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Vol. 15 No. 2 - April 2009

Species watch groups – key to biodiversity conservation

By: Monika Koul1 and A. K. Bhatnagar2

India, with 2.4 per cent of the global land and 15 per cent of human population, is also home to about seven per cent of world flora. Of the 47,500 species of plants recorded in the country, one third are endemic to one or the other part of the subcontinent (BSI, 2000). The variation in physical factors has resulted in an enormous range of diversity among the biotic components too. Much of this diversity of plants exists in areas of climatic extremes, such as the high Himalayas, or in salubrious but competitive environments such as in the Western and Eastern Ghats. Interestingly, the biodiversity map of India coincides with the areas of rich forests, where live most of the tribal communities, and which also incidentally are often the watersheds and catchment areas of our major river systems. Conservation efforts are sure to yield rich, multiple benefits.

Plant diversity is linked to ecology and human welfare in more complex manner than usually realized (Ramakrishnan, 2001; Kumar, 2001). Because of our excessive dependence on plant resources for life and livelihood, overexploitation seems inevitable, but conservation is the dire necessity for sustenance.

Ethnobotanical studies indicate that the rural and ethnic communities continue to depend significantly on the vast range of plant species, available in their neighbourhood.  Food, fibre and oil come from a few cultivated or wild species. For fuel and fodder, some common trees and shrubs are handy, but a large number of species is targeted for medicine. Of the 1,500 species of flowering plants considered threatened in India, listed in the Red Data Book of Indian Plants (IUCN, 2007), a vast majority is of medicinal value. Overexploitation and habitat degradation are recognized as major causes of loss of plant species or their genetic diversity. Pollution and climate change pose new challenges. With their populations fragmented and density diminished, many species face reproductive stress. Over a period of millions of years, plants have co-evolved with insects, birds, bats and other animals, which provide invaluable pollination and seed dispersal services in return for food and shelter. Many of these animals, insignificant to man but useful to plants, have also vanished due to factors such as indiscriminate use of pesticides. Little attention is paid to the factors that are disturbing the plant-animal interactions. In forests, from where elephants and tigers can disappear without leaving a trace, it is not difficult to imagine that a vanishing species of a herb or an insect would create no ripples!

National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) and the more recently created Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPV & FRA) have drawn renewed attention to the need for conserving primitive land races and wild relatives of crop plants. These organizations are in the process of recognizing hotspots of agro-biodiversity where special measures would be adopted for conservation. Considering that each of the about 323 species of crop plants indigenous to India, has thousands of recorded, and yet to be recorded varieties, the task is mammoth.

National framework is in place for conservation of plant diversity. Botanical Survey of India (BSI), is responsible for enumeration of Indian flora and preparing a Red Data Book of Indian plants. NBPGR, a host of crop specific institutes of ICAR, and state agricultural universities/institutes conserve in situ and ex situ crop germplasm and make it available for crop improvement. The mandated government organizations make no significant effort to involve scientists in academic institutions or NGOs in achieving the unattained objectives set before them. Take the case of the threatened species classified as critically endangered, endangered, rare and vulnerable by IUCN. BSI brought out a list of such species in 1987. There is hardly any documentation on what the current status of these species is, or how many more need to be added to the list, or if some have recuperated and deserve to be delisted. Plant taxonomists, the few that are left, receive little, if any, direction or help from the BSI or forest departments. It seems that the disappearance of many species is inevitable, and we may not even know what we have lost!

The system of updating and preparing the list of rare, endangered and threatened (RET) plant species is rather centralized with BSI. Animal species which need conservation measures are included in Schedule 1, but plant species are included under Schedule 5. Endangered plant species in Schedule 5 are all angiosperms, thus plants belonging to lower plant groups such as Algae, Bryophytes and Pteridophytes are not taken into account and their loss is regarded inconsequential. Gymnosperms, an important group of plants represented by fewer species and showing a high degree of endemism, also get unnoticed while formulating the conservation strategies.

Very often, botanists have individually reported that certain species recorded in red data lists are not rare; some of these are actually common and found in large populations. At the same time, many species not included in the lists are actually found to be threatened based on individual studies, particularly in the hot spots of Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas. There is no census of endangered plants like that of the animals. We do not have any idea whether the species in red data lists are getting further decimated or are responding to protection measures. Several parts of the country remain unexplored or little explored.

Traditionally, the botanical community has largely been engaged in the  study of various aspects of plants, including morphology, cytology, life cycle, systematics, ecology and chemical components. Their contact with flora of the region was close in the past. With the shift in focus to modern aspects, fewer scientists go to the field. Forest officials, misinterpreting the provisions of the legal framework for safeguarding biodiversity, often create obstacles in any research work in the forests or wetlands. The large botanical community has no opportunity to participate in the national task of conservation of plant diversity. There is an urgent need to develop a network of dedicated ‘Species Watch Groups’ all over the country, drawn from among plant scientists and faculty in research institutes, NGOs, University Departments and Colleges. The species that are endemic, threatened, or occur as disjunct populations, or lack sufficient information on their population size, threats, trends and distribution need special conservation efforts. For convenience, to begin with, there can be at least one watch group in each state of the country, but more attention needs to be focused at the hot spots which house much of the plant diversity.

The species watch groups should comprise serving or retired professionals having field knowledge of forests, climate, biota and topography, since all these components are interrelated. Besides 3-5 expert members, each group may include representatives of BSI, ICAR and concerned state forest department. The forest department may serve as the nodal agency with responsibility to provide the necessary infrastructure and facilities. Ideally, the work should be outsourced to suitable NGOs or academic/research organizations. These watch groups should be mandated to periodically visit the field and monitor known or reported RET species. The data should be well documented and form basis for drawing management plan for conservation of individual species. The watch groups can help in assessment of dynamic changes taking place in different ecosystems at a given time and space. More specific biological causes such as reproductive behaviour, status of pollinators and dispersal agents, and effect of invasive species and climate change, also need to be addressed. We do not even have sufficient data about what should be minimum density of a population of plant species for effective pollination and fertilization. It is also felt that some species need further evaluation to ensure long term species viability. The groups should also assess the degree of human pressure, trade, and success of conservation measures for individual species in measurable terms. The watch group can also be involved in capacity building and generation of awareness for sustainable use of RET species. A network of these watch groups, located at different geographical and climatic zones, can serve many useful purposes. These will help in creating a data pool of existing biodiversity which can be put to statistical analysis and ecological models can be created on this basis. Software networking and availability of data for public viewing and interpretation will generate enhanced response and participation. Generation of funds for the project is another challenge to cope with. Funds can be generated by approaching World Bank and international agencies involved in the work. Ministry sponsored projects can also be helpful and cater to needs of small working groups. Once the project takes off and proves its utility, further support can be expected.

Species watch groups already exist in many countries of the world such as USA, Britain, Finland, Norway and New Zealand. Watch groups that monitor the life cycle events of monarch butterflies, tigers and pandas are complementing conservation efforts and yielding fruitful results. Some watch groups are ecosystem-specific and many are species-specific. Species watch groups can be formed for monitoring plant species such as Aconitum balfourii, Aconitum heterophyllum, Berberis osmastonii, Picrorhiza kurroa, Swertia chiraytia, Coptis teeta and Podophyllum hexandrum at high altitudes; Vateria indica, Terminalia travancoria, Blepharistemma serratum, Erinocarpus nimmonii, Meteoromyrtus wynaadensis Pseudoglohidion anamalayanum in Western Ghats; Pterocarpus santalinus, Capparis nilgiriens, Capparis roxburghii and Decaschistia rufa in Eastern Ghats; Commiphora wightii in semi-arid regions,  and Xylocarpus spp. and Excoecaria marina in mangrove ecosystems.

The government agencies mandated with the task of conserving biological diversity face multiple challenges. Their resources and infrastructure are limited. The choice is between letting the species vanish, or follow a participatory approach. Setting up of ‘Species Watch Groups’ can be a small but useful step in the right direction.

1Hans Raj College, University of Delhi - E-mail: drmkoul@gmail.com

2Department of Botany, University of Delhi, Delhi – 110007 - E-mail: akb_du@rediffmail.com

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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