Free Press Journal

Kaas: A case for conservation


Smithia: A million Mickey mouse flowers looking at you

The small town of Satara in Western Maharashtra, has often witnessed the pitting of strength of an apparently small force of well meaning people who took on and challenged the might of the tyrants. From the times of Chattrapati Shivaji overpowering the well oiled war machinery of the Nizam Shahi dynasty, to conquer the Parali and Satara fort in 1760s, Satara has seen it all. In the times of the Independence struggle Satara was known for ‘Prati Sarkar’ – the Parallel Government, which during the Quit India Movement even went on to replace the British rule in rural areas for over four and a half years.

A few years ago it was again for Satara to rise up. This time too, the forces on hand may be small as compared to the opposition. But the mission again was extremely important. The battle lines were drawn between a small bunch of people wanting to preserve the unspoiled wilderness and those from the so-called ‘civilized’ world, pushing it to the brink.

Ciropegia: appears like an insectivorous plant, but merely gets insects to pollinate it and then lets it go away

There exists an extremely pristine ecosystem around 25 km from Satara. Nestled in the Sahyadri Mountains, this place is known as the Kaas plateau. It is home to a few life forms found nowhere else in the world – they are endemic to Kaas. Till about fifteen years ago, they had all peacefully habited the surrounding hills and plateaus. But suddenly, the botanical community observed that every year during the Indian monsoons, the land became covered with innumerable tiny flowering plants. The hills and slopes became draped in sheets of yellows, purples, pinks and even whites.

The flowers came in all conceivable shapes, so as to attract insects and bees in large numbers and thereby ensure the progeny of the tiny plants. Following the insects were birds and frogs and not to be left behind were birds of prey – the falcons, eagles and buzzards and very soon the plateau was buzzing with life and activity. Everyone seemed to be busy procuring food – yet trying not to become someone’s instead. And the backdrop to this flurry – the enterprise called life – was the riot of colours changing almost every week. The show that started somewhere late in July would keep changing colours in the whole of August and continue into September too, provided the rain gods showed sympathy and showered their blessings.

Ground Orchid Y Tura are endemic to this region

A few years later – some new characters walked into this theatre of the Kaas ecosystem. Inspired probably by their botanist friends, came ‘flocks of curious tourists’ – some with cameras and some otherwise. And soon, the idyllic Kaas plateau and its beautiful people witnessed signs of the ‘civilised society’ – traffic jams, road rage, broken bottles and littered plastic.

The so-called ‘educated’ masses started to throng here every monsoon weekend. Soon the tiny flowers were being trampled under the feet of a callous picnicker or an inquisitive photographer. A few heartless souls wouldn’t even mind driving their vehicles on the flowers. And adding insult to this injury was the frequent sight of botany student groups who come here and make rampant collections- “rarer, the better” for the herbarium. Concerned people would say – educate them. But weren’t most of them already?

Some concerned nature lovers from Satara and Pune along with the local Forest Department took up the challenge to stand up against this vandalism. Soon local students, citizens joined hands to prevent a total destruction of the beautiful Kaas Plateau. Then came the big help from the UNESCO which recognised the importance of Western Ghats and the signigficance of Kaas flowering plateau by granting the area a World Heritage site status. This status, it appeared was a blessing of the local goddess Kasani to survive the human onslaught.

Habenaria, the ground orchid

So, one would ask, what is all this fuss about a small plateau and a hill side? To know more, we need to understand the origin of this pristine land. This area was a part of the Deccan Plateau which witnessed around 29 lava flows around 65 million years ago. With every new eruption, a new layer of lava flowed from fissures and spread horizontally over the already weathered older strata.

Years after the last lava flow, started the action of the innumerable water streams and huge rivers that eroded the flat landmass to form deep valleys and gorges to give it the present form. Today, if we looked down from any of the steep slopes in the Sahayadri range (Western Ghats) of mountains, we would notice stacked up layers indicating these time zones.

Even as the water streams eroded the landmass, some areas remained untouched forming kind of islands. Today, we see them as independent plateaus surrounded by deep valleys on all sides.

These plateaus, owing to their volcanic origin are comprised of red lateritic soil, also referred to as Saada in Marathi. Saada is extremely porous and does not hold water and hence agriculture is ruled out here. It is the South West monsoon that totally transforms this otherwise dry land, pouring over 2000 – 2500 mm of rainfall in just about three months. Water that accumulates from this catchment finds its way into the Kaas lake, the source of the Urmodi river. With this life giving rain, the Saada with its thin layer of red soil suddenly erupts in a profusion of flowers. As far as the eye can see, the land is soon covered with smithia and sonki providing the yellow carpet and balsams adding the pink hue to it. Colours change almost every week – depending on the dominant flowering at that moment of time.

The soil layer on these Saada plateaus is very thin and contains little or no organic matter. This has meant that the Mother Nature had to evolve a number of plants to become insectivorous to get food supplements. Seeta’s tears or Utricularia are blessed with small bladders around their roots to trap insects, thereby providing the plant with precious nitrogen and phosphorus. Even more interesting are the insectivorous plants of Sundew or Drossera, which trap insects on its sticky dew like secretions.

Adding glamour to the flowering world at Kaas is a range of ground orchids, including Waytura – Aponogetan satarensis – which over enthusiastic botany students have almost collected to disappearance from this plateau, Habeneria heyneana or the tooth brush orchid, Habeneria digitata which has an interestingly strong fowl smell that can be recognized only after sundown.

However the story of Kaas would remain incomplete without the mention of the ubiquitous ‘basket kept upside down’ Topli Karvi – Pleocaulus ritchei. This plant flowers only once in its lifetime of eight years, after which the plant dies. And yet when it flowers, it is a sight to behold with baskets of purple flowers swaying in the breeze.

Given this background, would it not be apt to protect this wonderful site for the future? The time is now, lest the name tag of ‘Kaach’ Plateau replace Kaas Plateau… with liquor bottle glass pieces strewn everywhere in this Garden of Eden.

(Explorer, wildlifer, trekker, scuba diver, sky diver, river rafter, birdwatcher and nomad for life, Anirudh Chaoji works as an ecologist in community-based conservation, Forest Department, Melghat Tiger Reserve.)