Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for the ‘Western Ghats’ Category

Thattekad Introduction

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Blue-winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) at K.V. Eldhose’s place outside of Thattekad.

(Continuing from the October Post)

Leaving the Anamalais, I traversed westwards down the long, but rarely used and richly-forested road into Kerala’s Vazhachal area and then to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. This side of the Western Ghats enjoys the full force of the South Western Monsoon and harbors fine examples of tropical evergreen rainforest. That means the opportunity for high biodiversity and endemism. The high rainfall and deep valleys also attracted dam builders in the last century and there are a number of large hydroelectric reservoirs and generating stations in Vazhachal. I had visited Athirappilly Falls nine years ago (see August 2010 post) and on this trip I wanted to go further to Thattekad and explore its forests and birds before making my way home to Colombo via Kochi (Cochin).

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Deep inside Kerala’s Vazhachal area on my way to Athirappilly Falls  and Thatekkad.

Descending into Vazhachal to Athirappilly was fascinating as the road passes through towering valleys of classic tropical rainforest. This is classic GPH territory and it was surprisingly clear on the day that I did the drive in a rented Valparai taxi. It was somewhat frustrating as vehicles are not allowed to stop-to prevent picnics and mischief from tourists. In the last few years Athirappilly has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Kerala State Electricity Board (the same actors in the effort to dam Silent Valley) has been trying in earnest to dam the Chalakudy near the falls. There are already several dams upstream but KSEB has stubbornly stuck to proposals to put in a 163 MW dam at Athirappilly (Environmental Justice Atlas). The debate is sometimes seen as a classic “pro-development vs. environment/conservation” argument. Tragically, even after the battles and lessons of Silent Valley, we are reminded that protection and conservation is never guaranteed. Current and future generations are compelled to be alert to those who seek short term solutions in the last remaining areas of wilderness.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary is well known for its association with Salim Ali, India’s legendary birdman. Ali’s books, published by the Bombay Natural History Society, introduced several generations to the joy of birdwatching and he was actively involved in promoting the protection of wilderness areas in an age of aggressive large scale industrial development and hydroelectric dam building. His visits to Kerala in the 1930s, when the area was part of the Travancore Princely State, led to the landmark publication of the Birds of Travancore and Cochin (1953). He famously associated Thattekad with being the richest area for birds in peninsular India.

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary sits at the junction of the Periyar and Idamalayar rivers just 50 km east of Cochin (Kochi). It has a mix of forest types but is notable for its small remnants of lowland tropical evergreen forests. The actual protected area of Thattekad is quite small (@ 25 km2) and many of the interesting species are found in home gardens and patches of forests and wetlands outside of the PA. In recent years Thattekad has become a must see location for serious birders and others looking to see and check off the Western Ghats endemics. With its growing popularity, a number of home stays have sprung up near to its entrance on the north side of the Periyar River.

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A new and updated version of the Anamalai Hills, High Range Palanis Hills map created by the author for the Nature in Focus talk in 2016. Click on the image for a larger 150 DPI A3 version.

In Thattekad I stayed with the legendary K.V. Eldhose. Almost all serious birdwatchers and photographers interested in the endemics species of the Western Ghats have either visited him or planned to visit Eldhose’s homestay. Eldhose’s is located south of the Periyar river in a sparsely populated rural landscape with secondary forest, open patches and marshy areas.  There aren’t any signs so you need to book ahead of time and then Eldhose comes to meet you on his scooter. The habitat around his place are composed of rubber tree groves and small patches wetlands/paddy fields. He maintains five neat Kerala-style bungalows for visitors and then facilitates excursions to see different key species. Eldhose grew up appreciated the natural history of the area and learnt about their feeding habits from his grandmother. Over the years he has developed a complex series of feeding routines to attract key species in different habitats. His specialties include the Southern tree Pie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) , Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) , Blue Winged or Malabar Parakeets (Psittacula columboides) and Gray Headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus). These can be viewed outside of the Thattekad protected area in a rural landscape. Eldhose and/or his guides escort you into forest patches within a 15 km radius of his homestay for forest species like the Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), White-bellied blue flycatcher (Cyornis pallipes), Ceylon Bay Owl (Phodilus assimilis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) etc.

My goal was to get a sense of Thattekad and then come back during the winter migration season. June may have been “off season” but being at Eldhose’s before the rains started in earnest provided several unique natural history viewing opportunities. There were no other guests so enjoyed great attention and support. During the day I used Eldhose’ hides to get up close and personal with Blue Winged Parakeets, Greater coucals,  Woodpeckers, Jungle Babblers, Common Mynas and more. The lowland rainforest was at least a 15-20 drive, across the Periyar River up the road. Here giant trees with enormous sweeping buttresses shade out most of the sunlight and provide a diverse set habitats for most of the rare forest bird species of the Western Ghats. In a leisurely outings our notable encounters included two Sri Lanka Frogmouths, a White-bellied blue flycatcher, two different Malabar trogon pairs  and a Heart Spotted Woodpecker.

At dusk I enjoyed the extraordinary experience of watching two Mottled Wood Owls (Strix ocellata) scare the bejesus out of other birds and then come swooping into Eldhose’s garden to dine on several field mice that he had put out for them. Their calls-all of the distinctive vocalizations- are  something quite unforgettable. Later I went out with Ajomon looking for frogs and snakes. We found several Malabar Gliding Frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus)  at a neighbor’s house but the most photogenic individual was in a pepper vine behind Eldhose’s house (see images).

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Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) female in the primary forests of Thattekad.

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Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) male posing for me in the primary forests of Thattekad. I can never get enough of these birds that are so intimately associated with some of favorite areas in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot!

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Mottled wood owl (Strix ocellata) making an appearance at Eldhose’s home at exactly 6:45. A snack of lab mice gives these rare birds an incentive to visit. Their calls are eerie, exiting and quite hard to reproduce.

My visit to Thattekad wrapped up all too soon and I found myself on a flight back over the same hills traversing the Western Ghats from 8,000 meters on my way home to Colombo. Plans are already in place to revisit Thattekad and spend more time with K.V and other contacts that I met on the June trip.

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At first glance, this image might depict a landscape of devastation while, in fact, it is one of hope. Here a plantation of forest department-managed non-native acacia trees has been cleared and an effort is being made to restore the tropical evergreen rainforest that is the climax vegetation. Taken near to Thattekad, looking north-east. (June 2019)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Amphibians of India. Web.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

Daniels, Ranjit. R.J. Amphibians of Peninsular India. Hyderabad: University Press. 2005. Print.

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

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion, 1998. Print.

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

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

Further Explorations in the Anamalai Hills

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Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silensus) mother and infant getting ready to cross the road in Pudhuthottam, Anamalai Hills. No other mammal in the Westerns Ghats is as closely associated and emblematic of the hotspot’s fragile biodiversity. (April 2019)

The Anamalai Hills drew me back to their forest and plantation-clad contours once again this year. In the recent decades the Anamalais have emerged as a key area of conservation interest in India’s 1,600 km long Western Ghats biodiversity Hotspot. The hills are located in Tamil Nadu south of the Palghat Gap and adjoin important protected areas in Kerala and the neighboring Palani Hills. Rich habitat diversity and distinct vegetation types in the Anamalais provide a home for almost all of the key emblematic Western Ghats species. These include large animals such as tigers and elephants, key endemics including Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus), Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) and charismatic smaller life forms such as the Anamalai flying frog (Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus) and Purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis). The area hosts significant human populations-there are several indigenous tribal groups living in remote settlements, but most humans are involved in planation agriculture on the Valparai plateau. There is also a small but significant group of scientific researchers studying different aspects of the ecology and working to protect the fragile heritage of the Anamalais. Finally, the Anamalais are attracting tourists- a development with both positive and perilous potential.

My earliest recollection that the Anamalais were distinct from the range of my childhood (the Palanis) and the more distant Nilgiri hills came  from George Roshan, a leading wildlife photographer of his age who lived in Kodai. We both frequented Doveton’s Studio and sometime in 1985/86 George came back with stories of exciting large animal encounters in Top Slip- a place located in the north-western Anamalais. During those same years the school’s tahr camp ended up in Manjampatti Valley-a remote and relatively dry low plateau surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Palani Hills, High Range and Anamalai Hills. On our final hike out we walked westwards through dry deciduous forest with the 2,000 + meter high, grass-covered peaks overshadowing our small group. We had to be careful of large mammals but mostly we were walking alone through a savanna-scrub like environment far from the trappings of civilization. The area is now part of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and trekking is restricted such that school groups are not able to enjoy the experience that was a highlight was so many of us. In 1993 I accompanied my cousin Anna on a trip to Top Slip to meet Ragupathy Kannan and visit his field study site where he was observing the nesting and feeding ecology of Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis). About 10 years ago I visited and spent time at the NCF nursery where  the group’s ecological restoration efforts radiate out from.  Since then I have come back every few years with either Amy or Lenny on enjoyable but all too short visits.

This January Danesh Khan, my friend and co-author from the grasslands study, hiked up to Cloudland’s peak to watch the first light of the day and review the status of remnant montane grasslands in this northern high point of the Palani Hills. The view to the west of the Anamalai highlands was particularly striking. The lofty peaks that are north or Eravikulam loomed over the Manjampatti Valley, Kukkal and Puthuputhoor ridges (see image below). Of course, Eravikulam’s plateau, Anai Mudi and Katu Malai were also clearly visible, though some of it the plateau was obstructed by the Vandaravu, Vembadi and Gundar areas of the Palanis. That view of the Anamalais lodged in my mind and motivated two trips mid-way through the year.

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the east. The grass-covered peaks rise above the Puthuputhoor ridge in the Palani Hills. Manjampatti Valley, the site of numerous magical tahr camps, separates the Palanis from the Anamalai Hills. The Kukkal ridge is on the left with the first light of the day illuminating steep cliffs. (January 2019)

The Anamalai Hills as seen from the north near Pollachi looking south.(June 2019)

In April during our Sinhala/Tamil New Year break Lenny and I took a brief three day visit to Valparai. We were motivated by birds, endemic species and the chance of observing and photographing Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis) in flight. We connected with Sridhar for a morning of rich bird watching and e-bird counting. Lenny and I spent time in the newly refurbished NCF Anamalai Nature Information Centre and were able to pick up copies of the exquisitely produced Pillars of Life book. We crossed paths with Divya and a film crew photographing LTMs for an episode of On the Brink. The increasing tendency of these normally arboreal, forest-dwelling primates to venture into the town of Valparai to forage for food is the subject of some debate and study. In Valparai we stayed at Misty Creek a homestay that is owned by Frank Benjamin-a knowledgeable and helpful gentleman with an interest in snakes and amphibians. However, it was still very dry and thus I planned a return trip to focus on amphibians. We did have good success with LTM and Nilgiri tahr observations and I had a decent view of a GPH in flight (see images below).

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Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight over a forest clearing near Old Valparai (April 2019).

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I came back to Valparai on another short visit in June, this time as I traversed the Anamalais on my way to Thattekad and Cochin from the Palani Hills. I was expecting the South West monsoon to be vigorous but it had not set in with its full force yet. That offered a few opportunities for dry exploration and luckily there had been enough rain to get the amphibians croaking. Kalyan Varma was in town with the same On the Brink team and we had a brief chat as one of the Pudhuthottam LTM troops moved into a school compound in Valparai. This time I stayed at Pudhuthottam Annex (run by the Briar Tea Bungalows group) with the idea of getting closer to the frogs, birds and mammals that I wanted to photograph. Working with the naturalist Dharani and manager Abhishek Vaidyanathan, we located and then photographed several key endemic frogs near the Briar Woodhouse. These included Jayaram’s Bush Frog (Raorchestes jayarami) and the Wayanad Bush Frog (Pseudophilautus wynaadensis). I also appreciated waking up to Malabar Whistling thrushes (Myophonus horsfieldii) calling on my roof and the troop of LTMs surrounding the small cottage. Unfortunately, the possibility of leopard and elephant encounters kept us close to the main wood bungalow at night.

This narrative is continued and concluded with the Getting to know Thattekad post(to be published next month).

PAST ANAMALAIS POSTS

Lockwood, Ian. “ Restoration & Revival in the Anamalais” August 2010. Web.

”             “A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter.” May 2015.  Web.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Chakravarty, Rohan. “Valparai Natural History Map.” Green Humour. Web.

Mudappa, Divya, Shankar Raman, Nirupa Rao and Sartaj Ghuman. Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Mysore: NCF, 2018. Print.

Raman, Shankar, Divya Mudappa and Anand Usuri. “Restoring rainforest remnants: experiences from the Anamalai hills.” Current Conservation. May 2018. Web.

The Pollachi Papyrus. Website.

 

 

Aerial & Terrestrial Snapshots of the Southern Western Ghats

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Madurai airport publicity with classic Coaker’s Walk view (misidentified as Theni). (January 2019)

Southern India and Sri Lanka’s winter months provide unique opportunities to look deep, across ridges and forested valleys to ranges of hills that are normally obscured in clouds and haze. The retreating North East monsoon leaves the hills lush and the air washed clean just as temperatures drop to relatively low levels. People unfamiliar with the area can sometimes be surprised at the grandeur of the southern Western Ghats and neighboring Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Viewpoints and high mountain peaks in Kodaikanal, Ooty, Nuwara Eliya and other places are the best terrestrial places to take in the landscape. Timing is everything and most of these same places mist up while dust and pollution on the plains rises up in the afternoons.

An ideal way to appreciate the mountains in this biodiversity hotspot is to fly over or alongside the mountains. My family and I had the good fortune to be on a London-Colombo flight on January 1st just after the sun had risen over the Nilgiri Hills. Our plane crossed southern India just north of Cochin (Kochi) and then traversed the Cardamom Hills giving the left side a fine view over the High Range and Palani Hills (see flight path image below). Just 24 hours later I flew on a different flight to Madurai for a short visit to Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills. The snapshots in this post were taken from the flights and this short trip. Later on the month I led students to the Central Highlands – the subject of an upcoming post. I also worked on processing several raw Sentinel data files last year of the same area (used in the Hills of Murugan exhibition). The common denominator of these experiences was the crisp clear air and unique opportunities to appreciate and document sublime landscape.

Aerial shot looking east through a not-so-clean window to the Malabar Coast and Nilgiri Hills. The Camel’s Hump mountains are in the far left. The Bangitappal ridge and other points in Mukurthi National Park were distantly visible on this clear morning ! (1 January 2019)

Aerial shot looking north at key points in the Palani Hills and High Range from the UL 508 flight at about 10,000 meters. Note the fire in Eravkulam’s grasslands and key points such as Cloud Lands Peak and Pampalam Malai (Kukkal). (1 January 2019)

Screen shot of the airplane map monitor as we were over the Cardamom Hills looking north to the High Range and Palani HiIls. (1 January 2019)

Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking south towards the flight path that I had been on a few days earlier. (4 January 2019)

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Sky Islands as seen from the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills. The distant ranges include the Highwavies (Megamalai). The Agamalai range is just over the Vattakanal-Vilagavi ridge.

Sentinel imagery from February 2018. Processed by the author for the Hills of Murugan exhibition at DakshinaChitra in July 2018. Click on image for A3 150 dpi image

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Flying back to Colombo from Madurai with views to the Ashambu Hills on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Tuticorin and Gulf of Mannar coastline is visible in the lower image. (5 January 2019)

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

Lockwood, Ian. “Palani Hills from the Air.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 22 April 2010.  Web.

 

 

Written by ianlockwood

2019-02-12 at 9:06 am

Talking Hill Station Sustainability In Munnar

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Opening slide from the author’s presentation exploring sustainability opportunities and challenges in the hill stations of southern India.

The Sustainable Munnar-Vison 2050 conference held this last July reviewed a variety of issues and made recommendations about a way forward for what is becoming a threatened hill station in an exquisitely beautiful part of southern India. The conference was organized by the High Range Wildlife Preservation Association with support of the Kanan Devan Hills (Ripple Tea) company. The conference date at the end of July meant that rainfall and flooding events soon took over the headlines in Kerala and unfortunately little has been published about the important conversations and presentations. I was privileged to participate in the conference on the invitation of the association’s members Jojo Guha Thakurta and Mohan Varghese. In this post I review some of the key points of discussion and a few images from my days in the High Range.

A History of Conservation Initiatives

Twelve years ago, the High Range Wildlife & Environment Preservation Association hosted the 4th World Conference on Mountain Ungulates. At the time, Mohan Alembath, the former Kerala wildlife officer who set up the Tahr Foundation had brought together key people to discuss themes of ecology and mountain landscapes with a special focus on the Nilgiri tahr. The meeting was timed for the 2006 Kurinji flowering. Luminaries such as George Schaller and Cliff Rice were in attendance. I had communicated with both of them when I was putting together my articles on Nilgiri tahr in the 1990s (published in Environ and Sanctuary Asia). Thus, I was disappointed to miss the conference for unavoidable reasons (our daughter Amy was about to be born in Colombo). The 2018 Sustainable Munnar conference offered me a chance to make up and spend time with my friends in the Munnar /Kerala wildlife circles.

The impetus for the conference this year was the issue of tourism in the High Range and the changes that its rapid growth has thrust on the landscape. As with other places in India, the explosion of tourism has been both brought mixed blessings. There has been a veritable explosion of hotels and other facilities trying to cater to a cliental of domestic (and some foreign) tourists looking for a hill station experiences in the High Range. Ironically, Munnar, a sleepy plantation crossroads town started in the late 19th Century, was never a “hill station” in the way that we understand it. In fact Munnar, spent its first 150 years blissfully isolated and unknown. Visitors wanting a hill station experience in southern India, traditionally headed to Ooty, other Nilgiri Hills destinations, Kodaikanal and  Yercaud. However with the advent of globalization in the last 20 years. -namely improved transport networks, higher incomes for an emerging middle class and widespread private vehicle ownership, Munnar’s fate has been dramatically reshaped.

Sustainability in the hills of Kerala has been a topic of interest in the past. Scientists, individuals and the Kerala Wildlife Department have a solid track record of promoting conservation initiatives and trying to limit the negative impacts of tourism growth and ill planned development schemes.  The UNDP-sponsored High Range Landscape Project, in fact ,sought to set up a management plan for the entire landscape. Unfortunately, that enterprise never came to fruition because of resistance from local politicians concerned about losing control of land rights (see articles and reports below).

Sign board at Eravikulam National Park’s Rajamalai tourism zone. This is arguably one of India’s best protected areas from the point of view of management dealing with high numbers of visitors and using innovative solutions to mitigate negative tourist impacts while offering them an opportunity to witness an incredible landscape and key endemic Western Ghats species.

Sustainable Munnar

It was a wet, windy monsoon morning in Munnar when participants and speakers gathered at the KTDC Tea County hotel above the town center. Several of us had taken a short visit up to Rajamalai before the conference (see photos). Members of the High Range Wildlife & Environment Preservation Association greeted participants and dignitaries. The chief guest was Tom Jose, the Chief Secretary to the Government of Kerala. KP Matthew the PCCF from the Kerala Forest Department and K. Matthew Abraham the managing director of KDHP were on stage to give felicitations.

Vivek Menon, the founding director of Wildlife Trust of India, was the first speaker. He discussed a variety of themes in “Complete Conservation: Ecologically Sensitive Development, a Global Perspective.” Vivek is based in New Delhi and has Kerala roots, which gave him an important perspective when speaking to the audience. I know of him from his classic field guide to Mammals of India but this was my first time getting to spend time with Vivek. A key point from his presentation was the idea of learning conservation lessons from other places around the world and he he shared insights and case studies from around the world that would be of interest to manager and planners in the Indian conservation context.

My talk was entitled Sustainability Challenges and Opportunities in South India’s Hills Stations. Using concepts from the IB classes that I teach, I started with an exploration of sustainability and carrying capacity before detailing a brief history of the hill station in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The main thrust was to use the case study of Kodaikanal as an example of what not to do. Our home in the Palani Hills faces clear and imminent challenges from uncontrolled growth/sprawl, unchecked visitor numbers and a lack of planning  (implementation of master plans) with no clear players empowered to lead efforts to move Kodai on a sustainable path forward. Managing solid waste and water resources is a major challenge with little meaningful action taken thus far. I highlighted the fact that the High Range has the advantage of clear stakeholders in the plantation sector (where most private land is owned) and a forest department with its strong track record of conservation initiatives (in Eravikulam, Chinnar, Meesapulimalai and Pampadum).

After a lunch break Dr. P.S Easa, the distinguished former director of the Kerala Forest Research Institute gave a talk entitled “Human Wildlife Conflicts-Reflections and Mitigation Strategies.” Jose Dominic spoke about his experience with the Spice Village group in a talk entitled” Responsible Tourism-Vision & Strategies.” His narration of the experience of setting up the first ecotourism ventures in the Lakshadweep islands and the Coconut Lagoon, Cochin was insightful. I have long admired the initiatives taken by the company at Spice Village in Kumily/Periyar so it was good to hear him speak about it from a historical and personal point of view.

P.V. Karunakaran, my friend from many years ago who is now a principal scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), provided the final presentation on the theme of “grasslands-ecological services and biodiversity values.” It was good to see how Karu’s long term affinity with the High Range and Munnar has helped him collect very interesting data and finings. I especially appreciated the many charts and maps that were generated with GIS that illustrated his them of the importance of the High Range shola and grasslands mosaic systems.

James Zacharias, the distinguished former wildlife warden to Eravikulam National Park, with forest guards on duty at the Rajamalai tourism. We did a short visit up here on the day of the Munnar conference.

The audience included several important living legends in High Range conservation. The current wildlife warden R. Lekshmi and several of her staff were present. James Zacharias, an assistant and then wildlife warden on several different tours at Eravikulam, was in attendance as was his colleague Mohan Alempath (warden during an unforgettable winter visit to Eravikulam in 1997). A highlight for me was accompanying these friends and senior wildlife managers up to the Rajamalai tourism zone on two different outings. We were also joined by Vivek, Karunakarn and photographer Anil Kumar. A  commercial photographer based in Cochin, Anil’s passion is the High Range and he has taken some of the finest Kurinji landscape shots. I enjoyed having a fellow photographer to compare notes with. Of course, it was too early for the full flowering of the Kurinji and I realized that I would have to plan a visit back in order to see the gregarious blooming in one of the finest grasslands/shola mosaic landscapes in the Western Ghats.

I spent an extra day in the High Range, taking a productive visit to Gravel Banks and then back to Pampadum. Through the support of the High Range Wildlife & Environment society and KDH Tea I was able to revisit and further document several important areas. I am indebted to Jojo, Mohan and the team in Munnar that made this visit possible.

Back at Inspiration Point near Top Station and the Yellapatty estate the day after conference.

Calotes grandisquamis , the large-scaled forest lizard on a shade tree in tea estates near Top Station.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

High Range Landscape Project (Project Document). UNDP. 2015. Web.

India High Range Landscape Project. Advisory Review into Allegations of Non-Compliance with the Social and Environmental Standards and other Relevant Policies Relating to the India High Range Landscape Project in the Western Ghats of Kerala, India.  21 November 2016. Web.

Karunakaran, P.V; G.S. Rawat and U.K. Unniyal. Ecology and  conservation of the grasslands of Eravikulam National Park. Western Ghats. Wild life Institute of India. Chandrabheni, Dehra Dun,1997. Print.

Karunakaran, P.V  and Mathew K Sebastian. Land use and Management Plan for Production Landscape in Munnar. SACON/UNDP, 2015. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Renewal in the high Range & Eravikulam.” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2014. Web.

“Munnar to host 4th World Congress on Mountain Ungulates.” The Hindu. June 19 2006. Web.

UNDP. Final Report Hydrological Investigations in the Munnar High Range Mountain Landscape The Project on: India High Range Landscape Project, Munnar, Kerala. 2015. Web (via FLIPHTML5).

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.

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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.

Written by ianlockwood

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.

 

Written by ianlockwood

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.

Written by ianlockwood

2018-07-01 at 5:32 pm

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