Carved out of rock

By Vinay NaironMar. 10, 2015in Uncategorized

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam website

In two different languages spoken in the west of India, the local word for the plant, Prosopis juliflora (mesquite), has the same meaning. In Gujarati, it is gando bawal, while in Marwari it is simply baavlia, and both names mean “the mad one.”

For good reason too. P. juliflora is a bushy plant species (often a tree at favourable sites) that can survive in broad ecological conditions, including soil types varying from very sandy to clayey to stony to even soils with salinity equal to that of sea water. Add to this the plant’s deep tap root system, waxy leaves that resist browsing, and an ability for vegetative propagation, the species is extremely effective in colonizing semi-tropical and arid land. As a competitor, its extensive root system produces toxic alkaloids that renders its immediate habitat unfavourable for other plant life. Also, since it is an exotic from Mexico, it has few natural competitors.

In India, the species was first introduced in 1877 in Andhra Pradesh, the seeds coming from Jamaica. In the arid Jodhpur city of Rajasthan – where Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is situated – it was first planted in 1913 (Walter, 2011), with the intention of the conservation of those lands degraded by over-grazing. Soon, the species invaded areas both degraded and otherwise, replacing native flora to such an extent that up to 70% of the firewood requirements of rural people in the arid regions of India are now being met by P. juliflora (Harish & Tewari, 1998).

The lands outside Rao Jodha park are overrun by P. juliflora. The typical rhyolite rock of the area is visible in the background.
The lands outside Rao Jodha park are overrun by P. juliflora. The typical rhyolite rock of the area is visible in the background.

The lands outside the desert park are no different. They are overrun by P. juliflora. Given this context, Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park is an illustration of how a fruitful marriage of scientific and traditional knowledge can transform a landscape invaded by an invasive into an oasis harbouring native flora and fauna. The park is owned by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and is spread over 70 hectares – an outcrop mostly of rhyolite rock (distinctive by its flat, red-hued faces) but also some sandy and wet areas.

Rao Jodha Park, fenced partly by the walls of Mehrangarh Fort
Rao Jodha Park, fenced partly by the walls of Mehrangarh Fort

The trust first invited Pradip Krishen in 2005 to explore the possibility of ‘greening’ the areas surrounding Mehrangarh Fort. Krishen, the author of ‘Trees of Delhi’, immediately recognized that to create a park with sufficient biological interest, it would be best to restore the area to a time before the invasion of mesquite. But a ready historical document of what flora existed prior to this invasion did not exist. Krishen employed what is known in the jargon of restoration ecology as a ‘place for time’ swap – the choosing of a place nearby with similarities in weather and underlying rock and soil type – to provide a flora that could be considered native.  Such a place could not be found within the city of Jodhpur which had been similarly overrun by invasives. Instead, Krishen took advice from M. M. Bhandari, the now late professor of desert ecology, who pointed toward the rocky hills and terraces of the Thar desert. There, Krishen would find his species.

Most of these species, characteristic of the park, are lithophytes – plant species with special adaptations for the rocky desert, which is a punishing habitat with low moisture, intense sunlight and extremes of temperature between night and day. These adaptations are varied, from succulence (storing water in tissues) to bearing waxy leaves that reduce transpiration, and from possessing fine leaf hairs that reflects sunlight to conducting photosynthesis through stems. One other novel adaptation is being an ephemeral – emerging in only those times of the year when there is sufficient moisture, out of seeds that have almost indefinitely long dormant lives. 

Before Krishen could bring these species in, however, there was still the original infestation of mesquite to contend with. Since mesquite has vegetative propagation, it cannot simply be cut above the ground but has to be completely uprooted. Accessing its roots in a habitat where the rock is hard and primarily volcanic is difficult. After trying various devices and technologies, the traditional miners of the region – the Khandwalias – came to the rescue. The Khandwalias’ approach was subtler, involving an ingenious method of knocking at the upper rock layer with a hammer and listening to the emanating sounds for clues of the spaces and crevices within, which in turn determined the best angles of attack for digging to weed out the plant. This was a major breakthrough and the Trust immediately employed some 10 Khandwalias to eliminate the invasive from the entirety of the 70 hectares.

They also quickly realized that the spaces originally colonized by P. juliflora and now left vacant by its removal were quite conducive for the introduction of the native floral species.

At present, the exact number of plant species in the park is difficult to ascertain due to the presence of ephemerals, but 300 species of trees, shrubs, climbers and herbs have been documented. Many faunal species like civets, hares, boars, and bird species like the nightjar, Eurasian wryneck and others, have been sighted here. It is not known whether these are resident species or are visitors that use the habitat as they traverse perilously through urban spaces. It is also difficult to say at this stage, less than a decade into the life of this park, whether it is a self-supporting ecosystem. As of this author’s visit in 2012, the park still required regular maintenance and planting work.

This last dimension throws up interesting questions about what allows Rao Jodha to be the kind of park it is, and whether it can be used as a blueprint of restoration for other places. First, the restoration effort effectively illustrates that the dichotomy between scientific and traditional knowledge is perhaps false; it took both the scientific method with its awareness of other ecologies and also the subtle, experience-based knowledge of the Khandwalias to transform the park. Neither on its own would have sufficed. Second, prior to the restoration work in the park, a wall was erected along its periphery, cordoning it off from the many animals that accessed the area for grazing. Without this enclosed protection, it would be difficult for the introduced plant species to establish and survive. Is a park of fragile, native flora incongruent with old-standing, pastoral lifestyles that are still an important part of livelihoods in India?

A third dimension is that of tourism that emerges from something Krishen wrote himself – “The landform and plants have a spare beauty but it is becoming clear that the experience needs to be potentiated for visitors” (Krishen, 2012). Or in other words, small plant species growing among rocks, thorny cactus-like Thor with its briefly visible red flowers, grasses blowing gently in the late afternoon sun, and the continual transformation of a landscape through the seasons are all part of an experience that is a hard sell still to the majority of tourists. It is an experience without much use for 4×4 vehicles or long telephoto lenses – the signposts of the ‘wilderness’ experience, as depicted in popular culture and T.V.

Thor, an important plant that creates a micro-habitat for other plant species
Thor, an important plant that creates a micro-habitat for other plant species

The thorny question then is of replicability. Vast areas of India’s semi-tropical and arid lands have been taken over by P. juliflora – from the suburbs of its northern and western cities to the deserts of Rajasthan and Kachchh and the hot land of Andhra Pradesh where the species was first introduced 150 years ago. Unlike the situation within the park, the plant in these areas has become the dominant source of firewood, owing much to its own invasion. Even if a consensus can be reached regarding its removal and the restoration of native flora, the factors conducive to such an undertaking – the cordoning off of lands from grazing and the availability and affordability of labour for removal – are unlikely to come together.

Yet, Rao Jodha represents the potential for transformation in both landscapes and people – a little oasis carved, literally, out of rock.

References

Walter, K (2011). Prosopis, an Alien among the Sacred Trees of South India. Agriculture and Forestry. University of Helsinki.

Harsh, L.N. & Tewari, J.C. (1998). Prosopis in the arid regions of India: Some important aspects of research and development. In: Tewari, J.C., Pasiecznik, N.M., Harsh, L.N. & Harris, P.J.C. (eds.) Prosopis species in the arid and semi- arid zones of India. Prosopis Society of India and the Henry Doubleday Research Association, Coventry, UK.

Krishen, P (2012). How the ‘Mad One’ tames the desert.

All photos by the author.

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