Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Posts Tagged ‘Western Ghats

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.

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2016-08-22 at 11:56 pm

Panchromatic to Multispectral: Personal Explorations of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot

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For the last three years Nature in Focus has been an important gathering for people interested in photography and conservation. While hosted in the south Indian metro of Bangalore it has a global outlook and many of the speakers and participants are experienced with photographic and conservation projects in the broader global context. The two day workshops held in early July are the brainchild of Kalyan Varma, one of India’s leading photographers/ cinematographers working in conservation. This year I have been privileged to be invited to share some of my experiences using photography as a tool for conservation. Accompanied by our daughter Amy I will be sharing images and insights from my experiences documenting landscapes and ecology in the Western Ghats/ Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. The talk will consider the black & white aesthetic in the South Asian context as well as the changes with process as the traditional darkroom has evolved with the advent of digital tools. I also wanted to share some of my personal personal experiments with using geospatial and multispectral opportunities to better understand changing landscapes in the hotspot. I’m looking forward to the  opportunity to meet old friends, make new acquaintances and participate in the exchange of ideas for the benefit of biodiversity conservation.

Portions of the southern Western Ghats emphasizing Landsat thermal bands above 380 meters.

New work with GIS: Map showing selected portions of the southern Western Ghats emphasizing Landsat thermal bands above 380 meters.

Anai_Mudi_Moonscape_(1993)(72)

Anai Mudi Moonscape, Eravikulam National Park (March 1993). Fujica 6×9 (80 mm) fixed lens. Konica Infrared 120 film.

Kukaal_Fires(2002)(72)

Farmer burning agricultural waste, Kukkal, Palani Hills (May 2002). Mamiya 6 with 80 mm lens, Kodak T-Max 100 120 film.

Leaves_in_Anaimalais(1998)(72)

New growth, Anamalais Tiger Reserve, (June 1998). Mamiya 6 with 80 mm lens,  Kodak T-Max 100 120 film.

Sabaraimalai_Pilgrim_Portrait(2002)(72)

Sabaraimalai Piligrims, Periyar Tiger Reserve (January 2002). Mamiya 6 with 80 mm lens, Kodak T-Max 100 120 film.

Seen_God_Portrai_(2011)(72)

Seen God Portrait, A( July 2012). Hasselblad with 80 mm lens. Kodak T-Max 100 120 film

First light on Twin Peaks, Palani Hills (June 2012). Digital composite image using a Nikon D-300 with 24-70mm lens.

First light on Twin Peaks with the South West Monsoon over Kerala, Palani Hills (June 2012). Digital composite image using a Nikon D-300 with 24-70mm lens.

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2016-06-30 at 1:07 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!”

A Bend in the Ghat: An Anamalais Encounter

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Two of the 40+ hair in bend on the Ghat road up to the tea planting town of Valparai from the Palghat Gap.

Two of the 40+ hairpin bends on the Ghat road up to the tea-planting town of Valparai in the Anamalai Hills

Documenting the landscapes, ecology and cultures of India’s Western Ghats continues to be a life-preserving passion project for me. In recent years I’ve had less time to devote to this as teaching and family commitments have occupied most of my time. However, I try to take several field visits into the Ghats every year in order to explore locations – both well-known and unfamiliar- in new light. These trips nurture and energize my classroom instruction as well as contributing to my growing body of work on the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to revisit the Anamalai (also spelt “Anaimalai”) Hills with my daughter Amy and parents Merrick and Sara Ann. The numerous bends in the ghat -something usually associated with nausea -were the source of much happiness with sighting of charismatic Western Ghats species such as Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) and Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis).

The Anamalais are a critical area for biodiversity in the 1,600 long Western Ghats chain. They host important forest areas including wet evergreen forests and shola/grassland systems in the higher reaches. The northern slopes are relatively dry while the Valparai plateau area has one of Tamil Nadu’s highest recorded rainfall records. The Anamalais have several anthropogenic-dominated landscapes mainly revolving around plantation agriculture. Tea is a particularly important cash crop and expansive tea estates and non-native eucalyptus plantations now cover large areas of the Valparai plateau at the heart of the Anamalai Hills. Several large hydroelectric dams have been built in the hills for electricity generation and irrigation purposes.

As on my 2010 visit with Lenny, a key element on this visit was spending time with members of the Nature Conservation Foundation. They have been working in the Anamalais for the last 15+ years with a focus on a variety of key issues including rainforest restoration, mitigation of human-animal conflict and species-specific studies. Their staff has grown from a handful of enthusiastic individuals and volunteers and the group is now recognized as one of the most effective science-based conservation groups operating in India. While I was putting together this post the news came in that M. Ananda Kumar has been awarded the 2015 Whitley Prize (UK WWF) for his work (though NCF) with reducing human-elephant conflict using an innovative SMS warning system.

Anai Mudi and the Anai Mudi forests as seen from the edge of the Valparai Plateau to the peak's west.

Anai Mudi and the Anai Mudi forests as seen from the southern edge of the Valparai Plateau to the peak’s west. This view is looking south, south-east.

Snapshots from several walks int he Anamalais. From upper left: Nilgiri Langur, CUllenia, Civit droppings, Eleocarpus leaves on forest floor, CUllenia opened, canopy of rainforest, skull of a civet or mongoose, Lion tailed macaque.

Snapshots from several walks int he Anamalais. From upper left: Nilgiri Langur, Cullenia, Civit droppings, Elaeocarpus leaves on forest floor, Cullenia opened, canopy of rainforest, skull of a civet or mongoose, Lion tailed macaque.

Towering rainforest tree with mossy bark @ 1,400 meters in the Anamalai Hills.

Towering rainforest tree with mossy bark in Cullenia-Mesua-Palaquium dominated forest @ 1,400 meters in the Anamalai Hills.

On this visit we spent a morning exploring a mid-elevation evergreen forest fragment near Valparai with a team from NCF. The walk was on behalf of David Westcott and Soumya Prasad who were on a brief visit and we were lucky to tag along. Shankar “Sridar” Raman led us down a disused forest road and was soon picking out hard to identify species from calls and distant movements. A pair of GPHs was calling and gave us a decent view. We logged in views and sightings of a variety of mid-high altitude species including a Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Black & Orange Flycatcher, Black-naped monarch and several others. Mixed species flocks with nuthatches and flycatchers, drongos and Fairy Blubirds were conspicuous. S Vijay Kumar, M. Ananda Kumar and P Jegananthan were along and it was great to have so many sets of eyes scanning all levels of the forest. On our return to Valparai we were caught in a violent storm and took refuge in Jegan’s home. That night David (and Soumya) shared a presentation on the seed dispersal roles of flying foxes in Australia. Ananda and his colleague Ganesh Ragunathan also shared the work with SMSs as highlighted in a new short film.

Snapshots from the NCF information center. The lower right images is from the forest walk about the time that we had the fine view of the Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

Snapshots from the NCF information center. This is a first class interpretation center-something sorely needed in the Palni Hills and other ranges of the Western Ghats. The lower right image is from the forest walk about the time that we had a fine view of the Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

During the next day Merrick and I explored out from Valparai to several views points to look for views of the higher ranges and birds. We had several superb views up to Grasslhills and Eravikulam. Anai Mudi overshadows the whole Valparai Plateau –something I remember from the 2002 tahr census hikes up southern India’s highest peak. During those visits I sat for hours on the peak scanning the lower landscape for wildlife and took in the full majesty of the rolling plateaus and dense forested valleys. With Amy and Sara Ann, we spent an afternoon observing a GPH nest near the NCF nursery. We were rewarded with fine sightings of the hornbill parents flying in to feed their chick the female had apparently come out of the nest shortly before we arrived. It was a much too short a visit and we left with promises to return to learn more about the Anamalais. On the way out one of the, now famous, LTM troops was at the roadside in the Puduttotam forest fragment patch. The pictures below demonstrate  how close you can get, as well as the challenge that human communities pose to these endangered primates.

Lion Tai;ed Macaques at Puduthotam Estate. This is a habituated troop that lives in a small isolated island of tropical evergreeen forest surrounded by tea estates.

Lion Taied Macaques at Puduthotam Estate. This is a habituated troop that lives in a small isolated island of tropical evergreeen forest surrounded by tea estates.

Valparai town overshadowed by the high rolling hills known as Grasshills. A view from the west as suggested by friends at NCF.

Valparai town overshadowed by the high rolling hills known as Grasshills. A view from the west as suggested by friends at NCF.

 

Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight just outside of Valparai in the mixed plantation/forest near the NCF nursery.

Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) in flight just outside of Valparai in the mixed plantation/forest near the NCF nursery.

True color rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

True color rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

 

Infrared (thermal) rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

Infrared (thermal) rendition of a multi-spectral Landsat 8 image of the Anamalai Hills area. Click on image for a large 150 DPI A1 size version.

Map illustrating relief and elevation in the Anamalai Hills based on recently released 2.5 meter Digital Elevation Model (DEM) from ISRO/Bhuvan. Click on image for 150 DPI A1 version.

Map illustrating relief and elevation in the Anamalai Hills based on recently released 1 Arc Sec (30 m) Digital Elevation Model (DEM) from ISRO/Bhuvan. Click on image for 150 DPI A1 version.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Hamilton, Douglas. Records of sport in southern India chiefly on the Annamullay, Nielgherry and Pulney mountains, also including notes on Singapore, Java and Labuan. London: R.H. Porter. 1892. Print & Web.

Kumar, Ananda M. Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman. “Asian elephant Elephas maximus habitat use and ranging in fragmented rainforest and plantations in the Anamalai Hills, India. Tropical Conservation Science. June 210. Web. 4 May 2015.

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

Southern Western Ghats Elevation With 30 meter SRTM

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Draft#1 SRTM derived elevation of India's southern Western Ghats.

Draft#1 SRTM derived elevation of India’s southern Western Ghats. The red lines highlight the 1,500 meter contour- roughly where shola/grasslands mosaic ecosystems start. This is a map in progress and it de-emphasizes political boundaries and settlements. Click on image for a larger 150 dpi A3 version.

Since my first geography lessons I have been interested in cartography and the art & science of depicting the earth’s surface. It was my Grade 4 teacher Kris Riber –also a KIS graduate- who got me interested in maps. We each had to do a study of an Indian state (mine was Meghalaya) and part of the task was to make a large, gridded map of our state. Since then I have enjoyed making sketch maps and have searched for the best printed maps of my areas of interest. In India is not easy and it continues to be a great challenge to acquire maps of some places, given restrictions and general bureaucratic barriers that make getting maps challenging. I persevered and now have most of the 1:50,000 and some 1:25,000 scale Survey of India topo sheets for the significant ranges of the Western Ghats. Some of these came from my grandfather Edson Lockwood and are early 20th Century editions where the cartography is at a highly refined level. In the 1990s I was exposed to Tactical Pilotage Charts of the Western Ghats and North East India (see the University of Texas Library site for free downloads). These are at a scale of 1:500,000 but depict the relief and elevation very accurately (see sample below). The advent of modern Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and web-based tools have allowed me to dabble in mapping the areas that are the subject of my photo-documentation and writing.

Last year USGS released a new 30-meter SRTM dataset for the world that allows mapmakers using GIS to more accurately depict relief and elevation. I was very interested in depicting the relief of the Palanis and other ranges more accurately. Over the last few months I have downloaded the tiles for Sri Lanka and southern India and am starting to use them to more accurately depict elevation in my areas of interest. I used a mosaic of about nine SRTM 30-meter tiles to create this year’s WWW Sri Lanka map. The map above was made to help my friends working on shola/grasslands landscapes in the southern Western Ghats (see post on “Forest Plantations”).  The goal was to depict the spatial relationship of the “sky islands” (above 1,500 meters) of the Western Ghats where this vegetation type was once dominant.

There are several places to download SRTM tiles. I used Earthexplorer to download the Sri Lanka and southern India tiles. ESRI’s ArcGIS online will shortly have 30-meter DEM tiles available to use as background imagery. Because we have dedicated licensed software I tend not to use the online versions. At the moment ESRI offers this data for all the continues except Australia and Asia.

Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) of southern India featuring sheets TPC- K8C and TPC-K8d.

Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) of southern India featuring sheets TPC- K8C and TPC-K8d. Published by the US National Mapping & Imagery Agency with revisions in June 2000. Sourced from the Univeristy of Texas Library.

SELECTED REFERENCES & PAST BLOG POSTS WITH MAPS

Lockwood, Ian. “Hypsometric tinting of the Southern Western Ghats Landscapes.” Ian Lockwood blog. August 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2015-04-30 at 11:54 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