A walk in the clouds

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

THE KUNTHIPUZHA VALLEY enveloped in mist.-

THE KUNTHIPUZHA VALLEY enveloped in mist.-

Ten of us wildlifers were on a trekking expedition from Bangitapal (2,281 m) in the Mukurthi National Park to Sairandhiri (1,100 m) in the Silent Valley National Park. The mission: to evaluate the importance of the two national parks in the conservation planning for large mammals in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

THE mornings first golden rays lit the Mukurthi peak (2,554 metres) and tinged the dry grasslands on the slopes in a warm shade of red. Next to it, the Nilgiri peak (2,474 m) was still shrouded in the dim light of dawn. From a vantage point atop the Kundah mountain range, I could see the Karulai range of the South Nilambur Forest Division. The steep mountain slopes towards the north were densely forested and the Nilambur valley, with its many patches of teak plantations, was clearly visible. Beyond Nilambur rose the Meppadi mountains (2,000 m).

Mukurthi (78 square kilometres), a dumb-bell shaped protected area in the south-western end of the Upper Nilgiri plateau, was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1986 mainly to conserve the Nilgiri tahr and declared a national park in 2001. The Gudalur Forest Division and the Nilgiri South Forest Division lie to its north, the latter bordering it on the east as well. On the west is the South Nilambur Forest Division and to the south is Silent Valley. Mukurthi is part of both the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and the 6,000-sq km Nilgiri sub-cluster, which has been recommended to UNESCO for inclusion in the World Heritage Site list.

The British used the Bangitapal-Sispara route as the shortcut for mail between Udhagamandalam (Ootacamund, or Ooty) and Kozhikode. Until the early 1960s, the Mukurthi landscape was a hunting ground where, besides grey jungle fowl, hare and wild pigs, a stipulated number of tigers, sambar stags with a minimum hard antler length of 36 inches (90 cm) and saddleback tahr (adult males with white saddles) could be shot every year. Cloud-capped mountains, misty valleys, beautiful streams, grasslands that change colour from season to season and evergreen sholas (high-altitude evergreen forests in valley habitats) make the park extremely scenic. It is home to the only population of the Nilgiri tahr (nearly 200 animals) left on the Upper Niligiri plateau. In the 1800s, several tahr herds occurred all over the plateau. The tahr shares its mountain home with the mouse deer, the barking deer, the sambar, the dhole, the leopard and the tiger.

Elephants migrate to the park, largely from Silent Valley, between June and December when the two monsoons bring nearly 5,000 mm of rain. Numerous little streams drain the plateau, with the vast majority flowing into either the Moyar or the Bhavani river. The Moyar itself finally flows into the Bhavani at Peerkadavu on the Coimbatore plains; both rivers irrigate an enormous area in the three Tamil Nadu districts of Erode, Tiruchi and Tanjavur.

In the distant past, when climatic conditions were much cooler, Himalayan species of plants and animals were widely distributed along the peninsula. A few of these survive in the plateau where a temperate climate prevails. Prominent among these are the tahr and the rarely seen Nilgiri marten, both closely related to their Himalayan counterparts, the Himalayan tahr and the Himalayan yellow-throated marten. Among the many plants with a Himalayan connection, Rhododendron nilagirica and Mahonia leschenaultia, are the easiest to recognise. There are many native plants, too. A colourful orchid (Aerides ringens) growing in the shelter of the sholas caught my eye.

Before the arrival of the British, the major communities that lived on the plateau were the Todas and the Badagas. The former grazed buffaloes in the grasslands and the latter were agriculturists. Both obtained their firewood and timber from the sholas. This and the arrival of the British in the 1800s eventually led to the destruction of many sholas. The British, settling in places such as Udhagamandalam, Coonoor and Wellington, planted many species native to England to re-create a mini-England here. They also planted many other exotic species such as the wattle, the pine and the eucalyptus in the grasslands. The narrow Sispara Pass marks the entry from the Mukurthi National Park into Silent Valley. The path descends through dense, damp, evergreen forests frequented by the elephant, the gaur and the tiger. The credit for bringing to light one of the last bits of fairly intact evergreen forest in the Western Ghats goes to the British. In 1847, Robert Wight, a Scottish surgeon and botanist, collected plants around the Kunthipuzha (the Kunthi river), which flows through a deep valley. The river owes it name to Kunthi, mother of the legendary Pandavas who were supposed to have resided in these forests during their 13-year exile.

It is said that the Kunthipuzha never turns brown even during heavy rains because of its fairly intact catchment. The river rises at an altitude of 2,200 m, tumbles down a deep gorge, flows for 15 km through the length of the valley and finally joins the Bharathapuzha. Wight named it Silent Valley because of the perceived absence of cicadas, a plant bug, males of which sing loudly. The forests were declared a reserve forest in 1914, and portions of it were subjected to forestry operations between 1927 and 1976.

In 1973, the valley became the focal point of Save Silent Valley, Indias fiercest environmental debate of that decade, when the Kerala State Electricity Board decided to implement the Silent Valley Hydro Electric Project centred on a dam across the Kunthipuzha at Sairandhiri. The resulting reservoir would have flooded 8.3 sq km of the rainforest habitat, home to a large number of lion-tailed macaques, among numerous other endangered life forms. Eventually, conservationists won the battle and the Silent Valley forests were declared a national park in 1984. In 2007, a 148-sq km buffer zone (109 sq km from the Mannarkad Forest Division and 39 sq km from the Nilambur South Forest Division) was added to the park.

The buffer is reported to have four tribal groups (Kattunaikan, Kurumba, Irula and Muduga) settled in 10 tribal hamlets. The park harbours over 200 bird species (14 of them endemic to the Western Ghats), 128 butterfly species (nine exclusive to the Western Ghats) and other charismatic species such as the king cobra, the Nilgiri langur, the gaur, the elephant, the dhole, the leopard and the tiger.

It was drizzling when we started our journey from Udhagamandalam on March 12. On the way to Bangitapal we saw a sambar stag in magnificent hard antlers emerging out of the Avalanche shola and walking along a very steep trail, a feat, among large ungulates, only certain species like the sambar can effortlessly accomplish. The stag, and many other sambar we observed later on this trip, did not have a sore patch (a large patch at the base of the neck on the ventral side which is devoid of hair, flesh-coloured during the rutting season and black during the non-breeding season). It had been my conviction that all sambar in South India have the sore patch, based on my observations of animals in Mundanthurai, Periyar, Anamalais, Mudumalai and Bandipur. One explanation suggested for the occurrence of the sore patch is that it may have a function in scent marking; but its absence in individuals in other regions, such as Corbett Tiger Reserve, does not support this hypothesis.

The drizzle turned into a torrential downpour as we spent the night in the Bangitapal forest bungalow. It did not augur well for our upcoming three-day, 50-km walk across a terrain that was as rough as it was scenic. The following morning was still overcast, but the eastern horizon was cloudless. A few Nilgiri langurs stirred out of their roost in the shola behind the nearly 80-year-old bungalow and a Malabar whistling thrush whistled its melody. We made an early start to avoid the late afternoon rain.

The first 13 km of the trekking path from Bangitapal traverses the Mukurthi National Park over an undulating terrain across grasslands, along a trail well maintained by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, and through large and small sholas. From the Kundah mountain, to the south-west towards Sispara, I could see sections of our meandering trek path over these undulating hills and shola patches. The calls of the Indian scimitar babbler and the Nilgiri laughing thrush can instantly cheer a weary trekker, and I realised that it is the cool atmosphere of these forests that condense water out of the clouds pregnant with rain. If global warming reduces this capability of the sholas, the human population that depends on the water from these mountains will suffer terribly.

Our trail was used frequently by the tiger and the elephant. In spite of the recent rains the smell of tiger spray was discernible in many sholas. Tigers have a habit of marking their ranges by spraying on objects like bushes and trees on their trails. To me, the spray (a mixture of urine and pheromones) smells like ammonia.

The flight distances of large mammals are supposed to indicate the level of disturbance, particularly the poaching pressure they face. In one large, dark shola my approach alarmed a group of Nilgiri langurs. While the rest of the langurs scurried deep into the shola, an adult male grunted and watched me from a distance of just 15 m. The Nilgiri langur is one of the large mammal species heavily poached in the Western Ghats because of the alleged medicinal properties of its flesh. Their abundance here could be indicative of the protection they receive.

Watching the bold langur, my thoughts went back to my visit to Sispara in 1978 in the company of John Joseph, the then Wildlife Warden of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and later the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Tamil Nadu. Also with us on that visit was Major Richard Radcliffe, who was an active member of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association. Major Radcliffe, a British hunter-turned-conservationist, did yeoman service for conservation in the Nilgiris for 30 years until his death at the age of 82. Thirty years on, I still had the clearest memory of having trekked from Bangitapal to Sispara looking for tahr poachers. We walked four to five hours from Bangitapal, while Sispara was a mere two-hour climb for poachers. Over a rock face, we saw a ropeway of canes used by them to complete the last phase of the climb from the valley. We dismantled it.

At the entrance to Silent Valley we heard sounds of large-bodied animals moving and saw the vegetation close to our path swaying. There was fresh dung on the trail. The staff from the national park awaiting our arrival at the boundary said that they had just seen a herd of four elephants go past. Entering Silent Valley, we saw gaur signs for the first time on the trek.

As we approached the spacious Walakkad anti-poaching camp, the camping site for the day, we saw the remains of a porcupine that had been killed by a leopard. The Walakkad camp had a well-maintained elephant-proof trench around it, and the camp was kept remarkably clean. The next day we took the shortcut to the Poochipara camp. The route took us past a 70-cm-wide Bischofia javanica tree clawed by tigers, forced us to cross the Kunthipuzha several times, climb out from a deep valley and, after numerous elephant signs, brought us finally close to a solitary elephant which was unwilling to budge an inch in spite of the efforts (noises) we made. Yet, amidst the dense undergrowth, we could only see the back of the elephant when it retreated.

In most places the monotony of the forest floor covered with leaf litter was broken by the blood-red fallen leaves of Elaeocarpus munronii. We saw sambar tracks all along the way, and the Silent Valley staff said that occasionally tigers with one or two cubs were seen. We had our only sighting of a lion-tailed macaque when we were closer to Poochipara. The Poochipara camp overlooks the densely forested Kunthipuzha valley, while the Poochipara mountain (1,310 m) rises behind the camp like a sentinel. Black eagles soared over the valley.

The third day of the walk was a deep descent to cross the Kunthipuzha and the equally steep climb up to reach Sairandhiri.

In the southern and south-western portions of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (Palakkad, Coimbatore, Mannarkad, Nilambur and a part of South Wayanad Forest Divisions, 2,000 sq km), the Mukurthi-Silent Valley parks and the adjoining forest ranges (for example, Korakundah) in the Nilgiri South Forest Division (200 sq km) together form an extremely crucial habitat block. It is fairly inviolate and has prey such as the sambar, the wild pig, the gaur and the Nilgiri langur; it may be the only area in this landscape where tigers still breed.

While it is crucial to protect this breeding habitat, we should endeavour to establish two more tiger-breeding habitats in this landscape. One of the areas for this could be the habitat east of Silent Valley, which can be called the Siruvani Conservation Reserve (CR), encompassing a minimum area of 600 sq km and located around the Siruvani reservoir. This reservoir provides water to Coimbatore city, with a little over one million people. The connectivity between the Siruvani CR and the Silent Valley National Park should be cleared of all the encroachments that have come up in recent years.

The other area could be the 500-sq km Nilambur CR in the west, which is well connected to both the Silent Valley and Mukurthi National Parks. With sufficient prey, these two CRs together can easily support a minimum population of 30 adult tigers, which can add to the existing single population of minimum 200 adult tigers, presumably the largest in Asia, north of the suggested conservation reserves.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is a wildlife biologist with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.

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