Sky Islands: A Personal Journey Through An Endangered Indian Landscape

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 43 No. 12, December 2023

Text, Images and Cartography by Ian Lockwood

The mystery of place and the idea that we were living on a ‘Sky Island’ – a world conspicuously different from everything else below it – first dawned on my teenage mind during an extended camping expedition in the remote Palani Hills, an extension of the Western Ghats. The year was 1985 and I had signed up to join a motley group of schoolmates trekking a circuitous trail called the 80 Mile Round. It followed ancient human and animal paths around the elevated plateau of the western part of the range. For a short period before the dawn of the automobile, the 80 Mile Round was the ‘ultimate holiday experience’ for visitors to Kodaikanal. But that had all changed by the time we were students, and coming of age in an era of convenience and budding Indian materialism. Our group was drawn from at least a dozen different countries and states of India. We were the outliers; the ones who forsook a lazy long weekend to trudge through unpredictable weather, cook on an open fire, and sleep in damp tents. Some of us had a thirst for adventure, a few just wanted to get away, and many of us had an unrealised and unacknowledged need to commune with nature. We were accompanied by adults who understood this and knew the value of a physically demanding outdoor experience.

The Sky Islands of the Palani Hills rise dramatically from the lower plains in the western part of the range.

On the second day of the hike, we started early from the sheep research station at Mannavanur. The air was mountain-crisp, the sun was brilliant, and we were excited about what was generally known as the toughest, yet most scenic day of the four-day expedition. We walked through terraced agricultural fields near Poondi and passed Second Trout’s Stream, where large areas of montane grasslands were still evident in the 1980s. The gently rolling hills were in the process of being planted with fast-growing non-native timber trees. Sure enough, the path soon passed through vast groves of eucalyptus and pine. These were then relatively young plantations that had been established in the 1960s and 70s by the Forest Department, in a bid to put “wastelands” (as the montane grasslands were considered) to “productive use”. We were only dimly aware that they were part of an early stage of dramatic change that would completely alter the land cover patterns of the Palani Hills. About mid-day, we joined the old Escape (Goshen) Road and slogged along the remains of its gravel tarmac to the high point at Vandaravu. This locally well-known ridge is the highest point (2,553 m.) in the Palani Hills and once hosted “the highest motorable road south of the Himalaya”. The road was constructed in this undisturbed corner of the Western Ghats in the early 1940s. Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and the citizens of Kodai wanted an escape route to Cochin. It got very little use in the subsequent decades. In 1985 it was technically open, but the only vehicles venturing out here were the occasional logging lorries (it was permanently closed by the Forest Department in the 1990s).

Enormous cumulus clouds began building up in the afternoon and we followed the trail south along the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border towards the southern edge of the Palani Hills. I stumbled over a large felid scat full of bone fragments and coarse brown fur. There were plenty of gaur and sambar droppings and clearly, we were now a long way out. As we approached what looked like the edge of the world, an awe-inspiring scene unfolded. Here, in a corner somehow forgotten by the tree planters, was a vast patch of montane grasslands and small shola pockets that abruptly dropped off at the escarpment edge. The side of the plateau fell in near-vertical granite bastions. Patches of shola forest filled the many valleys, and out of them emanated the haunting calls of the Nilgiri langurs.

Down below us, across craggy forest-clad ridges and a vertical drop of about 2,000 m., were the dry plains of the Cumbum valley. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, but this was ideal Nilgiri tahr habitat (see ‘Of Tea & Tahr’ from Sanctuary June 2000). Mist rolled up along the ridges, highlighting and then consuming the details of the scenery. Out across the gathering sea of clouds rose the summits and plateaus of neighbouring ranges – the Sky Islands of the southern Western Ghats. The moment was brief and our group moved along, following the undulating top edges of the cliffs and striving on towards our evening camp before darkness set in.

Many moons have passed since that indelible experience in the remote Palani Hills and my mind has now come back to focus on the ideas of Sky Islands. Every so often, new terminology is coined to propel and lift our understanding of concepts that we had previously observed but not fully understood. In the broad field of environmentalism the notion of ‘sustainability’ is an example first articulated in the 1972 book Blueprint for Survival (Kidd). The concept changed how the public viewed large processes such as economic development and the human relationship with the biosphere. The term “biological diversity”, coined by Thomas Lovejoy in 1980, and the notion of the “biodiversity hotspot” proposed by Norman Myers in 1988, radically changed the way conservation efforts approached notions of “wildlife” and “wilderness” (WWF, Myers). The idea of the “Sky Island” is one such term that is helping us to rethink the uniqueness of the tropical montane ecosystems. In India’s southern Western Ghats, Sky Islands are now recognised as places unique on a global scale while at the same time being under enormous anthropogenic pressure.

During the Southwest monsoon, torrential rains fall in the Sky Islands of the southern Western Ghats. The water in the hills feeds streams and waterfalls that feed streams leading to the drier, leeward side of the mountain range. The ‘spa’ at Courtallam is located at a place where streams cascade down near the Shencottah Gap.

SKY Islands: Global & Local

The term “Sky Island” was first used in the 1940s in southwestern United States to describe the Madrean range of mountains (Dodge). Sky Islands are defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments” (US Forest Service). The term is widely used for ranges in Central America, Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia, to name a few examples. People familiar with India’s hill stations will quickly understand the utility of the idea of Sky Islands. For places like the Palani Hills with summits and plateaus, lofty and cool, so far removed from the sweltering plains below, the term “Sky Islands” fits best.

I was first introduced to the idea of Sky Islands by the evolutionary biologist V.V. Robin. In 2006 we bumped into each other in Cairn Hill Shola in the Nilgiri Hills looking for endemic shola birds. More than any other individual, Robin has worked to identify the upper reaches of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot as Sky Islands. His research has focussed on the evolution of bird species specific to the Sky Islands of the southern Western Ghats. Now as an assistant professor at IISER Tirupati, Robin has nurtured an expanding group of young researchers to examine and broaden our understanding of the ecology of Sky Islands (see his website Shola Sky Islands). Kodaikanal International School has developed an important link with the IISER teams and has supported their work by providing accommodation and a study site on the edge of Bombay Shola.

The idea of the Sky Islands seems to say so much about the uniqueness of Kodai and the Palani Hills – a story that for a long time has been difficult to tell. Those of us who have lived and walked in the upper reaches of the Palani Hills know that there is a very special nature to the landscape and life of the hills. It is a realisation tinged with grief and foreboding as the very landscape has dramatically changed in our short lifetimes. Areas that were once a mosaic of grasslands and shola pockets have been replaced by a carpet of dense wood from other continents. Urban (built-up) and agricultural areas have also expanded significantly in recent decades. The realisation that satellite imagery could help us better tell the story of ecological change in the Palani Hills was first articulated in my 2014 blog post. The images showed that changes were not that old; in fact, they happened in our lifetimes, as our subsequent study of land cover changes using satellite images published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One (2018) demonstrated.

Many timber plantations in the Palani Hills still show evidence of their historical vegetation. These montane grasslands are somehow surviving on the slopes of Perumal Peak. Areas like this are ideal for careful restoration efforts that allow the grasses to make a comeback.

Changes In The Shola

The story of the ecological change in the Palani Hills is complicated and rather messy. During the last few decades citizens, scientists and the Forest Department have engaged in observations, field studies and vigorous discussions on these changes. In the 1980s and 90s the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) helped citizens develop an appreciation for the hydrology of the hills and the importance of sholas. The observation of the revival of shola species under non-native plantations, by backpackers-turned-conservationists Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar, surprised many in academic and conservation circles. There are ongoing debates about the origins of large montane grasslands (are they human or natural in origin?). There are voices that supported this idea while other scientists consider the shola/grassland mosaic to be the climax stage of a complicated process of ecological succession in the upper hills.

The role of fire has been debated. It clearly has a damaging impact on the lower slopes, but is it possible that fire had a role in maintaining montane grasslands? Some areas of Kerala still use fires as an effective management strategy to support healthy montane grasslands. The recovery of large herbivore populations – namely gaur Bos gaurus – in semi-urban areas near Kodaikanal has become a challenge that perplexes citizens and wildlife managers. To what extent the issue of climate change plays a role in the ecological changes in the Palanis has not yet been investigated. There are plenty of vexing issues to keep ecologists and other interested parties engaged in the Palani Hills Sky Islands for many years to come.

Ian Lockwood will be exhibiting a selection of his black and white fine art prints, species profiles and maps at the NCPA’s Piramal Gallery from November 23 to December 3, 2023. The exhibition is entitled Sky Islands: An Endangered Indian Landscape. The exhibition is being produced in collaboration with Kodaikanal International School in support of their new Center for Environment & Humanity.


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