India is home to iconic wildlife like tigers, dholes and even lions, as well as many species found nowhere else in the world. But they share the subcontinent with the world’s second-largest human population – and as India’s 1.3 billion people vie for space with wilderness, wilderness has often lost out.

Such is the case in the Nilgiris district of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Once covered in a mosaic of montane forest and grassland, the Nilgiris was transformed into a land of plantations over the past two centuries. But now efforts are underway to restore the landscape to its native state.

Stretching 1,600 kilometers (990 miles) along India’s western coast from Tamil Nadu at the subcontinent’s southern tip north to Maharashtra, the Western Ghats mountain range is considered as one of the most biodiverse places in the world and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The range is home to thousands of different plants and animals, and is also host to a high level of endemism – meaning that many of species that live there are found nowhere else.

The Nilgiris district sits squarely in the Western Ghat’s southern portion. Its 2,565 sq km were once covered in a mixture of tropical montane forests – locally called “sholas” – interspersed with grassland. But in the last 200-odd years, the district has lost around 80% of its native vegetation, according to a local official.

These forests are now replaced by sprawling tea estates, coffee plantations, exotic tree plantations, and by invasive species of grass and small plants. Along with the loss of forest habitat, plants and animals are also disappearing.

“Over the past many decades, the exotics have taken over the Nilgiris and I think only around 20% of the district still retains native forests,” said C Badrasamy, a retired Divisional Forest Officer who has more than three decades of experience in the field.

However, some in the district are trying to reverse the situation. Through reforesting small tracts of land, conservationists in Nilgiris hope to return their mountain home to its pre-colonialism glory.

All for a cup of tea and a piece of paper

Sky islands are isolated mountain ecosystems that are radically different from the lowlands surrounding them. Because of their isolation, sky islands act as hotbeds of evolution, harbouring unique species found nowhere else in the world. In addition to their biodiversity, sky islands provide ecosystem services like water catchment for nearby communities.

“The high altitude forests of the Nilgiris are some of the few sky islands in the Indian subcontinent,” said Godwin Vasanth Bosco, a naturalist based in Ooty, the largest town in the district.

To help preserve the components of this vanishing ecosystem, Bosco has been collecting and nurturing native shola and grassland plant species for the last three years.

“The Nilgiris’ unique characteristics are also its downfall,” he told Mongabay.”While the shola, which are dense forests, grow only in mountain folds, the district was also home to hundreds of kilometres of high-altitude grasslands. The biodiversity value of the grasslands is invaluable but that is of little concern when they are also easy to clear off and setup tea estates or plantations of commercial timber.”

Tea plantations alone currently cover more than 600 square kilometers of the district, generating more than 135 million kilograms of tea in an average year, according to the Indian Tea Association. Nilgiris tea is also among the most expensive in the world. A high-grade variety of tea produced here once fetched a world record price of $600 per kilogram at a tea auction in Las Vegas in 2006.

Timber plantations were also once prominent in the region. Starting around 1840, plantations of acacia, eucalyptus, and other commercially valuable tree species were established by the British, with those in the Nilgiri plateau considered among the most productive in the world.

Between 1950 to 1990, the Indian Forest Department also planted a large number of these trees in the grassland region of the Nilgiris to satisfy the various needs of a growing economy – tanning bark for the leather industry, wood pulp for the paper industry – as well as to satisfy an increasing demand for firewood. According to Farshid S Ahrestani, a wildlife ecologist, over 11,000 hectares (110 sq km) of grassland across Tamil Nadu had been converted to tree plantations by 1988.

“We shouldn’t forget though that during the British era and also post-independence, it was us who planted these trees for livelihood and commercial purposes,” Badrasamy told Mongabay. “These trees were a requirement then but have now become an environmental hazard.”

These ecological concerns prompted the forest department to cease timber production in the 1990s. But rather than disappearing from the landscape, the acacia and other commercial trees have invaded nearby forests. Because they grow fast, they easily out compete native species; grasslands in particular are readily displaced.

However, Bosco believes native species could recolonise the land – if given a hand by conservationists.

“This is what we’re trying to do,” he said.”If we provide a safe environment for the grasslands and the sholas to develop, after six months to a year, they will be able to take care of themselves. These are still early stages though and while reforesting sholas has had relatively more success, bringing back grasslands is proving to be a tough task. Constant invasion by non-native weeds being only one among many problems.

Why reforest?

The entire district of Nilgiris falls within a biodiversity hotspot, and is home to a plethora of wildlife – including many species found nowhere else in the world.

The Nilgiris’ shola forests are home to trees endemic to the region such as the mohonia, rhodomyrtus, Nilgiri champak and mountain navals, as well as unique grass species. Mammals include the Nilgiri tahrs, Nilgiri langurs, Nilgiri martens, Indian bison, civets and Bengal tigers; more than 350 bird species have been recorded in the district.

As with the rest of the Western Ghats, the Nilgiris is a herpetological heavyweight, with several endemic frog species.

“There is an abundance of endemic species in the Nilgiris and the Western Ghats in general,” said Sathyabhama Das Biju, one of India’s foremost herpetologists. “In the past few decades alone, more than 80 new amphibians have been discovered in the Western Ghats.”

The Nilgiris’ known amphibians include the Ghats wart frog (Fejervarya murthii), the Nilgiri montane tree frog (Ghatixalus variabilis), the Nilgiri bush frog (Raorchestes tinniens), the Nilgiri cricket frog (Fejervarya nilagirica) and the Nilgiri tropical frog (Micrixalus phyllophilus). Of these, all are endangered with the exception of the Nilgiri tropical frog, which is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List.

The Ghats wart frog is of particular conservation concern. Listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, the frog’s main threat is agricultural conversion of its montane forest habitat. Satellite imagery and data from the University of Maryland show much of its range has already been converted, with large spots of relatively recent tree cover loss in what forest remains. The data indicate tree cover loss in the frog’s habitat over the past 15 years has been double that for the Nilgiris district as a whole.

Habitat loss is not just a threat in the Nilgiris. Conversion of forest is putting the pressure on amphibians and other animals and plants throughout the Western Ghats.

“In the [Western Ghats] the most major threat to amphibian life is habitat loss,” Biju told Mongabay. “More than 80% of their habitat is lost or moving towards being lost and being fragmented.”

In addition to the wildlife they supports, native Nilgiris forests provide important ecosystem services for surrounding communities.

“Even an acre of native forests, if successfully brought back can make a huge difference in the amount of water available for human habitation around and below the forest,” said Anita Verghese, deputy director at the Keystone Foundation, an organisation that has been working with indigenous communities in the Nilgiris and surrounding districts since 1993.

“While small efforts are encouraging, it is up to the department of forests to take this forward on a large scale, since more than 50 percent of the land is under their control,” Verghese told Mongabay.”There also needs to be more awareness among the people here about why reforestation is important and there should be efforts taken to encourage more people to get involved.”

However, not all are in favour of a reforestation approach.

“I completely understand that there are administrators, politicians etc who are trying, rightfully trying for some kinds of development,” Biju told Mongabay. “But destroying a forest and then planting trees is not biodiversity. This whole conventional thinking of substituting forests is wrong. It’s taken a forest millions of years of evolution to reach its state now. After cutting that area and saying that some companies need the area for mining and then if the companies then plant 1,000 saplings, that’s not the way for conservation.

“My suggestion is that if you are destroying the area, then it’s better to leave the area after sometime, rather than artificial planting. Many times, they plant the wrong trees at grasslands and so on and that completely destroys everything.”

Recognition, removal, restoration

In 2014 the Madras High Court passed an order for the removal of eucalyptus and acacia from Tamil Nadu’s portion of the Western Ghats. The High Court in its order acknowledged that the overall environmental impact of invasive exotics far exceeded their short-term economic benefits.

However, implementation of the order by the state’s forest department in the last few years has been has been beset by a variety of problems such as limited funding for removal and reforestation, lack of technical expertise and insufficient manpower.

“The removal of exotics and reforestation of native forests are still in an experimental stage,” forest officer Badrasamy told Mongabay. “This is something that cannot and should not be done immediately. Since being hasty about this might make the situation worse. The bringing back of native forests is the need of the hour, but to do it on a large scale is a herculean task to say the least.”

At the village of Cinchona near Doddabetta peak – the highest mountain in the Nilgiris, rising 2,637 meters (8,980 feet) above sea level – naturalist Godwin Vasanth Bosco has been replanting sholas and grasslands at a decommissioned tea estate spread across 50 acres.

“Here, we are doing our best to maintain ideal conditions for the shola to come back,” Bosco told Mongabay. “One common mistake is that sholas are also grown where grasslands are supposed to be and this never works out well. We are learning from past experiences and hope to bring back sholas where they used to be and grasslands where they were once grasslands.”

The team of 20 people has met with success and after three years more than 30 different shola species are showing signs of healthy development.

“This one shrub called [impatiens], we didn’t even plant it. After extensive weeding it started growing on its own,” Bosco said.”That’s the thing about these forests. All they need is a head start. They’ll take care of themselves afterwards.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.