Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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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 landscape, 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 “Sridhar” 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 Anamalais.” Ian Lockwood Blog. August 2010. Web.

Renewal in the High Range & Eravikulam

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Landscape and biodiversity of the High Range: The Nymakad Estate lies below the sholas and grassy slopes of Eravikulam. Nilgir tarh, like this saddleback are the key endemic species that this protected areas hosts.

Landscape and biodiversity of the High Range: The Nymakad Estate lies below the sholas and grassy slopes of Eravikulam. Nilgiri tahr, like this saddleback, are the key endemic species that this protected areas hosts.

The rugged, granite mountains that overshadow the tea-planting town of Munnar are a sublime, little-disturbed example of the high altitude Western Ghats landscape. The High Ranges and Anaimalais, which are contagious with the Palani Hills, host important remnant shola/grasslands ecosystems. The area hosts a mix of different landscapes and ecosystems, including large-scale tea and fuel wood plantations. Eravikulam National Park, established to protect the red listed (endangered) Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) is a critical protected area in the Western Ghats. This summer I had a chance to revisit the area after a prolonged period of exile. The High Range and Eravikulam National Park played a key role in my interest in documenting the Western Ghats and it was a homecoming, of sorts…

Road to Munnar through Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Looking south into the High Range from Manjampatti Valley.

Road to Munnar through Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Looking south into the High Range from Manjampatti Valley.

Looking east to the Palani Hills over Kuykkal and Manjampatti from the Chinnar-MUnnar road. The dry Amarvathi reservoir is in the foreground.

Looking east to the Palani Hills over Kukkal and Manjampatti from the Chinnar-Munnar road. The dry Amarvathi reservoir is in the foreground.

In the early 1990s, and through to the millennium. I regularly visited Munnar and the High Range, seeking out a better understanding of the area’s ecology and landscape. The story of those trips and learning adventures are described in several articles and the High Range Diaries (a series of blog posts that are in production). The area had a signification impact on me, as it has on naturalists, photographers and other dreamers before and after my time. I read about landmark studies and then communicated with naturalists such as ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Clifford Rice who had spent time in Eravikulam in past years. Rom & Zai Whitaker, Belinda Wright and others who have contributed to India’s conservation story shared anecdotes of their visits to Eravikulam with me. I made contact with contemporary scientists, such as PV Karunakaran, studying ecological aspects of the park. The Kerala Forest Department who were taking over all management activities from the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society (HRWPS) in the 1990s, helped facilitate my understanding. I was privileged to take shelter with forest guards on my first visit in 1993 and later participated in an annual tahr census. Wardens of Eravikulam starting with Sivadas, James Zacharias, and Mohan Alembath were key facilitators as I sought to explore Eravikulam and study it from the Western Ghats perspective. The HRWPS under the patronage of Tata Tea then and led by the incomparable KN Changappa, was supportive and always interested in working to support landscape-based approaches to conservation in the High Range-Anaiamalais-Palanis bloc. It was in Eravikulam that I found the extension of the Palani Hills and discovered myself and a path to follow in life. Numerous excursions followed my first visit to the High Range and I was fortunate to have my cousin Anna, parents Merrick & Sara Ann and several other friends as companions on those memorable visits.

This summer I was accompanied by my seven-year old daughter Amy and I was looking to renew contact with friends, the wildlife and landscape. It has been many long years since I had stayed in Munnar and I was wary of going back to a place that I had known well before the onslaught of the “God’s Own Country” Kerala tourism campaign. Perhaps it was the fact that it was the monsoon season and the rain had flushed the tourists off the hills (as we like to think in Kodai), but the area wasn’t as crowded as I had expected. Munnar had grown significantly with the proliferation of high-end hotels and resorts in the vicinity. Prasad, my old friend who distributes Thaliyar tea and is a correspondent of the Malayalam Manorma, filled me in on developments in the hills since my last visit.

Eravikulam is important for a number of reasons:

  • It hosts the most extensive and least disturbed examples of the shola/grasslands mosaic. This high altitude ecosystem that is unique to the southern Western Ghats has been decimated by the introduction of non-native timber plantations, hydroelectric dams, mines and expanding hill stations in other ranges of the Western Ghats. Eravikulam tells a story of a landscape prior to these changes.
  • Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) have one of their most secure homes in Eravikulam and it has been estimated that half of the wild population (still roughly pegged at 2,000-2,500) of this endangered ungulate are found within its borders. That was the situation when ERC Davidar, George Schaller and Cliff Rice conducted their surveys and studies (during the 1960s-80s). As far as I know, that ratio has not changed. There have been significant population recoveries in Mukkurthy National Park in the Nilgiri Hills, but in many remote tahr habitats they are under pressure from poachers and habitat change. WWF India is now conducing the most comprehensive studies of Nilgiri tahr populations in the Western Ghats.
  • Conservation management has been a unique story of success involving government agencies (the Kerala Forest Department’s wildlife wing) and NGOs (HRWPS). There are few examples in India or South Asia where such an effective partnership has been put in place for the benefit of biodiversity conservation (see my articles below for a more detailed exploration of the history and circumstances that helped contribute to this).
Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) saddleback approaching the tourist zone of Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) saddleback approaching the tourist zone of Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) at Eravikulam National Park.

Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) at Eravikulam National Park. From left to right: Adult female, adult male (saddleback, kid (@ 5 months)

 

Generations of collaboration between the High Range WIldlofe Preservation Society and the Kerala Forest Department. N Chengappa a& Sivadas  (1994). Mohan, Prasad and Jo Jo ((2014)

Generations of collaboration between the High Range Wildlife Preservation Society and the Kerala Forest Department. N Changappa & Sivadas (1994). Mohan, Prasad and Jo Jo (2014). Photographs by the author.

On our trip Amy, John (our friend, guide and driver on many Western Ghats adventuress) did a long loop that took us from the Kodaikanal down to Palani, west to Udumalpet and then south to Munnar through the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve, Chinnar WLS and Marayoor valley. We returned the southern way through Devikulam, Bodimetu, Bodi, Theni and Periyakulam. The contrast between the parched dry hills near the plains and the wet highlands was striking. In Munnar I had a chance to take Amy up to the Rajamalai tourist zone on both mornings and we were thrilled to have several intimate encounters with tahr. When you’ve hiked through the whole Palani Hills ranges just to glimpse a shadow or dropping of these sure-footed ungulates, the sight of them feeding next to you in Rajamalai is a bit disconcerting! I was impressed with the effective controls in place from the Forest Department to manage visitor numbers. There weren’t any signs of waste dropped by carless tourists. To access the tourist zone we had to ride a bus that helps the authorities control numbers. Visitors are kept on the road and not allowed to stray up the slopes. This is a welcome change from the free-for-all of the late 1990s when Munnar had been “discovered” as a tourist destination and the forest department and HRWPS were struggling to enact management controls. A highlight during our short visit was interacting and spending time with the warden Prasad and his deputy Sanjayan. We enjoyed an early morning together at Rajamalai looking for saddlebacks who had descended from the misty cliffs to seek out females in heat. There was a light drizzle and we had several close encounters with White Bellied Shortwings (Brachypteryx major) in addition to a dozen or so tahr. Soon after, the tourists started arriving and Amy and I said our thank yous and headed south though valleys of tea towards Bodi. We promised to spend longer on the next visit.

Panoramic view of Munnar during a break in the South West Monsoon. Note the church, mosque and temple in the image. The once sleepy tea-planting town is named for the three rivers that converge here.

Panoramic view of Munnar during a break in the South West Monsoon. Note the church, mosque and temple in the image. The once sleepy tea-planting town is named for the three rivers that converge here.

Landsat map of Eravikulam showing significant locations and a very rough park boundary.

Landsat map of Eravikulam showing significant locations and a very rough park boundary.

 

Snapshots form a visit to Munnar: The Tea Museum and Amy with Mudhuvan guards at Rajamalai.

Snapshots form a visit to Munnar: The Tea Museum and Amy with Mudhuvan guards at Rajamalai.

Small rainbow over the Thaliya/Vagavurai valley.

Small rainbow over the Thaliyar/Vagavurai valley.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Alembath, Mohan. Nilgiri tahr Info. Website.

Eravikulam National Park. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Twilight of an Ecosystem.” The India Magazine. July 1994. Print (PDF)

Lockwood, Ian. “South India’s Elusive Nilgiri Tahr. Environ. (PDF)

Lockwood, Ian. High Range Photography. “Eravikulam and the Anaimalais.” Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Of Tea & Tahr.” Sanctuary Asia. June 2000. Print. (Sanctuary) Of_Tea_and_Tahr(2000 06)

Karunakaran, P.V. Ecology and conservation of the grasslands of Eravikulam National Park, Western Ghats. Dehra Dun, Wildlife Institute of India, 1998. Print.

Nair, Satish Chandra. The Southern Western Ghats: A Biodiversity Conservation Plan. New Delhi, INTACH, 1991. Print.

Schaller, George B. Stones of Silence: Travels in the Himalaya. University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print (see “Cloud Goats” on page 150 for a detailed account of Nilgiri tahr).

Rice, Clifford G. (1988). Reproductive biology of Nilgiri Tahr. Journal of Zoology, London, 214: 269-284. Web.

Shaheed, G. “Goats Own Country.” Frontline. 11-2 February 2006. Web.

Vergis, Sharon et al. “Survey of Isolated Populations of Nilgiri tahr in Kerala India.” Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 108. Jan-June 2011. Web.

Postcards from the Palanis 2012

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Agamalai_View (PL_Hor)#2a(LR)(1_13)

Looking west to the Agamalai Hills (to the left) and the Berijam Ridge escarpment of the Palani Hills. Taken from the Pillar Rocks viewpoint on a crisp winter morning. In the far distance to the south-west (left) are the Highwavys while to the far west is a portion of the Cardamom Hills near Bodimetu.

In 2012 I had a chance to visit the Palani Hills  on several occasions and was fortunate to have an opportunity to get out into several of the remoter areas. My mapping work on the ranges and larger southern Western Ghats system continues from afar. In this post I highlight some of the familiar views shot in panoramic during our family’s winter visit.

Winter view looking west from Coaker's Walk.

Winter view looking west from Coaker’s Walk. The Highwavy Hills are in the far distance, just above the haze line (estimated at about 1,400 meters). Earlier images of the same view show native grasslands in the foreground while here they have almost completely been obliterated by invasive wattle and lantana!

Lake view in the winter

Kodaikanal kake view at dawn in the winter

Perumal and the view east from Coaker's Walk int he winter.

Perumal and the view east from Coaker’s Walk in the winter.

View west to Perumal and Priest's Walk from Eagle Cliffs.

View east to Perumal and Priest’s Walk (far left) from Eagle Cliffs. This rugged escarpment was once the favorite haunt of Nilgiri tahr, something recorded in earlier accounts of Kodaikanal.

High Range and Anaimalais profile, looking westwards from Kukkal.

Anai Mudi (far left) the High Range/Eravikulam plateau and Anaimalai Hills  looking westwards from Kukkal. The Nilgiris were also visible to the north-west (out of the frame).

Anai Mudi and Eravikulam from Kukkal in the winter.

Anai Mudi and Eravikulam from Kukkal in the winter.

Kukkal ridge with the Nilgiri Hills visible on the north-west horizon. The Anaimalai Hills above Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary are to the west (left).

Kukkal ridge with the Nilgiri Hills visible on the north-west horizon. The Anaimalai Hills above Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary are to the west (left).

 

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2013-02-16 at 2:55 pm

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