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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org