Don’t let its size fool you. Longwood Shola, the little forest located in the Kotagiri taluk of Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, is a very big deal. For one, it is an unexpected gem — a sparkling island of a forest in a sea of villages, tea estates and plantations of exotic trees. Longwood is also one of the last remnants of the primeval forests that once clothed the Nilgiris. It has taken zealous guarding and action by conservationists and locals to keep even these 100-odd hectares safe.
I had barely entered Longwood Shola, on a visit sometime in April last year, that its treasures tumbled out one after the other. Up in the canopy to my left, a rust-and-cream Malabar giant squirrel scurried restlessly on a branch, the colour of its fur glowing in the morning sun. If you’ve seen this resident of the forest canopy, you’ll know just what I mean when I say ‘my jaw dropped’ and I ‘stood stunned’. Then suddenly, really suddenly, the creature froze. It was looking straight at me, the intruder. The squirrel turned around in a flash and, in three nimble leaps, managed to disappear completely in the foliage above.
Even as I was scanning the canopy for another glimpse, something flew past me and across to the bushes on my right. It flitted around for a while and then came right up. Here was another stunner: a little brown bird with striking white eyebrows, just a few feet from me. Its eyebrows seemed to form an inquiring frown, no doubt asking me, “Why are you looking at me like that, mister?” Senthil had noticed my stupefaction. “Quickly, Pankaj,” he said. “This is a great chance, take your picture.” Before I could recover enough to act on that, though, the endemic Nilgiri laughing thrush decided it had made its point and was gone.
K. Senthil Prasad, incidentally, is the best walking companion one could have in the Longwood Shola. He is part of the Kotagiri Wildlife and Environment Association (KWEA) and the Keystone Foundation, has lived his entire life here and continues to work to protect Longwood Shola. And herein lies an important story.
The Longwood Shola reserve forest is not a big one by any standards; but it could quite easily have ceased to exist, just like the forests that once surrounded it. Over the years, the growing villages and settlements in the region have been pressuring the forest for fuel-wood and other resources. Local initiatives to protect Longwood started in the early 1980s. They took a more permanent form in May 1998, with the Forest Department setting up the Longwood Shola Watchdog Committee (LSWC) in collaboration with a group of concerned and committed local people (Senthil was one of them).
The LSWC took up a number of activities, including patrolling to keep away woodcutters, removing exotic plants that were threatening the local flora and clean-ups to remove garbage left behind by picnickers and visitors. Seminars were held for local schools and colleges and, importantly, LSWC began conversations with the villagers living around the forest. It helped that Longwood Shola is the prime and perennial source of water for nearly 15 villages located downstream and, over time, local communities became partners in protecting their forest.
It worked well for the locals — human and wildlife alike — and the conservation work has begun to be noticed. Longwood Shola was recently included in the Directory of Community Conserved Areas published by the NGO Kalpavriksh, and it has been recognised as an ‘Important Bird Area’ by BirdLife International for the conservation of the Nilgiri laughing thrush, the white-bellied shortwing and the Nilgiri wood pigeon. Ten of the 16 birds that are endemic to the Western Ghats have also been recorded in this small forest. It is also home to a large number of other fauna, including gaur, the occasional leopard, barking deer, wild boar, porcupine, black-napped hare and, of course, the Malabar giant squirrel.
In more good news, of late, the Nilgiris itself has become the focus of several local and regional conservation attempts. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, for one, has set up a large research and action initiative for the Western Ghats, of which the Nilgiris are a part. For another, a new Nilgiri Natural History Society has been formed with the Keystone Foundation in the lead. And the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has set up an expert panel on the Western Ghats to “assist in the preservation, conservation and rejuvenation of this environmentally sensitive and ecologically significant region”. Longwood Shola is certainly a sweet little success story.
So it is the good people of the Nilgiris that I must thank for the fact that, just minutes into my stroll around the forest, I had already seen two endemics. With the thrush having done its disappearing act, we walked on a little before we were distracted by a murder of jungle crows creating a racket. We soon found out why—sitting on the other side of a small stream was a huge brown wood owl and the crows were harassing it. This fellow sat around for a while even after spotting us, and this gave me an opportunity to finally put my camera to some use. But then the crows started to get really aggressive and the owl took off, with the crows still in pursuit.
The wonderful thing about Longwood is just how walker-friendly it is. A comfortable path meanders through the forest, making it an enjoyable walk. Senthil led me past a biggish wetland, over a stream and up a gentle slope, stopping along the way to peer into the forest or strain upwards to catch the action in the canopy. At least on the morning I went, the squirrels seemed to be the most active residents. I must have seen at least half a dozen of them; the rudraskha tree (known locally as bikkimaram) was fruiting and that’s where these guys were mainly concentrated. The squirrels seemed to favour the seeds, for the floor under the trees was littered with fruit scrapings left behind after the seed-extraction.
That day, it seemed, my luck just wouldn’t run out. “Gaur,” said Senthil, as he pointed into the distance, “Be careful”. There were two there—a young calf and a huge adult that must have been the mother. The little one jumped away as soon as it saw us, but the mother stood regal and magnificent and stared as us for a while. She finally turned nonchalantly and sauntered off behind her young one.
Finally, we walked down a slope and across another small stream that had a magnificent tree fern growing on its bank, and we were back near the point we started from. The squirrel I had seen first was back in its place (I’m quite sure it’s the same one), but the owl was nowhere to be seen. The crows were still running amok. I had spent just over two hours in the forest and been privy to the tiniest part of its secrets, but that’s all it took for Longwood Shola to bewitch me.
Getting there: The town closest to the Longwood Shola forest is Kotagiri, only a couple of kilometres away. You’ll need permission from the District Forest Officer (0423-2443968) to enter the forest.
Coimbatore airport is the closest air connection to Kotagiri (Delhi-Coimbatore from Rs 4,100; Mumbai-Coimbatore from Rs 3,400). The nearest railhead is Mettupalayam (36km), but this station isn’t directly connected to many cities. One option would be to take a train to Coimbatore (Delhi Rs 2,098 on 2A; MumbaiRs 1,563), and then another to Mettupalayam (Rs 309). Kotagiri is a short ride from here. But it might just be simpler to take a bus from Coimbatore to Kotagiri (about 70km). A third, more exciting, option might be to get to Mettupalayam and take the Niligiri Mountain Railway (Rs 127 on FC) to Coonoor, about 20km from Kotagiri.
Where to stay: In Kotagiri, Nahar’s Stone House Retreat (from Rs 3,300 doubles, naharhotels.com) is a 1915 colonial bungalow, beautifully restored. Another nice colonial bungalow is La Maison (from Rs 7,200 doubles; lamaison.in), the guesthouse with a French touch. A more affordable option is Bel Air Cottages (from Rs 1,000; belaircottages.com) on Kotagiri’s Club Road. For the budget traveller, there are several lodges—like the Blue Top Lodge (from Rs 300; 04266-271473)—near the town centre.
What to see & do: The Longwood Shola forest, home to many species endemic to the region, is in itself worth a trip to Kotagiri. But the town is also a quiet base from which to explore the many attractions close by. For starters, there are a few other patches of remnant forests like the Longwood. One of the closest is the Banagudi Shola, which is also a sacred grove for the local tribal community.
The Kodanad View Point is about 15km from Kotagiri. The View Point is where you should go to for a panoramic view of the plains, the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, the Rangaswamy Peak, the Bhavanisagar Dam and the Moyar river. On the way, you’ll also pass a temple of the Todas, the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris. There are frequent buses to Kodanad from Kotagiri.
Catherine Falls (8km from Kotagiri) and Elk Falls (7km) are also popular attractions. On the way, stop to admire the bungalow of John Sullivan, the first European resident of the Nilgiris and considered to be the moving force behind the development of the region.
A good place to shop for eco-friendly products, like wild honey from the Nilgiris, traditional millets, tea, coffee, textiles and local handicrafts is the Green Shop (04266-273887), supported by the Keystone Foundation (keystone-foundation.org). For those interested in wildlife, an interesting place to visit is the Bee Museum (0423-2441340) in Ooty, also run by the Keystone Foundation. This is also where the recently launched Nilgiri Natural History Society (nnhs.in) is based.