The montane grasslands of the Nilgiris are extremely important to the indigenous pastoral Toda tribe. The Todas depend on the grasslands to graze their unique breed of buffaloes, considered sacred in their culture.The colonial British government and post-Independence Indian government planted exotic trees species for fuelwood in the Nilgiris. The trees invaded and decimated most of the grassland ecosystem forcing the Todas to give up their pastoral lifestyle.Though now increasingly part of the modern economy, a study found that the Todas still wish for the lost grasslands of the Nilgiris to return.But getting rid of exotics and restoring the landscape is a complex task made difficult by the lack of action. Standing in the middle of a grassy hill, Thorthey Gooden looked around. The grass was short, just an inch long – like a lawn drying out in the summer. In a small dip to the right stood a clump of trees, short and gnarled. Behind them in the distance was a stand of tall coniferous trees. “It is so ugly,” said Thorthey grimacing. “How can tourists come all the way to see this?” He was referring to the conifers, exotic pine trees that had been planted in the hills in the upper reaches of the Nilgiris, in the high altitude grassland homes of the Toda community. The original human inhabitants of the high mountains of the Nilgiris belong to one of six indigenous tribes – Toda, Kota, Badaga, Kurumba, Irular and Paniyar. All except the Badaga community are classified as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, owing to their distinct culture, small population size and restricted geographies. Of these, the Todas have invited somewhat more attention and scrutiny by anthropologists because of their distinctive features, language and pastoral lifestyle centred around the Toda buffalo, a distinct breed that geneticists found had been separated from the Indian plains buffalo for at least 2000 years. Buffalos are considered sacred in the Toda culture. The high altitude grasslands of the Nilgiris were destroyed by the exotic trees and shrubs planted by the British and Indian governments. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan. The Nilgiris are among the highest mountains in the long Western Ghats mountain chain, with peaks and plateaus ranging from 1700-2600 metres. Because of these altitudes, the mountain tops were originally covered in vast rolling grasslands, with clumps of stunted evergreen trees called sholas in the middle. The grassland-shola combination unique to the higher reaches of the Western Ghats is considered to be more than 20,000 years old. Separated from the lower rainforests, by a cool temperate climate these ecosystems are home to several endemic plants and animals – such as the Nilgiri rhododendron and the Nilgiri Tahr – whose closest relatives are often found only in the Himalayas. The Todas have a deep association with the mountain grasslands, where they graze their buffalos and the shola forests that hold water sources and plants vital to their rituals and healing traditions. The British brought the plantations The arrival of the British in the Nilgiris in 19th Century transformed the landscape. Tea and over time as their need for fuelwood grew, plantations of exotic trees took over the grasslands. Delving into the archives of the British Library, ecologist Atul Joshi, from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) noted in a paper published last year, that in 1856 the British planted the first exotic tree species, the Australian blackwood Acacia melanoxylon and Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus. By 1930, Joshi recorded, the British had tried to plant at least 39 species of exotic trees and bushes, mostly in the grassland and a few in the shola forests. The need for fuelwood during the Second World War boosted the plantations. After independence, the government of India added to this by planting more Eucalyptus and wattle hoping to boost a paper industry. “The post-independence Forest Department was actually more enthusiastic than the colonial counterpart structure,” said sociologist Siddharth Krishnan, from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. Today, wattle and scotch broom are prolific invaders while pine and eucalyptus are at least well established in the landscape. Meanwhile, the grasslands beloved by the Todas have retreated. Less grasslands means less buffalos for the Todas A recent study found that just between 1973 and 2017, 66% of the grasslands in the Western Ghats were lost to spreading exotic species. Most of this loss was concentrated in the Central Western Ghats including the Nilgiris. With the loss of the grasslands, Todas found they could no longer sustain large buffalo herds. “Every house would have at least a hundred buffalos. Buffalos were a show of strength for each [Toda] clan,” explained Vasamalli Kurtozen, a member of the Tamil Nadu State Wildlife Board and Thorthey’s mother. “Now we manage to keep a few for our rituals,” she added. Toda buffalos are a different, distinct breed from the buffalos in the Indian plains. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan. Today, Toda buffalos are restricted to small patches of grasslands behind Toda settlements and often seen wandering around Ooty town. Today the approximately 1500 member tribe distributed across a few hamlets in the upper Nilgiris largely practise settled agriculture growing English vegetables like carrots, potato and cabbage. Since they enjoyed more British patronage in the past, Todas have better access to land and education today compared to other Nilgiri tribes. Vasamalli herself has the distinction of being the first Toda woman to earn a post-graduate degree. Her son Thorthey, who is a tourist guide also has a degree. A Toda woman made news after becoming the first dentist in the community. Also read Did you ever think that tree plantation drives could threaten an ecosystem? Todas never left their grasslands behind With so many sweeping changes in their lifestyle and their landscape, one may be forgiven for assuming that the community have left their grasslands behind. But a sociological study last year by researchers from the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph, Canada collaborating with Krishnan from ATREE, found that even today members of the Toda community retained their understanding of the shola-grassland ecosystems and expressed a desire for the Nilgiris to revert to the landscapes of the past. The researchers interviewed 50 Toda individuals and asked them what percentage of the Nilgiris comprised sholas, grasslands, agriculture and exotic plantations. They also asked the interviewees to outline what they wished the landscape would be. Pooling responses from all the interviews, the study found that Todas perceived that roughly 51% of the Nilgiris was covered in exotic plantations and they wished for it reduce to a maximum of 5%. They felt grasslands covered about 17% of the Nilgiris and should increase to 49% and Sholas should increase from 20% to 39%. They felt agricultural fields covered about 9% of the landscape and wished for it to increase to 22%. Madhur Anand, an ecologist from the University of Guelph and one of the lead researchers of the study, confirmed that the results more or less showed that in their vision for the Nilgiris they hadn’t strayed too far from their history. Even agriculture, the main source of their livelihood hadn’t taken preference over grasslands. Vasamalli Kurtozen, is a State Wildlife Board member and the first Toda woman to earn a post-graduate degree. Pictured in front of her home with her granddaughter. Photo by Bhanu Sridharan. Vasamalli is not surprised by this finding. “Toda’s is a land-based culture. Without land, without buffalo there is no Toda at all,” she said. “The British and the Indian [governments] took advantage of our innocence. They made us leave our grasslands and pastures.” But these changes did not make Todas easily give up their rituals and culture according to Vasamalli. Anand observed the same point. “It is incredible the things we learned about the Toda people, from our local guide (a member of one of the clans), how old traditions (food, health and even things like marriage rituals) are maintained and how so many of these are deeply rooted in the presence of grasslands and also forests,” she said. Central to these rituals is the buffalo, which must be present important ceremonies like birth, marriage and death. “Even if we have less buffalo today, we have to maintain them for our festivals,” said Vasamalli. When the grasslands were open and intact Todas buffalos roamed freely feeding on a variety of species. As the grassland shrunk the buffalo herds shrunk. In urbanised areas like Ooty, where Vasamalli, Thorthey and his family live keeping a sizeable herd is impossible. “In the whole village we can keep maybe 20-25 buffalos,” said Thorthey. “Without enough grasslands, they enter farms sometimes. They even went into the Ooty golf course once.” “Today when we have any functions [celebrations] we need to bring the buffalos from the village,” said Vasamalli. Hidden tiger is a crouching predator In hamlets away from Ooty, herders face an additional problem. The exotic plantations impede their vision. Aradukuttan is a co-ordinator for biodiversity management and restoration at the Keystone Foundation, an NGO that works with indigenous communities in the Nilgiris. His home is in Bikapathymund, a tiny Toda hamlet near Kotagiri town. The hamlet is in a valley surrounded by patches of the shola forest, vegetable fields on one slope and some exotic Eucalyptus and wattle trees on the other. Aradukuttan pointed towards the latter and said, “This entire area was open. You could stay down here near the village and see the buffalos up there. You could count them from here. Now, the minute the buffalos get up the hills, they vanish.” In a paper published at the Rachel Carson Centre, Krishnan noted that in surveys and interviews, the Todas describe the dense stands of exotic trees as “woody, thorny and predatory.” In February, Aradukuttan lost a buffalo near those exotic trees. “A tiger had caught it,” he said. “Some boys from the village made some noise, chased away the tiger and brought the buffalo back. But it bled to death. We lost INR 40000. It had just had a calf too,” he added. “If we have no buffalos, we have no scripture,” added his wife Devi Kili. The shola forest and the grassland is also vital the Todas for material needs. While they have largely shifted from traditional houses – built in the shape of a rainbow according to Vasamalli — Toda temples are still built in the old traditions, which means they need cane, bamboo and a specific grass called the avful (Eriochrysis rangacharii), a species once found commonly in the wet grasslands of the mountains.