The Anamalai Hills in India's Western Ghats region, shrouded in mist.

The Anamalai Hills in India's Western Ghats region, shrouded in mist. Courtesy of Ganesh Raghunathan


Song of the Western Ghats: A Green Island in a Crowded Land

For a young ecologist, the mountains of the Western Ghats are a respite from India’s intense urban life — a lush land of monsoon rains, elephants, king cobras, leopards, and a spectacular assortment of birds — and a place where wildlife and villagers still largely manage to coexist.

2020 Young Writers Awards

What is it that draws us to the quiet, to the green? To the mist-curtained mountains, where everything is crystal clear – leaves in high definition even against an overcast sky. Where leopards leave their mark in soft mud, and you smell where an otter has walked.

Do we bow down to how humbling it is, to live in these places, and breathe this air? Our days here end when the moon’s begins, and then we cede this ancient land to the wild. Would we dream of living in reverence like this, in our gray, densely packed cities? We give to nobody there; we do not share the land with myriad life forms the way we do here, in our mountains and forests.

What do we do when it rains here, in these forests?

Sometimes, I let it touch my skin, kiss and caress me, because I am a stranger here still, and this rain overwhelms me. The land is ruled by the elements — the mist, fog, rain, and wind visit as often as the sun and the moon. Life doesn’t pause here for the rain; its diverse forms are no strangers to the monsoon — the whistling thrush still sings, the cicadas abound, and so I watch.

As an ecologist, I am grateful every day to be here, to experience the natural world beneath the tall trees and work under their majestic canopies. Today, I pull up a chair and set it up so the rain splashes onto my feet, and I watch the mist as it plays with the mountains. I think of how this magical misty mystery of a scene is so different from that of this land when it’s drenched in sun and tea glistens and birds flash brightly by.

I’ll never forget the sight of the cobra’s sinuous body and intelligent eyes and the magnificence of the growl it has a for a hiss.

That’s when I quietly worry that I will lose my voice, my ability to describe what it means to me to see the leaves sway in the light drizzle, and the droplets fall off a rough-hewn stone bench. If I were an artist, I’d make a painting of it, each leaf a character. But I’m no good with a brush. I only have these words, and a heart full of song for the Western Ghats of India.

In Agumbe, one of the wettest places in the country, I saw my first Malabar trogon. The brightly colored male bird was basking in the sun atop a tree, right next to a human-erected structure, a research station in the middle of the rainforest and an areca nut plantation. This is what the Western Ghats is to me. There may be “pristine” forests, but what it truly is, I feel, is a mixture of both people and wildlife, sometimes living in harmonious acceptance of each other, and at other times, in painful discordance.

In these forests, king cobras reign. Researchers track the snakes in the monsoon in Jeeps, following individual snakes in the pouring rain, sometimes watching helplessly as the majestic reptile swims into a throbbing river and gets swept away. Scientists reach out to locals who revere the king cobra, calling on this culture to help resolve conflicts before situations turn ugly. I count myself extremely lucky to have seen this snake up close, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of its long sinuous body and intelligent eyes and the sheer magnificence of that growl it has for a hiss.

Agumbe, I will remember for its snakes and frogs. Bicolored frogs are abundant in slow-moving streams in the dry season, and on a single night walk, I saw four Malabar pit vipers curled delicately in enormous leaves, sleeping. This lush forest was my very first time in the wild in the Western Ghats, and I watched spiders, vine snakes, skinks, lizards, and damselflies only feet away from my tent. I was warned to back away quickly if I ever saw gaur, sometimes called the Indian bison. These huge herbivores can sometimes charge when they feel provoked, and their massive bodies can do devastating damage.

A dhole, or wild dog, in the Western Ghats.

A dhole, or wild dog, in the Western Ghats. Courtesy of Ganesh Raghunathan

I now live in the Valparai plateau, in the Anamalai Hills, a landscape where people and wildlife live in close quarters. I’ve seen herds of gaur among the tea plantations, and here, they bolt at the sight of human presence, and human-gaur conflict is almost unheard of.

In the local language, Tamil, the name of these hills literally translates to “Elephant Hills.” In the span of a few weeks, I have seen more wild elephants than I have my whole life. The plateau is enveloped by the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and other protected areas, and herds of wild elephants and lone tuskers alike frequent the area. On paper, protected areas may seem like distinct places in the Western Ghats, but in reality, the lines are blurry. And to elephants, of course, these lines don’t exist at all. Today, these elephants come to people’s backyards to feast on jackfruit and guava in the summer, and break into houses to eat rice and salt at night time. Other times, they stand amidst tea plantations, languid and unhurried. I can already identify individuals here, and the people who’ve always lived here talk about these elephants like they’re just people — albeit mammoth, trunked people — they share their home with.

This crowded landscape is also home to the lion-tailed macaque and Nilgiri langur, primates endemic to the Western Ghats. Often, when I’m inside the forest, I hear a Nilgiri langur call and see a troop bounding from tree to tree right above my head. Lion-tailed macaques, once thought of as forest specialists, are now increasingly wandering into human habitation, a worrying sign of their changing behavior in these challenging times. Also seen in these treetops is the Malabar giant squirrel, whose gorgeous maroon body catches the light as she scurries up and down branches, tail quivering even in still air.

On a quiet dawn, I saw a dhole, a wild dog, standing in the middle of a mud road. He spotted me, and I watched him quietly. A few seconds later, he jogged away into the tea, and the spell was broken. This endangered animal, of which there may be fewer than 2,500 individuals left in the world, is terribly understudied, and the Western Ghats are one of the few places in India where you might see a pack today.

An elephant eats jackfruits in the backyard of a house in Valparai, Tamil Nadu.

An elephant eats jackfruits in the backyard of a house in Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Courtesy of Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

One night, I saw a leopard on a compound wall. We shone our torches, and there he was, a regular visitor, having acquired a taste for meat from the nearby shops. We hear stories of sloth bears with cubs walking along roads humans take in daylight hours, and we remind each other to carry torchlights when we head out in dim light.

I’m here studying birds. The diversity of birds in the Western Ghats is astounding, but the south Western Ghats, where the Anamalai Hills are situated, is particularly species-rich. This is a hotspot not just for endemics, but also for migrants. Tiny warblers from the Himalayas, blue and brown flycatchers, bright yellow orioles, and wagtails with their undulating flights all come here. The resident racket-tailed drongos amaze with their mimicry, and they put on quite a show as they forage, long tails swishing about. Green pigeons’ laugh-like calls ring out from the trees, and woodpeckers drum for insects in every forest patch.

In the Western Ghats, wonders also come in small sizes. Inside the rainforest, within the Tiger Reserve, I saw an oakleaf butterfly masquerading as a dead leaf, an otherworldly stinkhorn fungus on the forest floor, and tiny insectivorous plants that grow on mossy rocks waiting for prey to come by. The rainforest is full of sounds — birdsong, the hum of cicadas, calls of startled mammals, and streams rushing by in the background. It’s exquisite, with vegetation in structured stories — orchids and lichens, lianas and emergents, saplings and fungi all competing and coexisting, a tableau that’s been playing out for millions of years now.

For us, the last entrants to the game, working in these magical forests can be difficult. Moss makes rocks dangerously slippery, and wet mud caves unexpectedly beneath your hiking shoes. Elephant nettles give you rashes and throbbing pain, and thorns tear at your skin and pull at your hair. Streams can be tricky to cross, especially with expensive gear strapped to various parts of your body on carabiner clips. Ticks and leeches suck the life out of you, fairly literally. They cause no pain, but their bites leave you with a mad itch for a few days that can make you look like an unhinged person.

I’m incredibly lucky to call these forests my workplace, to have the opportunity to live in these wild green places for even a part of my life.

In the evergreen forests of the Kali Tiger Reserve in north Karnataka, I studied mixed-species flocks of birds. Every day, I set out on a trail and watched out for bird activity that wasn’t around a fruiting tree. Each of these heterospecific flocks can have anywhere from two to over a dozen species of birds participating, and they’re all there for two reasons: to forage for insects more efficiently, and for safety from predators. The fulvettas, bulbuls, and minivets form the core of many flocks, and these gregarious species have well-developed alarm systems. Other mixed-species flock participants associating with them benefit from their early warning system when predators approach. Drongos call out when they see predators too, but they’re also excellent mimics, so they sometimes pretend to be the predators themselves, only to steal food from other species when they’re distracted by the “predator’s” call.

The Western Ghats is where I first learned to practice science. Walking trails, collecting data, entering it and analyzing it can be a tedious process. But I’m incredibly lucky to call these forests my workplace, to have the opportunity to live in these wild green places for even a part of my lifetime.

These landscapes face so many threats today, even as they harbor the last of the subcontinent’s most wondrous creatures in shola sky islands, grasslands, deciduous and evergreen forests, streams and rivers. The indigenous people who live in these landscapes continue to coexist with the wildlife, even as it snatches their livestock and destroys their crops. In India, wildlife is respected and revered to this day, by people who’ve lived with wild creatures their whole lives. But there are more calls now asking for a bear to be captured, a tiger to be moved, or an elephant to be taken away. It’s too much to expect someone to be understanding when a neighbor has been killed by a carnivore or a child injured by an elephant.

Today, the stakes are so impossibly high. Life-supporting forests are still being degraded, even as others are being restored for their carbon sequestration potential. We construct rope bridges connecting canopies over two-lane roads for the macaques, even as they are run over by traffic elsewhere. Garbage disposal and management in these ecologically sensitive regions is abysmal, and mining and logging continue to this day, destroying critical habitats.

A brown-cheeked fulvetta, which lives as part of a mixed-species flock of birds, in the Western Ghats.

A brown-cheeked fulvetta, which lives as part of a mixed-species flock of birds, in the Western Ghats. Courtesy of Ganesh Raghunathan

Yet, these mountains continue to amaze me. One day, I saw 19 great hornbills on a tree — big birds weighing two kilograms or more, with yellow-and-black casques atop their massive curved bills. It was a phenomenal sight, and as I got closer their calls were almost deafening. These are the largest birds here, and they’re special to both researchers and birdwatchers. They’re known for their devoted parental behavior — the female barricades herself in a tree cavity where she raises her chick, and the male faithfully brings back food for months. In these forests, they’re vital seed dispersers, helping propagate many native species of trees.

The flight of the hornbill is spectacular to behold. That day, I watched in wonder as the charismatic birds took off — mighty wings spread wide as they launched themselves from the treetop, each powerful wing flap almost sounding like a small chopper as they passed overhead and glided away.

The Young Writers Awards, presented by Yale Environment 360 and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, honor the best nonfiction environmental writing by authors under the age of 35. Entries for 2020 were received from six continents, with a prize of $2,000 going to the first-place winner. Read all the winners here.