The Zai Whitaker column | Remembering Bob and Tanya, saviours of the Western Ghats’ sky islands

The Zai Whitaker column | Remembering Bob and Tanya, saviours of the Western Ghats’ sky islands
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The Zai Whitaker column | Remembering Bob and Tanya, saviours of the Western Ghats’ sky islands

The Zai Whitaker column | Remembering Bob and Tanya, saviours of the Western Ghats’ sky islands

The Palani Hills bug bit Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar, two younger British backpackers who have been travelling by southern India in 1985.

The Western Ghats should not solely among the many world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots, but in addition among the many eight “hottest” of the hotspots. They’ve additionally received one other ecological Grammy: the standing of a UNESCO World Heritage Website.

And the Palani Hills (truly mountains) are considered one of its stars, a treasure trove like no different. Aside from their wealthy biodiversity, in addition they host wildlife corridors to neighbouring mountain ranges, and two ecosystems distinctive to the south-western reaches of the Ghats. The primary of those, ‘sholas’, are cloud forests that nestle within the valleys. With their excessive endemism, these are biodiversity hubs with knobs on. The second are the montane grasslands, ecologically as essential as sholas: possibly much more so, as a result of their excessive water retention makes them a serious water supply for downstream and plains communities. This mountain mosaic, which incorporates the Kodaikanal plateau, falls into the evocative class of sky islands — remoted mountains surrounded by dramatically completely different lowland environments. It’s an ethereally lovely place. I went there in ’87 for a brief keep, and stayed on for 18 years. The Palani Hills bug had bitten me, good and correct.

It additionally bit Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar, two younger British backpackers who have been travelling by southern India in 1985. They determined to do a brief Kodai go to, and “soak up” the mountains. Three a long time later they have been nonetheless there, an essential a part of the native conservation group of residents, NGOs, teachers and authorities officers. Their dedication, work and achievements have been phenomenal, and their deaths — Tanya’s in 2016, and Bob’s in September this yr — have left an enormous vacuum. They died too quickly, too younger, however left a legacy of immense worth: an understanding of the Palanis’ ecosystem which could have a everlasting bearing on its conservation and restoration.

It’s an attention-grabbing story with a quixotic twist; a reminder that Issues Aren’t At all times What They Appear.

In 1852, the British Raj — within the type of portly Main Partridge of the Bombay Military — took the disastrous step of introducing plantations of eucalyptus, pine and Australian wattle within the Palanis. Little question a well-meant try to supply gas for the “natives”, it was disastrous for the atmosphere. These unique species shortly and fully modified the delicate montane ecosystem. With none of their pure checks and controls, unique crops are inclined to go mad, spreading like wildfire and wiping out indigenous landscapes (as we’ve got seen with lantana).

The Zai Whitaker column  Remembering Bob and Tanya saviours of the Western Ghats sky islands

The younger backpackers within the Eighties

At the moment montane grasslands have been conveniently and erroneously referred to as wastelands; and when it comes to earnings from fuelwood and timber, the plantations have been profitable. So increasingly more of the “wasteland” was given over to those fast-growing, income-generating species. This apply continued post-Independence. Truckloads of timber and fuelwood hurtled down the mountain tracks to Kodaikanal and cities and cities on the plains. It triggered a critical decimation of the grasslands. As talked about earlier, these are treasured repositories of water. The truth is they’re the supply of many of the massive south Indian rivers. In accordance with Tanya, the grassland cowl had fallen from 87 to three p.c because the plantation apply started. The sholas have been shrinking too, due to the better human entry and invasion of the plantation species.

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This was the grim — and quickly worsening — situation when forest-loving Bob and Tanya arrived in Kodai, and the explanation they by no means left. They set to work. Utilizing their meagre private assets, they   began a shola nursery within the backyard of their rented cottage in Vattakanal: three greenhouses with fruit and gas species for distribution, and tons of of shola species, many propagated for the primary time ever. Decorative cacti have been additionally cultivated, on the market to accommodations and resorts; the earnings from this helped maintain the nursery.

Thus began a shola restoration venture that introduced excessive reward and acclaim. Bob and Tanya concerned children from the area people, and this morphed into the Vattakanal Conservation Belief. 1000’s of seedlings have been distributed free, and path-breaking knowledge collected on the seeding, germination, and care of shola crops. They labored carefully with the Tamil Nadu Forest Division and NGOs just like the Palani Hills Conservation Council.

Nevertheless, there was a lacking piece — a vital one. They needed to get official permission to enter the sholas and begin their replanting and restoration work; not simple, as a result of they have been protected areas.  However these two stalwarts weren’t cop-outs, and didn’t consider in giving up.  The dear piece of paper got here in 2001. To the Forest Division’s credit score, they have been in a position to look past forms and recognise the worth of Bob and Tanya’s work. This began a botanical feat that concerned onerous bodily exercise, meticulous file maintaining and managing their rising military of younger greenies.

The Zai Whitaker column  Remembering Bob and Tanya saviours of the Western Ghats sky islands

Spreading the message about grasslands. Photograph courtesy Pippa Mukherjee

Mainly, they have been rising forests of their nursery and placing them again within the sholas. To these of us fortunate sufficient to have seen them within the discipline, their data of crops was beautiful. Proficient within the names and peculiarities of shola timber, they may even rattle off the identify of essentially the most insignificant little grassy tendril or liana on a mossy trunk. They recognized and rescued many uncommon crops, by this propagate-and-reintroduce method. Pambar shola was considered one of their conservation websites, and so they have been thrilled when seasoned botanists couldn’t differentiate between the unique, “pure” components of the shola and the restored ones. Or when Nilgiri langurs returned to a specific patch they’d restored. This raised hopes that someday the Nilgiri pipit, regionally extinct, could be heard once more within the montane grasslands. There have been common lengthy, steep walks to and from Marion, Blackburn, Picnic, and different shola forests, full with leeches, nettles and “bum journey” on steep, slippery slopes in the course of the rains.

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One early morning in Might 2014, the Palanis conservation group was delighted to see this headline in The Hindu: ‘State Prepares to Remove “Aliens” from Rain Forests’. The Court docket had requested the state of Tamil Nadu to make a complete research of the interaction between the unique and native species, and take away these endangering the forests and grasslands of the Western Ghats. To us, the Kodai group, it appeared as if there was lastly a glimmer of hope for the shola-grassland mosaic of our magic mountains. A few of us had been viciously uprooting acacia saplings whereas on hikes and picnics, feeling like brave environmental activists. We waited for extra information on this plantation-elimination initiative. The federal government forms was gearing as much as eradicate the plantations; the dimensions of the venture could be unprecedented.

However within the meantime, whereas strolling alongside the sting of Blackburn Shola, Bob and Tanya had made an essential botanical discovery:  they’d spied some orchids rising on an previous, mangled wattle tree. They have been seeing increasingly more of this proof of the shola invasion of plantations. Extra importantly, they have been additionally seeing at first hand, the speedy resurgence of the plantation species, when lower. Clear felling led to an explosion of weeds, and 1000’s extra seedlings of the plantation species. Felling and clearing didn’t carry out the magic of bringing again the sholas and grasslands. These findings had been offered at workshops in Bengaluru and elsewhere, together with the landmark symposium “Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation”, attended by botanists and ecologists from a number of organisations in India and overseas. Bob and Tanya’s findings have been broadly accepted and valued.

The Zai Whitaker column  Remembering Bob and Tanya saviours of the Western Ghats sky islands

One of many greenhouses. Photograph courtesy Beulah Kolhatkar

Their findings modified the course of the Palanis conservation motion, form of turned the tables. These previous plantations have been truly shola nurseries! In fact, they shouldn’t have been planted within the first place; however their removing at this stage would trigger a critical ecological regression, possibly even the tip of the remnant grasslands and sholas.

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These of us who knew them, and their dedication to the Palanis, are hoping that the Kodaikanal township will create a everlasting memorial to those two excellent botanists who in impact saved the sky islands. Sure, botanists, although neither had any educational coaching within the topic, and not one of the “{qualifications}” we maintain so pricey. Relaxation in peace Bob and Tanya, in your individual, well-earned sky island; hopefully with a Nilgiri pipit trilling within the distance, and surrounded by Strobilanthes kunthianus and some Elaeocarpus blascoi… one of many rarest of the shola species, which you rediscovered in Pambar shola and helped propagate.

(With because of Ian Lockwood for offering essential assets for this text, and studying the draft.)


Writer and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Financial institution Belief/Centre for Herpetology

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