Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for the ‘Palani Hills’ Category

On the Kurangani Valley Rim

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Panoramic view of the Kurangani valley as seen from “inspiration point” on the western edge near to Top Station and the Yellapatty estate (part of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company). (July 2018)

The Western Ghats, host numerous areas with unique biodiversity and play a key role in the peninsula’s hydrology but for stunning landscapes one of my favorite places is the confluence of ranges and their cliffs and valleys that surround the small hamlet of Kurangani. My relationship with the area has, thus far, been from the western-most Palani Hills though I had visited Top Station and Meesapulimalai (the 2nd highest peak in the Western Ghats) in the 1990s. Over the last 35 or so years I have been privileged to explore and hike the last vestiges of shola/grasslands in the Palanis. Along the edge of the Palani Hills boundary with Theni district and then Kerala we looked into the Kurangani valley and across the slopes and peaks near Kolukkumalai and Meesapulimalai. On several epic treks with my father and friends we witnessed the South West Monsoon breaking across Kerala. The rain-laden clouds billowed over the ridge of the Cardamom Hills only to be brought to an abrupt halt at where the lip of the Ghats drops into the pancake-flat, semi-arid valley surrounding Bodinayakanur and Theni.

Hidden Hills Pan(2002)(MR)(2017 ed)

The Hidden Hills. The last of the shola/grasslands habitat in the far west Palani Hills with clear views to Meesapulimalai, Kolukkumalai and the Kurangani valley. The Bodi plains are int he far left. Taken with a Noblex 120 panoramic camera and KodakT-max film. (June 2002)

In recent years there has been a growing interest in this area and Kurangani and Top Station have become a popular center for trekking and camping. The awesome landscape, with steep slopes of montane grasslands studded with occasional Rhododendron trees, and valleys of dense shola are classic Western Ghats. Most of the trekking and camping happens in Tamil Nadu but the base of operation has been from Munnar in Kerala where the exponential growth of tourism has opened up areas outside of major protected areas (Eravikulam, Pampadum, Chinar etc.). Some camp site and trails are in private estates bordering the Kurangani valley-places where some tea companies are looking to diversify their sources of income. The growth of outdoor providers has been rapid, catering to a new demand by a mobile, affluent generation eager for outdoor experiences. The interest in outdoor and environmental experience is a welcome development but one that has risks when not planned carefully. Kurangani became infamous earlier this year when a group of hikers were tragically killed by a fast moving brush fire on the grassy western slopes overlooking the valley. The trekking community, camp providers and forest department in Tamil Nadu were forced to do a good deal of soul searching to ensure that similar accidents are avoided.

 

 

Gecko (Hemidactylus sp.) to be fully identified shortly at Betweenpatti (Bodi).

Circumnavigating the Palanis

This summer, the summer of the Kurinji flowering, I returned to the High Range to look for rare flowers, meet old friends and reconnect with a landscape that had shaped my worldview. I did this over two relatively short trips and on the first one I was able to bring our son Lenny along to share in the experience. The floods that would devastate so much of the state of Kerala had not started and these journeys were characterized by happy reunions, nostalgic reminiscences and encounters with rugged Western Ghats landscapes and species. During the first visit I combined family visits with my own landscape and ecology explorations. We were initially based in Kodaikanal, where the Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowers had burst into flower in mid-June. On the five day trip we used a hired car to drive to Bodi to spend time with our friends Bruce and Tamar Dejong at their delightful home. There were many highlights for all of us and we were given an intimate introduction to Euphorbia sp. both in Bruce’s garden and on the road up to Kurangani. Bruce has become one of the most knowledgeable experts on this interesting genus of plants native to South America, southern Africa, South and South East Asia. He pointed out numerous individuals as we drove up the road surrounded by the awesome cliffs of Kolukkumalai, Top Station and Akka and Thankgachi (the same “Twin Peaks” in many of my medium format black & white images).

Euphorbia_on_Kurangani_road_(AM)_1a(MR2)(06_18)

Euphorbia antiquorum in the Kurangani valley floor. Looking west to the Kolukkumalai estate and Meesapulimalai (in clouds).(June 2018)

Akka and Thankgachi (Twin Peaks) from the road to Kurangani.(June 2018)

Lenny on the Kurangani Valley edge next to an unnamed (!/!) peak to the east of Kolukkumalai tea estate.(June 2018)

Suryanelli & Munnar

Lenny and I continued on our own to Munnar via Boidimetu and the Suryanelli estate. An overnight stay at the windy Black Eagle camp gave us a chance hike up to “sunrise point” and to look down at Kurangani and across to Ullam Pari. The Kurinji was not yet in bloom but the monsoon was active just to the west in the High Range and Cardamom Hills. Looking towards the Kolukkumalai estate, home to the “world’s highest grown tea” I appreciated the cliffside grasslands/shola but also noted with alarm the steady invasion of the grasslands by wattle (Acacia mearnsii).

Near to “sunrise point” at Kolukkumalai estate looking east. (June 2018)

Our next two nights were spent in Munnar, which was experiencing the full force of the South West Monsoon. The rains would continue for the next two months and contribute to the overflowing rivers and dams giving rise to unprecedented flooding. During our visit at the end of June Munnar was wet and enveloped in clouds but not dangerous. Lenny and I made a courtesy call on Ms. Lexshmi R., the new wildlife warden at Eravikulam National Park and spent a morning dodging rain and photographing tahr at the Rajamalai tourism zone. Facilitated by  Jayashree Kumar in Kodai we also reconnected with my friends at the High Range Wildlife Association-Jojo Thakurta and Mohan Varghese (see blog post from September 2014). Our discussion eventually played a role in me revisiting Munnar- something that will be the subject of the next blog post.

 

Martes_gwatkinsii_at_Pampadum_Shola_NP_1a(MR)(06_18)

Nilgiri Marten (Martes gwatkinsii) at Pampadum Shola National Park east of Munnar. We had a surprise encounter with a group of three crossing the road in front of our vehicle. (June 2018)

Boundary between a non-native eucalyptus plantation and shola at Pampadum Shola national park.

Top Station/Yellapatty Estate/ Pampadum National Park

A highlight of the circumnavigation was taking a day trip to Top Station and Pampadum National Park. I first had looked down on the dense shola canopy of Pampadum from Vandaravu in 1985 during the annual 80-Mile Round hike. Seven years later, Merrick and I rode our trusty 100cc Hero Honda on the old Goshen Road to Munnar through Pampadum. At the time it was a wild, forlorn area with a veritable river bed for a motorable road (“the highest south of the Himalaya,” many old timers will remember). There was no formal protected area and the forest was known as a hotbed of illegal plantation activities and smuggling. We returned several other times (the images above are from the 1997 trip to Munnar, Chinnar and Eravikulam). Today Pampadum is one of seven national parks in Kerala and offers visitors a chance to experience exemplary shola ecology. Pampadum is located in the  rain shadow of the South West monsoon (like Top Station and the Palani Hill) and is significantly drier than Munnar. We had excellent sightings of animals (Nilgiri langur, gaur, Malabar Giant Squirrels etc.) and shola birds on a short drive through Pampadum towards the Vatavada exit. A delightful experience was having three very rare Nilgiri Martens (Martes gwatkinsii) cross in front of our vehicle while we were paused on the road.  Pampadum, it turns out, is one of the best places to see this endemic weasel-like species.

12-part composite image of the emblematic shola tree at “inspiration point” near Top Station and Yellapaty tea estate. A very large file reduced for this presentation… (July 2018)

Just before Top Station, if the weather is clear, one has a chance to experience a sublime, classic Western Ghats landscape. In fact this vista has been widely photographed and it is widely published . Variations of the view appear in the backdrop of the film  Before the Rains. The view  east from Yellapatty estate over the Kurangani valley is sublime, bringing to mind a Western Ghats version of Yosemite’s Inspiration Point. On my four previous visits (between 1993 and 1997) to Top Station, Yellapatty and the view had always been mired in fog. On the June trip Lenny and I got a taste for the magic of the viewpoint. While Munnar had limited visibility and torrential rain, the Top Station area was bathed in sunshine. We explored the area and figured out several good angles but I ended up getting my best images in early July when I was back in Munnar briefly.

 

In Murugan’s Footsteps

We returned to Kodai via the northern route and Palani, the town that gives the hills their names and is famous for its Murugan temple. In fact, in the mythology of the much-adored Murugan (also known as Kartikeya north of Tamil Nadu), he and his brother Ganesh are challenged to circle the world three times. The reward is a divine mango giving knowledge. Murugan embarks on an adventurous journey around the world only to return to find that his brother has won the bet by simply walking around his parents, Siva and Parvathi. In spite of not winning this challenge, Murugan is remembered as an adorable, divine child.

Murugan temple at Palani overshadowed by the hills that take their name from the shrine.

Northern slopes of the Palani Hills looking to the setting sun and the very distant Anamalai Hills. The importance of the hills as a source of life-giving water for the drier plains is clearly illustrated here.

 

Our trip was far less arduous. Lenny and I left Munnar going north to Marayur and into the Chinnar (Wildlife Sanctuary) Valley. The Chinnar river crossing, where KIS’s Manjampati Tahr Camps trek emerged after three amazing days in the forest, is more developed with a few shops catering to the Muduvan and Paliyan  groups that maintain villages in what is now the Anamalais Tiger Reserve. Across to the east, we could see the distant peaks above Kukkal caves that had been the point of previous explorations.  On the plains at Amarvathi Dam we used small roads to cut alongside the northern edge of the Palani Hills before ascending to the refreshingly cool air of Kodaikanal.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

ARKive. “Western Ghats.” Web. (note the authorship on several of the key landscape photographs taken in the Top Station/Vandaravu area)

Manupriya. “Getting to know the Nilgiri Marten, a rare small mammal from the Western Ghats.” Mongabay. 10 April 2018. Web.

Poorvaja, S and Aravind Kumar.  “The ember of Kurangani.” The Hindu. 17 March 2018. Web.

“Pampadum Shola National Park Official Website.” Kerala Forest Department. Web.

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2018-10-18 at 10:30 pm

Hills of Murugan on Display

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Amer and Mohan skillfully putting up some of the last of the 32 frames in the Varija Gallery at DakshinaChitra on the morning of July 6th.

DakshinaChitra’s Vajira Gallery hosted The  Hills of Murugan from July 6th-30th. The solo exhibition highlighted themes of changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills as seen in photographs and satellite imagery. The choice of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, for this show was important.  I expected that most visitors would be familiar the Palani Hills as a site of the popular hill station of Kodaikanal but that few of them would be aware of the degree of ecological change taking place in this sensitive Western Ghats landscape. The exhibition received good press coverage and seem to appreciate the choice of black & white fine art prints and conservation-centric approach.

The idea that significant ecological change is happening in our own lifetimes was an important message to share with the audience. The choices of images highlighted undistributed aspects of the Palani Hills, scenes of tree ferns and water and shola/grasslands systems. These were followed up with images of non-native timber plantations agriculture, hill station expansion and other signs of modern human impact. The final images emphasized scenes of hope: restoration work by the Vattakanal Conservation Trust and the tenacious shola species taking seed under a canopy of eucalyptus.

My principal medium continues to be black & white imagery and in the Hills of Murugan the main gallery featured 32 fine art prints originally exposed on film and digital cameras. Karthik V’s superior printing helped deliver the kind of exhibition print experience that I had envisioned after my training with George Tice at the Maine Photographic Workshops. Focus Gallery did a fine job with the framing and presentation. I supported the educational objectives of the show with a second gallery of color images, annotated maps and illustrated information posters. The maps were created on ArcGIS using a variety of data sources including Sentinel 2 and Landsat data as well as high-resolution elevation models. I included a poster highlighting the work of the montane grasslands group and, in a sense, the exhibition was a visual experience highlighting the themes of this study.

Raina, Lenny and Amy and I were there a few days ahead of time to pick up the frames and get things organized. We enjoyed being part of the DakshinaChitra community and participating in the ebb and flow of their days. DakshinaChitra’s team worked hard to get the space ready and then hang the show. Sharath Nambiar, the deputy director helped organize our accommodation and the repainting of the gallery.  The final picture hanging was completed by Amer their multi-talented gallery supervisor.  The opening on the 6th proceeded on schedule, though we were disappointed not to have Rom Whitaker to help inaugurate the show (he and Janiki were stranded in Chengalpattu when their car broke down the morning of the exhibition). There were, however, several friends working in conservation who joined us for the opening. Robin Vijayan and his team of students and friends from the nascent Bombay Shola field station hosted at KIS were in attendance. That included Arasumani the principal author of our grasslands study. Vasanth Bosco from the Nilgiris, who was with me on a memorable Kukkal adventures features in the show, came out. Karthik V., who did the fine art printing and his colleague Suresh Menon were in the audience. We lit a lamp, said a few welcome notes and then I gave an illustrated talk on the themes of change in the landscape and ecosystems of the Palani Hills.

Information posters: Landscape, Ecology & Change.

We stayed at DakshinaChitra for several days and then headed out to Mizoram to be with family. The frames came down at the end of July. The feedback from visitors was positive. I would have liked some of my friends in the TN Forest Department to make it out and have realized that I need to share the show further and in other venues in order to reach a wider audience. Some of the framed images have now gone to Focus Gallery (who did the framing) and Karthik’s new photo studio in Neelankarai. The annotated maps and information posters are going to Kodai where they will be a part of a new Palani Hills/Sky Islands interpretation center being set up on KIS’s Swedish House property. The work of educating people better about the ecological changes is only just beginning…

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REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

Lockwood, Ian. “Fine Art Photography as a tool for Education & Conservation.” Better Photography. 2 July 2018. Print & Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “The Hills of Murugan.” Sanctuary Asia. August 2018. Print & Web.

Nath, Parshathy J. “It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood.” The Hindu. 9 July 2018. Web(not sure if I have been quoted correctly here…but you get the idea)

Saju, MT. “Shooting the changing scenes on Palani Hills.” The Times of India city. 6 July 2018. Web.  (well timed, but not all factually correct)

 

Exhibition poster fo the Hills of Murugan.

 

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2018-09-04 at 9:11 pm

The Hills of Murugan: An Exhibition on the Palani Hills

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Hills of Murugan (Horizontal poster)

In a few days I am getting ready to put on an exhibition of fine art prints and annotated maps at Chennai’s  DakshinaChitra gallery. The show is entitled The Hills of Murugan: Landscape, Ecology & Change in the Palani Hills and will be open to visitors from July 6th-30th.

The exhibition is a compilation of nearly 30 years of documentation and 48 years of experience exploring in the Palani Hills (see list of related publications below). My past exhibitions in India focused on the broader range of the southern Western Ghats and this is a more narrowly focused series of images that emphasize one range. In the Hills of Murugan I highlight themes of changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills as seen in photographs and satellite imagery. Seasoned readers of this blog know that these are ideas that I have explored in published articles,  exhibitions and posts on my blog.  My work attempts to bridge science with art and conservation and I am mindful that it should not be confused with picturesque approaches to beautiful locations in India.

Samples of the 20″x 20″ prints fresh from Karthik’s printer and just signed. These are printed on Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310 GSM, the leading papers for monochrome printing. They will be part of the main gallery of roughly 30 black & white fine art prints in square, rectangular and panoramic format.

The upcoming show marks  an important step forward with my photographic printing. For the last 15 years I have been struggling with how best to print and share my work. For the Drik and IIC  exhibitions in 2000-02 I showed work that I had completed in a traditional wet darkroom. Even though I was using medium format film that produced detailed black & white negatives, the print size was limited by the availability of photographic paper (carried from the US in luggage) and the tray sizes. My largest prints were 16”x 20” and most were 10”x 10”. With the digital revolution and the advent of digital printing my darkroom was mothballed and I tinkered with learning new skills to make black & white prints. Printing has been straight forward in Colombo’s commercial labs but the paper quality was not up to my old darkroom standards where I employed fiber-based archival paper. It has been easier to communicate my photographic work on electronic media-my blog, website and in occasional published articles. However, I’m still a believer in the idea that the photographic fine art print is the ultimate expression of the process.

For the Hills of Murugan show I was able to make contact with V. Karthik, India’s leading fine art printer. As someone with a long record of working in photographic the industry and specializing in archival restoration and printing, Karthik has developed a refined knowledge and work flow with printing fine art photographic prints. He knows the different papers, the printers and has a special appreciation for black & white work. Two weeks ago I met Karthik and we worked together with my files. Based on his guidance I had 32 different images printed that will be on display at the exhibition.

Family friend, Indian snake man and Padma Shri awardee Rom Whitaker will be inaugurating the show on July 6th at 4:30. Rom was a natural choice-he grew up in the Palanis and did some his early snake catching there. His years at Kodai school in the 1950s overlapped with my parents, Merrick and Sara Ann. My uncle, Charles Emerson, was Rom’s roommate when he was keeping snakes under his dormitory bed and I have strong memories of outings with Rom to go fishing and looking for snakes during m school years in the 1980s.  DakshinaChitra is on the same East Coast road as the Croc Bank, the site that was a key part of Rom’s work with reptiles. The team at DakshinaChitra, with guidance from curator Gita and support from Sharat Nambiar and Debbie Thiagarajan has helped facilitate the show after I proposed the idea in January. I had an affiliation with DakshinaChitra through my uncle Dr. Michael Lockwood who has contributed antique brass pieces to the galleries. I have gained a new appreciation for DakshinaChitra’s vital role in preserving and sustaining key aspects of south India’s rich cultural heritage. The Hills of Murugan has an ecological rather than cultural focus. However, through the choice of images one can better understand that the landscape and ecology provide a foundation for the livelihoods of the people living in the Palani Hills.  My wife Raina and children Lenny and Amy are putting up with me during this busy time and providing advice on the images and how best to arrange things.

The main exhibition is composed of 32 black & white fine art prints. These framed prints are designed to be a body of work that stand alone but that illustrate the themes of landscape, ecology and change in the Palani Hills. In DakshinaChitra’s side gallery I have compiled a series of annotated posters, maps and mini posters highlighting key species from the Palani Hills landscape. The goal here is more ambitious: it is designed to be  educational, such that visitors come away with a better sense of the area’s biodiversity, ecology and hydrology. Through annotated maps and posters I make references to recent history and ecological change. The theme of ecological changes resulting from non-native plantation efforts are presented and there are suggestions on the important work that needs to be done to protect the Palani Hills in the future.

The Hills of Murugan opens on July 6th at 4:30 and the show is open until the 30th of July (Tuesdays are holidays). I hope to see you there!

 

Palani Hills selection of shola/grasslands species. These are printed as A2 posters to accompany information posters in an adjoining room next to the main gallery.

Palani Hills 1973 Overlay (150)

For the exhibition I produced a series of new maps to accompany the information side of the presentation. This is a map depicting the earliest Landsat image of the Palani HIlls area. It is printed as an A1 size poster that will be in a smaller gallery next to the main hall of fine art prints.

Palani Hills Elevation Version 2a 2018 (150)

The elevation map is based on a digital elevation model of 30 meter data that I have processed from NASA raw data. I have also added key points and settlements but have left out roads and other human impacts so as to emphasize the topographical features of the Palani Hills landscape.

REFERENCES (Key articles by the author on the Palani Hills)

Lockwood, Ian. “Metamorphosis of a Landscape. ”Nature in Focus. January 2017. digital story format

           ”           . “Plantation Paradox.” Frontline. November 2015. (PDF)

           ”           . “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas.” Frontline. 20 April 2012. (PDF)

           ”           . “Fragile Heritage.” Frontline. October 2009. (PDF)

           ”           . “The Next Big Thing” Sanctuary Asia, June 2006. (PDF)

           ”           . “The Palni Hills: On the Danger List. ”Frontline. August 2003. (WEB)

 

also

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.

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2018-07-01 at 5:32 pm

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

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.

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.

Written by ianlockwood

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