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Magnificient no more

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Author(s): RAJSHEKHAR PANT
Nov 15, 2004 | From the print edition
The oak, an integral part of Kumaon life, might soon be extinct from the region

-- There is an old Kumaoni song, which goes, "They give us cold water from their roots, the air we breathe in flows from their clumps and the temple they canopy at the top of the hills protects us from all ills. O you beautiful one, do not cut these trees, lest sin should fall on you." The song is dedicated to the oak tree, an integral part of folk life in the Kumaon hills since ages. Four species are commonly found here: banj oak (quercus leucotrichophora), tilonj oak (quercus floricunda), rianj oak (quercus languinosa) and kharsu oak (quercus semicarfoloia).

The oak line in Kumaon actually begins with the banj oak, at an altitude of 1,650 metres above sea-level. The tree can be found up to an altitude of 2,286 metres. It's an ideal fodder, agricultural implements are made out of oak wood and parts of the tree are valued for its medicinal qualities.
The zealous administration However, this lifeline of Kumaon's ecology might well be extinct soon. Excessive grazing, frequent collection of leaf litter for mixing with compost, as well as burning of leaves by civic bodies in the name of cleanliness inhibit nutrient inputs into soil. Consequently, banj oak regeneration has come to a virtual standstill in Kumaon.

This is not all. The local administration's zeal to develop Nainital as a tourist centre has put paid to scores of banj oaks; many have been axed off to facilitate construction of concrete driveways for tourists.

Moreover, declining livelihood opportunities in the Kumaon villages has led many to migrate to Nainital. Most such people live on the city's margins and depend on oak wood for fuel. In the long Kumaon winters -- November to March -- at least two hundred head loads of wood (each load weighs about 40 kg) are extracted every day from oak forests near Nainital. So, the once magnificent oaks here have today been reduced to sorry stumps. Constant chopping has also depleted the strength of the tree's roots: very often pre-monsoon showers and strong gusts of wind are enough to uproot them.
Overprotection kills Simultaneously, over-protection of oaks in spaces such as the forest range of Kilbury, spread over 4,000 hectares in the fringes of Nainital, has worked to their detriment. At first glance, the presence of centuries-old mother trees might indicate the forest here is thriving. However, this occludes a vital fact: the forest is simply not regenerating. Once these age-old trees die -- and die they certainly will, for almost all of them are ridden with creepers or infested with a speedily growing parasite, lorenthus -- the banj oak will become extinct.

Experts say that this light-demanding tree is finding it very difficult to regenerate itself in the dense Kilbury range. The other species of oak here are shade-tolerant and doing quite well.

Weevil infestation also bedevils the oak's regeneration. Researchers reveal that one such pest, dicranognathus nebulosus, infests banj oak both on ground and on its branches. Another weevil, the sitophylus glandium, infests acorns of both banj and tilonj oak -- though only on the ground. Biotic stresses and human intervention, in fact, promote the intrusion of the chir pine in Kilbury. The plant is quite a controversial one from the ecological standpoint and studies show that it renders the hill slopes arid.

Moreover, the forest department is loathe to plant oak saplings. According to environmentalist Ajay S Rawat, this is because "The oak takes a long time to grow. Even associates of oak such as rhododendron and ayar are being planted." Instead, the department promotes fast-growing species such as cyprus and ash. Is it too much to expect from all concerned to come forward and protect this integral part of Kumaoni life?

Rajshekhar Pant is a writer, photographer and a film maker. He can be contacted at bamboochalets@rediffmail.com

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