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A Note On The Nilgiris

A Note On The Nilgiris

Wildlife biologist N. Lakshminarayanan pays homage to the incredible beauty and diversity of the Nilgiris, even as he highlights the problems in this fractured landscape.

The verdant “Sholas” of the upper Nilgiris. The tropical montane Sholas of the Western Ghats occur in narrow elevational belt between 1500 m. and 2700 m. and exhibit high level of floral and faunal endemism. Photo: N. Harinarayanan.

A Wild Haven

The last rays of the sun had set the mountain ablaze, with the astonishing array of colours adding grandeur to the undulating mountains speckled with the crimson flowers of rhododendron. They bloom every year in January heralding Pongal, the harvest festival in Tamil Nadu and are aptly called Pongal poo (literally ‘Pongal flower’) in Tamil. Black bulbuls joined the cacophony of Black and Orange Flycatchers, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Oriental White Eyes and Pied Bush Chats to welcome nightfall.

While we stood enjoying the grand sunset over the Nilgiris, our eyes caught the silhouettes of an adult sambar and her fawn plunging into the emerald waters of the Bhavani reservoir. Frost would set in the grasslands within the few hours of the night, and already the temperature had dipped below freezing, leaving us shivering despite our winter attire. The biting cold weather of the January night did not, however, deter the deer from frolicking in the water. We contentedly observed the sambar pair for over 20 minutes before they disappeared into the darkness.

During that eventful trip, we were fortunate to observe a large herd of Nilgiri tahr Nilgiritragus hylocrius, a mountain goat endemic to the shola-grasslands of the Western Ghats, over a dozen sambar, and many gaurs in these remote parts of the upper Nilgiris. The three large carnivores that inhabit these mountains, the tiger, the leopard and the dhole had left behind their telltale signs in the forest, but remained behind the scene as they so often do. Back at the camp in a place called Avalanche, where there is a beautiful century-old forest rest house, forest watchers regaled each other with their recent encounters with tigers.

A Fractured Landscape

The reserved forests in the upper Nilgiris are located in the south and southwestern direction of the hill station of Ootacamund (Ooty), which is about 40 km. as the crow flies. I have been visiting this beautiful landscape for the last few years to observe its fine wildlife. The relentless pursuit of development has wreaked immense havoc on the delicate ecosystem of the Nilgiri upper plateau that originally harboured miles upon miles of shola forests and verdant grasslands. Today, in the upper Nilgiris, sholas persist in fragments, often degraded to a considerable extent because of biotic pressure and the spread of invasive weeds; similarly, the grasslands and swamps have largely been taken over for cultivation and settlement of people. Consequently, wildlife, where present, eke out a tenuous living in these fragments. The last remaining continuous stretches of shola-grassland habitats in the Nilgiris are largely confined to Mukurthi National Park and Nilgiris south forest division.

Historically, tigers and other large mammals of the Nilgiris landscape had unhindered movement between the high altitude Nilgiris that harbour shola grasslands and mid and low altitude areas that respectively support evergreen and deciduous forests. However, most of the connectivity has been severed due to reasons that are all too common throughout the Western Ghats - human incursion and the subsequent establishment of plantations, mainly of tea and coffee. Presently, large mammals may be heavily dependent on a few narrow strips of forests as conduits for their dispersal and migration.

Dhole or Indian wild dog in the Nilgiris. Variety and abundance of large ungulates in these forests support thriving large carnivore populations. With direct connectivity to protected areas like Mudumalai, Silent Valley and Mukurthi, the reserved forests of the upper Nilgiris are a crucial tiger conservation unit. Photo: N. Harinarayanan.

On a sunny day in May 2010, from a vantage point atop a knoll close to a Gudalur town, in the company of wildlife researcher Madhusudanan, who knows the Gudalur landscape like the back of his hand, I had a panoramic view of the dry forests of Mudumalai in the north. The forests were bone dry and tinder except for the patchwork of green along the streams. However, the forests located in the south of the knoll looked different. The hills were lofty with dense carpets of grasslands and moist forests interspersed with plantations. The montane grasslands and sholas of Mukurthi and Nilgiris south forest division that occurs between 1500 m. – 2500 m. shimmered green in the distance. Scanning the forest floor, I found heaps of elephant dung, piles of dhole scat and a leopard pugmark, indicating that this small stretch of forest could be one of the heavily trodden trails for large mammals to move between the upper and lower Nilgiris. Close to the knoll where I stood, heavy vehicles roared past incessantly on the National Highway connecting Mysore and Ooty, two preferred tourist destinations in the south. Unremitting traffic all through the day, with intensity only increasing rapidly, I wondered how large mammals would continue to negotiate this road to move between forests in the dry zone to forests of the wet zone as the situation demands.

Over the next few decades, it is predicted that mean temperatures will go up in the tropics owing to an increase in atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The dry spell during the summer months is also predicted to increase. The long-term residents and yesteryear naturalists who have spent many years in the Nilgiris have already suggested that many streams and rivers are drying up in the dry deciduous tract. Numerous streams such as Kedara halla, Sigur halla and others, which were once perennial, have become seasonal, flowing only during the rains. Large mammals have to respond to these temporal adversities in their habitats. An important response that animals exhibit to cope during harsh dry spells is to migrate to moister tracts where the distribution and availability of surface water is more stable. Such an adaptation is especially true in the case of elephants that require large quantities of forage and water every day. In January 2015, when I visited Korakunda range of the upper Nilgiris, I came across numerous piles of elephant dung strewn in the sholas, although this area was always thought to support only very few elephants. We do not know if elephants are using the upper Nilgiris more frequently in response to changing climate or due to increased threats to their habitats in the lower Nilgiris.

Staying Connected

For the long-term conservation of large mammals in the Nilgiris, it is important to assess habitat connectivity between the upper and lower Nilgiris for large mammals, and identify areas where connectivity can be restored. Such an exercise could augur well for large mammals as they could respond to perils of climate change such as prolonged drought and other adversities through unhindered movement in to areas where fluctuations in resource availability is minimal. Moreover, restoration and maintenance of connectivity could also serve as a conflict mitigation strategy in the Nilgiris that has lately witnessed human-wildlife conflict of severe proportions. Besides restoration, it crucial to keep at bay land use changes such as mining that are incompatible to wildlife conservation.

Once widespread, the natural forests and grasslands of the upper Nilgiris have rapidly shrunk in the face of the relentless pursuit of development in the mountains, and establishment of commercial plantations. Photo: N. Harinarayanan.

Another serious direct threat that looms large over the unhindered movement of wildlife is the increasing vehicular traffic and road widening projects planned for the national highway connecting Mysore and Ooty in particular, and other highways in general. Road projects through critical wildlife habitats in the country have seldom shown consideration to the needs of wildlife. Widening the national highway connecting Ooty and Mysore could permanently sever habitat connectivity for many animals and will spell disaster for large mammal conservation. To assuage the current threats posed by this national highway and other roads to wildlife in the Nilgiris, it is imperative to identify locations of high usage by wildlife and instate speed control measures and dismantle the barriers on the roadsides.

Furthermore, the notification of reserved forests of Nilgiris south forest division as a Protected Area or the amalgamation of these forests with Mukurthi National Park is critical to accord better protection to the landscape. Such an effort would insulate the habitats, to an extent, from threats like mining and reservoir construction that surface from time to time. Moreover, maintaining connectivity between the upper Nilgiris and lower Nilgiris also hinges on how effectively the state government can control the encroachment problem in Gudalur plateau that is wedged in the center. The Gudalur plateau, which once harbored vast swathes of moist deciduous forests, continues to face the challenges posed by encroachment and rapid conversion of forests.

Very few places in the country can rival the splendid diversity of wildlife that the Nilgiris harbour. With elevations ranging from 300 m. in the foothills to about 2600 m. in the peaks, it supports an impressive assemblage of mammals customary to peninsular India. The Nilgiris also harbour sizeable populations of habitat specialists like Nilgiri Tahr, lion-tailed macaque Macaca silenus, Nilgiri langur Trachypithecus johnii and Nilgiri marten Martes gwatkinskii, a mustelid rarely seen in high-altitude sholas. A step forward in the right direction backed by strong political will and enthusiasm is the need of the hour to protect this wildlife paradise.

Author: N. Lakshminayaranan.


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