Partner Content | Inside the Heart of Sky Islands
It’s a busy road. Vehicles whizz past every few minutes. Not surprising, for we are just a kilometre out of the crowded hill town of Munnar in Kerala, where tourists throng to savour crisp mountain air, manicured tea gardens, and clear blue skies.
But it’s around 8 p.m. now, and the delicate sliver of the sickle moon pales against the magnificence of a diamond-studded night sky. The occasional aroma of tea from a factory nearby wafts in with the wind; loud music playing at one of the many resorts in the valley below carries across too. It’s around 8°C in mid-February: far too cold for someone like me who lives by the sea. I shudder in the chill as I stand on the road carved along the contours of the hill, a steep earth wall on one side and a deep gully that falls into a small river on the other.
This road has also been recently widened. A thick layer of smooth tarmac, and below it, a swanky new concrete culvert dug deep to channel the narrow stream that arises out of the slope. We’re on a quest to see the endemic wildlife that dwells in these high mountains. But both Prasenjeet Yadav, a National Geographic Photographer and Explorer, and I have our doubts: what wildlife could possibly persist in such a small strip of highly disturbed roadside vegetation?
“Look!” The eagle eyes of Hadlee Renjith, our tall lanky naturalist, don’t miss much.
At first glance, all you see is just another green leaf in the pale torchlight. A closer look reveals an almost undiscernible rhomboid outline on it. A frog! Around two centimetres long, the size of a `10 coin, he stays huddled. His bright, pear-green body has dark granular freckles, much like you’d see on the fruit.
“This green captivates me like no other,” says Prasen, as he flips out his smartphone to photograph the frog. “I’m from central India and the frogs we see there are not this colourful.”
What we are both unprepared for are the startling bright Persian red eyes that now glimmer out at us from the sea of green. This red-eyed beauty is the Beddome’s bush frog. You’d have to travel all the way to the Western Ghats, an ancient mountain range that hugs the western coast of India, to see it. And you won’t find it everywhere across this range: to spot it you will have to visit very specific mountains, among the highest in the Ghats—like the one we now stand on.
These ‘sky islands’—imposing mountains above 4,000 feet in elevation—are unique. True to their name, they are islands in the sky: deep valleys and gaps have secluded the mountains from each other, effectively marooning vegetation and wildlife on the mountaintops. Over millions of years of isolation, these life forms have adapted and evolved to be as exceptional as the landscape. Many species here are endemic, such as the Nilgiri tahr, a mountain goat that grazes on the high grasslands and nimbly scales steep rock faces with effortless ease. Then there’s the bold white-bellied sholakili, a robin-like bird in navy blue and white that scampers in the undergrowth of the forests on these mountaintops. Or the Beddome’s bush frog we just saw. Not to forget the rhododendron, a gnarly-branched dwarf tree whose rough, textured bark would put even gargoyles to shame: its closest relatives live in the Himalayas, more than 2,000 kilometres away as the crow flies.
We spot a rhododendron the very next day, in all its glory as the sun’s first rays burnish its ruby-pink blooms. It’s a fair bit of effort: leaving Munnar (where travellers would have the best options for stay) at 4 a.m., and then a one-hour drive to Top Station by narrow, winding roads that greatly prolong the journey. While the Top Station of today is a tame ‘viewpoint’ now from where tourists hurl their voices to hear echoes, it had a rather illustrious history. It was the terminal station of both a rail line that linked to Munnar (about 40 kilometres away) over mountain ridges, and a ropeway that linked to Tamil Nadu: a story I heard often while growing up on the tea estate of Mattupetty, just 20-odd kilometres from here. But our focus this time is to scale a mountain to photograph the quintessential montane grassland, so we disembark just before Top Station and ascend nearly 800 feet in a one-hour steep climb that tests my weak knees (surprisingly, they hold).
The sight that unfolds at the summit is reward enough. We clamber onto a grassland, and the wind dries up my wet hair dripping with sweat. Prasen, for whom the trek is no big deal, gets busy capturing the magnificent sight. The grassland ends in a steep precipice: though tussocked with grass too, it’s an almost 650-foot drop below. At eye level are more mountaintops looming in a semi-circle around us; a Tolkienesque landscape that a triumphant hobbit looks out on. The sun glitzes in from behind a peak, splitting into shafts of bright orange light.
For Prasen, who has been visiting such sky islands (in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) at least once every year for the past seven, the experience is still ethereal. “How much ever you know or read about a landscape or a species, the first time you experience it, that’s magical,” he says.
Shades of Green
Central to this experience of the sky islands is experiencing the beauty of its grasslands and sholas, two distinctly different habitats that occur side-by-side on these mountaintops. Expansive grasslands—only up to a metre high, like the one we just climbed up to—clothe mountain slopes. And short-canopied evergreen trees, called shola forests, occur in the shallow folds or valleys between slopes. It’s in such a shola that Hadlee later shows us an emerald serpent that looks like it has been pulled out of a Slytherin poster. The neon green large-scaled pit viper
is found only in the sky islands. Despite its resplendence, it blends beautifully into the vivid and muted greens of the shola.
A couple of days and a five-hour-journey later, it is again in the shola forests of Tamil Nadu’s Valparai that Prasen captures another Western Ghats endemic, the lion-tailed macaque. This endangered primate is usually elusive, and wild troops flee when humans approach even a few metres close. But a large group that lives in the forests near Valparai have become so accustomed to people (especially tourists feeding them) that they won’t hesitate to flag your vehicle down and demand treats. Even his smartphone is enough to invoke their frenzy, finds Prasen much to his chagrin as he tries to take pictures of the boisterous monkeys: while one macaque tugs at his pants, another tries to wrestle the smartphone out of his hands. Yet another—the troop is 30 strong—makes off with his LED light. A dramatic pursuit ensues, in Chesterton’s running-after-hat-style, Prasen pitted against endangered monkeys with a rather wonderful sense of humour.
As entertaining as this may seem, such proximity to people doesn’t bode well for the lion-tailed macaques. The easy meals they associate with people bring the macaques on to the road—and too close to vehicles. Many macaques have met their end here. It’s to prevent this that scientists have hit upon an idea that’s working very well: canopy bridges. Rope bridges connecting trees on either side of road have been erected by the Nature Conservation Foundation and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, offering safe aerial passageways for the monkeys. Yet some macaques still troop onto the roads, so locals Kannan and Dharmaraj take up their work spots on this patch of road every single day, waving placards that urge incoming vehicles to slow down, while coaxing persistent macaques to get off the road.
Pot of Gold
Such tourism-related worries may be a new challenge for some species in the sky islands, but these habitats have been in a flux since colonial times. Tea bushes replaced large tracts of naturally occurring grasslands and shola forests in the 1900s as it gathered sway as a cash crop. Soon, timber plantations to feed tea factories—eucalyptus and black wattle—followed. Today however, some of these introduced ‘exotic’ plants have turned invaders.
It’s into one such invaded thicket that we head to, to spot a special star of the sky islands. Out again in the biting cold of the Munnar night, we clamber up a shallow slope by the roadside where a stream trickles by between bushes of tea. Thick stands of eupatorium, an invasive shrub, have taken over the stream banks. But ironically enough, on the brown stalks of this plant is where Hadlee spots our star: a plain-looking brown frog, small enough to fit in your palm, its beige skin smattered with surreal abstract lines of chocolate brown. But lock eyes with it and you’ll be hooked for life: from its jet black pupils radiate beams of gold.
No wonder then that scientists who discovered it in 2008 called it the star-eyed tree frog, Ghatixalus asterops. As we walk away, Prasen and I ruminate about the frog and this tiny strip of disturbed vegetation it now lives in. Its home must have been a larger patch of shola forest at one time, but trees and vegetation have now been lopped down.
Residents appear to be aware of the dangers of shrinking shola forests. Sixty-five year old Mariamma (name changed on request) has lived all her life on a tea estate just 10 kilometres from Munnar, picking tea leaves for a living. While the tracts of tea and eucalyptus around her have remained more or less the same across decades, the shola forests nearby have shrunk, she says, pointing to the hills in the background.
“That’s probably why we see elephants coming into our estate more often now than we did three decades ago,” she claims. “Don’t they need food too, just like us? What will they eat if the cholai is cut down?”
As Prasen, Hadlee, and I walk across another shola patch listening to the hissing chirrs of the black-and-orange flycatcher, another sky island endemic, I grab some bright orange raspberries growing wild nearby. Old habits die hard: I know well how to avoid the fine recurved thorns on its leaves and stems. With the grainy, sour sweetness that explodes in my mouth course memories of a childhood spent growing up here in these very hills, doing exactly this. But the joy is now tainted: as a wildlife biologist, I know that this is the yellow Himalayan raspberry Rubus ellipticus—a species that was possibly introduced for its edible fruits, but went out of control and turned invasive, competing with other native species.
While science has not yet quantified the impacts of the Himalayan raspberry on local wildlife, it does tell us about other invasive species in the sky islands that we have much to worry about. Over the last 45 years, we’ve lost almost 40 per cent of sky island grasslands across the Ghats, found a study in 2019; around half of this loss occurred when plantation trees (such as the black wattle Acacia mearnsii) invaded the grasslands. A few hill ranges away in the Palani hills of Tamil Nadu (home to the hill station of Kodaikanal), this invasion is painfully evident. Over the last 40 years alone, a whopping 66 per cent of natural grasslands here have been lost, to both plantations and clearing for agriculture.
“Recognising that grasslands are the major habitat that has been lost and trying to restore them appears to be a major challenge,” writes V.V. Robin, assistant professor at the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research Tirupati, in an email to me. Removing exotic plantations and restoring grasslands need to go hand-in-hand; fortunately, forest officials in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are indeed giving this due consideration, adds the scientist who has been studying the sky islands for more than two decades.
Sky Island Specials
On such a grassland in Munnar is where Prasen spots his first ever Gunther’s vine snake, a species he hadn’t seen despite walking the sky islands for seven long years. We do spot large mammals during the trip: a herd of elephants, a lone Indian gaur. But the excitement that smaller, oft-overlooked animals and sky island endemics—like the vine snake—bring is irreplaceable. On our final day here, talks again shift back to the red-eyed beauty, the Beddome’s bush frog, dwelling in a disturbed patch of vegetation just a metre away from moving steel monsters that zip by over harsh asphalt.
The amphibian is currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) because it is found only in a small area. But this assessment happened in 2004; we don’t know if the status of the Beddome’s bush frog has worsened since then, considering the construction and encroachment that its home is being subjected to. Lopped away vegetation, concrete resorts replacing natural spaces, piles of rotting garbage, and expanding roads: these are all sights even a lay traveller would not miss.
At the end of the day, these stories—about not just the sky islands and the special stars they are home to, but the threats they face—matter because people desperately need a reality check, says Prasen.
“People have to care. That a frog living a thousand kilometres away affects you, directly, even if you’re sitting in Mumbai, Delhi or New York. We are all connected. Storytellers too need to tell local stories about global issues to local people—connecting the audience to their backyard makes them care more deeply.”
As Prasen and I sit on a large boulder in a shola forest stream talking about these invisible links and connections, we listen to the water riffling by over rocks, logs and leaves. There’s an untold understanding of the special place that sky islands will always hold in our hearts. And we know we’ll be back again in this landscape, to tell more stories of this unique ecosystem and its special denizens.
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