Species watch groups – key to
By: Monika Koul1 and A. K.
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.
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
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
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,
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.
Raj College, University of Delhi - E-mail: [email protected]
of Botany, University of Delhi, Delhi – 110007 - E-mail: [email protected]