Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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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.

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2016-08-22 at 11:56 pm

Landscape & Ecology in the Nilgiri Hills: A Spatial Exploration

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View form Mettupalayam train station looking north to the slopes of the Nilgiri Hills. The famous Nilgiri Mountain railway with its stem engine is warming up for the morning ride up to Conoor. Composite digital image taken in 2009.

View form Mettupalayam train station looking north to the slopes of the Nilgiri Hills. The famous Nilgiri Mountain railway steam engine is warming up for the morning ride up to Conoor. Thirty minutes later it took Lenny, Merrick and me up the hill. (Composite digital image taken in July 2009).

The Nilgiri Hills are an important range in the Western Ghats range. The broader Nilgiris area, located at the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, contains a variety of contrasting ecosystems and have the largest elevated plateau area in the Western Ghats. The Nilgiri Hills have been designated a “biosphere reserve” and include key protected areas including Silent Valley, Mukkurthy, Mudumalai and Bandipur National Parks (see the Keystone Foundations’ page for details). The Nagarhole, Wayanad and Satyamangalam forests adjoin the Nilgiris and thus it represses a vast protected area. Several important groups of people have lived in the hilly area prior to colonization by the British in the early 19th Century. The town of Ooty (Udhagamandalam) became the summer capital of the Madras Presidency and was the largest, most cosmopolitan hill station in southern imperial India. Many of the early scientific investigations of Western Ghats flora and fauna were conducted in the Nilgiris and adjoining areas. In fact, according to Paul Hocking, the leading authority on the area, the Nilgiris are said to be one of the most studied areas in Asia (see his interview in One Earth Foundation).

I’ve had a chance to visit the Nilgiris on several occasions since my first trip in the early 1990s. Initially I went on behalf the PHCC to make contact with individuals and groups working on conservation issues. On the first visit I had the opportunity to interact with Richard Radcliffe, a key figure in the post independence conservation movement in the Nilgiris. Later I returned on my own to work on recording landscapes as part of my ongoing Western Ghats documentation project. Most of the landscapes in this post are from those visits. On a recent trip to Silent Valley and Ooty (see previous blog post) I was immersed in the area’s ecology and landscapes and decided to work with some of the spatial data that I have gathered from various web portals.

My interest in the cartography of the Nilgiri Hills was sparked by an exquisite early 20th Century wall map in the Nilgiri Library. Roughly two meters wide it depicted relief, land use, hydrology, settlements, transport and other key elements. It was most likely a Survey of India product reflecting the high-end cartography that they made available to the public in an age before digital mapping and map restrictions related to security. There are few maps (and almost none that are publically available of the Western Ghats ranges) that come close to the science and art in those early SOI maps. I looked for it on this trip but the wall map has apparently been put away and is not publicly displayed anymore.

Two of the attached maps below utilize the 30 m SRTM Digital Elevation Model released by NASA/USGS in 2014 (Bhuvan also has DEMs available but they have voids and gaps that make it difficult to get a seamless base layer)(see announcement). The attached maps also highlight land cover data from the Western Ghats Biodiversity portal courtesy of my friend Prabhakar and his colleague J.P. Pascal (French Institute Pondicherry). The two NASA Landsat images look at the same area in 1973 and 2014. This provides a visual overview of changes similar to what I did in my “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment” blog post from April 2014. The issue of land cover changes, as evidenced in satellite imagery and terrestrial photos, continues to be an issue that I am interested in investigating using GIS and photo documentation.

Nilgiri HIlls relief & elevation map.

Nilgiri Hills relief & elevation map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 version).

Cairn Hills Shola in the Nilgiri Hills (left side of image) with adjoining eucalyptus plantations and former grasslands converted to agricultural plots.

Cairn Hills Shola in the Nilgiri Hills (left side of image) with adjoining eucalyptus plantations and former grasslands converted to agricultural plots. (Digital image, June 2006)

Emerald Reservoir, one of several large hydroelectric projects in the upper Nilgiri Hills. Tea is grown in the foreground, where as further back there are large non-native timber (eucalyptus) plantations. The monsoon mists hide the protected grasslands and sholas of Mukkurthy National park.

Emerald Reservoir, one of several large hydroelectric projects in the upper Nilgiri Hills. Tea is grown in the foreground, whereas further back there are large non-native timber (eucalyptus) plantations. The monsoon mist hides the protected grasslands and sholas of Mukkurthy National park. (Digital image, June 2006).

Toda home near Avalanche in the south-western Nilgiri Hills. Note the large shola in the background. The grasslands here have been converted into vegetable plots.

Toda home near Avalanche in the south-western Nilgiri Hills. Note the large shola in the background. The grasslands here have been converted into vegetable plots. (Digital image, June 2006).

Looking south, south-west from the Western Catchment area in Mukkurthy National Park towards Bangittapal. This is part o the Nilgiris-known as the Kundhas-has some of the most dramatic scenery in the entire Western Ghats. As is evident in the picture Mukkurthy supports significant areas of montane grasslands interspersed with shola pockets and lone Rhododendron trees. After hydroelectric dams were built here in the 1960s the Western Catchment area was became a popular site for Hindi and Tamil film makers. It is now off limits to movie makers and the general public and is protected for its biodiversity (notably Nilgiri tahr as well as large predators such as tigers). It took me significant time and effort to obtain the permissions to visit and make these few photographs (taken during a very short ½ day visit in January 1995).

Looking south, south-west from the Western Catchment area in Mukkurthy National Park towards Bangittapal. This part of the Nilgiris -known as the Kundhas- has some of the most dramatic scenery in the entire Western Ghats. As is evident in the picture, Mukkurthy supports significant areas of montane grasslands interspersed with shola pockets and lone Rhododendron trees. After hydroelectric dams were built here in the 1960s the Western Catchment area became a popular site for Hindi and Tamil film makers. It is now off limits to movie makers and the general public and is protected for its biodiversity (notably Nilgiri tahr as well as large predators such as tigers). It took me significant time and effort to obtain the permissions to visit and make these few photographs (taken during a very short ½ day visit in January 1995).(120 film image scanned)

Devil’s Gap at Western Catchment. Here granite cliffs drop precipitously into the Nilambur Valley in Kerala. A chasm is hidden along the line of shola vegetation parallel to the cliff. With the montane grasslands and Rhododendron trees and cliffs in the background Devil’s Gap makes for a most unusual Western Ghats landscape. I find similarities between this site and Devil’s Kitchen in the Palani Hills. At Devil’s Kitchen the encroaching plantations have obliterated the feel of the grasslands surrounding wind-sculpted sholas growing around the deep, hidden gorges. Taken on T-max 100 film using a Fujica 6x9 fixed lens camera. (January 1995).

Devil’s Gap at Western Catchment. Here granite cliffs drop precipitously into the Nilambur Valley in Kerala. A chasm is hidden along the line of shola vegetation parallel to the cliff. With the montane grasslands, Rhododendron trees and cliffs in the background, Devil’s Gap makes for a most unusual Western Ghats landscape. I find similarities between this site and Devil’s Kitchen in the Palani Hills. At Devil’s Kitchen the encroaching plantations have obliterated the feel of the grasslands surrounding wind-sculpted sholas growing around the deep, hidden gorges. Taken on T-max 100 film using a Fujica 6×9 120 fixed lens camera. (January 1995).

Looking north to Devil’s Gap from the escarpment at Western Catchment in Mukkurthy National Park. Note the undulating hills supporting montane grasslands free of non-native timber plantations. As seen in the maps below there are few areas left in the Nilgiri Hills where this once dominant vegetation still exists. Significant work is now being conducted by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and NGOs to protect and restore montane grasslands in the Nilgiris. (Taken on Kodak T-max 100 120 film using a Fujica 6x9 fixed lens camera in January 1995).

Looking north to Devil’s Gap from the escarpment at Western Catchment in Mukkurthy National Park. Note the undulating hills supporting montane grasslands free of non-native timber plantations. As seen in the maps below, there are few areas left in the Nilgiri Hills where this once dominant vegetation still exists. Significant work is now being conducted by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and NGOs to protect and restore montane grasslands in the Nilgiris. (Taken on Kodak T-max 100 film using a Fujica 120 6×9 fixed lens camera in January 1995).

Looking south from Masinagudi to the Nilgiri Plateau.

Looking south from Masinagudi to the Nilgiri Plateau. (Digital image, June 2006)

Nilgiri Hills Vegetation Map

Nilgiri Hills Vegetation & Land Cover Map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 version)

1973 Landsat image of Nilgiri Hills (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

1973 Landsat image of Nilgiri Hills (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

2014 Landsat Nilgiri Hills map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

2014 Landsat Nilgiri Hills map (click twice on image for larger 150 DPI A3 image)

REFERENCES

Chhabra, Tarun. The Toda Landscape: Explorations in Cultural Ecology. New Delhi: Oriental Black Swan/Harvard, 2015. Print.

Hockings, Paul. Encyclopedia of the Nilgiri Hills: Parts 1 & 2. New Delhi: Manohar, 2012. Print.

Lakshumanan, C. et al. “Landuse/Land cover dynamics study in Nilgiris district part of Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu.” International Journal of Geomatics and Geosciences. Volume 2, No. 3 2012. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Blue Mountains on Steam Power.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 7 September 2009. Web.

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

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

Nalina, P. et al. “Land Use Land Cover Dynamics of Nilgiris District, India Inferred From Satellite Imageries.” American Journal of Applied Sciences. 11 (3) 455-461, 2014. Web.

Satish, K.V. et al. “Geospatial assessment and monitoring of historical forest cover changes (1920–2012) in Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Western Ghats, India.” Environmental Monitoring Assessment. 12 August 2014. Web.

Walker, Anthony R. The Toda of South India: A New Look. Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation, 1986. Print.

Varma, Kalyan. “Revisiting Nilgiris’ Peaks and Passes.” Kalyan Varma Website. 7 August 2009. Web.

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2016-05-31 at 12:10 am

Linking the Hotspot: From Silent Valley to Sinharaja

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

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

The Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot encompasses a swathe of area running down the western coast of India across the Palk Straits to Sri Lanka and its southernmost point at Dondra Head. The heterogeneous landscape-composed of rugged hills, river valleys, wetlands and coastal plains there host a variety of vegetation types. Being a hotspot, there are unfortunately anthropocentric pressures: dense human populations, mining, damming, plantation agriculture and expanding human settlements to name a few. There is also impressive work that has been done in protecting key parts of the hotspot. A significant type of vegetation is the tropical wet evergreen forest that are found in high rainfall areas along the hotspot.

This blog is a personal narrative exploring two exemplary tropical rainforest habitats in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot-Silent Valley in the Indian sate of Kerala and Sinharaja in south-western Sri Lanka. By good fortune our school had two breaks over a course of March/April this year that allowed me the opportunity to explore both of these seminal protected areas with our two children. Amy-eight years old and enthusiastic about learning, art and sports -accompanied me to Sinharaja in March. Lenny, in middle school and now approaching his teen years is involved in theater productions and has a sharp eye for the wildlife in our Malabe neighborhood. He joined me on the Silent Valley exploration in April.

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

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

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

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

Table 1: Comparing the two protected areas.

Table 1: Comparing the two protected areas.

SILENT VALLEY

Silent Valley sits high amongst India’s most important protected areas. Not only does it preserve one of the largest tracts of undisturbed tropical rainforest in the Western Ghats, it is a symbol for a people’s movement to protect wilderness areas from misguided “development.” In the 1970s a plan to dam the Kunthipuzha River that runs from the Nilgiri plateau to the Arabian Sea galvanized a people’s anti-dam movement in Kerala in favor of protecting the forest. It was not an easy fight – in addition to agitation from citizen’s groups in Kerala, luminaries such as Salam Ali and the strong will of Indira Gandhi played a key role in Silent Valley’s notification as a national park in 1985. The area is now zealously protected and is one of the finest tracts of rainforests in the Western Ghats. Shekar Dattatri’s 1991 film Silent Valley: An Indian Rainforest helped introduce many of us to the area. His article (listed below) presents a timeline of events that led to the area’s protection.

During the longer Sinhala & Tamil new year break this year Lenny and I journeyed to south India and Silent Valley for an exhilarating four day visit. We were the guests of Silpa Kumar, the wildlife warden of SVNP who Lenny and I met a year and a half ago in Kerala’s other national park, Eravikulam. I was interested in revisiting SVNP (22 years ago I made a very brief foray into the forest) and I also wanted to introduce Lenny to the wonders of a Western Ghats rainforest. This was hard work-his friends were going to amusement parks in Singapore or beach resorts in the Maldives and Lenny was going on another adventure with his father. With a few incentives, he was a good camper and played a vital role in helping to spot birds and mamals.

Of course, it’s some way from Colombo to the Kerala side of the Nilgiri Hills. Silent Valley sits in the south-west portion in a relatively inaccessible part of the greater Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Our journey took us to Madurai, the Palani Hills and then on across the scorching hot and bone-dry Palghat Gap to Mananarkad, the nearest large settlement to the Valley. We were warmly received by Silpa and set up for an amazing visit. That afternoon we journeyed to the Mukali gate and then into the core zone in a forest department jeep. We spent the next three days based around the old proposed dam site at Sairandhri. A young and energetic officer/Wildlife of India Institute graduate Aneesh accompanied us and helped us learn more about the area.

On one of our full days we walked the trail to the Poochipara forest station. It crosses the Kunthipuzha and then continues through gorgeous, towering rainforest to a forest guard hut. Back in the Sairandhri vicinity I was able to record rare and colorful creatures-most that I had seen in past years but was never able to photograph properly. Highlights included sightings of Malabar Trogons, Southern Treepies, White Bellied Blue Flycatchers, Fairy Bluebirds, Gray Headed Bulbuls, Great Pied Hornbills, Lion Tailed Macaques, Nilgiri Langurs, Draco lizards and much more. We shared the forest guesthouse with Aneesh and three young women from the College of Forestry in Trissur Kerala. They were conducting population studies of bats, rodents and small carnivores. Lenny was able to observe them setting up mist nets and catching bats. Ever the prankster, Lenny photo-bombed one of Devika’s camera trap-a device that a few weeks earlier had captured a tiger and black panther (a melanic form of the leopard) moving on different nights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SINHARAJA

Like Silent Valley, Sinharaja’s status as a protected area was born from controversy. The area that makes up what visitors know of the park was part of a larger belt of lowland rainforest in the Rakwana Hills. The lore associated with the forest stretches back to a time before recorded history. Much of this hilly area was converted into plantation agriculture in the 20th Century but Sinharaja enjoyed natural protection because of the rugged topography of its boundaries. However, in the 1960s roads were built into its heart and mechanical logging was started to feed a large paper mill located in Avisawella. It was a time when this sort of project elicited praise for improving the prospect for “development.” Awareness about ecological matters-concepts like biodiversity, deforestation, ecosystem services and watershed management were not in the public discourse of the age.

As the name suggests, Sinharaja (“lion king”) evokes pride in the Sinhalese and by the 1970s groups of citizens, university professors and students had started to raise awareness about the deforestation and need to protect the forest. The March for Conservation group was a key actor in raising public awareness. It took Julius Jayewardene’s 1977 election for that to happen. The logging soon stopped and Sinharaja was protected first as a sanctuary in 1978 and then as a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site in 1988. Since then it has become one of the most studied rainforests in Asia. The area that was once logged has made a remarkable recovery and Sinharaja illustrates the potential for rainforest recovery after human disturbance.

In March I did a short three-day visit to Sinharaja with our daughter Amy. The goal was to experience the forest and see and photograph as many birds (and other creatures) as possible. In recent years most of my visits have been with students as part of our DP Geography field work and it was good to have an opportunity to explore other places in the area for personal reasons. It was quite hot and dry- in fact dry enough that there were no leeches! Amy and I were lucky to have Thandula as our guide on this visit. We walked to the research center, observed a few mixed species flocks and journeyed to see a Green-billed Coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos) next and the rare Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata). Many of the birds were busy nesting but the migrants (paradise flycatchers etc.) were still around, which we appreciated. The highlight was a superb encounter with the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni), a bird brought to public notice by Deepal Warakagoda in 1998. Thandula had worked in Sinharaja with Deepal and it was thanks to him that we saw this shy bird. As usual, we stayed at Martin’s where we are treated like family and Amy was showered with special attention. Her favorite part was spending time exploring the stream below Martin’s.

SHARED LESSONS

There are fascinating parallels in Sinharaja and Silent Valley that are worth highlighting briefly here. Both have conservation histories that started in controversy, elicited a ground swelling of public support and resulted in their protection. From my perspective, both demonstrate effective management strategies. Silent Valley is blessed with a team of enthusiastic and committed personnel that love what they do. This stretches from the top level -who are more often in the field than office- to the forest guards manning remote posts. The Kerala Wildlife Department runs a tight operation and I was impressed by the commitment and love for their rainforest that they espoused. In Sinharaja. a similar pride in the protected area is evident in the forest guides that take tourists along trails at the Kudawa and Deniaya entrances. Their livelihoods are closely connected to the protected forest. Ecological succession is happening in both places and the recovery of the rainforest is remarkable. There have been important studies conducted on this recovery as well as other aspects of the forest areas but there are opportunities to delve deeper. Both case studies demonstrate the power of protecting South Asian rainforests for ecological, aesthetic and even economic reasons.

 

REFERENCES

Bawa, Kamal, Arundathi Das and Jagdish Krishnaswamy. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, May 2007. Web.

Dattatri , Shekar. “Silent Valley – A People’s Movement That Saved A Forest.” Conservation India. 25 September 2015. Web.

de Zoysa, Neela Ryhana Raheem. Sinharaja, a rain forest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Global Forest Watch. Web. ( a helpful site to investigate change in forest cover on a variety of scales)

Louve, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 2005. Print.

Manoharan, T.M. Silent Valley: Whispers of Reason. Thiruvanthapuram: Kerala Forest Department & KFRI, 1999. Print.

Ramachandran, K.K. Ecology and Population Dynamics of Endangered Primates in Silent Valley National Park. Trissur: Kerala Forest Research Institute, March 1988. Web.

Silent Valley National Park. Thiruvanthapuram: Kerala Forest Department. Web. (the official site for the park-very useful!)

“The Legendary Sinharaja.” WWW Virtual Library-Sri Lanka. Web. (excerpts form the de Zoysa book)

Western Ghats Biodiversity Portal (Beta). Web.

“Western Ghats.” ARKive. Web.

WWF Ecoregions. Southwestern Ghats Moist Forests and Sri Lanka Web.

WWF Ecoregions. Sri Lankan Moist Forests. Web.

Silent Valley A (2016)

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

 

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

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

Landscape & Biodiversity Highlights from a Winter in the Palani Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking north-west to the Anamalais and beyond.

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Publications

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

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

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

Some of the pages from the Indian Quarterly photo essay

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

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

PALANI HILLS ECOLOGY/CONSERVATION ARTICLES IN FRONTLINE*

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

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

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

A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter

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

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

Documenting the landscapes, ecology and cultures of India’s Western Ghats continues to be a life-preserving passion project for me. In recent years I’ve had less time to devote to this as teaching and family commitments have occupied most of my time. However, I try to take several field visits into the Ghats every year in order to explore locations – both well-known and unfamiliar- in new light. These trips nurture and energize my classroom instruction as well as contributing to my growing body of work on the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to revisit the Anamalai (also spelt “Anaimalai”) Hills with my daughter Amy and parents Merrick and Sara Ann. The numerous bends in the ghat -something usually associated with nausea -were the source of much happiness with sighting of charismatic Western Ghats species such as Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) and Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis).

The Anamalais are a critical area for biodiversity in the 1,600 long Western Ghats chain. They host important forest areas including wet evergreen forests and shola/grassland systems in the higher reaches. The northern slopes are relatively dry while the Valparai plateau area has one of Tamil Nadu’s highest recorded rainfall records. The Anamalais have several anthropogenic-dominated landscapes mainly revolving around plantation agriculture. Tea is a particularly important cash crop and expansive tea estates and non-native eucalyptus plantations now cover large areas of the Valparai plateau at the heart of the Anamalai Hills. Several large hydroelectric dams have been built in the hills for electricity generation and irrigation purposes.

As on my 2010 visit with Lenny, a key element on this visit was spending time with members of the Nature Conservation Foundation. They have been working in the Anamalais for the last 15+ years with a focus on a variety of key issues including rainforest restoration, mitigation of human-animal conflict and species-specific studies. Their staff has grown from a handful of enthusiastic individuals and volunteers and the group is now recognized as one of the most effective science-based conservation groups operating in India. While I was putting together this post the news came in that M. Ananda Kumar has been awarded the 2015 Whitley Prize (UK WWF) for his work (though NCF) with reducing human-elephant conflict using an innovative SMS warning system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this visit we spent a morning exploring a mid-elevation evergreen forest fragment near Valparai with a team from NCF. The walk was on behalf of David Westcott and Soumya Prasad who were on a brief visit and we were lucky to tag along. Shankar “Sridar” Raman led us down a disused forest road and was soon picking out hard to identify species from calls and distant movements. A pair of GPHs was calling and gave us a decent view. We logged in views and sightings of a variety of mid-high altitude species including a Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Black & Orange Flycatcher, Black-naped monarch and several others. Mixed species flocks with nuthatches and flycatchers, drongos and Fairy Blubirds were conspicuous. S Vijay Kumar, M. Ananda Kumar and P Jegananthan were along and it was great to have so many sets of eyes scanning all levels of the forest. On our return to Valparai we were caught in a violent storm and took refuge in Jegan’s home. That night David (and Soumya) shared a presentation on the seed dispersal roles of flying foxes in Australia. Ananda and his colleague Ganesh Ragunathan also shared the work with SMSs as highlighted in a new short film.

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

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

During the next day Merrick and I explored out from Valparai to several views points to look for views of the higher ranges and birds. We had several superb views up to Grasslhills and Eravikulam. Anai Mudi overshadows the whole Valparai Plateau –something I remember from the 2002 tahr census hikes up southern India’s highest peak. During those visits I sat for hours on the peak scanning the lower landscape for wildlife and took in the full majesty of the rolling plateaus and dense forested valleys. With Amy and Sara Ann, we spent an afternoon observing a GPH nest near the NCF nursery. We were rewarded with fine sightings of the hornbill parents flying in to feed their chick the female had apparently come out of the nest shortly before we arrived. It was a much too short a visit and we left with promises to return to learn more about the Anamalais. On the way out one of the, now famous, LTM troops was at the roadside in the Puduttotam forest fragment patch. The pictures below demonstrate  how close you can get, as well as the challenge that human communities pose to these endangered primates.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

SELECTED REFERENCES

Hamilton, Douglas. Records of sport in southern India chiefly on the Annamullay, Nielgherry and Pulney mountains, also including notes on Singapore, Java and Labuan. London: R.H. Porter. 1892. Print & Web.

Kumar, Ananda M. Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman. “Asian elephant Elephas maximus habitat use and ranging in fragmented rainforest and plantations in the Anamalai Hills, India. Tropical Conservation Science. June 210. Web. 4 May 2015.

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

Southern Western Ghats Elevation With 30 meter SRTM

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Draft#1 SRTM derived elevation of India's southern Western Ghats.

Draft#1 SRTM derived elevation of India’s southern Western Ghats. The red lines highlight the 1,500 meter contour- roughly where shola/grasslands mosaic ecosystems start. This is a map in progress and it de-emphasizes political boundaries and settlements. Click on image for a larger 150 dpi A3 version.

Since my first geography lessons I have been interested in cartography and the art & science of depicting the earth’s surface. It was my Grade 4 teacher Kris Riber –also a KIS graduate- who got me interested in maps. We each had to do a study of an Indian state (mine was Meghalaya) and part of the task was to make a large, gridded map of our state. Since then I have enjoyed making sketch maps and have searched for the best printed maps of my areas of interest. In India is not easy and it continues to be a great challenge to acquire maps of some places, given restrictions and general bureaucratic barriers that make getting maps challenging. I persevered and now have most of the 1:50,000 and some 1:25,000 scale Survey of India topo sheets for the significant ranges of the Western Ghats. Some of these came from my grandfather Edson Lockwood and are early 20th Century editions where the cartography is at a highly refined level. In the 1990s I was exposed to Tactical Pilotage Charts of the Western Ghats and North East India (see the University of Texas Library site for free downloads). These are at a scale of 1:500,000 but depict the relief and elevation very accurately (see sample below). The advent of modern Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and web-based tools have allowed me to dabble in mapping the areas that are the subject of my photo-documentation and writing.

Last year USGS released a new 30-meter SRTM dataset for the world that allows mapmakers using GIS to more accurately depict relief and elevation. I was very interested in depicting the relief of the Palanis and other ranges more accurately. Over the last few months I have downloaded the tiles for Sri Lanka and southern India and am starting to use them to more accurately depict elevation in my areas of interest. I used a mosaic of about nine SRTM 30-meter tiles to create this year’s WWW Sri Lanka map. The map above was made to help my friends working on shola/grasslands landscapes in the southern Western Ghats (see post on “Forest Plantations”).  The goal was to depict the spatial relationship of the “sky islands” (above 1,500 meters) of the Western Ghats where this vegetation type was once dominant.

There are several places to download SRTM tiles. I used Earthexplorer to download the Sri Lanka and southern India tiles. ESRI’s ArcGIS online will shortly have 30-meter DEM tiles available to use as background imagery. Because we have dedicated licensed software I tend not to use the online versions. At the moment ESRI offers this data for all the continues except Australia and Asia.

Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) of southern India featuring sheets TPC- K8C and TPC-K8d.

Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) of southern India featuring sheets TPC- K8C and TPC-K8d. Published by the US National Mapping & Imagery Agency with revisions in June 2000. Sourced from the Univeristy of Texas Library.

SELECTED REFERENCES & PAST BLOG POSTS WITH MAPS

Lockwood, Ian. “Hypsometric tinting of the Southern Western Ghats Landscapes.” Ian Lockwood blog. August 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2015-04-30 at 11:54 pm