Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘shola/grasslands

Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PAST BLOG POSTS & PUBLICATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by ianlockwood

2016-08-22 at 11:56 pm

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