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The Hills Of Murugan

Montane grasslands on the windy slopes of Perumal Malai, the distinctive hat-shaped peak of the Palani Hills, survives amongst a plantation of non-native Eucalyptus sp. plantation. This is an area ripe for ecological restoration where thinning of the trees would allow a return of the grassland habitat. Photo: Ian Lockwood

It is July in the high reaches of the Palani Hills and a group of us is negotiating a bewildering tangle of fallen trees and vegetation that has been blown across our path by gusts from the southwest monsoon. We are a disparate group – an ecologist studying shola birds, a GIS specialist mapping grassland patches, two forest guards armed with arivaals (curved blades) and my son Lenny who has agreed to accompany us on a path that his great grandfather walked in the early 20th century. We are forced to scramble using all fours on damp moss and a bed of undecomposed leaf litter through the mess of wattle. Our destination lies ahead on a precipitous escarpment that drops dramatically from 2,500 m. in vertical granite cliffs to the dry plains that surround the edge of the lofty plateau of the Palani hills. This is one of the last corners to have escaped the plantation wave in which large areas were ostensibly carpeted with non-native timber species to replace ‘wastelands’ (grasslands) with commercially-valuable tree species.

I have walked this same trail many times and can vividly remember a time when it was a gentle pathway through pockets of bonsai-like sholas and rolling montane grasslands. I was only 15 when our school’s three-day ‘130 km.’ trek came through this isolated corner of the Palanis. It had been raining and mist obscured the views, but when it cleared, there was little doubt that the landscape here was majestic beyond our wildest imaginations. At the time, most of our group was focused on slogging through the rain-soaked hike, avoiding pangs of hunger and nursing blistered feet. I felt those things too, but the cliffs, mist and silence of the edges evermore etched a vivid place in my memory. What we didn’t know in the 1980s was that the plantations of fast-growing Australian and Mexican timber species would soon overwhelm the same grasslands. Now, with my colleagues and son, I am following the old trails to map the last grasslands and see if we can contribute to the protection and possible restoration of the ecology...

 
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