We live in a world that appears to be moving at a pace faster than ever before. In that, environmental change - of our own making - has become an unfortunate repercussion of the human experience. In India, most of us can relate to changing cities and sprawling urban cancers that are unrelentingly eating into the peripheral countryside. And globally, the evidence of climate change brought about by human industrial activity is now too strong to ignore. 

There is, however, a less familiar story of change in the Western Ghats, where several years ago, an enthusiasm for fast-growing forests replaced native montane grasslands and ushered in a host of ecological changes. 

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The upper Palani Hills have a landscape dominated by exotic tree plantations, but there are important remnants of the shola/grassland mosaic vegetation still in evidence. Plantations have, in fact, become shola nurseries. 

The Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu have played host to these changes and a series of both alarming and curious outcomes. The Palanis are a south-eastern spur in the longer 1,600km-long Western Ghats. This heterogeneous assemblage of hills, mountains, forest-cloaked valleys, and thirst quenching rivers are recognised as one of the “hottest” global biodiversity hotspots and a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site (CEPF/UNESCO). The Palani Hills are named for the temple town of Palani, which is home to the most important Murugan temple in India. Kodaikanal is the principle large settlement and is an important Indian hill-station drawing tourists, school children and a host of colourful citizens from near and far (the township’s alarming growth and the strain on its carrying capacity is an important topic but is not the subject of this photo essay).

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A panoramic view looking east and south-west from Coaker’s Walk, a popular tourist destination in the hill station of Kodaikanal.
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Twin Peaks (Akka and Thangachi) from Ibex Peak in the remote Palani Hills.

The physical geography of this part of the Western Ghats has given rise to a variety of fascinating ecosystems and habitats. The hills form a lofty plateau averaging about 2,000m in height, with escarpments dropping to the plains on the northern and southern sides. These slopes are covered with a variety of scrub, deciduous and evergreen forests, as well as grasslands. The higher hills, which the scientists now calling sky islands (Robin et al*), are quite different from the surrounding plains and slopes and host isolated populations of organisms. The upper Palani Hills once had large areas of the shola/ grasslands mosaic, a unique type of ecosystem similar to the upper reaches of the Nilgiri and Anaimalai Hills. 

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Lower deciduous and semi-evergreen forest on the southern slopes of the Palani Hills
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Southern escarpment showing the Agamalai range.

Up until the 18th century, there is relatively little evidence of human-induced disturbance in the Palani Hills. There are megalithic dolmen sites on the hills up to approximately 1,000m with scattered indigenous groups still living on the lower slopes. The upper plateau does not show any sign of significant human population (unlike in the Nilgiri Hills) until the arrival of American missionaries and British civil servants in the early 19th century. At the time, the area hosted a shola/ grassland mosaic habitat that was contiguous with the rest of the High Range-Anamalai block. 

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Vaccinieum leschenaultii, usually an "edge" species, in a remote shola in the Palani Hills.

The establishment of Kodaikanal as a hill station in 1845 triggered significant ecological changes in the eastern plateau area, including the creation of an artificial lake and the introduction of non-native plant species. Fast-growing timber species (Eucalyptus sp. etc.) provided fuel and shade and visitors introduced ornamental flowers, shrubs, fruit and vegetable species.

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Large-scaled Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis), a rare shola species endemic to the Western Ghats.
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White-bellied Blue Robin or Shortwing (Sholicola albiventris), an endemic species closely associated with sholas. (left) Male gaur (Bos gaurus) in a mixed plantation on the Ten Mile Round near Kodaikanal. Numbers of gaur have risen dramatically in the Kodaikanal settlement area. (right)

The western part of the upper plateau did not see major changes until the 1960s, when the forest department started to systematically replace montane grasslands with non-native timber plantations. The three prominent species used in plantation were Acacia mearnsii, Eucalyptus globulus and Pinus sp. At the time, grasslands were categorised as “wasteland” and there was little appreciation for the complex shola/ grasslands “mosaic” ecosystem (Bunyan*)), especially their role in the hydrology of the hills (and plains) and as a repository of biodiversity. Aggressive plantation expansion and logging continued into the early 1990s; after which, growing awareness in the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, as well as court cases relating to tannin factories in Coimbatore, brought operations to a halt. By then, there were few montane grasslands areas in the western upper plateau that had not been impacted. 

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Nilgiri Pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis), an endemic species associated with montane grasslands. (left) Relatively undisturbed grasslands below Ibex Peak in the remote Palani Hills. (right)
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Undisturbed montane grasslands and shola along a dramatic cliff on the Coimbatore/Dindigul district boundary.
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Kurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) a species well known for its unusual flowering cycle of 12 years. This species is closely associated with undisturbed montane grasslands. (left) Montane grasslands flower species -Lysimachia leschenaultiana. (right)

The change in the landscape of Palani Hills has played out in somewhat unexpected and complicated ways. Based on personal observation, as well as the analysis of satellite data, I have learnt that almost all of the montane grasslands in the upper Palanis were converted into monoculture plantations of eucalyptus, pinus and acacia species in the past four-five decades. The motivation for the vigorous tree planting was to produce biomass timber and utilise what was tragically viewed as a “wasteland”. 

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Kalaveri, one of many outlying agricultural settlements in the Palani hills. Note the grasslands in the distant ridges (part of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve’s Manjampatti/Kukkal range)
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Kodai lake scene, showing a calmness rarely experienced in an age of mass tourism and over crowding. (left) Agricultural fires in the shadow of the great Kukkal shola. (right)

In recent years, it has been observed that plantation species are seeding themselves and taking over the small remaining patches of montane grasslands (see detailed story in Frontline). This has had a profound impact on the landscape. Conservationists now regard the Palani Hills grasslands as a highly threatened landscape and efforts are underway to map and protect the remnants before they are invaded and taken over by non-native species. 

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Timber cutting site and coop shed near to Berijam Lake. This was a vast montane grassland as little as 50 years ago.
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Eucalyptus plantation near Kodaikanal. (left) Illegal shola wood cutting in Kukkal shola. (right)

Despite conventional wisdom, it has not all been bad news; and the Palanis offer a complicated case study of the role of plantations in landscape and biodiversity. Visually, the area changed dramatically with the open grasslands transforming into swathes of tall Australian forests. Hydrologically, studies in the Palanis and Nilgiris suggest a change in the flow of streams - outflow has decreased in plantation areas (Samra*). The impact on bird and animal species is less clear since limited baseline data exists, and the plantations began at a time when hunting was allowed in India. Grasslands species, such as the Nilgiri Pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis), Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) and the Kurinji plant (Strobilanthes kunthiana) have been negatively affected. Gaur populations and shola birds seem to be doing much better. 

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Hybrid landscape of montane grasslands, eucalyptus plantations and expanding sholas on the slopes of Perumal Peak looking back west to Kodaikanal.

The most unexpected development is that mature non-native plantations are now witnessing a revival of shola species in their understory. This observation, made by Kodaikanal-based conservationists Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar, of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust, has had a profound impact on conservationists and forest department officials. Coupled with the fact that clearing plantations leads to a profusion of weeds and no native grasslands, the path forward to revive montane grasslands has been muddied. 

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Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust (VCT): Pioneers in understanding the complicated dynamics of shola/grasslands ecology and restoration efforts. (left) Women working with shola saplings in Forest Department shola nursery near Kodaikanal. (right)
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Kodai: Then, Now, Later: a sign on the KIS campus highlights the uncertain future of a once beautiful hill range now under pressure from the growing demands of humanity.

What seasoned experts on the hills now accept is that there is a hybrid ecosystem in the hills composed of plantations species, weeds, resurgent shola species and mostly dying out grasslands. Given this situation, there has been a renewed focus on protecting the remaining montane grasslands in the few patches where they still exist. 

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Landsat Map of Southern Western Ghats. Map courtesy Ian Lockwood

A note on the photography:

The photographs in this portfolio are part of an ongoing personal project to document and highlight conservation aspects of landscapes and land cover change in the southern Western Ghats. Earlier images were taken using a variety of medium format film cameras. More recent images were taken with a DSLR and then converted into black and white in the post processing stage.

*REFERENCES

Bunyan, Milind et al. “The Shola (Tropical Montane Forest)-Grassland Ecosystem Mosaic of Peninsular India: A Review.” American Journal of Plant Science. 2012. Web

Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. Ecosystem Profile; Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot, Western Ghats Region. CEPF: Washington, DC, 2007. Web

Das, Arundhati et al. “Topographic and Bioclimatic Determinants of the Occurrence of Forest and Grassland in Tropical Montane Forest-Grassland Mosaics of the Western Ghats, India.” PLoS One 2015. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Breathing Life Back into the Sholas.” Frontline. 20 April 2012. Print. 

Lockwood, Ian. “Land Cover Changes in the Palani Hills: A Preliminary Visual Assessment.” Blog. April 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Plantation Paradox.” Frontline. 13 November 2015. Print & Web

Norström, Christer. "Autonomy by Default versus Popular Participation: The Paliyans of South India and the Proposed Palni Hills Sanctuary". Senri Ethnological Studies 56: 29-53.

Samra, J.S and A.K. Sikka and V.N. Sharda. “Hydrological Implications of Planting Bluegum in Natural Shola and Grassland Watershed of Southern India.” 10th International Soil Conservation Meeting. 1999. Print.

Robin, V.V et al. “A view from the past: shortwings and sky islands of the Western Ghats.” Indian Birds. October 2011. Print & Web

UNESCO. Western Ghats. July 2012. Web.

Thomas, S.M. and M.W. Palmer. “The montane grasslands of the Western Ghats, India: Community ecology and conservation.” Community Ecology. 2007. Print.

Wyckoff, Charlotte Chandler. Kodaikanal 1845-1945 3rd Edition. Nagercoil: London Mission Press, 1951. Print.

This photo essay is dedicated to the memory of Tanya Balcar.