By Nisarg Prakash

A sudden gust of wind, and a few bright red leaves of a grand Elaeocarpus break free, only to be unhurriedly carried away in the clear waters of the stream flowing by. Unlike trees where the young leaves are red and turn green, the leaves of the Elaeocarpus, a species of wild rudraksh, turn a bright red as they age, sprinkling the brown leaf litter of many a rainforest floor with its colour. A journey that started as a bud attached to a branch has now reached its final stage; detached and sailing away past massive buttresses of other elaeocarps, wild mango and jamun, in the rainforests of the Anamalais. As they set sail, away from their branches, they are joined by others—walnut-like seeds of the same tree. They float past stream rubies defending their favourite perches, past Danios and spotted barbs in the water, past rounded rocks and overhanging bridges, past whistling thrushes and sallying flycatchers, past tumultuous rapids and scarlet impatiens, to gently settle in the arms of a calm pool.

Somewhere in the same landscape—not far, as the thrush flies—a sudden gust drops a few bright red leaves from another majestic elaeocarp. The stream flowing by is subdued and silent, unlike its gurgling neighbour a few miles away. The bright red leaves go with the flow, but there are no stream rubies here, nor sallying flycatchers. Harsh light streams through the sparse vegetation, in contrast to the soft, dappled light that a rainforest canopy allows. Far fewer rounded rocks remain, many now resting alongside roads as barriers. The water is slightly coloured, too, sluggish and slow to respond. The journey ends abruptly, as the stream disappears into a swamp in massive tea fields. Those few bright red leaves lend the only colour in a depressingly monotonous green ocean of tea, clogged in a mat of rushes and swamp vegetation. To understand the decay of streams, one has only to walk along a few in tea plantations.

Wherever they flow, streams have a character of their own. Whether in the mighty Himalayas or the equally impressive hills of peninsular India, from roaring rapids and rolling cascades to gurgling brooks, a stream is a strand that weaves life together. And fragmentation due to tea and coffee plantations sever the strand, converting fast-flowing streams to marshes and swamps and straighten those gentle meanders to drain away what appears to be excess water. This is the death of a stream, and the plantation landscapes of the Western Ghats mountains are riddled with such dead streams. Most streams that originate and flow through these areas end up being dammed, diverted, mined, polluted, and converted to swamps and marshes. Their gentle meanders are straightened, their laughter silenced; their only solace being a few isolated rainforest fragments and protected forests of sanctuaries and reserves miles downstream.

How do landscape transformations affect the life of the streams and the life in the streams? Our recent study on the Asian small-clawed otter, the smallest of the world’s 13 otter species, threw up some pointers. In India, these otters are elusive mammals mostly restricted to the hill streams of the Western Ghats and the Himalaya. For our study in the Valparai plateau of the Anamalai hills, we walked along numerous perennial streams flowing through the tea and coffee landscape, looking for evidence of otters. At first, the only glimmers of hope in the streams running through the stunted ocean of tea was the occasional grey wagtail or a flitting stream glory damselfly. Still, camera trap photographs and spraints (droppings) revealed that otters were using these streams. Coffee plantations with their shade trees, being more similar to forest, fared slightly better than tea for otters, despite the release of insufficiently-treated coffee wastewater into already-depleted streams. What was crucial for streams and otters was, however, the few patches of rainforest that had survived the onslaught of plantations. Retaining these while allowing strips of natural vegetation to regenerate along streams can help revive stream health and water quality, and prevent erosion and loss of wildlife habitat. It is in these strips that streams can still hum a part of their original tune.

Towering trees, an occasional herd of elephants crashing through and the sound of great hornbills in the canopy were constant reminders that much of the Valparai landscape was once like this. One early morning in April, in the adjoining Anamalai Tiger Reserve, we watched a pack of dholes frolicking in the shallow waters of a stream. They had killed a sambar the previous evening and had returned to finish the remains. A couple of hours later, walking further upstream, we glimpsed our first small-clawed otter. Too stunned to react, we watched it disappear into a rock crevice. All these months of walking along streams had finally paid off, however short-lived. Not wanting to surprise it any further, we quickly moved on, walking upstream towards our destination—an obscure waypoint marked on the GPS. We had barely arrived and were yet to recover from having seen the otter when we heard a growl that could only have come from a tiger! Moments later, the forest exploded with the alarm calls of lion-tailed monkeys in the canopy. We watched as a tiger walked down to the stream for a quick drink. The stripes of orange and black disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared, the cacophony was soon transferred to the neighbouring valley, and tranquillity reigned once again. This is the song of one such stream in a landscape where silent streams are as common as the tea bush round the corner.

This work emerged from a Master’s research project from the NCBS-WCS India Program….

This is an edited version of the article that appeared in The Hindu on 1 October, 2011 which can ce accessed at http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/article2499884.ece