A once clear open landscape was now covered in dense exotic plants, providing cover for carnivores like tigers to prey on Buffaloes. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

Shrinking wetlands

The Nilgiris routinely experiences frost in winter, which melts and forms marshy wet habitat. With the advent of the eucalyptus and other exotics, several naturalists and environmentalists observe that the wet grasslands have all but disappeared.

“The shola forests also gave us several fruits, edible mushrooms and honey. Now we have to go the market for all this,” observed Vasamalli. During festivals, Todas now go to the Mukurthi National Park, west of Ooty where they have permission to collect certain items needed for rituals. “What we could get in our backyard, we have to hire vehicles and go there once a year,” said Thorthey.

Considering the importance of the shola-grassland system in their culture, it is not surprising that the Toda vision for the Nilgiris would include the grasslands. But is this merely a pipe dream? “Of course, there is a very strong nostalgia for grasslands, but I don’t see how the landscape can transform overnight,” said Krishnan.

“I am a Badaga. My people used to graze cattle with the Todas. So, given the choice, even I would prefer the grasslands to come back. But it’s a complex biotic process, that had taken place over a century. It is going to take decades to restore it,” he added.

Some ecologists are more optimistic. Madhusudan Srinivasan, a plant ecologist from the University of Kentucky, who had studied Scotch broom, an invasive shrub species in the Nilgiris, that the British brought in along with Eucalyptus and wattle, is very clear that restoration must be given a chance. In 2014, the Madras High Court in response to a petition, directed the National Wildlife Board to take necessary steps to remove exotics from across the Western Ghats. “I think the court has moved in the right direction,” said Srinivasan. “All the plantations have to go,” he added.

Avful, a particular species of grass vital for Todas to thatch their temples built in the traditional style, is increasingly hard to get. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.
Avful, a particular species of grass vital for Todas to thatch their temples built in the traditional style, is increasingly hard to get. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

Difficult to restore the landscape

“Restoring the landscape would be a monumental effort, but it’s not unfeasible. It would be impossible to restore the ecosystem back to the original state, but it might be possible to revegetate to a state that might enhance many of the ecosystem services, such as water retention, purification, soil conservation, etc,” Srinivasan added.

He also cautioned that existing plantations were a constant supply of propagules (seeds) that would further the spread of exotic trees into the grassland. “This is particularly true for black wattle that produces copious amounts of seeds each year. The seeds of black wattle can lie viable in the soil seedbanks for 100 years or more.”

The trouble with restoring grasslands is that it is immensely challenging not the least because grasses are slow growing and some species in the Nilgiris don’t flower for years. “Almost all of the native grasses are perennial, and the conditions need to be just right for them to establish. I suspect shola trees will come back more readily than grasses in areas where the plantation are removed,” speculated Srinivasan.

Softwood plantations form a band behind a Toda hamlet on the upper Nilgiris plateau. In the foreground is a shola patch. The original habitation was only sholas and grasslands. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

One source of Srinivasan’s optimism are his own experiments. In December 2008, in a patch where scotch broom had been burnt, he planted two native grass species Dichanthium polyptychum and Themeda tremula and looked at their survival. “After one year Dec 2009 [sic] the overall survival was 40% and 30%, respectively,” he explained noting however that there was no significant increase in growth in either species. As these grasses are slow growing species Srinivasan feels his preliminary experiment presented an exciting prospect for grassland restoration.

The forest department has to work on a war footing

But little progress has been made since this work. Local environmentalist Godwin Vasanth Bosco who runs an organisation called Upstream Ecology is attempting to grow different species of grasses in a nursery while Tarun Chabbra, who has written extensively about Toda culture, attempted some restoration work in a small patch of land through his organisation, the Edhkwehlynawd Botanical Refuge (EBR).

Aradukuttan who manages a nursery at the Keystone Foundation has been growing some species with Vasanth Bosco’s help. But Chabbra stressed that the scope of these projects is limited. “The main land is with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. They have to really work on a war footing,” he said. “I mean, I guess there has to be a will.”

Aradukuttan, a co-ordinator for biodiversity management and restoration at the Keystone Foundation, pictured near a pen of buffalo calves. He lost an adult female buffalo to a tiger attack recently. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.
Aradukuttan, a co-ordinator for biodiversity management and restoration at the Keystone Foundation, pictured near a pen of buffalo calves. He lost an adult female buffalo to a tiger attack recently. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

After the court order was passed the then divisional forest officer (DFO) of the Nilgiris North Division, Sumesh Soman mentioned that exotic wattle was being removed from three places and more plans of phased removal was being made. “The problem is that the DFO keeps changing. They come for one year, make a plan and the new DFO completely changes the plan,” pointed out Aradukuttan. These words ring true, as just a year after he assumed charge in the Nilgiris, Sumesh Soman has been transferred to the Gudalur division and a new DFO has taken charge.

As the main stakeholders of these grasslands, Aradukuttan believed that Todas themselves had a role to play in the process. “We have been managing the grasslands for thousands of years. We know how to use fire to stimulate grass. We know which plant will grow well and where,” he said. However, so far, no Toda member seemed to have been invited for any consultation. “Nothing can happen effectively if you don’t involve the Adivasi people,” said Aradukuttan. “The forest department people will visit a site once every few days at the most. They can’t monitor the survival. They can’t see if their efforts are working,” he added. “Yet, we are not consulted in any way.”

This sentiment was echoed by Toda members even in positions of power like Vasamalli who is a member of the State Wildlife Board. “They [government officers] nod a lot during our State Wildlife Board Meetings but I don’t think they are listening,” she mused.

In some hamlets like Bikapathymund, Todas have gathered their own resources and begun felling trees like Eucalyptus. “But we just cut the trees. We haven’t removed the stems or dealt with the shrubs or wattle. That is much more difficult and costly.” said Aradukuttan. But he also seemed determined to not let things pass. “If there is a big meeting regarding all this at some point, I am going to go and speak. I am going to tell them this won’t work. I won’t keep quiet,” he added.

Following a court order, Toda members in Bikapathymund have taken to felling exotic trees. But complete removal will be far more complex and cost intensive. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

 

Banner image: Younger members of the Toda community, like Thorthey Gooden have moved away from a primarily pastoral life, yet they wish to see the grasslands return. In the distance are stands of eucalyptus and wattle. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan.

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