“The wind was against them now, and Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners as he fought his way along, and it seemed hours before he got them into the shelter of the Hundred Acre Wood and they stood up straight again, to listen, a little nervously, to the roaring of the gale among the treetops.
‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’
‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.”
― Milne, A. A.
Sometimes the rain and the wind would catch up with us. We would run for the shelter of the trees and feel a lot safer. The thick foliage over us would keep out the rain for a few hours but the wind would rip through.
Many of us who grew up in the Nilgiris have experienced it. Although by that that time, the forests we knew were fir, pine and wattle planted on the rolling grasslands. The original shola forests lay in three distinct layers of small trees, dense shrub, and finally a thick concentration of moss. A large variety of ferns could be found in between the sholas and the grasslands.
There are more than 25 varieties of trees indigenous to the Nilgiris; some of them flowering, so as you drive past you will see a burst of colour in the valley, or an entire hillside in various shades of green interspersed with orange or pink.
The sholas are very important to the hills and the surrounding plains as they keep the water tables charged. They retain the rain water during the monsoon and slowly release it throughout the year through a network of rivers and streams.
However, a mixture of ignorance and greed has seen to it that these forests which have such an immense ecological impact have not been protected. The timber from these short stunted trees has no value; so large areas were planted with cinchona, eucalyptus, and wattle – the last two were part of the government’s commercial plantation and forestation drives – while large areas of grasslands have been planted with tea.
The major threat to this high altitude (1500 m above sea level) forest system is the invasive species which were introduced in the past 150 years such as wattle, eucalyptus, lantana and croft weed.
Craigmore estate in the Nilgiris is the good news in the midst of all this gloom about the general state of our shola forests. The estate has, since it was first opened in 1884, maintained between 100 to 200 acres of virgin shola forests. Craigmore, along with Glencairnie, Pascoes Woodlands, Manar and Palmyrah, is owned by Azad Shivdasani’s UK-based Inlaks Group. They collectively own 3,000 acres of which 2,000 acres are under tea and the rest are covered by sholas, fuel clearing (trees grown for fire wood), roads and buildings. The highest point is about 1800 m above sea level and goes down to a little more than 1200 m above sea level.
Mr. M.N. Bopanna, Managing Director, Craigmore Plantations (India) Pvt. Ltd., says that the company’s board has prohibited any development activity inside these forests. And these forests have been left to grow unhindered from the time of the company’s inception. What’s more, they are guarded around the clock by the company’s watch and ward squad.
In 2010, the Group funded a bio-diversity study by the Wildlife Trust of India to make a detailed inventory of the flora and fauna on all their estates. The study was carried out over a period of 14 months. A large number of animals, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, as well as trees and plants were identified. Mr. Bopana says that contrary to the textbook references to shola trees, the trees in the Craigmore forest are very tall and there is no mosaic of forest and grasslands here either.
The Nilgiris gets most of its rain from the North East monsoon which is between October and December. The problem faced here is that the rain water flows off the top which results in water not seeping into the soil, besides causing soil erosion. “The estates of the Craigmore Group are in the rain shadow of the Nilgiris and receive very low rainfall,” Mr. Bopanna said. “The company has a policy of not using artificial irrigation to water the tea fields. So the little rain we receive must be used efficiently. In that last decade or so, we have invested in rain water harvesting, soil and water conservation as well as soil improvement methods.”
Furthermore, all the rain water falling onto the roofs of the many bungalows, offices, factories, hospitals of the Group, drains off into gutters and is channeled into pipes which feed into filtration pits. The rain water is naturally filtered here and it then percolates into a water body which supplies the 5,000 people who call Craigmore their home. The rain water harvesting dams store water for emergencies and are also a water source for the wildlife which abounds on the estates. Two years ago the dams were silted and deepened.
Once in three and half years, the tea bushes are pruned on Craigmore. Says Mr. Bopanna, “All the pruned leaves and branches are buried in trenches. This helps the organic matter to decompose naturally and also improves the water retention capacity of the soil.” During pruning, soil and water conservation trenches are opened in the pruned field – 800 trenches per hectare. These trenches, about two feet deep, are cut along the contour of the land and in the steeper parts. This breaks the speed at which the rain water flows into the field and at the same time allows the water to seep into the soil. The trenches also collect the top soil which is sometimes washed away during heavy rains. Trenches that are three to four feet deep are cut in some steep sections so that the water is trapped and seeps into the soil. All the road edges are planted with vetiver or khus which prevent soil erosion.
Mr. Bopanna says that the idea to set aside more than 100 acres to be preserved as a pristine forest happened long before the term ‘corporate social responsibility’ entered the business lexicon in India. The men, who started planting tea in Craigmore, obviously saw the beauty of the shola forest and felt it had to be preserved.
The idea of individuals nurturing private forests has got the imagination of people. Pamela and Anil K Malhotra bought wasteland in Kodagu district in Karnataka and let the forest regenerate, making it a sanctuary for wildlife. The tiny two hectare forest inside the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore has raised the water table from a depth of 200 ft to just 10 ft. The Shola Trust in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, is buying back privately owned land in the elephant corridor in Masinagudi to prevent construction activity.
This movement needs to grow; to regenerate and care for forests has to become a part of the national consciousness.
So that like Pooh and Piglet we too can run to the shelter of the woods.
Photographs by Mahesh Bhat, taken at the Craigmore estates.