Two decades ago, wildlife biologists Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman dabbled with the idea of growing rainforest saplings and planting them on degraded forest patches. This was in a section of the Western Ghats in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, where vast swathes of rainforests were cleared since colonial times for commercial tea, eucalyptus, cardamom and coffee plantations. The once vibrant, pristine forests are today almost razed to the ground.
When they started, the biologists had no prior experience in this kind of regeneration effort and a humungous task, next to impossible, lay ahead of them. The idea to rebuild a forest came from Mudappa’s doctoral thesis on plant-animal interaction, which went on to build a connect on how the seeds that passed through the nocturnal brown civet’s digestive system, and were excreted by the frugivorous small carnivore in the tropical rainforest, germinated better. Civets help in dispersal of seeds in the forest ecosystem. In her fieldwork, Mudappa had the daunting task of trekking in the rainforest around Kalakkad, Tamil Nadu, in the Western Ghats, searching for civets at night and collecting their poop to extract seeds for her experiments.
ALSO READ: India’s Revenant Forests
Seeds are key to plant life and diversity. “In a rainforest, only one in every 10,000 seeds survives to become a sapling,” says Raman. “Only one in every thousand sapling survives to become a full-grown rainforest tree. We never imagined that one day we would stand next to the many magnificent trees we planted many years ago.” Mudappa adds: “The most complex and diverse of all ecosystems on earth, rainforests have taken millions of years to evolve. Every plant and animal is interconnected, intricately linked in this multi-layered web of life. Yet how quickly we have destroyed them in the name of development.”
Global Forest Watch estimates there was a loss of 64.7 Mha primary forest globally from 2002 to 2020; India lost around 3.49 lakh hectares of primary forest, and the world lost 411 Mha of tree cover (India 1.93 Kha). Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. And in the face of the devastating worldwide Covid pandemic, several research studies have been proved right in terms of connecting the dots—loss of wild habitat and the emergence of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases.
ALSO READ: Weed Out The Brutish Colonisers
This year the ‘World Environment Day’ theme at the United Nations is ‘ecosystem restoration’, which shall pave the way for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-30. Ecological restoration is now the go-to strategy for reversing biodiversity losses and enhancing terrestrial carbon sequestration in degraded tropical forests. It can take many forms such as restoration of different types of degraded forests, grasslands, scrublands, wetlands and other micro ecosystems, like a green patch in your backyard, or cleaning up rivers and coasts. Eco-restoration will provide an opportunity to re-wild critically endangered species to go back to their specialist habitats.
The sixth mass extinction of species and biodiversity is occurring at a much faster rate due to human action on the planet. The UN’s grand “vision of living in harmony with nature” has gone horribly wrong. Over 68 per cent of animal populations have perished since the 1970s and at least one million species are now threatened with extinction. According to the UN environment programme, “there has never been a more urgent need to restore damaged ecosystems than now. Restoration of ecosystem is fundamental to achieving the sustainable development goals on climate change, poverty eradication, food security, water and preventing mass extinction.”
Two landmark scientific reports—The WWF Living Planet Report 2020 and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019—clearly outline how destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife population, but also on human health. These reports provide scientific evidence “to back what nature has been demonstrating repeatedly. Unsustainable human activity is pushing the planet’s natural system, that supports life on earth, to the edge.”
An area mined for dolomite in Purnapani, Odisha, before and after 15 years of restoration
Ecological restoration is not new on India’s nature conservation map. Green India Mission is one of the eight missions launched under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. It is aimed at restoring and enhancing India’s diminishing forest cover. There have also been several initiatives by NGOs, the private sector and civil society in restoring degraded landscapes. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), efforts in India are underway to meet the 21 million ha restoration commitment under the Bonn Challenge (a global goal to bring 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2030), with 9.8 million ha already restored between 2011 and 2017. Of this, government agencies have contributed 94 per cent, while NGOs and the private sector contributed 4 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively.
Afforestation and ecological restoration are two different approaches. Most afforestation efforts are monoculture plantation like oil palm, eucalyptus and rubber, which lack biodiversity and are grown for commercial purposes. They do not contribute to soil enhancement or support species diversity. Yet, they are counted as forest cover.
India’s ecological restoration projects are as diverse as the country and too many to count. Here are a few notable ones that actually impacted India’s green cover.
• I •
One of the most outstanding flagship conservation programmes is the one Mudappa and Raman worked on. In Valparai, a tea-growing hub in the Western Ghats, agricultural expansion, timber and commercial crop plantations, mining and destructive development have led to the loss and fragmentation of forests. “Our work in the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot was motivated by the need to ecologically restore native biodiversity in degraded tropical rainforests,” says Mudappa. “Less than 10 per cent of the mature forests in Valparai now remain within protected forest reserves, and as fragments surrounded by human habitation.” Each year, the areas of restored rainforest increases in small increments and 100 hectares are now ecologically closer to undisturbed rainforests. “A mature rainforest is the product of thousands of years of evolution. They are so complex that it is beyond human comprehension. It is easy to destroy, but so difficult to recreate,” says Mudappa.
Presently, 45 rainforest fragments remain mostly on private lands owned by tea or coffee plantation companies. “In 2001, we began our efforts with a team of like-minded researchers and active participation from the indigenous Kadar tribal community,” says Raman. “We slowly expanded our work by striking partnerships with the plantation companies. Three companies (Hindustan Unilever which later became Tea Estates India Ltd, Tata Coffee Ltd and Parry Agro Industries Ltd) came on board. Finding that rainforest protection and restoration aligned with their efforts towards sustainable agriculture, their corporate social and environment policies, or their personal interest in wildlife, these companies and many individual managers extended support. The companies recognised and protected 35 rainforest remnants within their estates. Tata Coffee now provides space for a rainforest nursery, where we germinate and nurture over 160 species native to mid-elevation rainforest for use in restoration and native shade plantings.”
• II •
The Northeast too is a biodiversity hotspot—a significant reservoir of biodiversity threatened with destruction. Globally, only 36 areas qualify as biodiversity hotspots. All northeastern states have witnessed alarming levels of deforestation. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2001 and 2020, Assam had the most tree cover loss at 269 kha, followed by Mizoram. In 2018, scientists from the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun, came out with a study on similar lines, stating that if the current rate (study mapping last 85 years) remains undeterred, more than 9,000 sq km could be devoid of forests by 2028. In Assam, the highest deforestation was noticed in Dhemaji, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, Sonitpur, Tinsukia, Lakhimpur, Darrang and Dibrugarh districts.
Since the early 1980s, Eco-Task Force (ETF) battalions have been raised in the Territorial Army to execute afforestation projects in ecologically sensitive areas under the aegis of Ministry of Environment and Forests and Ministry of Defence in conjunction with the states. Ten such battalions are working in different states to restore forest cover. ETF 135 and ETF 134 have been pressed into ecological restoration in Kokrajhar and Sonitpur, respectively. “Since our raising in 2007, we have restored 6,770 ha of land and planted 61,86,257 saplings with locally collected seeds,” says Colonel Mohit, commanding officer, ETF 135. “Every year we are mandated to restore 300 ha land and plant three lakh saplings. After four years, we hand over the land to the state forest department. We are working on 300 ha and also planning to start a herbal garden on 5 ha.” ETF 134 planted 71,41,849 saplings in 4,691.78 ha and 919 ha has been handed back to the forest department.
After tropical forests, one of the most neglected ecosystems are grasslands. The one-horned rhinoceros, hogging much of the conservation limelight, is an animal of the tall wet grassland habitat across the southern foothills of the Himalayas that once ran all the way from Uttar Pradesh to Assam. Grasslands have shrunk and fragmented over the years due to expanding human habitation.
The pygmy hog is the world’s smallest and rarest wild pig. Barely a foot tall and a couple of feet in length, it lacks the characteristic squiggly tail of other pigs. The survival of hogs and other habitat-specialist species like hispid hare and Bengal florican is closely linked to the grassland ecosystem. In 1995, wildlife biologist Goutam Narayan, with the help of the Assam government, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, a Jersey-based conservation organisation started by naturalist Gerald Durrell, and the IUCN Wild Pig Specialist Group chair William Oliver, initiated the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) to revive the species that was thought to have gone extinct.
In May 2020, with the release of 14 captive-bred hogs, the total number of pygmy hogs released in the wild stood at 130 (62 males, 68 females). “This is a significant milestone in saving one of the most endangered mammals,” says Parag Deka, project director, PHCP. “In 1996, we managed to capture six hogs (2 M, 4 F) from Bansbari range of Manas National Park to start the breeding programme. In 2008, 16 hogs were released into the Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam.”
A flock of Great Hornbills on a rainforest canopy
The successional mosaic grasslands necessary for hogs evolved under a system of grazing, flooding and periodic fire. “Almost all the existing grasslands of sub-Himalayan region are maintained by one of these factors or their combination. Gradually, alien invasive plant species have spread like wildfire, disrupting the ecosystem. A large part of the pygmy hog success story is due to the habitat restoration initiative. The continuous focus on removal of the cause of invasive infestation, while promoting growth of native grass species, helped the pygmy hog as well as other grassland dependent species,” adds Deka.
• III •
Since 2008, Junglescapes, a grassroots non-profit organisation in Karnataka, working in collaboration with the forest department and local indigenous community self-help groups, has helped eradicate lantana and restore over 1,000 hectares of forests for wildlife, with a significant increase in plant diversity. When they started, the Bandipur National Park and Tiger Reserve was infested with invasive lantana camara, a plant originating from Central and South America. Forests too were overrun by invasive species of perennial shrub, which formed dense thickets and choked the ground vegetation. This may look like lush green forest, but these invasive species kill off all native plant life. Ecologists also point to another alien species, the senna spectabilis or golden wonder tree with its bright yellow summer flowers, as a far greater threat than lantana.
In February 2019, around 10,000-15,000 acres of Bandipur was ravaged by fire. Restoring fire-affected areas was not attempted before in India. “Seven restoration plots of 160 hectares were taken up and restored,” says Ramesh Venkataram, trustee, Junglescapes, and member of the Expert Committee on Invasive Species constituted by the Madras High Court. “These plots will go through another two rounds of restorative maintenance in the next two years. Good recovery of grass cover and shrub density is seen in the restored plots, but tree regeneration will take longer.”
Junglescapes was the first Asian organisation to win the prestigious SER Full Circle Award in 2017 at the global restoration conference held in Brazil for efforts that integrate indigenous communities and their knowledge in co-restoration.
• IV •
The Aravallis, the world’s oldest fold mountains, cover 800 km from Gujarat to Delhi. For decades, the mountain range, an ecological wonderland, has been harvested of its rich minerals such as limestone to fuel our development. The environmental cost of mining is huge. In 2018, the Supreme Court expressed shock to hear that 31 hills in the Aravallis have ‘vanished’ in Rajasthan and directed the state to stop illegal mining.
In the lower Himalayas, the picturesque hills of Mussoorie too have been scarred due to the demand for limestone. Tropical evergreen forests in Odisha and Jharkhand have not been spared either. Unabated mining for decades has left the land with giant craters devoid of vegetation. In Jharkhand, coal mining has devastated forests, affecting groundwater and wildlife habitats.
Restoring these mined-out areas has been a mission for the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), University of Delhi. A number of mines have been restored to their natural state of ecosystem within five to 10 years. “Ecological restoration is the only hope for the future of the environment, and the planet’s future depends on the development of the young scientific discipline of ecological restoration,” says C.R. Babu, professor emeritus, CEMDE. “Biological inputs used in restoration are legumes, grasses, woody plants, microbes, soil invertebrates and pollinators and dispersal agents.”
In Jharkhand, CEMDE has restored the ‘over-burden dump’ of Bharat Coking Coalfields and Central Coalfield Ltd. In Delhi, the dry deciduous forest ecosystem of Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (part of the Aravalli range) was also a restoration project of a mined-out site. CEMDE is also credited for the creation of seven biodiversity parks spread over 3,000 acres in Delhi. According to Prof Babu, the most significant work has been restoring 250 acres of dolomite and limestone mined-out area in Odisha’s Purnapani. Today the entire abandoned mine is a rainforest ecosystem with over 200 tree species and canopy cover reaching 100 feet. “The restored ecosystem has brought back the ecological services lost during mining and is providing sustainable livelihoods. Local self-help groups have been trained in rearing tasar silk worm, lac insect culture, pisciculture and apiculture, and the community now sustainably utilises the restored ecosystem for its socioeconomic status,” adds Prof Babu. Ecological services rendered by restored ecosystems include rise in groundwater table; CO2 sequestration via storage of carbon in biomass and soils; imparting climate resilience; promotion of local cloud formation and precipitation; and habitat for wildlife.
• V •
Mangroves abound all along the country’s coastline and the mangrove ecosystem has acted as the first defence against cyclonic storms. India has over 5,000 sq km of mangrove forest, almost 2,000 sq km of which comprise the Sunderbans in West Bengal. Sunderbans is counted as the most famed mangrove forest for its Sundari tree and tiger population, but there are also pockets of mangrove across both the east and west coast that provide vital ecosystem services, and also act as barriers to storms.
India lost 40 per cent of its mangrove forest in the last century mainly due to agriculture, fish and shrimp farming, fodder and fuel wood, and for land reclamation. Efforts to restore and increase the mangrove footprint began in 1976 when the National Mangrove Committee was formed. In one such effort, the Andhra Pradesh forest department, with local community help, is reviving these forests in the Godavari and Krishna river deltas. Using a technique called ‘fish bone’, where feeder channels are cut at an angle of 45 degrees to the main channel, giving it the shape of a fish bone from a bird’s eye view, around 500 ha of mangrove plantation has been done in the delta.
“The cutting of channels and plantation is manual work done with the local fisherfolk community,” says Anant Shankar, the divisional forest officer leading the project. “It takes time for mangroves to be restored after we carry out the work. Mangrove seedlings come along with tides in these channels and get stuck here. Slowly they cover the entire space and it becomes a thriving ecosystem that supports species like the fishing cat, Indian smooth coated otter and Estuarian crocodiles.” The forest department has also launched the Mangrove Mitras programme, where experts, naturalists, students, local communities and other stakeholders have been roped in for research and restoration of the mangrove ecosystem in and around the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary, which forms the core mangrove forest in this delta.
The National Mangrove Committee has identified 16 areas along the Indian coastline in the mangrove system as marine-protected. The Kannur Kandal Project in Kerala, Muthupet and Palk Bay in Gujarat, Bhitarkanika and surrounding areas in Odisha, Chorao island and estuaries in Goa, and several coastal pockets in Gujarat and Maharashtra are other examples of mangrove restoration involving forest department, local community, NGOs and CSR initiatives.
Restoration is different from afforestation. Restoration initiatives need to factor in choice of species, soil, environmental and climatic conditions. It’s a long and tedious process. “Ecological restoration is ecological engineering involving assemblages of native plant species into ecological communities,” says Prof Babu. However, it cannot replace the biodiversity and wonders of protected mature natural ecosystems.
Protected ecological landscapes are not safe either. Several UN natural World Heritage sites in India are threatened by human encroachment and unsustainable development, according to WWF. Many protected areas are also facing the threat of denotification to meet development needs. The first to be struck off the conservation map since the introduction of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 is the turtle wildlife sanctuary in Varanasi. The only protected ecosystem for freshwater turtles in India is now lost for good. There are many such fragile habitats on the brink. But are we taking stock of the red flags?
Why June 5?
In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly established the World Environment Day (WED) on the first day of the Stockholm Conference (June 5 -16). This was the first world conference on environment. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is an outcome of this conference engaging governments, businesses, celebrities and citizens to focus their efforts on a pressing environmental issue. Two years later, in 1974, the first WED was held with the theme ‘Only One Earth’ in the city of Spokane in the US.
This year, it is the 47th anniversary of WED. Since 1987, UNEP floated the idea of rotating the environmental protection themes by selecting different host countries. India has been the host country twice, with the themes ‘Forests—Nature At Your Service’ in 2011 and ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ in 2018. The host country this year is Pakistan, with the theme ‘Ecosystem Restoration’.
Here are the last five host countries and the respective themes:
2020: Columbia, Biodiversity
2019: China, Air Pollution
2018: India, Beat Plastic Pollution
2017: Canada, Connect People with Nature
2016: Angola, Go Wild For Life (against illegal trade in wildlife)