Environment
The Mudumalai Tiger reserve is using its resident pachyderms to deal with the invasive plants that destroy indigenous species.
Ganesh the elephant, getting ready for work with his mahout on top.

Ganesh is taking a well-deserved break when we reach the game hut, a small forest hut that is deep inside the 321 sq.kms Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR). The adult tusker had just completed a hard day’s labour, uprooting the reserve’s greatest problem– invasive plants such as the lantana camara.

Also known as unni chedi (flea plant) in Tamil, it is estimated that the lantana has taken over more than 1.3 lakh sq.kms of land across India. This is nearly the size of the state of Tamil Nadu. The plant prevents native plants and grass species from flourishing, thus having a cascading effect on local ecosystems across India. Lantana’s effects are felt the most in India’s 1.56 lakh sq.kms of Protected Areas (PAs) such as the MTR, that make up for nearly five percent of the country’s land mass. At Mudumalai, nearly 70 per cent of the reserve is infested with lantana. The figures are equally appalling in other neighbouring reserves such as Bandipur, Wayanad and Nagarhole.

“Due to their thick growth, they do not allow any native plants to germinate, so natural regeneration gets affected badly,” says Srinivas Reddy, Field Director at MTR. Reddy is overseeing the lantana removal process which is being funded by the Project Tiger program. He adds, “Secondly, because of their thick growth, grass underneath gets affected. So large areas where normally grass would be available of herbivores has gotten covered with lantana. This has grave consequences for the ecosystem.”

Members of the Bettta Kurumbar community at work. (Photo by Anita Buragohain)

When traditional methods of periodically uprooting the plants didn’t work, foresters here came up with an innovative solution - they decided to employ their resident elephants to carry out the task.

Providing a breathing space

On any given day, the nine elephants who have been tasked with the job are removing the invasive plants on either side of the pathways that run through the reserve. At the end of this season, they hope to have cleared at least 300 hectares of lantana. He adds, “It’s a very time-consuming process and the roots are hard to pull out. Even if you do, they spread back pretty soon. The amount of invasives we’re removing is only a small drop in the ocean, but I think it’s a good start. Without the help of our elephants here, we won’t even be able to do this.”

 

Apart from the nine elephants and their mahouts, the removal process also provides employment to many members of the Betta Kurumbar community, an indigenous tribal group who inhabit the region in and around the tiger reserve. Bomman J, one of those working with sickles to cut the plant says, “I believe removing the plants will help the animals come back. It’s also good because these plants are not good for anything and once the native plants come back, they will be more useful for us as well.”

Hundreds of people inhabit the region in and around MTR and there are thousands of tourists who throng the reserve on a daily basis. The region is also saturated with wildlife. There are about 59 tigers which visit the region, out of which 24 are residents, there are also approximately 300 elephants within the MTR apart from scores of other wildlife. Thus, the removal of lantana acts as a relief for these animals as well.

A win-win situation

Over the last many decades, the animals here have also adapted to the presence of the lantana and other invasive plants such as a variety of the eupatorium and the parthenium which is also known as Congress grass. “Wiping them out entirely is impossible. That is why we’re clearing 30 metres on either side of all pathways inside the reserve,” says Reddy. He adds, “This way, angulates have a grazing zone and the carnivores can also have enough cover. Our forest guards also benefit since they have a clear sight during their patrol.”       

With the lantana removal going on for a little more than a month now, there’s already a clear impact. As Reddy says, “I don’t remember seeing so many deer in the eco-tourism zones earlier. With the clearing, they have adapted and enjoy the newly-found open spaces. This is a clear sign that we’re moving in the right direction.”

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