Living in a Rainforest on the Western Ghats
Homestays in Coorg offer visitors a glimpse of a unique eco-system. Coorg or Kodagu is part of the Western Ghats that have been declared a world heritage site. It has many plantations that host hundreds of threatened species
It had beautiful dark coffee-brown scales with yellowish stripes and a sinuous slender body stretching no more than two feet.
The languid Tranvancore Wolf snake lay sprawled on the bathroom mirror. It had sneaked in to avoid the gentle night precipitation and was basking in the steam left behind by the hot water running earlier. It was hard to miss once the solar light was flicked on.
Gradually, it coiled back and slithered to a safer, darker corner behind the mirror. I was not sure at the time if it was venomous since it resembles the common Krait and is often targeted for the same reason. Suffice to say that I lay awake for most part of the night, wondering whether my nocturnal guest would like to take a peek at the room as well.
This was my penultimate night at the Rainforest Ecolodge on Mojo Plantation nestled at 1100-m altitude in Kodagu, Karnataka. The monsoon in a rainforest comes with its own delights and surprises. Leeches are a case in point. They crave to attach themselves to any warm body passing by to satisfy their desire for blood. But their presence also indicates a fertile soil and ecosystem. They are both the predator and the prey.
Then there are the frogs, toads, spiders, wasps, dragon flies, lizards, snakes and birds. Their tribe multiplies and diversifies with every shower of water it seems. And the heavens provide them plenty of those here. But they only proliferate in undisturbed habitats. Each one of the creatures that call the rainforest home have adapted themselves to it over the millennia.
Each adaptation and evolution is a fascinating revelation. Weaver ants are a marvellous example. Thousands of them coordinate with each other to stitch together nests out of leaves much bigger than themselves.
Trees themselves appear like curated art installations climbing vertically and horizontally. They are draped with vines, creepers, fungi, moss, lichen, orchids and a variety of other epiphytes that resemble emeralds and jewels on a bride. They glisten and shine best on bright wet mornings.
Twinkling fireflies circle the trunks during nightfall. The valley was covered with a million of these mating fireflies a month or so earlier in a perfect ‘symphony in light’ as the student-interns Meghna and Lily, working at the plantation recounted.
Being in a rainforest during monsoon is also a musical extravaganza. Its inhabitants are engaged in a synchronised performance at all hours of the day. Louder than revellers in a marriage procession the frogs and cicadas often accompany the sound of rain, streams and wind. The cacophony is coupled with serenity in equal measure. If you listen hard enough everything in the forest sings. But how many of us really listen?
Geography and Biodiversity
Kodagu is part of the wide-ranging Western Ghats, older than Himalayas, spanning from Gujarat to Kerala for 1600 kms. It directly intercepts the Indian monsoon winds. One of the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biodiversity, it has 325 globally threatened species (flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish) and many that are unique to this area.
This mosaic of natural beauty was inscribed as a world heritage site in 2012 meant to be protected by the Western Ghats Natural Heritage Management Committee (WGNHMC) and receive international support.
The tag was achieved after much opposition by states that feared that development will be impeded. Critics said that an informed consent was not obtained from the gram sabhas and Forest Rights Act 2006 was not implemented properly during drafting of the proposal for grant of heritage status. It could also violate the historic customary rights of the adivasis.
The forests of Western Ghats, however, aid economy and transportation by keeping the ports and creeks along western coast silt-free. The forests and mangroves also help with carbon sequestration and reduction of global warming.
Other critics say that the declaration has no effect on damaging developmental activities. As recently as June 2, 2017, there were protests in Madikeri over destruction of wildlife habitat, Cauvery river catchment area and forest land for the construction of railways, highways and power lines. As more of the landscape is disturbed there is more human-elephant conflict. Illegal construction, mining and corruption have caused water scarcity during summer months in an area that is generally overfed by rains.
The ensuing struggles repeatedly point us back towards essential questions of what is development. Who is it meant for? Who do the forests belong to? And how are decisions to be taken in the interest of all parties concerned?
In ancient times the exotic products of the Kodagu region were traded along the Silk Route and on oceanic routes via the Arabian Sea. Cardamom and black pepper were indigenous to this region. Rice was the main crop. Coffee was brought from Yemen to Chikmagalur in India by Baba Budanin in 1670.
Legend has it that the Coorg Rajas may have given land to Moplahs near Nalkanad who introduced coffee seeds to the area. In the mid-1850s many European coffee plantations sprung up followed by private Indian ones. When the British left, they sold their lands to the local population. There are strong remnants of British culture here, like the North Coorg Planters Club dating back to 1883.
Now a good chunk of the land is covered in coffee, tea, rubber and palm oil plantations. Commercial chemical-based farming and unsustainable agriculture have eroded this landscape. Smaller landholders and farmers still find it difficult to turn a good crop and farmer suicides affect the Western Ghats as well. There has been an attempt to set up farmer-owned companies by Agriculture and Organic Farming Group India. Hundreds of homestays have also come up in Coorg in the past few years to complement agricultural income.
Sujata and Anurag Goel, owners of Mojo Plantation, have successfully experimented with organic farming doing multiple cropping with cardamom, black pepper, coffee and vanilla under the shade of the rainforest. Spice trees, fruits and vegetables are also grown in open areas.
A molecular biologist, Sujata Goel explained that fungi secrete enzymes to release nutrients from decaying wood and dead organisms. Shivani, the manager, described on a tour of the plantation that fungal mycelium act as telecommunication networks for the trees to convey threats. They are also used as biological pest control. Similarly, termites redistribute soil and recycle nitrogen. Even weeds have an important role to play as temporary hideouts for insects.
Plants themselves synthesise compounds (terpenes, tannins, phenolics) to repel insects and convey distress signals to other plants and predators. Chemical pesticides kill the natural defence mechanisms of plants..
The wise, old relic
Meghna and Lily recount a magnolia tree that they variously describe as a ‘tree of life’, ‘tree mother’, ‘earth mother’, ‘magical beautiful wise old relic’ that has twists, turns and huge branches that one can climb and roots that open up into giant cave systems and tunnels underneath - in the middle of a coffee plantation.
It was ‘a metaphor for India’ for them, probably signifying layers of wisdom, age and continuity in a land of general mayhem. Neither trees nor our bodies survive in exclusion to their environment. The commune with nature is complete. If you listen carefully, everything in the forest sings.
The author teaches in Delhi University
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- Cauvery River
- Western Ghat
- Western Ghats Natural Heritage Management Committee
- coffee plantations
- Mojo Plantation
- molecular biologist
- Sujata Goel
- Baba Budan
- Weaver ants
- Tranvancore Wolfsnake