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Friday, May 31

Road project threatens to wipe out rare plant species in Arunachal Pradesh

An ongoing road extension project near Aka Hills in Arunachal Pradesh in India may wipe out a rare medicinal plant found only in the Aka Hills, fears botanists working in the area. 

Aka Hills, Gaultheria akaensis, rare plant, arunachal wildlife, BRO, border Roads Organisation
Aka Hill race of Gaultheria akaensis
Photo Courtesy: Dr.
Subhasis Panda)
According to Dr. Subhasis Panda, an Assistant Professor  at the Angiosperm Taxonomy & Ecology Lab at the Post-Graduate Department of Botany in Darjeeling Government College, the plant - Gaultheria akaensis - has been reported so far from the Aka Hills of Arunachal Pradesh only. It is found in moist rocks covered with humus at an altitude of 1800 meters. 

“Since its discovery in 2002 (December), only one small population observed near left bank of the Bridge, 3 Km from Nechephu 27 KM toward Tenga Valley in Aka Hill area. ”, he says. Now the population has declined. Field surveys conducted by scientists at the Botanical Survey of India and Forest Department of Arunachal Pradesh since 2002 have failed to locate a second population of the same race of the plant elsewhere, said he. 

According to him, the new Highway Extension project carried out by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in the area, threatens the only known habitat of the plant. 

Present threats
According to a recent research paper published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa, the threats to the plant are multi-fold. The extension of the highway “has already started from the Bhalukpong area and is proceeding towards Aka Hill area.” says the study. Moreover, a hydroelectric project coming up in the area is also a severe threat to the existence of the plant, it says. 

According to the research paper, detailed explorations in the Aka Hills and neighboruing countries like Nepal, Bhutan and China has failed so far to report the plant. Currently, only two plants of the species are known to survive. Very less seed germination in the small population has already put the plant under threat while the habitat destruction has added to the rate of decline. 

The Darjeeling race
However, according to botanists, another race of the plant is present in Darjeeling hills, though they are not the exact race found in Aka Hills. Diplycosia indica, a plant found in Darjeeling, was earlier believed to be a separate species, but later identified as another race of Gaultheria akaensis.

West Kameng,  Arunachal Pradesh map, Aka Hill map
Location of West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh
 According to Dr. Panda, who has made extensive studies on the plant, the Arunachal Population (Aka Hill race) is somewhat different to that of ‘Darjeeling race’. “Arunachal race has ovate to ovate-elliptic lamina, but Darjeeling race has elliptic lamina”, which make them different, he said. Darjeeling race of Gaultheria akaensis has 4 to 5 smaller populations observed till date (Lame Dura, Meghma, Gairibus, Kaiankanta). According to Dr. Panda, Lamedura population is somewhat larger with 15-20 individuals.

Existence of different races does not decrease the threat to the Aka Hill race, say experts. There is a “need to conserve both races, but conservation of Arunachal race is urgently required”, says Dr. S. Panda.

Medicinal properties
Aka Hills situated in the West Kameng District is inhabited by Aka tribes. The tribes use the plant for therapeutic purposes. According to the study in the journal, the tribes mix the leaf extract of the plant with that of another plant to treat rheumatic and sciatic pain. “Tender leaf extract [of the plant] mixed with G. fragrantissima leaves (1:1) applied to cure acute rheumatic and sciatic pain by the Akas”, says the study.

 “Aka tribes used extract of leaves of this plant to cure rheumatic pain earlier. Now, they are not getting this plant for their use. But earlier (as per elderly tribal people at Jamiri) Akas used this plants. During that time the plant was abundant in and around Aka Hill area (may be 200-300 years ago)”, says Dr. S Panda

Possible alternatives
Though the road project is yet to reach the area where the plants exist, the threat is imminent, say researchers. However, according to them, making slighter change to the present extension plan can help save the plants. Instead of going for the present extension project, BRO may try repairing the earlier road stretch, suggests the researcher. 

“As the whole Aka Hill area is harbouring more than 500 Threatened taxa, so for the purpose of effective conservation, BRO should avoid road extension from SESSA to JAMIRI (40 KM), instead they can repair the earlier road without extension”, said Dr. S Panda. The presently proposed extension works may damage this area of high biodiversity significance, he added.

However, BRO officials were unavailable for comment. A mail sent to their official id was left unanswered. (We will update the story, once we get any response. Stay tuned.)

Saturday, May 18

High Time to Formulate Policies to Tackle Alien Species in India, says experts

It’s time for an all-out war with the aliens, at least in the protected forest areas, but we lack policies, says a group of conservation scientists in the country. Invasive Alien Species (IAS) of plants are the second largest threat to the diversity of the forests, behind habitat fragmentation, but the conservation policy makers are yet to swing into action to tackle the issue, alleges a group of scientists while reviewing the status of IAS in the country and related conservation laws in India.

Lanatana Camara, flowers,Lanatana Camara flowers, invasive plants, alien plants, invasive alien species
Lanatana Camara flowers
Image courtesy: Obsidian Soul/Wikimedia Commons
According to an article written by them in the Current Science journal, plants like Chromolaena odorataLantana camaraMikania micranthaMimosa diplotricha and Parthenium hysterophorus are some of the major invasive alien plant species in India which are spreading rapidly in protected areas (PAs), suppressing the growth of the native flora. The alien menace has affected birds, animals and has not even spared the tribal populations depending on forests, it says.  “Large numbers of forest dependent communities still depend on forest resources and their livelihood is at stake due to pervasive landscape alteration by major IAS in different parts of India,”, says the article.

Lack of policies and distorted interpretations
Though the threat and impact are high, most of the protected areas in India do not have a clear and active eradication programme to tackle IAS, mainly because of lack of awareness among wildlife officials and their twisted interpretation of the conservation laws in the country. Wildlife (Conservation) Act, 1972, which is the major legislation regarding protected areas in the country, prohibit harvesting or removing any plant or animal materials from the PAs. This is raised as a major reason by protected area managers for not taking active eradication programmes against invasive plant species.

Chromolaena odorata
Image Courtesy: 
Ashasathees/Wikimedia Commons
Moreover, the Protected Area managers and policy makers are yet to understand the importance to eradicate IAS. Most often, the notions of the officials often end up encouraging exotic species. “Their (PA managers’) species selection for plantations is based on three criteria: (a) fast growth, (b) good timber value and (c) unpalatability to game species. These criteria encourage the planting of exotic species …….in effect replacing one IAS with another alien species”, points out the write-up. According to it, some of them even think that IAS likeLantana are good for the animals since it give them cover to hide. But they forget that “such a role was played by indigenous understorey species prior to being replaced by vast swathes ofLantana, now dominant in many PAs”, it says.

How to eradicate Invasive Alien Species?
Removal of invasive plants from an area of infestation is not an easy job, since most of them show extra-ordinary abilities to reestablish themselves in the areas. “The seed bank of the major IAS remains and hence reinvasion occurs rapidly. Some IAS, such as Lantana, which are buried deeply can be stimulated to germinate when exposed to light and fire”, says the experts.

Presently, whatever nominal eradication programmes run in some protected areas are very narrower in their nature since they focus only on removing the IAS for the purpose of making fire lines. However, there is a need to develop early detection mechanisms to spot the menace when it begins so that the eradication is easier, constant monitoring to prevent spread of the IAS and resulting forest fragmentation.

Lantana Camara, invasive alien plants, invasive plants in himachal pradesh, invasive species in india, threats to biodiversity, biodiversity threats in india
Lantana Camara growing rapidly suppressing native plants in a farmland in Kangra District, Himachal Pradesh 

Manual removal is the best practice so far observed to tackle the menace, according to the article. Though it is very effective in small areas, it may not be so for large areas since the estimated cost of manual eradication is anything between 4000 to 5000 Rupees per hectare. But implementing any such measures on a wide scale may not be possible in the absence of legal provisions to facilitate it.

However, there is a possible way out, according to the experts. According to them, the issue can be raised with the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) which can submit recommendations and suggestions to review existing conservation legislation to tackle the issue. So the ball is in the court of conservationists in the country. “We see a compelling case for scientists/managers to approach the CEC for clear guidelines and exemptions regarding programmes for the vigorous control and removal of IAS from the PAs.”, says the article.

Tuesday, May 7

Soma plant a fit veggie for troops in cold deserts, says Indian Defence research

Indian troops deployed in the drastic terrains of the cold desert in Leh may look forward to get a new item in their menu, as the defense researchers find that Soma (Rumex patientia), a common plant found in high altitudes, can be used as a vegetable. According to researchers at the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), a division of the Defence Research and Development Organisation ( DRDO), Soma is fit to be used as a vegetable in cold desert areas where cultivation of common vegetables are not supported.

Rumex patientia, soma plant, vegetable in cold desert, cold desert, leh plant
Rumex patientia (Image Courtesy: Current Science)
According to a research correspondence published by DIHAR researchers in Current Science Journal, the leaves of the plant is rich with protein, fats, oil, crude fiber and carbohydrate which makes it a fit as spinach for common people and military personnel in the cold deserts areas like Leh and parts of Himachal Pradesh. “It (the plant) has the potential to meet the green leafy vegetable requirement of local people and troops deployed in Ladakh. It may also contribute towards development of products for helping in acclimatization and improved performance of especially the low-landers under high-altitude cold desert conditions.”, says the correspondence.
Soma plant is more productive than actual spinach, says the correspondence. “It grows fast and produces more biomass in a short period than spinach even in stony, sandy and less fertile soils”, it says.

Unlike the dietary benefits, the medicinal properties of the plant are rather known for years. It is used in traditional medicine systems as well. According to the researchers, the roots of the plant were used for the treatment of variety of ailments like pain, inflammation, bleeding, ringworm infection, tumour and constipation in Chinese folk medicine. Practitioners of Tibetan traditional medicine also utilize the plant for medicinal purpose. Several chemical compounds found in the leaves are the reason for the medicinal property, says the correspondence.

The researchers claim that planting soma will be beneficial to the environment also since it fights soil erosion and desertification. “It is beneficial for soil and water conservation, protects desertification and contributes towards land reclamation in the fragile cold arid ecosystem of Ladakh”, says the correspondence. 

While the plant is capable of surviving extreme temperatures, it can grow in arid, water logging conditions also. During April and August, about 300 to 900 grams of leaves can be collected in 7 to 8 pickings from an average plant, according to the researchers. The research correspondence also calls for mass cultivation of the plant in the cold desert areas.
During the study, the researchers have collected 40 seed samples of the plant and has preserved in the National Permafrost Facility at DIHAR. Narendra Singh, J. S. Arya, S. B. Maurya, R. B. Srivastava of Defence Institute of High Altitude Research, Leh-Ladakh have co-authored the correspondence.