The Palani hills are arguably among the most biodiverse regions in southern India. Dozens of different tree species vie for sunlight and nutrients, and on the forest floor the smaller shrubs and herbs jostle with one another, sometimes desperately, for access to the ingredients of life. In the midst of all of this life there is death too. Stumps and trunks of trees that once stood dot the forest at regular intervals in various stages of decay. The moisture from the wet ground speeds up the decomposition and brings out of dormancy one of the greatest nutrient recyclers of the living world, Fungi.
Fungi are found at almost all elevations and in most of the different forest types in the Palani Hills. They are less abundant in drier scrublands found at lower elevations, but venture higher up--where the slopes are cooler leading to damper conditions on the forest floor--and a plethora of fungal varieties greets the eye for most part of the year.
There is a large variation in the colour, shape and texture found in the fruiting bodies of fungi, illustrated above by species of the bracket fungi family that grow without a support of their own and proliferate along fallen trees or stumps in horizontal layers, often clustered together.
The more traditional type of mushrooms are also found growing on a wide variety of substrates such as the remains of native trees and often even on exotic substrates such as pine and eucalyptus leaves.
There are some fungi that prefer areas near rocks and others that prefer denser cooler jungles . Some varieties seem to like dead substrates and there are others that will feed on still living trees and roots.
Some varieties such as the Reishi mushroom and several others are reported to have medicinal properties, but are not so common.
There are also several kinds of mushrooms that have a somewhat uncommon appearance such as the puffball and the Carmarthenshire varieties that are seen largely in the upper elevations. Once in a while you stumble upon some truly outlandish looking mushrooms and these make for a very exciting and educational survey experience.
Dorai and I started off this survey with a primary focus on mammals but it has become apparent that there is a ridiculously complex ecosystem of other organisms like insects, birds, fungi and other microbes that interact together in ways that we are beginning to observe and trying to understand.
Dorai and I have been doing field work for about half a year now and in this time we have seen a variety of mammals, birds, insects and fish across a variety of landscapes. Such rich diversity would not be possible if not for the enormous variety of vegetation found in the Palanis. The diverse set of habitats found in the Palanis are not all found together, as different climatic and geological factors favour some species over other. This has led to a very interesting set of vegetation types, largely influenced by elevation, across the Palani’s. In my time in the field I have gradually begun to associate elevation and climate to a particular kind of dominant vegetation.
A tree cactus in different stages of flowering
The lower reaches of the hills are dominated by scrubvegetation composed chiefly of plants like acacia, neem, several kinds of cacti, and other drought and heat resistant species. As we begin to climb the slopes and the temperature falls, there is gradual shift in the vegetation, from scrub to a greener and moisture tropical forest type. The valleys with rivers in their centers usually boast a luxuriant green cover with darker, richer soils, and more species diversity. Vegetation also tends to be more dense in areas with more water.
Grasslands with sharp edged lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) and the mountain date palm [Phoenix loureiri] extend for kilometers on steep rocky slopes, and are the norm in higher but drier locations, often adjoining rock faces.
In higher elevations, above 1600m, its common to find lower lying [basin] areas with ‘wet grassy marshlands’ that store water. In the higher elevations, it is also common to have ferns with grasses that form beautiful lush green swarths on the hillsides, but they can be a pain to walk through.
All of this variation provides ideal habitat for different species, which our study data attests. For instance, most elephant activity sightings were seen closer to well wooded valleys boasting rivers and streams and they appear to prefer the middle elevations (where temperature and moisture reach a perfect balance) whereas, the black-napped hare was found to be more active on the sparsely wooded, rocky slopes with short tufty grasses and so forth. Pigs were likely to be most active in places where the soil was moist and suitable for burrowing and foraging (Forest patches with thick leaf litter or banks of streams).
Its a cold and rainy June afternoon and Dorai and I are tramping through the shola. The rain is coming down hard and even under the thick canopy there is no escaping the water. We wade through a stream bed and I experience a rush of gratitude for the sturdy pair of gum boots I have on.
In trying conditions, good gear can mean everything and being well equipped with the appropriate tools to withstand your environment can vastly improve working conditions and your morale .
Dorai and I have had to work physically demanding 8-hour days in a wide variety of conditions.
In the lower elevations hotter, drier conditions prevail so clothing that's light and breathable is indispensable. The sun is strong and as a result I almost always have my hat on. Other core elements of my kit include one sturdy backpack, a water bottle, a good strong pair of hiking boots, a first aid kit for the inevitable injuries tramping through unchartered jungle will bring you, a pair of binoculars, a full lunchbox , a machete for those unwieldy thorny thickets that stop even elephants and a camera for the beautiful moments.
,The vegetation and terrain on the forest floor is at times difficult to predict even with detailed maps and on occasion we have had to make our way out in little or no light. In such situations your torch is your best friend and I never leave base without one. A small bag with some nuts and other dried fruits can really help deal with tiredness in such situations. In case you know you are going to be sleeping outside a sleeping bag will ensure you get a good night’s shut eye.
The rain is also a potential disaster for any technical equipment (cameras, battery banks etc.) you might happen to have on you, hence a water proof bag cover and a good poncho or raincoat is also always good to have around (can help you improvise some shade in a sunny place) .
The kit is identical when we work in wetter conditions, with the exception of gumboots. These require a bit of breaking in with the accompanying blisters, but from then on, those boots will take you pretty much anywhere and keep your feet safe and dry.
There are also a few critters who might try to make a tasty meal out of you like ticks (more in the lower reaches) and leeches (found in staggering numbers in some wetter forests) so some salt, neem oil and whole leaf tobacco can really help keep things from getting out of hand.
Now with my GPS, compass and gear all set, the survey continues...
Humans have been surveying places for a long time. The ancient Egyptians are said to have been the first to do so , dividing land into plots for taxation. Fast forward to the present day and we can see that surveys are used for everything from road building to mineral exploration and assessing the health of an ecosystem among other things.
The survey of the KWLS that I am currently undertaking is happening in fairly wild and remote places. More often than not there are no roads/paths or trails and human contact can be very minimal, thus our ability to go into and exit the jungle safely is of paramount importance.
As mentioned in earlier posts, we follow S-shaped transects[paths] 8km in length for every grid cell. When walking these transects it is very easy to become hopelessly lost and disoriented if not for our navigational aids. In the old days these would have been maps and a compass, but today the Global positioning system [GPS] is the one stop shop for all things navigational.
On this project, I’m using the Garmin Etrex 20, a small but rugged device that thrives in the difficult conditions a survey can throw your way. It works by receiving signals directly from multiple satellites allowing me to more accurately pinpoint my location and it works well on clear days and on more open ground. It, however, is somewhat less accurate on cloudy days and under thick forest cover. This is when a compass really comes to the rescue and is an invaluable part of one’s navigation arsenal
The GPS allows me to mark Waypoints [or specific locations with their lat-long coordinates] whenever I see any signs of animal activity [dung, tracks and direct sightings] . It also records the exact path or Track that I take . This allows me to return the way I came, if no other route is possible [ a feature that has probably saved our lives on multiple occasions].
The waypoints I mark on the GPS are also recorded on my data sheets which are designed to log the Waypoints in an organised way . This will make the job of data analysis
[making sense of the findings] easier.
Now with maps and navigation in check we have to just get one last thing in order. Stay tuned for more …
The Kodaikanal wildlife sanctuary is approximately 650 sq km, which is quite large considering 18 countries on Earth are smaller in area. Surveying an area larger than some countries is not an easy job, and doing so systematically is an added challenge. You may ask how you even go about organising yourself…. the answer is a four letter word…..MAPS!
In the survey business, maps are everything. Knowing how to read and interpret what maps tell us about realities on the ground is absolutely vital. Once we have demarcated an area to be studied on a map, we then break it into smaller bite-sized pieces… quite like how we break up a dosa instead of stuffing it whole down our throats. In our case, we divided the Kodaikanal Sanctuary into roughly 100 cells, each an area of 9 sq km or 2200 acres.
We then looked at individual grid cells and carefully studied their terrain to decide how to approach and survey each cell. Once this was done, the next step was to walk a specifically shaped path or transect through each cell and record signs of mammals along the way.
We would also systematically record data about the nature of habitats and vegetation during the survey. Combining all these data would then give us a more complete picture of how the forests and its inhabitants were faring.
Due to the large size of our cells, it is not possible to cover enough ground with the typical diagonal line transect. We thus decided to use S- shaped transects oriented along specific reference points called centroids to help us navigate each cell in the field.
In this study we placed centroids a kilometre from each other. This meant that to finish surveying a grid cell, we had to walk an eight kilometre long S-shaped path collecting data for eight segments, each 1 km long. Some grid cells needed to be only partially surveyed as parts of a cell sometimes overlapped with farms or other human habitation.
In total we have a hundred grid cells to cover and I’ve got my work cut out for me. With the map and the grid cells superimposed, all that’s needed are some navigation tools and then we’re good to go!
Stay tuned for more on navigation and its importance in a survey in my next post.
It is early morning in mid-April, and Dorai and I are out in the field. We’re moving along a dry stream bed, towards the starting point of a survey transect, when something suddenly catches Dorai's eye. Dorai beckons to me and points to a large cluster of flies hovering in a patch of sunlight ahead of us. We draw level with it and find ourselves face to face with a recently killed sambar fawn.
I barely begin to examine the carcass, when Dorai calls to me yet again, this time pointing to some tracks on the damp stream bed, saying “Sev Nai” or red dog with a wide eyed look. Closer inspection revealed that the tacks were of dhole (Asiatic wild dog). It appeared to be an almost textbook dhole kill. The fawn had been disemboweled and all the vital organs in the abdominal cavity, intestines included, were missing – presumably eaten.
This is in line with the observed hunting behaviour of dholes, that are known to kill their prey by feeding off the flanks and abdominal region. Also, dholes have been seen to be tolerant of scavengers at their kills. We saw confirmation of this a day later when on our way back, we saw that the carcass had been moved and as we approached, two wild boar scampered away from the kill. The dead fawn was surrounded by boar prints and looked visibly diminished. Truly amazing to see live confirmation of things I’d only read about in books.
In the forest, live interactions are not very common and so we rely heavily upon indirect signs, like scats and tracks to decide whether or not a particular animal is present. Dorai almost instinctively looks in all the right places and has been quick to detect the signs of several animals. We have however been faced with herds of elephants and stampeding gaur and these direct signs are recorded too.
We have been on field for approximately three and a half months and have encountered signs of several mammal species like elephants, gaur, three kinds of deer, langurs, sloth bears and several more. Its been an incredibly exciting time encountering these amazing creautures in their natural habitats and following the trails they make through their territories.
Stay tuned and in my coming posts, I’ll show you how exactly we carry out this survey and the tools we use ....
Its been just over two months since fieldwork began and the going has been good but it hasn’t always been easy. Negotiating difficult terrain and possibly dangerous animal encounters are among a few of the daily occupational hazards making it a job almost impossible to do solo. When the going gets tough I find myself relying heavily on my friend, partner and field assistant Dorai, a middle aged Paliyar tribesman from a small village called Kuthiraiyar close to Palani.
The Paliyar people are the original inhabitants of the Palanis and were traditionally food gatherers and are thought to have lived in the Palanis to close to 2000 years. They lived in the forest subsisting mainly on edible tubers, roots, wild fruits and honey, but have had to take on varying occupations to sustain themselves in changing times.
I first met Dorai three years ago when the two of us were part of a small team studying wild foods like tubers and yams in the forests near his home .
Dorai seemed to know the jungle intimately and had a quiet, almost gentle way of interacting with the forest, a quality that drew me to him almost immediately. When I got the approvals for the project, I needed a field assistant and I couldn’t think of anyone better than Dorai. In the last couple of months Dorai has guided me through some magnificently treacherous terrain and on more than one occasion prevented us from wandering smack into the middle of elephant herds. He has also saved our lives on several occasions by finding water in small hidden springs and once by guiding us to a safe refuge in near total darkness on a stormy night. In addition to the obvious benefits of his company, his knowledge of the jungle and its life forms has made my time with him a learning experience. His general conduct and way of living is also remarkable. Dorai lives very simply. He is extremely adaptable, able to survive and be content in almost any situation. In a small backpack slung across his tiny frame, he carries the entirety of his material world… along with our lunchboxes. He never asks for anything, and waits patiently to for his needs to be met… almost like the forest itself. It made me really think about how people from my socio-economic background live.
As Dorai and I continue on this journey together, I know that we will have many more adventures and discover a lot about ourselves in the process. I’m glad to share this experience with him.
Just an overnight bus ride away from Bangalore lie the “Palani Hills” , an eastern spur of the Western Ghats, a region recognized as one of the top hotspots for biodiversity in the world. Spanning an area of 2068 km2 , altitudes ranging from 400 – 2500m and rainfall levels from 600 – 2000mm, The Palani’s are home immensely diverse habitats, flora and fauna. These include endangered species endemic to the Western Ghats such as the Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), grizzled giant squired (Ratufa macroura), Dhole[Cuon alpinus]and numerous others. These hills also form vital watersheds that supply water and other crucial resources to millions of people living in the plains surrounding them.
In 2013, the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary [KWS], a 609 square sqare km portion of The Palani’s was officially declared protected by the government ,however, there is insuffient research to to draw even basic conclusions like whether conservation efforts are succeeding or not . This lack of information combined with increasing human activity threatens to seriously degrade this fragile ecosystem. In late 2017, a small group of individuals came together with the mutual intent of remedying this situation in some way. So here I am today ,conducting a baseline survey of mammal presence, distribution and abundance and this blog is an attempt at sharing this rare oppurtunity a glimpse into a pristine and ancient ecosystem which is right in our backyards.
I am Dhruv Athreye and I have been working in and around the Palani hill for the last five years. I worked in the Palanis as a teacher, farmer, cowherd and sustainable waste management facilitator among other things. Since September 2017, I have been working as a Junior Research Fellow for FERAL [Foundation for Ecological research, Advocacy and Learning] an auroville based research entity concerned with conservation and related issues.
dAs of February 2018, I began the mammoth task of surveying this 609 sqare kilometer area for signs of mammal activity . So far I have surveyed approximately 180 square kilometers in the last two months and have seen signs of several different mammals such elephants, gaur, various deer species, porcupines, boar, dhole and many others.
Seen above are fresh elephant dung and
a drying stream bed showing tracks of the Indian gaur and sambar deer.
In my time here I have come to realise that the animals, though vital, form but a part of an intricate web of systems that affect all life in the area and beyond.
So come and join me in the deep jungle and lets see what nature has to teach us.
When I started out my work on understanding human – animal interaction, I was particularly interested in the extent of damage caused by animals due to crop raiding. I live in Shenbaganur, surrounded by small scale farmers. I would hear stories of gaur destroying fields, wild boars digging up potatoes and sambar deer herds frequenting farms. My neighbour, a 70 year old man, would work on his field in the day and stay up the whole night to protect his crop at night. Sometimes, looking at his sleepy eyes in the morning, I would think he was drunk! Xavier often tells me that soon agriculture wont be a viable income option anymore.
Now, seven months of visiting villages across the Palani hills and having talked to close to 500 farmers, 98% of families interviewed have experienced crop depredation by animals. 65% of the household interviewed think that the frequency of crop raiding by animals has increased in the last 20 years. Alagavel from Vilpatti village said that he hadn’t even seen a gaur when he was growing up and suddenly now they come to his field everyday. There has been no drastic change in agriculture practice in the last 20 years in the Palani Hills. The shift from crops like semai, foxtail millets and paddy to cash crops like carrots, raddish and potatoes in the upper Palanis happened about 40 years ago. So why this increase in the last 20 years? Maybe there has been no increase and the perception of loss is more now due to our present economy. Maybe there is. The general opinion in the villages for the reason for this increase seems to be the strict laws on not harming the animals when they come to the field. “ We would shoot a boar or two when they came into our fields before, this would scare the rest away for a long time. Now, the wild boars know that we will not harm them and are getting bolder by the day” says Palaniswamy from Gundupatti village.
52% of people interviewed said that they lost more than a quarter of their crop to animals this year. Fields bordering the wildlife sanctuary face more conflict than fields near the village, this however doesn’t count for the wildboars which roam everywhere.
The range of economic loss due to animals raiding crops, passing through fields, breaking fences etc was anywhere between Rs 5000 to Rs 700000 depending on the area damaged and the kind of crops damaged. The average loss across is around a whopping Rs 60000. No wonder Xavier and many many many farmers like him in the Palani Hills don’t want their children to take follow their steps.
Vadagaraparai is a village I visited recently. It lies close to the forest boundary on the Palani Ghat road.
The residents of Vadagaraparai are from several caste and indigenous communities. One such community is the Paliyans, traditional hunter gatherers that have lived in the Palani hills for several centuries.
During my visit, Shankar, a Paliyan resident, walked me though several farms. The farms resembled the adjacent forest in appearance. To begin with, these plots of land were not clearly demarcated or separated by fences. Instead hedges and bushes acted as natural separators.
The Paliyan residents hung glass bottled from trees, so they would rattle and produce sounds which would warn them of animals passing through. Gaurs, Wild boards and sambar deer are regular visitors to these forest farms.
These farms are always grown organically. They depend on the natural fertility of the soil. In one such farm I saw coffee bushes, pepper vines, amla, jackfruit, orange, lime, avocado and custard apple trees growing in a half acre plot alongside wild jamun and silk cotton trees. Although these multi crop farms do not need as much financial input or labour, according to Shankar small harvests of many different crops, makes it challenging to market.
However, even within the village of Vadagaraparai, only the Paliyan farm appear different in these ways. Several other communities in the village practice more mainstream agriculture with more conventional fencing options like barbed wire or chain link fences. They most often use chemical pesticides and fertilizer for crops.
A range of reasons have driven these communities to make different choices. For instance the Paliyans became land owners only very recently, besides their access to capital, in comparison to other more privileged communities has be limited. Today these diverse agricultural practices coexist in the Palani Hills.
1. Dhruv Athreye in February 2018 began a survey of mammals in the Palani Hills and is publishing notes of his field work.