Ian Lockwood


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Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific

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The opening ceremony of the ATBC meeting featured several cultural shows including this impressive fire dance.

Last September Sri Lanka hosted the Association for Tropical Biology & Conservation (ATBC) Asia Pacific chapter meeting at the MAS Athena center outside of Colombo. This was an important gathering, drawing scientists, conservationists and NGOS from across the country, South Asian region and globe to review different studies and approaches. The theme was “Bridging the elements of biodiversity conservation: Save, Study, Use.”

Earlier in 2019 I had met and interacted with Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, the distinguished Peradeniya University professors. They have been deeply involved with forest scientific studies and restoration efforts in Sinharaja and the rest of the island. We had enjoyed several conversations about similarities and differences in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity Hotspot. Nimal encouraged me to submit the findings of the grasslands group published in PLOS ONE. The idea of using satellite imagery to show the drama of land cover change in the WG/SL hotspot is a powerful tool for conservationists that is only just being realized (see the May 2018 blog post for details). After consulting with Robin Vijayan, Arasu and some of the other co-authors, I submitted a proposal and was invited to share the conclusions at ATBC in a poster display.

Poster designed by the author for the ATBC conference.

I was able to get PD time away from normal teaching duties that allowed me to attend the opening and first day of ATBC events. There were some fascinating presentations and interactive workshops. Maithripala Sirisena, the president of Sri Lanka at the time (and also the minister for Environment), was the chief guest. The main thrust of his talk was the remarkable legacy that Sri Lanka’s farmers have with producing abundant food surpluses without endangering the country’s wildlife (both historically and to some extent today). The keynote talk by Sejal Worah from WWF-India on adapting to rapid change to better protect biodiversity. Madhu Verma, from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, spoke of environmental economic and how putting environmental value on ecosystem services is a key step to more effective conservation. There were a whole series of shorter talks and workshops over the next three days. I went to interesting talks by Nimal (on restoration in fern lands) and later on presentations by representatives from ATREE the French Institute of Pondicherry. I enjoyed several excellent session on Wednesday morning. Anjali Watson& Andrew Kittle’s (Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust) “cat talk” about their work with leopards in the Central Highlands was a highlight.

Cover from ATBC journal and copy of page 243.



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.

Association for Tropical Biodiversity & Conservation (ATBC) Asia Pacific . Proceedings Book. Web.

Land cover changes. (* posts are in chronological order)

  1. “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2014. Web.
  2. “Mapping Montane Grasslands in the Palani Hills. Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2016. Web.
  3. “Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2018. Web.

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2020-03-26 at 11:36 am

Hills of Murugan on Display

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Amer and Mohan skillfully putting up some of the last of the 32 frames in the Varija Gallery at DakshinaChitra on the morning of July 6th.

DakshinaChitra’s Vajira Gallery hosted The  Hills of Murugan from July 6th-30th. The solo exhibition highlighted themes of changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills as seen in photographs and satellite imagery. The choice of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, for this show was important.  I expected that most visitors would be familiar the Palani Hills as a site of the popular hill station of Kodaikanal but that few of them would be aware of the degree of ecological change taking place in this sensitive Western Ghats landscape. The exhibition received good press coverage and seem to appreciate the choice of black & white fine art prints and conservation-centric approach.

The idea that significant ecological change is happening in our own lifetimes was an important message to share with the audience. The choices of images highlighted undistributed aspects of the Palani Hills, scenes of tree ferns and water and shola/grasslands systems. These were followed up with images of non-native timber plantations agriculture, hill station expansion and other signs of modern human impact. The final images emphasized scenes of hope: restoration work by the Vattakanal Conservation Trust and the tenacious shola species taking seed under a canopy of eucalyptus.

My principal medium continues to be black & white imagery and in the Hills of Murugan the main gallery featured 32 fine art prints originally exposed on film and digital cameras. Karthik V’s superior printing helped deliver the kind of exhibition print experience that I had envisioned after my training with George Tice at the Maine Photographic Workshops. Focus Gallery did a fine job with the framing and presentation. I supported the educational objectives of the show with a second gallery of color images, annotated maps and illustrated information posters. The maps were created on ArcGIS using a variety of data sources including Sentinel 2 and Landsat data as well as high-resolution elevation models. I included a poster highlighting the work of the montane grasslands group and, in a sense, the exhibition was a visual experience highlighting the themes of this study.

Raina, Lenny and Amy and I were there a few days ahead of time to pick up the frames and get things organized. We enjoyed being part of the DakshinaChitra community and participating in the ebb and flow of their days. DakshinaChitra’s team worked hard to get the space ready and then hang the show. Sharath Nambiar, the deputy director helped organize our accommodation and the repainting of the gallery.  The final picture hanging was completed by Amer their multi-talented gallery supervisor.  The opening on the 6th proceeded on schedule, though we were disappointed not to have Rom Whitaker to help inaugurate the show (he and Janiki were stranded in Chengalpattu when their car broke down the morning of the exhibition). There were, however, several friends working in conservation who joined us for the opening. Robin Vijayan and his team of students and friends from the nascent Bombay Shola field station hosted at KIS were in attendance. That included Arasumani the principal author of our grasslands study. Vasanth Bosco from the Nilgiris, who was with me on a memorable Kukkal adventures features in the show, came out. Karthik V., who did the fine art printing and his colleague Suresh Menon were in the audience. We lit a lamp, said a few welcome notes and then I gave an illustrated talk on the themes of change in the landscape and ecosystems of the Palani Hills.

Information posters: Landscape, Ecology & Change.

We stayed at DakshinaChitra for several days and then headed out to Mizoram to be with family. The frames came down at the end of July. The feedback from visitors was positive. I would have liked some of my friends in the TN Forest Department to make it out and have realized that I need to share the show further and in other venues in order to reach a wider audience. Some of the framed images have now gone to Focus Gallery (who did the framing) and Karthik’s new photo studio in Neelankarai. The annotated maps and information posters are going to Kodai where they will be a part of a new Palani Hills/Sky Islands interpretation center being set up on KIS’s Swedish House property. The work of educating people better about the ecological changes is only just beginning…

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Lockwood, Ian. “Fine Art Photography as a tool for Education & Conservation.” Better Photography. 2 July 2018. Print & Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “The Hills of Murugan.” Sanctuary Asia. August 2018. Print & Web.

Nath, Parshathy J. “It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood.” The Hindu. 9 July 2018. Web(not sure if I have been quoted correctly here…but you get the idea)

Saju, MT. “Shooting the changing scenes on Palani Hills.” The Times of India city. 6 July 2018. Web.  (well timed, but not all factually correct)


Exhibition poster fo the Hills of Murugan.


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2018-09-04 at 9:11 pm

The Hills of Murugan: An Exhibition on the Palani Hills

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Hills of Murugan (Horizontal poster)

In a few days I am getting ready to put on an exhibition of fine art prints and annotated maps at Chennai’s  DakshinaChitra gallery. The show is entitled The Hills of Murugan: Landscape, Ecology & Change in the Palani Hills and will be open to visitors from July 6th-30th.

The exhibition is a compilation of nearly 30 years of documentation and 48 years of experience exploring in the Palani Hills (see list of related publications below). My past exhibitions in India focused on the broader range of the southern Western Ghats and this is a more narrowly focused series of images that emphasize one range. In the Hills of Murugan I highlight themes of changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills as seen in photographs and satellite imagery. Seasoned readers of this blog know that these are ideas that I have explored in published articles,  exhibitions and posts on my blog.  My work attempts to bridge science with art and conservation and I am mindful that it should not be confused with picturesque approaches to beautiful locations in India.

Samples of the 20″x 20″ prints fresh from Karthik’s printer and just signed. These are printed on Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310 GSM, the leading papers for monochrome printing. They will be part of the main gallery of roughly 30 black & white fine art prints in square, rectangular and panoramic format.

The upcoming show marks  an important step forward with my photographic printing. For the last 15 years I have been struggling with how best to print and share my work. For the Drik and IIC  exhibitions in 2000-02 I showed work that I had completed in a traditional wet darkroom. Even though I was using medium format film that produced detailed black & white negatives, the print size was limited by the availability of photographic paper (carried from the US in luggage) and the tray sizes. My largest prints were 16”x 20” and most were 10”x 10”. With the digital revolution and the advent of digital printing my darkroom was mothballed and I tinkered with learning new skills to make black & white prints. Printing has been straight forward in Colombo’s commercial labs but the paper quality was not up to my old darkroom standards where I employed fiber-based archival paper. It has been easier to communicate my photographic work on electronic media-my blog, website and in occasional published articles. However, I’m still a believer in the idea that the photographic fine art print is the ultimate expression of the process.

For the Hills of Murugan show I was able to make contact with V. Karthik, India’s leading fine art printer. As someone with a long record of working in photographic the industry and specializing in archival restoration and printing, Karthik has developed a refined knowledge and work flow with printing fine art photographic prints. He knows the different papers, the printers and has a special appreciation for black & white work. Two weeks ago I met Karthik and we worked together with my files. Based on his guidance I had 32 different images printed that will be on display at the exhibition.

Family friend, Indian snake man and Padma Shri awardee Rom Whitaker will be inaugurating the show on July 6th at 4:30. Rom was a natural choice-he grew up in the Palanis and did some his early snake catching there. His years at Kodai school in the 1950s overlapped with my parents, Merrick and Sara Ann. My uncle, Charles Emerson, was Rom’s roommate when he was keeping snakes under his dormitory bed and I have strong memories of outings with Rom to go fishing and looking for snakes during m school years in the 1980s.  DakshinaChitra is on the same East Coast road as the Croc Bank, the site that was a key part of Rom’s work with reptiles. The team at DakshinaChitra, with guidance from curator Gita and support from Sharat Nambiar and Debbie Thiagarajan has helped facilitate the show after I proposed the idea in January. I had an affiliation with DakshinaChitra through my uncle Dr. Michael Lockwood who has contributed antique brass pieces to the galleries. I have gained a new appreciation for DakshinaChitra’s vital role in preserving and sustaining key aspects of south India’s rich cultural heritage. The Hills of Murugan has an ecological rather than cultural focus. However, through the choice of images one can better understand that the landscape and ecology provide a foundation for the livelihoods of the people living in the Palani Hills.  My wife Raina and children Lenny and Amy are putting up with me during this busy time and providing advice on the images and how best to arrange things.

The main exhibition is composed of 32 black & white fine art prints. These framed prints are designed to be a body of work that stand alone but that illustrate the themes of landscape, ecology and change in the Palani Hills. In DakshinaChitra’s side gallery I have compiled a series of annotated posters, maps and mini posters highlighting key species from the Palani Hills landscape. The goal here is more ambitious: it is designed to be  educational, such that visitors come away with a better sense of the area’s biodiversity, ecology and hydrology. Through annotated maps and posters I make references to recent history and ecological change. The theme of ecological changes resulting from non-native plantation efforts are presented and there are suggestions on the important work that needs to be done to protect the Palani Hills in the future.

The Hills of Murugan opens on July 6th at 4:30 and the show is open until the 30th of July (Tuesdays are holidays). I hope to see you there!


Palani Hills selection of shola/grasslands species. These are printed as A2 posters to accompany information posters in an adjoining room next to the main gallery.

Palani Hills 1973 Overlay (150)

For the exhibition I produced a series of new maps to accompany the information side of the presentation. This is a map depicting the earliest Landsat image of the Palani HIlls area. It is printed as an A1 size poster that will be in a smaller gallery next to the main hall of fine art prints.

Palani Hills Elevation Version 2a 2018 (150)

The elevation map is based on a digital elevation model of 30 meter data that I have processed from NASA raw data. I have also added key points and settlements but have left out roads and other human impacts so as to emphasize the topographical features of the Palani Hills landscape.

REFERENCES (Key articles by the author on the Palani Hills)

Lockwood, Ian. “Metamorphosis of a Landscape. ”Nature in Focus. January 2017. digital story format

           ”           . “Plantation Paradox.” Frontline. November 2015. (PDF)

           ”           . “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas.” Frontline. 20 April 2012. (PDF)

           ”           . “Fragile Heritage.” Frontline. October 2009. (PDF)

           ”           . “The Next Big Thing” Sanctuary Asia, June 2006. (PDF)

           ”           . “The Palni Hills: On the Danger List. ”Frontline. August 2003. (WEB)



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.

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2018-07-01 at 5:32 pm

Updates to High Range Photography

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Old (2007) and New (2017) versions of High Range Photography.

Over the last several months I have been working at overhauling the www.highrangephotography.com website that showcases my fine art photography and published work. The website was originally designed in 2006 and went live on January 1st 2007. Over the last 10 years much has changed: most significantly, while still working in black & white, I have shifted to digital tools and no longer use film and a wet darkroom. The focus of my work remains South Asian ecology, landscape, conservation and culture with a focus on the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Web design has become more sophisticated but easier to do for non-design novices like me. People are using larger, high definition monitors so small images just don’t cut it anymore. It was the right time for a change on the site.

The Colombo-based web design company Vesses, led by Prabhath Sirisena and Lankitha Wimalarathna, had helped me set up the original website back in 2006. We designed the pages to be minimalist and to highlight the photography. Most of the images were black & white low resolution scans of 8×10 prints. Vesses was an excellent team to work with and it was natural to go back to them to help with the updated content on an overhauled website. There efforts were led by Amila Sampath over the last year.

  • For the 2017 changes, Vesses once again helped me out with ideas and setting up templates and the layouts. My goal was to be able to learn how to make a necessary changes myself. WordPress has a great platform to work with but it did take tinkering and some basic coding to get the pages to look like what I had visualized. There are several news changes:
  • The Galleries have been overhauled and updated with new content at a larger, higher resolution. I rescanned many of the images from the original 6×6 and 6×12 negatives.  Several important galleries (Bangladesh, for example) are still in the process of being updated.
  • There is a new Stories tab to highlight in-depth photo-essays and writing on themes from the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. These are built on a WordPress template similar to what was used by NIF to present my panchromatic to multispectral photo story (metamorphosis of a landscape) in 2016.
  • The Blog page has thumbnails of recant blog posts using a RSS link (featuring content from this WordPress Blog page).
  • The About page combines the old Biography and Technique pages
  • A new page about Exhibitions has been added.
  • I redrafted the logo and had it converted into a vector image to use as a watermark on new content. An exploration of the site will give you a good sense of the view that inspired my sketches that I used to draw the logo.
  • I plan to use the site to highlight geospatial work that I have been learning about and experimenting with. I have started adding simple Google maps to the Stories but hope to have either ESRI maps or OpenStreetMaps embedded in the near future.
  • The Sales page has been taken out (at last until I can set up a better printing and marketing system)

To accompany the website changes I have also set up a Facebook page and I have a Twitter account (that I struggle to find time to use).

High Range Photography Facebook page (click on image to access page)

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2017-10-23 at 8:06 pm

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).


  • 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!”

Landforms of India

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Cover from Landforms of India book (published in July 2014). The image on the left is the view of the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills.

Cover from Landforms of India book (published in July 2014). The image on the left is the view of the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills.

Over the last few months I have been collaborating and contributing to several book projects that have given me a sense for the complexities of the design, layout, editing and printing of large coffee table books. It has been a healthy experience and moved me a few steps closer to getting my own projects on the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka off the ground. A handsome atlas that is hot off the press from Pragati Offset printers in Hyderabad is Landforms of India from Topomaps and Images. I was privileged to be able to contribute photographs as well as the text used in the introductory jacket flap of the book.

Landforms of India from Topomaps and Images is authored by Dr. R. Vaidyanadhan and Dr. K.V. Subbarao and is published by the Geological Society of India. It was supported by several key Indian agencies including the National Remote Sensing Centre, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Geological Survey of India. It was by happy coincidence that the authors, both of who are eminent personalities in the world of geology and remote sensing, approached me to use some of my Western Ghats and NE India landscape work in their book. With the focus on education and helping students in schools and universities to better understand their country’s diverse physical geography, I was happy to get involved.

The Atlas is structured around 60 different sets of topographical maps (sourced from the Survey of India) that are aligned with remotely sensed images of the area and often include terrestrial photos of the same scene/or of similar features. They include a broad selection of examples of different features from all over the country (Jog falls in the Western Ghats, the Satpura Range, Himalaya, Khashi Hills, Brahmaputra etc.). There is a clear introduction to broad themes (remote sensing, topographical maps, terrestrial photographs etc.) and nomenclature. At the end of the book a helpful glossary highlights key terms. Several large, two-page spreads highlight some of the key physical features of Indian’s diverse landscape.

Landforms of India from Topomaps and Images was officially launched by the Geological Society of India on 25th July 2014 at the Sate Gallery of Fine Arts Hyderabad (I was unfortunately in transit back to Colombo from Madurai at the time). The atlas was released by Dr. Swarna Subba Rao, Surveyor General, SOI while the chief guest was Dr. Shailesh Nayak, Secretary to the Ministry of Earth Science.

Over the last years my interest in India’s landscapes, and specifically those of the Western Ghats, has used remotely-sensed images (especially NASA/USGS Landsat) to better understand features (including land cover) as well as change. Combining these satellite images with detailed ground truthing and analysis has now become a key aspect of my interest in the Western Ghats (and Sri Lankan) landscapes. Though the Landforms Atlas doesn’t use the Landsat images or my studies it has a wealth of ISRO-collected imagery (usually stressing the thermal or infrared bands) combined with difficult-to-access SOI maps. Much of this remotely sense imagery of India is now freely available through the Bhuvan web portal.

Introductory pages from Landforms of India from Topmaps and Images

Introductory pages from Landforms of India from Topmaps and Images

Screen shot of pages and examples of Landforms of India from Topmaps and Images

Screen shot of pages and examples of Landforms of India from Topmaps and Images

This is not a small book and Landforms of India from Topomaps and Images is printed on a large (27 mm x 40 mm) scale, high quality paper. It is not priced cheaply but ,given what you get, the atlas is a worthy investment for individuals, institutions and libraries. If you have the remotest interest in India’s diverse physical Geography it is a must have resource. In sum “the union of different ways of viewing the earth’s features presented in this volume create a more holistic view of India’s geological and human landscape.”

At the moment the best way to get a copy of the book is to order it using the following form. It should be available in major bookstores in India in the coming months.

Landforms_of_India_from_Topomaps_&_Images (Order Form)


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2014-08-04 at 4:38 pm

A Calendar for the Palanis

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Cover images from the KIS Calendar 2014. The view is one looking south from Coaker’s Walk to the Vaigai Dam and Highwavy mountains. Taken in September 2013 on a short visit to Kodai.

Cover images from the KIS Calendar 2014. The view is one looking south from Coaker’s Walk to the Vaigai Dam and Highwavy mountains. Taken in September 2013 on a short visit to Kodai.

In the year of 2013 the challenges faced by small hill stations and communities in India’s Western Ghats continued to multiply. The double-edged sword of tourism and development has brought both prosperity and ecological upheaval to these fragile areas. They were originally settled for their beauty and salubrious climates, but today they are besieged by issues of noise, solid waste, water shortages, poor governance and other concerns of sustainability. Kodaikanal, located in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu, has unfortunately become a case study in uncontrolled growth and lackluster management. Record numbers of tourists continue to visit this south Indian hill station (160,000 in one particular ten day period according to the Hindu). In the heart of the township that hosts these growing numbers of tourists is Kodaikanal International School. In its 112th year KIS continues to offer a global education based on the International Baccalaureate curriculum for students from South Asia and beyond. There is a strong spiritual foundation for this learning; something that I like to see as an agglomeration of its Christian missionary roots, India’s mosaic of faiths and something special, quite indefinable in the air.

As an alumnus who was shaped by experiences in the hills and school, I continue to stay involved with the school through its alumni association, Council of Directors and contact with friends who have given their professional lives to the school. This year it has been my privilege to help contribute to the school’s annual calendar. After a few initial suggestions from my side, the calendar was designed by the intrepid KISCO team (Sonny Deenadayalan,  Judy Redder, Billy and others). I selected 13 different black & white panoramic images that highlight important ecological themes in the Palani Hills. The images are all digital panoramas and owe their final presentation to DSLRs and software rather than the wet darkrooms where I used to spend so much time. Calendars will be available from the KISCO office (located at the front gate of the school). I will also print a limited series of 40” long enlargements for spring art shows in Kodai and other locations.

January spread

Screen shot of the January spread

December spread

Screen shot of the December spread

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2013-12-15 at 1:43 pm

Western Ghats Revisited

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The Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking west to the Agamalai range and illustrating the varied vegetation and surprisingly rugged geography of these mountains.

The Southern escarpment of the Palani Hills looking west to the Agamalai range and illustrating the varied vegetation and surprisingly rugged geography of these mountains.

Last year there were significant milestones and steps taken to recognize and protect India’s Western Ghats. In July 2012 a handful of sites up and down the 16,000 km length Ghats area were given the UNESCO World Heritage Tag. Previous to this the release of the lengthy and comprehensive Gadgil report (made public first in late 2011) by eminent scientists had stirred a spectrum of responses to the proposals to protect the areas ecology and landscapes. The negative perception from some government agencies and vested interest was such that another report was commissioned (the Kasturirangan panel)! The Western Ghats encompass an enormous and diverse ecological area that I’ve been fortunate to be intimately associated with and the news elicited a more personal reflection on what the area has meant to me.

My earliest memories are of walks and camping trips amongst clean, gurgling streams and cool sholas in the Palani Hills. Several years earlier, before my first memories and birthday, my parents had backpacked me through the rolling downs of the Brahmagiris on the Kerala/Karnataka border. As child and teenager growing up with an eclectic mix of American, Bengali, south Indian and global influences the mountains offered a unique opportunity for self-discovery, an appreciation of the interdependence nature and spiritual appreciation of the infinite. Since 1992, issues concerning ecology, landscape and human interaction in the Western Ghats have been the focus for my explorations, learning, photography and writing. These are passion pursuits that eventually became the focus of my life and teaching as I entered and became comfortable with a career in international education. In recent years my geographic focus has shifted to Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, cousins of the Western Ghats in so many ways, yet I maintain a strong interest in developments across the straits.

My response to the news and then the swirling controversy was to write something about it and this eventually found its ways into the pages of Sanctuary Asia, India’s preeminent wildlife magazine that was founded by Bittu Sahgal in the early 1980s. By the time the article came out this month (see screen shots below) the news was long forgotten but the issues of conservation, loss of biodiversity, water security, community rights and tourism development remain relevant and unresolved.

Screen shots from Sanctuary Asia article (May 2013)

Screen shots from Sanctuary Asia article (May 2013)

Following the UNESCO designation of the Western Ghats a World Heritage Site in July 2012 there were a series of informative pieces published friends and colleagues in the Indian media. On July 3rd the Hindu ran an editorial that highlighted the UNESCO announcement. Subraba Sehsan emphasized the challenges of living up to the new limelight of the UNESCO World Heritage listing in her article in the Hindustan Times on July 8th. Janiki Lenin wrote about the Western Ghats controversy in Outlook Traveller with a rich selection of images from Kalyan Varma. Organizations such as ATREE, the Nature Conservation Foundation, the French Institute in Pondicherry and WWF-India continue the important work of addressing conservation challenges from a scientific point of view. Others in organizations, such as Kalpavirksh, work to promote environmental sustainability and ensure that communities are empowered to participate in conservation decisions.

For a further exploration of my published work on the Western Ghats see the Published Work page on High Range Photography. In July 1994 I published my first significant photo-essay and article on the Western Ghats in the India Magazine (a publication that is now, sadly, defunct). I then spent several years researching, photographing and assembling pieces on the Nilgiri tahr, as an example of an endangered Western Ghats species. In 2001 I exhibited and gave lectures on the Western Ghats at the India International Centre and Bombay Natural History Society. In August 2003 I wrote about the Palani Hills in Frontline and advocated for a protected area to be designated in the range. The focus on the Palanis has been followed up with articles on ecological restoration in Sanctuary Asia (June 2006) and Frontline (April 2012). Both of these highlight the important work of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust in restoring native vegetation in the Palanis. For several years my wife Raina and I lived, worked and explored in the Sahyadris just outside of Pune. An account of this unique range of the (northern) Western Ghats was published in Sanctuary Asia (2005) and Man’s World (2004).

Asian Geographic (2008) and Geo (2009) have also published my photo essays and articles on the Western Ghats, which give a sense of the whole range from a visual and descriptive point of view. ARKive has a dedicated page on the Western Ghats and I was honored that they have profiled several of my color images (by way of the Nature Picture Library). In all of these efforts, my goal has been to paint a picture of the landscapes in black & white to illustrate the stark magnificence of landscapes, varied vegetation types,  human interaction and conservation. I use color imagery to highlight aspects of the biodiversity-one of the two main reasons that the Western Ghats are vital (the other being water). The field of photography has changed in these last 20 years and I continue to work on the same themes using a variation of the early approach but in the digital medium. In the last five years I have become intrigued with spatial aspects of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot and am using GIS to explore, analyze and understand the landscape and its changes.

Post Script

Just two weeks ago news emerged that the government of Tamil Nadu has designated the Palani (or Kodaikanal) Hills as one of four new protected areas in the state. This comes as welcome news, though it is yet to be seen what the exact boundaries are, how this will affect the significant human communities and activates (tourism, plantation agriculture etc.) and if restoration activities will be allowed within the protected area.

Written by ianlockwood

2013-05-14 at 6:25 pm

ARKive updates in the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka

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Collage of ARKive photographs highlighting Western Ghats habitats and species. These were taken mostly in the Palani Hills during  the 1990s on color slide film and later sourced through the Natural History Picture Library (NHPL).

This year marks 20 years since the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit  and the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that was signed by most countries. The continuing loss of biodiversity remains a pressing global concern of our times. At my regional level, Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats have been identified as “biodiversity hotpots” and it is worth reflecting on their unique biodiversity. An easy way to do this is through ARKive, one of the most dynamic sites highlighting biodiversity in the world. It is a fascinating  project in its ninth year with support from Wild Screen and the patronage of Sir David Attenborough. It seeks to create a digital reference and archive of all the world’s known species. Each species is highlighted with images and text on status, description, range, habitat, threats  etc.

I have been using ARKive’s digital archive as a reference in my teaching and writing for several years now. A few months ago I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across a special section focusing on the Western Ghats that features several of my color landscapes in a gallery on the habitat. Most of these were taken on forays into the Palani Hills and neighboring ranges in the 1990s. I also have some images of emblematic  and lesser-known species (Nilgiri tahr, Large Scale Pit Vipers, Giant Grizzled Squirrels, Scaly Lizards, Bronzed Frogs, etc.). A little searching will  uncover some familiar Sri Lankan species (SL Green Pit Viper).The pictures are supplied to ARKive though the Natural History Picture Library where I have been submitting pictures for some time.

ARKive page on Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius). One of 30 or so images on the species. This was taken in 1993 and was aimed at my early articles (published in Environ and Sanctuary Asia) on the conservation and ecology of these endemic Western Ghats mountains goats.

Two pit vipers (Sri Lankan Green and Large Scaled) and a winter view of Pambadam Shola on the border between the Palani Hills and High Range (taken in 1997).

Written by ianlockwood

2012-05-30 at 5:42 pm

Ecological Restoration in the Palani Hills

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Breathing life back into the sholas…spreads from the Frontline (20 April 2012) article.

Last summer while enjoying a holiday in Kodaikanal filled with hiking and outings with friends at the Vattakanal Conservation Trust it occurred to me that it was time to update the status of the ecology in the upper Palani Hills. Some of the observations were published in earlier blog posts but Bob, Tanya and I were also looking to reach a broader audience.  Frontline, with the able support of Vijaykumar has now published a series of my articles on the Palanis (2003), the Kurinji flowering (2006) and Bombay Shola (2010) all geared at raising awareness through text, photographs and maps. It was thus logical to look to them to highlight the current status of the upper hills. We took several fact-finding expeditions during June and July into the hills and the state of remnant montane grasslands was quite alarming. The spread of non-native species into these last outposts was significant.

It took me a while to get the article and pictures together for Frontline but earlier this month it was published as Breathing Life Back into the Sholas(click here for the HTML version). Bob & Tanya, meanwhile worked with various authorities to get permission and raise funds to do some emergency restoration work in the habitats that we had visited. Their field notes had alerted people to the issues that I have highlighted in the article. On our family’s recent visit to Kodai I was thrilled to hear that VCT has the go head and will shortly be organizing a team to spend time doing restoration work in those highly sensitive cliff areas. Above and below are the spreads from the article. In spite of the title, the article is really about recognizing and restoring remnant montane grasslands habitats (sholas, you will read, are actually doing quite well in the Palani Hills).

Breathing life back into the sholas…more spreads from the Frontline (20 April 2012) article.

One of the key recommendations of several conservationists, as well as the article, is that there is an urgent need for an updated and dynamic GIS of the Palani Hills. This may well be in the process with the support of various agencies and NGOs. In the meantime I’m working on a map for VCT highlighting the 1,500m contour (where shola/grasslands start in most areas). This is still a work in progress…

Written by ianlockwood

2012-04-21 at 6:25 pm