Country’s disappearing grasslands

Mistaken, ignored

The shola-grassland mosaics of Kudremukh National Park. Photos by author and Chetan Misher

Grasslands include all-natural and semi-natural pastures, woodlands, scrublands, and steppe formations dominated by grasses and grass-like flora.

Mistakenly called wastelands, these dynamic ecosystems regulate water quality and climate, regulate nutrient cycling, sequester carbon, and provide resources for pastoral communities and wildlife. Many common food crops like wheat, corn, and millet originate in grasslands.

Grasslands occupy approximately 24% of India’s geographical extent. Most grasslands in India are anthropogenic in origin, evolving under the influence of fire, grazing, floods and droughts, and the clearing of forest cover.

Woody plant species and invasives compete directly with grass species in grasslands for light, soil nutrients and water. These issues make it important that scientists and policy-makers focus on managing anthropogenic and invasive influences on grasslands.

Two of India’s celebrated grasslands are the Banni grasslands of Gujarat and the shola-grassland mosaics of the Western Ghats. What follows is a brief exploration of the characteristics of and threats to these two ecosystems and a call to action to ensure their future.

The Banni grasslands

The Banni grasslands begin at the southern edge of the marshy salt-flats of the Rann of Kutch and cover 3,487 sq km. Banni was formed over time by sediment depositions by the Indus River. The damming of rivers that formerly drained the excess salt into the sea, livestock overgrazing, and the spread of the invasive Prosopis juliflora also shaped this ecosystem.

Dams across Banni’s former life-giving rivers have caused water shortages and increased soil salinity. Given the harsh conditions here, most grass species are salt-tolerant, and vegetation is sparse. The wildlife is hardy too and includes the nilgai, chinkara, blackbuck, jackal, wolf, caracal, desert fox, and a small population of the Asiatic wild ass.

During the monsoons, several marshlands form here, attracting hundreds of species of migratory birds, including flamingos. However, studies have found many wetlands to be polluted by chemical effluents from industries at Banni’s borders.

Recently, permits have been handed out to more industries to open chemical plants in the Rann of Kutch, on the assumption that the salt-flats are uninhabited and thus wastelands. This poses threats to the ecosystem of Banni and the larger Rann of Kutch region. Further, degradation of the land surrounding this delicate ecosystem must be stalled if Banni is to persist.

Shola forest-grassland mosaics

The shola forest-grassland mosaics of the Western Ghats comprise small patches of shola (stunted tropical montane) forests set in a bed of undulating grasslands. They are found in the high-altitude hillsides of the Nilgiris, Anaimalai Hills, and other patches of the Western Ghats. They generally evolve at elevations over 2,000 metres above sea level. Due to their altitude and isolation, shola-grassland mosaics are home to many highly endangered, endemic wildlife, including the rare Nilgiri tahr.

This system is characterised by the frost-and fire-resistant grass species. Major threats to this ecosystem are invasive species, many of which are introduced due to surrounding commercial plantations.

One commercial invasive is eucalyptus, which was introduced for the tannin industry. Invasives spread quickly, preventing the growth of native flora, and affecting the ecology of herbivores, and consequently, their predators. Sholas are maintained by periodic fires; however, excessive burning has led to the proliferation of invasives and the shrinkage of forest patches. They have a high water retention capacity and are a source of water for many organisms, streams, and rivers in the Western Ghats. Thus, conserving this rare ecosystem is of immense value.

Conservation, not degradation

Grasslands are dwindling as development and agriculture join forces to meet the needs of our growing population. This adversely impacts soil and water quality, ecosystem services, and biodiversity.

Resource competition with domestic livestock has reduced populations of grassland ungulates; retaliatory killing due to livestock depredation has endangered grassland carnivores like the wolf.

Grasslands are the last home of the Great Indian Bustard, which is approaching extinction, with a global population of less than 150 individuals. Grassland degradation and low-hanging power lines are the main causes of these dwindling
numbers.

Colonial foresters saw grasslands as degraded forests and transformed them into exotic tree plantations between 1820 and 1937. They persisted despite the failure of native tree species to establish in grasslands, planting nearly 2,00,000 exotic seedlings near present-day Ooty and Wellington. This led to the impression that grasslands must be reforested or converted to more “productive” land usage. Colonial forestry focused on utility and believed that grasslands formed due to forest degradation from unsustainable grazing and fires by tribals, which led to a century of grassland forestation schemes. Grassland destruction caused a severe drop in the population of the Nilgiri tahr, which dropped to 100 individuals in 2007. 

Our country is changing rapidly. As rainfall patterns shift and more rivers are dammed, grasslands risk becoming deserts. Other anthropogenic threats include fragmentation, conversion to plantation, and land-filling as settlements encroach on grasslands and formerly-pastoral communities adopt a more sedentary, agricultural lifestyle. 

The precarious situation of India’s grasslands is aptly summarised in the Task Force Report on Grasslands and Deserts submitted to the Planning Commission of India.

It states, “Grasslands are not managed by the forest department whose interest lies mainly in trees; not by the agriculture department who are interested in agriculture crops; nor the veterinary department who are concerned with livestock but not the grass on which the livestock is dependent. The grasslands are the ‘common’ lands of the community and are the responsibility of none.

They are the most productive ecosystems in the subcontinent, but they belong to all, are controlled by none, and they have no godfathers. Our grasslands are perhaps one of the best examples of the Tragedy of the Commons in the ecological world today.”

(The author is Research Associate, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru)

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