Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘Nilgiritragus hylocrius

Further Explorations in the Anamalai Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buceros_bicornis_in_flight_Valparai_1a(MR)(04_19)

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

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

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

PAST ANAMALAIS POSTS

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

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

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

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

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

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

The Pollachi Papyrus. Website.

 

 

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.

Renewal in the High Range & Eravikulam

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Landscape and biodiversity of the High Range: The Nymakad Estate lies below the sholas and grassy slopes of Eravikulam. Nilgir tarh, like this saddleback are the key endemic species that this protected areas hosts.

Landscape and biodiversity of the High Range: The Nymakad Estate lies below the sholas and grassy slopes of Eravikulam. Nilgiri tahr, like this saddleback, are the key endemic species that this protected areas hosts.

The rugged, granite mountains that overshadow the tea-planting town of Munnar are a sublime, little-disturbed example of the high altitude Western Ghats landscape. The High Ranges and Anaimalais, which are contagious with the Palani Hills, host important remnant shola/grasslands ecosystems. The area hosts a mix of different landscapes and ecosystems, including large-scale tea and fuel wood plantations. Eravikulam National Park, established to protect the red listed (endangered) Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is a critical protected area in the Western Ghats. This summer I had a chance to revisit the area after a prolonged period of exile. The High Range and Eravikulam National Park played a key role in my interest in documenting the Western Ghats and it was a homecoming, of sorts…

Road to Munnar through Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Looking south into the High Range from Manjampatti Valley.

Road to Munnar through Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Looking south into the High Range from Manjampatti Valley.

Looking east to the Palani Hills over Kuykkal and Manjampatti from the Chinnar-MUnnar road. The dry Amarvathi reservoir is in the foreground.

Looking east to the Palani Hills over Kukkal and Manjampatti from the Chinnar-Munnar road. The dry Amarvathi reservoir is in the foreground.

In the early 1990s, and through to the millennium. I regularly visited Munnar and the High Range, seeking out a better understanding of the area’s ecology and landscape. The story of those trips and learning adventures are described in several articles and the High Range Diaries (a series of blog posts that are in production). The area had a signification impact on me, as it has on naturalists, photographers and other dreamers before and after my time. I read about landmark studies and then communicated with naturalists such as ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Clifford Rice who had spent time in Eravikulam in past years. Rom & Zai Whitaker, Belinda Wright and others who have contributed to India’s conservation story shared anecdotes of their visits to Eravikulam with me. I made contact with contemporary scientists, such as PV Karunakaran, studying ecological aspects of the park. The Kerala Forest Department who were taking over all management activities from the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society (HRWPS) in the 1990s, helped facilitate my understanding. I was privileged to take shelter with forest guards on my first visit in 1993 and later participated in an annual tahr census. Wardens of Eravikulam starting with Sivadas, James Zacharias, and Mohan Alembath were key facilitators as I sought to explore Eravikulam and study it from the Western Ghats perspective. The HRWPS under the patronage of Tata Tea then and led by the incomparable KN Changappa, was supportive and always interested in working to support landscape-based approaches to conservation in the High Range-Anaiamalais-Palanis bloc. It was in Eravikulam that I found the extension of the Palani Hills and discovered myself and a path to follow in life. Numerous excursions followed my first visit to the High Range and I was fortunate to have my cousin Anna, parents Merrick & Sara Ann and several other friends as companions on those memorable visits.

This summer I was accompanied by my seven-year old daughter Amy and I was looking to renew contact with friends, the wildlife and landscape. It has been many long years since I had stayed in Munnar and I was wary of going back to a place that I had known well before the onslaught of the “God’s Own Country” Kerala tourism campaign. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the monsoon season and the rain had flushed the tourists off the hills (as we like to think in Kodai), but the area wasn’t as crowded as I had expected. Munnar had grown significantly with the proliferation of high-end hotels and resorts in the vicinity. Prasad, my old friend who distributes Thaliyar tea and is a correspondent of the Malayalam Manorma, filled me in on developments in the hills since my last visit.

Eravikulam is important for a number of reasons:

  • It hosts the most extensive and least disturbed examples of the shola/grasslands mosaic. This high altitude ecosystem that is unique to the southern Western Ghats has been decimated by the introduction of non-native timber plantations, hydroelectric dams, mines and expanding hill stations in other ranges of the Western Ghats. Eravikulam tells a story of a landscape prior to these changes.
  • Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) have one of their most secure homes in Eravikulam and it has been estimated that half of the wild population (still roughly pegged at 2,000-2,500) of this endangered ungulate are found within its borders. That was the situation when ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Cliff Rice conducted their surveys and studies (during the 1960s-80s). As far as I know, that ratio has not changed. There have been significant population recoveries in Mukkurthy National Park in the Nilgiri Hills, but in many remote tahr habitats they are under pressure from poachers and habitat change. WWF India is now conducing the most comprehensive studies of Nilgiri tahr populations in the Western Ghats.
  • Conservation management has been a unique story of success involving government agencies (the Kerala Forest Department’s wildlife wing) and NGOs (HRWPS). There are few examples in India or South Asia where such an effective partnership has been put in place for the benefit of biodiversity conservation (see my articles below for a more detailed exploration of the history and circumstances that helped contribute to this).
Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) saddleback approaching the tourist zone of Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) saddleback approaching the tourist zone of Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) at Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) at Eravikulam National Park. From left to right: Adult female, adult male (saddleback, kid (@ 5 months)

 

Generations of collaboration between the High Range WIldlofe Preservation Society and the Kerala Forest Department. N Chengappa a& Sivadas  (1994). Mohan, Prasad and Jo Jo ((2014)

Generations of collaboration between the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society and the Kerala Forest Department. N Changappa & Sivadas (1994). Mohan, Prasad and Jo Jo (2014). Photographs by the author.

On our trip Amy, John (our friend, guide and driver on many Western Ghats adventuress) did a long loop that took us from the Kodaikanal down to Palani, west to Udumalpet and then south to Munnar through the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve, Chinnar WLS and Marayoor valley. We returned the southern way through Devikulam, Bodimetu, Bodi, Theni and Periyakulam. The contrast between the parched dry hills near the plains and the wet highlands was striking. In Munnar I had a chance to take Amy up to the Rajamalai tourist zone on both mornings and we were thrilled to have several intimate encounters with tahr. When you’ve hiked through the whole Palani Hills ranges just to glimpse a shadow or dropping of these sure-footed ungulates, the sight of them feeding next to you in Rajamalai is a bit disconcerting! I was impressed with the effective controls in place from the Forest Department to manage visitor numbers. There weren’t any signs of waste dropped by carless tourists. To access the tourist zone we had to ride a bus that helps the authorities control numbers. Visitors are kept on the road and not allowed to stray up the slopes. This is a welcome change from the free-for-all of the late 1990s when Munnar had been “discovered” as a tourist destination and the forest department and HRWPS were struggling to enact management controls. A highlight during our short visit was interacting and spending time with the warden Prasad and his deputy Sanjayan. We enjoyed an early morning together at Rajamalai looking for saddlebacks who had descended from the misty cliffs to seek out females in heat. There was a light drizzle and we had several close encounters with White Bellied Shortwings (Brachypteryx major) in addition to a dozen or so tahr. Soon after, the tourists started arriving and Amy and I said our thank yous and headed south though valleys of tea towards Bodi. We promised to spend longer on the next visit.

Panoramic view of Munnar during a break in the South West Monsoon. Note the church, mosque and temple in the image. The once sleepy tea-planting town is named for the three rivers that converge here.

Panoramic view of Munnar during a break in the South West Monsoon. Note the church, mosque and temple in the image. The once sleepy tea-planting town is named for the three rivers that converge here.

Landsat map of Eravikulam showing significant locations and a very rough park boundary.

Landsat map of Eravikulam showing significant locations and a very rough park boundary.

 

Snapshots form a visit to Munnar: The Tea Museum and Amy with Mudhuvan guards at Rajamalai.

Snapshots form a visit to Munnar: The Tea Museum and Amy with Mudhuvan guards at Rajamalai.

Small rainbow over the Thaliya/Vagavurai valley.

Small rainbow over the Thaliyar/Vagavurai valley.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Alembath, Mohan. Nilgiri tahr Info. Website.

Eravikulam National Park. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Twilight of an Ecosystem.” The India Magazine. July 1994. Print (PDF)

Lockwood, Ian. “South India’s Elusive Nilgiri Tahr. Environ. (PDF)

Lockwood, Ian. High Range Photography. “Eravikulam and the Anaimalais.” Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Of Tea & Tahr.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2000. Print. (Sanctuary) Of_Tea_and_Tahr(2000 06)

Karunakaran, P.V. Ecology and conservation of the grasslands of Eravikulam National Park, Western Ghats. Dehra Dun, Wildlife Institute of India, 1998. Print.

Nair, Satish Chandra. The Southern Western Ghats: A Biodiversity Conservation Plan. New Delhi, INTACH, 1991. Print.

Schaller, George B. Stones of Silence: Travels in the Himalaya. University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print (see “Cloud Goats” on page 150 for a detailed account of Nilgiri tahr).

Rice, Clifford G. (1988). Reproductive biology of Nilgiri Tahr. Journal of Zoology, London, 214: 269-284. Web.

Shaheed, G. “Goats Own Country.” Frontline. 11-2 February 2006. Web.

Vergis, Sharon et al. “Survey of Isolated Populations of Nilgiri tahr in Kerala India.” Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 108. Jan-June 2011. Web.

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