Ian Lockwood


Archive for November 2023

Putting Sky Islands on the Map

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Monsoon breaking over the Palani Hills. Part of a series of four images exposed on Konica Infrared film with a Mamiya 6 in July 1998. Original image printed on 14” x 56” Hahnemühle Photo Rag for the November 2023 Sky Islands exhibition in Mumbai.

The Sky Islands exhibition scheduled for November 23rd -December 3rd is a celebration of landscapes in monochrome as well as a call to protect these sensitive mountain landscapes of southern India. The exhibition has been produced in collaboration with the Center for Environment & Humanity at Kodaikanal International School. In my last post, I reported on the preparations earlier in the year. We are now in high gear and less than a month away from the inauguration of the exhibition on November 23rd, 2023. In this post, I want to share some of the developments with map making that I am pursuing to illustrate themes of the Sky Islands in the Western Ghats/Sri Lank biodiversity hotspot.

The Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot map created by the author for the 40th Anniversary issues of Sanctuary Asia (September 21). The map emphasizes relief -something that for a long time was conspicuously absent on many older maps of southern India. The Western Ghats boundary is also highlighted and I have tilted the axis to align Sri Lanka with the Sahyadris.


In the months after the pandemic receded from our lives, I was starting the unit on biodiversity & conservation in my IB Environmental Systems and Societies class and was dumbstruck to find that my students could not locate the Western Ghats. Furthermore, they had a limited idea about how the Western Ghats were connected to Sri Lanka and the reasons that the area is a shared hotspot! I have good students; diverse in all aspects and generally curious and energetic. The idea that they are learning and growing to be agents of change is even embraced by many of them. They had studied biodiversity hotspots and looked at  Madagascar as a case study but somehow, they had neglected to learn about the hotspot that they lived in! I suppose it had something to do with the fact that we had covered so many of the units remotely over Zoom calls and online lectures. Regardless, I was left feeling that I needed to act.

This recognition of the gaps in their learning forced some soul-searching and I brushed up my lectures and activities for the class. Around the same time, Sanctuary Asia was looking to mark their 40th Anniversary issue and contacted me about a submission. I wrote back to Lakshmy Raman, Bittu Sahgal and the team and suggested a fresh overview of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka hotspot. Readers who know me well, understand that this heterogenous, biologically-rich and utterly fascinating region has been the focus of much my my personal exploration, writing and photographic documentation for the past several decades. In fact, Sanctuary readers are probably a bit tired of me sharing photographs and writing about this theme. However, I wrote the article (“Mountain Transitions…”) with my students and a new generation in mind, assuming that many readers were equally unaware of the intriguing connections between the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. The article focused on themes of shared ecology, fragile landscapes, change and biogeography.

Sanctuary Asia’s 40th Anniversary issue from October 2021. The cover art is by the gifted Svabhu Kohli. My illustrated essay “Mountain Transitions” features in this special issue.


For decades I have worked hard to create maps to illustrate the themes of my photo essays and writing. The Survey of India’s 1:50,000 topo sheets were an important part of my kit from my earliest forays into the remote Palani Hills. To make my own maps, I traced smaller-scale maps (1: 250,000) and worked on sketch maps from memory. When I needed a map for the Western Ghats Portrait and Panorama exhibition brochure in 2001, I traced a map from J. P. Pascal’s Wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India. This was then inked in with my father’s drafting pens. The map was scanned and included in the handsome brochure designed and printed by Reza Rahman at  Drik

In 2007 I was exposed to GIS tools and thus began a journey to learn the software to better accomplish my mapping tasks. This blog has recorded notable steps on that journey (see GIS Related posts) to become an amateur cartographer using modern tools. For map making I continue to use ESRI’s ArcMap or QGIS software. Of course, as all users know, ArcMap is being phased out in favor of ArcPro. John Nelson and other mapping superstars provide excellent guidance and I am in transition. For my recent publications and for the upcoming Sky Islands show I fell back on methods that I have developed using ArcMap.

The theme of the Sky Islands: An Endangered Indian Landscape exhibition is to look at an old landscape in new light. In my selection of images, I hope to evoke a sense of the unique Sky Islands landscape using black & white imagery. The 34 images printed on fine art Hahnemühle paper are selected to communicate strong conservation themes and appreciation for the fragility of the Sky Islands landscapes. The maps support the educational goals of the exhibition and will help viewers to understand the spatial aspects of the Sky Islands in the larger Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot.

Sky Islands exhibition map (Version 1) emphasizing the key boundaries of the Western Ghats/ Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot as well as areas above 1,400 meters. The poster is designed to be printed at A0 size. The bathymetry (25m, 100m, & 500m) illustrates the edges of the Indian plate.

Sky Islands exhibition map (Version 3) emphasizing the broad land cover patterns of the Southern Western Ghats. The multi-spectral imagery was gathered by Sentinel 2 satellites over a period of three different years (2018-21). The data was selected by the author to obtain cloud-free views of the landscape. The poster is designed to be printed at A0 size. The bathymetry (25m, 100m, & 500m) illustrates the edges of the Indian plate.

This map started out as a draft for a new book on Ecological Restoration (published in July 2023) but there wasn’t enough room after contributing three other maps. I have now focused on Sky Islands rather than the key restoration sites. The color-shaded relief has been clipped out around the Western Ghats boundary at 400m in Sri Lanka to show mountainous areas while Sky Island areas are shown (above 1,400 m) in red.



Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Biodiversity Hotspots. Web. (see link for Western Ghats projects)

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot (Western Ghats Region). May 2007. Web.

Ecological Restoration: Moving Forward Using Lessons Learned. 2023. Print & Web.

Gunatilleke, et al. “Ecological Approaches to Forest Restoration: Lessons Learned from Tropical Wet Asia.”

Gunawardene, Nihara Reika et al.  “A brief overview of the Western Ghats – Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot.” Current Science. December 2007. Web.

Kadidal, Akhil and Ian Lockwood. Gems of the Western Ghats: A Vision for Creating Wealth Through Biodiversity. Bangalore: Biogen, 2014. Print.

Kadur, Sandesh and Kamal Bawa. Sahyadris: India’s Western Ghats-A Vanishing Heritage. Bangalore: ATREE, 2005. Print.

Mittermeier, R. A. et al., Hotspots Revisited: Earth’s Biologically Richest and most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions, Cemex Mexico, 2005. Print.

Myers, Norman. “Threatened biotas: ‘hotspots’ in tropical forests.” Environmentalist, 1988, 8, 187–208.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.”  Nature, 2000. Web.

Pascal, J. Wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India. Pondicherry: French Institute of Pondicherry, 1995. Print.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan and Hiranya Sudhasinghe . The ecology and biogeography of Sri Lanka: a context for freshwater fishes. WHT Publications, 2021. Print & Web.

Robinson, Francis, Ed. Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. UK: Cambridge University Press ,1987. Print.

UNESCO. Western Ghats (as a World Heritage Site). 2012. Web.

Vijayan, Robin et al. “Reassessment of the distribution and threat status of the Western Ghats endemic bird, Nilgiri Pipit Anthus nilghiriensis.”  Current Science. August 2014. Web.

Ward, Geoffrey. “Western Ghats.” National Geographic Magazine. November 2002. Print.

Western Ghats Biodiversity Portal. Web.

Weller, Richard J.,  Claire Hoch & Chieh Huang. Atlas of the End of the World: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot Map. 2017. Web.



Written by ianlockwood

2023-11-02 at 7:24 pm