Monsoon Expedition: Lohagad

I went on an expedition last Sunday to a well-known fort in the Sahyadris, the Lohagad, literally meaning Iron-fort. It is one of the few best preserved fortresses around this area, and attracts a lot of tourists to climb its fascinating ramparts. We had gone for this and another reason – to document as much biodiversity we can on the trek.

We reached the base of the fort much after the expected time, had a cup of chai and proceeded to conquer this big bully. There is another fort called Visapur to the east of Lohagad. One the same mountain is a cave system called Baja Caves. All the three locations are sought after by trekkers, but Lohagad… is a different case.

Friends of mine who have been to this fort several years ago remember the trek to be rather rough and the surroundings pristine. Since then it has changed drastically. The way up till the footsteps of the fort has been widened to contain a two way traffic. The surroundings are so badly damaged that only a few hardy plants including some invasive species such as Lantana grow here. But not all hope is lost, since the very core patches are still intact, harbouring an astounding diversity under every leaf.

As we began our climb on a cloudy day with a chance of rain, it was, for most of the trek, a cool, pleasant walk. Occasionally it became too humid when the sun peered through a break in the clouds, and sometimes the breeze got a bit cold. When we reached the very first step that leads to the fort, it looked eerily beautiful:
I am Iron Fort!
The fort was very welcoming as every step and the way carefully wound around the mountain to allow a steady climb to the very top. There are several Dwars, or doors, after a round of steps. This fort was not only strong like iron, but it was completely carved out of stones – no cement or anything else that would harm the environment! And after hundreds of years, most of its walls were still intact. These stony walls provide an ideal anchorage to algae and moss, as well as small herbs and plants such as Utricularia sp., Begonia sp., and several ferns and a dozen grasses. It was the nature’s own green roof/ wall that many environmentalists dream of building:
A Green Wall
Once you reach the very top, it opens into a vast clearing, and in the middle of this plateau is a temple. Surrounding this temple we found a carpet of Adelocaryum malabaricum, an endemic of the Western Ghats. As we followed the edge of the forest looking for plants growing on the steep side of the fort, we reached a spur along the west side of the fort. It is famously known as Vinchukata, literally meaning Scorpion’s-tail:
Vinchukata (Scorpion's tail)
We braved up the high winds and walked along the edge to reach the very end of the Sting – wherefrom the view was absolutely stunning. And to our surprise, we found the Iphigenia indica again, in fact several ones this time that were fruiting:
Iphigenia indica fruiting
This one was at the very edge of the fort, and the backdrop is that of a dense forest on an adjacent hill. People were probably thinking what on earth we were photographing down on the ground while others were photographing the landscape. We also saw Ceropegia sahyadrica lawii again! (thanks Dinesh!) Of all the places, it chose the wisest place: on the edifice of an old doorway, where rarely does anyone bother to walk:
Ceropegia lawii and Adelocaryum malabaricum oblivious to the rush
The overall plant diversity was stunning, and I was fortunate to see three types of Habenaria this time, one of my favourites, which I’ve only seen pictures of, was Habenaria grandifloriformis:
Habenaria grandifloriformis 
And another was a rather cool Habenaria:
Habenaria foliosa
It grew taller than usual, with leaf shaped like that in the family of Lily. Its growth was rather curious and unusual for an orchid. Thanks to Dinesh Valke, without whom this expedition would have been impossible, we now know its name! All along the path, wherever the ground was not eroded and there was enough grass cover, there were tiny herbs of Neanotis lancifolia, some were only beginning to flower and others were blooming in full glory.
Impatiens oppositifolia
Besides these, another endemic – Impatiens oppositifolia was also seen in abundance. Now we might have missed many other monsoon-exclusive flora, and this is only the top of the iceberg, but compared to the number of plant species we observed, the fauna was surprisingly scarce. At the very beginning of the trek, however, I found a fly that I had never seen before:
Prosena sp. (probably siberita)
It is Prosena sp., a fly in the family Tachinidae. There are two species, siberita and facialis recorded by ZSI in India. This one is most likely P. siberita. I was so glad to have come across this unique Tachinid. The long proboscis, although looks menacing, is not a weapon used to draw blood, it is in fact an excellent tool to drink nectar from. These flies are strictly nectar feeders, doing the good deed of pollinating the plants in the process. These flies typically sit facing down on tree trunks – as was this fellow. Although I am not sure about the distribution of this species, I came to know from Dipterainfo that it is also commonly seen in the United Kingdom.

Although I said that the path that leads to the fort is large and has utterly destroyed the surrounding, there are several shortcuts that are not really shortcuts but steep, small, unused paths that traverse along this main road. Along this path, through a dense undergrowth of Karvy, I saw some insect activity:
Hybotidae preying on another fly
It is a fly in the family Hybotidae feeding on another fly, I think in the family Dolichopodidae. This was only the second time I’ve seen this cute little fly, and now I’m beginning to think that they are more so common on high-rise terrains than in the dense forests down below.
An unidentified Hawkmoth that mimics a Bumblebee!
The butterfly activity was rather low, and we only saw several Common Pierrots, a Tamil Grass Dart, and several Spotted Small Flats and a Painted Lady feeding on Vitex negundo flowers. I also saw a Hawkmoth (yet unidentified) feeding on Adelocaryum malabaricum. In the Hymenoptera world, I was glad to have seen a Camponotus sp., most probably sericeus red-morph or singularis. I had last seen this not-so-common ant at Karjat in 2009.
A Red-vented Bulbul
One of my prized sightings was that of a Peregrine Falcon perched on a bare tree near the Eastern Express Highway. Although I didn’t do much birding at the fort, we saw many Red-vented Bulbuls, an Indian Roller, and heard the sweet melody of a Malabar Whistling Thrush. I bet that the diversity of birds around the fort must be amazing, especially in the areas devoid of people – and there are a few such forests around the fort still intact:
Dense deciduous forests
Unfortunately, I could not bag a lot of species on this trek. It was probably because Lohagad is heavily visited by many, hence the diversity closer to the paths has retreated further from the disturbance. And I don’t blame them for visiting the fort. Not at all. But it was extremely disheartening to see people litter the fort and the forests with all sorts of rubbish – from plastic water bottles to beer cans and junk food packets. In fact I saw two of them litter in front of me, and had to be the one to clean after them. If this is going to be the case, this fort is going to be long devoid of any plants and animals, all thanks to these pesky litterbugs.

Fortunately, where there are ignorant people keen on destroying the fort, there are some good-meaning souls trying hard to keep this from happening. There are several individuals as well as organizations that conduct monthly drives to clean-up the forts. Some of the ones involved in cleaning Lohagad are: Jungle Lore, Mawla Group (Pune) and Maharashtra Fort Conservation. Thanks to them and their efforts we don’t see mountains of garbage atop the forts. But littering is not the only problem facing the fate of Lohagad. It is slowly being captured by commercialization:
A very large road that leads to the base of the fort showing signs of construction (rather destruction)
The two-way kuchha road I spoke about earlier has brought some heavy construction work very close to the fort. I’m unaware of government regulations to protect forts (some of which deserve to be World Heritage sites), especially on how close can you construct your house near a fort, but such rampant construction is completely unhealthy for the ecosystem and is already taking its toll on Lohagad. All in all, Lohagad was pretty disappointing. The trek is ideal for visiting if you want to experience the best of Monsoon, but it is slowly being degraded in terms of its biodiversity.

4 comments:

  1. A very interesting read about a fascinating place. Why is it so difficult to educate people about littering? Always amazes me that people want to visit places of historic interest,and yet they have no concern for the environment.

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  2. Thanks AD.. now I'm more excited to visit the place.. I just hope even I'll be able to locate all the bio-wealth mentioned by you in your blog..

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  3. thanks for helping me a lot

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