This book features 11 threatened tree species of the Anamalai Hills. We check them out

This team at Nature Conservation Foundation hopes to increase awareness of rare tree species in the Western Ghats in order to protect them.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Feb 28, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Mar 03, 2023 | 12:41 PM

Among those behind protected species on Anamalai Hills, Left to right: Srinivasan Kasinathan (restoration ecologist), forest department staff Selvakumar, Moorthi G, Navendu Page, Rajesh R, Kshama Bhat, AP Madhavan, Akhil Murali. (Nature Conservation Foundation)

For those who don’t know, the Anamalai Hills are a range of mountains in the southern Western Ghats, spanning the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Anamalai derives its name from “anai” meaning “elephant” and “malai” meaning “hills” from the large number of wild elephants living in the area.

Lately, widely circulated photos and videos of a mass congregation of fireflies in the Anamalai Hills have brought everyone’s attention to the region.

While fireflies are a common occurrence in rainforest areas of the Western Ghats, the phenomenon has been made popular through social media in recent times.

Divya Mudappa, a wildlife biologist with research interests in the field of tropical ecology — particularly rainforests — says that their congregation “could be an indicator of a relatively less-disturbed ecological system”.

So do these fireflies illuminate only around specific species of trees, we wonder.

“I don’t think so,” the senior scientist responds quickly. “For these fireflies, the lack of light pollution and pesticides are more important. They like to gather around shade trees, particularly native rainforest trees.”

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Origin of the book

The Anamalai Hills are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including many rare and endangered species.

However, the patterns of distribution and abundance and the present conservation status of many tree species are still poorly known.

“For instance, Phyllanthus anamalayanus was known from just one location in the Anamalai Hills. Palaquium ravii, on the other hand, was known from the southern Western Ghats but with no information from the Anamalai. Other species that are more frequent — such as Vateria indica and Syzygium densiflorum — also had limited information on abundance and distribution,” informs Mudappa.

The book on the protected species of Anamalai Hills is titled Last Ones Standing. (Supplied)

The book is titled Last Ones Standing. (Supplied)

And so, in an effort to know better these rare and remarkable species of trees and increase awareness about them, Mudappa and her team at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) — a non-profit governmental research organisation in Mysuru — have written a new book.

Titled Last Ones Standing, this pictorial book features 11 threatened tree species found in the Anamalai Hills, with extensive descriptions backed by field visits and observations.

“We hope this leads to better conservation of these trees on the ground and into the future,” the book mentions.

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To protect, preserve, participate

The book was conceptualised by Mudappa and Shankar Raman, a writer and wildlife scientist with the NCF.

“We have been working on ecological restoration of degraded rainforest fragments in the Anamalai Hills,” begins Raman.

He continues, “Our restoration efforts are backed by a detailed understanding of rainforest plant ecology and distribution. During restoration, we have always used a high diversity of native rainforest tree and liana species, irrespective of their conservation status. But we were keen to learn more about their distribution and conservation status as well.”

Therefore, as a next step, the duo decided to initiate a project in order to understand the status of select threatened tree species.

As soon as they managed to secure funding for this, they surveyed these species in rainforests across the Anamalai landscape and compiled their observations into a book.

The book features 11 species of the Anamalai Hills with each classified into three categories — critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable trees.

Leaves of the Cryptocarya anamalayana illustrated by AP Madhavan. (Supplied)

Leaves of the Cryptocarya anamalayana illustrated by  AP Madhavan. (Supplied)

Dipterocarpus bourdillonii (chiratta-anjili) and Phyllanthus anamalayanus (Anamalai gooseberry) fall under the critically endangered category. Cryptocarya anamalayana (mountain laurel), Dysoxylum malabaricum (pallid-leaved common white cedar), Orophea thomsonii (Thomson’s turret flower), and Palaquium ravii (Choppala) are endangered species.

And finally, Diospyros paniculate (hill ebony), Drypetes wightii (papery child’s amulet tree), Myristica beddomei (jungle nutmeg), Syzygium densiflorum (Arnott’s mountain black plum), and Vateria indica (Indian copal tree) are vulnerable trees.

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Research and survey in Anamalai Hills

The research and survey took three years and the book production took almost one year. Kshama Bhat, a project assistant for the Western Ghats, and Srinivasan Kasinathan, a restoration ecologist, were involved in the field surveys along with a few volunteers.

Ecological researcher AP Madhavan joined for part of the survey in the second year. He created the illustrations for the book and drafted the text for the book as well. The book was desinged by Janhavi Rajan.

The surveying team covered about 110 km in Anamalai Hills on foot. But this was the least of the challenges they faced during the three-year period.

“Monsoons in Anamalai last for 6 to 8 months in a year, which is not very conducive for field surveys inside the rainforest as many places become hard to access. Within a small window of four months of dry season, we had to do as many trails as possible to cover as much area of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve as we could,” recalls Bhat.

Inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. (Wikimedia Commons)

Inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. (Wikimedia Commons)

The team had to rely on just the vegetative characteristics to accurately identify these species, “…which is much harder, as a majority of these don’t flower or fruit in the dry months,” says Kasinathan.

He adds, “We had to make informed decisions to chart the trails based on known habitat and distribution of these species documented in various field guides and publications, multiple discussions with seniors who had worked in these areas for many years, the forest department, and our field staff who are from the local tribal community.”

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What lies beneath

Even after their extensive survey, the team believes “we still do not know enough about” these species. “We also do not know why they are rare and endangered in the first place,” confesses Raman.

Leaves of Dipterocarpus bourdillonii, a critically endangered species found in Anamalai Hills, illustrated by AP Madhavan. (Supplied)

Leaves of Dipterocarpus bourdillonii illustrated by AP Madhavan. (Supplied)

“It may not necessarily be because of overuse by humans. That’s what we are trying to understand and also use our abilities to establish more individuals of these species for restoration efforts through germination of seeds in the nursery,” says Raman.

He adds, “Some of them are so restricted in their distribution that if one is not aware and careful, burgeoning infrastructure (roads and powerlines) and loss and degradation of habitat may cause further decline.”

How climate change could affect them short-term or long-term is also not entirely known, he states. “Studying their ecology may assist us in conserving them for the future,” says Raman.

When we ask if large-scale afforestation of these species could be the answer to the problem, Raman responds in the negative.

“While large-scale plantations are not a solution, we definitely can grow these trees and plant them out along with other trees. But one should ideally use these species along with their associated species for proper, informed ecological restoration of forests. And they must be planted in the right environments where they can carry on their ecological functions and roles,” Raman explains.

Also read: A trip to a bird sanctuary in Tamil Nadu amid heavy rains

Why the Western Ghats matter

Through this book, the team wants readers to understand the immense value the Western Ghats holds and why everyone should care about them.

“The 1,600-km-long Western Ghats, running along the west coast of India, is one of the eight recognised ‘hottest’ global biodiversity hotspots and a UNESCO world heritage site,” says Madhavan.

Leaves of Phyllanthus anamalayanus, a critically endangered species found in Anamalai Hills, illustrated by AP Madhavan. (Supplied)

Leaves of Phyllanthus anamalayanus illustrated by AP Madhavan. (Supplied)

He adds, “The rainforests and mountain ranges of the region play a crucial role in water regimes and are the source for a majority of large rivers and streams across the southern peninsula of India. The Western Ghats have exceptionally high diversity, with nearly 54% of tree species (of 650 species), 65% of amphibians (>179 species), 62% of reptiles (of 157 species), 53% of fishes (of 219 species) being endemic to these mountain ranges.”

The Western Ghats are also home to about 325 globally threatened flora, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and so on.

“The high montane forests of the Western Ghats influence the Indian monsoon weather patterns,” Bhat adds.

He says, “This biodiversity hotspot is also the most densely populated by humans among all the hotspots in the world. With the crises of climate change becoming a reality, protecting, understanding, and restoring what is remaining is a matter of urgency and importance to all of us.”

For everyone’s benefit

Apart from putting the book on their website for purchase, the team wants to use it during their training of forest department field staff and for the general public.

“We are in the process of producing it in Tamil and are open to it being translated to other languages. It will then have a wider reach and then more people can learn and look out for these magnificent trees of the Western Ghats. We have also released the text on a creative commons license and will be sharing the artwork as well on wikimedia commons too,” Mudappa says, signing off.

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