An afternoon in a Nilgiri shola

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which includes the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu apart from regions in Karnataka and Kerala, has some of the highest ranges in southern India including Dodda Betta, the second highest peak in the Western Ghats. These high ranges are notable for a peculiar kind of forest habitat unique to the southern Western Ghats – the Sholas. The name is derived from the Tamil for grove or forest.


Moist broadleaved forests of stunted evergreen trees, the Sholas occupy the higher altitudes of the southern Western Ghats in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Tracts of dense, verdant forest, usually clumped around and overgrowing a stream, are separated by gentle undulating meadows of short, mellow-green grasses known to be resistant to fire and frost. Together, meadow and forest comprise the shola-grassland complex. Usually, shola forests are found above 2,000 m (over 6,500 feet) — an exception being the sholas that occur in BR Hills at 1,600 m (over 5,200 feet) — and bear a marked semblance to evergreen forests in northeastern India and southeast Asia. The sholas harbour unique biodiversity including endemic species separated from their nearest relatives in southeast Asia.


The Sholas, which function as effective moisture and carbon sinks, remain temperate year-round. Everywhere, this fragile and important ecosystem is threatened by increased fragmentation and encroachment by plantations and commercial afforestation. In the Nilgiris, the major invasive species are Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) and Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii), as well as monocultures of pine, cypress and silver oak. Shrubs like Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius), known locally as Kothagiri Malar, have also invaded the grasslands.

Black-shouldered Kite perched on an invasive Blue Gum

 

Great Tit in a dense clump of Black Wattle
 
Scotch Broom or Kothagiri Malar
 

To appreciate the magnificence of the shola ecosystem, you must enter it and experience it for yourself. Many sholas in the higher reaches of the Nilgiris are quite accessible to naturalists and nature enthusiasts — as well as poachers, encroachers, wood-cutters, grazers and forest-produce gatherers. The one that I visited was tucked away behind a pine plantation. To enter it I had to step across a stream bordered by a lichen-encrusted tree hirsute with moss. 


At this enchanting portal, I was greeted by a soft, wheezy single-note call, which stopped abruptly at my arrival. Expecting a bird, I waited noiselessly for the source to show itself. Presently, the owner of the voice scurried down the tree, pausing just long enough for me to take a good look at it. It was a beady-eyed rodent, small and smoky grey with ears pressed flat against its head. In my mind, I ruled out the immediate possibilities — the shape of the tail dictated that it was not a Malabar Spiny Dormouse (Platacanthomys lasiurus). The shape of the muzzle ruled out the Madras Tree Shrew (Anathana ellioti). 


It was a squirrel and markedly different in appearance from the Jungle Striped Squirrel (Funambulus tristriatus), which I have seen in Meghamalai (High Wavys) and Valparai (Anamalais) – that species has a rufous wash to the pelage. I was staring at a creature that was classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. This was the Dusky Striped Squirrel or the Dusky Forest Squirrel (Funambulus sublineatus), and it was too nimble for me to photograph (ARKive.org helpfully offers a picture we can use). 

ARKive photo - Dusky-striped squirrel
Dusky Forest Squirrel (Funambulus sublineatus) (ARKive.org)

 

The shola-grassland complex is made up of dense evergreen forests alternating with meadows of grasses resistant to frost and fire
 


The shola canopy is so dense that sunlight rarely strikes the ground
 
The occasional rays do penetrate the foliage to nurture new life on the mulchy forest floor
 
Ferns flourish in the corridors of sunlight
 
A flower picked from the forest floor

 

The moist conditions are hospitable to bryophytes such as mosses
 
It is a world engrossed in the soft babble of water – and here you can relate with poets who believed that brooks chuckle to themselves
 
Morning frost has glazed the wildflowers with silvery ice, but the birds don’t seem to mind
Beside the brook, a dragonfly soaks in the mellow sunshine
 
Some sholas accommodate a hard woody tree of the high-altitude Western Ghats – the Rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum nilagiricum) 
 
January in the Nilgiris sees this tree in bountiful flower and it goes by the moniker Pongal Poo (or New Year Flower)
 
The canopies are patrolled by troops of Nilgiri Langurs, classified as ‘Vulnerable’ due to overhunting for their flesh, which is prized by indigenous medicine men
 
The Nilgiri Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron cachinnans) is classified as ‘Endangered’ as its natural habitat is fast shrinking
 
The Black-and-Orange Flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa) may be common in this part of the world but its range has declined severely in the last few decades due to the loss of its evergreen forest habitat
 
The Nilgiri Flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudata) is a common resident of the Sholas but is classified as Near-Threatened due to the decline of the shola habitat
 
A female Nilgiri Flycatcher
Black Bulbul on the verge of the shola thicket

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