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.

Restoration & Revival in the Anamalais

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We had a very satisfying encounter with a troop of Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) that was in the process of raiding the Puthuthottam Estate hospital. I was able to follow them into a patch of mixed plantation and natural vegetation forest to take the pictures in this post.

(PART II  IN A SERIES OF THREE)

The South West was in full force when Lenny and I drove to the Anamalais from Kodai via Palani and Udumalpet. We had hired the good services of AP John and his small Indica for the three-day rip. The Anamalais Tiger Reserve (ATR) is a large and expansive protected area though it is interrupted by large patches of human settlements and modified landscapes. Most people looking for wildlife will head to Topslip, which is south-west of Pollachi. The Valparai area has traditionally attracted fewer people and for good reason. The accommodation options are limited and the area is dominated by large monoculture estates of tea. Access into the forests and high Grasshills area of ATR is strictly restricted and is not a viable option without significant bureaucratic gymnastics in Chennai and Pollachi.

Clearing showers over the Aliyar reservoir looking east into the Anaimalai Hillss.

The ride up to Valparai is worth the trip in itself. The ghat road up from Udumalpet via the Aliyar reservoir  has an incredible 40 hairpin bends (the Battlagundu-Kodaikanal ghat only has one for comparison’s sake)! The road winds its way up a steep ascent with dry deciduous and thorn forest that quickly changes into moist-deciduous and then evergreen rainforest in the space of 10-20 kilometers.

View looking north from hairpin Bend #9/40 on the Pollachi-Valparai road. At times this is a good location to see Nilgiri tahr.

One of the most promising conservation projects in the Western Ghats is based out of Valparai where the Nature Conservation Foundation is working with several tea estates to restore degraded rainforest patches. The issue is close to my heart and something that I continue to learn and teach about. I’ve worked with the Vattakanal Conservation Trust to highlight their restoration work in shola/grasslands habitats changed by the widespread introduction of non-native tree species in the Palani and Nilgiri Hills. My 2005 article in Sanctuary entitled (by the editors) “the next big thing” described their work and the challenges of restoration in such sensitive habitats. In the article I mentioned the NCF work in the Anaimalais and have wanted to see it in person since.

Lenny outside and inside of the Anaimalai Nature Information Centre (ANIC).

NCF, of course, does a good deal more than ecological restoration and they have research projects in the Western Ghats, North-East and Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands. Before going over to the Anamalais I contacted Shankar ‘Sridhar’ Raman and Divya Mudappa to set up a time to visit the NCF interpretation center.  They were away but were able too hook me up with other NCF team members in Valparai. I first remember meeting Sridhar in Sengeltheri, (KMTR) in 1997 when he was conducting his dissertation study of birds in tropical rainforests of the Southern Western Ghats. I was on a short visit and was enjoying fine pre-monsoon weather to document different scenes including the view that led to the “Kalakad tree” image. Karthikeyan Vasudevan, of the Wildlife Institute of India, was also staying in the same hut conducting his research on amphibians. I remember being thoroughly impressed with their set up, passion for their work and individual studies.

Along the road to Valparai NCF runs what must be the most effective and informative interpretation centers in the entire Western Ghats.  The Anamalai Nature Information Centre (ANIC) was our first stop on the Valparai plateau and Lenny and I were warmly welcomed. The location is a small bungalow immediately next to the main Valparai road in the Iyerpadi area. There are rooms dedicated to different habitats, species and challenges in the Western Ghats. A large number of attractively designed posters with beautiful digital pictures, write-ups and paintings by Maya Ramaswamy helps the viewer get a real sense for the range. They also have several publications for kids and adults and we left with lots of materials for the kids and school. I was happy to pick up an extra copy of Whitaker and Captain’s Snakes of India to replace the one that I had given to my Dhonavur friends. Our first point of contact at NCF was P. Jeganathan later Ananda Kumar talked to me about the plant nurseries. Jegan set us up to find the LTMs at the Puthuthottam estate utilizing the sharp skills of their watcher Joseph. Later that day he took us on a tour of the NCF nursery and interesting points near Valparai.

Satish, one of NCF’s Valparai team members, shows off a three-year old Cullenia excelsa sapling that he is getting ready to transfer from the nursery to a degraded forest patch in the a nearby estate.

The NCF nursery was wet and misty on both days that I visited. Tata Tea has given them a section of one of their own tea nurseries to nurture rainforest trees that are collected from seeds on roadsides in forest fragments. These are documented, germinated and grown for the next 2-3 years. Once fragments are identified in tea-estate forests, sapling are taken from the nursery and planted during the monsoon season. The forest structure and conditions are carefully considered when choosing species to plant. Grazing has to be curtailed and invasive species removed when possible.  Local communities, play a key role in education outreach and efforts to reduce collection of rainforest trees for firewood. A good deal of science and research goes into it and my observations were fleeting. Nevertheless, I came away impressed and hopeful in these small efforts to redress ecological ruin.

Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) in mixed (plantation+ natural) forest near the Puthuthottam Estate hospital.

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