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Tuesday, April 30

Rare plant rediscovered after 75 years from Kallar Valley in Western Ghats of Kerala

Researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute has discovered an elusive plant - Ophiorrhiza barnesii, which was thought to be ‘possibly extinct’ since its first discovery, from Kallar Valley in Idukki district of the Southernmost Indian state of Kerala. According to a journal article about the discovery published in the latest issue of the Journal of Threatened Taxa, the plant was last reported 75 years ago, in 1937 by British botanists.

Ophiorrhiza barnesii, rare plant, western ghats plants, flora of western ghats, kallar valley, idukki district, rare plant rediscovery
Ophiorrhiza barnesii, a rare plant
 rediscovered from Southern Western Ghats
According to sources, the researchers accidentally zeroed in on the plant while making a collection of threatened plants of Southern Western Ghats for ex situ conservation. The discovery now throws light into the still to be explored floral richness of Western Ghats, which is one of the eight hottest hot-spots in the world. The plant is one among the 20 members of the Ophiorrhiza genus found in the state of Kerala.

‘Possibly Extinct’
It was in 1939, that the plant was first described by a British botanist C E C Fischer based on two collections made by another British Botanist Prof. Edward Barnes. Both of the two specimens were collected from Kallar Valley during 1937. However, the plant has remained elusive since then with no further collectors or researchers reporting the plant from any other part of the state. According to researchers, subsequent botanical explorations even considered the chances that the plant may be possibly extinct by this time.

However, the rediscovery now puts it in the class of the rarest plants found in the Southern Western Ghats. To confirm the authenticity of the claim, the researchers reportedly compared the present specimen collected form Kallar Valley with the specimens in the earlier collections preserved at Royal botanic Gardens, Kew in London.

The Elusive plant of Western Ghats
The elusive plant is just like any other casual plant you may find in the Western Ghats with its perennial erect herb nature. Usually found as part of the under growth in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats at an altitude of 1200 to 1600 meters from the mean sea level, the plant bears small white flowers. The flowering and fruiting season of the plant falls in the September to December period.

According to researchers, the plant is also found along the banks of the streams in the forests. It is found “usually associated with Sonerila wallichii, Ophiorrhiza roxburghiana, O. barberi, Elatostemma sp., etc”, says the research article.

However, with the rediscovery, researchers are raising doubts about the identity of another rare plant of the same genus found in Western Ghats - Ophiorrhiza falcate. Described by British naturalist Beddome in 1861 from the Anamalais, the plant resembles O. barnesii, in its description.

Flowers of Ophiorrhiza barnesii, rare flowers, flowers in Western Ghats,
Flowers of Ophiorrhiza barnesii
However, rigorous searchers in the specimen collections in the foreign herbariums where the collections from pre-independent India are kept failed to trace back the original specimen based on which Beddome described the species. 

“Unfortunately, searching the specimens at The British Museum, Natural History (BM); Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (K) and The National Herbarium, The Netherlands (L) also became futile.”, says the researchers.

Researchers seriously doubt that both the species should be one and the same; however, without detailed surveys at the Anamalais, it will be too early to speculate in that direction, say the researchers.

After the discovery, now a specimen of the plant is preserved at the herbarium at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in Palode in Thiruvananthapuram. The researchers have also added some individuals of the plant to the gene pool that is developed in the institute as part of ex situ conservation of wild plant varieties.

E.S. Santhosh Kumar, P.E. Roy, and S.M. Shareef from Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala have co-authored the study.

Thursday, April 18

Fighting the aliens at Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) is not just a safe haven for the tigers, but for some aliens too, in the ecological sense. African cat fish (Clarias gariepinus), one of the most dangerous invasive alien species, is lurking in the Periyar Lake, raising serious threat to the rare fishes found only in Periyar, say researchers. To bring a twist to the story, PTR is going to have the first of its kind action against exotic fish species in Western Ghats as a group of researchers and activists are aiming to manually remove African cat fish from Periyar with public participation.

African Cat Fish, Clarias gariepinus, invasive fish, alien species, biological invasion, periyar tiger reserve
African Cat Fish (Clarias gariepinus)
Image Credit : W.A. Djatmiko (Wikimedia Commons)
According to Conservation Research Group- a research and activist platform based in St Albert’s College in Cochin- which organises the exotic fish removal campaign at Periyar Tiger Reserve, the endemic fishes found in the Periyar Lake are severely threatened by the biological invaders like African Cat fish, which inspired them to organise such a crusade against the alien fish species of PTR.  “Eight endemic fishes in Periyar Lake are fighting for survival as their only remaining habitats are threatened by several stressors of which biological invasion is the most significant one.”, says an official statement from the group.

Importance of Fish fauna in Periyar Lake
An on-going Rufford Foundation supported project to study the impact of alien species in Periyar Lake points out that the fish fauna in the Lake are very unique and valuable. “It (The Lake) holds the only remaining population of six globally threatened endemic fish species viz. Crossocheilus periyarensis, Garra periyarensis, Hypselobarbus periyarensis, Lepido pygopsistypus, Nemacheilus menoni and N. Periyarensis”, it says. According to an IUCN report on the Status and distribution of freshwater biodiversity in the western Ghats, Lepido pygopsistypus  is the only member of its subfamily of snow trout fishes to be reported from south of Himalayas.

According to the researchers, there are four exotic fish species found in Periyar Lake which comes under the reserve among which African Cat fish is the most dangerous one when it comes to threat to native species. Cyprinus carpio, Oreochromis mossambicus and Poecilia reticulate are the other exotic fish species found in the Periyar Lake Stream System (PLSS). Recent studies have indicated that the population of these exotic fish species are showing an increase which means that the threat to native species is growing. “C. carpio and O. mossambicus now dominate the fishery of Periyar Lake and are known to compete with endangered species such as L. typus and Crossocheilusperiyarensis”, says a recent study report issued by IUCN.

The invasive species have swept away many native fish species found in the lake earlier. During the last 50 years, at least 16 fish species earlier found in the lake has disappeared, say researchers.

Fighting the Aliens
African Cat fish in Periyar Lake and other freshwater ecosystem in Western Ghats is the usual story of an introduced species turning viral threat to native species. African Cat Fish was once widely used as a farm fish in Kerala and elsewhere for its rapid growth. It soon became very popular with its ability to survive in a range of water qualities and to devour anything from slaughter house waste to standard fish foods. However, the alarm started ringing when some of them have escaped through the natural water channels from fish farms during monsoon and reached the fresh water systems in Western Ghats. 

Exotic Fish removal campaign, Periyar Tiger Reserve, invasive species, conservation research group
Exotic Fish removal campign at Periyar Tiger Reserve
The IUCN report has suggested that “the biggest future challenge to fish conservation in PLSS will be the management and control of C. gariepinus, whose opportunistic strategy and ability to establish large and persistent populations makes it an imminent threat.”

To fight the alien menace, a workshop conducted by researchers and forest officials at PTR in December 2012 has decided to take pro-active action against the invasive species. Field work has revealed high population of African cat fish in the canal draining into the Lake. The authorities and researchers are planning to net out the exotic fishes from the canal and manually remove the exotic fishes from the Lake. The organisers of the event were not available for immediate comment. However, according to an official invitation, the programme is scheduled on April 29th and 30th of this month. 

Tuesday, April 16

New Stone Loach Species Discovered from Silent Valley National Park

Far-famed for the silence of the cicadas(though now they are aplenty) and the endemic Lion Tailed Macaque, the Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, India has just got another endemic organism to its credits, when researchers identified a new species of stone loach from Kunthippuzha which flows through the National Park.
Balitora Jalpalli, new stone loach species, Kunthi River, Silent Valley, Western Ghat fishes
Balitora Jalpalli, new stone loach species  from Kunthi River in Silent Valley National Park
(Image Credit: Josin Tharian)
According to a study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, the new species of Stone loach differs from its close relatives in head length, caudal peduncle depth, maximum head width and in the number and pattern of bands on the dorsal side.  It has a different number of ventral fin rays and pectoral fin rays than its close relatives also.

Water Lizard of Kunthi River
The newly identified fish belongs to the genus Balitora, and is named as Balitora Jalpalli. According to the authors of the study, the fish was named so for its lizard like characteristics. 'Jal’ means Water and ‘Palli’ means Lizard in the local language, making ‘Jalpalli’ equivalent to ‘Water-lizard’. It “refers to the lizard like appearance of the fish, and its habit of clinging to the rocks in fast flowing streams,” says the study. According to the researchers who have conducted the study, the newly identified stone loach can be commonly called as Silent Valley Stone Loach as well.

The researchers were able to spot the fish from Valleparathodu, near Poochippara from the Kunthi River which is a tributary of Bharathappuzha, a major river in the state. According to the study, this habitat is a high altitude stream which is usually inhabited by other fishes like Mesonoemacheilus remadevii, Homaloptera pillai, Bhavania australis and Garra menoni.

Genus Balitora consists of 11 to 12 species of fishes so far among which two were reported from Kerala. The new species discovery makes the Balitora strength in state to three.

Conservation Significance of Western Ghats Rivers
The identification and description of B. Jalpalli from Western Ghats comes on close heels to a similar species discovery from Krishna River, yet another major river in Western Ghats. Researchers have identified and described another species of Balitora - Balitora Laticuda - from Krishna River in 2012. These new discoveries point out to the rich but unexplored aquatic fauna of Western Ghats Rivers and the exigency to conserve the freshwater ecosystem in the region.

However, habitat destruction is rampant in Western Ghats Rivers due to anthropogenic pressure. According to the study, immediate conservation efforts and taxonomic explorations should be carried out in the area to unearth the unraveled marvels of biodiversity here. “The description of one more species of freshwater fish from the Western Ghats reiterate our views that the ichthyofauna of the region continues to be poorly known and is in need of increased exploratory surveys and associated taxonomic research”, say the researchers.

Rajeev Raghavan and Anvar Ali of Conservation Research Group (CRG), St. Albert’s College, Kochi,
Josin Tharian of Laboratory for Systematics and Conservation, Department of Zoology, St. John’s College, Anchal, Shrikant Jadhav, Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and Neelesh Dahanukar of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) co-authored the paper in the Journal of Threatened Taxa..

Wednesday, April 10

Biodiversity Conservation in India

India is home to forests with rich wildlife. However, being the second most populated country in the world, the enormous pressure of the exploding human population of the country is shrinking the forests, wiping off the rich fauna and flora. To conserve the remaining greenery and the rare life forms, India has made efficient in-situ conservation programmes to conserve ecologically important areas by regulating human intervention. These efforts have established a protected area network in the country within this period.

Protected Area Network in India

Forests and Wildlife are included in the concurrent list by the Indian constitution which holds federal states responsible for implementing the policies formulated by the Centre to conserve forests and wildlife. In India, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) formulates the policy framework for forest and wildlife conservation. The board, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, has formulated and adopted National Wildlife Action Plan in 2002, which will extend till 2016.

Sambar deer, Rusa unicolor, Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka wildlife, Indian wildlife
A Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) at Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka, India
According to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), India has 668 protected areas in the country, as of 2010. However, they together constitute just 4.90 percent of the total area of the country. Among these, 102 are National Parks, 515 are Wildlife Sanctuaries, 47 are Conservation Reserves and 4 are Community Reserves.

The terms are indeed confusing and often rake up unnecessary issues  when used by scaremongers.

What is a National Park?
According to Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, a National Park should be an area with enough ecological, geo-morphological and natural significance, obviously, with rich fauna and flora. Central Government enjoys the freedom to declare any specific area in the country a National Park, but often based on the recommendations made the state governments. A National Park is declared to protect, to propagate and to to develop wildlife or its environment. Actually the major difference between a National Park and other protected areas is that the rights of the people living inside the limits of a national Park are often tightly regulated. While grazing by livestock inside a national park is strictly prohibited, removal of forest produce needs recommendation from National Board of Wildlife.

What is a Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS)?
Agasthyamalai, Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala wildlife, kerala forest
One of the peaks of Agasthyamalai ranges as seen from Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala

Though a WLS is again an area with zoological, ecological and geomorphological importance and with rich fauna and flora, it has certain differences with National Parks and other protected areas in India. Despite the fact that it is declared by the Central Government to protect wildlife and to develop natural habitats, the rights of the people living inside the limits of the sanctuary differs very much from other PAs. Comparatively, people living inside the limits of a Wildlife Sanctuary have more rights than their counterparts within a National Park. It is also allowed that the District Collector, in consultation with the Chief Wildlife Warden may decide to allow the continuation of any right during the settlement of claims.

Conservation Reserves in India
Unlike NPs and WLS, a conservation Reserve is declared by state governments. Usually the area will be owned by the government and lies near to Wildlife Sanctuaries or National Parks. These often function as a buffer zone for a protected area or a link which connects two protected areas together. However, an area will be declared as Conservation Reserve only after holding adequate consultations with the local people. (In fact, that happens with the other PAs also.) There are no regulations on the rights of the people living inside a Conservation Reserve.

Community Reserves in India
Again, declared by state government, a Community Reserve can even be privately or community owned land declared so when an individual or community volunteers to conserve the area and its natural fauna and flora. Apart from protecting the natural habitat and environment, Community Reserves may also protect cultural values and practices related to the area. There are no regulations on the rights of the people living inside a Community Reserve. Till date, there are only four community reserves in the country - Kokkare Bellur Community Reserve in Karnataka, Kadalundi- Vallikkunnu Community Reserve in Kerala (both are for conserving birds), Lalwan Community Reserve and Keshopur-chhamb Community Reserves in Punjab also.

Biosphere Reserves (BRs)
Biosphere Reserves are another term which often pops up when it comes to biodiversity conservation in India. However, unlike NPs, WLS and Community or Conservation Reserves, BRs are larger in their areas, and are not formed according to the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

According to MoEF, BRs are “areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems which are internationally recognized within the framework of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme of the UNESCO.” Thus, Biosphere Reserves may have one more national parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries in it.

While National Board of Wildlife is the apex body to decide on National Parks, The Indian National Man and Biosphere (MAB) Committee constituted by the MoEF is the apex body in the case of BRs in the country.

In India, the programme was started in 1986, with which so far, 18 sites have been declared as Biosphere Reserves (BRs). However, out of the 18 BRs, only eight has been accepted as part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves of UNESCO.  They are

1.            Nilgiri (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka) 
2.            Gulf of Mannar (Tamil Nadu)
3.            Sunderban (West Bengal)
4.            Nanda Devi, (Uttarakhand) 
5.            Pachmarhi (Madhya Pradesh) 
6.            Similipal (Odisha) 
7.            Nokrek (Meghalaya) 
8.            Achanakmar-Amarkantak (Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh) 

India has submitted a revised nomination for Great Nicobar (Andaman & Nicobar Islands) also. 

You can have a look at the MoEF document about the protected area network below.