Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for the ‘Palani Hills’ Category

Kurinji Flowering in the Southern Western Ghats-Anticipation

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A collage of four images taken of Strobilanthes kunthiana (Kurinji) flowering in the remote Palani Hills during the 2006 mass flowering. These were taken on 6×6 cm medium format color negatives and then scanned.

2018 is an important year in the high reaches of the southern Western Ghats. The gregarious flowers of Strobilanthes kunthiana* or Kurinji plant (also Neelakurinji) is set for its once-in-12 years mass blooming. The Strobilanthes genus is widespread in tropical Asian forests where most of the 350+ species are found in forest understory systems. They have unusual flowering cycles and they experience mass flowering, dieback and then regeneration. Amongst these, there are very few Strobilanthes species that exclusively occur in grasslands habitats. Strobilanthes kunthiana* is native to the montane grasslands that are an important part of the shola/grassland mosaic in the southern Western Ghats. Every twelve years the flowering of Strobilanthes kunthiana and the extent to which they flower is an excellent gauge of the health of montane grasslands.

Unfortunately, as has been recorded in this space before, shola/grasslands ecosystems in key ranges such as the Nilgiri and Palani hills are under assault from a number of anthropocentric factors. The clearing of grasslands for timber plantations, agricultural fields and residential developments in Kurinji habitats is a significant cause of loss of habitat. Interestingly (and tragically) the grasslands habitat that Kurinji thrive in was long categorized as “wasteland” an unfortunate categorization that still persists in many vegetation maps of hill areas in the Western Ghats. In the Palani Hills, most of the plateau area’s montane grasslands have been replaced by timber plantations (see Arasumonai et al.). Now the unplanned spread of non-native plantations species threatens Kurinji habitat on the difficult-to-access cliff and escarpment edges. Thus, the next task for conservationists and the Forest Department is to give priority to protecting these last bastions of a vanishing landscape and ecosystem.

Kurinji flowering in 2018 is expected in areas with healthy shola/grasslands habitats. The least disturbed montane grasslands systems in the southern Western Ghats are in Kerala’s Eravikulam National Park (NP), Mukurthi NP and the Anamalais Tiger Reserve (both in Tamil Nadu). However, pressure on these protected areas is significant and there is a worry that a flood of visitors will damage the sensitive grasslands habitat. For an experience of Kurinji, the popular Coaker’s Walk in Kodaikanal should be a good place to view the flowering during the months of the South West Monsoon (June-September).

Strobilanthes kunthiana (Kurinji) flowering in the remote Palani Hills

Frontline spread with Kurinji Crown article (2006). Click on image for PDF copy.

Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowering on Coaker’s Walk in Kodaikanal with Perumalmalai in the background. July 2006.

One of the easiest places to see Kurinji flowering in Tamil Nadu is on Coaker’s Walk in Kodaikanal. The slopes below the walkways used to have a variety of montane grass species and bloomed with Kurinji every 12 years. Today they have been invaded by non-native trees species and weeds. The Forest Department has made an effort to plant Kurinji in sections near to the walkway. This picture is from the 2006 flowering.

A NOTE ON “PALANI” vs “PALNI”: In this and other posts I have used the spelling of “Palani” based on linguistic recommendations made by Dr. Clarence Maloney. Other organizations such as the PHCC and individuals continue to use the “Palni” version. I’m not aware of an ultimate authority on the correct English spelling of Tamil locational names, but the town of Palani is so named and Dr. Maloney is quite adamant that this represents the closest English translation of the name of the hill/mountain range.

*NOTE: In recent scientific literature kunthiana now seems to be replaced by kunthianus (see Catalog of Life link below), a change I need to verify before I adjust my usage here.

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Arsumanoi, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Botanical Survey of India. ENVIS Centre on Floral DiversityWeb.

Carine, Mark A.  et al. “A Revision of the Strobilanthes kunthiana-Group (Phlebophyllum sensu Bremekamp) (Acanthaceae)/” Kew Bulletin.  2004. Web.

Catalog of Life. “Strobilanthes kunthianus.” Web.

EFloraofIndia. “Strobilanthes kunthiana” Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kurinji Crown.” Frontline. August 26-Sept 8, 2006. Print and Web.

Mukherjee, Pippa. Flora of the Southern Western Ghats and Palnis: A Field Guide. Niyogi Books, 2017. Print.

Sharma, Manju et al. “Reproductive strategies of Strobilanthes kunthianus, an endemic, semelparous species in southern Western Ghats, India.” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 2008. 28 April 2008. Web.

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2018-06-09 at 8:51 pm

Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study

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Lenny & Prasen on Dolphin’s Nose with Perumal peak in the far left. A panoramic composite image from January 2016.

The grasslands mapping project that took shape at the plantations conference in Kodaikanal in December 2014 produced a report that was published earlier this year. This is important work and represents the combined efforts of several disparate individuals, organizations and funding agencies. The preliminary visual assessment of Landsat imagery by the author showed that satellite data held spatial evidence of dramatic land cover change in the Western Ghats and Palani Hills but that it needed to be quantified. Robin Vijayan of ISER Tirupati put into motion a study in 2016 with key field work and spatial analysis being done by M. Arasumani and Danesh Khan. Further academic guidance was provided by Arundhati Das, Milind Bunyan and several others. Bob Stewart & Tanya Balcar, of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust, provided key insights on shola regeneration in plantations-the topic that originally brought everyone together. INTACH and ISER Tirupati helped provide funding of the field work. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department was an important stakeholder and helped provide permissions for the field work. Prasen Yadav joined the project to document the work and produce a video of the findings. The study was peer reviewed and published in January 2018.  It is publicly available on PLOS One, including access to all the tables of data and charts (see link below).

My involvement with the grasslands mapping brings together several interests and is the latest chapter in my ongoing interest and love affair with the Palani Hills. An alarming conclusion of the study is the great extent to which the montane grasslands have been taken over by non-native trees and weeds. Those of us who have been walking in the hills have had a sense of this but the satellite images providing damning proof. It is also clear that the plantations have spread far beyond the original boundaries that they were originally designed to be in. Most of the southern escarpment has a fire line etched into its grasslands and now plantations species are spreading beyond this boundary and down the steep slopes of montane grasslands. This leads to clear conclusion that where possible efforts need to be made to preserve these last remaining vestiges of montane grasslands. The challenge is that, in spite of the surprising resilience of shola tree species, the last montane grasslands are being steadily consumed by plantation (and some shola) species.

Our study concludes:

  1. Identify and conserve core grasslands: Core grassland areas consist of a few to many hectares of grassland encompassing hillocks, streams, marshes and rock outcrops. These areas, even when nestled in a plantation matrix, should be protected and form the core around which grassland restoration efforts should focus.
  2. Check invasion in sparsely invaded grasslands: These areas are often characterized by young plantations located in grasslands where grass cover is still extensive. Here, we recommend physical removal of invasive species. Forest departments often have access to significant funding through the Compensatory Afforestation (Bill passed in 2016) funds and these could be utilized for these activities. Such funds could be used for the restoration of marshes, existing grasslands and to manage the invasive plantations.
  3. Review indiscriminate removal of mature plantations: Mature plantations often have native shola forest regenerating under them and lack native grass cover. Grassland restoration here is likely to be very resource-intensive. Conservation efforts should focus on sparsely invaded and pristine grasslands. In mature plantations, we recommend conducting experimental or controlled studies (like at Vattavada, Munnar Kerala), perhaps also examining the role of fire, and monitoring soil and moisture conditions in these areas. Moreover, removal of mature plantations could stimulate regeneration of plantation species from saturated soil seed banks. Monitoring of these areas is important to assess the effectiveness of plantation removal.
  4. Contain agriculture: Our field surveys indicate that paddy cultivation has been discontinued in some marshes. Given the critical role of these marshes in regulating local hydrology, efforts should be made to contain agriculture to the current extent and restore these marshes using a community-led conservation effort.

Several other writes have reviewed the PLOS article in the popular press and I have listed articles in the Wire by Janaki Lenin, Mohan Rao in the Hindu and Pendharkar, Vrushal in Mongabay.

This year is a special year since it marks the cycle of Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus) blooming that only happens every 12 years. Kurinji plants, more than any other grasslands species, are closely associated with healthy montane grassland systems. The extent of this year’s flowering will be a good gauge of the health of the grasslands of the Palani Hills.

My next personal chapter in this process to better understand the landscape and ecology of the Palani Hills is to present and share an exhibition of photographs and annotated maps at DakshinaChitra, Chennai this July. The next post will highlight this significant endeavor.

Southern escarpment on a very clear day looking west to the Agamalai range and beyond. January 2016.

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Arsumanoi, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Lenin, Janaki “You’d Think Cutting Kodai Plantations Will Save Its Grasslands. It Won’t.” The Wire. 19 September 2017. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2016. Web.

“         “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 4 April 2014. Web.

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution in Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Pendharkar, Vrushal. “Palani Hills: Where have the grasslands gone?” Mongabay. 20 February 2018. Web.

Rao, Mohan. “Missing the grass for the trees in Western Ghats.” The Hindu. 17 January 2018. Web.

Yadav, Prasenjeet. “Save our Shola Grasslands.” YouTube. Web-Video. 16 September 2017.

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2018-05-28 at 11:56 pm

A Song of the Sholicola

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Sholicola_albiventris_at_BS_singing_1a(MR)(04)18)

Sholicola albiventris singing in Bombay Shola, Palani Hills. Photographed with a D-800 and 600 f/4 lens. (April 2018).

South India’s shola forests (and their companion grasslands mosaic habitat) continue to be a source of hydrological importance, a site for scientific investigation and a place for sheer wonder. The clumps of moist evergreen forest that were historically found in the folds and deep valleys of the highest ranges of the Western Ghats are recognized for hosting startling biodiversity. We know from various studies that the lofty highlands of the Western Ghats were isolated from lower areas by altitude and rugged geography for long periods of time. It is not surprising then that a host of species evolved unique to these “sky islands.”*

There are several notable species that are confined to sholas and whose populations are closely allied to healthy shola habitat. The White Bellied Blue Robin (Sholicola albiventris), formerly known as the White Bellied Shortwing (Myiomela albiventris), is a Western Ghats endemic bird species that perhaps best reflects the state of healthy sholas. I’ve been watching and listening to the bird for several decades and this short post highlights a few facets about Sholicola albiventris, provides some background reading and shares a portfolio of images that I have been working on for several years.

Sholicola albiventris tends to be a sulky bird that spends its time in dark thickets of the shola understory. It can be difficult to spot since it has dark features and is usually only active at dusk and dawn. Novice bird watchers would be forgiven for confusing it with the Nilgiri flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudatus) or White Belleid Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis pallidipes)-both which have overlapping habitats/ranges. The musical songs of the Sholicola albiventris, (mixed in with calls of laughing thrushes, scimitar babblers, barbets, jungle fowl and other birds) in the early mornings is a defining feature of sholas at certain times of the year. I have observed and listened to Sholicola albiventris singing incessantly in the sholas of the Palani Hills in the months before the monsoon. It is also found in adjoining gardens in settlement areas-as illustrated by some of the images in this post. According to scientists studying Sholicola albiventris, the Palani Hills individuals seem to call at times different than other populations (in the High Range and Anamalais). Could the onset of the monsoon and the fact that the Palani hills are in the rain shadow of the South West Monsoon play a role in this behavior?

When speaking of the White Bellied Blue Robin, it is impossible not to mention the long-term work of V.V. Robin. It is a happy coincidence that Robin bears the name of the bird that he has worked so hard to study and better understand. Robin is an evolutionary biologist with an in interest in biogeography and conservation initiatives, especially in the southern Western Ghats. He frequently collaborates with his wife Nandini Rajamani (see links below). I had the good fortune to bump into Robin in the Carin Hill shola (Nilgiri Hills) many years ago-he was collecting DNA specimens and I was trying to see what would later be renamed as the Nilgiri Blue Robin (Sholicola major). Robin is now an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research (IISER) Tirupati. He was the key person that organized a disparate group, including this author, to map grasslands in the Palani Hills (see PLOS for our article). Robin’s work on the biogeography of the White Bellied Shortwing, using genetic data, led to a split in the original species into three different species. His list of publications, some of which are included below, illustrates his prodigious efforts.

Sholicola albiventris in a garden adjoining Bombay Shola (April 2017).Photographed with a D-800 and 600 f/4 lens. (April 2018).

Looking for Sholicola albiventris and other shola species in the heart of Bombay Shola.

*Sky Islands is a term first used in the south West United States and defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments.” The concept has appropriate relevance to the high Western Ghats (from approximately 1,500-1,800 to 2,695m) and has been used in popular, as well as scientific publications. I was first introduced to the concept by V.V. Robin through conversations and his website. The INTACH book on the Palani Hills utilized the term and our friend Prasenjeet has incorporated it into his August 2017 National Geographic article and photo essay.

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Grimmett, Richard Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. London: Helms Field Guide/Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution In Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Robin, V.V. and R. Nandini. “Shola habitats on sky islands: status of research on montane forests and grasslands in southern India.” Current Science. December 2012. Print & Web.

Robin, V.V. Anindya Sinha and Uma Ramakrishnan. “Ancient Geographical Gaps and Paleo-Climate Shape the Phylogeography of an Endemic Bird in the Sky Islands of Southern India.” PLOS One. October 2010. Web.

Robin VV et al. “Two new genera of songbirds represent endemic radiations from the Shola Sky Islands of the Western Ghats, India.” BMC Evolutionary Biology. January 2017. Web.

2017 Taxonomy update for Indian birds. E-Bird. 24 August 2017. Web.

 

Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills

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Remnants of a pine tree that had invaded a patch of remote grasslands and then been ring-barked in 2013 as a part of an effort to protect the last vestiges of native montane grasslands in the remote Palani Hills. In the background the undulating hills leading back to Berijam and Kodaikanal have been thickly forested with non-native plantation species.

Remnants of a pine tree that had invaded a patch of remote grasslands and then been ring-barked in 2012 as a part of an effort to protect the last vestiges of native montane grasslands in the remote Palani Hills. In the background the undulating hills leading back to Berijam and Kodaikanal have been thickly forested with non-native plantation species.

Over the last year a group of scientists, conservationists, photographers and citizens have been working on a unique collaborative project to document and map the remaining grasslands of the Palani Hills. Montane grassland and shola habitats are a distinct feature of the upper Western Ghats and have been the focus of my personal explorations, writing and photography of/about  the area. The grasslands mapping project, supported by INTACH,  seeks to quantify the change in montane grasslands and draw attention to areas that can be restored. Robin Vijayan, now on faculty at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISERT,) in Tirupati is the coordinator. Other key stakeholders are associated with ATREE, NCBS and the Kodaikanal-based Vattakanal Conservation Trust. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is a key partner and will be able to use the results to better plan restoration and management in the newly gazetted Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. Regular readers of this space will see that there are familiar themes highlighted in past posts, notably the post on the plantations symposium in December 2014 and the “preliminary visual assessment” post from April that year. This post highlights efforts of the group and a visit to the southern escarpment to ground truth areas that had been mapped with satellite data.

Inspecting a plot of cleared plantation on the road to Berijam Lake. The idea was to restore grasslands by clearing plantation. This has proven very difficult, if not impossible to achieve despite the best intentions. Cleared plantation areas soon become infested with weeds and wattle seedlings. In this image, pioneer Daphniphyllum neilgherrense trees are visible amongst the debris of the cleared wattle plantation. These pioneer shola species came up amongst the wattle that had been planted on grasslands. Thus, what emerges in plots that are located close to mother sholas is a hybrid plantation-shola mix in what was once montane grasslands. Examples like this illustrate the challenge and complexity of shola/grassland restoration in the southern Western Ghats.

Inspecting a plot of cleared plantation on the road to Berijam Lake. The idea was to restore grasslands by clearing plantation. This has proven very difficult, if not impossible to achieve despite the best intentions. Cleared plantation areas soon become infested with weeds and wattle seedlings. In this image, pioneer Daphniphyllum neilgherrense trees are visible amongst the debris of the cleared wattle plantation. These pioneer shola species came up amongst the wattle that had been planted on grasslands. Thus, what emerges in plots that are located close to mother sholas is a hybrid plantation-shola mix in what was once montane grasslands. Examples like this illustrate the challenge and complexity of shola/grassland restoration in the southern Western Ghats.

In July I had a chance to participate in a four-day survey of montane grasslands in the remote Palani Hills as part of the grasslands mapping project. For several months of this year the grasslands mapping project has employed two young and energetic GIS/RS technicians Arasu and Danish. They have been systematically classifying the Landsat data from 1973 and 2014 and then “ground truthing” land cover across the Palani Hills. The result has been a series of computer-based maps and data sets that show historical grassland compared to their current extent. It is an unprecedented enterprise in the Palanis and the results are startling. The data and maps will eventually be available for key stakeholders and the wider public once there has been a rigorous review process.

Danish and Arasu had ground truthed most of the upper Palanis Hills areas by June but the high plateau between Berijam and Vandaarvu was un-surveyed due to strict permissions regarding access to this core area of the sanctuary. It is an area that I have been visiting on and off since I was a student at Kodaikanal International School in the early 1980s –thus my role was to guide the group to some of the key places where there are still grasslands. We were joined by National Geographic explorer Prasenjeet Yadav who has been contributing his time and photographic talents to document the themes of the project.

The Berijam to Vandaravu area has experienced significant change as grasslands have been replaced with non-native plantations during the last 40 years. In the last two decades I have been more systematically documenting landscapes and key aspects of the ecology in the Palanis Hills and wider Western Ghats. Land cover changes are a particular interest brought about by personal experience (several generations of our family have explored the ranges). I have traditionally used a camera to document observations but increasingly I have been turning to remotely sensed images that can be used to monitor and measure land cover change.

Danesh taking data points at a rare grasslands patch on the way up to Ibex Peak. Behind stretches a view to Berijam and beyond-now all under thick forest cover.

From top left to bottom right: Danish taking data points at a rare grasslands patch on the way up to Ibex Peak. Behind stretches a view to Manavanur and beyond-now all under thick forest cover. Close up views of Mapit logging attributes and getting a GPS point.

From top left to bottom right: Cutting through fallen pine trees on the road to Katrikodai from Berijam. Prasen inspecting steep slopes and remnant grasslands at Prayer Point near Marion Shola. Danesh with forest guards logging a point on Mapit.

From top right to bottom left: Cutting through fallen pine trees on the road to Katrikodai from Berijam. Prasen inspecting steep slopes and remnant grasslands at Prayer Point near Marion Shola. Danish with forest guards logging a point on Mapit.

The visit to Kathcikiriodai and Ibex Peak in July gave our small party a good sense of how little natural grasslands are left in the Palani Hills while also appreciating the complexities that the plantation ecology have brought about. Initially we were delayed by fallen pine trees on the road (the old Kodai-Cochin road) and our team had to spend the night at the Berijam FD bungalow. On the second day Bob & Tanya drove us up to the road blocks and then we trekked into Kathcikiriodai. On our walk to Kathcikiriodai it occurred to me that there are only two types of grasslands surviving in this area: marsh grasslands and patches of non-native grasses growing on areas that used to be coop camps for woodcutters (when the area was actively logged). Otherwise everything else is plantation with virtually no shola (Marion Shola has a healthy shola and there must be a few others away from the road).

Grassy patch of non native grass species in an area that was once a coop shed where Sri Lankan repatriates worked to plant and harvest non-native timber species. I have memories of walking by remote, squalid camps in the 1980s during our hiking program.

Patch of non-native grass species in an area that was once a coop shed where Sri Lankan repatriates lived while working to plant and harvest timber species. I have memories of walking by remote, squalid camps in the 1980s during our school’s hiking program.

Forest guards taking out a young pine tree invading cliff side grasslands near Ibex Peak.

On the afternoon of Day 2 we visited Marion Shola, its dilapidated bungalow and the nearby cliffs. There had been a fire on the cliff edge-formerly grasslands abut now invaded with mostly eucalyptus. We revisited the site on the last day and were able to get a much better sense of the habitat, land use and awesome cliffs. We spotted a small herd of Nilgiri tahr (in close proximity to a bonnet macaque troop) several hundred meters below us. We appreciated the significant montane grasslands that crown the Agamalai range to the south – not in our study as they fall in the Theni district.

We had our most significant day on Tuesday July 19th when we trekked with four forest guards out to the Ibex Peak cliffs. We were blessed with sunshine and clear weather for the first crucial hours of the trip. On the way we passed though a few native grasslands patches as well as areas where grasses coexisted under thin eucalyptus plantation (Danish mapped and photographed all of these). I was alarmed at the cliff edge where it seems to me the wattle and pine is making advances into the strip of 30m or so grasslands that was never originally planted. The 2013 restoration efforts were visible (dead, leafless pine, and trunks with rings). However, as Bob Stewart later reiterated, it can not be a single effort and more, regular work needs to be done if these last grasslands are going to be saved. We walked up to Ibex Peak (2, 517 m), explored the marsh below it, which is still in very good shape and then headed back to Kathcikiriodai a little after noon. By that time the whole cliff area was covered in mist.

Scenes of grasslands on the path to Ibex Peak showing varying levels of invasion by non-native timber plantations.

Scenes of grasslands on the path to Ibex Peak showing varying levels of invasion by non-native timber species.

Interestingly, we heard some of the key shola species as we walked through the plantations-White Bellied Blue Robin (Myiomela albiventris), Black and Orange Flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa), Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Columba elphinstonii) and Kerala Laughing Thrush (Trochalopteron or Strophocincla fairbanki). There was a pair of Nilgiri pipits (Anthus nilghiriensis) at Kathcikiriodai -apparently content amongst the non-native grasses and remnant marsh habitat. We photographed two different shrub frogs, found a Salea sp. (most likely anamallayana) in the burnt out eucalyptus and came across a shieldtail on the walk out (near one of the coop patches). The only gaur we saw was a herd from near Ibex Peak. There was significant elephant dropping evidence along the roads.

The four forest guards provided important support to our group and I gained a new appreciation for their role. Two accompanied us from Berijam and another two were based at Kathcikiriodai. They are clued into restoration and removed pine saplings from our path to Ibex Peak (at least one of them had worked with VCT on the cliff restoration initiative four years ago). They are however not well supported and have minimal equipment. They had no working wireless and with no cell phone connectivity and they are completely on their own! After trekking with forest guards and staff in other PAs in south India I feel that much more could be done for these men and their important work.

At the escarpment edge just east of Ibex Peak, the 2nd highest peak in the Palani Hills. These are the crucial grasslands that have been identified to be saved from encroaching invasive species. Our survey found them still intact but under pressure as pine, wattle and even eucalyptus spread beyond their original plantation boundaries.

At the escarpment edge just east of Ibex Peak, the 2nd highest peak in the Palani Hills. These are the crucial grasslands that have been identified to be saved from encroaching invasive species. Our survey found them still intact but under pressure as pine, wattle and even eucalyptus spread beyond their original plantation boundaries.

We made several important observations over the course of our survey:

  • Almost all the plateau’s montane grasslands area from Berijam to Vandaravu was planted with non-native timber plantations species in the last 40 years. This is supported by satellite evidence and terrestrial photographs from the 1960s and 70s. There are virtually no unplanted grasslands areas unless they contained shola or the soil was too thin.
  • There are several small grasslands patches on the road to Kathcikiriodai and Marion Shola. Remembering experiences from my school hiking days I am reminded that these are former coop shed camps that housed labor (often Sri Lankan repatriates) planting and harvesting timber. The patches do not support native grasslands but appear to provide fodder for herbivores (gaur, sambar).
  • Several large and medium-sized marshes in the area were left unplanted (for obvious reasons). These still exist, though there is some invasions of pine. One large marsh (10.168704° N, 77.366623°E) was dammed to provide drinking water (Konalar dam) for Poondi and Kavanji villages. Its lake now extends all the way to what used to be known as First Trout’s Stream.
  • Shola regeneration in the plantations between Berijam and Kathcikiriodai is extremely limited other than the beginning where plantations adjoin the Temple Shola near the Berijam FD camp. It illustrates the apparent fact that without a “mother shola” there is limited spread into plantations.
  • Plantations appear to have been planted to approximately 30 meters of the escarpment edge (a very abrupt border). These edges once supported remnant montane grasslands and were important for Nilgiri tahr and other herbivore populations. However, most of these edges have now been invaded by plantation species. The Ibex Peak cliff to Ullam Pari grasslands are some of the last remaining patches but these are experiencing invasion (see photos).
  • The May 2012 restoration work by VCT arrested some of this invasion in a limited area. However, it needs to be a regular intervention if these critical grasslands are to be saved from being overtaken by plantation trees.

In conclusion, I want to put in a special word of thanks to VCT for organizing the permissions and the drop off and pick up. My colleagues Prasen and Danish were excellent company. We are grateful to the TN Forest Department for facilitating the survey and providing us with the guards and accommodation at Kathcikiriodai. I am looking forward to making further contributions to the project and effort to protect this part of the Western Ghats.

The maps that are referred to earlier, as well as my own tinkering with spatial data, will be shared in a future post.

 

PAST BLOG POSTS & PUBLICATIONS

Lockwood, Ian. “Recent Publications.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 11 November 2015. Web.

“         “Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation: A Symposium in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. December 2014. Web.

“         “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 4 April 2014. Web.

“         “Landscape and ecology in India’s Western Ghats: A Personal Odyssey.” Asian Geographic. July 2008. Print & Web.

“         “Restoring Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills. Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2012. Web.

“         “On the southern rim of the Palani Hills (Part II). Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.

“         “On the southern rim of the Palani Hills (Part 1). Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2016-08-22 at 11:56 pm

Panchromatic to Multispectral: Personal Explorations of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot

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For the last three years Nature in Focus has been an important gathering for people interested in photography and conservation. While hosted in the south Indian metro of Bangalore it has a global outlook and many of the speakers and participants are experienced with photographic and conservation projects in the broader global context. The two day workshops held in early July are the brainchild of Kalyan Varma, one of India’s leading photographers/ cinematographers working in conservation. This year I have been privileged to be invited to share some of my experiences using photography as a tool for conservation. Accompanied by our daughter Amy I will be sharing images and insights from my experiences documenting landscapes and ecology in the Western Ghats/ Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. The talk will consider the black & white aesthetic in the South Asian context as well as the changes with process as the traditional darkroom has evolved with the advent of digital tools. I also wanted to share some of my personal personal experiments with using geospatial and multispectral opportunities to better understand changing landscapes in the hotspot. I’m looking forward to the  opportunity to meet old friends, make new acquaintances and participate in the exchange of ideas for the benefit of biodiversity conservation.

Portions of the southern Western Ghats emphasizing Landsat thermal bands above 380 meters.

New work with GIS: Map showing selected portions of the southern Western Ghats emphasizing Landsat thermal bands above 380 meters.

Anai_Mudi_Moonscape_(1993)(72)

Anai Mudi Moonscape, Eravikulam National Park (March 1993). Fujica 6×9 (80 mm) fixed lens. Konica Infrared 120 film.

Kukaal_Fires(2002)(72)

Farmer burning agricultural waste, Kukkal, Palani Hills (May 2002). Mamiya 6 with 80 mm lens, Kodak T-Max 100 120 film.

Leaves_in_Anaimalais(1998)(72)

New growth, Anamalais Tiger Reserve, (June 1998). Mamiya 6 with 80 mm lens,  Kodak T-Max 100 120 film.

Sabaraimalai_Pilgrim_Portrait(2002)(72)

Sabaraimalai Piligrims, Periyar Tiger Reserve (January 2002). Mamiya 6 with 80 mm lens, Kodak T-Max 100 120 film.

Seen_God_Portrai_(2011)(72)

Seen God Portrait, A( July 2012). Hasselblad with 80 mm lens. Kodak T-Max 100 120 film

First light on Twin Peaks, Palani Hills (June 2012). Digital composite image using a Nikon D-300 with 24-70mm lens.

First light on Twin Peaks with the South West Monsoon over Kerala, Palani Hills (June 2012). Digital composite image using a Nikon D-300 with 24-70mm lens.

Written by ianlockwood

2016-06-30 at 1:07 pm

Landscape & Biodiversity Highlights from a Winter in the Palani Hills

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First light on Anai Mudi as seen from the Palani Hills.

First light on Anai Mudi, the highest mountain in peninsular India south of the Himalaya, as seen from the Palani Hills.

This post highlight themes of biodiversity and landscape in the Palani Hills that were taken during our family’s winter visit. In particular, I focus on two species that I had the good fortune to encounter.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), a species endemic to the southern Western Ghats, were once found in significant numbers along the escarpments of the Palani Hills. The populations of Nilgiri tahr dropped precipitously in the 19th and 20th Century when they were shot for sport, poached and then affected by large-scale habitat change as a result of afforestation schemes on the montane grasslands that they depend on. I have spent significant time in the Palanis exploring their habitat and looking for signs that tahr still survive. And they do, though it is hard to say exactly how many there are. The most recent comprehensive survey was conducted by WW-India. Their 2015 report linked blow highlights issues of distribution and conservation in the entire range.

Douglas Hamilton’s “the old buck of Kodaikanal.” In a Record of Southern India (see online links) he describes shooting this near to what is know known as Priests Walk- a place on the outskirts of the Kodaikanal municipality and just below the infamous Ponds thermometer factory. The image is sourced from the British Library via Wikipedia (referenced below).

Douglas Hamilton’s “the old buck of Kodaikanal.” In a Record of Southern India (see online links) he describes shooting this near to what is known as Priests Walk- a place on the outskirts of the Kodaikanal municipality and just below the infamous Ponds thermometer factory. The image is sourced from the British Library via Wikipedia (referenced below).

See the well-documented Wikipedia entries on Douglas Hamilton who was one of the first people to document Nilgiri tahr in the Palani Hills and other neighboring locations (Anamalais and High Range). His sketches and narratives provide rich evidence of Nilgiri tahr in the hills before the changes of the last 150+ years. Much of the work on the Wikipedia pages is thanks to the efforts of Marcus Sherman who has found online sources and made these contributions as an editor of Wikipedia.

Nilgiri tahr adult female and juvenile on the escarpment near Kukkal. I’ve been seeing tahr here for the last 10 years or so but I have not been able to get close enough for a photograph. I spotted this pair with Lenny and Prasen on a short visit in January. We were able to hunker down in the grass as they approached unaware of our presence. Once got wind of us (it might have been Lenny’s bright red jacket?) they reversed their direction and descended quickly back the slope. The original images was taken with a D-800 and 600 f/4 Nikon ED VR lens mounted on a tripod and the inset shows the detail of the adult’s head. The lens is an amazing tool to use, albeit a bit heavy and bulky but it produces superior results.

The Black & Orange flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa) is an endemic bird from the central and southern Western Ghats and is closely associated with the densely wooded forest patches of shola/grasslands systems. There are healthy populations of these flycatchers in and around Kodaikanal and they have even adapted themselves to gardens.

After several fruitful days of wondering in Bombay shola I had followed several different individuals and been able to record them in a variety of different situations.

After several fruitful days of wandering in Bombay shola I had followed several different individuals and been able to record them in a variety of different situations.

This male was photographed in Bombay Shola, a small forest located in the busy hill station of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. It was taken during a magical encounter with several endemic shola bird species while in the company of my cousin Peter Lockwood and friend/photographer Prasenjet Yadav. I’m still adjusting to using a long lens and this is one of the first pictures that it has produced that does some justice to a beautiful, yet secretive bird that is generally found in dark thickets of undergrowth in the shola.

This male was photographed in Bombay Shola, a small forest located in the busy hill station of Kodaikanal. It was taken during a magical encounter with several endemic shola bird species while in the company of my cousin Peter Lockwood and friend Prasenjeet Yadav. I’m still adjusting to using a long lens and this is one of the first pictures that it has produced that does some justice to a beautiful, yet secretive bird that is generally found in dark thickets of undergrowth in the shola.

The image above is currently showcased in Sanctuary Asia’s April 2016 edition (see pages 12-13). Alongside it are images from photographer friends Kalyan Varma, Gertrud & Helmut Denzau and Ashok Captain. Log into www.Magzter.com to get a subscription and read the whole issue.

There were, of course, many other birds in the sholas and I’m slowly building up a record of shola aviafauna.

Shola bird species diversity in Kodaikanal's Bombay Shola. Clockwise from upper left: Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus horsfieldii), Grey Breasted Laughing Thrush re-named as the Kerala Laughing Thrush (Strophocincla fairbanki), White Bellied Shortwing now known as the White Bellied Blue Robin (Myiomela albiventris), Grey-Headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) and Nilgiri Flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudatus) female.

Shola bird species diversity in Kodaikanal’s Bombay Shola. Clockwise from upper left: Indian Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus horsfieldii), Grey Breasted Laughing Thrush re-named as the Kerala Laughing Thrush (Strophocincla fairbanki), White Bellied Shortwing now known as the White Bellied Blue Robin (Myiomela albiventris), Grey-Headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) and Nilgiri Flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudatus) female.

Looking north-west to the Anamalais and beyond.

North-west edge of the Palani Hills looking north-west to the Anamalais and beyond.

REFERENCES

“Drawings by Douglas Hamilton.” Wikipedia. Web. 2 April 2016.

Lockwood, Ian. “Of Tea & Tahr.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2000. Print & Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “On the Southern Rim of the Palanis (Part II).” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2011. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Renewal in the High Range.” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2014. Web.

Nilgiri Tahr Info. Web. {this is a useful one stop link run by my friend and retired Kerala Wildlife Department officer Mohan Alembath}

Predit, Paul Peter et al. Status and Distribution of the Nilgiri Tahr in the Western Ghats, India. WWF. New Delhi, 2015. Web. 2 April 2016.

Rasmussen, Pamela C and John Anderton. Birds of South Asia” The Ripley Guide: Volumes I&2. Second Edition. Smithsonian: Washington DC, 2012. Print.

“Saving the Unique Mountain Ungulates of the Nilgiris.” WWW India. December 2015. Web. 2 April 2016.

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!”