The man who listens to trees: Meet the botanist who helped Karnataka's Soligas secure their livelihood

For more than two decades now, Professor R Ganesan and his colleagues have been trying to hear what the flora of India’s southern mountains are saying.
The man who listens to trees: Meet the botanist who helped Karnataka's Soligas secure their livelihood
The man who listens to trees: Meet the botanist who helped Karnataka's Soligas secure their livelihood
Written by:

Collecting and selling of Phyllanthus emblica otherwise known as nellikai, amla or the Indian gooseberry is a significant source of livelihood for the ancient Soliga people, the indigenous residents of the Biligiriranga (BR) Hills in Karnataka. Located at the confluence of the Western and Eastern Ghats, the region was notified as a Wildlife Sanctuary in the 1970s and later as a tiger sanctuary in 2011, and renamed The Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary.

With protection for the region also came restrictions for the Soligas. Disregarding that it’s been their practice since time immemorial, the forest department, on and off over the past four decades, have barred them from entering the forest to collect gooseberry. They state that this practice will adversely affect the forests’ plants and animals.

The gooseberry being a significant source of income also meant that ban on their collection had adverse economic consequences for the 20,000-odd Soligas who are the last of their tribe.

A file photo of Dr Ganesan and team at work in BRT Wildlife sanctuary. Photo courtesy: Sibi Arasu

Even as this saga unfolded, researchers from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) based in Bengaluru, including 53-year-old Dr R Ganesan, a botanist by training, managed to earmark a three-hectare plot in the sanctuary, where they began long-term monitoring of over 8,000 trees located within their plot in the year 2000.

“I was interested to know whether the harvest had any impact on the population status of amla,” says the demure and confident Dr Ganesan, when TNM met him at ATREE’s offices. “We generally feel that fruit harvest will lead to removal of seeds and that could affect the plant’s population. But the results obtained after monitoring the site was to the contrary.”

To everyone’s surprise, Dr Ganesan and team found that it was more invasive weeds such as the lantana and certain varieties of mistletoe that affected amla growth rather than fruit harvest. “We studied the impacts of forest fires, grazing, and cutting of trees for firewood as well as that of invasive species. It was the invasives that had the most adverse consequences,” says Dr Ganesan.

The forest department, in light of these findings also retracted from arbitrarily banning amla harvest in the forest. Dr Ganesan and team’s 10 years spent observing the trees of the BRT sanctuary, made way for the Soligas to get back a livelihood resource that they desperately required. They also showed that non-timber forest produces (NTFP) such as amla can be sustainably harvested in such a way that the local people actively participate in conserving biodiversity.  

Talking trees

“Maybe it’s because my father was an agricultural officer or maybe it was because I had really great teachers both in my high school and college, I’ve always been interested in studying plant life,” says Dr Ganesan. Growing up in Villupuram, about 170 kms from Chennai, Dr Ganesan went onto do his M.Sc in Botany from the Namakkal Government Arts College. “I was collecting plant samples even then and knew I didn’t want a lab-based job. In those days, there were a lot of forests around Namakkal, Salem, Erode and other nearby districts and I used to travel and look through many of those forests. My teachers trained me rigorously in taxonomy and plants.” Meeting Dr Kamaljit Singh Bawa, founder of ATREE during his post-doctoral days, Dr Ganesan began his first and only job so far, which was with ATREE in 1996.

Dr R Ganesan at ATREE’s offices in Bengaluru. Photo courtesy: Sibi Arasu

For the last 20 years, he has continued to monitor plant life and made astute observations about what they are trying to tell us. Apart from the trees at BR Hills, Dr Ganesan is also observing 15,000 individual trees spread out over 10 hectares in Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), located in the southern tip of the Western Ghats within the Agasthyamalai hills. Dr Ganesan is intimately familiar with all of the 23,000 trees that he observes at both of these sites. “There is now a specific program through which various analytics can be done with our data on trees. This program was first used by long-term monitoring of tropical trees in regions such as Barra del Colarado in Costa Rica,” says Dr Ganesan. “Because we can easily find out information such as a particular tree’s growth rate, how rainfall is affecting it over the years and so on, using our field observations and the program answers to some very large and highly pertinent questions are slowly emerging. These are questions related to how endemic species can be sustained, how extreme weather is affecting our flora and fauna and so on.”

The value of long-term monitoring

Under the aegis of the Centre for Tropical Forest Science and the Forest Global Earth Observatory (CTFS- Forest GEO), there are about 60 sites for long-term monitoring of forest functions and diversity around the world. “These monitoring sites have made some incredible observations. For example, they found that 227 hyper dominant species account for more than 50 per cent of the trees in Amazonia. We also ask and attempt to answer questions such as, how do trees assemble themselves? What role do tropical forests play in stabilizing our climate and atmosphere? How can we take advantage of and enhance their ability to store carbon? How can we use forest resources sustainably and so on,” says Dr Ganesan.

A view of the Agasthyamalai, KMTR. Photo courtesy: Atree.

The Philatus chalazodes – Bubble-nest frog rediscovered after 136 years by Ganesan and team. Photo courtesy: Atree.

An exciting side effect is also the discovery of new species of flora and fauna. Since 2010, Dr Ganesan has discovered a new species of plant, the Litsea kakkacensis in KMTR, rediscovered a plant that was last observed 187 years ago, the Crotalaria digitata or the rattle rod plant and also rediscovered the Raothestes chalozodes or the bubble nest frog. Discoveries which would have been impossible without putting in painstaking time and effort.

“In KMTR for example, while it’s still early days as far as long-term monitoring goes, we’re finding that there’s change in the kind of flora with changing temperature and weather patterns. This is somehow affecting the soil’s nutrient flux, thus enabling certain trees to thrive while others die,” says Dr Ganesan.

He adds, “Ideally, these kinds of things should be monitored for hundreds of years, like the weather. If there’s an inadequate understanding of biological wealth of an area, then subsequent conservation measures might be flawed. Without such a repository of data, it is impossible to detect changes in the climate or other phenomena, or their responsible drivers.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. This article was produced with assistance from FEJI-ATREE media fellowships 2017. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute