Raining Hornbills and Elaphants: Riparian Rain Forests of Vazhachal and Atirapally

Malabar Pied Hornbills at Vazhachal, across the river above the canopy. 8 June 2019

The low-lying riparian or riverine forests of Vazhachal and Atirapally are home to four species of Hornbills in Kerala: Great Indian, Malabar Pied, Indian Grey and Malabar Grey Hornbills. The resonant calls and wing beats of these huge birds make these rain forests ethereal, sensational and dynamic with vibrant life energy. It has a micro climate and its own unique rain oriented forest ecosystem that is to be admired, studied and conserved.

Southern Bird-wing Butterfly on Gulmohar at Vazhachal

After the floods in August 2018 the river Cholayar or Chalakudipuzha originating from Sholayar and Malakkapara, is gaining its lost sand beds and natural beauty. It is one of the most diverse biodiversity hotspots in the lower foothills of the Western Ghats in central Kerala.

Mother and calf in the river Cholayar, through the thickets darkly

It is also part of an important cultural corridor between ancient Tamilakam and Keralam. The trading and travelling groups used the pathways along the river in summer to cross the Western Ghats. The current tribal settlement or Kudi of Kadar tribes in Vazhachal is a resettlement after the Parambikulam dam construction in the 1940s.

Black-tipped Forest Glory damselfly at Vazhachal; 8 June 2019

Vazhachal literally means the stream of the plantain. It could be related to the abundance of wild plantain or some wild trees locally called Vazha in the surrounding riparian forests. It is still a favorite hound of elephants and Hornbills.

Malabar Pied Hornbills across the river Cholayar on a wild fig at Vazhachal, 8 June 2019.

Atirapally literally means the Pally on the frontier or border. It is one of the ancient Buddhist sites on the border land between Kerala and Tamil country. Beyond Atirapally towards Malakkapara above upper Sholayar we have a place called Manampally or Manambolly that denotes a Vihara up above the skies. It was once, one of the highest points on the ancient cultural route that housed a Buddhist Pally.

One on the left guards as the mother and calf are having some water in river Cholayar, at Vazhchal

The abundance of birds and mammals is still luring the curious visitors and travelers to this dense and moist forests of Vazhachal. In morning we may see the Great Indian Hornbills on fig trees in fruition. At dusk we would see a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills chasing and playing with each other flying and diving from tree to tree and sometimes across the river. The crossing of the great birds may be visible at the old British iron bridge as well.

A playing pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills at Vazhachal, across the river above the conopy.

This biodiversity hotspot needs to be conserved for future and the posterity. The lessons of the 2018 floods must teach us to be careful and conservationist regarding the vernal forests and sources of life giving water, air and earth.

Mother and calf in perfect camouflage in the rocky river Cholayar at Vazhachal after the floods2018, 8 June 2019. The floods exposed the ribs of the river, it requires time to heal the wounds of the floods.

Fairies of the Mountain Stream: Avifauna in Mathikettan Shola National Park and Bodhi Hills, Under Erasure

Malabar Whistling Thrush (Choola Kaka) by a stream at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola

Mathikettan Shola National Park lies in the western slopes of the Bodhi Hills towards the south of Bodhi Medu or Bodimettu and Anayirankal lake to the south east of Munnar on the Western Ghats in Idukki district of Kerala. This dense evergreen mountain forests or Shola can be reached from Santanpara on the Munnar – Kumaly highway. The Shola office and interpretation centre by Kerala Forest Department is located in Petotty, three kilometers to the east of Santanpara. They offer dormitory and log-hut camping. The schoolboy whistling of the Choolakaka or Malabar Whistling Thrush would be the first striking welcome note of the Shola and its myriad misty streams.

Crested Serpent Eagle in a Shola patch near the highway in Santanpara west of Mathikettan Shola

The Shola is called Mathikettan in the sense that you would loose your wits once you enter this huge and extensive Shola. The region is called Petotty probably as it is a valley or vessel (Totty) of Pekuyil or Hawk Cuckoos on the ghats. The cuckoos crying out “pee… pee… ho…” are also called Brain Fever Birds. These place names may also be part of the otherizing, distorting discourses related to Bodhi Medu which has been skewed and reduced to Bodimettu, and Bodhinayakanur to Bodinaikanur as part of erasing the history of Buddhism from place names.

Indian Yellow Tit or Black-lored Tit at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola National Park, 2 June 2019 evening

Chakramudi the peak west of the Bodhi Hills just east of Pallyvasal or the gateway to the Vihara is also distorted to Chokramudi to erase the Buddhist cultural legacies of the region from popular imagination and comprehension. This is a peak near the current Lockhart gap, rising up to 2200 m where once the Dhamma Chakka (Chakra) or wheel of ethics was placed by the Asokan monks and nuns as it was a highest point on the ancient trade-cultural route between ancient Tamilakam and Chera land or Keralam, part of a provincial silk route between Kanchi and Vanchi. But somehow place names like Tripadamalai, Nagamalai, Suryanelli etc. are surviving in the area around Anayirankal lake reservoir.

Bodhi Hills from Chaturangapara Medu. Steep drop of around 1000 m to Tevaram and Bodhinayakanur below

Ana or elephant is another icon of the Buddha as Gajotama as epitomized in the highest peak in Tamilakam in Anaimudi. The Anamalais also continue the Gajotama analogy. Lion or tiger or simply Puli in common parlance is also a key icon used from Asokan times onwards to refer to the enlightened and compassionate one as the distinguished and exquisite elephant, bull, tiger or lion eventually the Sakya Simha. Meesapulimalai and its eight-fold peaks poignantly represent the eight-fold path of the enlightened one.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo at Petotty CHR in Mathikettan Shola National Park

This sensitive part of the Bodhi Hills is culturally and ecologically nuanced and vulnerable to the increasing pressures of habitaion, developmental work, plantation and quarrying. The fragile grassland tops of Santanpara, Rajapara Medu and Chaturangapara Medu that act as an eco curtain that separates the hot dry climate of Tamilakam from Keralam, are under the threat of granite quarrying, wind mills and road building.

Uchikuthmudi and other peaks in Mathikettan Shola National park, declared in 2003. In colonial times the Travancore princely state declared the region as a reserve forest in 1897.

It is also part of the Cardamom Hills Reserve or CHR. Old endemic tress are still conserved in the CHR areas because of restrictions to felling. Increasing use of pesticides, especially the banned Endosulfan in different trade names and illegal constructions or tree felling are causing damage to the unique ecosystem that is the spring source of water for the entire south and central Kerala as mountain tributaries of many rivers are originating in the Shola.

A territorial Shikra at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola National Park

The overdose of pesticide residues in the Sholas of the ghats reaches the wetlands in Kuttanad through the rivers originating from the Sholas and poisons life in the plains. The recent ecological survey done by Dr Dilip K G of CNHS and Dr Ajay Sekher has once again confirmed the harmful effects pesticides in this shola affecting even bird diversity and the overall health of the ecosystem. The eco survey was done on June 2 and 3, 2019.

Prof Dilip K G at Rajaparamedu overlooking Tevaram and Bodhinayakanur below. Bodhi Hills and Mathikettan Shola towards north in the background.

The extensive presence of Hill Myna, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Serpent Eagle and Hawk Cuckoo is evident in the survey. The absence of Hornbills is another striking fact that reminds us of the scaring presence of pesticides and other chemical fertilizers in the unique wooded ecosystem.

Malabar Whistling Thrush by a stream in CHR region near Santanpara. 3 June 2019

A lonely Mountain Imperial Pigeon was also spotted towards Jnandar area east of Petotty on the morning of June 3. Further close studies, field observations and surveys are required to create an environment and culture of conservation as far as this life giving Shola regions are concerned. Strict monitoring regarding banned pesticide use is also essential. The mining and quarrying must also be stopped in the fragile ecosystem that prevents the onslaught of drought from the eastern slopes of the ghats.

A Grass Hopper at Rajaparamedu

Let us hope that this ecologically, culturally and historically significant fortress between Tamilakam and Keralam survive the encroachment of construction and plantation. Let us dream that the fairies that sing from the mountain streams day in and day out survive the large scale interventions and clearing. Let us listen to the vanishing music of the thrushes, parakeets,mynas and cuckoos…

Malabar Whistling Thrush at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola National Park