Restoring the Toda Landscapes of the Nilgiri Hills in South India, by Tarun Chhabra

We were ascending the sacred peak called mudrehn when a shimmer of white seen through my binoculars distracted the sighting of a herd of the endangered Nilgiri tahr. As my Toda friend Kwattawdr Kwehttn and I reached closer, the realization dawned that it was indeed a rhododendron tree with snow-white flowers. He had often spoken of white-flowered rhododendrons, but I had been disbelieving – saying that there was no such scientific record in all of south India. Thus began my botanical odyssey.

The Nilgiris are part of the Western Ghats complex, which is a global biodiversity hotspot and has some of the highest peaks in south India – exceeding 2500 m. Each year the Nilgiris undergo a double monsoon cycle – a westerly monsoon that brings heavy rains everywhere from June to August, and an easterly ‘reverse monsoon’ that brings most of the annual rain to some easterly areas but some rain throughout from October to January.

The mountainous terrain of the Nilgiris leads to a great diversity of vegetation. Forests range from evergreen rainforest on the moist lower western slopes, where trees over 40 m high emerge from the canopy, to thorny forest on the far drier lower eastern slopes dominated by drought-resistant acacias only growing to a height of 9 m. ‘Jungle’, where trees are dormant in the dry season and which is so widespread in India, has deciduous broadleaved trees growing to 30 m in Mudumalai and Silent Valley. Savannas vary from bamboo savanna with scattered and clumped bamboos growing to 30 m, scattered acacias and/or deciduous broadleaved trees with grass in between, to scattered scrub dominated by small palms (Phoenix humilis) in grassland.

Above 1200 m the upper Nilgiri plateau is dominated by shola grassland. Stunted evergreen montane (shola) forests with trees less than 20 m nestle in the moist hollows between folds of the extensive grassy hills, where they are protected from wind and fire.