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Photo: Deepa Kandaswamy
Photo: Deepa Kandaswamy

Hugo Wood: The man who saved the Western Ghats

Overexploited for building Royal Navy ships, the forests of Anamalai stared at a bleak future, before a Scotsman came to their rescue

Conservation and climate change have become hot topics in the past 30 years—we observe World Environment Day and Earth Day each year. However, in 1916, exactly a century ago, a Scotsman realized the importance of conservation and preservation of biodiversity and spent his entire life towards achieving this goal.

But for Hugo Francis Andrew Wood, the lush green Western Ghats today, especially the Anamalai range (Anai means elephant and malai means mountain) that runs through Tamil Nadu and Kerala would have become like the dry Eastern Ghats, doomed by British exploitation.

The Western Ghats begin in Gujarat in the north-west and span over 1,600km to the south of India. To their west lies a narrow plain bordering the Arabian Sea, while in the east, they merge with the Deccan plateau. It would not be an exaggeration to say it determines the climate of India.

It stands directly in the path of the south-west monsoon and creates heavy rainfall on the narrow coastal plains on the west and dry regions on the eastern side. This is also the reason why the Western Ghats‘ biodiversity in flora and fauna is unparalleled in the world and is a Unesco World Heritage site.

Creation of Topslip

As I drove up the Anamalai hills, it was sunny until I entered the mountainous road amid thick forest canopy filled with towering trees of all kinds. Wherever the trees were broken by elephants, light shone through upon signs like “Don’t stop anywhere" and “Don’t use horn".

It’s exhilarating to drive amid dense jungles wondering if you are going to encounter wild elephants—Anamalai, as the name suggests, is elephant territory. Finally, reaching the Anamalai Tiger Reserve located on Topslip, you see little sign of civilization until a checkpoint.

Until 200 years ago, only tribals lived in the Anamalai range, which has the highest peak of the Western Ghats at 2,695m. Francis Buchanan mentioned of Indian teak and other trees he came across in the Anamalai of Madras Presidency in his travelogue A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar (Volume 3) published in 1807.

The British had the Anamalai range surveyed in 1820. Both the East India Company and the British government were thrilled when they found jungles on the Anamalai range, which spanned several mountains in Madras Presidency (Kerala and Tamil Nadu), were filled with giant teak trees. They decided to harvest the timber but found that they couldn’t transport the trees down to the plains as they were too large. So, they came up with a novel method—they cut the trees and pushed the timber down through the slope to the river downhill. Hence the name Topslip. 

In 1850, a road from Topslip to Valparai was built by Captain James Michael of the Madras Infantry, and in 1856, Captain George Gosling, who was also a geologist, built a road from Topslip to Parambikulam (now in Kerala), so they could exploit the jungles in the entire range; the timber was carried to Topslip using elephants.

When I visited the area—I travelled more than 50km inside the Anamalai range, in the region permitted by the forest departments of both states—I could find just one teak tree that had survived the exploitation and is 460 years old. It’s called the Kannimara Teak and is now a tourist attraction on the Parambikulam side. (Interestingly enough, the tree has also been awarded the Mahavriksha Puraskar, normally given individuals or organizations for protecting certain species of trees.) 

Scientific forestry

Many people don’t understand why the great Indian Railways was built or the importance of the Indian forests to the British—or, for that matter, the connection between the two.

In the early 19th century, the colonial powers were vying for naval supremacy. The oak forests of Britain vanished due to irresponsible felling of trees to make ships. The Royal Navy needed timber for new ships, to retain its supremacy.

The British needed the railways for administration and trade. Apart from cargo and transportation, they needed the railways to move troops quickly to places of rebellion after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 challenged their imperial supremacy. For each mile of railway track, around 2,000 wooden planks or railway ties/sleepers were needed to hold the track in position.

Apart from this, wood was needed to fuel the steam locomotives. The British government decided to expand their railway network rapidly after 1857; so, even more wood was needed.

For these purposes, they needed massive amounts of teak. So, this species was needed to be grown and other species of trees were cut down. They called it “scientific forestry". The British kept cutting off teak in Anamalai and shipping them off to Tiruchirappalli (aka Trichy) or Bombay (now Mumbai). In Trichy, it was used for building tracks across the subcontinent.

Teaks shipped to Bombay were used to build Royal Navy ships in the Bombay shipyard. Indeed, Indian teak contributed in making Britain a superpower.

Roughly 40,000 trees were felled each year in government forests in Madras Presidency alone for the railways, according to Forestination in Madras Presidency by Dietrich Brandis (1883). This doesn’t include other species of trees that were exploited for other purposes like fuel.

In the name of civilization

Anamalai also became a political showcase of how the British were civilizing Indians. The British believed that killing wildlife and clearing forests for cultivation was a sign of civilization. They truly believed they were helping Indians leave their “natural savagery" behind by deforestation while using our timber to retain their imperial power status.

The British accomplished this in a systematic manner. First, they enacted the Indian Forest Act in 1865. As per this Act, they divided the forests into three categories—reserved, protected and village.

The Anamalai forests came under the reserved category, which meant local tribes couldn’t even take twigs to use as fuel or hunt small animals for food. They banned cattle grazing. Collecting vegetables or fruits could land one in prison.

Before the Act, people who lived in or near the forest got their food and fuel by hunting and the felling of branches, which had been their traditional right for centuries. Adivasi communities were banned from trading jungle products like tiger teeth, ivory, hides and skins, bamboo, spices, gums, resins, medicinal herbs, etc.

British companies were instead given the trading rights. Indian aristocrats and the British were allowed hunting licences to kill at will wild animals that caught their fancy, especially tigers. They were, in fact, paid for killing them. According to Indian Wildlife History: An Introduction by Mahesh Rangarajan, over 80,000 tigers, 150,000 leopards and 200,000 wolves were killed for rewards between 1875-1925 all over India. Since British kept records of only the money paid out, the actual number may be more.

Many Adivasis, on the other hand, were forced to vacate their ancient homelands and work in British plantations for free.

To carry the huge trees, they created an elephant training camp, which exists even today. Tribals who lived in the Anamalai area of Western Ghats domesticated some elephants to become kumki elephants. They were used to drive away wild elephants to the mountain range and also carry the trees.

This went on until most of the Anamalai range was cleared up. Between 1885 and 1915, several forest officers and conservators tried to regenerate the area but were unsuccessful. This was when an officer named Hugo Wood decided to put a stop to the unchecked destruction of indigenous forests.

Birth and life

On 12 June 1870, Wood was born to Elizabeth Maria Louisa and Thomas William Wood at Byculla in Bombay Presidency. He was their second son. He studied at the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper’s Hill, in 1890-93. He passed the Indian Public Service tests and chose forestry.

He returned to India in 1893. He worked on regenerating the Ajmer forests of Rajasthan. His ability in this regard was noticed by the British government and he was later sent to Godavari and Kurnool in Madras Presidency, where he served in various capacities as assistant conservator of forests and deputy conservator of forests.

Wood was asked to replicate his Ajmer work in the Anamalai range in 1915. The next year, he was posted to the South Coimbatore Division (a region that included parts of present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala) by the time the Anamalai range was left with almost no trees.

Wood never married. He dedicated his life to conservation and didn’t care about race, religion, ethnicity, language or nationality. He was finally made conservator of forests in 1918, a post he held till 1926, when he retired to Coonoor after suffering from tuberculosis, according to a Tamil Nadu forest department booklet.

Forestry and conservation

The continued practices of scientific forestry and poaching across the world have led to disastrous consequences. Many of the Earth’s resources are non-renewable—once depleted, they are gone for good. Environmental pollution, species extinction and global climate change are all results of human mismanagement of the Earth’s resources, endangering our survival.

Wood knew this a 100 years ago. He understood the importance of the Western Ghats to the Indian climate, as well as the dangers of deforestation and importance of conservation.

In 1915, Wood drew up a working plan for regenerating the forests of the Western Ghats, especially in Anamalai and the surrounding areas. First, he talked to the tribals, the British government and other interested parties and made them agree on chopping trees and hunting wildlife.

Second, he admonished the British for uprooting trees and introduced coppicing. This is a method of forest management which takes advantage of the fact that many trees will rapidly regrow in the spring if they are cut down up to the stump during the winter. It is friendly to wildlife and other flora and fauna.

Wood befriended the tribals and many who were displaced were brought back. He restored the customary rights of those who lived near the forests in the Anamalai range.

Finally, he marked out areas where no felling or coppicing was allowed for 25 years. The British government agreed to this plan as they had unsuccessfully tried regenerating the Anamalai range for 30 years. (Wood also refused to provide to the British during World War I.)

In 1916, Wood, living in a bamboo hut in Mount Stuart, began the regeneration of the Anamalai range. He cooked his own food and lived alone.

First, he analysed why the teak trees were not growing back and discovered that it was due to the presence of Lantana camara, a flowering shrub which is actually a weed; an invasive species introduced in the plantations for ornamental effect, it had spread quickly all over the range. Wood made sure to get rid of it all.

Despite the fear of cholera and malaria due to the climate in the region, he worked in earnest. He would go on daily walks into the deforested land 4km away, pockets filled with teak seeds.

He would dig holes a foot deep with his silver-tipped walking stick and plant the seeds in. He did this at 15ft intervals. Once his pockets were emptied, he would go back for more seeds and start again from where he left off.

In 1916, he started small, targeting an area of 25 acres; by his death, it had spread to an area of 650 sq. km.

Death and legacy

On 13 December 1933, the first motor vehicle that drove up Anamalai’s mountainous road to Topslip was a small lorry carrying the body of Hugo Wood. It was followed by 11 cars with British officials.

Wood had died in Coonoor on 12 December at the age of 63. However, a few months earlier, sensing his approaching death, he drew a will asking to be buried in Mount Stuart in the Western Ghats and also sent the money needed for the tomb to the chief conservator of Madras Presidency.

He now lies buried among the teak trees and his legacy. The inscription on the tomb reads “Si monumentum requiris circumspice", Latin for “If you are looking for my monuments, look around".

Deepa Kandaswamy is an award-winning freelance writer and author based in India.

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