The shola/ grassland patchwork in the Palanis is surely one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Silver streams criss-cross the vast mountain meadows, and sholas (montane rainforest) nestle in their deep valleys. This is home to some of our rarest species of birds and plants, such as the Nilgiri pipit and the spectacular canopy tree Elaeocarpus blascoi. It is no wonder then, that this corner of the Western Ghats has attracted natural beauty junkies ever since the establishment of Kodaikanal in the mid-1800s.
Unfortunately, it also attracted British foresters, who didn’t realize that it is a vital watershed for the human populations on the plains below; a veritable sponge that soaks up the monsoon and releases it slowly throughout the year. Thousands of acres were cleared to make way for timber and fuel plantations, and the species planted were eucalyptus, pine and Australian wattle: fast-growing exotics which were a good financial proposition for the Forest Department and, post-independence, private enterprise, but ecologically disastrous. With none of their natural checks and controls, exotic plants tend to go mad, spreading like wildfire and wiping out indigenous landscapes (as we have seen with Lantana camara). Within a hundred years, this trio had drastically altered the montane ecosystem.
By the 1980s, a hundred years after the plantations began, there was serious concern about the continuing decimation of the Palanis ecosystem. A group of conservationists came together and formed the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC). One of these was the renowned botanist Father KM Mathew of St Joseph’s College, Trichy, who was studying the flora of the Palanis. With meagre resources, the PHCC began a series of conservation initiatives including nurseries which germinated, grew, and distributed shola and other seedlings for planting. Some of the shola species had never been farmed in this way before so there was a lot of trial and error and a heady sense of botanical pioneering. I was on the PHCC committee at that time and the discussions at the meetings went way over my head, but I was delighted to be a part of this hotbed of idealism.
It was a motley bunch: naturalists from Auroville with long, blond pony-tails, prim women in silk saris, a travel agent, two of us teachers from Kodai School, and so on. The fiery elements in the group often tried to entice the others into guerrilla activities in the grasslands; midnight invasions to pull up wattle seedlings in the reserve forests. The elimination of the exotics was a passionate and continuing topic, along with a few insults for Major JM Partridge of the Bombay Army, in whose stout frame, it is assumed, the idea originated.
It was through the PHCC network that I was lucky enough to meet Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar. These young backpackers from London arrived in Kodai in 1985, for a short stay… and never left. Kodaikanal became their home, and they played a significant part in the eco-restoration of the Palnis. They died too soon, too early; Tanya in 2016 at the age of 57, and Bob in 2020 at 66. But they accomplished a lot in the 31 years they worked together to repair the ecosystem of the Palanis. Along with other botanists, they felt that it was possible to contain the damage done by the plantations, and recreate sholas with species grown in nurseries.
They set to work and started a nursery at their rented home in Vattakanal. Soon after, a local youth group working closely with them was officially incorporated into the project, and the Vattakanal Conservation Trust (VCT) was formed: self-taught botanists working closely with the Forest Department to germinate, grow, distribute, and transplant the native Palanis’ flora, as well as income-generating fruit trees. Ornamental cactii were also cultivated, for sale to hotels and resorts; the income from this helped sustain the nursery, as did nature walks.
According to one record, ten years into their project, some 16,000 seedlings had been germinated and grown, of which 4000 were planted into the forest. As their fame and network widened, there was also the paperwork, records to be kept, correspondence. Bob was a keen plant photographer and also wrote beautifully. He did most of the writing for VCT but had an aversion to computers; so Tanya did all the ‘technical stuff’ for him. She also kept the accounts, so it was a great partnership.
Exposure and training trips were organised for the band of volunteers, such as one to an NGO in Masinagudi, so they felt part of a bigger group. The inspiration and motivation grew, and so did the staff, thanks to nursery income, donations, and their own contribution. Their staff of two in 1994 grew to nine in 2007.
Field work—for seed collection, plant observation, and to help control wood-poaching—was a major part of the project. This involved long hikes up and down steep slopes, something I participated in once or twice and then left to others with stronger legs and backs, such as Pippa Mukherjee, botanist and environmental science teacher at Kodaikanal International School (KIS), expert on Palanis flora, and author of several books on plants.
‘Bob and Tanya’s understanding of flora was amazing. I met both of them in 1986 and did lots of treks with them after that. Their work on Pambar shola is unique as they have managed to save a great deal of rare plants there and also in many other areas where they have worked with so many famous botanists,’ she told me over email, recently. ‘I still have a scar from a fall on a trek in Picnic Shola, which is very, very steep. There was another memorable walk with them near Poombarai where we found some incredible plants and also some very strange fungi with an odd shape. We looked it up and discovered it’s called ”Dog’s Penis Fungi”. How we laughed!’
Another British ecologist friend of theirs, Dr Zoe Badcock, was the IB-MYP Coordinator at KIS. She wrote in her diary: ‘Bob and Tanya are a match made in heaven—both chain-smoke, have long, straggly, blonde hair, and chatter away to themselves. Both have endless energy and enthusiasm.’
Zoe was lucky to travel with them to Ooty in 2005, for a workshop with the forest department: on eco-restoration in montane grassland/ shola habitats. These requests for advice were becoming more and more frequent, and their preferred mode of travel was a rattly old jeep, driven by their mechanic friend Babu who quickly managed the frequent breakdowns.
Apart from forest department officials, there were several other plant fans at the Ooty workshop, including Wolfgang Dieter Theuerkauf, founder of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad. (Sadly, Wolfgang has also passed away, in 2017). The convoy of jeeps and vans transported them towards Avalanche (a hill-valley ecosystem above Ooty), stopping at a degraded hilly grassland covered with self-sown acacia and broom. There was an occasional, lone rhododendron but they were looking at another seriously degraded grassland. As in Kodai, they managed to light a (metaphorical) fire in Ooty, and their visit sparked the eco-restoration work there.
Back in Kodai, the nurseries were doing well and the next big step was to get permission to plant in the sholas; as they are protected areas, this was not going to be easy. Luckily, thanks to Father Mathew’s enthusiasm and a wonderful DFO posted in Kodai at the time, the scheme went through. Bob was asked to write a proposal which was sent to the Chief Wildlife Warden in Chennai. Eventually, a letter came from Chennai sanctioning the work. This was great news.
Meanwhile, a parallel movement had been picking up speed; to remove the plantation species from the grasslands. This developed into a memorable standoff between the conservation community and the government, with the matter ending up in court. There was much rejoicing when The Hindu carried the headline one morning in May 2014: ‘State Prepares to Eliminate “Aliens” from Rain Forests’. Yesss! The Court had asked the state of Tamil Nadu to make a comprehensive study of the interplay between the exotic and native species, and remove those that were endangering the forests and grasslands of the Western Ghats. To us, the Kodai community, it seemed as if there was finally a glimmer of hope for our unique corner of the Ghats.
The removal of the exotic species would be a huge, expensive operation with thousands of government and contract staff involved. But this never actually came to pass, because Bob and Tanya’s observations were indicating that shola species were actually re-occupying the old plantations and it would be best to let this take its course.
They had seen some orchids growing on an old, mangled wattle tree on the edge of Blackburn Shola. Also, they—and other botanists—felt that the exotics would make a vigorous come-back when cut. In the past, clear felling had led to an explosion of weeds, and proliferation of seedlings of the plantation species. These findings had been presented at workshops in Bangalore and elsewhere, including the landmark symposium in 2014 ‘Forest Plantations and Biodiversity Conservation’, attended by botanists and ecologists from several organisations in India and abroad.
In the event, the High Court appointed an expert committee to work on a plan for managing invasive species in Tamil Nadu. One of its members, Godwin Bosco, recently told me, over email, that he is currently in the process of finalizing his inputs and reports. ‘We are creating a 20-year plan, with phased removal and an emphasis on setting up nurseries and ecological restoration. We are also suggesting that we address the need for a site-specific approach—which is what Bob and Tanya have always said.’
It is great to know that Godwin and others are committed to carrying out Bob and Tanya’s legacy. Also good to know that there is an exhibit about their work at the KIS Center for Environment and Humanity. It would be appropriate if the forest department also acknowledged their contribution with a memorial plaque, perhaps next to one of the few remaining shola trees in Kodai township. Their work and achievements are a perfect example of how much can be accomplished, when the government and NGOs work closely together.