Mukurthi National Park

For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the place now refered to as Mukurthi National Park, was the place of Toda ancestors, the afterworld to which their dead ones migrated. For those same millenia, the place now under the juridisction of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, was the summer grazing ground for Toda buffalo. It was too cold for permanent settlements.

For aeons, prior to all this, this place, now referred to as Mukurthi National Park, was the home of tahrs, laughing thrush, rhododendrons, saleas, horseshoe pit-vipers, tigers, langurs, impatiens, gentians, wild dogs, pipits, strawberries and many other beings able to live happily on the cold edges of a soaring plateau in the sunny tropics, lashed by high velocity monsoon winds and very high rainfall, and frost in the winter.

Of course, the English were the first to trash this place. Mukurthi, along with other grassland areas of the Upper Nilgiris, was planted up with exotic species. Here they planted species of acacia, known commonly as wattle, in a series of plantation experiments. They also unleashed gorse and broom in a fit of homesickness.

After independence this travesty continued. A good part of the area was carved up for a hydroelectric power system. All that clearing gave a great toehold for the exotic species to spread, and completely altered the natural course of the streams that pour out of every fold and valley from Mukurthi, the highest edge of the main watershed for the entire Nilgiris..

We now face the consequences: acacia, pine, gorse, broom, eupatorium gone feral, become invasive.

Studies of this last wild edge of the Nilgiris abound, Toda people have their ethnocopium of stories and understandings, animals and plants have their own tales to tell, colonial botanists too.

We add to this with our own. Between 2002 and 2005 the GBS team was invited by the TNFD to study the grasslands of Mukurthi. We were sponsored by Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) to carry this out. We present below a summary of our findings.

PDF of the whole report.

Mukurthi image gallery.

Essay Notes from the Edge.

Plant data.

GPS data.

By 2008 our report found its way into the managament plan of the Park.

By 2009, the Park authorities started massive removal of wattle.

In 2010, we revisited Mukurthi as part of a larger study on remnant plant communities in the Nilgiris.

In 2012 we went to Mukurthi as labour under the exotic removal programme of the TNFD (with groups of young students), to carry out those very same recommendations we made: the removal of exotic species. We killed over 45,000 pine saplings between two work camps. We will continue to do this.

For the removal of young pine along stream beds, will release water into the streams, water that would be lost otherwise by evapotranspiration from the growth of pine.

A National Park for Exotics or Endemics?

Nilgiri Tahr. Photo: Godwin Vasanth Bosco

There are six intriguing things about Mukurthi:

  1. Of the 200 grassland species 105 are endemic to south India. Of these 77 are endemic to the Western Ghats. 22 are found in the Nilgiris alone.

  1. Mukurthi has the highest number of scapigerous Impatiens found in any one place, unit area, landscape: in the world. This group is entirely endemic to the Western Ghats, half of which are found on this southwestern edge. This is of great personal interest, as we have been studying the Impatiens, particularly the scapigerous Impatiens of the south, and can unequivocally vouch for that fact that they are very tender extremely delicate species, very vulnerable to climate change. In addition Mukurthi itself may be a centre of speciation i.e natural hybridization , a process leading eventually to the formation of new species. E.g. hybrids of I. laticornis and I. lawsonii; I. clavicornu and I. pseudoacaulis can be found.

  1. Some plants are found only within the Park (or close to it like Avalanche, or Sispara) and nowhere else on the planet. Some occur in gregarious dense populations, (Alchemilla, Oldenlandia verticillaris, Impatiens clavicornu etc) and others as isolated individuals (a strange shrubby Impatiens resembling I. hensloviana). How is it that there are so few of them?

  1. There are very few ground orchids. Relative to other high altitude areas of the south, Mukurthi is sparse in this group. Could the digging for pits have had an effect on the populations of ground orchids, over and above climatic factors?

  1. Exotic plant species can be found in almost every corner of the Park, many traveled on their own, nobody planted them. In this forbidding tropical terrain, with winter frost and gale force winds, the plants that are spreading fastest are the exotics and one or two highly aggressive natives.

  1. Mukurthi is very small. Too small. But how come its present shape, why so long and so narrow? Even with the contiguity to the Silent Valley National Park, the New Amarambalam Reserve Forest and the South Division Reserve Forests, the grassland area is absurdly small, over and above its utter lack of width. For habitats to retain their integrity, does shape matter? The press of wattle on the entire eastern edge will advance surely and cover the sliver of a strip that remains.

What is the problem with exotics, why all the fuss?

It is unequivocally understood now that the third big stress on the natural world, other than habitat destruction and climate change is the spread of invasive alien species. Some settle around urban areas or agricultural fields but some penetrate into the heart of natural environment with sometimes devastating results. All over the world exotic species are invading natural environments at a spectacular rate. Bio-invasion poses a threat more ominous, some people feel, than greenhouse gases, industrial pollution and ozone depletion. Alien invasive species operate on disturbed areas with a swiftness no native species can hope to match (Feral Futures, Tim Low).

MNP occupies 77 sqkms, the Nilgiris are 2496 sqkm every other area is completely altered, and only this western edge remains, somewhat intact, somewhat whole. And yet, of the 77 sqkm between 40 and 50% is under wattle. Of our study area (some 32 sq km in size), half is under exotics.

The march of wattle, gorse and broom into the park cannot be contained easily. All three species, once established are difficult to eradicate. Wattle spreads through seed. It also coppices well. It forms dense stands, virtually impenetrable thickets into which other species cannot enter. Wattle seeds can remain sleepers for a hundred years, the battle may get more furious next century if we do not take steps now. At least half of the study area is covered in wattle, pine, gorse and broom. Every corner , even the furthest most inhospitable reaches harbour some or the other species of exotic now. Daisies, thistles, bracken, Calceolaria can be seen in most of the valleys. Straggling brushwood of wattle are also commonly seen. No vista is spared. Common weedy natives, of cosmopolitan distribution can also start to dominate in areas that are repeatedl disturbed. Rubus, we fear, is also a big problem.

The pitting that that taken place entailed a significant area of soil being dug up, subject to mechanical damage of a kind it had previously never known, which makes it easier for weeds to take hold, local or exotic.

Wattle plantations are actually wastelands: not only do they impoverish the ecosystem but they also diminish the water collecting potential. The critical difference between natural grassland and wattle plantations in terms of their ecological value lies primarily in the diversity of grasslands which generates soil fertility and water. Since all niches are occupied in a climactic climax, a stable environment is maintained.

Does Mukurthi National Park Require Restoration?

Absolutely.

If nearly 50% the Park area is under exotics, then surely this alone is reason enough! Especially when large numbers of species worldwide are crossing the thin line between critically endangered and living dead. Especially when over 50% of the grassland flora are endemics to the region.

MNP is roughly 3% of the total Nilgiri land area. And since so much is under wattle, we can conclude that less than 2% of the Nilgiris is original grassland.

What do we prefer: a National Park for Exotics or one for Endemics?

Specific Suggestions