Missing the grass for the trees

Overprotection of grasslands in India is leading to its decline

By Ghazala Shahabuddin
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Ghazala ShahabuddinI looked out from the observation hut and took in the soothing vision of lush green grasslands in the autumnal light of an October evening. A male great Indian bustard (GIB) had been displaying in a bare patch, puffing out his neck feathers and bobbing his neck in synchrony with his impressive booming call. Just then, I saw two wolves trotting through the grass about 300 metres from the bustard. A skittish herd of 20-odd blackbucks kept a watchful eye on the predators nearby. I was in Nanaj Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, and the place truly felt like a living, thriving grassland ecosystem.

Except that the GIB male performing his courtship display had been doing so for months, without being able to attract a female, according to the forest guards. During the last decade, the numbers seen in Nanaj had come down from 20-30 to a single pair, mirroring trends in GIB population in the rest of the country. The purported reasons for its decline range from increase in numbers of stray dogs to change in grass composition and habitat fragmentation over the years. The few wolves I had seen were part of the five to 10 individuals left in the area that roam the sanctuary and its surrounding areas, seeking out food in nearby villages as well. Blackbuck numbers had also whittled down to 200-odd individuals over the past few years. A grassland ecosystem is in serious trouble. But no one knows why.

Grasslands have historically been one of the most neglected ecosystems in India, despite their tremendous biodiversity and critical role as grazing grounds for pastoral people. In the hue and cry over the disappearance and degradation of forests, the fate of grasslands has been totally eclipsed. There is acrimony over measurement of “closed forest” and “degraded forest”; “open-canopy forest” and “closed-canopy forest”, but no one knows the types and extent of natural grasslands left in the country. Worse, grassland habitats show up as “degraded” or “open scrub forest” or “non-forest” in the satellite imagery used by the Forest Survey of India. This is a tragedy, given that grasslands support livelihoods of pastoralists and play host to some of the most endangered species in India.

There are alpine grasslands in the high Himalayas and flood-maintained wet grasslands in the Terai but the most widespread type are the semi-arid grasslands of peninsular India that stay that way either due to poor soils, low rainfall and/or anthropogenic fire, not following the process of succession to woodland. In the past, such grasslands covered large parts of the country, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Cheetahs, lions, wolves, foxes, nilgais, chinkaras and blackbucks, among other species, roamed these grasslands. Many bird species are specialised to live in this seemingly harsh terrain where temperatures fluctuate drastically between summer and winter. Larks, wheatears, grasshopper warblers, floricans, stonechats, harriers, quails, eagles and sandgrouse form part of a surprisingly rich array of grassland bird groups. Few people realise that grasslands have as many species adapted to living in them as do rainforests or mangroves. The Lesser Florican and the Bengal Florican are two highly endangered birds whose survival is closely linked to the health of grasslands.

Yet this is a habitat that has almost but vanished from India’s landscape. Small vestiges remain. Natural grasslands tend to be located in low-lying and flat areas in alluvial plains and dry plateaus. That is where people most want to settle as well. It is much easier to clear grasslands for agriculture than forests of any kind. People even evolved crops such as millets that could survive the poor soils of this ecosystem.

The number of blackbucks in Nanaj sanctuary is down to 200-odd individuals over the past few years

Even grassland sanctuaries such as Nanaj started small, barely six sq km–– too small to retain their flora and fauna for long. Ecologists world over have shown that small habitat fragments tend to gradually lose species, particularly those requiring large areas, or are highly specialised. The fact that some of the animal species still exist in Nanaj is probably due to the fact that there are large areas of private fallow lands, unused grasslands and agricultural fields around the sanctuary that can support the foraging needs of blackbucks and wolves.

Ironically, the ways in which this habitat has traditionally been over-protected by the forest department have probably contributed to its decline.

Grasslands are ecosystems that can absorb a certain degree of human use and often, thrive upon a moderate degree of disturbance caused by low-levels of grazing, fodder collection and fire. By excluding any and all degree of human use, the managers may unwittingly have brought about the beginning of the end of this ecosystem. This is because of two underlying processes––the constant but low levels of disturbance due to grazing reduces the dominance of a few competitive herb and grass species that might otherwise take over the entire range. Grazing also reduces chances of trees coming up which intermittently colonise and germinate on their own. Yet, over-grazing by livestock can equally well contribute to single-species dominance and spread of invasive weeds that can destroy grasses.

Much research remains to be done, particularly on the aspects related to human use and management. The forest department does not encourage such research, thinking that it is not of much importance to management. However, the department itself has been guilty of manipulating the ecosystem by planting trees in grasslands where they do not occur naturally. Such plantations can completely alter grasslands by shading out grasses and creating habitat for woodland species where there were none.

Nanaj is left with a pair of bustards, five to 10 wolves and few other speciesHuman manipulation is rampant in many other protected areas, and few studies have been undertaken to monitor its effects. For instance, in Kalakad-Mundanthurai sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, controlled fire has been used as a management tool to reduce the dominance of lime grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus), an unpalatable species, to improve forage for wild herbivores. However, long-term studies indicated this practice was instead encouraging the grass species due to the extant ecosystem dynamics. This counter-intuitive result could be discovered only via three to four year-long field experiments.

Any chance of survival of grassland sanctuaries such as Nanaj is further reduced by the complete lack of attention to local socio-economic contexts. Nanaj sanctuary, for instance, has created a hostile farmer community around it ever since it was established. Villagers, unfortunately, see this last vestige of grassland as the reason for their deprivation because no land use change or construction is allowed on the private lands encircling the sanctuary. Further, blackbucks from the sanctuary raid crops in the surrounding farms, causing losses to marginal farmers. Yet, never has the forest department reached out to the public to explain the reasons for freeze in land use or discuss possible compensatory mechanisms for crop damage. Without any local support, it is unlikely that this tiny sanctuary or its species will survive for long.

In 2003, Asad Rahmani of Bombay Natural History Society wrote about the disappearance of GIB from Karera sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. One of the reasons, he said, was the elimination of fodder-collection, a practice that could well have been compatible with bird breeding, given a careful grassland management. After detailed studies, his research group had suggested controlled grass extraction in the post-monsoon period after bird breeding was over. In addition, they recommended setting aside small core areas, protected from cutting, to serve as bird refuges. None of these suggestions were taken on board, leading to disappearance of the species. The unfortunate story of grassland disappearance in India apparently has much to do with institutional and historical factors, and not just biology.

Ghazala Shahabuddin is associate professor, School of Human Ecology, Dr B R Ambedkar University, Delhi

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  • I appreciate your comments.

    I appreciate your comments. generally no one appreciates the negative comments.
    Nanaj is the only place where you can see the GIB with a guarantee indicating that the habitat is maintained and it is endorsed by GIB saying that it wants to protect its territory even when food is less. It also chased the subordinate males to protect its territory.
    The department would like to create more male territories by developing and protecting some other grass lands. Interestingly the same GIB male is going there and protecting that area also. A lot of research to understand its behaviour is required unfortunately the research topics choosen by the people is of not that quality. Hope better work will be done soon in future.
    You have raised 7 points 1. over protection to grasslands 2.reduction in the blackbuck numbers 3.less number of GIB 4. presence of dogs 5. tree planting in the grass lands 6. Allow grazing in a regulated way 7. People,s interaction
    It is a 10 sq.km. area with a mosaic of govt and private areas. where grazing is prevented in 500 ha and grazing is allowed in 500ha For management sake it is required to maintain both kinds of habitats. It is to be seen that in the govt areas grass height remains in between 20-40 cm height in the foraging areas. So the question of over protection to grazing area does not arise in fact we are providing a mosaic of both .
    Black bucks carry the role of regulating the grass height, Dr. rahamani says that because of over protection black bucks are increasing in the area, where as you say that they are declining in the area. the fact is that their numbers remain same and they forage in the fields and take rest in the gib area so it depends on the time of observation
    We do agree that dogs are moving in the area in spite of the best efforts, we have initiated tcm but we are evaluating its effectiveness to continue or discontinue it and we will assess further.
    The Birds have come down over a period of time. 20 years back we had many. I cannot comment but the present estimation is a transparent system where in any one can see it. A population of 11-13 GIB do exist in the area. We could not find eggs and chicks in the last 2 years but we had one young female and one young male Gib indicating that some where breeding is taking place. The Govt is sincerely trying all means to conserve and increase the number the plans are in the planning stage which i can not tell you unless it is approved.
    Tree planting was mostly done before declaring the sanctuary. The department after understanding the need we have restored the grasslands in 50 ha area which you may have come to know during your visit. The process is being continued. Hope this may improve the situation. We need to take care both the habitats for wolf as well as GIB, all are co species.
    Allowing grazing in a regulated way in the govt. lands seems to be good on paper while working on the field it is uncontrollable though we discussed with staff we are yet to formulate a workable strategy. The best way is regulate the ht. of grass if required by the department itself
    We interacted with the villagers frequently. No one is against GIB but every one is against sanctuary. Socio-economic development and Gib requirements- harmonising these 2 is the key for the conservation of GIB
    We welcome all comments, researchers and suggestions. we are sincere in protecting the habitat and GIB. All are welcome to send their comments to wildlifepune@gmail.com
    we have developed a census manual, we have developed a book for children, we have developed slogans on labels to be pasted on the books to reach children, adults, society NGO and politicians. Owing to the collective wish and support of all people ,GIB survived in the area. and it will survive in the area in future too.
    M K Rao, CCF Wl Pune

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Quite an accusing article

    Quite an accusing article that one, with a very hazy point. Grassland systems are perhaps much more complicated to manage than what the author feels. This I say from my 5 months of work in the very sanctuary she has written about. Very conveniently, she has missed out the point that quite possibly a lot of hunting (by specific local communities) happens around there, which I likely feel is the cause for the GIBs declining over the years. With such a low population to start with, every individual lost has made a drastic effect on the viability of the population. This is entirely based on my observations and conversations I've had with locals, but I think this is primarily the reason for an apparent declining GIB or wolf or blackbuck population. Controlling hunting is all the more difficult for the FD, since most species are wide-ranging and one cannot keep track of bustards, wolves or blackbuck in private lands very easily!

    Yes, the historical mismanagement of grasslands by making plantations is an undeniable fact. However, the author's point of over-protection causing grassland decline is quite weak. It is very difficult to have controlled grazing as she suggests, and what do you call low levels of grazing? If the FD even try that, there will be ten other very influential people arguing that the Forest department is not protecting the sanctuary, and this will reduce fodder for blackbuck and so on and so forth. Also, in the absence of cattle, don't we have blackbuck that already do some low-level of grazing? Unless there is some amount of data backing it, it is hard to accept that "overprotection" has been bad. But, I agree with the author's point that studies need to focus on such aspects.

    As far as alienation of local people is concerned and FD talking to the people, she again seems to be wrong. FD has mostly been trying to engage with them to come up with workable solutions. They've allowed water pipelines to pass through the sanctuary, canals to be dug nearby and have also done a fair amount of awareness campaigns. Also, people here can't grow much due to low rainfall, not always roving blackbuck! In fact, I think a recent study (unpublished) found that blackbuck conflict is not very severe here. It is more to do with some ugly politicians that misguide people than FD.

    Also, some factual errors, the GIB sanctuary started out as 8000+ sq.km on paper, which was the problem for no development on 'private' land. In fact, very recently huge chunks of land which were within this sanctuary have been denotified. Now the sanctuary stands at a projected 1222 sq.km, but even this is unmanageable if one looks at the sheer amount of pressures faced from all sides by villages and politico-backed industrial & irrigation projects. Likely the reason why any under-grazed grassland or scrub areas remain today are because they were "over-protected" by the FD, otherwise you would have cattle, agriculture and industries all over. To blame institutions alone, such as the forest department, for current problems plaguing grasslands is unfair.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Interesting article and

    Interesting article and interesting comments. Hope we find the real problem and a real solution.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply