Mapping the Last Grasslands of the Palani Hills, Tamil Nadu

Mapping the Last Grasslands of the Palani Hills, Tamil Nadu

The Range Survey and Mapping Project formed at the Kodaikanal Plantations Conference in December 2014 produced a report, which was published earlier this year. This is an important task, representing the joint efforts of several different individuals, organizations, and funding agencies. The author's preliminary visual assessment of the Landsat imagery shows that the satellite data provides spatial evidence of dramatic land cover changes in the Western Ghats and Palani, but needs to be quantified. Robin Vijayan from ISER Tirupati started a study in 2016. The main field work and spatial analysis were carried out by M. Arasumani and Danesh Khan. Arundhati Das, Milind Bunyan, and several others provided additional academic guidance. Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar from the Vattakanal Conservation Trust provided key information on the regeneration of shola on plantations, a topic that initially brought everyone together. INTACH and ISER Tirupati helped finance the field work. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is a major player and helped provide permits for field work. Prasen Yadav joined the project to document the work and produce a video of the survey results. The research was peer-reviewed and published in January 2018. It is publicly available in PLOS One and includes access to all data tables and graphs.

A striking conclusion from the study is that mountain grasslands are largely occupied by non-native trees and weeds. Those of us who have been hiking the mountain have felt this way, but satellite images provide conclusive evidence. Obviously, the plantations have gone far beyond the original limits where they were originally designed. The lines of fire are carved into the grasslands of most of the southern cliffs, and now plantation species are expanding beyond this boundary and spreading up the steep slopes of the mountainous grasslands. This leads to a clear conclusion that wherever possible, efforts should be made to protect these remaining relics of mountains and grasslands. The challenge is that, despite the amazing resilience of shola tree species, the last mountain grasslands are constantly being consumed by plantation (and some shola) species.

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