It is a small patch in a tucked away corner of the Nilgiris. The Happy Valley in Kotagiri. Surrounded by an ever creeping invasion of the invasive and alien black wattle and eucalyptus, this is an acre-sized bit of the shola forest, a unique hill wetland, which was restored painstakingly over the course of a decade.
A little bit of the restored forest, among the spreading acres of forest claimed by invasive plants, human activities, and climate change, may seem too little, but it is that small glimmer, a little Band Aid on the myriad wounds of the Western Ghats, says Shiny Rehel, 40, programme co-ordinator for the Keystone Foundation, a non-profit organisation in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
For Coonoor girl Rehel, the Western Ghats are her life—her home and work. A botanist who has researched extensively on hill wetlands, she has gradually moved into coordinating projects with community involvement for sustainable development. The Happy Valley restoration project started in 2006, soon after Rehel joined Keystone Foundation. "The land bordered a tea estate and though it was owned by the local administration, it had gone completely to seed," she recalls.
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The organization worked with the panchayats, painstakingly uprooting every invasive plant, and replacing them with native ones. The patch had a wetland, one of those unique handkerchief-sized hill ones, so different from their counterparts in the plains. These wetlands have different vegetation, too, with sedge and impatiens dominating instead of tall reeds. Ever so often, they had to check on the health of the trees they had planted, replacing those which didn't survive and also removing the pesky invasive species that were trying their luck again. It took 10 years for the patch to be restored to a form that the forefathers of the locality were familiar with. "It has 350 native species now," says Rehel.
Although she has lived almost her entire life in the Western Ghats, the landscape never ceases to surprise and mesmerise her. A few years ago, the famous Kurinji flowers, which give the Nilgiris its name, were in bloom. This is an event that happens once in 12 years and Rehel was keen to catch that ephemeral flush.
"We drove through eucalyptus-lined roads, tea estates, shola forests, and suddenly, we stopped. The entire slope of the hill was covered with flowers, the air was thick with the buzz of bees. That's the Nilgiris for you, even locals are struck speechless.''
Rehel works towards sustainable development, accepting that some changes, such as the introduction of tea and coffee plantations to the forested hillsides a hundred years ago, cannot be reversed. We need to work around these developments, she says. The work of healing is slow and often frustrating.
There are compensations, though. Like the time when she was driving home from Wayanad, and a tiger crossed the road ahead of them with nonchalance. "We were stunned, not even sure of what we had seen, when he turned to look at us, curved his tail and growled, and simply disappeared," she recounts.
These encounters are reminders that not all is yet lost, that given a chance, the Western Ghats can be saved.