Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘Ecology

Landscape & Ecology in the Nilgiri Hills: A Spatial Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nilgiri HIlls relief & elevation map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking south from Masinagudi to the Nilgiri Plateau.

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

Nilgiri Hills Vegetation Map

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2016-05-31 at 12:10 am

2013 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada

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Collage of native flora on the forest trail to Sri Pada's 2,243 meter summit.

Collage of snapshots of native flora on the forest trail to Sri Pada’s 2,243 meter summit.

Every December it is my privilege and pleasure to lead a group of DP I (Grade 11) OSC students up the slopes of Sri Pada in order to study the mountain’s ecology and appreciate its value as a stronghold of biodiversity in a rich Sri Lankan cultural landscape. This year I invited the DP Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter to join our group of eleven DP ES&S students. We were supported by our teaching colleagues Sonalee Abeyawardene and Celine Dary  (so there were added opportunities to explore ideas of pilgrimages in literature and converse in French during our three days out!). Several students had just completed a heart-pounding SAISA tournament in Muscat and hopped from their airport bus onto ours as we headed up into the Central Highlands on a clear Monday morning.

Vertical zonation studies of floral diversity on the forest path to Sri Pada

Vertical zonation studies of floral diversity on the forest path to Sri Pada (center and right) and degraded forest near the Fishing Hut (left). Max, Chadoo and Teresa laying the transect and looking for plant diversity.

The Moray Estate Fishing Hut#1.

The Moray Estate Fishing Hut#1.

ES&S task sheets from the 2013 Sri Pada learning experience.

ES&S task sheets from the 2013 Sri Pada learning experience.

A contrast in habitats. A monoculture landscape of tea and non-native shade trees overshadowed by undisturbed sub-montane tropical rainforest in the Peak WIlderness area.

A contrast in habitats: a monoculture landscape of tea and non-native shade trees overshadowed by undisturbed sub-montane tropical rainforest in the Peak Wilderness area.

Looking for orchids  and other delights in the grassy meadow below the peak (altitude 1900 meters). John visits a favorite area..

Looking for orchids and other delights in the grassy meadow below the peak (altitude 1,900 meters). John visits a favorite, familiar area…

For all students, be they biologists or ecologists in ES&S, the three-day visit to Sri Pada and the Peak Wilderness area offers a unique opportunity to conduct field studies in a biologically rich but anthropogenic influenced landscape. The trip is a unique learning experience, one that is perhaps less appreciated by students in the moment but invariably remembered with great fondness. As usual, we based ourselves at the Moray Estate Fishing Huts. These three rustic cabins are rented out to ecotourists and people willing to put up with simple amenities in order to experience a uniquely beautiful location. Significant time was spent simply getting to the huts and back but once at the Fishing Huts there were all sorts of opportunities for learning. The huts lie at the boundary between manicured tea estates and mid-elevation sub-montane tropical rainforest. This year I highlighted four themes of study for the trip:

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’
Appreciating abiotic factors and the role of decomposers: snapshots from the study on the slopes of Sri Pada.

Appreciating abiotic factors and the role of decomposers: snapshots from the study on the slopes of Sri Pada.

Our main study day was on Tuesday December 10th (my brother Brian’s birthday!) when the ES&S class ascended the peak. Based on the fitness and gear that the group, I decided to make it a day trip and not spend the night on the top. We went with light packs for the day and were able to conduct a series of line transects as we gained altitude on the peak. The idea was to observe and record changes in plant diversity as we traversed human and natural landscapes and gained altitude on the peak. I had decided to leave my heavy camera gear in Colombo and was armed with a lightweight Canon Powershot, GPS and small temperature probe. The small allowed me to take quick snapshots of the wealth of plant life on the forest trail- and the detail isn’t too bad. Because the hike is physically demanding, there was little time to linger but the group managed at least five transects at different elevations and habitats. We got to the temple around 1:00 –it was pleasantly empty as the season was still a week away from starting. Our lunch of peanut butter and Nutella wraps was shared with a wandering Australian, we rang the temple bells, appreciated the summit temple and then headed back down. One of the students- Max who had been in Muscat playing football for OSC -had a sore knee and we took the last bit slowly. This facilitated a meandering conversation and time to observe the forest much more closely. It was dark by the time we got back to the Fishing Hut.

Snapshots of the OSC Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter in action. On the right the ES&S  class descends from the Peak through sub-montane tropical rainforest.

Snapshots of the OSC Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter in action. On the right, the ES&S class descends from the Peak through sub-montane tropical rainforest.

On the final morning we were able to look at a patch of degraded forest and a eucalyptus plantation. These habitats offer a fascinating contrast to the sub-montane forest. There are numerous invasive species colonizing these disturbed areas but also a gratifying number of native species also making a start. Down below us the biologists completed a biotic index study of two streams (one from the forest and one from the tea estate). We were moving back to Colombo by 10:30 and school wrapped up two days later. Now, as we begin a new term, the classes will be sifting through their data, science journals, photographs and memories to consolidate their learning on Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain.

Past OSC school trips to Sri Pada have been reported in this space:

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012 trip)
OSC's ES&S students on the last steps and then summit of Sri Pada.

OSC’s ES&S students on the last steps and then summit of Sri Pada.

Looking over the Peak WIlderness area to the east of the peak from the summit temple. The Fishing Hut and Moray Estate is on the far left.

Looking over the Peak Wilderness area to the east and south of the peak from the summit temple. The Fishing Hut and Moray Estate is on the far left.

Scenes from the Sri Pada temple area.

Scenes from the Sri Pada temple area. This was a week before the pilgrimage season officially opened up and the temple area was serene and quiet.

Sunset over Sri Pada.

Sunset over Sri Pada. Taken on Monday December 9th after a cold stream traverse.