Missing the grass for the trees in Western Ghats

Headline : Missing the grass for the trees in Western Ghats

Decline in grasslands
  • There has been a drastic decline in shola grasslands (which are stunted forest growths of diverse grass species) and it seems to be accelerating through the decades.
  • Earlier in 1973, shola grasslands spread across 373.78 sq.km. of the landscape, four decades later in 2014, it had shrunk to just 124.4 sq.km., marking a 66.7% decline.
Reduction of forests
  • The reduction has also been seen in native shola forests.
  • There area has declined by a third to 66.4 sq.km.
  • However, the shola forests decline seems to have been arrested since 2003.
Reasons for decline
  • Lower priority: Departments are mostly involved in managing forests, either for conservation or a source of income and the grasslands continue to be viewed as lower priority or grassy blanks.
  • Timber plantations: In place of these grasslands and forests, timber plantations have thrived.
  • Agriculture: Agriculture and fallow land have increased three times to 100 sq.km. in the past four decades.
  • Invasive species: The use of satellite imagery also revealed the nature of the growth of plantations.
  • Till the 90s, it was a policy push for plantations.
  • After the settlement of Sri Lankan refugees, it seems to be a natural march of invasive species such as prolific-seed-producer, Acacia.
Effects of decline in grasslands
  • Threat to endemic species: As grasslands vanish or become more fragmented, local flora and fauna, particularly endemic species such as Nilgiri Pipit, is under threat.
  • Extinction of local birds: There has been local extinction of the bird, particularly when compared to the sightings during the British Raj.
  • The grasslands are in trouble, much more than the forests.
  • It is important to preserve whatever patches are remaining and push back invasive species.
  • Tackling this would require ecological understanding rather than a knee-jerk reaction of harvesting invasive trees which (counter-intuitively) ends up actually accelerating the spread of Acacia.
Shola Grassland
  • Shola grasslands are rich store houses of biodiversity and also home to extremely rich wildlife.
  • These consist of dwarf trees growing 25-30 feet.
  • Vegetation is double layered storey with closed canopy which hardly permits a single ray of sunlight to penetrate in the natural vegetation.
  • Nilgiris upper region is classified as southern grassland mountain grassland.
  • Mountain vegetation consists of patches of stunted evergreen forest.
  • Sharp ecotone between the shola and grassland structure has been attributed to prevalence of forest fire.
Flora & fauna of shola grassland
  • Flora & fauna of shola grassland are unique.
  • These are home to most of the birds endemic to western ghats.
  • Black – orange flycatcher, Nilgiri pipit, Nilgiri laughing thrush and mammals like Nilgiri langoor and most endangered species Nilgiri Tahr.
  • The grassland is being rapidly closed in by various woody exotic species for example lantana camera, ulexeuropaeus, Acacia mearnsii, Schoch broom and wattle.
  • These plants are not native plants of the grassland.
Shola forests
  • Shola forests are tropical Montane forests found in the valleys separated by rolling grasslands only in the higher elevations.
  • These are found only in South India in the Southern Western Ghats.
  • The trees never grow on the mountain tops.
  • The Shola forests are very rich in bio-diversity when it comes to plants.
  • There are at least 25 types of trees that dominate these forests in the Nilgiri Hills.
Palani Hills
  • These are a mountain range in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
  • These are an eastward extension of the Western Ghat ranges, which run parallel to the west coast of India.
Section : Environment & Ecology