Kodaikanal now has a new Conservator of Forests. Based in Dindigul since September 2021, Mr S Ramasubramanian, who belongs to the 1998 batch of the Indian Forest Service has begun working closely with the forest department in Kodaikanal. His primary charge is still as the Field Director of Annamalai Tiger Reserve, at Pollachi in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.
Mr Subramaniam spoke to The Kodai Chronicle’s Environment & Wildlife Editor, Jacob Cherian, about his favourite sholas, his memories around them, and his plans for Kodaikanal.
Jacob Cherian: First, a personal question: do you have any favourite Shola?
S Ramasubramanian: My personal favourite is the Karian Shola, in the Annamalai Tiger Reserve which I visited when studying at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in in 1998.
I remember that it was nine o’clock in the morning. The moment we entered the shola, it was a totally different experience. We could see the birds chirping and butterflies fluttering all around us. And suddenly all our senses became very acute—especially our sense of smell.
Our faculty member asked us to identify certain trees. We couldn’t do it because we were looking for leaves and all the common useful indicators of botany. We were complaining that we couldn’t see the leaves, and then he explained to us that in a forest, all the trees are very tall and so, instead, you have to look at the bark and at the roots.
Then he took out a sickle and scraped the bark and got this sticky gum. It was very unique, and I especially remember one tree called Canarium strictum (commonly known as black dhup, raal dhup, or black dammar). He was trying to explain to us other ways of identification that we were not familiar with.
We were in that shola for about one-and-a-half hours, and we saw a variety of life forms. Within a short span of time we could identify almost 40 trees, and the breeze was very pleasant, with a sweet aroma in the air, mainly from the flowers on the forest floor. It was a mystical experience. It was as though all the life forms inside were living as a single unit. They were in perfect harmony with each other. That memory still lingers in my mind.
JC: That’s a wonderful memory. Have you had a chance to visit the Sholas around Kodaikanal in the Palani Hills?
SR: In the Palani Hills, I have been to the Tiger Shola recently. However I have been here in Kodaikanal for less than a month, so I am trying to explore further. About 20 years ago, when I was in Pollachi as an Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) trainee, I used to visit the Kookal area, which is like a tri-junction. That particular area is the boundary between Kodaikanal and Dindigul, and the Anamalai Tiger Reserve.
JC: We understand that this is very early in your term Mr Ramasubramanian. But do you have an insight to share with the audience about the current condition of the Sholas in the Palani Hills?
SR: I have traveled extensively during the last 15 days. I could see that some areas are really good. I had a chance to travel from Kodaikanal to Pannaikadu, as well as Thandigudi, Thadiyankudisai and via Sitharevu. That entire route was very beautiful. In fact, the trees over there were unspoiled. The entire landscape, for almost 30 kilometers, was a continuous shola forest. It was a great experience and I really wonder how I missed this particular patch in the past. They are still pristine, [unlike] other parts of the Western Ghats.
However, we need to do a lot of work in other areas. Especially in the shola forest in the immediate vicinity of Kodaikanal town and other tourism areas. So in those areas I could see some disturbances in the form of littering and in a few areas wattle have invaded into the shola forest. We are aware that wattle and eucalyptus all have been planted many years ago and these are still a problem. Now that Kodaikanal has been declared a sanctuary, there will no longer be planting of these exotic trees. So ecology conservation and habitat integrity will now be given top-most importance. But a lot needs to be done. We have tried fencing to protect a particular shola patch and some of those fences need to be repaired.
We need to avoid trespassers from nearby villages going into the forest to collect firewood. So we need to sort out these issues.
JC: What is the plan to conserve the shola? What are the first three or four things that you will do during your term here?
SR: I have a lot of things in my mind, but the first thing is that we need to measure it. What cannot be measured definitely cannot be managed. I have a firm faith in statistics, and using data that is properly backed by scientific research.
Already a lot of organizations are working on it… There is an organisation called NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation) and they are working in Valparai. They have had a very good success story [regarding] shola restoration. They are into raising shola trees. And they have identified degraded shola areas and with the help of Tamil Nadu forest department and active participation from the estate owners, they have been raising them for the last 20 years. So we want to emulate learnings from organizations like them.
From our side, we had done an afforestation drive, especially on the way to Berijam. It was initiated about five years ago. Now the trees are really growing, it is definitely an encouraging sign. And, we can identify all the shola areas where degradation happened, due to various reasons like grazing, fire, and even firewood collection. We are in the process of identifying those patches.
We will try to remove those exotics from the shola forest. There will be massive afforestation, which is mass eco-restoration. There are other agencies like the Vattakanal Trust and Palani Hills Conservation Society who are supporting our cause. We will definitely not be able to sustain the success without the support of local people and these organisations.
Tourists who are regularly visiting Berijam can be involved in planting shola saplings. So, I am very seriously thinking about identifying certain areas where tourists themselves can plant a few trees. So after a few years when they come back, they can see the trees growing and definitely feel happy about it. And, they can become partners in our conservation efforts.
JC: What are the primary challenges in conserving the Sholas?
SR: In the Kodaikanal area we have identified a few issues like forest fires during the peak summer months, which is also tourist season; firewood being sourced from forests; eradication of exotic species; and local participation for all these issues.
Kodaikanal hosts almost 20 lakh tourists every year. Most vacations tend to happen in the summer months, which is also when we have forest fires. There is also a huge request for fuel wood from the hotel owners and residents, a lot of which is sourced by people venturing into the forest. We are going to limit this, with the active participation of the locals.
Also, there are many areas where the exotic species are entering the sholas. So we will identify those areas and gradually remove trees like wattle, eucalyptus, and even pine. They can be replaced with the native shola species.
All of these are massive exercises, and we need the active support of the locals and volunteer organizations.
JC: Mr Ramasubramanian, what is your message to civil society and readers, citizens? How can they help support the forest department in conserving the sholas?
SR: Ecological restoration is a big issue and should not be seen in isolation. It is not the exclusive domain of the forest department. Everyone can contribute. The Kodaikanal forest department has a limited staff, but the area we look after is huge. Locals can also help us to prevent forest fires. Whenever there is a forest fire they can immediately inform the forest department.
JC: We have spoken about the forests, we have spoken about conservation. What about the shola grasslands?
SR: There is a High Court ruling ordering the removal of all plantations which were raised in the grasslands. Eucalyptus, wattle, and the pine forest was raised only in the grassland areas so those areas will be restored. There are some pilot projects going on. We will see the result and based on the result, definitely grasslands will be restored .
JC: Are there any victories that you can share from the forest department about protecting the Shola? Any victories that you have in mind, any reasons to celebrate?
SR: On the way to Berijam, we have taken up one Shola afforestation drive, and that particular area is coming up really well. It gives us a lot of hope. Earlier we thought that most of the shola trees have a very slow growth, growing only after three or four years. We can take up the task on a larger scale if we can include different hamlets around Kodaikanal and if estate owners participate. Instead of planting [the] silver oak in coffee estates, which is an exotic, they can very well take up shola trees. We are planning to raise almost two lakh seedlings for the next year. That is meant only for farmers. So if the farmers approach us, we will definitely be in a position to help them out. A massive shola afforestation drive is the need of the hour.
JC: Any last thoughts you want to share with the audience about the Sholas.
SR: The sholas are very unique. I have read many reports that sholas are sinking and grasslands are sinking because of wattle and the eucalyptus plantations done by the department. Many people accuse the forest department, that we have unnecessarily introduced many exotics in Kodaikanal and spoiled ecology. But [this] is not so. After the declaration of Kodaikanal Sanctuary , conservation will be given topmost priority, especially eco-restoration. Whatever mistakes we all have done in the past, can be undone. And definitely, it can be done with the active participation of the local communities.