A few years ago, this time with my friend and colleague Randall Honold, I travelled to a remote ecological reserve at the confluence of the Western and Eastern Ghats in south India. We were there primarily to look at wildlife, for these mountain ranges are exceptionally rich in species, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. The Western Ghats are one of the world’s dozen or so global hot spots for biodiversity. They were declared a World Heritage Site earlier this summer, around the time of my visit back to Ireland’s yew woods.
The Biligiriranga Hills Reserve is a day’s drive from Bangalore. As a place, Bangalore is all people, buildings, blatant smells, and phonic surprise. The Ghats, by contrast, are calm and subtle. Their demeanour is patient, abiding. It was months after the monsoon. The soils were dry and the air was clear when we travelled with three Soliga tribal guides into the heart of the reserve. The mammals of this reserve include deer — barking deer, sambar, and chital — as well as tigers and, famously, a herd of elephants.
We were made aware of the elephant population in an especially terrifying way. An agitated female charged us. She broke from the brush at dust-billowing speed, her ears flaring. Just when impact seemed inevitable, she swerved behind our white jeep. Before us was a lake. Behind us was an irate animal. The forest was hushed. With nowhere to go, we waited.
The elephant, viewed in the rear-view mirror, was all but motionless, although a tiny swaying of her body suggested that she was trying to resurrect an anger requisite to finish what she had started. Randall snapped a picture: ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.’ We sat more or less frozen, for this was the advice of our guides, one of whom later said that this was the closest he’d come to death-by-elephant in 40 years. Perhaps it says unflattering things about me that I felt bored, impatient even, in these minutes waiting for my demise. I cast a minuscule glance around the forest and noticed that the wall of vegetation from which the animal had exploded was made up ofLantana camara. This is an especially aggressive exotic shrub which has become a management nuisance throughout the Western Ghats. Spanish Flag, as it is commonly known, is native to the American tropics and is regarded as one of the world’s most invasive plants. Its flowers, as I noticed then, are exceptionally pretty. Having spent half a lifetime combating non-native shrubby vegetation in Ireland and in the American Midwest, it seemed fitting, though ultimately a little dispiriting, that a non-native shrub had just disgorged the raging agent of my death.
'She broke from the brush at dust-billowing speed, her ears flaring.' Photo by Liam Heneghan
After 30 minutes, the elephant retreated, as did we. Later, how we laughed. A leading hypothesis of our Soliga friends was that my hair, an outmoded snowy-white hank, had enraged the animal. A year later, when we revisited the field station at the Biligiriranga Hills Reserve with a group of students, the ‘elephant and the hair’ story was still going strong.
Stories persist. Ecosystems, however, do not. By this time the elephants had left this part of the reserve and were seen neither that second year nor the year after. The walls of Lantana had become even more pronounced. Vigorous before, the invasion had reached that critical point where, in some places at least, the plant was occupying so much space that wildlife was being crowded out. Along with the spread of the invasion, the diversity of plants is changing as well. And perhaps, if we embrace an ecological paradigm of disturbance and change, this is simply the way nature works, and nothing to be done about it. Or is there?