Archive for the ‘Restoration work’ Category
An edited and shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 June 2012.
For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The wide, old roads radiating from Coimbatore city, in particular, had long rows of grand tamarind trees on either side. One could see them on the road to Mettupalayam and the hazy blue mountains beyond, on the road to the sacred hill of Marudhamalai, towards the Sathyamangalam hills and Mysore to the north, through the expansive plateau and plains to Salem, and southwards past Pollachi to the ancient hills of the elephants, the Anamalai.
The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, quite unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees seemed only to need a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.
They stood like this until the men came with the axes and saws for the slaughter of the trees. The men brought heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots of the tamarind trees out of the earth. Trees that had stood for centuries were brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.
The tamarind tree is an old and dignified citizen of our city avenues and gardens, our countryside and farms. Its name, derived from the Arabic tamar-ul-Hind or the ‘the date of India’, finds mention in written historical accounts of India going back centuries. There is irony in this, for the tamarind is native to Africa and not a species that grows naturally in India’s forests. Despite being alien to India, the tamarind has not run wild and become an invasive pest, becoming instead what biologists call a naturalised species. Embraced by a deep tolerance and cultural acceptance into Indian cuisine and culture, the tamarind is today a familiar and inseparable part of Indian life and landscape.
Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees seemed to have an abiding presence, like torch-bearers marking a productive countryside, like the enduring blue mountains in the distance. Their wide trunks rose above stout roots that pushed into the soil, like muscled and flexed thighs gripping the earth. Their fissured bark was thick and brown, aged and toughened and weathered, like the wrinkled face of the old woman selling mangoes in the patch of shade below.
Under the dense canopy, thousands of pedestrians and riders of two-wheelers found quick shelter from rain. Or, in scorching summers, a refreshing coolness cast by the tiny leaflets—how many leaflets does a tamarind tree have, a million, ten million? Even the air-conditioners seemed to waft easier and cooler in the metal cocoons of parked cars that escaped roasting in the sun. The trees seemed to abide, they granted benefits, and their beneficence was taken for granted.
Every year, the twigs were weighed down with hundreds of lumpy brown pods, with skins like coarse felt covering pulp, tart and tasty, and disc-like, shining seeds. The fruits were there for the taking. The adept and nimble climbed the branches to knock down the fruit. Their friends darted around to grab the fallen pods, dodging traffic.
On the roads, many tamarind trees had managed to rise above anonymity: each tree, even if not named, was numbered; each individual claimed by negotiation or auction by someone from the village or panchayat for its fruit. Collected, dried, and packed, the fruit of the tamarind trees would eventually find its way into a thousand dishes, enrich the palate of millions, and become inseparably incorporated in people’s cuisine, in their lives, in their very bodies. And no one could stop the children, who needed only a handful of stones to claim their share. The trees brought utility, food, cash, plain fun.
And yet, there is more to the tamarind. Beyond the utility and the benefits of the trees, there is something intangible, amiss, overlooked. It seems to emerge as a touch of beauty—an enlivening green in an increasingly dour landscape. A beauty fragile forever from the prospect of loss just a chain-saw away. It seems to emanate from the trees, too, from the sounds where a few still remain. The soughing of wind through ten million leaflets, in mournful restlessness, carrying the delicate aroma of the tamarind’s modest, finely-marked flowers. The creak of branches and the click of twigs holding the tamarind’s pendant fruit. Or, when the wind abates, a calming susurrus pierced only by the occasional screech of parakeets. And when dusk descends, the tamarind trees darken to the chuckle of mynas, the chatter of shy owlets, and the hoots of somnolent owls, rising with the stars. The trees are silent but full of sounds, and one who hears them may find things worth listening to.
Reading the landscape
Naturalists and ecologists, who spend a fair bit of their time watching the earth and its creatures, sometimes say that you can read a landscape, you can see its wounds and sense a need for healing. On the Mettupalayam road and onto the hills beyond, sure, you cannot miss reading the landscape: somebody has spelt it out in big letters for you. “Vote for ——— Party”, says one sign, painted with a crudely-daubed logo, rather unwittingly symbolic in its background of whitewash. “Faith in God”, says another, pointing to a higher authority. “Enjoy the Serene Villas”, declares a sign for a resort promising a better place, not above, but ahead. A painted board of the Forest Department, placed in front of a patch of forest that has existed for millennia, asserts: “Preservation Plot: This Forest has been Protected as it was for Decades”. And a wit, who has perhaps had a bumpy ride, has painted on: “And so has this road.”
The wounds are there, too. There are the cuts and gouges in the land, festering moistly with garbage and hyacinth. One wishes the waters would not find their way into these old tanks and streams to turn dry dumps of civilisation’s discards into suppurating sores. There are the stumps of surgery: trunks and branches neatly sliced to make way for better things like wires and cables. The rot sets in, hollowing into the stumps, but only to make homes for families of owls or mynas. There are the thorns in the side of the stumps and trees that remain: nails hammered in the hundreds, carrying rusty boards and advertisements and nameplates, or garlands of wilted and dried flowers placed for adornment—of what? Then come the nooses and garrottes—wires and ropes—some hanging loose, some stretched taut, decorated with ribbons or hooks and loops to hang the street-trader’s merchandise, or merely forgotten and cutting into the bark. And there is the wounded heart, cut with deep, desperate strokes, on the blazed bark of one of the trees still standing; a heart pierced by an arrow saying, “Sundari, I love U”.
Fall from grace
Then the old roads were labelled tracks, the tracks became streets, the streets became roads, and the roads became highways. And yet, we are not satisfied, we need super-highways. This idea brooks no questioning, no obstruction. The trees must make way for tarmac. The people who stood in the shade must make way for the cars that proliferate. The vitality of a living countryside must make way for the deathly artificiality of the city, spreading like a virus down the arteries. The living countryside and its other users don’t really matter: they mostly don’t have cars, anyway.
The tamarind trees are now painted with broad waist-bands in white and black, so that they are more visible to the highway motorist who can then avoid them. How effectively we mark something to be more visible and to be more ignored at once!
So, the tamarind trees drift into wayside anonymity, from anonymity to disuse, disuse to neglect. The fruits fall and are crushed under the tyres of vehicles. The road surface is studded with hard, shining seeds driven into hot tar, staring like eyes without eyelids at the sun and sky. Shade and greenery are replaced by heat and grime. The screech of parakeets and chuckle of mynas is replaced by the endless screech of tyres and squeal of brakes. The hoot of owls is deafened by the toot of horns and the soughing of wind by the howling of sirens: the ambulances are now busy day and night. Places where a person could live a full, good life become sites, where one cannot even die a good death.
Now, the tamarind trees are but old fixtures in the landscape, like old people, grandparents and elders, suddenly out of place in a redefined world, suddenly unwanted. And when the old trees fall, the countryside is bereft, like families broken.
Better road sense
It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countryside. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?
Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
Yet, it is not merely that one misses seeing the trees for the road.The tamarind trees—those still alive on the roads around Coimbatore amidst the stumps of those that are gone—seem to stand for something deeper. An awareness that beauty is forever pitted against the peril of loss and tolerance against the spectre of alienation. Only when we cannot bear alienation, will we usher in tolerance. Only when we cannot countenance loss, will we embrace beauty.
There is a modesty in their conquest of mountains. From the heights, they commandeer vistas of rugged mountains covered in forest or countryside dotted with great trees. From tall trees on high ridges, they scan the landscape, their heads turning on long and graceful necks. They have scaled peaks, even surpassed them. Yet, they speak only in soft and hushed tones that resonate among stately trees. For the imperial pigeons are a dignified lot, keeping the company of great trees.
Down in the valley, the pigeon’s voice throbs through dense rainforest: a deep hu, hoo-uk, hoo-uk, repeated after long pauses, like the hoots of an owl. In the dawn chorus of birdsong, it sounds like a sedate basso profundo trying to slow the tempo of barbets and calm the errant flutes and violins of babblers and thrushes. The calling pigeon, in a flock with others, is in a low symplocos tree whose branches shine with dark green leaves and purple-blue fruit. They are busy picking and swallowing the ripe fruits, each with fleshy pulp around a single stony seed.
These large birds, neatly plumaged in formal greys and pastel browns, are Mountain Imperial Pigeons—a species found in the rainforests of the Western Ghats and the Himalaya in India.
In more open forests and on grand banyan and other fig trees along the roads through the countryside, one can see their cousins, the Green Imperial Pigeons shaded in more verdant sheen.
As a group, the imperial pigeons have a penchant for fruit that necessitates roaming wide areas in search of food. Weeks may pass in a patch of forest with no sign of pigeons, but when the wild fruits ripen, the nomadic flocks descend from distant sites and the forest resonates with their calls again.
Like other birds such as hornbills and barbets in these forests, imperial pigeons eat fruits ranging from small berries to large drupes, including wild nutmegs and laurels and elaeocarps (rudraksh). Yet, the pigeon’s bill is small and delicate in comparison with the hornbill’s horny casque or the barbet’s stout beak, which seem more suited to handling large fruits with big stony seeds. The imperial pigeon’s solution to this problem is a cleverly articulated lower beak and extensible gape and gullet that can stretch to swallow the entire fruit and seed.
Lured by the package of pulpy richness in fruit, the pigeon then becomes a transporter of seed. Many seeds are dropped in the vicinity of the mother tree itself, scattered around with seeds from rotting fruit fallen on the earth below. The concentrated stockpile of seeds below elaeocarp and nutmeg trees are attacked by rodents and beetles, leaving little hope for survival and germination. But when the pigeon takes wing, some seeds go with the pigeon as passengers on a vital journey, travelling metres to miles into the surrounding landscape. Voided eventually by the pigeon, the dispersed seeds have an altogether greater prospect of escape from gnawing rat and boring beetle and—when directly or fortuitously dropped onto a suitable spot—of germination. By carrying and literally dropping off their passengers where some establish as seedlings and grow into trees, the pigeons become both current consumers and future producers of fruit.
Still, it is the quiet achievement of the trees that seems more impressive. Rooted to a spot, the trees have enticed the pigeons to move their seeds for them. Deep in the forest, one discovers a seedling where no trees of that kind stand nearby, bringing a rare pleasure like an unexpected meeting with an old friend. The pigeons are plied with fruit and played by the trees. The modest conquest of the mountains by the pigeons is trumped by the subtler conquest of the pigeons by the immobile trees.
Peril of extinction
In speaking of the pigeon’s passengers, one recalls with misgiving the fate of Passenger Pigeons. The Passenger Pigeon was once found in astounding abundance across North America in flocks numbering tens of millions—flocks so huge that their migratory flights would darken the skies for days on end. Yet, even this species was exterminated by unmitigated slaughter under the guns of hunters and by the collection—during their enormous nesting congregations—of chicks (squabs) by the truck-load. Within a few decades, the great flocks and society of Passenger Pigeons were decimated in vast landscapes transformed by axe and plough, plunder and profiteering. By 1914, the species—at the time perhaps one of the most abundant land bird species in the world—had been reduced to a single captive female. The last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914, closing the page on another wonderful species, in another sorry chapter of human history on Earth.
Our pigeons are more fortunate, but in many areas they, too, are dying a slow death. Some fall to the bullets of hunters who take strange pride in their dubious sport or skill. Some roam large areas of once-continuous rainforest, which now have only scattered fragments. The mountain imperial pigeons are still seen winging across in powerful flight from one remnant to another, over monoculture plantations and stagnant reservoirs. Their forays are getting longer, and their journeys often end fruitless. Our countryside, too, is becoming bereft of their green cousins, as grand banyans and other fruit trees vanish along our widening roads, and diverse forests of native trees are replaced by miserable Australian acacias and eucalyptus, if they are replaced at all. As their homes are whittled away, the hornbills, barbets, and other pigeons vanish silently. With them vanish subtle splendours and prospects of regeneration. On the roads, the vehicles speed along on their wheels of progress, carrying passengers of a different kind, barely aware of the majesty and opportunity for renewal left behind.
From the valley, the imperial pigeons take wing and—in a minute—fly high and swift over the mountain to distant rainforest. There, sometime in the future, new seedlings will perhaps still emerge in a silent testimony. A testimony that one can forever fly high and strong if one only consumes what one also regenerates in perpetuity.
A lovely article written by Ian Lockwood, which seems most appropriate to read today—Earth Day, 2012—has been published in Frontline. The article ‘Breathing life back into the sholas‘, which also talks about ecological restoration, is accompanied by a little box item explaining this as a ‘New idea in India‘. The article speaks of the unique shola – grassland ecosystems of the high mountains of the Western Ghats and of the ongoing work there on restoration of sholas and grasslands that have been degraded, destroyed, or badly affected by invasions of alien plant species. For those not familiar with Ian Lockwood, he is a brilliant photographer, educator, and writer, whose work you can see in the website High Range Photography and on his blog.
It is well worth picking up your copy of Frontline magazine (Volume 29 – Issue 07 dated April 7-20, 2012) just to see the beautiful photographs, especially the black-and-white landscape shots and panoramas that Ian Lockwood is famous for. You can see a preview of some page spreads on Ian’s blog here. Frontline is one of the few magazines that frequently carries full-length and detailed articles on the environment along with photographs and it is always nice to read a piece such as this in the magazine.
Lockwood’s article describes the unique montane landscape, its history, and conservation concerns, all of which serve as the backdrop for the ongoing ecological restoration work by a local NGO, the Vattakanal Conservation Trust (VCT). Through pioneering restoration efforts and partnership with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, VCT is working to change the way we view and conserve the larger landscape.
In our own restoration work here in the Anamalai hills, we have learned much from and been inspired by the work of VCT, especially Tanya Balcar and Robert (Bob) Stewart of VCT. Bob and Tanya, both founders of VCT, are a couple of British origin settled in Kodaikanal for over 25 years. Sharing a deep passion for native plant species and their conservation, they are self-taught, top-notch botanists with wide experience of the incredible diversity of plants in the Western Ghats, including in the Palani hills. Concerned over the widespread degradation, especially in the Upper Palanis, for more than two decades now they have also done pioneering work on ecological restoration. This includes careful floristic studies, development of germination techniques of hundreds of plant species of shola forests and grasslands, implementation of restoration of highly degraded sites to sholas and their again-pioneering efforts at restoration of the unique montane grasslands (the famed habitat of the kurinji). Their contributions are also recorded in the monumental 3 volume The Flora of the Palni Hills by K. M. Matthew, one of the botanical treatises and authoritative reference works to emerge from Southern India.
Bob and Tanya and the VCT staff also maintain one of the longest-standing and diverse native plant nurseries in the region, besides having developed a grassland nursery and techniques to propagate native grassland plants. These are also documented in a chapter in our joint publication here. Their success in convincing the bureaucracy of the need for ecological restoration using native shola and grassland species and in working with committed officers is something to be respected and emulated. Their work is also showing insights into the effects of alien plantations on grasslands and wetlands, and water tables, and how ecological restoration can help to reverse the tide of degradation with benefits both for nature conservation and local people. Ian Lockwood has also written articles earlier, including in Sanctuary Asia and Frontline, with a highly appreciative but modest mention of VCT, all of which you can find linked on his blog. Taken together, this set of articles, documents well the context and significance of the region and the ongoing restoration work.
Ten years. A decade to the day since Sridhar stood in front of a room full of people defending, if that is the word, his doctoral thesis. On the other side of the planet, in another hemisphere like a parallel world, four airplanes filled with deadly purpose would take to the air. They would bring down buildings—facade and edifice—marking a charged moment in history like a bee-stung blister on the warp of time.
Shorn of a veneer of power and safety, the Western world would begin to look at places and people, with new eyes.
God created war so that Americans would learn geography.
~ Mark Twain
In The Sense of an Ending, a haunting, poignant little novel with brilliantly portrayed characters, Julian Barnes looks at history and consequence in an impeccable storyline where every word tells. The narration draws you inward and outward, time flowing like a river and like the Severn Bore, the tidal surge heading upstream. Barnes draws you into thinking about the nature of memory and the narrative of history. Reading the book is like taking a ferry down a magic river: you step in, you go with the flow watching the breaking bow wave and the destination ahead, only to arrive at the end and see the fading, shimmering wake, as if for the first time, in revelation.
Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives?
~ Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
What is a defining moment in our lives? Is it real, in a cartesian sense, that its location is fixed, like a tree standing in a savanna or a great peak rising above its range? Or is it like a leaf that falls on the unsullied surface of a stream, giving a temporary purchase to the eye to follow its course, from an arbitrary beginning when it touches the water, to an undefined end where the swash has tossed it among windrows of wrack?
Success in defending a doctoral thesis and the degree and prefix that it confers is sometimes taken to be such a moment. You have presented your research in a scientific, clear, logical, objective manner. You have masked your interest with disinterest, inspiration with interpretation. Your peers and sages have frowned or questioned, nodded in agreement or in boredom, have smiled, snickered, paused in thought, in wonder, even. In the end, you are marked as having crossed an invisible threshold and admitted as a hallowed legatee of academe. And thus the leaf drops on the stream to bob and wind with other leaves, drifting with the current and slewing of its own shape, finding its course.
It is an arbitrary course and can take an arbitrary name. To loosely thread a story of a decade, a title borrowed from a John le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, will do nicely, but set in reverse.
If a spy is taken to be an observer, a sourcer of information, meant to analyse and report factually on what is sourced and observed, doing this in a sort of self-effacing manner, remaining detached, possibly hidden, inconspicuous, then perhaps field biologists are spies, too. So, in 2001, several years of field research in deep rainforest had led the two of us to our doctoral degrees.
Even as thousands of men, armed to the teeth, went warring at the fall of buildings, we went, too, armed with little more than a prefix and binoculars to add a few bricks on a wall of learning. In the rainforests of the Western Ghats, we had studied birds (Sridhar) and civets and other small carnivorous mammals (Divya) and we knew that our theses were both of limited-enough scope to leave space for much more. Then, along with Anand and many student recruits, we studied plants and hornbills, civets and elephants, pattern and process, creatures large and small. We kept on, as events of vastly greater import unfolded in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Is it really worth while to spend our time, the time which escapes us so swiftly, this stuff of life, as Montaigne calls it, in gleaning facts of indifferent moment and highly contestable utility? Is it not childish to enquire so minutely into an insect’s actions? Too many interests of a graver kind hold us in their grasp to leave us any leisure for these amusements. That is how the harsh experience of age impels us to speak; that is how I should conclude, as I bring my investigations to a close, if I did not perceive, amid the chaos of my observations, a few gleams of light toughing the loftiest problems which we are privileged to discuss. … These questions are and always will be the despair of every cultivated mind, even though the inanity of our efforts to solve them urges us to cast them into the limbo of the unknowable.
~Jean-Henri Fabre, The Mason Wasps
Out in the Anamalai hills, we plodded on, exploring forest fragments and plantations of tea, eucalyptus, coffee, and cardamom. We began to see more clearly the wounds in the landscape, newer cuts and older scar-tissue, and tried to report these faithfully, while also beginning to understand and explore the possibilities of healing.
And as the wars raged in the world, we soldiered on, too. There were forest fragments to protect, lying in private lands outside designated protected areas. These lay in an ecological hinterland, a paradoxical one, which one sees with fresh eyes leaving remote rainforests behind and entering an apparently human domain.
Amidst a landscape of a hundred thousand people were troops of lion-tailed macaques, great flocks of hornbills and pigeons, butterflies and babblers, elephants, deer, fungi, mosses, incredible insects… there was life, everywhere.
Forgotten amidst the bustle of humanity, these fragments and the wildlife seemed at the time to need soldiers, not so much as protectors, but more as champions who could direct more appreciative eyes towards their conservation.
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
~ J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
There were great trees to save from girdling and felling—one feels compelled to rise to the defense of what is loved or valued.
There were fences to erect to keep away some kinds of animals and some kinds of people—one feels a need to fight abuse of land, unjust exploitation of nature.
Fence or defence, felling or fight, the arena is one of conflict and the space is defined by dimensions of possession, protection, and punishment. It is a cold and brutal and lonely space.
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?
~ Mahatma Gandhi
The possession of land creates owners, not stewards, protection builds walls between people and nature, and punishment singes the psyche, provokes retaliation and resentment. Wars seldom work: they beget wars, they create refugees.
The question then arose: how do we relink the chasms that had opened, between fragmented forests, between forests and plantations, between people and nature? What bridges need to be built to stitch together an ecologically viable landscape?
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…
~ Robert Frost, Mending Wall
The plantations, our research revealed, were not barren lands for conservation. A graded intensity of production where agriculture becomes industry is matched by a gradation in the diversity of life. Plantations could act as refuges for many species, when they hold habitats such as forest and grassland remnants or use native trees of the region as shade for their crops.
Plantations can also act as corridors for the movement of larger species such as elephants and hornbills. With land-use insensitive to ecology, elephants and leopards come into conflict with people, causing loss of life or damage to property, and rivers and streams turn to swamps, water becoming a scarce resource even in areas of highest rainfall.
Perhaps, the planters could be influenced to take a larger landscape perspective, a larger span of time than an annual balance sheet. Perhaps the Forest Department could be brought to appreciate landscapes outside protected areas and collaborate with private owners. Perhaps local communities could begin to appreciate and marvel at what has always been around them, but subtly hidden. Perhaps companies would begin to not merely exercise their rights as owners of land, but act on responsibilities as stewards of landscapes. Perhaps they would respond not merely to demands of company shareholders, but to concerns of community stakeholders. Perhaps they would expand their bottom-line of profit to include people and planet. Perhaps we would, by working with all of them, come to understand them and our own place in the scheme of things.
The work to build such bridges, tailor relationships, and stitch broken connections, is cut out for all takers. For us, it is a work in progress.
How do we restore our lost connections, recover degraded habitats? Can an ecosystem as complex and beautiful as a rainforest, once degraded or destroyed, ever recover? Given a relationship between people and landscapes gone awry, will conflict from loss of life and damage to property brought on by species such as elephants and leopards ever transform to coexistence? Tantalising hints and observations during our studies indicated: possibly. The first step, was to keep all the pieces: people, wildlife, forests, plantations, rivers.
To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Our efforts at restoring degraded rainforests, at promoting the use of native shade trees and better land-use in plantations, at understanding conflicts and fostering coexistence through targeted efforts, and restoring a more harmonious relationship between people and nature, thus began with these ideals. This, too, is a work in progress. Our strength has been in our students, our field assistants, and a few solid supporters; it is not an easy thing to take for granted and our gratitude goes to them. Still, running a decade-long program and a long-term field station has its tough moments, its difficult experiences. If our students and supporters have come to see at least partly through our eyes like we have learned within our ability to see with theirs, perhaps that is reward enough.
With slow, halting progress, sudden slip-slides of regress, we inch forward. Every year, in drenching monsoons, as we plant rainforest saplings in degraded sites, a feeling is palpable. This is a stick-in-the-mud form of conservation.
As the saplings grow into spindly stems, and some into robust treelets, as canopies spread and rainforest birds grace the shrubbery, as leopards sharpen their claws on the bark of trees planted by us within the eventful decade, we watch and wonder at nature resurgent, at rainforest revenant.
All of a decade ago, in the chapter of conclusions to Sridhar’s thesis, he began by quoting Tennyson.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
~Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
We now see that one can cherish these words looking not just ahead and outwards, but introspectively and into the past. We look back at our shimmering wake, already fading, trying to see and share with others the possibilities of newer courses.
Where do we go from here? We are not sure. TIme will carry us ahead, and yet, there is a longing to be back. Back in those rainforests where the journey began, in the heart of Kalakad-Mundanthurai. In a field station surrounded by rainforests and rivers, remote from people and the chattels of city life, without electricity or internet, to days before phones became mobiles, when letters were written by hand, when one could sit and gaze at mountains with meaning.
So, like The Scientist in the Coldplay album we yearn, with a pang, to ‘go back to the start’. To the start, yes, but surely not for another PhD! For renewing our vision perhaps, for but a drop of that elusive potion called inspiration. As in restoration here in the Anamalai hills, perhaps there is some hope for that, still.
Sometimes, hope, like trees, needs planting, too.
by divya and sridhar
In the last year or so, there has been a frenzied expansion of the road between Attakatti and Valparai—most of it through the protected area (Anamalai Tiger Reserve) and adjoining buffer zone in the Valparai plateau. Earth from the shoulders holding up tea bushes and trees has been gouged out to fill the gap between the current extent of the road and the culvert and revetments being built off it to expand this steep hill road. This road starts at about 400 m (Aliyar) and climbs to an altitude of 1480 m (Kavarkal) boasting of 40 hair-pin bends over 40 km!
After such work has begun, we have witnessed landslips—occurrences unheard of in these hills—in the last four years ever since there has been a push for attracting tourists. The solution is cement and granite! Remove plants and build metre-high revetments and culverts to prevent landslides and soil erosion! Never mind the hills in the plains with their great-horned owls and hedgehogs and foxes blasted and mined out of existence for the stones and granite to reinforce the mountains here that are older than the Himalaya. The plants have done their job for long enough and it is time we take on the responsibility is it? Do not let plants (even a tuft of grass) grow on these as they will corrode the man-made structures. The infrastructure the various departments aim to provide are good, wide roads. Speed breakers are not good for the modern cars. Never mind if a few monkeys or mongooses or deer get run over. Actually may be we should remove them, too, so that they will not interfere with the speed of the bikes and cars. The traffic on these hills have increased many fold as have the number of accidents due to reckless driving. While local people continue to struggle in crowded buses to reach their homes, we also now see motor rallies with convoys of speeding cars and bikes go through. Is this development? Is this what roads through such vitally important hills and forests are meant for?
The animals too have suffered. The arboreal mammals have to make huge leaps across the roads where the canopy connectivity is lost, or come down to the roads. The wall-like culverts on one side and the steep mud banks on the other prevent escape for the animals caught on the road. They fall prey to the wheels—resulting in countless road-kills.
All along this highway, we have lost the benign and beautiful fern- and impatiens-covered slopes to obnoxious weeds like lantana and others, due to the regular ‘maintenance’ work and chronic disturbance, including the indiscriminate slashing of all vegetation native or weedy. The roots of many large trees are exposed and are waiting to fall during the next monsoon. And of course the tree-falls would be good enough excuse to be rid of trees along the road. And thus the forest recedes.
Just last month, on February 14th, the road work struck a blow to our 6-year old restoration plot adjoining the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, in a private forest fragment belonging to Parry Agro. The site had been dug up using a JCB for expansion of the road and the mud and rocks dumped over the treelets and regenerating saplings in the plot. A third of the plot had been destroyed. The boards declaring it a restoration plot and carrying a plea not to cut trees, and even the fence marking the boundary, had not mattered. We were devastated.
However, the same evening that we had discovered this, we informed the management of the company and the Forest Department, and they decided to do a field check the next morning and stop any further construction activity over there. The next day was a long but ultimately heartening one. We had unstinting support both from the Range Forest Officer, Mr Lakshmanaswamy, and the Managers of Parry Agro (who own that land and partner with us in the restoration work). The contractor and engineers could be convinced of our arguments. The contractor, Mr. Jayaraman, has been very polite and understanding and has heeded to our request of not widening the road, but to stabilise it with a rock wall with no further extension. However, they are quite at a loss as to what changes they can make in the granted contract without destroying forests or being pulled up for not completing the contract.
Why are we in such a situation? It is probably because of the failure to distinguish roads going through forests (even private forests) from roads that pass through cultivated or built-up areas. It also represents the failure to treat roads in the hills, that receive higher rainfall, differently from roads in the plains and drier tracts. Finally, while extra care is taken when the road goes through private plantation areas and private property, little heed is paid to forests and forest vegetation (in private forests and protected areas) during road construction, widening, or ‘maintenance’.
At the restoration site, there was no need for a road wider than what exists here already—three 4-wheel vehicles can pass by each other comfortably. Do we need something more than that in the hills? Could not a simple roadside crash-guard be installed for safety of travelers? This would have meant little disturbance to vegetation and minimal obstruction for animal movement.
Such roads works are often carried out ostensibly to prevent soil erosion, when actually this part of the hills is probably one of the most stable and with good natural forest cover. But now, after the digging, if left the way it was, the road could cave in. Therefore, we had to let them build some support. Moreover, since all the soil has been just thrown over, they would need to either scrape the soil from the plot along with all our plants or dig up somewhere else. Is all this really necessary? Couldn’t we plan better? Can’t we live comfortably without destroying forests? Already, unnoticed by us, a 200-metre stretch of such destruction has been done lower down some distance from our restoration plot.
In the middle of our discussion with the road contractors and highways engineers, our motivation was pepped-up by the Great Hornbill that landed on a tree nearby. Everyone present there were thrilled to see it. And their support became even stronger.
Over the next two days, about ten people from the Nedunkundru Kadar settlement, who work with us on the restoration project, patiently and carefully rescued as many plants as possible smothered by the soil dump. Each one of them were carefully resurrected, provided support, and watered. Hope all their efforts will not be in vain and these plants will revive. I thank them all for their effort.
We are still monitoring the site everyday as the work is being completed and hopefully wrapped up. We hope that with this the destruction of the forests here by road works will end. Another 200 m length that had been planned is now probably and hopefully stalled.
On a fateful morning in June 2008, four lion-tailed macaques (LTM) including a pregnant female were found dead on the road.
Within a month, yet another individual was a casualty on the same stretch of the road.
There may have been multiple reasons for this sudden and unprecedented tragedy hitting a population of a 100-odd endangered macaques found in Puthuthottam, a rainforest fragment adjoining Valparai town in the Anamalai hills. With a push to attract tourists, the Highways Department has been widening the road and consequently the canopy gap has become wider. This is an obstacle for arboreal mammals and they now have to come down to the ground to cross the road. There has been a sharp increase in the number of tourists and the noiseless cars speeding down the 3 km road through the fragment. And, of course, because of the seemingly well-intentioned feeding of the macaques by people, the monkeys have become bolder and frequently hang out by the roadside.
Since it seemed that all these reasons were beyond our control, we decided to make some efforts to prevent future deaths. As a first step to tackle this problem, we employed an LTM watcher, Joseph, to keep an eye on the monkeys and the tourists. Soon, we had to employ one more watcher, Dharmaraj, as the 3 km long road passing through this fragment was too much to be patrolled by a single person. Together, their job was to ensure that the monkeys crossed the road as quickly as possible, that tourists were made aware of the monkeys when they were on the road and requested to drive slowly as well as not feed them. Jegan and Dina also conducted ‘LTM – watch’ programmes to build awareness and garner support of school children to protect these endangered monkeys.
The deaths of the monkeys had occurred despite the efforts of the Forest Department to put up half a dozen bamboo bridges from tree to tree across the road. This was acting on the advice of Dr Mewa Singh of the University of Mysore, and choosing locations identified by Anand and his team, based on their knowledge of the frequent crossing points over the road. These bamboo bridges, although useful, need to be renewed at least annually.
Even now, the roads are being widened and the canopy gap is widening, even as more and faster vehicles ply on the road. Speed breakers would really help reduce the risk of accidents both for people as well as monkeys and other mammals on these hill roads. Meanwhile, we needed a good solution to facilitate the crossing over the road by monkeys. In May 2010, during a visit to Borneo, we saw tarpaulin/canvas strips being used to build canopy bridges for the apes and other monkeys to cross the River Kinabatangan. We thought it would be a good idea to use such canopy bridges here, too. Although we believe that engineering solutions will not provide long-term redressal to ecological problems such as fragmentation and roadkills, it seemed the best option at the moment. At least these would last longer than the bamboo bridges.
With the help of our friends Kalyan Varma and Ganesh Ragunathan, we procured lengths of used fire hoses from Bangalore, as these seemed more durable, with rubber-lining inside and a canvas outside layer. We wove them into a bridge and replaced the decaying and breaking poles of bamboo that otherwise formed the bridges in two locations. They were installed on the trees across the road with the help of two of our field assistants, who are the best tree climbers and honey collectors—Ganesan from Erumaparai and Dinesh from Nedunkundru. We have had a long association with Ganesan since 1993 and Dinesh has been with us since 2000.
Within a day, we were gratified to see the monkeys comfortably negotiating these bridges to safely cross the road overhead.
Although engineering solutions are not what we hope to have for all conservation problems, we will have to live with these for now. Hopefully, not too far into the future, the Highways and Forest Departments and the people visiting these areas will find it aesthetically pleasing to have large, native trees lining these roads, with branches overlapping over the road that double-up as natural canopy walkways for the monkeys and other arboreal mammals like giant squirrels and brown palm civets.
This post is a means to thank all those who have helped and are helping (particularly Ramki Sreenivasan, Cornelia Bertsch, Kalyan Varma, Ganesh Raghunathan, other friends, and the Forest Department) to keep these monkeys safe and as akin to their truly wild kin.
The week began with a meeting with a manager that makes us want to take stock of the direction of the restoration program even more. How can considerations of conservation and restoration, specifically retaining natural services that existing ecosystems provide in these landscapes instead of further converting them to monoculture plantation crops, become a part of routine plantation management decisions and operations?
The peak of the monsoon seems past. Still there is some time and some saplings left in our nursery for a last round of planting in the restoration sites. So we spent the next day sorting saplings—about 100 for each of the four sites this time. We had another enthusiastic volunteer to help, Karthik Teegalapalli, and so we could get going right away. Started with the Varattuparai and Old Valparai sites, then Iyerpadi Top, and finally at Murugalli Candura.
The weather was perfect. Not too much rain while pitting and planting in the mornings, with some showers later in the day. Our team leader Anand made sure that everybody was doing what they should be doing to mark yet another successful and fulfilling planting season.
Later in the evening, we drove to the “seen god” place. On the way, a lovely carpet of tiny white orchids on a tree branch and some more interesting epiphytes caught our eye and we stopped to take a few pictures.
Passing a trail through tea fields, we saw a Black-naped hare grazing on the meadow-like turf at the edge of the tea. At the same time, a dash of red caught Jegan’s eye and this turned out to be a Stripe-necked mongoose. As we watched, the mongoose went right past the hare, each absorbed in their own lives, and paying little attention to each other—a case of harmonious co-existence between a small carnivore (predator) and a herbivore (prey).
A lovely play of mist, clouds, and rain in the Sankarankudi Valley made our evening. And on the mist and rain-wetted slope: beautiful Impatiens flowers!
And then, a night drive! We were lucky to spot two brown palm civets, a few Large Brown Flying Squirrels (including two glides and what looked like a young one), an unidentified eye shine in the understorey, a sounder of wild pigs, a herd of gaur and many black-naped hare. The first brown palm civet we saw was resting curled up in the fork of a tree branch. As we watched and took a few pictures, it looked up at us and then, rested its head down again. We left the scene with the civet still resting and glad that we had not disturbed it from its cozy notch.
And then on Friday afternoon, returning from the Iyerpadi Top planting, we watched lion-tailed macaques (LTMs) making their weekly visit to the temple! Our LTM watchers, working along the main road to protect the monkeys from speeding vehicles and educate tourists, told us that these smart animals had learnt to come near the temple every Friday. As people would come for pooja and break coconuts here, some LTM may get a snack. Yet, this is a habit and habituation that is better broken and our watchers, Joseph and Dharmaraj, are trying to educate the temple visitors. There are plenty of jack trees in fruit and it is wonderful to watch the LTM feeding on the jackfruit in their arboreal life.
And finally, at the end of the week, we had to go for another meeting… but the one hour long drive was nice. To be woken up by the sound of the wing beats of the Great Hornbill, watching them duet and feed each other, the Nilgiri langurs, a black eagle, a crested serpent eagle, and more impatiens adorning the rock faces and mud banks…encouraged to grow by the water seepage…
What lessens our enthu are the meetings and the pointlessness of planting a few 1000 trees when about five times that is being cleared or degraded at the other end at the same time, or when we find a dead animal like this sambar floating in the reservoir without actually becoming a meal to a hungry predator which pulled it down….
What keeps us going is the possibility of the wildlife sightings whenever we go out.
Of course, the usual melodious Malabar Whistling Thrush at dawn and on cloudy days through the day, the Rufous Babblers coming to roost in the mango tree in our neighbour’s yard, and the sawing sound of our friendly neighbourhood leopard at nights are testimonials to a not-so-bad an environment we are living in.
We left at 6:30 a.m. to our nursery at Varattuparai. It’s overcast and drizzling and cold. We had kept aside around 500 saplings for our restoration site at Iyerpadi Top fragment. The manager of Parry Agro’s Iyerpadi estate, Mr Kaushik Subramani, had been good enough to send a tractor to pick up the saplings and haul them off to the site.
We had our team, plus workers (trusty kadar from the Nedungundru tribal settlement), and one volunteer Kulbhushan (Kullu) to help. While the tractor was on its way, we formed a chain and started moving the saplings down from the nursery beds to the side of the road. Luckily it was not raining heavily.
The tractor took a while to get to the nursery. And Kullu, who had worked hard, got to take a short break.
Finally, the tractor arrived and the saplings were loaded and stacked into it.
And then, an unforeseen problem: the tractor had no door at the back to put up and hold the saplings in place. As it had a bumpy uphill ride to reach the Iyerpadi Top fragment, we had to devise a makeshift door. With a fallen log and binding wire, Dinesh and Satish with a couple of others helping quickly devised a door.
And finally… the tractor was off. Everyone else followed in the Gypsy for the planting. And the planting… that’s another story.