Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Archive for the ‘Western Ghats’ Category

The Hills of Murugan: An Exhibition on the Palani Hills

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Hills of Murugan (Horizontal poster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Palani Hills 1973 Overlay (150)

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

Palani Hills Elevation Version 2a 2018 (150)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

also

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

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2018-07-01 at 5:32 pm

Kurinji Flowering in the Southern Western Ghats-Anticipation

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

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

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

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

Strobilanthes kunthiana (Kurinji) flowering in the remote Palani Hills

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

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

Botanical Survey of India. ENVIS Centre on Floral DiversityWeb.

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

Catalog of Life. “Strobilanthes kunthianus.” Web.

EFloraofIndia. “Strobilanthes kunthiana” Web.

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

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

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

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2018-06-09 at 8:51 pm

A Song of the Sholicola

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Sholicola_albiventris_at_BS_singing_1a(MR)(04)18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Naraikadu- The Grey Forest

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Amy accompanies a Dhonavur sister on a walk through the community campus.

In a few weeks the Dhonavur Fellowship will celebrate 100 years of Naraikadu-the grey forest in the southernmost Western Ghats that they have been the guardians of for the last century. I have had the privilege of being their guest and visiting Naraikadu with Dhonavur communities on several occasions. This week to help mark the event and acknowledge the unique conservation effort by non-state actors and citizens working with the Forest Department I have contributed a short photo-essay and narrative on Naraikadu in Frontline, the respected newsmagazine of the Hindu newspaper group.

Fronline Screen Grab

The association that I have with Naraikadu is very personal. Over the last 25 years I have been fortunate to make several visits to Dhonavur, Naraikadu and parts of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) with my friends in the community. I first wrote to David Rajamanian in 1995 about visiting. Through his sons Jerry and Ezekiel and their families I got to know the area and its history and made my first visits to Naraikadu. We have taken unforgettable journeys into the area, notably two epic journeys to Pothigai (Agasthyamalai) in 2002 and we are planning further forays into this little understood area of the Western Ghats. I have also had a chance to take several members of my family there including my wife Raina who fell in love with Nariakadu after cursing me on the hike up (with good reason-she was carrying 1.5 year old Lenny on her back). When our daughter Amy Zopari was born 11 years ago we named her in honor of Amy Carmichael in recognition for her remarkable personality and dedication to the wilderness area of Naraikadu.

Earlier this year, during our April Sinhala and Tamil New Year break, Amy accompanied me on a week-long adventure to Kodai, Dhonavur and Naraikadu. The season of heat had set in on southern India and the area was experiencing a severe drought. The highlight was a three-day hike to Naraikadu. It was this visit and the experience of taking Amy back (she had visited on two prior occasions) that set in motion the conversations that led to the article being written. You can read the full article on Frontline’s website.

The photo essay in the Frontline article utilizes a variety of evolving camera technology: there are 6×6 black & white film and digital SLR pictures but most of the key images were taken on a phone. I created two maps of the area for the article. The first shows elevation and utilizes high resolution digital elevation models and Swiss shade tints in ArcGIS. There was too much information in it for the article so I simplified it. The first map is  included here.

The physical geography of the area plays an important part in the story of Narikadu. To understand the southernmost Western Ghats one needs to appreciate the diversity of geography and consequently ecosystem diversity that exists in a relatively small area. The Tirunelveli plains are flat and separated from the wet western coast of Kerala by the rugged Ashambu ranges of the Western Ghats.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Carmichael, Amy. Lotus Buds. Dhonavur, India: 1909.  Web version on Gutenberg

Ganesh, T. et al. Treasures on Tiger Tracks: A Bilingual Nature Guide to Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Bangalore, ATREE 2009. Print. Web Link.

Gazetteer of the Tinnevelly District. Madras 1917. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. “The Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve: A global heritage of biological diversity.” Current Science. February 2001. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. Walking the Western Ghats. Mumbai: BNHS & Oxford, 2015. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 1)” July 2010. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 2)” July 2010. Web.

Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PAST BLOG POSTS & PUBLICATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by ianlockwood

2016-08-22 at 11:56 pm

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.

Written by ianlockwood

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.