Why South India needs the Shola forests of the Nilgiris

The forests and grasslands act as water towers and influence the fortunes of farmers in the Cauvery delta

By V Sundararaju
Published: Friday 24 January 2020

The Shola forests of South India derive their name from the Tamil word solai, which means a ‘tropical rain forest’.

Classified as ‘Southern Montane Wet Temperate Forest’ by experts Harry George Champion and SK Seth, the Sholas are found in the upper reaches of the Nilgiris, Anamalais, Palni hills, Kalakadu, Mundanthurai and Kanyakumari in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

These forests are found sheltered in valleys with sufficient moisture and proper drainage, at an altitude of more than 1,500 metres. The upper reaches are covered with grasslands, known as Shola grasslands.

The vegetation that grows in Shola forests is evergreen. The trees are stunted and have many branches. Their rounded and dense canopies appear in different colours.

Generally, the leaves are small in size and leathery. Red-coloured young leaves turning into different colours on maturity is a prominent characteristic of the Shola forests. Epiphytes like lichens, ferns and bryophytes usually grow on the trees.

The occurrence of Himalayan plants like rhododendron in these Shola forests is a mystery. Paleobotanist Vishnu Mitter suggested that these are remnants of the vegetation driven to South India during the Quaternary Ice Age, about 2.6 million years ago, with subsequent changes in the tropics of South India.

Sholas play a major role in conserving water supply of the Nilgiris’ streams. In his book The Nilgiris (1908), W Francis says, “The Sholas of the plateau are not of any great importance from a commercial point of view, as the trees are slow-growing varieties which produce timber of little or no value and probably take at least a century to mature. But they add greatly to the beauty of the country and are of immense use in protecting source of water supply.”

Sholas thus act as ‘overhead water tanks’.

The rolling grasslands found on top of the Western Ghats, enhance the beauty of the region. Usually, Shola forests and grasslands are found in a ratio of 1:5.

Pastoral communities, who settled in the grasslands centuries ago, periodically burn grass. This has checked the advance of the Shola forests. As tree species of the montane, evergreen forests are flammable, regeneration of any Shola tree species is completely prevented except for Rhododendron nilagiricum, the only Shola tree that can tolerate fire.

The rain received from the Southwest and Northeast monsoons is harvested by the Shola forest-grassland ecosystem, leading to the formation of the Bhavani river that finally drains into the Cauvery. Thus, the Shola forest-grassland ecosystem of the Nilgiris, also supports the prosperity of Cauvery delta farmers.

Trouble for Sholas

Unfortunately, the Sholas have begun to gradually shrink due to the introduction of alien plant species and annual fire occurrences.

Alien species like Sticky Snakeroot, Gorse and Scotch Broom introduced during British rule, have encroached upon the grasslands.

During 1840, tree species such as Acacia and Eucalyptus were introduced from Australia. Afterwards, between 1886 and 1891, Pine and Cypress were introduced, again from Australia. As the alien species grew, the forests and grasslands gradually became degraded and shrank. 

In addition, unscientific agricultural practices like growing tea on the slopes, cattle grazing and fuel wood collection have become serious causes for degradation. Unregulated tourism has created concrete jungles, traffic congestion and caused the generation of garbage.

Land use studies undertaken on the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve between 1849 and 1992 show the extent of the damage. During 1849, the extent of Shola forests was 8,600 hectares (ha), grasslands 29,875 ha and agriculture was 10,875 ha. No wattle or eucalyptus were planted in the area at that time.

During 1992, it was found that the extent of Sholas was 4,225 ha, grasslands 4,700 ha, agriculture 12,400 ha, tea plantations 11,475 ha, wattle plantations 9,775 ha and eucalyptus plantations was 5,150 ha.

The comparison of the results of the 1849 and 1992 studies shows that cultivation of tea, wattle and eucalyptus has reduced the Shola forest-grassland ecosystem to a great extent.

Measures taken

After realising the seriousness of the situation, the government banned the planting of wattle and eucalyptus completely in 1987. Ecological restoration and biodiversity conservation were given importance.

Under the Hill Area Development Programme since the mid-1980s, seedlings have been planted in degraded patches and protected with chain-link fences to restore the forests.

Special Shola forest protection committees were formed involving teachers, nature lovers, ecologists, environmentalists, students and villagers in the Nilgiris. They were motivated to remove plastic garbage from the nearby forests, protect Shola trees, remove alien species and learn about the importance of the Sholas.

The forest department started supplying LPG to villagers who lived near the Sholas as they depended upon the forests for their fuel wood needs. This helped the forests a great deal as the entry of people in them was stopped.

Presently, the Tamil Nadu forest department is now focusses on eradicating wattle, providing fencing and planting shola seedlings in degraded shola forests.

The Shola-grassland ecosystem, which acts as the Nilgiris’ overhead water tank and the water source for the Cauvery Delta, can only be saved with the involvement and cooperation of the common public, students and nature enthusiasts.

If the forests and grasslands are restored, the region’s water problems will be solved to a great extent.

V Sundararaju is President, the Society for Conservation of Nature, Trichy, Tamil Nadu and consultant with the Society for Social Forest Research & Development, Tamil Nadu

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