Importance of Shola Forest: A critical Observation

 

    Author: Mr Michel Danino ( Author is a well known nature conservationist and Author of many good books on Indian History, Culture and Enviroment. Originally from France, in 1977 he left France for India, where he has since been living. Over the last few years, Michel Danino has given lectures at various official, academic and cultural forums on issues confronting Indian culture and civilization in today’s world. Currently Michel Danino is guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar and visiting professor at IIM Ranchi ) Full Profile

 

                      “My mother is this vast earth….” : Rig-Veda.

For too long the Nilgiris’ natural forests have been suffering from man’s onslaught, with the result that many of them have disappeared, and most of the remaining ones are in a degraded condition. Yet their survival is essential not only to water supply, but also to the existence of wildlife, the stability of soil, the temperance of the climate, and the known, little-known or unknown medicinal plants they harbour. These ancient rain forests, which took millions of years to evolve, are part of our national heritage, and the country will be much the poorer for their disappearance. Natural forests and grasslands are the skin of the earth. They protect it from excessive sunlight, from erosion, from drought as well as flood; they keep the soil moist and rich and support life in myriad forms. Ancient man used to revere the Earth; she was sacred and often a goddess, whether in Greece (Gaia and Demeter), in Scandinavia (Nerthus and Gerd), in Egypt (Geb), in Sumer (Ningursag), for the Mayas and the Aztecs, or of course in India (Bhudevi). This reverence simply expressed the fact that this Earth is our mother, and all living creatures including man were born from her. Almost every ancient culture and civilization, especially the Indian, sang the beauty of the earth, of its forests and streams and mountains.

t But for modern man, who claims to be “cilivized,” the earth is no longer our mother: it is just a nameless piece of matter to be plundered for monetary considerations. The result is the world-wide destruction we all know: man in his folly has been skinning the earth of its forests, particularly for the last two centuries. Let the new generation show a deeper understanding and imbibe something of the feelings of the Ancients. The earth and all her creatures will survive only if man learns again to live in harmony, not in confrontation, with her.

Below are a few observations collected over sixteen years in Longwood Shola, near Kotagiri. These notes are only of a broad nature, not of a strict scientific standard. They can be classified as follows:
I. Biodiversity of flora
II. Biodiversity of fauna
III. Growth of Shola trees
IV. Examples of symbiosis in Sholas
V. Examples of natural selection
VI. Mechanics of Shola degradation and recovery
VII. What makes Shola forests precious
I.Biodiversity of flora Shola forests harbour a very wide variety of flora: not only trees (many of which are endemic species, some specific to a particular altitude or even to a particular area), but also bushes, flowers and ferns of many kinds, mosses, orchids (the last three found both as epiphytes and as ground varieties), lianas, bamboo reeds, creepers, many types of grass in the streams and swampy areas, and a large number of mushrooms and fungi. Each of these plants, from the biggest tree to the smallest moss or fungus, plays an important role in the eco-logical cycle of the forest.
The forest is the totality of these plants, not just the trees. As a general rule, the higher the altitude, the smaller and the glossier the leaves of the trees, because the trees require less foliage area to capture light. A simple road travel from Kotagiri to Mettupalayam is enough to ascertain this rule. Apart from native species, exotic bushes and weeds are often found in Sholas; they usually invade mostly the fringe areas, and grow scarcer towards the interior or the better preserved areas. A few exotic species of trees, mainly wattle, pine, cypress, are found also in the fringe areas, where they have often spread from nearby plantations and gardens. They grow in competition with Shola species, as they ordinarily suck up much more water than Shola trees, and tend to impoverish and acidify the soil.
II. Biodiversity of fauna Fauna has nowadays become less conspicuous than flora, and is all the more striking, especially the bigger animals: deer (only the barking deer in Longwood Shola), monkeys (bonnet macaque), wild cats, wild boars, wild rabbits, the rare Nilgiri marten, the fairly common Malabar squirrel, porcu-pines, and of course, the bulky bison found roaming in and around the Shola (only since 1991). Temporary visitors may include a rare leopard and some jackals.
Among the species that have vanished from Longwood Shola is the bear, which was still seen some thirty years ago. Since sightings of wildlife are growing increasingly rare owing to the degradation of the Shola and of the nearby hills, a good habit is to carefully observe the tracks, especially after rains, and also the droppings. Below is a list of birds actually observed in and around Longwood Shola over the years, starting from the bigger in size (this list is of course incomplete, and one or two species may be inaccurate, as observed birds are not always found in books) :
1. Common birds : grey jungle fowl, pond heron (migratory, March to July), shikra, jungle crow, crow-pheasant (not very frequent, more on the fringes), one or two species of quails, spotted dove, blackbird, golden-backed woodpecker, green barbet, jungle babbler, common babbler, rufous babbler (?), Nilgiri laughing thrush, parakeet (one or two species, green, probably seasonal), hoopoe, chestnut-headed bee-eater, scarlet minivet (these last three birds are actually found around the Shola rather than inside), red-whiskered bulbul, magpie robin, pied flycatcher shrike, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, Nilgiri verditer flycatcher, grey-headed flycatcher, yellow wagtail, blue chat, warbler (probably several species), black-and-orange flycatcher, grey tit, spotted munia, white-eye, small sunbird.
2 .Rarer birds : Eagle (exact species unidentified: brown feathers, white breast and yellow-greenish broad face, about 50 cm high when perched, probably seasonal), one species of large owl (brown wood owl or eagle owl?), one species of smaller owl (jungle owlet?), imperial pigeon (very rare, probably maroon-backed, perhaps migratory), Nilgiri wood pigeon (very shy, more easily seen on fringes), blue-headed rock thrush. Finally, attention must be paid to the smaller yet important animals, such as the small (and rare) jungle squirrel, bats, frogs, toads, snakes (very rare), and of course insects in their thousands. The latter range from stunning butterflies, impressive scarabs, beetles and bees, to centipedes (including one big brown species which rolls up into a lovely marble when disturbed), and down to nearly invisible thrips (over 2,800 varieties, possibly up to 20,000 according to experts!). Again, each of these animals plays a role in the forest life. Most birds, for instance, could not survive without both insects for food and trees for shelter. A few examples of symbiosis below will illustrate this point further. The forest has over million of years of evolution reached a harmonious equilibrium with all these animal species, each of which contributes in its own way to the life of the forest.

III. Growth of Shola trees Shola trees are mostly slow-growing species (except for the Vicky tree and one or two other species). A Shola tree may typically take some five years to reach a height of 1 to 2 metres and a diameter of 3 to 5 cm. If chopped off at this stage (up to a diameter of 10 to 15 cm, not beyond), it will usually sprout again — but then it will grow even more slowly. This means that any full-grown tree will be at least fifty to a hundred years. Many trees in any healthy Shola will be several centuries old, and a few (at least three or four in Longwood Shola) may well exceed five hundred or a thousand years. It is not uncommon to come across a tree whose trunk is completely empty, and which yet lives on thanks to the sap in its bark. Shola trees are as slow-dying as they are slow-growing. Unlike fast-growing exotic species (e.g. eucalyptus, wattle), Shola species absorb very little water for their own growth. Their vast root system can thus retain rain water in a soil made loose by insects, fungi, wild boars, etc.

Also, since almost all Shola species are of non-deciduous type, they constantly shed leaves, which considerably enriches the soil by creating humus, and helps maintain its loose texture. Note how Shola trees have very few side branches; in fact they tend to shed them as they grow up. Most branches are directed upward, in an attempt to reach or re-create the canopy.

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The taller species unite in an effort to build up this canopy: even if some neighbouring trees are on different ground levels, they will still try to maintain the same level at the top. Also, nearby trees will usually not allow their foliage to interpenetrate: each tree will stop sideways growth as soon as its branches encounter those of another tree. This is a mute and striking convention of the Shola. (More below on the importance of the canopy.) Most Shola trees are propagated through seeds; a few species however can be seen sprouting from the roots. Also, trees fallen while still young some-times shoot up again, and the new shoots can eventually become independent trees!

IV. Examples of symbiosis in Sholas Certain seeds of Shola trees can have difficulty sprouting. Their germi-nation is often easier once they have been eaten and rejected by birds or monkeys or squirrels. In that way, animals repay their debt to the forest. Other visible examples of symbiosis include the work of insects, birds and even wild boars in loosening the soil. Woodpeckers help trees to shed dead bark (squirrels too, sometimes). Bees and butterflies help in cross-pollination. Certain insects and fungi also accelerate the decay of dead trees or branches. This decay is essential to the forest cycle, as it returns to the soil the nutrients accumulated in the tree over decades or centuries. Hence the need not to deprive the forest from “dead wood”; it may be dead, but it will turn into new life. If fallen trees are constantly taken away, the soil of the forest will become impoverished.
V. Examples of natural selection Natural selection is always at work in any natural environment, whether we notice it or not. A forest is the result of thousands or millions of years of such selection. Species unsuited to the specific conditions of a forest will tend to be eliminated. In a Shola, for example, young trees are used to growing in half shade (if for any reason they happen to grow in full sunlight, their young leaves will often turn red, as a protection from the stronger and warmer red wavelengths). So any species which needs strong sunlight to grow will have been eliminated from Sholas. Similarly, any insect too harmful to trees will not find it possible to survive in a Shola in the long term, as the trees will develop chemicals distaste-ful to such insects. (Scientific research carried out in the Amazonian rain forest has established that trees attacked by virulent insects send out chemicals in the air to “warn” the neighbouring trees, which develop distasteful chemicals in their sap and leaves within minutes.) That is why trees in a natural forest are usually much healthier than man-made plantations or agricultural growth. Shola trees will have few of their leaves eaten by insects, and also few parasitic plants growing on them (contrary to wattle, for instance). On the other hand, their leaves will often be affected by fungus blights, whose growth is encouraged by the semi-dark and damp condi-tions; but the trees have learned to live with such fungi, and their highest leaves are probably free from them. Finally, natural selection can be seen at work in some very thickly wooded areas of the Shola (more on this below). Young trees closer to each other than one to two metres will not all be able to survive: only the sturdiest species will reach their full height, choking the others in the process.
VI. Mechanics of Shola degradation and recovery: Degradation When an old tree falls, the time needed for the gap in the canopy to close up again depends on the availability of younger generations. In a partly degraded Shola (such as Longwood Shola), some of the younger generations (typically of 20 to 40 years) are scarce or, in some places, absent. This means that to close up the clearing caused by the fall of an old tree will take much longer than it should. Some twenty years ago, for example, Longwood Shola had few gaps in its canopy; now it has plenty (and few areas with an intact canopy). That is the most visible sign of degradation. The role of the canopy is not only to provide a cover to the younger trees, plants, and fauna. By blocking off much sunlight, it also prevents water evaporation and therefore preserves water and maintains moist conditions. Finally, it protects the grown trees too by preventing wind penetration: the mass effect of a dense Shola foliage is to break up the force of the wind. The more and bigger the gaps in the canopy, the greater the destruction caused by the wind. Last year, which had many weeks of very strong wind (in July-August), there were dozens of “windfalls” in Longwood Shola, including of some healthy middle-aged trees. This means in turn bigger clearings. Damage to the canopy therefore results in all-round damage to the forest: it triggers a cumulative process of degeneration. For the canopy to be reconstituted, it is essential to allow young trees to reach maturity undisturbed.
This is clearly a challenge, as it demands several decades of serious protection, failing which such Sholas will degenerate into jungles of shrubs. Another sign of degradation is the presence of undesirable undergrowth in exposed areas: various thorns, creepers, shrubs and weeds (exotic or not), all of which grow faster than trees, vie with each other and tend to choke the growth of young trees. 2. Recovery The most striking observation to be made in a degraded Shola is its uncanny ability to sprout a vast number of saplings of different species in the most affected areas. In Longwood Shola, some areas where the canopy no longer exists can be seen to be very thickly planted with fifteen- to twenty-year-old trees, sometimes every three of four inches! How this spontaneous growth takes place is something of a mystery, but clearly the forest as a whole is react-ing to what it perceives as a dangerous condition. (This can also be seen in the Longwood Shola extension, north of the main Longwood Shola, which is a beautiful but badly degraded Shola.)
By contrast, healthy areas covered with a good canopy will have saplings emerging every few feet or so. Paradoxically, therefore, a greater density of young trees often indicates a degraded condition. In the long term, only the cessation of human interference can help Sholas to regenerate. Planting of saplings is useful only where no saplings come up spontaneously. One desirable human interference is the removal of all exotics, whether weeds, shrubs or trees. Beyond this, the forest will know how to repair itself, if left alone long enough.

VII. What makes Shola forests precious Sholas are precious not only as unrivalled water sources. They also attract the rain, by sending a considerable amount of transpiration back into the air through their dense foliage (this transpiration acts as a catalyst for rain clouds). They break the force of wind, rain, drought, and thus temper the climate. They provide a shelter to thousands of animal and vegetable species, which have as much a right to exist as ours. They hold a store of medicinal plants, many of which are still little known. In short, these forests are part of the skin of the earth which man has recklessly tampered with in almost every part of the globe. Our ability to save them will be the measure of our true worth as human beings.

 

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