The flora of Palani hills, and the threats they face from human onslaught

The old saying ‘The health of the hills is the wealth of the plains’ is more true today than ever before.
Monday, September 26, 2016 – 13:04
Image: Vinay~commonswiki via Wikimedia Commons

By Pippa Mukherjee

Lying as an eastern offshoot of the Western Ghats, the Palnis receive both the Southwest and Northeast Monsoons. Of the two, the Northeast has greater impact as it is responsible for higher rainfall. Thus during October to November we often have heavy downpours and the rains deposit much more water in the streams which feed the dams down below. This is particularly important as regards the Vaigai dam which feeds water to the city of Madurai and the Pallar dam which supplies water to Palani town. Most of the slopes above the Vaigai are rain shadow areas, that is, they receive very little rain. The only good water source is from the Palnis and thus conservation of the area is vital. With the acceleration of climate change this situation will, of course, vary but let us pray that it does not alter the floristic patterns or catchment ability to a disastrous degree.

Being fed by two monsoons, the watershed of the Palnis is vital in supplying water to the increasing populations on the plains and to the crops that support it. Thus the old saying ‘The health of the hills is the wealth of the plains’ is more true today than ever before. Not only is the entire upper plateau a water source for the plains, but because of its position it is also represented by many species of flora that are unique to the area. Therefore, scientifically and geographically, this is a conservation area without parallel. It is also true that the original vegetation patterns have been desperately degraded. Intensive agriculture has also brought with it many problems, the worst being the use of toxic pesticides and fertilisers that destroy many predatory insect species vital for the control of pests. Surprisingly, and to the dismay of the company, many people in India now use Coca Cola as a pesticide.

In my garden I use only natural pesticides and fertilisers made from plant species and all the products of the cow, such as milk, urine, dung, curd and ghee. I also use cow urine as a pesticide mixed with specific plants. The first time I tried this we stood patiently behind the cow for some time until the cow decided to perform, but because the bucket was metal it made a terrible noise and the startled cow ran away. We now have a drain dug in the cowshed which makes the chore easier for us and the cow.

Once a local man walked past my garden. He asked what chemical pesticides I used in the garden. When he was told none, he was surprised. He then asked my maid, ‘How is everything growing so well then?’ He was also slightly startled when he saw us talking to the plants. We assured him that they grew better when talked to.

Some valleys try to persuade farmers to use organic methods. But since most of them are marginal farmers with small plots of land they are often anxious to keep the yields up and are afraid to try anything new.

An even more serious concern is the government’s decision to open up roads to the more remote areas and villages. This immediately entices people from cities to buy land as the areas become more accessible. Whereas the villagers are happy to use the old paths and short-cuts to walk to the town for their needs, these roads bring in a lot of noise, unwanted construction and large plantations. They also break down the cultural ties and change the natural environmental patterns that have held the people together for centuries.

Another area of concern is the heavy exhaust fumes from vehicles coming up in their thousands to hill stations all over the southern states and causing the demise of many species including endemic orchids. Random and unplanned development and poor agricultural techniques are also matters that the government has to tackle as soon as possible, as well as the introduction of disease-resistant crops.

Another worry is the amount of garbage being thrown indiscriminately all over the place, blocking water ways and marshes with very little regulation in any of the big towns of the Western Ghats. As of 2014 a glimmer of hope has appeared in the words of the new prime minister who is determined to clean up the country. It will, however, take another generation to educate those who have been dropping garbage all through their life without thought.

Yet another worrying situation is that of the removal of, and clear felling of, exotic species from the Western Ghats. Eucalyptus, wattle, and pine can be extremely damaging. However, surprisingly, to some extent, Shola regeneration is taking place under eucalyptus, wattle, and pine. It would, therefore, be catastrophic to remove these trees and plant Shola species on bare ground. This is because Shola species require very little in the way of temperature variation throughout the night and day and protection by exotic species allows for their healthy growth. Remove the exotics and Shola regeneration virtually stops. Until the forest department understands and reverses this trend, more and more indigenous and endemic species will die out. But the Forest Department will gain potentially, by selling the wood at a later date. For all conservation this is a conundrum which must be understood as soon as possible.

Let us hope that the species that are endemic or indigenous to the region will survive to delight the next several generations.

Excerpts from “Flora of the Southern Western Ghats and Palnis: A Field Guide” by Pippa Mukherjee, published by Niyogi Books

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