In God’s own country

The hegemony of pseudo conservation converts ecotourism into pseudo ecotourism. Photographing herpetofauna or “macro-photography” is this hegemony’s first victim. The next victim could have been avifauna photography or “birding”, unless there was another version of “conservation” and “ecotourism”.

The pseudo ecotourism created by this hegemony is largely centered on tiger chasing in subcontinental tiger reserves as well as fascination for big mammals. However, this victimization of herpetofauna photography is also an opportunity to create alternative ecotourism. An ecotourism which has relatively less risk to get shamelessly commoditized.

Fragmented shola forest among acres of tea estates and vast eucalyptus planation in one of the popular hill stations of the South-Western Indian state of Kerala. This hill station is one such destination for alternative ecotourism.

Fragmented shola forest amidst tea estates of Munnar

Munnar, which is believed to mean “three rivers”, referring to its location at the confluence of the Mudhirapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundali Rivers, is a popular tourist destination for honeymoon couples, fun loving young tourists looking for selfie posting opportunity in social media and also for tourists with small and large family.

The tea estates and spice gardens owners of Munnar provide opportunity to the tourists from various part of the world to visit their places as part of their tourism activities.

Based on an article Agriculture now moves into the field of tourism, written by Madhvi Sally and P.K. Krishnakumar, published in Economic Times (ET), the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (erstwhile Tata Tea) tea estate of Munnar feel tourism can be a good source of income earner in the long term. Kerala government’s decision to permit the use of 5% of plantation land for tourism and allied activities had inspired farmers to diversify.

It was mentioned in the article, that with 23,000 hectares of tea plantations spread over the Munnar, the Kanan Devan is the largest tea corporate in South India with production over 20 million kg. The company had a plan to invest around Rs 100 crore by 2016 to give thrust to tourism. By tying up with a hospitality company, it intended to manage 21 bungalows, many of which were built by the British when they started tea estates that were subsequently bought by the Tatas. “We will be setting a dairy project with 150 cows to manufacture products like cheese and chocolates to give a thrust to our tourism activities,” said Kanan Devan MD Chacko P Thomas, according to the article.

As per that article published in ET, “With the Kerala government’s decision, we plan to build additional cottages in Munnar. In the past two years, there has been a steady increase in flow of tourists to our bungalows,” pointed out Tharani Tharan, head of hospitality division of the plantation company.

This agro-tourism concept is of course highly inclined towards fulfilling materialistic needs of market economy. But we will be astonished to realize how nature turned this agro-tourism into an agro-ecotourism opportunity in this tea country.

During day time these tea and spice gardens are busy in welcoming their farm visiting guests, after dusk these agro-forest plantations are frequented by herpetofauna lovers like Shreeram. He gets accompanied by Sebinster and Augustus, who run tea café which serves best tea from the tea estates of Munnar to their day tourists. With night fall, they become nature guides to offer their extensive local knowledge of amphibians and reptiles to their night visitors. In the monsoon of 2022, between 18th and 20th August I was part of one herpetofauna photography workshop led by Shreeram. Sebinster and Augustus were our local naturalists. As I said earlier, working with Shreeram means being on the field in two shifts. Our day used to start at 8 AM, after breakfast and continued until midnight, with couple of breaks for lunch and early dinner in evening.

In three days Sebinster took us to various tea estates and plantation forests in and around Munnar; and to Meesapulimala forest range, situated around 35 km from Munnar town.

The phenomenal part of our exploration was in just three days in the tea estates and planation forests of Munnar we found 21 species of frogs and for me except one or two, all were new species I had ever seen in nature.

Yellow bellied bush frog

Out of them five are critically endangered and three are endangered as per IUCN conservation status. All these 21 species are endemic to Western Ghats.

Frog species we saw in the tea estates were Micrixalus nelliyampathi or dancing frog; Raorchestes blandus; Raorchestes jayarami or Jayaram’s bush frog; Raorchestes flaviventris or yellow-bellied bush frog; Raorchestes ochlandrae; Raorchestes dubois or Kodikanal bush frog; Raorchestes beddomii or Beddomii’s bush frog; Raorchestes chlorosomma or green-eyed bush frog; Raorchestes sushili; Raorchestes griet and Raorchestes resplendens. Except Beddomii’s bush frog all are relatively newly discovered species (between 200 and 2014). All are bush frog, except resplendens or resplendent shrub frog which are found in shrubs of high altitude region. We found quite a few individuals of resplendens near Messapulimala peak.

Jayaram’s bush frog

Green-eyed bush frog, sushili, griet and resplendent shrub frog are critically endangered as per IUCN conservation status. Kodikanal bush frog is a vulnerable species as per IUCN.

Resplendent shrub frog

Another critically endangered species, we found was Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus, also known as Anaimalai flying frog or false Malabar gliding frog, is a very special frog as it’s found both in lower canopy and understorey vegetation and on the ground. 

Other interesting frog species we found in Munnar and surrounding areas were Indosylvirana indica or Indian golden-backed frog; Polypedates occidentalis or western tree frog; Ghatixalus asterops or starry eyed tree frog; Nyctibatrachus poocha or meowing night frog; Micrixalus sali; and Uperodon anamalaiensis, also known as Anamalai dot frog, or Anamalai ramanella, or reddish-brown microhylid frog.

Starry eyed bush frog

Few other endangered frog species we found were Rhacophorus calcadensis or Kalakad gliding frog; Pseudophilautus wynaadensis or Wayanad bush frog; and Indirana gundia.

The tea estates and plantation of Munnar severely destroyed the natural shola forest of this part of Western Ghats which had led to significant species destruction. Despite of that there still remains such diversity which is enough to draw attention of wildlife enthusiasts.

Although tropical forest ecosystems around the world have been modified and fragmented by agroforests planted to produce commodities such as coffee, rubber and areca palm, amphibian communities can survive in those transformed landscapes — if the agroforests are managed to support biodiversity. That’s the conclusion of a new study led by Penn State wildlife ecologists who surveyed frog populations in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that covers an area of 160,580 square km parallel to the South-Western coast of India. As per this survey, researchers at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, led by Dr. Krithi Karanth, Dr. Shashank Dalvi and Vishnupriya Sankararaman, a doctoral student in the Ecosystem Science and Management program at Penn State, searched for amphibians on 106 agroforest tracts across a 28,500 square km area.

The study analysed amphibian populations and land management in coffee, rubber and areca palm — three of the largest commodity agroforests in the Western Ghats. Researchers found that “microhabitat availability” — the presence of streams, ponds and unpaved service roads — had a major influence on amphibian numbers and species distribution.

Sankararaman said, “Amphibian populations are declining around the world, and they need protection. They provide huge ecosystem services to landowners — frogs are natural pesticides that consume more insect biomass than almost any other animals,” she said. “They have real financial significance and allow us to eat more organically, using fewer chemicals in crop production. But beyond that, these creatures have evolved over millions of years, and they have immeasurable value in their own right.”

Sankararaman and Penn State wildlife ecologists’ research made it clear why Munnar has become a heaven for amphibians and sanctuary of many critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species, which are also providing ecosystem services of pest control for tea estate and spice garden owners across the region.

If there are frogs, there will be snakes. We were delighted by spotting four fabulous species of snakes in Munnar.

Gunthur’s vine snake

Those were Ahaetulla dispar, the Gunther’s vine snake, a species of tree snake primarily restricted to the Shola forests of the Southern Western Ghats where it is found often on high-elevation montane grasslands and the low shrub belts; Boiga thackerayi, or Thackeray’s cat snake, is arboreal, mostly seen close to forest streams, and is active during the night. It is non-venomous and is known to grow up to three feet in length; Craspedocephalus macrolepis, commonly known as the large-scaled pit viper is a venomous pit viper species; and the purple-red earth snake (Teretrurus sanguineus) is a species of nonvenomous shield tail snake. All four are endemic to the Western Ghats.

Large scaled pit viper

I also should not forget to mention three amazing lizards we found in those three days. The vibrant coloured Anaimalai spiny lizard or Anaimalais salea (Salea anamallayana); Monilesaurus ellioti, or Elliot’s forest lizard, is a species of arboreal, diurnal, lizard; and the Indian day gecko or Nilgiri dwarf gecko (Cnemaspis indica) is a species of diurnal and insectivorous, rock-dwelling gecko found in the high elevation grasslands and montane forests. A bright coloured Indrella ampulla, a tropical terrestrial air-breathing gastropod mollusc was found crawling on tree stump in a rather rainy mid night in the tea estate of Munnar. It again goes without saying, that all these are Western Ghats endemic.

Eliotte’s forest lizrd

21 frogs, 4 snakes, 3 lizards and one mollusc. All endemic to Western Ghats. It is a rather long list of endemic species narrated above, considering just three days of visit in few plantation patches of Munnar and Messapulimala hill. But I could not help but listing down them here, as that is what Munnar’s nocturnal herpetofauna life has to offer to wildlife enthusiasts.

In a research paper, Potentials of Agro-tourism in Karnataka, written by Ahsanath. MK and Dr. R Purushothaman of Department of Commerce in SNG College Chavadi, Coimbatore, the agro-tourism is considered as an inexpensive gateway for typical tourists from urban civilization. Other elements for the popularity of agro-tourism identified in above research paper are – curiosity about the farming industry and life style; strong demand for wholesome family oriented recreational activities; health consciousness of urban population and finding solace with nature friendly means; desire for peace and tranquillity; interest in natural environment; and nostalgia for their roots on the farm – “Deep in the heart of urbanites lies the love and respect for their ancestors and villages. Hence, visit to villages satisfies their desire.”

Alternative ecotourism in the form of agro-ecotourism is a hope to divert the sole “single species” focus from tiger reserves to rest of the ecosystem. A hope for ecotourism industry, ecotourists, ecosystems and of course for that over-stressed single species – Bengal Tiger of subcontinental forest.

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