Restoring the Nilgiris habitat, one acre at a time
Ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco has helped restore native grasslands in around 50 acres at 10 different project sites in the Nilgiris, helping not just native forests rejuvenate, but also the wildlife dependent on them
It was six years ago that restoration ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco began working on restoring and reintroducing native grasses across the Nilgiris. Being among only a handful of ecologists working on highly degraded habitats in the State, he says that his many years of study, and working closely in habitats across the Western Ghats, convinced him of the urgent need to protect the Nilgiris grasslands.
In the years since, Bosco has helped restore native grasslands in around 50 acres at 10 different project sites in the Nilgiris, helping not just native forests rejuvenate, but also the wildlife dependent on them.
“Before the British planted tea, eucalyptus and wattle, more than 70% of the native ecosystem comprised grasslands. There was a lack of understanding about their importance to ecology, leading to most grasslands being converted and destroyed,” said Bosco. While some native Shola forests (tropical montane forests found only in Southern India and Sri Lanka) were left standing for their valuable timber, much of the grasslands were completely wiped out to make way for tea and timber.
After studying the landscape for three years, Bosco set up the Nilgiris’ only grassland nursery at his house in Udhagamandalam. He grows 12 types of native tussock grasses such as Chrysopogon nodulibarbis, Themeda tremula, Andropogon lividus, Dichanthium foulkesii, Ischaemum indicum, Eriochrysis rangacharii and Zenkeria elegans. Almost all of them are “large varieties,” capable of spreading over a wide area and withstanding invasive species, says Bosco.
The 12 grass varieties are also highly endangered, and at risk of being lost forever due to a combination of factors, including habitat loss and the spread of invasive species.
“Grasslands are just as important for native ecology as tree species. Not only are they a source of fodder for large herbivores that populate the Western Ghats, they are also part of hugely complex biological processes that underpin the health of an entire ecosystem,” he says.
Bosco is also growing shola trees and native shrubs in his nursery. Among the shrub varieties, he grows crotalaria, balsams and four types of Strobilanthes (known locally as kurinji). Native shrubs often form the dividing line between a Shola forest and a grassland. “The in-between space is rich in biodiversity, and any restoration project will need a mixture of all these species,” says Bosco.
He has undertaken replanting projects for private homes, estates, government land and local schools. He has also assisted the Forest Department in removing invasive species from native forests, and is a member of the Madras High Court-appointed expert committee on invasive species management.
There is, however, an even greater threat in the Nilgiris today, says Bosco. “Climate change is impacting the Nilgiris in a big way.” Some native species such as the Eriochrysis rangacharii and Andropogon lividus, the most expansive species of native grass in the Nilgiris, have stopped flowering and seeding, which, Bosco says, is due to climate change.
In his recently released book, Voice of a Sentient Highland, Bosco talks of the need for “drastic global level changes” for truly effective local change. There are messages embedded in highland ecologies, he says, that could be key to saving life on the planet. If we learn to listen.
First published by The Hindu on 24 Aug. 2019