The Remaining Grasslands of Palani hills

Over millions of years the earth has evolved and created unique eco-systems, one of which is the Shola forest and montane grasslands of the Western Ghats. Palani Hills are a part of ecosystem and located in Tamil Nadu, and where the Paliyar people settled many centuries ago. The American missionaries visited the hills and grasslands in the mid-1800s and found it a suitable spot for their summer retreat: Kodaikanal emerged from these interests.

The remaining grasslands - Mannavanur [Upper Palani hills]

Once the undulating landscape of the upper Palani Hills was rich with grasslands and sholas and had the capability of storing the monsoon rains. While the northern slopes generate the tributaries of the river Cauvery, the Southern slopes generate the tributaries of the Vaigai. However, the landscape changed due to the development of Kodaikanal town, along with increasing tourism, roads etc. A huge area of the grasslands and forests were converted to agriculture and plantations. The introduction of exotic tree species such as Eucalyptus, Wattle and Pine by the British into the grasslands invaded the hills and challenged the natural eco-system. The forest department, unaware of the mistakes made by its predecessor, continued on the same path. The grasslands were converted into plantations of exotic species. The inhabitant species like the Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), the Indian Gaur (Bos gaurus), the Nilgiri Marten (Martes gwatkinsii), and many more, lost their habitats.

According to a recent study by Robin from IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Tirupati), only 15% of the grasslands are left in the Palani Hills. The change in eco-system now fails to capture the monsoon rains, leaving most of the tributaries of the Vaigai and the Cauvery in plains dry, the river-beds with many stagnant waterholes and rocky outcrops.

Due to the forest fragmentation and loss of habitats, the gaurs are now seen wandering about in Kodaikanal town. In 2016, while dining in a restaurant near the Kodaikanal bus stand, a busy part of town, I saw a herd of guars walking in the middle of the road. People moved to the pavement and made way for the guars. Such scenes are not so uncommon in this hill town nowadays. The hill town attracts more tourists each year and to gratify them new tourist spots are created. The “Pine Forest” is once such spot where people can be seen horse riding and where native birds and butterflies are absent. Neither the tourism board nor the forest department educates the tourist about the ecological changes in the landscape.

Indian Gaur in Kodaikanal town

Berijam is an artificial lake in the upper hills, surrounded by exotic trees. I have visited Berijam numerous times to look for birds in this region. I saw the Nilgiri Pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis) only once in 2013. The Nilgiri Pipit is endemic to Western Ghats which has lost most its natural habitat now.

Berijam Lake surrounded by exotic trees

The state animal of Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiri Tahr, especially skilled n navigating the mountain cliffs, is under serious threat. They are pushed to fragmented cliffs where grasslands are left. Most of the freshwater streams have lost the Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinereus), once common in the hills. Water pollution due to the development of Kodaikanal town and the pesticides used for agriculture has pushed this species to the brink of extinction. The population of Nilgiri Marten, another endemic species here and which has been observed by a few naturalists, is uncertain now.

The restoration of grasslands is important for many native flora and fauna but it is a difficult task. As there are only a few grasslands left, the forest department and the NGO’s need to identify the remaining patches and monitor them regularly to protect them from invasive species. The weeds need to be taken out from the grasslands annually and more attention required to push back the invasives.

In 2017 I visited Berijam with my friend ornithologist friend Raveendran and stayed for a couple of days. En route, we stopped at the watchtower and watching the lake from the distance. The misty afternoon made magical changes in the landscape. A Nilgiri Wood Pigeon (Columba elphinstonii) flew across the hilly landscape. We stayed in the forest guest house. There was neither a phone signal nor electricity and the evening was beautiful because of the silence around us. The night was pitch dark and freezing cold. The person who accompanied us prepared dinner. We were told that the gaurs came down to the lake every night for water and so we finished dinner and waited for them. A herd came down from the hills and a majestic bull, glistening in the dark, moved slowly towards the lake. Unfortunate that they had to forage in a forest where there was scant food left for them. Later we found a Large Scale Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis) basking in the middle of the road; it is also endemic to Western Ghats.

Large Scale Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis)

The next morning the lake surface was covered with mist. We heard the call of the Sambar deer on the other side and waited long to get a glimpse of it. As the sun came up we saw the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), the Jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus), the Red Whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) near the lake. Then we went for a forest walk to understand the ecological changes that had happened. We went to the Mathikettan shola and headed downwards with some forest department staffs. The entire range was filled with wattle trees and the ground was littered with wattle seeds ready to sprout. We climbed up and returned to the road. A few tourists were making noises, enjoying the sound echo in the hills. A Nilgiri Langur (Semnopithecus johnii) was calling deep from the forest and the tourists were mimicking the call. We requested them to stop doing this but they misunderstood our intentions. It is a pity that our education system does not teach students how to behave in the forest. However, we moved away from the place and the forest department warned them. On our return we saw a few bird species such as the Long Tailed Shrike (Lanius schach), the Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata), and the Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) near the lake. Hill Swallows were active. While coming back to the forest guest house we found Indian scimitar babbler, which was a lifer for me. I was happy I could get a lifer.

Nilgiri Pipit (Anthus nilghiriensis)

On another occasion in 2014, I trekked from Kookal Shola to Kuthirayar dam in the foothills. The two-day long trek helped me understand another problem which the forests are facing. It was April and the grasslands were destroyed by forest fire, the scars black and depressing. Forest fires are man-made in the Western Ghats. The cliffs in Kookal supports few Nilgiri Thar, though I did not spot any that day, and I wondered at their plight when the grasslands are fired. I had a long walk that first day and stayed in one of the estate guest houses which was in the middle elevation. The climate and terrain are different here from the upper hills.

Grasslands burnt due to Forest Fire

As I set off the next day I saw the Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata), heading high to upper hills where the grasslands are already burnt.

Article Published in Leaf Litter Magazine. ©Satheesh Muthu Gopal

Read my other articles :

Lunch With a Falcon

The remaining grasslands of Palani Hills

Palani Hills - Shrinking Heaven

Post a Comment


  1. Ya. It is very depressing to note the degradation that has happened in palani hills. While i do agree that everyone has the right to visit kodaikanal and enjoy the salubrious climate, but not at the cost of the environment. The gouvernment must step in and regulate tourism. However since tourism generates a lot of money gouvernment simply approves all tourism related infrastructure which is eating into the remaining wilderness. I wish better sense prevails on our rulers and further degradation is stopped. We must have special policies for the hills and the development in the hills must be in sync with the environment there.

    Regarding birds, most of the birds that we see now in Kodaikanal are species preferring open habitats such as long tailed shrike and pied bushchat. I have not visited the shola forests. Periodical monitoring of birds and other wildlife must be conducted and further encroachment by agricultural lands and tourist resorts must stop.

    1. You are absolutely right. Without regulating the tourism, it is impossible to protect the hills.

  2. Informative article. Thank you so much for lot of concern, we have already devastated the habitats of wild species and nature itself! It’s too late to act wisely but we have no choice then. Lets save some of the natural resources for next generation.

  3. Beautifully described article which addresses the main issue Palani hills facing in recent decade & about its vast amount of flora and fauna it has which need to be protected by rebuilding the ecosystem in the way it was with many awareness campaigns and basic mannerisms about forest and how to behave with wildlife. Excellent article 😍👏🏼

  4. Informative, also my thoughts to it
    Protect the habitat: Shola grasslands are often fragmented and threatened by land use changes and development. To preserve these areas, steps should be taken to protect them from further destruction and degradation.

    Implement sustainable land use practices: Sustainable land use practices such as agroforestry, ecotourism, and controlled grazing can be implemented to reduce the impacts of human activities on the grasslands.

    Restore degraded areas: Efforts should be made to restore degraded shola grasslands by planting native species, reducing invasive species, and promoting natural regeneration.

    Monitor and manage populations: Monitoring and management of shola grassland species and their populations is important to ensure their long-term survival.

    Conduct research and raise awareness: Research into the ecology of shola grasslands and their species can help inform conservation efforts and raise awareness among local communities and decision-makers.

    Collaborate with local communities: Engaging local communities in conservation efforts can be an effective way to protect shola grasslands and their species, as they often have a vested interest in the health of their local environment.

    other controls: reducing the number of Bikers who come for fun to pollute further, instead encouraging them to travel in battery vehicles or trekking. This at least impacts 1/10. Approving only eco-friendly buildings and materials to be utilized, new land purchase for the next 25 years.

    Government to encourage: Naturalists' independence to do the expedition based on their previous achievements, Birding, and wildlife, Government organized nature walks for students, mid-aged people, and old people.

    1. Guru.. Thanks for the valuable ideas. Thanks for reading and taking time to share your thoughts. The major problem is because of the invasive species. It is very difficult to restore with native species. But everything is possible if the government can support. The native takes more time to grow. It takes 10 years to reach 6 feet. So you can imagine the amount of time to restore the sholas. But this is possible if the government understands the importance of sholas. (not only by the ruling government, because it should be continued for years). I hope the Nilgiri Tahr project announced by the Tamil Government can help to protect the natural forest. Uprooting all the invasive at the same time may trigger landslides. But unfortunately, most of the private land invasive trees are being removed. Let's see...

    2. I completely agree, this restoration is the progressive approach. In the next 25th year, we will have our grandchildren. We have to leave this world for them to live. I was amazed by Costa Rica's Cloud and rainforest. still, they have native species.