I imagine it’s August and close my eyes. I see myself standing amidst a carpet of flowers while looking at a pair of Malabar Larks working their way through the grass. To my right, clouds shroud the Western Ghats in the distance; to my left, the setting sun sprays the Arabian Sea with a multitude of colours. I close my eyes again, and this time I imagine May – the same landscape is much drier and a walk through the grass flushes a few Yellow-wattled Lapwings and a volley of larks and pipits.
Malabar Lark foraging amongst Utricularia flowers
Here in coastal Karnataka, sandwiched between the town of Udupi and the forests of the Western Ghats’ foothills, lies a strip of laterite rock formations that runs parallel to the coast. Rocky and grass-covered hill slopes interspersed with scrub and pockets of forests, this seemingly barren land is home to a surprisingly wide variety of flora and fauna.
View of the landscape from End Point, Manipal
Grassland patches during the monsoon
Over the last 7 years, I have lived in this landscape. Manipal, once a sleepy university town and now a thriving hub for education and commerce, is built on one such laterite plateau. On the fringes of this town and beyond, exists an ecosystem that demands attention and continues to enthrall and intrigue many with its diversity. In spite of the rapid growth of the town, I find solace in knowing that I am always only a short walk away from this wilderness.
Grassland patches are usually surrounded by pockets of thick forests and other woodlands
Indian Rock Pythons are regularly seen in the scrub and forests
Pick a lesser-known walking track here and keep your eyes open and you’ll find yourself avoiding leopard or civet scat, or perhaps eavesdropping on the song of a Malabar Whistling Thrush. Start before sunrise and you may even chance upon a covey of porcupines heading home after a busy night. If you don’t see the porcupines themselves, you’re likely to see their holes in the ground, which dot these grasslands.
A pair of leopards get caught on the camera trap, Manipal
Porcupines are very regularly captured on camera traps
Below these grasslands, lie the dense ‘haal’ forests – a forest-type in these laterite landscapes which is characterised by short trees and relatively sparse undergrowth. These forests play host to some wonderful birds including the Grey-headed Bulbul and the Sri Lanka Frogmouth. And these are only two amongst over 250 other avian species that have been recorded in the forests and grassland of this region.
Sri Lanka Frogmouths utilize undisturbed “haal” forests
A patch of “haal” forest in Manipal
But for me, the landscape truly transforms itself and comes alive in the monsoon. Malabar Pied Hornbills visit in numbers to feed on the fruiting Fishtail Palms and Poison Nut trees. The rains fill up dried craters and depressions with water to form ephemeral pools and wetlands. On the banks of these pools, the season’s first Lesser Sand Plovers gather and make merry.
Dry patches of grassland turn into ephemeral wetlands during the monsoon
Waders such as this Lesser Sand Plover feed along the shores of ponds and puddles
It was around one such pond in 2013, that I stood with my close friend Pratik, as we looked at a tiny frog we could not identify. Three years down the line, we co-authored a paper along with scientists from IISc, NUS and ATREE to describe this thumb-sized species and christened it Microhyla laterite – the Laterite Narrow-mouthed Frog. Restricted to landscapes such as these, this frog is unique to the region. Alongside Microhyla laterite, over 20 species of frogs inhabit these laterite wetland ecosystems.
Microhyla Laterite, Laterite Narrow-mouthed Frog, is a species unique to these landscapes
Indosylvirana intermedius, Golden-backed Frog, is common along the edges of these ponds
In spite of hosting such diverse life forms, these habitats are classified as wastelands and receive little to no protection from any legislation. They are highly sought after for development work and are heavily mined for construction materials in the form of bricks. They are also indiscriminately used as dumping grounds, are encroached upon by builders and are threatened by extensive plantations of invasive Acacia auriculiformis. All these have fragmented the habitat and in most cases, have caused irreparable damage.
The invasive Acacia auriculiformis threaten to take over the landscape
At several places, indiscriminate dumping takes place on the grasslands
Laterite is mined for ore and to get construction material in the form of bricks
Like many other grassland habitats in the country, these too are prone to burning during the dry season. Large man-made fires sweep through most of these grasslands each year – often multiple times within the same season. These cause great damage to animals and birds that use these landscapes for breeding at this time of the year (between December and March).
A Green Vine Snake is lucky to escape a raging man-made fire
However, hope still resides. Though the landscape is heavily influenced by anthropogenic activities, proper management and protection measures may yet ensure that local communities as well as the local fauna can be sustained by what remains of this ecosystem. The discovery of a new frog species that is unique to this habitat reinforces the need for further studies and serves as a reminder that there is much more to know about this landscape yet.
A Russell’s Viper basks in a patch of typical laterite grassland surrounded by the invasive Acacia auriculiformis