First Light on Eagle Cliff, in Palani Hills
First Light on Eagle Cliff, in Palani Hills

Mapping the Shola Sky Islands

‘I wouldn’t say the sky islands of the southern Western Ghats are shrinking or being destroyed. Rather, they are being transformed and changed,’ Ian Lockwood tells me over the phone, from his home in Sri Lanka.

Gradual as they are, landscape transformations such as that of the Palani Hills sky islands—from grasslands to monocultures to sholas—are prone to being forgotten. Lockwood is dedicated to capturing these vistas and ensuring their place in history through photography, frequently using monochrome images to create rare representations of these hills. 

On his choice of black-and-white photography, he says, ‘I believe photography is a powerful tool with which to record, document and celebrate our human relationship with the earth. In my formative years, 35mm colour film was processed in studios where mistakes and scratches were common. The black-and-white medium format film gave me more control of the process, helped minimise mistakes and produced fine art prints. More than that, monochromatic images convey a different language of the landscape and bring out nuances that may be overlooked in colour.’

An educator, photographer, environmentalist and self-taught map-maker, Lockwood has been motivated by a love for the hills that stemmed from his early days. ‘My grandfather Edson and father Merrick documented the landscape and change in the Palani Hills in the early to mid-20th century,’ he says. A student of Kodaikanal International School in the 1970s, Lockwood was an avid explorer of the shola-grassland mosaic in the Palani Hills—he wrote for The Kodai Chronicle’s October 2021 issue about his discovery of a ‘secret shola’. He has also been a witness to their transformation, watching as commercial monoculture plantations of eucalyptus, pine and acacia rapidly encroached upon the native ecosystem.

Mapping the shola sky islands: a map depicting the earliest Landsat image of the Palani Hills area, dated 1973 (Illustration courtesy Ian Lockwood)

The plains and the peaks 1500-1800m above sea level are worlds apart. A few hundred years ago, the Palani Hills sky islands were a unique grassland habitat that fed rivers and lakes down to the plains. Motivated by a lack of accessible maps focussed on the sky islands, Ian began to create his own on Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Map-making, photography, satellite imagery and analysis, and the written word are all key ingredients in Lockwood’s efforts to tell this complicated story. (More information on the Palani Hills maps are available in this 2018 post on Ian’s event, ‘The Hills of Murugan: An Exhibition on the Palani Hills’.

While on a visit to the Nilgiri Hills in 2006, Lockwood had a fortuitous meeting at Cairn Hill with ecologist Robin Vijayan. He went on to apply the concept of the ‘sky island’ to the unique upper ecosystems of the southern Western Ghats. At the time, Lockwood was already a part of the growing cohort of independent shola or sky island explorers, including Vijayan, Prasenjeet Yadav, Pippa Mukherjee, Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar. 

He writes, in his blog post dated December 2020, ‘There are ongoing debates about the origins of large montane grasslands—are they human or natural in origin? [Some] scientists consider the shola-grassland mosaic to be the climax stage of a complicated process in the upper hills.’

The sky island grasslands near Ibex Peak in the southwestern Palani Hills. A dramatic escarpment quickly drops from the second-highest point in the Palanis, at 2517m, to 350m. ‘At one time, hikers from Kodai walked by these cliffs on the classic 80-mile trek,’ recalls Lockwood on his Instagram profile. ‘Today, pathways and the old Kodai–Cochin road are overgrown and neglected. The area is notified as a wildlife sanctuary, but few patrols or visitors get out far enough to give regular assessment on the ecology and illegal activities.’
Lockwood was returning from a hike in the Kukkal Shola when he unexpectedly
encountered women from a neighbouring village collecting wood. At the time, it
was unusual for locals to be chopping wood in the shola, as they usually go
to invasive tree plantations nearby. In recent years, such interactions with
the shola involving minor extractions of forest produce have become more regular
Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar in 2009 in Vattakanal. They were pioneers of ecological restoration and new thinking about the sky islands in the Western Ghats, managing shola nurseries and overseeing plantations, studying their crucial role in water security, advocating for their conservation and more. Stewart had predicted that the shola would make a comeback. Years later, during his many explorations of the sky islands in the Palani Hills, Lockwood observed sholas slowly but surely returning to the folds of the monocultures decades after they’d
been wiped out
Mist and escarpment at Ullam Pari, Palani Hills. ‘Soon after this photo
was taken,’ says Lockwood, ‘I observed a small herd of four individuals on
the craggy peaks below me. Many of these slopes are now being invaded
by non-native species spilling over from plantations on the upper plateau.
Poaching continues to be a concern in these remote areas
An image of a ‘secret’ shola patch captured before the Vaccinium species was identified several years later by Stewart and Balcar. Restoring the grasslands has proven a challenging and labour-intensive task. ‘Invasive trees need to be excavated by their roots, and the seeds that may remain need to be removed,’ Lockwood says.

All photographs by Ian Lockwood

Divya Kilikar

Divya Kilikar is a writer and editor who has contributed to Sanctuary Asia and Mongabay-India. She also works to make environmental education accessible to youth with The ClimAct Initiative.

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