Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for the ‘Ecological Restoration’ Category

Recent Publications

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Opening image in Frontline article. Th image shows winter mist in eucalyptus plantations below Perumal Peak with remnant montane grasslands.

Opening image in Frontline article. The image shows winter mist in eucalyptus plantations below Perumal Peak with remnant montane grasslands. 

In the last several months I have had the opportunity to have two important portfolios of black & white images published in prominent Indian publications. In September the Indian Quarterly published a photo essay on sholas in the Western Ghats entitled “Spirit Mountains.” This collection of images and a short text grew out of an online conversation with Suprarba Seshan who was looking for images to accompany her article “People of the Rain” article that appears the same issue. Her article went on to be illustrated Diba Siddiq who is also associated with the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, while I was allotted ten pages for the shola story. The issue is focused on rain and also includes a story about Agumbe by our prolific writer friend Janaki Lenin. Avtar Singh, the managing editor based in New Delhi, played a key role in pulling it all together. The images, all black & white, were chosen to illustrate the aesthetic themes of rain and diversity as seen in the sholas of the southern Western Ghats.

Some of the pages from the Indian Quarterly photo essay

Some of the pages from the Indian Quarterly photo essay “Spirit Mountains.” Published in July 2015.

This month Frontline has just published “Plantation Paradox” a photo essay accompanying my rambling exploration of the complications of non-native timber plantations in the Palani Hills. The Chennai-based magazine is part of the larger Hindu publications group-known for their reasoned, somewhat left-leaning reporting and support of secular, multicultural India. The pictures in this story are also all black & white and closely illustrate themes from the 3000+ word article. The article includes a version of the GIS-generated map (utilizing 30m SRTM USGS/NASA tiles) that I worked on earlier this year. It illustrates the 1,500m contour (shola/grassland areas) in the southern Western Ghats. Vijayasankar Ramachandran, the editor at Frontline was my contact who made this publication possible. We have worked together on several past articles that explored themes of conservation and ecology in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. In particular several of my Frontline articles have focused on issues in Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills where changes in the ecology, pressure from tourism and ambiguity about the status of the conservation of remote hills has been in flux (see list & links below).

PALANI HILLS ECOLOGY/CONSERVATION ARTICLES IN FRONTLINE*

  • 2012 April                  “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas”
  • 2009 November         “Fragile Heritage: Bombay Shola”
  • 2006 August               “Kurinji Crown”
  • 2003 August               “The Palni Hills: On the Danger List”

* There used to be web links for these but my understanding is that they are not active anymore.

Note: My spelling of Palani has evolved over time as seen in the title above. I previously used to use “Palni” (as in what is used by the PHCC). However, after talking with Tamil language experts and looking at changes in official documentation, I have adopted the widely accepted “Palani.” This is how the temple town, that the hills are named for, is spelt. For Kodaikanal, I continue to use “Kodai” while I have noted attempts by some individuals and publications to shorten this to “Kodi!”

Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation: A Symposium in the Palani Hills

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Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills showing the island effect created by the sheer cliffs and mist over the plains.

Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills showing the island effect created by the sheer cliffs and mist over the plains. Taken the day after the completion of the symposium.

On December 20th Kodaikanal International School (KIS) hosted a unique symposium of scientists, officials and concerned citizens on montane forest plantations in the Western Ghats and the regeneration of shola species in them. The conference was organized by Teri University and the Vattakanal Conservation Trust with KIS providing a space for the discussion. The focus of the conference was on the ubiquitous role of non-native tree plantations in the Western Ghats and what their role in biodiversity conservation is. In past years it was assumed that alien species plantations had a negative impact on overall biodiversity in the Western Ghats. However, new evidence gathered from a number of studies show that the picture is more complicated and that in many case plantations are facilitating a comeback of native shola flora and fauna in the Western Ghats.

The December symposium followed up on a dialogue about shola/grasslands that has been going on amongst scientists, conservationists and other interested people over the last few years. In September a landmark meeting was held in Bangalore entitled “Ecological restoration in a changing world: Insights from a natural forest-grassland matrix in the Western Ghats” (Web link). The meeting at KIS was a follow up to the September meeting but with a specific focus on the role of plantations. In May 2014 a court order in Madurai had brought the issue of plantations into the limelight (see the Hindu article from May 13th) and there has been a clear need to examine the scientific evidence of plantations and their interplay with the shola/grasslands mosaic in the upper Western Ghats.

Pine (Pinus sp.) plantation started in the early 1970s near Poombari village in the north-western Palani Hills with advanced natural regeneration of shola species. A key aspect of this is the presence of a nearby

Pine (Pinus sp.) plantation started in the early 1970s near Poombari village in the north-western Palani Hills with advanced natural regeneration of shola species. A key aspect of this is the presence of a nearby “mother shola” where seeds can be dispersed from.

On Saturday morning Rudy Wuthrich, KIS’s technology director, welcomed participants on behalf of the school with a short speech aligning the themes of the conferences to global discussions on climate change that were recently concluded in Lima. Milind Bunyan of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) gave a compelling overview of the shola/grasslands mosaic in the Western Ghats. In particular he highlighted the issue of bi-stability and factors (both natural and anthropogenic) that give rise to dominance of either the grasslands over the shola and vice versa.

Prof. Albert Reif of Frieburg University focused on the theoretical background of ecosystem fluctuation, degradation, succession and restoration using examples from Venezuela, Chile and Germany. The talk helped give a global perspective to an issue that most of participants were only aware of at the local Western Ghats scale. This was followed up by professor Joachim Schmerbeck’ s talk entitled “regeneration of shola trees species under forest plantations in the Palani Hills.” Joachim, who was been the force behind the conference, has an old association with the Palani Hills and has been regularly bringing his students from Teri to conduct field work here (see the proceedings at the end of this post for examples of these studies). A major point that he made was the need for a clear, measurable aim to have as the Forest Department, citizens and NGOs go through the process of looking to engage in ecological restoration. One of the Teri students, Kunal Bharat, presented his findings that looked at socio-economic impacts of the plantations and their ecosystems services in the Palani Hills. Kunal’s study revealed fascinating numbers of fuel energy consumed in the villages of the Palani Hills-an important factor as discussions proceed on how best to utilize the plantations.

One theme from the conference was the idea of “sky islands.” This is an idea that the high altitude areas of the Western Ghats are like virtual islands, isolated from neighboring ranges by lower altitude and plains areas where physical, biological and human issues are very different. It has led to a unique assemblage of biodiversity in each of these islands. The Palani Hills are part of an island block that include the Anaimalai Hills and High Range. They are separated from the large Nilgiri Hills plateau to the north by the Palghat Gap. To the south the Cumbum Valley separates the Palanis from the Highwayv mountains and Periyar Tiger Reserve. Robin Vijayan has popularized the idea of Sky Islands with his scientific study on the ecology and spatial distribution of the White Bellied Shortwing, a small bird species that is exclusively found in shola forests. It is an indicator species of sholas and has a distribution that reflects existents sholas all the way from the southernmost ranges of the Western Ghats to a little north of the Nilgiri Hills (see his website for a more detailed account of shortwings).

Nisarg Prakash and Vijay Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) shared a presentation on their efforts with wildlife conservation and restoration in the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve (ATR).  NCF’s work with tea and coffee plantations are well documented as a successful case of a science-based approach to facilitate a practical conservation-oriented intervention in degraded landscapes. Their experience with removing wattle from montane grasslands in the Grasshills part of the ATR sparked discussion on using similar approaches in the Palanis.

(Left) Tanya of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust sharing insights into shola regeneration in plantations. (Right) Jaykaran, Bob and Tanya at the open discussion.

(Left) Tanya of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust sharing insights into shola regeneration in plantations. (Right) Jaykaran, Bob and Tanya at the open discussion.

Finally Tanya Balcar of the VCT shared observations on the role that plantations in the Palani Hills have played as nurseries for shola species. There were two broad points to her presentation: plantations of non-native species when located near to intact sholas are playing a key role as nurseries of young shola species. In some cases, such as in Blackburn Shola, these shola species through a process of ecological succession are actually taking over and replacing the plantation species. Thus, to clear cut “alien” plantation species harms this process and generally leads to an infestation of alien weeds (lantana, eupatorium etc.). Secondly there are still vital montane grasslands located in key locations in the Palani Hills (Perumal and Ibex Peaks etc.). Intervention to weed out spreading alien species in these locations is worth the significant effort in order to protect the grasslands and marshes from being overwhelmed and replaced by the plantation species.  Along with concluding comments and an open session facilitated by Teri’s Professor P.K.Joshi, the symposium was completed with a field visit to different forest and plantation patches on the road to Poombari.

A visit to observe plantations and shola revival in them on the road form Kodai to Poombari.

A visit to observe plantations and shola revival in them on the road from Kodai to Poombari.

Though the meetings was relatively short, it provided an important platform to share ideas amongst individuals interested in ecological restoration in the southern Western Ghats. In the future it would be ideal to have more participation of the Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka Forest Departments since they are the key decision makers and actors in the process. KIS is positioned at an important location to facilitate the ongoing research and conversations about montane ecology. The Palani Hills, like other ranges in the Western Ghats, host significant biodiversity but have also been subjected to significant human interventions. The school has been a silent witness to these ecological changes and in more recent years students and faculty have participated in restoration and conservation awareness programs. It would be ideal for KIS to host future (perhaps, annual) gatherings of scientists, citizens and officials from the Forests Department(s) to better chart out how to approach the ecology of the Palanis and other ranges in the southern Western Ghats.

Several other key figures participated in the conference including students and professors for Freiburg University and Teri. Dr. Clarence Maloney and his daughter Iti represented several generations of KIS students. Sunayana Choudhry a Kodai resident and the INTACH Convener highlighted the recent publication Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky, which was just released. It includes chapters by Bob & Tanya, Pippa Mukerjee, Pradeep Chakravarthy as well as several of my landscape photos and species shots.  Prahbakar of the India Biodiversity Portal was at the symposium and I enjoyed brief discussions with him about land cover and vegetation mapping in the Western Ghats. Robin Vijayan, a key leader in the shola/grasslands, group was unfortunately held back by a vehicle breakdown. Prasenjeet Yadav, who is the recipient of a National Geographic Young Explorers grant to document sky islands came along and we were able to spend time walking and sharing notes in Bombay Shola on the following day. Special thanks to Beulah Kolhatkar for providing logistical support and helping to get the conference off the ground at KIS. In conclusion it was a significant success and as a member of the Kodai family interested in biodiversity conservation as well as issues surrounding the shola/grasslands mosaic, I hope that we can host future gatherings to better protect our ecological heritage.

SELECTED REFERENCES & PAST BLOG POSTS

Bunyan, Milind Sougata Bardhan and Shibu Jose. “The Shola (Tropical Montane Forest)-Grassland Ecosystem Mosaic of Peninsular India: A Review.” American Journal of Plant Sciences. 2012. 3. Web.

Fleischman, Forrest D. “Why do Foresters Plant Trees? Testing Theories of Bureaucratic Decision-Making in Central India.” World Development. 62 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas.”  Frontline. 20 April 2012. Print & PDF.

”        “Ecological Restoration in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2012. Web.

”        “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2014. Web.

”         “The Next Big Thing.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2006. Print & PDF.

Mohandass, D et al. “Influence of disturbance regime on liana species composition, density and basal area in the tropical montane evergreen forests (sholas) of the Western Ghats, India.” Tropical Ecology. 56(2) 2015. Print & Web.

Naudiyal, Niyati and Joachim Schmerbeck. Land Use Related Biodiversity in India: Seminar Proceedings 2013. New Delhi: Teri University, 2014. Print and Web.

Satish, K.V. et al. “Geospatial assessment and monitoring of historical forest cover changes (1920–2012) in Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve,Western Ghats, India.” Environ Monitor Assessment. February 2014.

Srnivasan, Madhusudan P. et al. “Vegetation-environment relationships in a South Asian tropical montane grassland ecosystem: restoration implications.” Tropical Ecology. 56 (2). 2015. Print and Web.

Thomas, S.M. and M.W. Palmer. “The montane grasslands of the Western Ghats, India:Community ecology and conservation.” Community Ecology. 8 (1) 2007. Print & Web.

van Andel, Jelte and James Aronson ed. Restoration Ecology: The New Frontier, Second Edition. U.K: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013. Print.

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2014-12-30 at 12:35 am

Western Ghats Revisited

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The Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking west to the Agamalai range and illustrating the varied vegetation and surprisingly rugged geography of these mountains.

The Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking west to the Agamalai range and illustrating the varied vegetation and surprisingly rugged geography of these mountains.

Last year there were significant milestones and steps taken to recognize and protect India’s Western Ghats. In July 2012 a handful of sites up and down the 16,000 km length Ghats area were given the UNESCO World Heritage Tag. Previous to this the release of the lengthy and comprehensive Gadgil report (made public first in late 2011) by eminent scientists had stirred a spectrum of responses to the proposals to protect the areas ecology and landscapes. The negative perception from some government agencies and vested interest was such that another report was commissioned (the Kasturirangan panel)! The Western Ghats encompass an enormous and diverse ecological area that I’ve been fortunate to be intimately associated with and the news elicited a more personal reflection on what the area has meant to me.

My earliest memories are of walks and camping trips amongst clean, gurgling streams and cool sholas in the Palani Hills. Several years earlier, before my first memories and birthday, my parents had backpacked me through the rolling downs of the Brahmagiris on the Kerala/Karnataka border. As child and teenager growing up with an eclectic mix of American, Bengali, south Indian and global influences the mountains offered a unique opportunity for self-discovery, an appreciation of the interdependence nature and spiritual appreciation of the infinite. Since 1992, issues concerning ecology, landscape and human interaction in the Western Ghats have been the focus for my explorations, learning, photography and writing. These are passion pursuits that eventually became the focus of my life and teaching as I entered and became comfortable with a career in international education. In recent years my geographic focus has shifted to Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, cousins of the Western Ghats in so many ways, yet I maintain a strong interest in developments across the straits.

My response to the news and then the swirling controversy was to write something about it and this eventually found its ways into the pages of Sanctuary Asia, India’s preeminent wildlife magazine that was founded by Bittu Sahgal in the early 1980s. By the time the article came out this month (see screen shots below) the news was long forgotten but the issues of conservation, loss of biodiversity, water security, community rights and tourism development remain relevant and unresolved.

Screen shots from Sanctuary Asia article (May 2013)

Screen shots from Sanctuary Asia article (May 2013)

Following the UNESCO designation of the Western Ghats a World Heritage Site in July 2012 there were a series of informative pieces published friends and colleagues in the Indian media. On July 3rd the Hindu ran an editorial that highlighted the UNESCO announcement. Subraba Sehsan emphasized the challenges of living up to the new limelight of the UNESCO World Heritage listing in her article in the Hindustan Times on July 8th. Janiki Lenin wrote about the Western Ghats controversy in Outlook Traveller with a rich selection of images from Kalyan Varma. Organizations such as ATREE, the Nature Conservation Foundation, the French Institute in Pondicherry and WWF-India continue the important work of addressing conservation challenges from a scientific point of view. Others in organizations, such as Kalpavirksh, work to promote environmental sustainability and ensure that communities are empowered to participate in conservation decisions.

For a further exploration of my published work on the Western Ghats see the Published Work page on High Range Photography. In July 1994 I published my first significant photo-essay and article on the Western Ghats in the India Magazine (a publication that is now, sadly, defunct). I then spent several years researching, photographing and assembling pieces on the Nilgiri tahr, as an example of an endangered Western Ghats species. In 2001 I exhibited and gave lectures on the Western Ghats at the India International Centre and Bombay Natural History Society. In August 2003 I wrote about the Palani Hills in Frontline and advocated for a protected area to be designated in the range. The focus on the Palanis has been followed up with articles on ecological restoration in Sanctuary Asia (June 2006) and Frontline (April 2012). Both of these highlight the important work of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust in restoring native vegetation in the Palanis. For several years my wife Raina and I lived, worked and explored in the Sahyadris just outside of Pune. An account of this unique range of the (northern) Western Ghats was published in Sanctuary Asia (2005) and Man’s World (2004).

Asian Geographic (2008) and Geo (2009) have also published my photo essays and articles on the Western Ghats, which give a sense of the whole range from a visual and descriptive point of view. ARKive has a dedicated page on the Western Ghats and I was honored that they have profiled several of my color images (by way of the Nature Picture Library). In all of these efforts, my goal has been to paint a picture of the landscapes in black & white to illustrate the stark magnificence of landscapes, varied vegetation types,  human interaction and conservation. I use color imagery to highlight aspects of the biodiversity-one of the two main reasons that the Western Ghats are vital (the other being water). The field of photography has changed in these last 20 years and I continue to work on the same themes using a variation of the early approach but in the digital medium. In the last five years I have become intrigued with spatial aspects of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot and am using GIS to explore, analyze and understand the landscape and its changes.

Post Script

Just two weeks ago news emerged that the government of Tamil Nadu has designated the Palani (or Kodaikanal) Hills as one of four new protected areas in the state. This comes as welcome news, though it is yet to be seen what the exact boundaries are, how this will affect the significant human communities and activates (tourism, plantation agriculture etc.) and if restoration activities will be allowed within the protected area.

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2013-05-14 at 6:25 pm

Restoring Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills

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Vattakanal Conservation Trust’s greenhouse in Pambarpuram near the hill station of Kodaikanal. The structure houses a wide variety of plants from the Western Ghats. It is here at this location that native grasslands are being nurtured to be replanted in degraded habitats where VCT is working to restore montane grasslands.

The Vattaparai marsh might be missed as just another boggy wetlands bypassed on the way to the grander sights of the Palani Hills. Generations of students and hikers from KIS have passed its small watershed on the short cut to the Berijam road. In spite of its inconspicuousness Vattaparai is the site (see map below) of a groundbreaking study of  Western Ghats montane grasslands hydrology and ecological restoration.

One of the major concerns about the loss of forests and native vegetation (including grasslands) in the Western Ghats due to aggressive afforestation programs is the dramatic impact on stream flow and hydrology. Healthy native forests in the mountains ensure a steady flow of water, a feature that is crucial in the leeward side of the Ghats where the eastern plains are arid and suffer from periodic drought. Evidence suggests that the introduction of fast-growing, non-native tree species has altered this flow of water. Plantations of trees such as Acacia mearnsii, Eucalyptus globulus and Pinus sp. provide wood but are also responsible for negatively affecting the water table. A study of two similar watersheds in the Nilgiri Hills adds credibility to this argument (see JS Samra’s 1998 paper). One of the strongest arguments for restoring native shola/grassland systems is to revive watersheds (an equally strong argument concerns the issue of biodiversity, something that I have addressed in other published work on this site).

The Vattakanal Conservation Trust, which has a long track record in shola restoration, started focusing on grasslands species about 10 years ago when the 2006 Kurinji blooming was being anticipated. Up to this point there had not been significant research on reviving and restoring montane grasslands in the Western Ghats and the Vattaparai project has been a pioneering effort. In 2009 Australian hydrologist Michelle Donnelly collaborated with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and VCT to set up a landmark hydrological study of Vattapari. The task was to find a disturbed grassland watershed, record its key parameters (rainfall, water table height, stream flow, plant species, extent of grasslands etc.) and then monitor these as the area was restored. Vattapari provided an excellent site and the Forest Department’s support of VCT initiative helped put the project into action. Michelle’s report (as a Google doc) on the project documents all aspects and data of the project.

Water table monitoring wells and flow gauges were established in Vattaparai in 2009 and have been monitored since. In the meantime VCT with the support of the TN Forest Department and numerous volunteers has been working to restore the area around the marsh. This is a long-term study and it will take several years to see if the data supports the hypothesis that native grasslands provide a better watershed than non-native tree plantations. As might be expected there have been several challenges, notably in the gaur population that has trampled and broken tops of most of the ground water monitoring wells! Being herbivorous they also consume newly planted grass species before the plants can get established. In November 2010 a young male gaur was killed by Indian wild dogs (dhole) within view of a VCT team doing restoration work at Vattapari!

The pictures here were taken in April on a foray out with VCT to check the ground water monitoring wells and flow gauges at Vattaparai. The results and data coming in from the site will form an import body of evidence to pursue further high latitude grasslands restoration projects in the Nilgiri Hills, High Ranges and Anaimalais. For a more detailed discussion on ecological restoration in montane shola/grasslands systems in the Palani Hills see my Sanctuary Asia (2006) and Frontline  (2012) articles.

The Vataparai marsh, located near to the Kodaikanal golf links, is an ideal location for ecological restoration. The surrounding hill slopes have been planted with Acacia, Eucalyptus and Pinus species while remnants of the native grasses still survive in the basin. The stream provides several points to monitor water flow on a weekly basis. The picture illustrates the edges which have now had their non-native trees cut back to allow grasses to be planted and spread on their own.

Stages in grasslands restoration: pulling out wattle saplings, preparing a potted grass plant, newly planted grass plant with wattle removal in the background, monitoring steam flow using a crude but effective (volumetric) method.

Google Earth image of the Vattaparai marsh and nearby points in Kodaikanal.

VCT volunteer recording and monitoring the level of the ground water in the Vattaparai grasslands and marsh area. Ideally grasslands restoration should show positive trends in the water table level.  VCT has several years of data from a series of wells in the area, but this is a long-term process…

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2012-07-13 at 5:18 pm

Ecological Restoration in the Palani Hills

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Breathing life back into the sholas…spreads from the Frontline (20 April 2012) article.

Last summer while enjoying a holiday in Kodaikanal filled with hiking and outings with friends at the Vattakanal Conservation Trust it occurred to me that it was time to update the status of the ecology in the upper Palani Hills. Some of the observations were published in earlier blog posts but Bob, Tanya and I were also looking to reach a broader audience.  Frontline, with the able support of Vijaykumar has now published a series of my articles on the Palanis (2003), the Kurinji flowering (2006) and Bombay Shola (2010) all geared at raising awareness through text, photographs and maps. It was thus logical to look to them to highlight the current status of the upper hills. We took several fact-finding expeditions during June and July into the hills and the state of remnant montane grasslands was quite alarming. The spread of non-native species into these last outposts was significant.

It took me a while to get the article and pictures together for Frontline but earlier this month it was published as Breathing Life Back into the Sholas(click here for the HTML version). Bob & Tanya, meanwhile worked with various authorities to get permission and raise funds to do some emergency restoration work in the habitats that we had visited. Their field notes had alerted people to the issues that I have highlighted in the article. On our family’s recent visit to Kodai I was thrilled to hear that VCT has the go head and will shortly be organizing a team to spend time doing restoration work in those highly sensitive cliff areas. Above and below are the spreads from the article. In spite of the title, the article is really about recognizing and restoring remnant montane grasslands habitats (sholas, you will read, are actually doing quite well in the Palani Hills).

Breathing life back into the sholas…more spreads from the Frontline (20 April 2012) article.

One of the key recommendations of several conservationists, as well as the article, is that there is an urgent need for an updated and dynamic GIS of the Palani Hills. This may well be in the process with the support of various agencies and NGOs. In the meantime I’m working on a map for VCT highlighting the 1,500m contour (where shola/grasslands start in most areas). This is still a work in progress…

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2012-04-21 at 6:25 pm

Restoration & Revival in the Anaimalais

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We had a very satisfying encounter with a troop of Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) that was in the process of raiding the Puthuthottam Estate hospital. I was able to follow them into a patch of mixed plantation and natural vegetation forest to take the pictures in this post.

(PART II  IN A SERIES OF THREE)

The South West was in full force when Lenny and I drove to the Anaimalais from Kodai via Palani and Udumalpet. We had hired the good services of AP John and his small Indica for the three-day rip. The Anaimalais Tiger Reserve (ATR) is a large and expansive protected area though it is interrupted by large patches of human settlements and modified landscapes. Most people looking for wildlife will head to Topslip, which is south-west of Pollachi. The Valparai area has traditionally attracted fewer people and for good reason. The accommodation options are limited and the area is dominated by large monoculture estates of tea. Access into the forests and high Grasshills area of ATR is strictly restricted and is not a viable option without significant bureaucratic gymnastics in Chennai and Pollachi.

Clearing showers over the Aliyar reservoir looking east into the Anaimalai Hillss.

The ride up to Valparai is worth the trip in itself. The ghat road up from Udumalpet via the Aliyar reservoir  has an incredible 40 hairpin bends (the Battlagundu-Kodaikanal ghat only has one for comparison’s sake)! The road winds its way up a steep ascent with dry deciduous and thorn forest that quickly changes into moist-deciduous and then evergreen rainforest in the space of 10-20 kilometers.

View looking north from hairpin Bend #9/40 on the Pollachi-Valparai road. At times this is a good location to see Nilgiri tahr.

One of the most promising conservation projects in the Western Ghats is based out of Valparai where the Nature Conservation Foundation is working with several tea estates to restore degraded rainforest patches. The issue is close to my heart and something that I continue to learn and teach about. I’ve worked with the Vattakanal Conservation Trust to highlight their restoration work in shola/grasslands habitats changed by the widespread introduction of non-native tree species in the Palani and Nilgiri Hills. My 2005 article in Sanctuary entitled (by the editors) “the next big thing” described their work and the challenges of restoration in such sensitive habitats. In the article I mentioned the NCF work in the Anaimalais and have wanted to see it in person since.

Lenny outside and inside of the Anaimalai Nature Information Centre (ANIC).

NCF, of course, does a good deal more than ecological restoration and they have research projects in the Western Ghats, North-East and Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands. Before going over to the Anaimalais I contacted Shankar ‘Sridhar’ Raman and Divya Mudappa to set up a time to visit the NCF interpretation center.  They were away but were able too hook me up with other NCF team members in Valparai. I first remember meeting Sridhar in Sengeltheri, (KMTR) in 1997 when he was conducting his dissertation study of birds in tropical rainforests of the Southern Western Ghats. I was on a short visit and was enjoying fine pre-monsoon weather to document different scenes including the view that led to the “Kalakad tree” image. Karthikeyan Vasudevan, of the Wildlife Institute of India, was also staying in the same hut conducting his research on amphibians. I remember being thoroughly impressed with their set up, passion for their work and individual studies.

Along the road to Valparai NCF runs what must be the most effective and informative interpretation centers in the entire Western Ghats.  The Anaimalai Nature Information Centre (ANIC) was our first stop on the Valparai plateau and Lenny and I were warmly welcomed. The location is a small bungalow immediately next to the main Valparai road in the Iyerpadi area. There are rooms dedicated to different habitats, species and challenges in the Western Ghats. A large number of attractively designed posters with beautiful digital pictures, write-ups and paintings by Maya Ramaswamy helps the viewer get a real sense for the range. They also have several publications for kids and adults and we left with lots of materials for the kids and school. I was happy to pick up an extra copy of Whitaker and Captain’s Snakes of India to replace the one that I had given to my Dhonavur friends. Our first point of contact at NCF was P. Jeganathan later Ananda Kumar talked to me about the plant nurseries. Jegan set us up to find the LTMs at the Puthuthottam estate utilizing the sharp skills of their watcher Joseph. Later that day he took us on a tour of the NCF nursery and interesting points near Valparai.

Satish, one of NCF’s Valparai team members, shows off a three-year old Cullenia excelsa sapling that he is getting ready to transfer from the nursery to a degraded forest patch in the a nearby estate.

The NCF nursery was wet and misty on both days that I visited. Tata Tea has given them a section of one of their own tea nurseries to nurture rainforest trees that are collected from seeds on roadsides in forest fragments. These are documented, germinated and grown for the next 2-3 years. Once fragments are identified in tea-estate forests, sapling are taken from the nursery and planted during the monsoon season. The forest structure and conditions are carefully considered when choosing species to plant. Grazing has to be curtailed and invasive species removed when possible.  Local communities, play a key role in education outreach and efforts to reduce collection of rainforest trees for firewood. A good deal of science and research goes into it and my observations were fleeting. Nevertheless, I came away impressed and hopeful in these small efforts to redress ecological ruin.

Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) in mixed (plantation+ natural) forest near the Puthuthottam Estate hospital.

Monsoon Deluge in Bangitapal and Wayanad

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Bob and Tanya negotiating a flooded road in the grasslands of Mukkurthy National Park in the Nilgiri Hills

Bob and Tanya negotiating a flooded road in the grasslands of Mukurthi National Park in the Nilgiri Hills

This year India experienced an abnormally erratic monsoon season. While a deficit of rain was reported from many parts of the subcontinent, northern Kerala was drenched in a deluge in early July. I had a chance to enjoy experiencing the full rigor, and power of the South West monsoon during a short visit to the Nilgiris and Wayanad with my friends Bob & Tanya from the Vattakanal Conservation Trust. On our fleeting visit to the Nilgiri Hills we visited the remote area of Bangitappal in Mukurthi National Park. Given the difficulty in securing permission we felt fortunate to be granted the single night at the rest house. However, the relentless monsoon showers, which came in at 360°, severely limited what we could do. Later we drove up through Mudumalai, Bandipur and then Nagarhole to visit our friends at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad. The journey proved to be quite an adventure with knocked-out roads, raging streams, muddy landslips, a circuitous deviation and finally a submerged road to navigate in a rescue boat. The rewards of communion with friends and the tranquility of Gurukula, albeit in pounding rain, were well worth it.

Impatines clavicornia at Bangitapal, Nilgiri Hills

Impatines clavicornia at Bangitapal, Nilgiri Hills

Shola canopy amidst pouring rain on the way to Bangitapal.

Shola canopy amidst pouring rain on the way to Bangitapal.

Baby python (Python molurus) that had been run over at the foot of the Masinigudi ghat road, Nilgiri Hills.

Baby python (Python molurus) that had been run over at the foot of the Masinigudi ghat road, Nilgiri Hills.

Camera curiosity amongst Paniya tribals at the flooded road near Gurukula.

Camera curiosity amongst Paniya tribals at the flooded road near Gurukula.

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Rescue boat ferrying commuters across flooded road on the way out from Gurukula.

Written by ianlockwood

2009-09-28 at 4:01 pm