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Drink in the view

Acres of tea estates, dense forests, elephants ... Valparai on the Annamalai Hills offers enough for ecology researchers and travellers



GREEN BLANKET Valparai is full of picturesque tea gardens

Valparai, the town on a plateau up in the Annamalai Hills south of the Palakkad Pass, is sleepy at best and fast asleep at worst. A few hotels, restaurants and general stores dot the arterial road that is as wide as a service lane in Chennai. Residential areas are spread out at a distance and it's quite a trek up the slopes. The town's market place is well masked under tin, asbestos sheets and tiles. Mobile carts carry a variety of fruits and vegetables. And of course there are tea merchants selling local tea. There are knots of people and the crowds are thin except early in the morning or evening when local school children crowd the bus stop to reach home.

The town exists because of the tea estates that cover almost every gentle undulation of the Annamalai range. They are a delightful sight early in the morning. You will find workers — particularly women — with net sacks strapped across their shoulders jumping off trucks and tractors. Some trek or take local buses to their work spots. Out in the fields far away, you will see workers with their tea baskets moving like an army of ants, and dissolving into the green mass till only their bent heads and torsos are visible. What stands out more than the soothing green of tea leaves are clumps of dense forests usually at the edge of the estates. ``The tea estate owners have left these forest bits because the slopes or probably the specific areas were not fit for cultivation," said forest watcher. Just as Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, was created after felling 500 hectares of pristine sal forests, tea estates too were born during the British raj by crowding out prime forest areas that met the twin conditions of good rainfall and reasonable gradient to prevent water stagnation in tea gardens. In the spree to plant tea saplings on acre after acre, some zones proved too difficult to handle. These isolated fragments of forests within tea estates remained, neither to be cleared (because of the laws against felling trees in forests) nor to be used. These fragments still shelter wild life whose presence the local people feel now and then.

"No matter what the tea price is in the world market and no matter whether the estate owners make a good margin at tea auctions or not, the estates will remain. At worst they will change hands. But even a pittance will not motivate the owners to put their estates to other uses," said a tea trader.

The forest fragments excite a group of researchers who are determined to propagate species endemic to rain forests. "There are exotic species which do not belong here. We are keen on species that are found only in the Annamalais and nowhere else. Many tea estate owners, including multinationals, have willingly given us plots to grow and transplant saplings of rain forest species," said M. Ananda Kumar, who co-authored the research pamphlet "The Elephant Hills".

Tea plantations are a hindrance to the movement of wildlife, particularly elephants who prefer shade because they cannot stand heat; their massive bodies do not have sweat glands to control body heat. Forest fragments also have species they can feed on — the bark of trees, fruits and shrubs that form a part of their diet. The formidable constraint is tea plants are short, almost like bonsai in front of rain forest giants. If they wish to move from one forest to another they would have to cut across the tea estates, where the terrain and the people are equally inhospitable. The confrontation leads to conflicts, material loss and deaths at times.

After a day spent under a scorching sun and suffering the pangs of hunger and taunts from petrified humans, elephants find it easier to raid some human settlement for grains or banana trees. And if some brave across their path, the pachyderms may not treat them very kindly. But it is said that elephants just as many other wild species prefer to move at night and are shy of people. The best option would be to pose least possible hindrance to the elephant herds to move from one forest fragment to the next.

"This is one of the issues we have studied and are studying," said a group of researchers.

One can only wish that more tea estates allot a little land to grow rain forest species. If a corridor could be formed in the next ten years that aided herds in transit, not only will losses from conflicts be minimised but also the freshly grown fragments will add to the number of live rain forest trees, nurtured after manual transplantation.

GOUTAM GHOSH

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