WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

In the Nilgiris, invasive plant species are driving animals into conflict with humans

The proliferation of these plants has depleted the fodder of wild animals, forcing them to raid fields and farms.

B Sivappan’s banana plantation in Thengumarahada, a scenic village on the eastern slopes of the Nilgiri plateau in Tamil Nadu, was raided by elephants in December. “Earlier they used to run away when we made a noise, lit small fires,” the 61-year-old said. “Now, they don’t seem to care; they just eat as much as they can and then amble away.”

The plateau, which is part of the 5,500-square-kilometre Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in the Western Ghats mountain range, has seen a rapid increase in incidents of human-wildlife conflict. One reason for this is the proliferation of invasive plant species – plants that are introduced in regions far away from their homeland and thrive at the cost of the native biodiversity – such as the Prosopis juliflora (seemai karuvelam) and Lantana Camara, which seem to endure extreme weather better than their indigenous counterparts. The unprecedented drought in southern India has only exacerbated the situation.

“While not the only factor behind human-wildlife conflict, plants such as prosopis are definitely an important reason why this happens,” said R Venkatachalam, a research associate with the Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and the Environment, whose work focuses on the Moyar-Bhavani region inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, also part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. “In the last six months, I have heard of incidents of crop raiding by elephants not only in Thengumarahada but also in the nearby villages of Sirumugai, Kandiyur and Thasamapalayam. Prosopis can be toxic and causes severe indigestion and tooth decay to wildlife, hence they stray into the fields more often because of the lack of better fodder in the wild.”

Traces of prosopis were found in elephants that reportedly died of starvation at the state’s Mudumalai Tiger Reserve last week, as well as in another dead elephant found near Thengumarahada.

The skeletal remains of elephants at the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu
The skeletal remains of elephants at the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu

Alien species

Of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, 11 are found in India, and several of these inside the country’s protected areas, according to a paper published in 2013.

Invasive species, be they plant, fish or fauna, have been introduced across various regions of the world and in India for a multitude of reasons. The Lantana camara, native to South America, was brought to India in the early 19th century as an ornamental plant to occupy prime real estate in botanical gardens. The plant, with its pretty flowers, also became popular as a hedge to protect gardens and mark boundaries. Today, it is estimated to occupy 1.3 lakh square kilometres of land across India – a spread that is the size of the country of Nicaragua.

Birds perch on Lantana camara near Kotagiri, Nilgiris. The plants, with their pretty blooms, were earlier used to adorn gardens.  Photo credit: Anita Buragohain
Birds perch on Lantana camara near Kotagiri, Nilgiris. The plants, with their pretty blooms, were earlier used to adorn gardens. Photo credit: Anita Buragohain

Prosopis, on the other hand, was literally dropped from the sky in the 1960s. The plant was considered a great source of firewood and large areas of Tamil Nadu, which was going through a drought at the time, were sprayed with prosopis seeds. Rural communities were encouraged to grow the plant. But as the need for firewood diminished, the plant took root and its sturdy nature allowed it to spread in a far more robust manner, especially in the prevailing drought conditions, than indigenous plant varieties.

“The dung of many animals that consume prosopis acts as a distributor as well as a seed bank, enabling the plant to spread far and wide,” said Venkatachalam of the Ashoka Trust. “In STR [Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve], which is 1,440 square kilometres, I’d say the plant has taken over at least 40% of the area.”

On Monday, the Madras High Court ordered the removal of prosopis from the entire state as a drought mitigation measure, because the plant with its deep roots is known to deplete groundwater. The court also asked the state government to enact a law for the same.

The verdict was a follow-up to previous court rulings on invasive species. The first of these came in April 2014, when the Madurai bench of the High Court directed the removal of wattle, an Australian plant introduced as timber in the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu.

But the actual process of ridding the state of every single prosopis plant is an arduous task to say the least.

Prosopis juliflora plants inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. They are toxic and cause indigestion and tooth decay in animals. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu
Prosopis juliflora plants inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. They are toxic and cause indigestion and tooth decay in animals. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu

On the frontlines

S Kalanidhi, district forest officer in the Nilgiris North Division, admitted as much when he said that getting rid of the invasive plant “would take some time”. But he agreed that it was responsible, to a certain extent, for rising human-wildlife conflicts. “Even if not direct, surely the effect is there, especially in relation to crop raiding and so on,” he said.

Kalanidhi and his colleagues in the department oversee a 550-square-kilometre area and are responsible not only for the conservation of wildlife there but also for preventing them from coming into contact with humans. “In our zone, I think at least 30% of the area is covered by invasive plants,” he said. “We’re now focusing on removing the plants before it flowers, so its spread reduces.”

The underfunded forest department started work on getting rid of the invasive plant only on the court’s directive. Despite a number of such judgements in the last few years, proactive removal of these species has not been on the department’s agenda, despite the widespread presence of these plants.

C Badrasamy, a retired divisional forest officer, said, “We shouldn’t forget that during the British era and also post-Independence, it was us who planted the trees for livelihood and commercial purposes.” He added that while these trees were then a requirement, they have now become an environmental hazard.

Pointing out that getting rid of them after all these years would not be an easy task, he said, “These trees have been here for decades if not centuries. We can’t just remove them overnight.” Listing out the difficulties, he added, “Over the last decade, there’s been an emphasis to protect the sholas [patches of evergreen forests], to not let the invasive plants spread further than they already have. Extraction is bound to proceed at a slow pace because of many impediments. Financial constraints, working constraints and lack of adequate technical training to name a few.”

Black bucks stand amid prosopis plants in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu
Black bucks stand amid prosopis plants in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu

Compensation for losses

In the upper reaches of the Nilgiris, the invasive plants have caused losses for residents while also bringing them in conflict with the wildlife. “In this period without rain, invasives such as the scotch broom, yellow cassia, wattle and so on have eaten up most of the shola forest patches in the land of the Toda communities [native to the Nilgiris],” said Siddhartha Krishnan of the Ashoka Trust. “The thickets that they form have become suitable for predators to prey upon their buffaloes. So they find it difficult to locate good grazing land.”

Ajay Desai, advisor to the World Wide Fund for Nature, said, “What we see today is a combination of factors and invasive plants are an important part of that combination.”

Speaking of compensation for the losses suffered by humans because of the presence of these plants, he said, “The main agency to deal with these issues is of course the forest department. Their compensation scheme is poor in terms of losses actually compensated and has several problems in its implementation. However, that remains the only widely available mechanism for overcoming losses. There are a few scattered schemes from animal husbandry, crop insurance [recent], which help locally at some sites but are not widely available at present.”

To receive the compensation offered by the forest department for crop loss due to raiding animals means going through a lengthy bureaucratic procedure. For farmers to be eligible for this payment, which can range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, they need a certificate from an agricultural officer as well as the village administrative officer. Only then will their claims be processed.

Compensation for death or permanent disability as a result of an attack by a wild animal is more straightforward, though. And it ranges between Rs 20,000 and Rs 1 lakh in the case of disability and Rs 3 lakhs and Rs 5 lakhs in case of death.

The department and a few non-governmental organisations also offer communities in the area assistance and financial aid for bio-fencing (natural fencing using shrubs and thorns) as well as electric fencing and digging of trenches to keep animals away.

The Nilgiris near Manjur village with tea estates in the foreground, invasive plants such as the Australian eucalyptus and wattle to the left, and shola forests at the far end. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu
The Nilgiris near Manjur village with tea estates in the foreground, invasive plants such as the Australian eucalyptus and wattle to the left, and shola forests at the far end. Photo credit: Sibi Arasu

India’s problem

“Human-wildlife interactions and biological invasion may appear as distinct problems but in many occasions, reduction in native food plants due to increase in cover of invasive plant species have been stated as one of the reasons of straying out of wild herbivore in search of food,” said Monica Kaushik of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun.

Kaushik and her colleagues have been following the linkages between these issues closely over the last few years. “The biggest hurdle in mitigating the conflict is the lack of scientific research related to behavioural aspects,” she said. “Therefore, making country-wide population estimates and gaining an understanding of the behaviour of the species is advocated as the first step towards mitigation of the conflict in the long term. It’s important to restore the wild habitat to prevent the wandering of wild animals out of the natural habitat for food resources.”

As Siddhartha Krishnan of the Ashoka Trust put it, “The local communities are not able to do anything about the invasives. There needs to be a concerted effort, the economic costs have to be worked out. Overall, India needs to care about this more before things get worse.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Kotagiri, Nilgiris. He tweets @sibi123.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.