You'd Think Cutting Kodai Plantations Will Save Its Grasslands. It Won't.

The sad truth is it's almost impossible to convert plantations to montane grasslands unless the successive waves of invasive weeds and saplings are held back.

Tourists from the plains posing for photographs cause a traffic jam. Dense photogenic stands of trees extend on either side of the scenic road from Kodaikanal to Poombarai, in Tamil Nadu. The groves that draw their admiration aren’t forests; they are plantations of invaders that are gaining ground every year. The botanical warriors are wattle (Acacia mearnsii), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), and pine* (Pinus sp.). The judiciary – the forest department – and ecologists are debating how to manage them.

At the turn of last century, British forestry officials derided the vast empty treeless expanses in the higher elevations of the Palani Hills. They called them wastelands, of no use to anyone. Besides, they felt the numerous marshes made the place inhospitable. Planting water-slurping trees would drain the marshes and revenue from timber products would turn these lands productive. With these two goals in mind, the colonial forest department planted saplings of wattle and eucalyptus, and pine to a lesser extent, an effort that continued until a few years ago.

Wattle bark, rich in tannins, was used to tan leather, wattle and eucalyptus wood pulp fed the paper and rayon industries, and pine logs were sawn for timber.

By the 1990s, demand for wattle bark dropped with increasing imports of bark extract. Several PILs accused South India Viscose, the main producer of rayon, of pollution and forced the company to shut down. But contractors continued to harvest trees for paper mills until 1996, when a Supreme Court order banned the felling of trees. This ought to have put the spread of plantations on hold. But the forest department continued planting these trees long after they had stopped cutting them.

Animal problems and water scarcity

A gaur in Kodaikanal town. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

A gaur in Kodaikanal town. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

A few years later, Kodaikanal town saw a seemingly related trend. Herds of gaur sauntered into the bus stand, streets and gardens, injuring and killing anyone who irritated and harassed them. Recently, a gaur sought refuge in a resident’s garden from earsplitting music played through temple loudspeakers. When the man returned home after dark, using the feeble light from his mobile phone, the agitated animal, perhaps scared of the weaving light, burst out of the garden through a narrow driveway. While brushing past, it tossed its head and flung the man through the air. He survived with a few injuries that could have been far worse.

Why were these wild animals hanging about town? The culprit: those fast-growing plantation trees had replaced grasslands, leaving the gaur with no forage.

Despite towering above the plains and catching passing rain clouds, Kodaikanal suffers from water shortage. Residents complain of receiving drinking water once every few days. The culprit: those fast-growing timber trees suck water right out of the ground.

By this time, a conservation ethic pervaded the administration. The sight of foreign trees routing natives of the soil rankled. It was time to reverse the trend.

Meanwhile, in 2013, the Tamil Nadu state government declared more than 600 square kilometres as the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. This made any tree-felling untenable under the Supreme Court order since the area had gained even more protection with the announcement.

The court case

Plantation invasion moving in from the right. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

Plantation invasion moving in from the right. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

An advocate filed a PIL in the Madurai Bench of the Madras high court in 2014 asking it to direct the forest department to remove the invasive trees throughout the Western Ghats, including the Palani Hills. Three days later, the two-judge bench issued an interim order. While later orders are available online, this particular one isn’t. However, a compliance report filed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department quotes the order, “In this regard, the authority concerned has to take steps to annihilate wattle and eucalyptus trees in the forests of Kodaikanal hills, Palani hills and in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu region and save the forests.”

This order ought to have cheered conservationists. In one stroke, it would get rid of the plantations and solve the crises of water and wild animal encounters. There was just one sticky point: the Supreme Court order.

Instead, the forest department drafted a proposal to remove the alien trees, a timber operation that it knows only too well, and in their place, plant shola forest species. The scheme now awaits the National Board of Wildlife’s nod.

Even if the board and the Supreme Court approve it, will this course of action do any lasting good?

The shola ecosystem

Shola sapling next to a dead wattle tree. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

Shola sapling next to a dead wattle tree. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

The high altitudes of the southern Western Ghats – the Palanis, the Nilgris and the Anamallais – support a unique shola forest-grassland ecosystem. Grass-covered hills, reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, separate forested valleys. In these cool and wet forested islands of the sky, unique species found nowhere else evolved over millennia. The short-statured shola forest trees cannot survive in open sunlit areas exposed to frost, and montane grasslands don’t do well in shady humid groves. For centuries, their contradictory needs kept trees and grass in their places.

This is one reason why the forest department’s proposal to knock down exotic trees and plant shola species in their place is bound to fail. Native trees cannot survive on bare ground without anything to buffer them from the elements.

But the bigger problem is this: The concerns of the forest department and the judges are misplaced. The shola forests are not under as much threat from the plantations as is made out to be. Although the trees are stunted, the forests hold their own against the towering foreigners. The dense shade they cast on the forest floor doesn’t encourage any adventurous wattle or eucalyptus seed from germinating.

What is under severe peril from plantations are the montane grasslands and its flora and fauna. This is because the forest department did not cut down shola forests to create these plantations. It raised these trees on grasslands.

One resident of the open treeless expanses is the Nilgiri pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis), a small bird streaked with brown. In 2011, Robin Vijayan, an ecologist and assistant professor at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Tirupati, had a hard time finding it. Reading old natural history literature, he found that in the 1800s, early collectors had trapped it around Kodaikanal town, where it had been relatively common. But now, it is a rare bird hanging on to its precarious existence in a few patches, a canary of the grasslands.

Grasslands under threat

Weeds take over a cleared plantation at Kurinjimala restoration site (Munnar landscape, Kerala). Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

Weeds take over a cleared plantation at Kurinjimala restoration site (Munnar landscape, Kerala). Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

Although called grasslands, grasses are not the only plant life. Many leafy herbs (their closest relatives are in the Himalayas) grow here. A 1999 study chronicled 70 rare and threatened plant species from the Palani grasslands alone. The most famous of the flora is the kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus) that blossoms once in twelve years, painting the undulating grasslands lavender. Today’s visitors would have to trek to remote areas to see such a vision.

While we hear much about endangered rainforests and how critical they are to our water security, we hear nothing of what makes grasslands special. Just like trees, the plants of these rolling downs absorb moisture. Water trickles down, joining creeks, then rivulets and turns into the major rivers of this part of India. Without raising any alarm, the grasslands shrank.

In 2014, Ian Lockwood, an educator, photographer and writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, showed it was possible to track such environmental changes using Landsat images. Vijayan and his student, M. Arasumani, collaborated with Lockwood and other ecologists with support from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to assess the extent of grasslands in the 520-square kilometre Palanis Hills, above 1,400 metres.

The earliest available satellite map belonging to the year 1973 shows most of the area covered in grasslands, extending nearly 375 square kilometres (37,500 ha.). By this time, the forest department had already spent a few decades planting exotic species on a large-scale, so this isn’t the original extent of the treeless expanses. Four decades later, only a third – about 125 square kilometres (12,500 ha.) – remains. Even this greatly decimated landscape doesn’t exist in large sections but in almost 2,000 fragmented patches, a majority of which are smaller than 10 hectares. The plantations really took off within 20 years, between 1993 and 2014, when the department continued planting exotic species even though there was no way to legally harvest them. From the most widespread type of terrain in montane Palanis, more than 70% in 1973, the grasslands became the rarest.

Loss of grasslands over four decades, 1973-2014. Credit: INTACH Kodaikanal Project

Loss of grasslands over four decades, 1973-2014. Credit: INTACH Kodaikanal Project

What’s the extent of the plantations? These maps don’t make a clear distinction between shola forests and plantations. The PIL estimates the department’s handiwork takes up 220 square kilometres (22,000 ha.) in Kodaikanal Forest Division.

The other lesser threat to grasslands is agriculture. Fields of potatoes and winter vegetables aggressively eat into the natural habitat at exponential rates. Between 1973 and 2014, it expanded more than 200% in area, from 31 square kilometres to 105 square kilometres.

With this sharp decline in grassland habitat, Vijayan considers the Nilgiri pipit to have the smallest range of any bird in the country, with a total of less than 400 square kilometres in many little patches separated from each other.

Considering the scale of the problem, shouldn’t the focus of remedial action be on grasslands rather than shola forests?

The Shola Invasion

Shola regenerating in a plantation. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

Shola regenerating in a plantation. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

The department maintained wattle plantations by regularly setting fire to the undergrowth, according to Nina Sengupta, an ecologist based in Auroville. Sengupta studied gaur in the Palani Hills in the late 1980s, when plantations were still being managed and harvested. As part of her thesis, she studied the growth of bushes in stands of different ages. Without fire, the undergrowth defeated wattle.

Stopping the active management of plantations, i.e, no more fires and harvesting of timber, created perfect conditions for another invasion. Exotic trees had prepared the ground for shade-loving shola trees to conquer what was formerly grasslands. Under the shade of wattle, eucalyptus and pine, sheltered from the sun and wind, native trees set root. “The plantations were acting as a nursery for sholas,” says Lockwood.

Many researchers misunderstood this slow-motion invasion.

“Bob [Stewart] and Tanya [Balcar] were the ones who brought this to light,” Vijayan told The Wire. “I had worked in sholas for ten years and I didn’t recognise what was going on. Not only me, many academics didn’t understand what was happening.” They had seen the shola trees amongst the foreign ones and assumed the worst – that exotic trees were invading forests.

Self-taught botanists and “guerilla planters” Stewart and Balcar came to Kodaikanal in the mid-1980s and set up the Vattakanal Conservation Trust. They reared shola forest saplings in a nursery, often germinating species no one else had success with before, and trekked to various parts of the Palanis. “Until 2007, we were arguing that plantation trees should be cut down,” says Stewart. “That year we realised we had lost it. The shola tree invasion had become much more intense by then.” (Balcar passed away in September 2016.)

Vijayan recalls emerging from a talk given by Stewart and Balcar in 2013 with a sense of disbelief. A colleague shared his feelings when she exclaimed, “Do you believe them!” Incredulity was the common reaction as news of shola growing under plantations percolated to the rest of the conservation community. They thought shola trees were fragile, finicky species incapable of stepping out of their comfort zone. Besides, toxins from wattle and eucalyptus prevented anything else from growing in the understorey. All these proved to be myths.

By then, Stewart had scientific studies to back him up. In 2011, Birgit Einhellinger, a student of the University of Applied Sciences Weihenstephan-Triesdorf and TERI University, studied the regeneration of native trees in plantations. As many as 33 species grew in dense thickets of more than 2,700 saplings per hectare. However, native species weren’t successful in gaining ground everywhere.

Six years later, as the sholas march in, the mature exotic trees are in a losing wicket. In their battle, another native species entered the fray: a pathogenic fungus, Botryosphaeria sp. Stewart says this is the downfall of wattle. Wattle doesn’t have access to so much groundwater in its native Australia, and here, it was paying the price for the profligacy of its youth. After shooting up rapidly, the trees run out of water and their bark cracks. The fungus latches on to these fissures. Infected trees develop swollen canker and keel over dead, yielding to a vigorous shola forest.

“I remember they showed us the remnants of wattle trees taken over by lichen and fungus at Blackburne shola,” Lockwood told The Wire. “The trees had shrivelled up. It’s a hybrid ecosystem – shola trees at the bottom, plantation trees on top.”

The fungus doesn’t affect eucalyptus and pine trees, but many species of shola trees are staging an assault on their plantations.

Cutting plantations is counterproductive

Cleared plantation near Munnar. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

Cleared plantation near Munnar. Credit: Prasenjeet Yadav

The plantations are already doing what the forest department wants to do: encouraging shola trees. One could argue that removing the exotic trees would hasten the process of restoring the land to native species. Remember, frost and sun kill young shola trees. Besides, what we need is to get the grasslands back.

“We thought if we clear the plantations, we’d magically get the grasslands back,” Lockwood. He wasn’t alone in such wishful thinking.

Stewart and Balcar conducted experiments to see if grasslands would emerge after hacking down plantation trees. “They found it was very, very difficult,” says Lockwood. Before Kodaikanal became a wildlife sanctuary, the department clear-felled wattle in some areas, and the results are visible.

Thickets of invasive weeds like lantana, eupatorium and the thorny tobacco tree rise in the space. Besides, merely chopping down eucalyptus won’t do since, like a botanical phoenix, it sprouts anew from the stump. It has to be pulled up by the roots, making an already labour-intensive job even more so. The scale of the enterprise is so vast that manual labour would be inadequate. The department has to bring in heavy machinery that would plough up the topsoil and destroy neighbouring native species. Along with the weeds, saplings of the exotic trees set root with explosive vigour, creating impenetrable thickets that even animals couldn’t push their way through. Many stretches in remote areas are far from the reach of machinery, making this a Herculean undertaking.

Not only will the endeavour to remove plantations be a preordained failure, it destroys fragile plants that have settled in among the uniform rows of trees. In 2012, Stewart and Balcar discovered a gentian (Exacum anamallayanum), an extremely rare plant with beautiful bluish purple flowers, in a gully within a wattle plantation at Mathikettan shola. In its effort at restoration, the forest department clear-felled the plantation and the gentian disappeared, prompting Stewart and Balcar to send an anguished email to colleagues.

“Instead of letting [botanical] progression take place, clear-felling sets the clock back,” says Stewart.

The sad truth is it’s almost impossible to convert plantations to montane grasslands unless the successive waves of invasive weeds and saplings are held back. This is no small task and requires single-minded determination, an enormous budget, and a tireless army of workers. No one knows how long it might take. If the forest department and the judges believe that this is a one-time effort, they couldn’t be more mistaken.

What to do

Women carrying headloads of firewood. Credit: Janaki Lenin

Women carrying headloads of firewood. Credit: Janaki Lenin

Stewart, Vijayan, and their colleagues, including Lockwood, write in a paper yet to be published that the main focus should be on protecting the remaining grasslands. Half of them are within Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. A few more patches could be included within its boundaries say the authors. The revenue department and many private landowners own many holdings. With their cooperation, agriculture expansion into grasslands has to be limited.

Even as exotic trees lose to sholas in plantations, they’ve opened a new front, extending into the grasslands where they have little competition. If no one pulls up these pioneering saplings, they could replace the little remaining grasslands. The authors advocate staving off this invasion as a second line of protection.

If the march of the exotics isn’t stopped, Vijayan says, within a few years tree cover could stretch continuously from the Palani hills to Munnar for the first time in several millennia. Plants, birds, and small animals that had been separated would now be in contact, leading to a biological upheaval.

The third recommendation is by far the most controversial. They suggest letting the old plantations be. It may take a hundred years but shola trees will eventually replace them. This may not be the best, but it’s a better outcome in a bad case scenario. Plant conservationist Suprabha Seshan, of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad, and ecologist T.R. Shankar Raman, Nature Conservation Foundation, Valparai, agree. In 1989, Sengupta had also made the same recommendation in her thesis.

While this makes sense for areas where shola trees have made inroads into plantations, what about plantations that haven’t been infiltrated?

Where there are original shola forests, their pioneering seeds colonise plantations. If such forests, or ‘mother’ shola as Stewart and Lockwood call them, aren’t nearby, seeds don’t travel far from the motherlode. Lockwood points to the plateau between Berijam-Marion shola as one such area where no shola sapling has managed to rear its head above the pine needles carpeting the floor. He suggests thinning such plantations. Seshan adds that inter-planting native saplings in those gaps would give native recolonisation a kick-start.

Stewart says the shola is moving into the area slowly, and these plantations are thinning naturally. He and Balcar recommended sowing Syzigium densiflorum, a montane relative of the jamun, as a catalyst.

The plantations offer other important services. They are an important source of firewood for local households, and a habitat for wildlife including tigers and their prey, sambhar. What will become of them if the plantations go? The overnight removal of these trees will send villagers into shola forests, a fallout that nobody wants.

Even if the courts and the forest department take their time to come around, there is no time to lose in protecting what is left of the grasslands.

How would these recommendations solve the water problem?

Saplings of wattle, eucalyptus, and pine are thirsty. They shoot for the sky as their roots guzzle water underground. But once they mature, they cut their water consumption. So clear-felling plantations is no panacea. The cohort of saplings that take root in their place will syringe up more water as they compete with each other for their spot in the sun, and this could exacerbate the water crisis. Instead, changing rainfall patterns, unplanned urban development and misuse of water could well be the prime culprits.

Gaur suffered a catastrophic rinderpest epidemic in the 1950s and 1960s. People who trekked in the surrounding areas then recall finding skeletons in shola forests. Hunters also trained their cross hairs on these wild cattle. This combination of disease and hunting may have kept gaur numbers low. With protection from wildlife laws, the species has made a slow steady recovery despite plantations eating into prime forage areas. That’s because they don’t survive by grazing alone. They also nibble on leaves. With shola saplings proliferating across the landscape, the bovines have plenty to eat. Einhellinger noticed that as much as 52% of the young trees had been browsed and gaur had caused most of this damage.

Billy Kolhatkar, a long-time resident of Kodaikanal, says the animals showed up in town during a severe drought in 2004 when Kodaikanal lake shrank to a puddle. But they could have been around unseen for a lot longer. Stewart recalls seeing a herd in 1990, the year of the World Cup. Some live in the old cemetery in Kolhatkar’s backyard adjoining the 25-hectare Bombay Shola. One of the headstones is the testament of a poor soul’s untimely departure from this world at the age of 31, felled by a gaur.

Although the animals have habituated to people and mind their own business save for the odd misadventure, they are already returning to the shola-plantations. Whether their slow exodus is of their own free will or coerced is debatable. “The department drives the herds into the forests,” says Raju, a taxi driver in Kodaikanal. “Their jeep follows the herd slowly and the animals keep walking and walking. They don’t get alarmed. When the gaur reach a shola, the jeep returns. Earlier, there were lots of gaur. Now just a few remain.”

Researchers have to identify whether the problem of urban gaur is driven by lack of forage, population increase, habitat disturbance, or an inordinate fondness for human company. Assuming that felling plantations would send the gaur out of town is far-fetched. The large-scale disturbance may create an even bigger problem than exists now.

No matter how one looks at this problem, cutting trees is not the answer. Denuding 200 square kilometres of trees in a short span of time will be nothing short of an ecological disaster.

*There are more than one species each in the Palanis, but they are treated generically here.

The author thanks G. Bala from Palni Hills Conservation Council and Pippa Mukherjee for their help.

Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.