Botanical note: Ibex Peak and the Palni Plateau, July 2011
A very rare sight these days, a clump of Aerides crispa on a remote path in the western hills
Some 25 years ago we found ourselves one October day in Munnar in Kerala after a few days bus-rambling around Tamil Nadu.We realised we were on a long horse shoe shaped route to get back to Kodai by bus and decided to take a short cut walk across the plateau of some 35km to Berijam from Top Station. In the morning the bus dropped us 6km short of Top Station, but it was not raining. It took us just one hour to make up for the extra distance. Berijam with Baby’s famous tea shop and space on the floor to sleep on still seemed a good bet. We entered Pampadam Shola for the first time; it was eerily silent. We knew Elephant and Indian Bison roamed these highlands, both of which we had no experience. We were somewhat disappointed with the Shola as weedy thickets along the track kept us at a distance (see our note on Pampadam Shola, 2010). The Giant Malabar Squirrel was a treat nevertheless – then quite a rarity.
As we switchbacked our way towards the Tamil Nadu border we were in no way prepared for what was to come. The “Jungle” we had heard so much of turned out to be young, thick and very vigorous plantations of Pine, Eucalyptus and Wattle. There was no way we could kid ourselves this was forest and soon we just focused on the mile stones to Berijam, which seemed to get further apart as our striding gait turned to a laborious trudge (there be hills on this plateau). We began to think about where we might sleep but as the unexpected evening cold set in we realised that was a hypothermic option and all the potential firewood was a lively green colour. As darkness fell, still 13km from Berijam, we came across a fully laden timber truck and a whole load of people bound to travel with it. We eventually secured a place on top of the cabin we shared with a shivering teenager who ate all our biscuits. Three hours later we found ourselves roaring down Observatory hill, with the prospect of steaming Wan-tan soup at the Tibetan Brothers. Woh, we were lucky. It was an exhilarating end to our first experience of the deep wilderness of the Palni Plateau.
Future crossings we always took a jeep, notably our own in 1994 accompanied by the Vattakanal Youth Group. They too were disappointed to find the plantations so relentless.
Our next chance to experience the plateau came in February 1998 for a census of Nilgiri Tahr, the World’s most Southerly goat and Tamil Nadu’s State animal. The first morning we set out with Fr Matthew from the Marion Shola rest house to a vantage point above the cliffs to count our goats. Someone at some point was not there to guide us and we got hopelessly lost. We walked for ages along forest coupe roads, mainly through Wattle; the only other plant to interest us was the S. American, Eupatorium (Ageratina adenophora). After a while we realised we were walking away from the rising sun when we should have been facing East. We had by this time become aware of the potential for plantations to act as a nurse for Shola seedlings but nowhere did we see any signs of any Shola species popping up in these plantations. It was another sobering morning and Bob was just a few days away from receiving an anticipated “quit India” notice.
The next day was better. We gave up on goats altogether; the three of us jeeped our way to Vandaravu and the Kerala border. From the fire tower there Matthew looked wistfully over the Wattle to an extensive stretch of grassland and Shola. There was a sense it would be his last chance to see such. On our return we came across a group of Bison, still such a rare sight in those days as their population had been decimated by Rinderpest in the 1960’s (see photo on cover of Tamil edition of Anglade Institute handbook. Also we stopped to collect seed from a magnificent specimen of Osbeckia reticulata. In full bloom it’s flowers were 9cm across, 50% more than usual. We still cultivate the species today from the same seed stock.
Osbeckia reticulata, now spreading through our new eco-system
It was another 8 years (with Bob back in India) before we returned to the Marion Shola rest house with the Lockwoods. It was 2006, the year of the 12 yearly mass flowering of the Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) extensive on the Palni plateau prior to afforestation. At sunrise we easily found our way to Pass Peak (2390m), obviously where we should have been in 1998.
(photo by Ian Lockwood 2006)
There on the steep slopes we found plenty of Kurinji in flower and for Ian a group of 7 Tahr to catch with his famous camera. What was astonishing for us though was the hundreds and thousands of Shola seedlings that had escaped from the rather unimposing Marion Shola into the plantations. It was confirmed to us that eventually the whole afforested plateau, at least 300sq km, was destined to become Shola unless someone did something to stop it. Cutting down plantations does reverse or slow down the process as witnessed in recent years. Of course the new forest now emerging will always have some alien species to enrich it, though the main plantation species do not thrive under long lived Shola species, so Shola will eventually gain the upper hand.
And so to the present (July 2011). Our eight strong party proceeded toward the Ibex cliff taking a newly repaired forest road that follows the Trout stream (Panavarai Ar). Here there were a good number of Cotoneaster buxifolius and more of the small tree Rhamnus virgatus that we had only encountered for the first time a week or so ago. Matthew described their status as “occasional” (1999); we suspect their “just right” quality as firewood may have cost them. The Cotoneaster Matthew described as “vulnerable” at Mannavanur, “some two dozen plants”. With roads opening up in Revenue lands in recent years we have found the plant to have a much wider distribution, but still in somewhat vulnerable circumstances.
Eventually our track brings us to a point we walked on 25 years before. It is a very different ecology now. There has been no harvest here for many years. The plantation species are still dominant but they have sorted themselves out into different shapes and sizes and intermingled, they look and feel like a forest. You can see into the forest and of course there are young Shola trees everywhere.
Our group (photo by Ian Lockwood)
We set off on foot, the youngest mainly, weighed down with tents and food for 3 nights. This is supposedly a shortcut to Ibex Cliff (2517m), but the path is frequently overlayed with tangled masses of fallen Wattle trees, and we struggle to make progress. At one point Hans challenges us about our assertion that fast growing plantation species, including Wattle, suck up all the water. He points to the squishy wet forest floor and the composting debris there. He is right, this is a very wet plantation, but it is old and dying and not regenerating. It is no longer sucking the land dry. Its paying back its debts. This phenomenon of old timber plantations not being very much different from long established native forest has been described by the S. African hydrologist David Scott (see our synopsis of his paper etc.). This was the first time we ever saw this phenomenon so clearly illustrated.
Eventually we make camp in a grove of Wattle trees as night falls. We were last at this spot 4 years ago, our companions some to 10 years; for each time span there was a memory of ever shrinking grassland and wetland habitat as the encroachment of plantation species had intensified. (See original note). The surviving but highly endangered marsh below our camp was indicative of what has been lost over hundreds of square kilometres of highlands in the Palnis and other hill ranges in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Heracleum with Lysimachia and Eriocaulon
The marsh was in peak bloom, a riot of colours, among them the bright yellow of the flowers of Ranunculus reniformis, a relative of Europe’s meadow buttercup R. acris. This was our first encounter with the plant that Fr. K.M. Matthew published as “very common” in 1999 (1985 was when the research was done). The litany of what was very common becoming rare seems endless.
Here also an extensive population of the delicately flowered Heracleum ceylanicum, a plant we only discovered last year (see Gundar Valley botanical note). And as ever to be expected a new species of Impatiens much like I. rufescens of the Nilgiris, our third new record of the genus from these under-botanised Westerly part of the hills.
New Impatiens? Between I. rufescens and I. tomentosa
A good population of the marsh primrose, Lysimachia leschenaultii was there, but intriguingly as pictured this lone individual on Ibex cliff growing on the Shola margin, well over a metre in height, emerging uniquely from a thicket of Bracken and Rubus. Also on the Shola margin, new to us, a Strobilanthes with markedly red petioles (leaf stalks), the red running into the base of the central nerve. On the path back to the Cochin road we found a population of an interesting Selaginela we have not seen before. Hopefully someone can identify it for us from the photo!
Lysimachia on dry land
We trekked for a day to Ullam Parai and back. From here we could see the fire tower we had climbed 13 years ago. We were in that enigmatic landscape we had gazed upon then with Fr. Matthew.
The peaks of Tangachee and Akka looking towards the High Ranges of Kerala
It was only when we got back to Kodai it hit home how all this extraordinary beauty we had witnessed was facing imminent extinction. Last month the WWF and the FD did a Nilgiri Tahr census here. It appears there are always funds for these kinds of activities but never for focused scientifically informed ecological restoration. At the most we are advocating the restoration/conservation of an area not exceeding 10 sq. km. (5x2) along the crest of the hills. If the Nilgiri Tahr is worth counting, surely saving this last fragment of its “critical grassland habitat” is also worth it. Can we get together to make it a reality?
Bob & Tanya 22.07.2011
A note to those who might find our narratives “long winded and rambling”. Our botanical notes are intended for friends and family as well as those botanically inclined – our way of writing letters, which otherwise we’re pretty hopeless at.
Post-script. Maybe there is a God
Before we finished entering our bitter-sweet scribble into the computer, these two very fine men came to visit us. Mr Nagaiha is ranger for Mannavenur range and Mr Vijay Kumar ranger for Vandaravu range which includes Ibex peak etc. They came to talk about grassland and wetland restoration. Tomorrow we go back to the southern crest and will meet them there. Hope springs eternal.