Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘biodiversity

Sri Pada Field Study 2016

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Montane Hourglass frog (Taruga eques) on the montane forest trail to Sri Pada.

Montane Hourglass frog (Taruga eques) in dying bamboo groves (@ 1,800 m) on the montane forest trail to Sri Pada. Found by DP1 students Jannuda and Aryaman.

This year’s annual DP1 science field trips went out slightly earlier than in past years-luckily with no drastic weather consequences. The DP Physics students investigated hydroelectricity near Norton Bridge and the DP Biology class did field ecology exercises on Castlereigh Lake. Meanwhile, I took the Environmental Systems & Societies (ES&S) group up to Peak Wilderness for a study of biodiversity and human impact. It was a relatively small group (eight students), supported by Rebecca Morse our new language acquisition teacher. Together we enjoyed three days of learning, basic accommodation and the traditional hike up to the summit of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak).

Once again we focused on four broad themes related to the Environmental Systems & Societies syllabus.

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems, plantation agriculture etc.)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types (lowland, montane tropical forests, cloud forests)
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’

This year’s group proved to be particularly good at finding frogs and I also encountered several notable bird species that are highlighted in the pictures in this post. The Peak Wilderness area, now designated as a World Heritage Site, is rich in amphibian diversity with new species being described in recent years (see links below). The design of our day hike to the peak is such that it allows the group to stop, look and record examples of biodiversity. The Peak Wilderness area is, of course, very different than what the Colombo area hosts and much of what we see in plants, amphibians, fungi etc. needed to be properly identified with the aid of guide books. The other themes were reinforced both on the hike and the days getting to the Fishing Hut and back. The trip is not designed to be data-driven and the focus of the three short days is on observations and experiencing the guiding themes. Walking up to the peak is a rather physically demanding aspect that distinguishes the ES&S trip from the other science field studies.  Most of the class was hobbling around campus on the two remaining school days of the week when we returned. This was my 18th trip, if my calculations are correct, and along with the rest of the group I returned with a sense of accomplishment, awe in the beauty of nature and concern for the way that our species is treating this sacred mountain.

Human impact in the Central Highlands (Eucalyptus plantation, pine plantation and cleared tea fields, tea estate and slopes above Maskeliya).

Human impact in the Central Highlands (Eucalyptus plantation, pine plantation and cleared tea fields, tea estate and slopes above Maskeliya).

Frogs in montane forest on the trial to Sri Pada.

Frogs of different sizes and colors  in montane forest on the forest trail to Sri Pada. IDs to be added shortly.

Male Kashmir FLycatcher (Ficedula subrubra) a rare winter visitor to Sri Lanka's Central Highlands photographed in montane forest at 1,400 meters.

Male Kashmir Flycatcher (Ficedula subrubra), a rare winter visitor to Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands photographed in montane forest at 1,400 meters.

Biodiversity photographed near the Fishing Hut (1.400m): From Left to Right: Indian Blue Robin (Luscinia brunnea),Toque Macaque (Macaca sinica) and the endemic Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (Zoothera imbricata).

Biodiversity photographed near the Fishing Hut (1.400m): From Left to Right: Indian Blue Robin (Luscinia brunnea),the common but endemicToque Macaque (Macaca sinica) and the endemic Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush (Zoothera imbricata).

Plastic waste collected but then left on the forest trail to Sri Pada. The growing amounts of non- biodegradable waste on the sacred slopes is an eyesore hard to ignore. The situation has encouraged new moves to "ban plastics" this pilgrimage season. Starting with a "pack it in, pack it out" approach would be one sensible idea. We collected the waste pictured here and brought it back to Colombo.

Plastic waste collected but then left (and partly burnt) on the forest trail to Sri Pada. The growing amounts of non- biodegradable waste on the sacred slopes is an eyesore that is hard to ignore. The situation has encouraged new moves to “ban plastics” this pilgrimage season (see links below). Starting with a “pack it in, pack it out” approach would be one sensible idea. We collected the waste pictured here and brought it back to Colombo.

OSC's class of 2018 at the Kithulgala Resthouse shortly before we went in three separate directions in pursuit of different science goals.

OSC’s class of 2018 at the Kitulgala Resthouse shortly before we went three separate directions in pursuit of different science goals.

Class of 2018 ES&S class at Laxapana Falls (left) and on the trail to Sri Pada (right).

On the way to the summit: Class of 2018 ES&S class (+ Julius) at Laxapana Falls (left) and on the trail to Sri Pada (right).

Climbing the steep stairs to Sri Pada with clear views and no rain. The elderly woman from nearby Maskeliya, seen to the left here, said she had been up 250 times!! There was little reason to doubt her... the students stopped complaining after we talked to her.

Climbing the steep stairs to Sri Pada with clear views and no rain. The elderly woman from nearby Maskeliya, seen to the left here, said she had been up 250 times!! There was little reason to doubt her… the students stopped complaining after we talked to her.

Starting back down to the Fishing Hut from the Sri Pada summit temple. The patch of tea near the hut is distance far below. It took us about four to five hours to get up and about three to get back down. Our purpose was to go slow and see as much as possible…

Starting back down to the Fishing Hut from the Sri Pada summit temple. The patch of tea near the hut is in the distance far below. The hut area is off to the mid-right of the frame but the clearing is visible in the forest canopy. It took us about four to five hours to get up and about three to get back down. Our purpose was to go slow and see as much as possible…

The Way to Adam's Peak: a map mural from Whatsala Inn.

“The (Hatton) Way to Adam’s Peak”: a map mural from Wathsala Inn. Our trail to the peak came out of the forest on the middle left of the map.

PAST SRI PADA STUDIES

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012trip)
  • OSC Class of 2015 (Sri Pada 2013 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2016 (Sri Pada 2014 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2017 (Sri Pada 2015 trip)

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Eight new shrub frogs discovered from the Peak Wilderness.” Sunday Times. 2013. Web.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle”. The Sunday Times. 8 August 2010. Web.

“Taking polythene and plastic water bottles to sacred Sri Pada Mountain banned during season.” Colombo Page. 13 December 2016. Web.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Teaching & Learning in Colombo’s Suburban Wetlands

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School students navigating the narrow canals of the newly designated Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Park as part of the Urban Fishing Cat workshops in September 2016.

School students navigating the narrow canals of the newly designated Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Park as part of the Urban Fishing Cat workshops in September 2016.

Sri Lanka’s primate city of Colombo has been growing rapidly in recent years. What were once the hinterlands of Colombo are now being absorbed into the urban expanse as it radiates outwards in all directions (including into the Indian Ocean where the controversial Port City project has resumed). Colombo has its origins as a spice trading port that developed under colonial rule and later become the capital of independent Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The land that the city would eventually occupy was low and much of the city is a few meters above sea level. The Kelani River and its drainage basin form a northern boundary to the city center. While some wetlands were filled in and built up during the early history of Colombo’s development, significant wetland areas have been maintained to mitigate flood events and (more recently) to protect biodiversity. This is especially true in the area around the new capital at Sri Jayewardenepura. The Overseas School of Colombo , which is just above a kilometer from parliament, is located within close proximity to several of these wetland areas and these sites have become important outdoor classrooms for student learning.

Wetland snapshots. (Clockwise from upper left) Lily underside being used in a reflectance/absorbance experiment, Bedaganna walkway, club tail (Ictinogomphus rapax) at Talangama, OSC Class of 2016 students doing a line transect of water plants as part of the Group IV project.

Colombo urban wetland snapshots. (clockwise from upper left) Lily underside being used in a reflectance/absorbance experiment, Beddagana walkway, club tail (Ictinogomphus rapax) at Talangama, OSC Class of 2016 students doing a line transect of water plants as part of the Group IV project.

Colombo’s wetlands are faced with several challenges.

  • Illegal filling in of wetlands: This is done to facilitate property and real estate development. With the growth of the city there is significant pressure on wetland area
  • Water/effluent pollution: The wetlands are on the receiving end of effluents and other water pollution that is fed through municipal drains. Many of the wetlands in downtown Colombo are virtually dead as a result of this.
  • Waste dumping: The illegal dumping of municipal solid waste (MSW) is a growing problem in the Colombo areas and wetland areas are unfortunately popular with individuals and groups that dump bags of mixed waste.
  • Poaching of animals: It’s not fully clear how significant a problem this is but there is some evidence of poaching of small mammals, water-fowl and reptiles in what are otherwise biodiverse rich wetland areas.
Assessing water quality at Talangama wetlands (clockwise from upper left): DP students conducting a biotic index study of an irrigation canal that is fed by the Talangama tank, checking water quality using Vernier Labquest probes (temperature here).

Assessing water quality at Talangama wetlands (clockwise from upper left): DP students conducting a biotic index study of an irrigation canal that is fed by the Talangama tank, checking water quality using Vernier Labquest probes (temperature here-in front of men washing a motorcycle in the lake).

Urban Fishing Cat Workshops. Images from the Environmental Foundation (EF) sponsored workshop that OSC participated in at the newly designated Thalawathagoda Wetland Study Park last month. The workshop featured the important work of xxx and other projects to protect urban wetlands and their diversity.

Urban Fishing Cat Workshops. Images from the Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) sponsored workshop that OSC participated in at the newly designated Thalawathugoda Wetland Study Park last month. The workshop featured the important work of Anya Ratnayake and other projects to protect urban wetlands and their diversity.

The Thalangama Wetlands have been an important study site for OSC students. They also play a key role in flood mitigation, the provision of irrigation water and a place for wetland biodiversity to thrive.

The Thalangama Wetlands have been an important study site for OSC students. They play a key role in flood mitigation, the provision of irrigation water and a place for wetland biodiversity to thrive.They are a favorite spot for birdwatchers and other wildlifers.

Here is a listing of wetlands study sites located in OSC/Pelawatte vicinity:

Study Site 1: Talangama Wetlands

The Talangama Wetlands located east of the school campus (6.888894° N, 79.947727°E) have provided our oldest wetlands learning site. This is a historic irrigation tank that was designed to help provide farmers with water during dry periods, but it also harbors significant wetland areas. It is a rich area for wetland biodiversity, namely bird species. OSC works collaboratively with the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka to raise funds to promote conservation awareness in the area. In 2005 OSC and FOGSL published Student’s Wetland Pictorial Resource Book: Talangama Wetlands Tank. For many years the school and its PTA hosted an annual “Walk for the Wetlands” though this has regrettably not happened recently. In more recent years the DP Environmental Systems & Societies class has been studying water quality in Talangama. For several years the DP Group IV project has been hosted at the wetlands where a variety of student led studies have explored themes of plants, invasive species, water quality and biodiversity in the area. The site is managed by the Irrigation Department, whose mission involves water management rather than biodiversity protection.

Dry & wet conditions over the course of a week at Beddagana Wetlands Park. The dry spell in September and early October was unusual and normally there is water in this part of the park.

Dry & wet conditions over the course of a week at Beddagana Wetlands Park. The dry spell in September and early October was unusual and normally there is water in this part of the park.

Study Site 2: Beddagana Wetland Park

The Beddagana Wetland Park (6.891418° N, 79.909080°E) is a newly designated protected area on the western edge of the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte /Diyawanna (parliament) lake. It was set over the last few years up by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) with support of the World Bank. Beddagana’s forests are actually part of the Sri Jayewardenepura Wildlife Sanctuary that is managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. The area has walkways, hides and towers that offer unprecedented access to different micro-habitats in the wetlands.

Views from the Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda. It will be opening to the public shortly.

Views from the Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda. It will be opening to the public shortly.

Study Site 3: Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda

This is the newest wetland study site to be designated and is the closest to the OSC campus. At the time of writing the Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda (6.880016°N, 79.930402°) had not been officially opened. It is being sponsored by the Land Reclamation and Development Corporation and hosts a series of islands and channels that offer excellent study opportunities. OSC participated in an Urban Fishing Cat workshop led by Anya Ratnayake and hosted by the Environment Foundation Ltd. in early September 2016. We are looking forward to its formal inauguration and opening to the public.

Study Site 4: Water’s Edge area

The area around Water’s Edge (6.905529°N, 79.910093°E) was once an un-managed wetland and then a golf course before being converted by the UDA into a multiple-role recreational area. There are still several fine patches of wetland vegetation with convenient walkways that facilitate observation of wetland species but the area experiences large numbers of visitors that can reduce wildlife sightings.

GIS-generated map of urban wetlands near to OSC. Double click on image for larger A3 15- DPI version.

GIS-generated map of urban wetlands near to OSC. Double click on image for larger A3 15- DPI version.

REFERENCES

Bedjanič, Matjaž et al. Dragonfly Fauna of Sri Lanka: Distribution and Biology With Threat Status of its Endemics. Sofia, Bulgaria: Pensoft, 2014. Print.

Boyle, Richard. “Diyawanna Oya: A Suburban Wetland To Savour.” Serendib. October 2014. Web.

Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka. Student’s Wetland Pictorial Resource Book: Talangama Wetlands Tank. Colombo: FOGSL, 2005. Print.

Land Reclamation and Development Corporation. Biodiversity Study Park, Thalawathugoda. Web. Also

Malawatte, Vinod. “The Urban Wetlands Of Colombo: A Spongy Wildlife Refuge Within The City.” Roar.lk. 26 February 2016. Web.

Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development. Web. In particular see Masterplan.

Ramsar. Sri Lanka Profile. Web.

Urban Development Authority. Beddagana Wetlands Park. Web.

Urban Development Authority. Environmental Management Plan (January 2014).

Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project. Facebook Page.

Wijeyeratne, GehanDe Silva. Sri Lanka Wildlife. Bucks, England, Bradt, 2007. Print. (see page 20 for review of Talangama).

World Bank. Beddaganna Wetlands Park Fact Sheet. 17 June 2016. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2016-10-20 at 11:32 pm

Landscape & Biodiversity Highlights from a Winter in the Palani Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking north-west to the Anamalais and beyond.

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Publications

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

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

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

Some of the pages from the Indian Quarterly photo essay

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

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

PALANI HILLS ECOLOGY/CONSERVATION ARTICLES IN FRONTLINE*

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

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

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

Pigeon Island Explorations

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Underwater snapshots of branch and soft coral in waters near Pigeon Island.

Underwater snapshots of branch and soft coral in waters near Pigeon Island.

My son Lenny and I had a chance to explore Pigeon Island National Park on Sri Lanka’s north-east coast just before the school year started. For Lenny this was an informal extension of his IB PYP 5 exhibition project where he studied the ecology and conservation of marine turtles in Sri Lanka. The visit to Pigeon Island on Sri Lanka’s north-east coast near Trincomalee was a brief, lightening trip enabled by overnight train travel. July and August is high season for (mainly European) visitors on the east coast and we were challenged to find a place to stay. However, that was not so much a problem given that we spent as much time on the island and underwater as possible.

Significant coral gardens still survive around Pigeon Island in spite of growing numbers of tourists that visit (as many as 500 on the first morning that we were there). It is an ideal location for both diving and snorkeling (which we like because of the simplicity and lack of complicated gear- we hope to get our PADI licenses later this year). Overall the national park is well managed and we were lucky to do an initial snorkel session with one of the park guards, who was knowledgeable and helped us better understand where to see fish and coral. There is significant pressure on the island, mainly from the sheer numbers of visitors. Damage to shallow coral by careless visitors and small bits of food which attract crows were two obvious issues. Highlights for us included a dozen or so sightings of Black Tipped Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus), green turtles (Chelonia mydas), and numerous reef fish. The pictures here were taken with a basic underwater camera.

OSC PYP5 students Lenny and Tristan study the conservation of Sri Lanka’s marine turtles for their culminating IB Exhibition project. In this initial part of the study they visited Hikkaduwa National Park (HNP)and the Kosgoda turtle hatchery. At HNP they had a close and intimate encounter with Rosy the Green Turtle…a great way to embark in a project of inquiry-based exploratory learning!

OSC PYP5 students Lenny and Tristan study the conservation of Sri Lanka’s marine turtles for their culminating IB Exhibition project. In this initial part of the study they visited Hikkaduwa National Park (HNP) and the Kosgoda turtle hatchery. At HNP they had a close and intimate encounter with Rosy the Green Turtle…a great way to embark on a project of inquiry-based exploratory learning!

Google Earth view of Pigeon Island in 2015

Google Earth view of Pigeon Island in 2015

Fish at Pigeon Island

Fish diversity (and Lenny) at Pigeon Island, including anemone-fish (Amphiprion sabae) fish and a black tipped reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus).

Vareities of coral, much of it bleached, but otherwise undisturbed near Pigeon Island.

Varieties of coral, much of it bleached, but otherwise undisturbed near Pigeon Island. The parasitic “crown of thorns” starfish in the center. Green turtle over coral in the bottom left.

Snapshots from Tincomalee’s KoneswaramTmple (Swami Rock) a fascinating place that I have childhood memories of.

Snapshots from Tincomalee’s KoneswaramTemple (Swami Rock) a fascinating place that I have childhood memories of.

FURTHER READING

IUCN. Reefs: A resource book for secondary school students. Colombo: IUCN Sri Lanka, 2003 . Print.

Jayawardena, Dharshana. Dive Sri Lanka. Web.

Perera, Nishan. Coral reefs of Sri Lanka. Colombo: The National Trust of Sri Lanka, 2011. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2015-09-01 at 12:53 am

Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation: A Symposium in the Palani Hills

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Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills showing the island effect created by the sheer cliffs and mist over the plains.

Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills showing the island effect created by the sheer cliffs and mist over the plains. Taken the day after the completion of the symposium.

On December 20th Kodaikanal International School (KIS) hosted a unique symposium of scientists, officials and concerned citizens on montane forest plantations in the Western Ghats and the regeneration of shola species in them. The conference was organized by Teri University and the Vattakanal Conservation Trust with KIS providing a space for the discussion. The focus of the conference was on the ubiquitous role of non-native tree plantations in the Western Ghats and what their role in biodiversity conservation is. In past years it was assumed that alien species plantations had a negative impact on overall biodiversity in the Western Ghats. However, new evidence gathered from a number of studies show that the picture is more complicated and that in many case plantations are facilitating a comeback of native shola flora and fauna in the Western Ghats.

The December symposium followed up on a dialogue about shola/grasslands that has been going on amongst scientists, conservationists and other interested people over the last few years. In September a landmark meeting was held in Bangalore entitled “Ecological restoration in a changing world: Insights from a natural forest-grassland matrix in the Western Ghats” (Web link). The meeting at KIS was a follow up to the September meeting but with a specific focus on the role of plantations. In May 2014 a court order in Madurai had brought the issue of plantations into the limelight (see the Hindu article from May 13th) and there has been a clear need to examine the scientific evidence of plantations and their interplay with the shola/grasslands mosaic in the upper Western Ghats.

Pine (Pinus sp.) plantation started in the early 1970s near Poombari village in the north-western Palani Hills with advanced natural regeneration of shola species. A key aspect of this is the presence of a nearby

Pine (Pinus sp.) plantation started in the early 1970s near Poombari village in the north-western Palani Hills with advanced natural regeneration of shola species. A key aspect of this is the presence of a nearby “mother shola” where seeds can be dispersed from.

On Saturday morning Rudy Wuthrich, KIS’s technology director, welcomed participants on behalf of the school with a short speech aligning the themes of the conferences to global discussions on climate change that were recently concluded in Lima. Milind Bunyan of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) gave a compelling overview of the shola/grasslands mosaic in the Western Ghats. In particular he highlighted the issue of bi-stability and factors (both natural and anthropogenic) that give rise to dominance of either the grasslands over the shola and vice versa.

Prof. Albert Reif of Frieburg University focused on the theoretical background of ecosystem fluctuation, degradation, succession and restoration using examples from Venezuela, Chile and Germany. The talk helped give a global perspective to an issue that most of participants were only aware of at the local Western Ghats scale. This was followed up by professor Joachim Schmerbeck’ s talk entitled “regeneration of shola trees species under forest plantations in the Palani Hills.” Joachim, who was been the force behind the conference, has an old association with the Palani Hills and has been regularly bringing his students from Teri to conduct field work here (see the proceedings at the end of this post for examples of these studies). A major point that he made was the need for a clear, measurable aim to have as the Forest Department, citizens and NGOs go through the process of looking to engage in ecological restoration. One of the Teri students, Kunal Bharat, presented his findings that looked at socio-economic impacts of the plantations and their ecosystems services in the Palani Hills. Kunal’s study revealed fascinating numbers of fuel energy consumed in the villages of the Palani Hills-an important factor as discussions proceed on how best to utilize the plantations.

One theme from the conference was the idea of “sky islands.” This is an idea that the high altitude areas of the Western Ghats are like virtual islands, isolated from neighboring ranges by lower altitude and plains areas where physical, biological and human issues are very different. It has led to a unique assemblage of biodiversity in each of these islands. The Palani Hills are part of an island block that include the Anaimalai Hills and High Range. They are separated from the large Nilgiri Hills plateau to the north by the Palghat Gap. To the south the Cumbum Valley separates the Palanis from the Highwayv mountains and Periyar Tiger Reserve. Robin Vijayan has popularized the idea of Sky Islands with his scientific study on the ecology and spatial distribution of the White Bellied Shortwing, a small bird species that is exclusively found in shola forests. It is an indicator species of sholas and has a distribution that reflects existents sholas all the way from the southernmost ranges of the Western Ghats to a little north of the Nilgiri Hills (see his website for a more detailed account of shortwings).

Nisarg Prakash and Vijay Kumar of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) shared a presentation on their efforts with wildlife conservation and restoration in the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve (ATR).  NCF’s work with tea and coffee plantations are well documented as a successful case of a science-based approach to facilitate a practical conservation-oriented intervention in degraded landscapes. Their experience with removing wattle from montane grasslands in the Grasshills part of the ATR sparked discussion on using similar approaches in the Palanis.

(Left) Tanya of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust sharing insights into shola regeneration in plantations. (Right) Jaykaran, Bob and Tanya at the open discussion.

(Left) Tanya of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust sharing insights into shola regeneration in plantations. (Right) Jaykaran, Bob and Tanya at the open discussion.

Finally Tanya Balcar of the VCT shared observations on the role that plantations in the Palani Hills have played as nurseries for shola species. There were two broad points to her presentation: plantations of non-native species when located near to intact sholas are playing a key role as nurseries of young shola species. In some cases, such as in Blackburn Shola, these shola species through a process of ecological succession are actually taking over and replacing the plantation species. Thus, to clear cut “alien” plantation species harms this process and generally leads to an infestation of alien weeds (lantana, eupatorium etc.). Secondly there are still vital montane grasslands located in key locations in the Palani Hills (Perumal and Ibex Peaks etc.). Intervention to weed out spreading alien species in these locations is worth the significant effort in order to protect the grasslands and marshes from being overwhelmed and replaced by the plantation species.  Along with concluding comments and an open session facilitated by Teri’s Professor P.K.Joshi, the symposium was completed with a field visit to different forest and plantation patches on the road to Poombari.

A visit to observe plantations and shola revival in them on the road form Kodai to Poombari.

A visit to observe plantations and shola revival in them on the road from Kodai to Poombari.

Though the meetings was relatively short, it provided an important platform to share ideas amongst individuals interested in ecological restoration in the southern Western Ghats. In the future it would be ideal to have more participation of the Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka Forest Departments since they are the key decision makers and actors in the process. KIS is positioned at an important location to facilitate the ongoing research and conversations about montane ecology. The Palani Hills, like other ranges in the Western Ghats, host significant biodiversity but have also been subjected to significant human interventions. The school has been a silent witness to these ecological changes and in more recent years students and faculty have participated in restoration and conservation awareness programs. It would be ideal for KIS to host future (perhaps, annual) gatherings of scientists, citizens and officials from the Forests Department(s) to better chart out how to approach the ecology of the Palanis and other ranges in the southern Western Ghats.

Several other key figures participated in the conference including students and professors for Freiburg University and Teri. Dr. Clarence Maloney and his daughter Iti represented several generations of KIS students. Sunayana Choudhry a Kodai resident and the INTACH Convener highlighted the recent publication Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky, which was just released. It includes chapters by Bob & Tanya, Pippa Mukerjee, Pradeep Chakravarthy as well as several of my landscape photos and species shots.  Prahbakar of the India Biodiversity Portal was at the symposium and I enjoyed brief discussions with him about land cover and vegetation mapping in the Western Ghats. Robin Vijayan, a key leader in the shola/grasslands, group was unfortunately held back by a vehicle breakdown. Prasenjeet Yadav, who is the recipient of a National Geographic Young Explorers grant to document sky islands came along and we were able to spend time walking and sharing notes in Bombay Shola on the following day. Special thanks to Beulah Kolhatkar for providing logistical support and helping to get the conference off the ground at KIS. In conclusion it was a significant success and as a member of the Kodai family interested in biodiversity conservation as well as issues surrounding the shola/grasslands mosaic, I hope that we can host future gatherings to better protect our ecological heritage.

SELECTED REFERENCES & PAST BLOG POSTS

Bunyan, Milind Sougata Bardhan and Shibu Jose. “The Shola (Tropical Montane Forest)-Grassland Ecosystem Mosaic of Peninsular India: A Review.” American Journal of Plant Sciences. 2012. 3. Web.

Fleischman, Forrest D. “Why do Foresters Plant Trees? Testing Theories of Bureaucratic Decision-Making in Central India.” World Development. 62 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas.”  Frontline. 20 April 2012. Print & PDF.

”        “Ecological Restoration in the Palani Hills.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2012. Web.

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

”         “The Next Big Thing.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2006. Print & PDF.

Mohandass, D et al. “Influence of disturbance regime on liana species composition, density and basal area in the tropical montane evergreen forests (sholas) of the Western Ghats, India.” Tropical Ecology. 56(2) 2015. Print & Web.

Naudiyal, Niyati and Joachim Schmerbeck. Land Use Related Biodiversity in India: Seminar Proceedings 2013. New Delhi: Teri University, 2014. Print and Web.

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

Srnivasan, Madhusudan P. et al. “Vegetation-environment relationships in a South Asian tropical montane grassland ecosystem: restoration implications.” Tropical Ecology. 56 (2). 2015. Print and Web.

Thomas, S.M. and M.W. Palmer. “The montane grasslands of the Western Ghats, India:Community ecology and conservation.” Community Ecology. 8 (1) 2007. Print & Web.

van Andel, Jelte and James Aronson ed. Restoration Ecology: The New Frontier, Second Edition. U.K: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2014-12-30 at 12:35 am

New Hope for Wildlife in Mizoram

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Contrasting views of settlements in Mizoram. Monsoon cloud prepare to deliver a shower to Aizawl in the above image. The city is composed of densely packed multi-storied concrete buildings. Below a traditional rural dwelling made of bamboo and mostly natural materials  in Sairang.

Contrasting views of settlements in Mizoram. Monsoon clouds prepare to deliver a shower to Aizawl in the above image. The city is composed of densely packed multi-storied concrete buildings. Below a traditional rural dwelling made of bamboo and mostly natural materials in Sairang.

The North Eastern states of India are blessed with high levels of biodiversity, a fact linked to their geography and historical position as a crossroads of evolutionary activity. They sit on a tectonic fault line between the Indian and Asian plates and enjoy a tropical-temperate climate nourished by the monsoon. The proximity of the eastern Himalaya plays a key role and there are a variety of biomes within the area created by the variation in relief and climate. The seven states of the North East (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya) have a biogeography influenced by South East Asia, the Himalayan landscapes and to a lesser extent the main India plate. There are two recognized “biodiversity hotspots” that NE India is a part of-the Eastern Himalaya and Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspots. Human population density is relatively low compared to India’s other hotpot, the Western Ghats. However pressure from hunting and trapping, as well as industrial mining, dam-building and plantation agriculture is significant. On a recent visit with my wife’s extended family Mizoram I came across some encouraging signs of changing attitudes towards wildlife.

The small state of Mizoram is geographically isolated, being wedged between Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts and Burma’s Chin hills. To the north it is connected to India via Assam, Tripura and Manipur. Mizoram is composed of a series of rugged ridges running north to south (see the Landsat map below to see these clear patterns). The origins of these mountain ranges (Lushai and Chin Hills) are closely tied to the collision of the Indian and Asian plates 60-65 million years BP. When driving in and around Aizawl the capital, one is reminded of this drama. Layers of alluvial sediments that were thrust up during the collision are clearly visible on road cuts and at construction sites. I had an opportunity to discuss these fascinating origins on a drive around Aizawl with Raina’s nephew Dawng Tea who is a well-geologist working with IOC. They are prospecting for natural gas south of Aizawl and he has had an opportunity to see and study much of Mizoram’s geology.

Mizos have traditionally had a very close relationship with their physical environment and it was not so long ago that all aspects of their lives were closely governed by the rhythms of nature, seasonal cycles of rain and shifting agriculture (jhuum). Hunting was an important activity, both as a practical source of protein as well as an important rite of passage for men. In my family my bother in laws, uncles and cousins of my generation had a strong relationship with the outdoors through hunting. On my past visits we never went on an outing without several different rifles and shotguns in the vehicle. But these habits are changing and it could not come sooner given the generally alarming state of wildlife populations in the state. Something different is happening and it is thanks to digital photography and a growing awareness about the fragile sate of Mizoram’s wildlife. On our visit during the monsoon of 2014 I noted that the guns are rusting in a corner and now my same brother-in-law is nuts over wildlife photography!

Odonata at Sairang just north of Aizawl.

Odonata at Sairang just north-west of Aizawl.

 

T_erythrurus

Spot-tailed Pit Viper (Trimeresurus erythrurus) at Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology and in Durtlang (right).

T_albolabris

Unidentified subspecies of the White Lipped Pit Viper (Trimeresurus albolabris) at Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology. Note the red eye which is unique and different from the normal specimens. H.T. Lalremsanga and his colleagues are in the process of describing this as a new sub-species or species.

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Portrait of an unidentified subspecies of the White Lipped Pit Viper (Trimeresurus albolabris) at Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology.

There are several Mizo wildlife site on social-media that have become a forum for what is being seen. Some of what people share on their Facebook pages include sad scenes of road kill or hunting trophies, but increasingly there is a cry from members of the group to protect the rich biodiversity of the state. Mizo Nature Watch looks at all aspects of ecology in the state (plants, animals, landscapes etc.). Zoram Rul Chanchin focuses on herpetological diversity and is moderated by H.T. Lalremsanga of Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology. I was able to spend time at their temporary office and meet other members of the group who are connected with the university. They are doing pioneering work on documenting the fauna of the state, while working to educate communities about protecting what they have. The campus has become a model mini-protected area. It was once heavily jhuumed and is now seeing a return of plants, insects, birds, snakes animals and other creatures that are difficult to see alive anywhere else. During my stay I was able to interact with RCa and Isaac and the exquisite pit vipers that they had rescued (see photos above that are courtesy of the Department).

Aside from academic institutions, a numbers of individuals have taken up wildlife documentation and rescue as a hobby in Aizawl. These experiences and discoveries are shared with friends and the wider world via Facebook and other social networking sites. Digital cameras, be they cell phone cameras or DSLR are the tools of the trade to record and share discoveries. Knowing Mizo is helpful and I have only been able to make sense of the discussions thanks to my wife Raina. One evening this last June, my brother-in-law Kuka took me out to meet some of these wildlife enthusiasts near to Durtlang, which lies above the main city on a high ridge. Kuka was once a die-hard hunter but has become completely enamored with his camera and is now producing superb images of birds that he has encountered. Kuka has seen his share of snakes but this night was to be his first time getting up close through his lens. In a modest house we met three young, enthusiastic wildlifers. They had a few snakes (all rare, with relatively restricted ranges), which had been rescued from nearby houses and were about to be released. Perhaps more interestingly, they took us for a night walk on the road leading out of town. It had rained earlier but now the stars were out and a cool wind blew over the ridge. Within the first 30 minutes our friends were able to show us three different gecko species, one of which is a bent gecko that may be new to science! This was one of my last nights in Aizawl and I left feeling both hopeful and excited about the future of wildlife in the state.

College of selected Mizo snake and wildlife social media pages.

Collage of selected Mizo snake and wildlife social media pages.

 

Unidentified Bent-Toe Gecko (Cyrtodactylus sp.), Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) and Banded Trinket Snake (Oreocryptophis porphraceus) at various locations in and around Aizawl.

Unidentified Bent-Toe Gecko (Cyrtodactylus sp.), Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) and Banded Trinket Snake (Oreocryptophis porphraceus) at various locations in and around Aizawl.

Landsat view of Mizoram (click on image for A1 100 DPI image)

Landsat view of Mizoram (click on image for A1 100 DPI image). I worked on this over the rainy days that we spent in Aizawl.

 

REFERENCES

Ahmeed, Firoz, Abhijit Das and Shushil Kr. Datta. Reptiles & Amphibians of the North East: A Photographic Guide. Guwahati: Aaranyak, 2009. Print.

IndianSnakes.org

Lockwood, Ian. “Far Corner: A Window on Mizoram.” Outlook Traveller. 2009. Print. PDF

Ved, Nimesh. Blog. (a great site for documentattion of his important work to promote wildlife and conservation education in the remote corners of Mizoram).

Whitaker Romulus & Captain, Ashok. Snakes of India: The Field Guide. Draco Books, Print. 2004.

 

PAST POSTS ON MIZORAM

2012 visit to Mizoram Bamboolands Blog Post

2008 visit to Mizoram Blog Post

Written by ianlockwood

2014-07-30 at 6:34 pm