Photo essay: Exploring the flora and fauna of upper Nilgiris

Print edition : November 06, 2020

A normal leopard (male) and a black leopard (female) in the upper Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Prakash Ramakrishnan

Mukurthi Peak, after which the Mukurthi National Park is named.

A group of Nilgiri tahrs. Photo: A. Vinoth/WWF India

Leopards were found in camera traps in 145 locations. Photo: Tamil Nadu Forest Department and WWF India

Cestrum aurantiacum, native to the Americas but a weed in the Nilgiris. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Eriobotrya japonica, native to south-central China, grown for its fruit; its leaves are used to make tea. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Euphorbia pulcherrima, a Christmas plant. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A neatly planned hamlet in the Nilgiris. Care should be taken not to allow human populations and concrete constructions to increase in the upper Nilgiris, and efforts should be made to increase its vegetation cover. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Berberis tinctoria, a sloth bear food plant that is edible for humans too. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A Sambar stag in hard antler. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A Gaur group . Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A jackal with a sambar leg scavenged from a tiger kill. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A leopard basking on a rock. Photo: Prakash Ramakrishnan

Tea gardens and labour colonies. The forest on top of the hill is vital for water conservation. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Tibouchina urvilleana, or princess flower, one of the lovely exotic flowers of the Nilgiris. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A saddleback , or mature male tahr. Photo: A. Vinoth/WWF India

Anaphalis neelgerryana on Glenmorgan Hill. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A Nilgiri langur at Cairn Hill, a tourist spot on the outskirts of Ooty. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Feral buffaloes in Parson's Valley; they sometimes chase people. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A sambar stag in the last stages of velvet on Kolaribetta, which at 8,625 feet is the second highest peak in Tamil Nadu. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A pair of Nilgiri martens (the Himalaya has yellow-throated martens). Photo: Prakash Ramakrishnan

black leopards were photographed in camera traps in 10 locations. Photo: Tamil Nadu Forest Department and WWF India

WWF India camera trap studies carried out in 2018 in the western part of the upper Nilgiris (about 500 sq km) indicated the presence of 35 individual tigers, photographed in 99 locations. Photo: Tamil Nadu Forest Department and WWF India

Elephants periodically range into the upper Nilgiris. Photo: D. Boominathan/WWF India

Notes from a trip taken in June 2019 to study the upper Nilgiris landscape outside the Mukurthi National Park, a region that deserves greater conservation attention because of the rich wildlife it supports and its important function as a source of water for irrigation, hydroelectricity and drinking.

IN the upper Nilgiris, the trail along the boundary between the Udhagai North and Sigur Ranges was heavily disturbed by wood cutting, but WWF India camera trap studies along the trail in December 2018 recorded the presence of the tiger, the sloth bear and both the black and normal leopards. As we stood enjoying the cool evening breeze and looking at the deep valley in the north, where the Sigur Range of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve lies, a barking deer gave frantic alarm calls, which indicated that it was possibly being stalked by one of the large cats of the area. Near the agriculture fields, which lie to the south, we had met an elderly woman grazing her cow in a meadow amidst patches of dense lantana. She told us that her cow gave her nearly 20 litres of milk every day and that she got only Rs.20 a litre when she sold it locally but Rs.40 a litre when she sold it in Ooty (Udhagamandalam). We asked her whether there was any danger to her cow from large predators, and she said that was the reason she was with the cow while it grazed.

The people in the landscape put in hard work cultivating crops such as garlic, potato, carrot, cabbage and beetroot with water from borewells. The soil in some of the ploughed fields looked so red it seemed as if the earth was soaked in blood. One field bore indications of an elephant raid. The 57-year-old owner of the field, a long-time resident of the area, confirmed that there was a group of three bull tuskers living in the vicinity and that crop raiding was an occasional problem. He said there was more wildlife now than in the past.

In June 2019, we visited the upper Nilgiri plateau (Nilgiris Forest Division, 810 square kilometres) with the express purpose of understanding the landscape outside the Mukurthi National Park (about 111 sq km), which is in the western corner of the plateau. The landscape covers five taluks (Coonoor, Gudalur, Kotagiri, Kundah and Udhagamandalam) of Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu and has the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the north, Coimbatore district in the east and Kerala on its western and southern borders. The area is divided into 10 forest ranges, of which Korakundah and Kotagiri are the largest (77 sq km each) and Governor Shola the smallest (19 sq km). These ranges together total close to 500 sq km, and the forest cover in the division is reported to be close to 50 per cent.

Exotic vegetation

The vegetation in the landscape besides the crops already mentioned includes a large number of exotics such as tea (Camellia sinensis), which covers vast tracts of land; blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus); Australian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon); black wattle (A. mollissima); silver wattle (A. dealbata); pine (Pinus longifolia); Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and one or two species of cypress and casuarina. The British introduced these tree species to the Nilgiris to save the sholas, which were getting decimated for firewood. They also brought species such as European gorse (Ulex europeus), Scotch broom (Cystis scoparius) and orange cestrum (Cestrum aurantiacum), which has a foul smell and seems to be the dominant weed associated with the sholas of the Nilgiris. But they had also brought the commonly seen Eriobotrya japonica, an exotic fruit tree, and many beautiful flowering plants such as poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), tree dahlia (Dahlia tenuicaulis), white passion flower (Passiflora calcareta), blue morning glory (Ipomaea learii) and princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana).

A board outside a small forest rest house (FRH) in the Longwood Shola (the original Dodda solai, or big forest, that the British named Longwood Shola) has a list of the shola species native to the landscape and another is available in the compound of the Kodanad FRH. This rest house is at an altitude of about 6,690 feet (one foot = 0.3048 metre) and was built in 1908. It was in excellent condition when we stayed there in August 2015, but in June 2019, we found that the maintenance of this heritage rest house was woefully lacking. Meliosma pinnata is the tree that captures the most attention in the Nilgiris landscape, where it has a globular shape when it grows in the open areas.

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On June 18, we met Anita Varghese and Abishek of the Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, who briefed us about the increasing conflict between people and wildlife such as bonnet macaques, sloth bears and wild pigs. They also said that there were frequent deaths of pangolins and leopards on the roads and that a tiger had visited the Kotagiri Range. We left the Keystone Foundation in the evening as we were to spend the night at the Kodanad FRH. The road from Kotagiri to Kodanad goes via the Kattabettu Range, a land of sholas, tea gardens and eucalyptus plantations.

While on the road, we saw 12 gaurs with some calves peacefully feeding in a tea garden protected by barbed wire fencing. It is remarkable that these huge animals are able to live in a landscape divided by roads, cultivation and barbed wire fences. Once during a workshop on wildlife-human conflict conducted at the Keystone Foundation, it was brought to our attention that people were getting injured after bumping into gaur bulls when they went for walks in the dark. When it was suggested that some sort of hunting programme could be considered to control the gaur population, the people vehemently opposed the idea, saying that they loved gaurs. They suggested, however, that at least some gaurs could be translocated to the Mukurthi National Park. If the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department could in 2010-11 translocate 50 gaurs from the Kanha National Park to the Bandhavgarh National Park, across a distance of 250 km, it should be possible to translocate some gaurs from problem areas in the Nilgiris to the Mukurthi National Park. However, this will not solve the problem of gaurs in the upper Nilgiris as only a small number of them can be taken (gaurs are gradually spreading into the Mukurthi National Park) and the animals left behind will continue to breed and grow in number.

Early on the morning of June 19, we went to the Kodanad View Point to have a look at the Moyar Valley. On our way, Ruben, an anti-poaching watcher who came with us, said that there were about 15 chital in the forests around the Kodanad FRH. During our August 2015 visit, we were told that there were around six. This may be the highest location in the chital’s native range.

There was haze over the valley, and we saw a solitary gaur bull grazing and a male kestrel hovering in the air and heard the calls of grey jungle cocks, giant squirrels, barking deer and sambar. From the Kodanad View Point, we had a clear view of Thengumarahada village, which had been leased to 140 members of the Badaga community so that they could form a society to promote agriculture. The cultivation had extended across the valley leaving little space for the movement of wildlife.

The morning weather was breezy, and a flotilla of cotton white and rain clouds drifted across the blue sky. After breakfast, we went to the forests east of Kodanad, walked through the Curzon Tea Estate towards a grass-covered hillock where a gaur bull was feeding. This area falls under the rain shadow part of the upper Nilgiris, so it has plants such as hopbush (Dodonea viscosa), dwarf date palm (Phoenix humilis) and orange climber (Todalia asiatica var floribunda). Elephants had fed heavily on the fronds of P. humilis. Along the road, there were sloth bear droppings with seeds of jamun in them, a serpent eagle soared in the sky, white-cheeked barbets called from the shola, and on the grass-covered hillock, there were droppings of porcupines and scats of dholes with sambar hair but no sign of the deer itself. From the hillock, we could see the Moyar river, the Thalamalai plateau north of the river, Kalampalayam village and the Bhavanisagar reservoir where the water level was extremely low.

On June 19, before leaving for the Udhagai North Range, we visited the Longwood Shola and were surprised to hear that a tusker and a tiger were seen there in April 2019. M. Balakrishnan, an anti-poaching watcher, said this was the first time an elephant had come to the Longwood Shola in the 30 years he had spent in the area. The tusker had come from the Marwala area of Kodanad. How the animals made their journey is the million-dollar question as the shola is almost in the middle of human settlements. To the west of the shola was a floriculture facility, and a new one was coming up for mushroom cultivation. Pesticides and fertilizers used in these facilities would end up in the stream in the shola, which is reported to provide drinking water to 24 villages.

We spent the night of June 20 at the excellently maintained Avalanche FRH, which was built in 1852 at an altitude of about 6,690 feet. On the way, we briefly visited Cairn Hill, a tourist spot, and saw a large troop of tame Nilgiri langurs near the entrance. I remembered seeing a male barking deer when we walked here in August 2015 and wondering how was it possible for the deer to survive in Cairn Hill, which is just on the outskirts of Ooty.

It was much cooler in Avalanche than in Kodanad although both are almost at the same altitude. Rain clouds were drifting west across the mountains. The view from the forest rest house even today gives one a glorious picture of the landscape with the dark evergreen shola forests in front. The high mountains rise beyond the forests with patches of dense forests, grasslands and rocky outcrops home to barking deer, tahrs, sambar, leopards and tigers. We saw fresh pugmarks of a tiger near the rest house, and a troop of Nilgiri langurs watched us from the canopy.

On the forenoon of June 21, we visited a defunct trout hatchery and later drove to the Upper Bhavani reservoir, which is about 25 km from Avalanche. On the way, we went up Kolaribetta (about 8,625 feet), which is the second highest peak in Tamil Nadu after Doddabetta (about 8,650 feet). The road was rough, and the climb was steep with many hairpin bends. We could accomplish the trip only because we had WWF India’s four-wheel-drive jeep. Dense patches of mist came drifting from the west accompanied by a drizzle and a wind that was cold and strong.

At the top, visibility was limited because of the mist, so we failed to see any tahr there. However, on our way down, at a turning that was sheltered from the wind by the high bank of the road, we saw numerous fresh pellet groups of the tahr, indicating that a large herd had been there recently and had obviously left the area on hearing our vehicle. A few weeks ago, one of us (Boominathan) saw about 30 tahrs at the top of the hill, and they had allowed him to approach close enough for him to take some good pictures.

The tower for the wireless repeater on the top of Kolaribetta, non-functional now, and the damaged barbed wire fence around the tower are an eyesore as is the trekking shed that was built a little below the peak with no provisions for water, which means it remains almost unused. After Kolaribetta, we continued our journey, and that evening turned out to be remarkable as we saw 45 sambar and one gaur bull before we reached the reservoir. Interestingly, when we drove on the same route the next day, we did not see a single sambar.

On the forenoon of June 22, we drove to the Pothimund reservoir, which is in the Parson’s Valley Range. The vegetation all along the way was dominated by wattle, and we saw one group of Nilgiri langurs and some peafowls. Peafowl sightings in the upper Nilgiris is something new.

Christopher, a forest guard who accompanied us, said that sambar and tigers occur in the range, and there are about 200 feral buffaloes, which sometimes chase people. Tigers kill the buffaloes.

Mukurthi Fishing Hut

Our aim that day was to go to the Mukurthi Fishing Hut, but we were unable to do so as the road was blocked in many places by fallen trees. It used to be under the care of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, which was founded in 1877 as the Nilgiri Game Association. Christopher told us that the hut was unused nowadays. The fishing hut was closed and sealed, and in 2018-19, the present District Collector, J. Innocent Divya, even closed the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, which, sadly, was riven with internal politics and infighting.

Major Richard Radcliffe, a keen angler who had spent years working for conservation in the Nilgiris, lies buried in the compound of the hut. One of the finest adventure trekking trails in the Nilgiris could be from the well-maintained Parsons Valley trekking shed to the Pandiar FRH via the Mukurthi Fishing Hut and the Mukurthi peak. Small groups of nature-loving trekkers staying in places such as the fishing hut would help improve the monitoring and protection of wildlife as visitors would be accompanied by staff of the Forest Department. Buildings like these should not be allowed to go to ruin. As we left the Parson’s Valley Range for Avalanche via Governor Shola, we saw two sambar stags both in velvet and a herd of 16 feral buffaloes.

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On the morning of June 23, the mountains and the valleys were under dense rain clouds and mist. As it had rained in the night, the weather was much cooler than it had been the previous day, but we could still hear several grey jungle cocks calling around the rest house. Our mission that morning was to climb the Glenmorgan Hill, which was once known for the presence of tahrs. We went to the Glenmorgan Tea Estates (situated at about 7,000 feet), where we drove up to the edge of the tea plantation and climbed to the top of the mountain. Initially, it was steep, but later the trail went along a gentle slope. There was sparse growth of wattle on the slope; some had been cut for firewood but many showed signs of sambar rubbing, and the trail was littered with sambar pellets. We found many patches of orange cestrum and Nilgiri barberry (Berberis tinctoria) in fruit; sloth bears eat these fruits and they are edible for humans, too. On the peak we found old elephant and gaur dung and many tiger scats along a trail. Extensive meadows, steep rock faces that could serve as escape terrain and the availability of water in summer in several places, as reported by the staff of the tea estate, are features that could make the Glenmorgan Hill a perfect habitat for the tahr; it could easily support about 200 animals. There was evidence for the past occurrence of the tahr on the mountain: a cross atop a small hillock in the deep valley in the west. It had been installed in memory of one Frank Arthur Butcher, who died at the age of 19, on September 18, 1975, when he fell from a height while going after a tahr.

Camera trap studies

WWF India camera trap studies carried out in 2018 in the western part of the upper Nilgiris (about 500 sq km) have indicated the presence of 35 individual tigers. Of the 273 grids (each 2 sq km) that were camera trapped, photographs of tigers were captured in 99 locations, leopards in145, black leopards in 10 and sloth bears in 65. Elephants also come up from the surrounding landscapes along eight routes that WWF India identified. Camera trap studies were not carried out in the three eastern ranges (Coonoor, Kattabettu and Kotagiri) because there are a large number of human settlements and tea plantations there and the fear of cameras being stolen is real.

The camera trap studies the Forest Department carried out in the Mukurthi National Park recorded about 10 tigers. These studies point to the richness of the wildlife of the upper Nilgiris.

The upper Nilgiris has major conservation value because of its water retention capability: the area has eight dams that provide water for irrigation, power and drinking. Ooty town gets its drinking water from the Parsons Valley reservoir.

For these reasons, the upper Nilgiris region requires greater conservation attention and should be treated on a par with premier protected areas such as the Corbett and Ranthambhore Tiger Reserves, where there is regulation on the number of visitors. Can we think about such regulation for the upper Nilgiris as the lakhs of people who visit the area in summer put enormous pressure on the limited resources of this fragile mountainous landscape? One humongous problem the visitors cause is garbage, which at least two District Collectors, Supriya Sahu and J. Innocent Divya, tried to address effectively.

There are reports that people of the local communities, chiefly the Badagas, sell their land to outsiders and then leave to settle in towns on the plains. Usually, concrete structures are built on the land that is bought. There should be a law that prevents outsiders from buying land in the upper Nilgiris, and if local people want to sell their land, the government should acquire it by paying the appropriate amount. This land should then be managed and developed into a forest area with native tree species. The bottom line is that care should be taken not to allow human populations and concrete construction to increase in the upper Nilgiris. On the contrary, efforts should be made to increase its vegetation cover. Wattle should be grown in the vacant lands in a regulated way so that people do not cut native trees in the forest for firewood. With the involvement of local people, noxious plants such as C. aurantiacum, lantana camara, sticky nightshade (Solanum sisymbrifolium) and the thorny Mysore raspberry (Rubus niveus) should be removed from the slopes and tiger grass, or broom grass (Thysanolaena maxima), which is native to India, should be grown as fodder for their cattle.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation

Foundation, Mysuru; WWF India; and the Corbett Foundation. D. Boominathan, N. Ravikumar and

K. Vijayakumar are all from WWF India. R. Raghunath is an independent researcher.

The author thanks Madahvi Sethupathi and Mervin Johnsingh for their help with this article.

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