Lost Laurels – The Story Of A Tree, A Forest And The Wildlife They Support
What was once traditional and sustainable has turned into an ecological threat to the bhabar tracts of the Himalayan foothills of western Uttarakhand, write Dr. A.J T. Johnsingh and Dr. Bivash Pandav.
Photo: Abhishek Harihar.
Late winter months are perfect for flora enthusiasts to observe the Indian laurel. At this time the tree is flush with foliage in its prime bhabar habitat in western Uttarakhand. A common enough tree, Terminalia tomentosa is widely distributed in the Himalayan foothills, characterised by gravel, boulders and the resultant low water table. The fully mature Indian laurel is tall with a massive trunk and a dense green canopy. Langurs and all forms of wild ungulates are sustained by this tree through the dry months. In the Rajaji-Corbett landscape, grey langurs can be seen atop the tree’s lofty branches, feeding on the petioles, while chital, sambar, nilgai, goral, the exceedingly rare serow and the increasingly rarer barking deer feed gratefully on the large leaves that they drop. It’s an interesting lesson in ecology, this langur-ungulate commensalism.
UNSUSTAINABLE LOPPING TAKES A TOLL
Unfortunately, the Indian laurel is also greatly in demand by humans. The Gujjars, a pastoral community of Uttarakhand, heavily lop the branches of the Indian laurel to feed their livestock. They climb to the top of the trees, hacking even the terminal branches, skillfully using their knife and toes as footholds. If it were not for the resulting destruction, we would say that the remarkable tree-climbing abilities of the Gujjars would be worth watching. Some degree of lopping was always prevalent, but not to the extent that we see today. Brutal lopping, year after year, has actually ended up preventing trees from flowering and fruiting, which leads to their premature death. In the entire bhabar tract, other than in the core area of the Corbett Tiger Reserve and parts of Rajaji National Park, you would be hard put to find a single unlopped tree in late winter. Even trees on steep slopes higher up in the outer Himalaya have fallen victim to this practice.
So what? A few trees get lopped. Is that really something to be so concerned about? Yes, if the damage continues for over three decades and the tree in question seems to respond by not regenerating. But here we are faced with a conundrum. For unexplained reasons even within the core of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, where the tree is protected from lopping, we noticed regeneration failure. Possibly, the few seedlings that germinated were eaten by wild ungulates. But could there be another, unknown cause, such as the disappearance of a suitable pollinator that is now affecting regeneration on a wider scale?
The fact is that even in well protected forest areas in south India where there is no grazing or lopping, the Indian laurel is facing trouble, with little or no regeneration taking place. Of course, this is not the only tree facing this predicament. Other important ungulate food sources such as the bahera tree, Terminalia bellirica, and dhaman tree, Grewia tiliifolia, are also showing significantly lower levels of regeneration, or no regeneration at all.
What then is the future of this extremely valuable species in the bhabar tracts of Uttarakhand? What will happen if Indian laurel trees simply die out one day?
Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh.
A FLORAL DECLINE
This bleak scenario is already playing out in the Chilla Range of Rajaji National Park, from where the Gujjars were relocated a decade ago. A sharp-eyed visitor will quickly notice that late in winter in Chilla, there is very little food for wild ungulates. The range is sadly dominated by the exotic katsagon Haplophragma adenophyllum and lantana Lantana camara. Elephants feed on the bark of H. adenophyllum and the tender shoots of L. camara are eaten by langur and sambar deer. We don’t even clearly know the long-term ill-effects of feeding on lantana, which is reported to be toxic to ungulates. Fruiting of the Indian plum Ziziphus mauritiana, a favourite food of ungulates, comes to an end in winter, when most grasses mature, turn coarse and yellow and possess few nutrients. There are sal Shorea robusta and Indian elm Holoptelea integrifolia trees, but their leaves are not consumed either by langurs or wild ungulates. Most of the kamala trees Mallotus philippensis are heavily damaged by feeding elephants and seem to be struggling to survive themselves, let alone provide food for other species. The leaves of the axle wood tree Anogeissus latifolia are eaten by both langur and wild ungulates, but the trees are largely confined to the ridges where they have been lopped for decades. Even now, after a decade of protection, they still look half-dead and it appears they may not have the vigour to regenerate. A few individual bahera trees do fruit, but only by late winter, when all their leaves have been shed. There are some wood apple Aegle marmelos trees that bear fruit that are half-eaten and dropped by langurs, and these are gratefully accepted by wild ungulates. But again, the story is familiar. There are not many young wood apple trees to be seen.
Most Indian laurel trees in Chilla have shown a remarkable recovery structurally, with their full and green canopies. Below the trees that were persistently lopped in the past, there used to be dense growth of the weed Parthenium hysterophorus. Now, these patches have been replaced by a profusion of tall grasses such as Vetiveria zizanoides and Imperata cylindrica. But this recovery does not reveal new Indian laurel saplings. We see seedlings, but they simply do not turn into saplings, perhaps because of heavy feeding by ungulates.
Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh.
WHEN THE TREES GO, THE ANIMALS FOLLOW
Clearly, if the situation is so critical for such a key species in a Protected Area like the Chilla Range and the core of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, there is little hope for the trees outside, where they suffer ferocious lopping year after year. Our persistent attempts to dissuade the Gujjar community from such shortsighted lopping, which not only affects wild herbivores but offers younger Gujjars a bleak future, have been met with strident protests by them and by social activists that imagine they are doing the community a favour.
It is time for the Government of India to accord the Indian laurel tree, the flagship tree of the bhabar tract, a much higher degree of protection, coupled with the resources needed to care for the tree, both inside and outside our Protected Areas. If its regeneration continues to fail, we will see populations of langur and wild ungulates facing trouble too, particularly as late winter offers them little by way of optional sustenance. This is now a crisis situation for western Uttarakhand and should be recognised as an early warning. And when you join the proverbial dots, what you see is that the trajectory of tiger numbers has to follow the downward decline of the herbivores. What is staring us in the face are empty tiger landscapes in the bhabar belt of India, which has historically been this nation’s showcase for our wildlife conservation successes.
Ironically, though we are raising the alarm, frankly, as of now, we cannot even be sure of how exactly the regeneration of the Indian laurel can be pushed and its future secured. Even more worrisome, we believe that what we have observed with the Indian laurel, may well be afflicting other indispensable forage trees in the bhabar tract including the wood apple, bidi leaf-tree Bauhinia racemosa, orchid tree B. variegata, spinous kino tree Bridelia retusa, slow match tree Careya arborea, dhaman, Indian ash-tree Lannea coromandelica, bahera, Indian plum and wild jujube Ziziphus xylopyrus. Some of us even worry that the phenomenon may be extending itself beyond the bhabar tract. If that be the case, particularly with climate change looming large, much of the Indian subcontinent may witness floral declines.
So what is this? A doomsday prediction? Far from it. It is merely a discussion at this stage. A postulation that should spur studies for a better understanding and a debate on appropriate conservation measures that we should be taking. Normally, we would take the position that nature will eventually take care of the problem, but we cannot afford to be wrong on this one. We have news that the Chinese have successfully cultivated the Indian laurel tree and perhaps it is time for us to reforest this tract, as well.
Srikant Chandola, who has served as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) in Uttarakhand confirmed that even the dry leaves of Indian laurel are consumed bywild ungulates and that propagation from seeds in nurseries is indeed possible and has in fact been successfully carried out. He adds that direct sowing of seeds has yielded some of the best plantations in the past, but somehow this practice has escaped the attention of the current forest managers.
Photo: Daanish Shastri.
While we speak of the Forest Department taking care of the species in Protected Areas, we must simultaneously engage the Gujjar community in this mission as they have a very direct stake in ensuring the tree’s long-term survival for their own existence as a pastoral community. Here is an opportunity for the Forest Department and the NGOs to work with a community to propagate a potentially vanishing species outside the Protected Area network. With some luck, and with some statesmanship on the part of opinion leaders on both the wildlife and human rights fronts, perhaps such a miracle might even be possible.
A.J.T. Johnsingh is affliated with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India and Bivash Pandav is with the Wildlife Institute of India. The authors would like to thank Kashmira Kakati, Pia Sethi, Geetanjali Tiwari, Soumya Prasad, Meena Venkatraman, Pranav Trivedi, Abishek Harihar, Sumanta Bagchi and S. P. Yadav for their ideas and comments on this article.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 4, August 2014.