captured in in a beam of afternoon light with the able guidance of Thandula. The species was only identified 12 years ago by Sri Lankan ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda.

This map shows the location of Silent Valley and Sinharaja layered over an updated SRTM “Swiss shade” model that I have just started to work with. The Western Ghats boundary (from ATREE) and the major protected areas in both Sri Lanka and the southern Western Ghats are also highlighted.

This map shows the location of Silent Valley and Sinharaja layered over an updated SRTM “Swiss shade” model that I have just started to work with. The Western Ghats boundary (from ATREE) and the major protected areas in both Sri Lanka and the southern Western Ghats are also highlighted.

Table 1: Comparing the two protected areas.

Table 1: Comparing the two protected areas.

SILENT VALLEY

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.

There have been significant changes in Silent Valley since it started receiving formal protection from the Keralal Forest Department. One change and improvement that is visibly obvious is the increased forest cover. The image on left was taken in January 1995 during a fleeting day-long visit that I did. The right images was taken from roughly the same place this month (April 2016). Though the lighting is not great several of the patches of grasslands have now been taken over my forest cover. This of course poses interesting challenges as there is less fodder for large herbivores and SVNP’s wildlife staff reported decline in gaur and Sambhar. The tree growth is of native vegetation and appears to be following the somewhat predictable stages of ecological succession that one would expect in this area.

There have been significant changes in Silent Valley since it started receiving formal protection from the Kerala Forest Department. One change and improvement that is visibly obvious is the increased forest cover. The image on left was taken in January 1995 during a fleeting day-long visit that I did. The right image was taken from roughly the same place this month (April 2016). Though the lighting is not great, several of the patches of grasslands have now been taken over by forest cover. This, of course, poses interesting challenges as there is less fodder for large herbivores- and SVNP’s wildlife staff reported decline in gaur and Sambhar. The tree growth is of native vegetation and appears to be following the somewhat predictable stages of ecological succession that one would expect in this area.

Canopy of the rainforest in Silent Valley National park -a composite exploration.

Canopy of the rainforest in Silent Valley National park -a composite exploration.

Lenny’s Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus). While having an afternoon rest we were alerted to a troop of LTMs next to the rest house. This male was also in a lethargic mood in the afternoon heat. LTMs are significant keystone species in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Their protection was a key issue in the debate about whether or not to dam the Kunthipuzha River and flood prime LTM rainforest habitat.

Lenny’s Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus). While having a short siesta Lenny and I were alerted to a troop of LTMs next to the rest house. This male was also in a lethargic mood in the afternoon heat. LTMs are significant keystone species in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Their protection was a key issue in the debate about whether or not to dam the Kunthipuzha River and flood prime LTM rainforest habitat.

White Cheeked Barbet (Psilopogon viridis) and Fairy Blue bird male (Irena puella) at Silent Valley National Park. The barbet is endemic to the Western Ghats while the Fairy Bluebird is distribution in the Western Ghats (but not Sri Lanka) and into NE India and SE Asia.

White Cheeked Barbet (Psilopogon viridis) and Fairy Blue bird male (Irena puella) at Silent Valley National Park. The barbet is endemic to the Western Ghats while the Fairy Bluebird is distribution in the Western Ghats (but not Sri Lanka) and into NE India and SE Asia.

Sri Lankan endemic bird species from Sinharaja, taken in a similar habitat to the SVNP birds above. From left to right: Yellow Fronted Barbet (Psilopogon flavifrons) Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush (Garrulax cinereifrons) and Layrd’s Parakeet (Psittacula calthrapae).

Sri Lankan endemic bird species from Sinharaja, taken in a similar habitat to the SVNP birds above. From left to right: Yellow Fronted Barbet (Psilopogon flavifrons) Ashy Headed Laughing Thrush (Garrulax cinereifrons) and Layrd’s Parakeet (Psittacula calthrapae).

SINHARAJA

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.

SHARED LESSONS

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.

 

REFERENCES

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.

Silent Valley A (2016)

Silent Valley and lower Mukurthy National Parks as seen in a a 2014 Landsat 8 image of the area. Double click for a larger 150 DPI A3 image.

 

Getting the kids into the woods: (Left) Lenny and Ian returning from a hike to Poochimara in Silent Valley National Park (April 2016). (Right) Amy and her dad in Sinharaja photographing the elusive Serendib Scops Owl with a 600mm lens (March 2016).

Postscript: Getting the child into the woods: (Left) Lenny and Ian returning from a hike to Poochipara in Silent Valley National Park (April 2016). (Right) Amy and her dad in Sinharaja photographing the elusive Serendib Scops Owl with a 600mm lens (March 2016). Left photograph courtesy of Aneesh , right photograph courtesy Thandula.

Learning in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands (Part 2): Understanding Ecology through Biodiversity

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Male Pseudophilautus femoralis in cloud forest above Nuwara Eliya.

Male dull green shrub frog (Pseudophilautus viridis) in cloud forest above Nuwara Eliya.

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands have been recognized for their significant biodiversity. The area is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site yet (adopted in 2010) and there is a growing awareness about its unique flora and fauna. The Highlands are composed of the mountainous region at the heart of the southern island and include significant areas such as Peak Wilderness, Horton Plains National Park, the Pidurutalagala forests, the Knuckles protected area and several smaller tracts of forest. Most of the Central Highlands have largely been cleared of original vegetation in support of the plantation (mainly tea) industry. This happened during the 19th and early 20th centuries during colonial rule though recent decades have seen loss of forest to hydroelectric dams, plantations expansion and other human land uses. Today the remaining protected areas may be a small percentage of the total area, but they are well protected and offer the opportunity to experience some of Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity.

Collage of low res snapshots taken of life forms and waste on the trail to Sri Pada during the DP1 ES&S field study there in December 2015.

Collage of low res snapshots taken of life forms and waste on the trail to Sri Pada during the DP1 ES&S field study there in December 2015.

The elusive Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) one of the most difficult birds to see in Sri Lanka. Spotted at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park with the expert guidance of Ishanda Senevirathna, the naturalist at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel.

The elusive Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii), one of the most difficult birds to see in Sri Lanka. Male above and female in the inset image. Spotted at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park during the Week Without Walls with the expert guidance of Ishanda Senevirathna, the naturalist at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel.

Calotes nigrilabris, the black-lipped lizard, basking in the sun just off the precipitous slope of Kirglpotta’s summit. This agamid (dragon) species is endemic to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

Calotes nigrilabris, the black-lipped lizard, basking in the sun just off the precipitous slope of Kirglpotta’s summit. This agamid (dragon) species is endemic to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

A study of Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. All females except the bright green male in the upper right. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s. Kamilla found the male that is photographed here and the MYP5 students helped with holding lights.

A study of Pseudophillauts viridis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. All females except the bright green male in the upper right. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s. Kamilla found the male that is photographed here and the MYP5 students helped with holding lights.

Several different shrub frogs including Pseudophillauts sp. and others (to be updated shortly) from the Nuwara Eliya nocturnal frog walk.

Several different shrub frogs including Pseudophillauts schmarda and others (to be updated shortly) from the Nuwara Eliya nocturnal frog walk.

The Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), an edemic cloud forest species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. This female (top image) and male (middle and lower image) were photographed in Horton Plains National Park where their populations are stable though not always easily seen.

The Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), an endemic cloud forest species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. This female (top image) and male (middle and lower image) were photographed in Horton Plains National Park where their populations are stable, though not always easily seen.

 

PAST WWW TRIPS

PAST SRI PADA STUDIES

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012trip)
  • OSC Class of 2015 (Sri Pada 2013 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2016 (Sri Pada 2014 trip)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle”. The Sunday Times. 8 August 2010. Web.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Class of 2017 stopping at the clearing on their way up to the summit of Sri Pada. We had clear views of the peak and surrounding forest all the way up to the temple at the summit.

Class of 2017 stopping at the clearing on their way up to the summit of Sri Pada. We had clear views of the peak and surrounding forest all the way up to the temple at the summit. Back row: Carolyn, Brittany, Ahnaf, Sanoj, Shenali & Erika. Front row: Ian, Ariana and Jamaal. Photograph by Abbi Pilapitiya.

 

A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter

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Two of the 40+ hair in bend on the Ghat road up to the tea planting town of Valparai from the Palghat Gap.

Two of the 40+ hairpin bends on the Ghat road up to the tea-planting town of Valparai in the Anamalai Hills

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.

Anai Mudi and the Anai Mudi forests as seen from the edge of the Valparai Plateau to the peak's west.

Anai Mudi and the Anai Mudi forests as seen from the southern edge of the Valparai Plateau to the peak’s west. This view is looking south, south-east.

Snapshots from several walks int he Anamalais. From upper left: Nilgiri Langur, CUllenia, Civit droppings, Eleocarpus leaves on forest floor, CUllenia opened, canopy of rainforest, skull of a civet or mongoose, Lion tailed macaque.

Snapshots from several walks int he Anamalais. From upper left: Nilgiri Langur, Cullenia, Civit droppings, Elaeocarpus leaves on forest floor, Cullenia opened, canopy of rainforest, skull of a civet or mongoose, Lion tailed macaque.

Towering rainforest tree with mossy bark @ 1,400 meters in the Anamalai Hills.

Towering rainforest tree with mossy bark in Cullenia-Mesua-Palaquium dominated forest @ 1,400 meters in the Anamalai Hills.

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.

Snapshots from the NCF information center. The lower right images is from the forest walk about the time that we had the fine view of the Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

Snapshots from the NCF information center. This is a first class interpretation center-something sorely needed in the Palni Hills and other ranges of the Western Ghats. The lower right image is from the forest walk about the time that we had a fine view of the Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

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.

Lion Tai;ed Macaques at Puduthotam Estate. This is a habituated troop that lives in a small isolated island of tropical evergreeen forest surrounded by tea estates.

Lion Taied Macaques at Puduthotam Estate. This is a habituated troop that lives in a small isolated island of tropical evergreeen forest surrounded by tea estates.

Valparai town overshadowed by the high rolling hills known as Grasshills. A view from the west as suggested by friends at NCF.

Valparai town overshadowed by the high rolling hills known as Grasshills. A view from the west as suggested by friends at NCF.

 

Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight just outside of Valparai in the mixed plantation/forest near the NCF nursery.

Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight just outside of Valparai in the mixed plantation/forest near the NCF nursery.

True color rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

True color rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

 

Infrared (thermal) rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

Infrared (thermal) rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

Map illustrating relief and elevation in the Anamalai Hills based on recently released 2.5 meter Digital Elevation Model (DEM) from ISRO/Bhuvan. Click on image for 150 DPI A1 version.

Map illustrating relief and elevation in the Anamalai Hills based on recently released 1 Arc Sec (30 m) Digital Elevation Model (DEM) from ISRO/Bhuvan. Click on image for 150 DPI A1 version.

SELECTED REFERENCES

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.

Renewal in the High Range & Eravikulam

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Landscape and biodiversity of the High Range: The Nymakad Estate lies below the sholas and grassy slopes of Eravikulam. Nilgir tarh, like this saddleback are the key endemic species that this protected areas hosts.

Landscape and biodiversity of the High Range: The Nymakad Estate lies below the sholas and grassy slopes of Eravikulam. Nilgiri tahr, like this saddleback, are the key endemic species that this protected areas hosts.

The rugged, granite mountains that overshadow the tea-planting town of Munnar are a sublime, little-disturbed example of the high altitude Western Ghats landscape. The High Ranges and Anaimalais, which are contagious with the Palani Hills, host important remnant shola/grasslands ecosystems. The area hosts a mix of different landscapes and ecosystems, including large-scale tea and fuel wood plantations. Eravikulam National Park, established to protect the red listed (endangered) Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is a critical protected area in the Western Ghats. This summer I had a chance to revisit the area after a prolonged period of exile. The High Range and Eravikulam National Park played a key role in my interest in documenting the Western Ghats and it was a homecoming, of sorts…

Road to Munnar through Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Looking south into the High Range from Manjampatti Valley.

Road to Munnar through Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Looking south into the High Range from Manjampatti Valley.

Looking east to the Palani Hills over Kuykkal and Manjampatti from the Chinnar-MUnnar road. The dry Amarvathi reservoir is in the foreground.

Looking east to the Palani Hills over Kukkal and Manjampatti from the Chinnar-Munnar road. The dry Amarvathi reservoir is in the foreground.

In the early 1990s, and through to the millennium. I regularly visited Munnar and the High Range, seeking out a better understanding of the area’s ecology and landscape. The story of those trips and learning adventures are described in several articles and the High Range Diaries (a series of blog posts that are in production). The area had a signification impact on me, as it has on naturalists, photographers and other dreamers before and after my time. I read about landmark studies and then communicated with naturalists such as ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Clifford Rice who had spent time in Eravikulam in past years. Rom & Zai Whitaker, Belinda Wright and others who have contributed to India’s conservation story shared anecdotes of their visits to Eravikulam with me. I made contact with contemporary scientists, such as PV Karunakaran, studying ecological aspects of the park. The Kerala Forest Department who were taking over all management activities from the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society (HRWPS) in the 1990s, helped facilitate my understanding. I was privileged to take shelter with forest guards on my first visit in 1993 and later participated in an annual tahr census. Wardens of Eravikulam starting with Sivadas, James Zacharias, and Mohan Alembath were key facilitators as I sought to explore Eravikulam and study it from the Western Ghats perspective. The HRWPS under the patronage of Tata Tea then and led by the incomparable KN Changappa, was supportive and always interested in working to support landscape-based approaches to conservation in the High Range-Anaiamalais-Palanis bloc. It was in Eravikulam that I found the extension of the Palani Hills and discovered myself and a path to follow in life. Numerous excursions followed my first visit to the High Range and I was fortunate to have my cousin Anna, parents Merrick & Sara Ann and several other friends as companions on those memorable visits.

This summer I was accompanied by my seven-year old daughter Amy and I was looking to renew contact with friends, the wildlife and landscape. It has been many long years since I had stayed in Munnar and I was wary of going back to a place that I had known well before the onslaught of the “God’s Own Country” Kerala tourism campaign. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the monsoon season and the rain had flushed the tourists off the hills (as we like to think in Kodai), but the area wasn’t as crowded as I had expected. Munnar had grown significantly with the proliferation of high-end hotels and resorts in the vicinity. Prasad, my old friend who distributes Thaliyar tea and is a correspondent of the Malayalam Manorma, filled me in on developments in the hills since my last visit.

Eravikulam is important for a number of reasons:

  • It hosts the most extensive and least disturbed examples of the shola/grasslands mosaic. This high altitude ecosystem that is unique to the southern Western Ghats has been decimated by the introduction of non-native timber plantations, hydroelectric dams, mines and expanding hill stations in other ranges of the Western Ghats. Eravikulam tells a story of a landscape prior to these changes.
  • Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) have one of their most secure homes in Eravikulam and it has been estimated that half of the wild population (still roughly pegged at 2,000-2,500) of this endangered ungulate are found within its borders. That was the situation when ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Cliff Rice conducted their surveys and studies (during the 1960s-80s). As far as I know, that ratio has not changed. There have been significant population recoveries in Mukkurthy National Park in the Nilgiri Hills, but in many remote tahr habitats they are under pressure from poachers and habitat change. WWF India is now conducing the most comprehensive studies of Nilgiri tahr populations in the Western Ghats.
  • Conservation management has been a unique story of success involving government agencies (the Kerala Forest Department’s wildlife wing) and NGOs (HRWPS). There are few examples in India or South Asia where such an effective partnership has been put in place for the benefit of biodiversity conservation (see my articles below for a more detailed exploration of the history and circumstances that helped contribute to this).
Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) saddleback approaching the tourist zone of Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) saddleback approaching the tourist zone of Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) at Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) at Eravikulam National Park. From left to right: Adult female, adult male (saddleback, kid (@ 5 months)

 

Generations of collaboration between the High Range WIldlofe Preservation Society and the Kerala Forest Department. N Chengappa a& Sivadas  (1994). Mohan, Prasad and Jo Jo ((2014)

Generations of collaboration between the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society and the Kerala Forest Department. N Changappa & Sivadas (1994). Mohan, Prasad and Jo Jo (2014). Photographs by the author.

On our trip Amy, John (our friend, guide and driver on many Western Ghats adventuress) did a long loop that took us from the Kodaikanal down to Palani, west to Udumalpet and then south to Munnar through the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve, Chinnar WLS and Marayoor valley. We returned the southern way through Devikulam, Bodimetu, Bodi, Theni and Periyakulam. The contrast between the parched dry hills near the plains and the wet highlands was striking. In Munnar I had a chance to take Amy up to the Rajamalai tourist zone on both mornings and we were thrilled to have several intimate encounters with tahr. When you’ve hiked through the whole Palani Hills ranges just to glimpse a shadow or dropping of these sure-footed ungulates, the sight of them feeding next to you in Rajamalai is a bit disconcerting! I was impressed with the effective controls in place from the Forest Department to manage visitor numbers. There weren’t any signs of waste dropped by carless tourists. To access the tourist zone we had to ride a bus that helps the authorities control numbers. Visitors are kept on the road and not allowed to stray up the slopes. This is a welcome change from the free-for-all of the late 1990s when Munnar had been “discovered” as a tourist destination and the forest department and HRWPS were struggling to enact management controls. A highlight during our short visit was interacting and spending time with the warden Prasad and his deputy Sanjayan. We enjoyed an early morning together at Rajamalai looking for saddlebacks who had descended from the misty cliffs to seek out females in heat. There was a light drizzle and we had several close encounters with White Bellied Shortwings (Brachypteryx major) in addition to a dozen or so tahr. Soon after, the tourists started arriving and Amy and I said our thank yous and headed south though valleys of tea towards Bodi. We promised to spend longer on the next visit.

Panoramic view of Munnar during a break in the South West Monsoon. Note the church, mosque and temple in the image. The once sleepy tea-planting town is named for the three rivers that converge here.

Panoramic view of Munnar during a break in the South West Monsoon. Note the church, mosque and temple in the image. The once sleepy tea-planting town is named for the three rivers that converge here.

Landsat map of Eravikulam showing significant locations and a very rough park boundary.

Landsat map of Eravikulam showing significant locations and a very rough park boundary.

 

Snapshots form a visit to Munnar: The Tea Museum and Amy with Mudhuvan guards at Rajamalai.

Snapshots form a visit to Munnar: The Tea Museum and Amy with Mudhuvan guards at Rajamalai.

Small rainbow over the Thaliya/Vagavurai valley.

Small rainbow over the Thaliyar/Vagavurai valley.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Alembath, Mohan. Nilgiri tahr Info. Website.

Eravikulam National Park. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Twilight of an Ecosystem.” The India Magazine. July 1994. Print (PDF)

Lockwood, Ian. “South India’s Elusive Nilgiri Tahr. Environ. (PDF)

Lockwood, Ian. High Range Photography. “Eravikulam and the Anaimalais.” Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Of Tea & Tahr.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2000. Print. (Sanctuary) Of_Tea_and_Tahr(2000 06)

Karunakaran, P.V. Ecology and conservation of the grasslands of Eravikulam National Park, Western Ghats. Dehra Dun, Wildlife Institute of India, 1998. Print.

Nair, Satish Chandra. The Southern Western Ghats: A Biodiversity Conservation Plan. New Delhi, INTACH, 1991. Print.

Schaller, George B. Stones of Silence: Travels in the Himalaya. University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print (see “Cloud Goats” on page 150 for a detailed account of Nilgiri tahr).

Rice, Clifford G. (1988). Reproductive biology of Nilgiri Tahr. Journal of Zoology, London, 214: 269-284. Web.

Shaheed, G. “Goats Own Country.” Frontline. 11-2 February 2006. Web.

Vergis, Sharon et al. “Survey of Isolated Populations of Nilgiri tahr in Kerala India.” Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 108. Jan-June 2011. Web.