Planting trees is one of the most popular and symbolic statements of environmental awareness.  Politicians, bureaucrats, eco-activists, students and naturalists of all shades and stripes, engage in this well-meaning effort to help increase forest cover. But in some cases, more trees aren’t always the best answer to preserving endangered habitat.

Deforestation is a serious problem in the Himalayas, and it needs to be reversed through the concerted efforts of government agencies, village panchayats and environmental groups or institutions.  Sections of Mussoorie and our surrounding hills have suffered because of indiscriminate felling and lopping of trees.  However, many areas near the town have actually become more thickly forested in the past 50-100 years. 

Before Mussoorie was settled by British colonials, in the early 1800s, these ridges were primarily pastures for migrant shepherds and the most distinctive natural features of the landscape were grass-covered slopes that provided grazing for wildlife, as well as flocks of sheep and goats.

Most of these grasslands have now disappeared under the spreading construction of houses and roads, as well as new forests that have been planted since the town was established.  The variety of grasses and shrubs that once covered these mountains were part of a complex eco-system of low ground cover, that supported many different forms of life, from insects and reptiles to mammals and birds. 

Drastic changes in the environment, particularly the widespread planting of trees like pine, deodar, oak and rhododendron, has created a very different ecology and landscape around Mussoorie, from a century ago.  While a comprehensive scientific survey has not been done to identify the extent of these changes and the consequences, it is clear that some species have diminished or vanished altogether.

The rarest and most sought after bird of this region is the mountain quail, Ophrysiasuperciliosa, which Dr. Salim Ali brought to everyone’s attention his Book of Indian Birds.   He describes it as follows: “Known only from the western Himalayas between 6000-7000 ft altitude, in the neighbourhood of Mussoorie and Nainital.  Last specimen procured near latter place in 1876.  Habits: Was found in patches of long grass and brushwood on steep hillsides, in small coveys of 5 or 6.  Flew reluctantly almost when trampled on, heavily and for short distances, soon pitching down into the grass again… less than a dozen specimens exist in museums and nothing is known about its biology. All recent efforts to re-discover the bird have failed.”   Whether the mountain quail fell victim to the effects of increased forestation is impossible to prove, but it is clear that if this endemic species were to be rediscovered today, its natural habitat has been so drastically reduced as to make its continued survival unlikely.

Himalaya Club with Thatch Roofs | Picture Courtesy: Ganesh Saili

The grass slopes of Mussoorie have been denuded far more than the forests of this region but this fact often gets overlooked.  Of course, grass doesn’t have the poetic grandeur or obvious appeal of a tree like an oak or a deodar.  Nevertheless, village communities in this region have long depended on a variety of grasses for fodder and thatch.  Most of the early homes in Mussoorie had thatch roofs, which were gradually replaced by corrugated metal during the last decades of the 19th century.

My father, Robert Alter, illustrated the issue of over-forestation, using a photograph of himself taken at the age of 16 in 1943, on the Landour Chukkar. Clearly visible to the north were the grass covered ridges of the Nag Tibba range, as well as the snow peaks beyond.

Landour (1943)

Sixty-two years later, in 1994, when he was 78, my father had a picture taken of himself at exactly the same spot, near Kellog Church.  These two images speak for themselves, for the view is completely obscured by a thick growth of deodar trees.

Landour (1944)

While Landour, Paritibba, Benog Tibba and the Kimoin ridges on either side of Mussoorie are now almost completely clad in forest, there are a few areas where the original grasslands remain.  Below Clouds End and Everest House, at the western limits of Mussoorie, lie dramatic grass-covered cliffs that still preserve the kind of landscape that was prevalent 150 years ago.  Top Tibba to the east of Mussoorie, along the Tehri Road, is another area that also remains largely unchanged.  Within Landour, the only remaining grass cliffs cover a few acres below Dalia Bank and Mt. Pellier, above the Eyebrow Path, also known as the Fleming Nature Trail.

Too often, our instinctual response to changes in the environment, is guided by uninformed preconceptions.  Only through careful scientific research and analysis can we fully understand the process by which our surroundings are being altered.  While nobody would advocate the felling of trees to revive Mussoorie’s grassy splendor, or stop anyone from planting a sapling, what little remains of these natural pastures should be carefully studied and protected.

– By Stephen Alter