Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

Palani Hills Sky Islands

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A collage of Sky Island species and landscapes from the upper Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Every so often new terminology is coined to propel and lift our understanding of concepts that we had previously observed but not fully understood. In the broad field of environmentalism the notion of “sustainability” is an example first articulated in the 1972 book Blueprint for Survival (Kidd). The concept changed how the public viewed large processes like economic development and the human relationship with the biosphere. “Biological diversity” coined by Thomas Lovejoy in 1980 and the notion of the “biodiversity hotspot” proposed by Norman Myers in 1988 radically changed the way conservation efforts approached notions of “wildlife” and “wilderness” (WWF, Myers). The idea of  the “sky island” is one such term that is helping us to rethink the uniqueness of the tropical montane ecosystems. In India’s southern Western Ghats, Sky Islands are now recognized as places unique on a global scale while at the same time being under enormous anthropogenic pressure.

SKY ISLANDS GLOBAL & LOCAL

The term “sky Island” was first used in 1940s in the south western United States to describe the Madrean range of mountains (Dodge). Sky Islands are defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments” (US Forest Service). The term is widely used for ranges in Central America, Eastern Africa and South East Asia, to name a few examples. People familiar with India’s hill stations will quickly understand the utility of the idea of sky islands. For places like the Palanis Hills with summits and plateaus, lofty and cool, so far removed from the sweltering plains below the term “sky islands” is most fitting.

I was first introduced to the idea of sky islands by the evolutionary biologist V.V. Robin. In 2006 we bumped into each other in Cairn Hill Shola in the Nilgiri hills looking for endemic shola birds. More than any other individual, Robin has worked to identify the upper reaches of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot as sky islands. His research has focused on the evolution of bird species specific to the sky islands of the southern Western Ghats. Now as an assistant professor at IISER Tirupati, Robin has nurtured an expanding group of young researchers to examine and broaden our understanding of the ecology of Sky Islands (see his website Shola Sky Islands). Kodaikanal International School has developed an important link with the IISER teams and has supported their work by providing accommodation and a study site on the edge of Bombay Shola.

Prasenjeet Yadav in his work with Robin on a National Geographic explorer’s grant incorporated themes of sky islands into his August 2017 National Geographic article and photo essay. Prasen is a talented, hardworking, rock star photographer who deeply understands the science of his subjects. We’ve had the joy of taking several hikes and small expeditions together where I was able to show him some of my favorite places in the Palanis. In the article the author Shaena Montanari highlights the role of sky islands in distribution and evolution of species in the southern Western Ghats. This is almost entirely based on the field work of Robin, his students and colleagues at IISER.

The idea of the sky islands seems to say so much about the uniqueness of Kodai and the Palani Hills- a story that for a long time has been difficult to tell. Those of us who have lived and walked in the upper reaches of the Palani Hills know that there is a very special nature to the landscape and life of the hills. It is a realization tinged with grief and foreboding as the very landscape has dramatically changed in our short lifetimes. Areas that were once a mosaic of grasslands and shola pockets have been replaced by a carpet of dense wood from other continents. Urban (built up) and agricultural areas have also expanded significantly in recent decades. The realization that satellite imagery could help us better tell the story of ecological change in the Palani Hills was first articulated in my 2014 blog post. The images showed that changes were not that old; in fact they happened in our lifetimes as our subsequent  study of land cover changes using satellite image published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One (2018) demonstrated.

The story of the ecological change in the Palani Hills is complicated and rather messy. During the last few decades citizens, scientists and the forest department have engaged in observations, field studies and vigorous discussions on these changes. In the 1980s and 90s the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) helped citizens develop an appreciation for the hydrology of the hills and the importance of sholas. The observation of the revival of shola species under non-native plantations by Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar surprised many in academic and conservation circles. There are ongoing debates about the origins of large montane grasslands (are they human or natural  in origin?). There are voices that supported this idea while other scientists consider the shola/grassland mosaic to be the climax stage of a complicated process in the upper hills. The role of fire has been debated. It clearly has a damaging impact on the lower slopes but is it possible that fire had a role in maintaining montane grasslands?  Some areas of Kerala still use fires as an effective management strategy to support healthy montane grasslands.  The recovery of large herbivore populations-namely gaur (Bos gaurus)- in semi-urban areas near Kodaikanal has become a challenge that citizens and wildlife managers are perplexed by. To what extent the issue climate change plays a role in the ecological changes in the Palanis has not yet been investigated. In summary, there are plenty of vexing issues to keep ecologists and other interested parties engaged in the Palani Hills sky islands for many years to come.

A mosaic of ridge lines (from multiple images and places) advertises Kodaikanal as an “island in the sky” at the Madurai airport.

A SKY ISLAND CENTER: KIS’s CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENT & HUMANITY

In the last three years the idea of a learning center to explore the ecology of the Palani Hills has taken shape in KIS’s Center for Environment & Humanity. The idea of a learning center grew out of the school’s efforts to promote environmental and experiential education at a time of great in Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills. The growing human footprint in Kodai, the challenge of solid waste management and regular water scarcity issues have given energy to the need to direct teaching and learning to solving real world problems. The goal has been to harness learning themes of ecology, place-based learning, sustainability and environmental awareness as a key part of the “Kodai experience.” The center also recognizes the importance of learning about and from the human communities that inhabit the Palani Hills. Thus, human ecology is an important theme alongside biodiversity and conservation.

The origins of the center dates back to the tenure of principal Dr. Paul Wiebe (1987-2001). Initially land was acquired near the remote village of Poondy to set up a program of environmental education. This has provided a wonderful retreat center for KIS student, staff and alumni but there was still a need to have a learning center closer to the school’s campus in Kodai itself. During these decades and in the wake of the 1992 Rio Earth summit there was a growing realization about the importance of environmental education. More specifically, environmental and experiential education, with a focus on addressing local challenges and solutions within a global framework, could potentially be the factor that distinguishes KIS from the other IB world schools that have sprouted across India. The school’s values-based approach and vision to be the “school that the world needs” provides a framework to put ecological teaching and learning at the heart of what KIS in the coming century.

Two year ago the energy of alum Clarence Maloney coupled with the vision of principal Corey Stixrud and support of Kodai Friends International (KFI) helped kickstart what would be called the KIS Center for Environment & Humanity (CEH). During that time I was in and out of Kodai for visits and had a chance to see the site located at the former Swedish mission dormitory. In June 2018 Robin, his colleagues and I met with the school to promote the idea of university collaborations and the idea of the “Sky Island” for the nascent center. KIS’s Commander Ashwin Fernandes (Retd), the maintenance team and the housing office were in the process of refurbishing the site. By the time the KIS board met in September 2019 the Center for Humanity and Environment was ready for formal inauguration. The center is now staffed by Drs. Lekshmi Raveendran and R. Rajamanikam- a husband and wife team that bring energy, grassroot connections and dedication to their jobs. My personal hope is that the center will grow into a world class institution that supports learning and conservation initiatives in the Palani Hills. There are still opportunities to focus the efforts of CEH on the idea, novelty and challenges of sky islands.

The Kodai lake basin with Perumal Malai in the distance serves as a dramatic reminder of the Palani Hills as a sky island. This image (and the landscape in the collage at the top) was taken at the end of 2013 on a morning when temperatures had dropped close to freezing. At 10° degrees north of the equator it is hard to associate frigid conditions with southern India. But the Palani Hills sky islands are high above the warm plains and frequently have frost from December-February. I had left my gloves at home on the short motorcycle ride up to Swedish Hill to see the view with Val Sloan, our friend and the wife of my classmate John Miller. It was so cold on the next stretch from Lake view to Pillar Rocks that I nearly fainted when we stopped (no exaggeration here, as people who know me well will verify). A warm cup of tea and vigorous rubbing finally revived me and I got some decent images of an extraordinary morning!

***

This post has been written in advance of a Zoom talk that I am preparing for KIS alumni and other friends entitled Palani Hills Sky Islands: A Personal Journey Rethinking Landscape, Ecology and Change in the Hills we Love.

 

SELECTED PAST BLOG POST ON THE SKY ISLAND THEMES (chronological order)

Lockwood, Ian. “Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2015. Web.

          ”          “Metamorphosis of a Landscape.” Nature In Focus. 2017. Web.

          ”          “A Song of the Sholicola.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2018. Web.

          ”          “Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2018. Web.

          ”          “Aerial & Terrestrial Snapshots of the Southern Western Ghats.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2020. February 2019. Web.

          ”          “Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2020. Web.

 

REFERENCES

Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Dodge, Natt. “Monument in the Mountain”. Arizona Highways. Phoenix, Arizona: Arizona Highway Department. March 1943. (Wikipedia Link)(Sky Islands Alliance link)

Kidd , Charles V. “The evolution of sustainability.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. March 1992. Web.

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution In Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Myers, Norman. “Threatened biotas: “hot spots” in tropical forests.” The Environmentalist. 1988. Web.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities.” Nature. February 200. Web.

WWF. Leadership: Thomas Lovejoy. ND. Web

Written by ianlockwood

2020-12-03 at 8:11 pm

One Response

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  1. Brilliant, thank you Ian. Hope all of you are keeping safe and well.

    Sindhu Clark

    2020-12-04 at 12:10 pm


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