So this summer I had the good fortune of spending ten days in the Western Ghats, as my absence from this blog might have indicated. Specifically, I was in a town called Valparai – famous for its lion-tailed macaques, elephants, and hornbills. But what I was doing there actually had nothing to do with any of those things.
What I was doing was seeds.
Valparai is a hotchpotch of coffee plantations, tea estates, eucalyptus – and immensely valuable primary and secondary rainforest, though as is the pattern worldwide, the latter two are growing more and more steadily into a fragmented minority. And therein lies the key: fragments. As in patches, unconnected stands of trees, broken up even further with roads that are in themselves an even greater danger for inhabiting wildlife.
Fragments have a tendency to degrade even faster due to a phenomenon known as the edge effect. It’s simple math: large areas of forest have a smaller perimeter than the same am area broken up by roads and plantations and the like. So therefore, those broken up areas have even more of their edges exposed to the sun and the wind and the rain. In most rain forests, the edges are composed of hardy buffer trees that thrive on such conditions. But when a road exposes an edge in the interior of the forest, the buffer trees are no longer present. At best, a host of hardy invasives spring up in the newly formed clearing. At worst, or perhaps anyways, trees used to the dark, cool forest interior are exposed to the outside for the first time.
And that’s far from the only resulting complication. Animals residing in separate areas of forest can no longer breed, due to the slight issue of a giant highway separating them. Precious genetic diversity is lost in the process, and interbreeding amongst the small, isolated populations remaining reduces it further. Extinction can often result from simply that alone.
So all very happy stuff for the future of our planet. But sarcasm aside, there is actually good news, at least as far as Valparai is concerned. There, an organization known as the Nature Conservation Foundation is working to restore these fragments.
That’s where I came in. For ten days, I helped out with this project in what ways I could – and while my accomplishments were minimal, I nevertheless got the chance to see the bare bones of one of the most (over)used words in wildlife: conservation.
Here, it came down to seeds.
The first part of the process is collection. Year round, they go to various places – coffee plantation trails, the roads lining the edges of fragments, and the like – and look for seeds. What they want is native trees. And by collecting a variety of seeds in different seasons, they ensure they get future plants capable of withstanding an array of conditions.
I assisted with collecting, grossly misidentifying most trees and avoiding leeches (which I have to say I really don’t miss in mammal-poor Singapore). Our yields varied – from jackfruit to figs – and once we had returned, then came the next part: planting.
Which is exactly how it sounds. The seeds, once obtained, have to be grown into viable saplings at least a meter high; they have to be protected from squirrels and the raiding monkeys; weeding has to occur frequently to ensure they aren’t out-competed by any others – it’s a lot of work. All this occurs in the Nursery (capital letter courtesy of moi), which is the hub for restoration activities.
Once the saplings are appropriately large, they’re moved out of the Nursery to a nearby plot to harden – to get used to the outside environment, to survive without care like in a real forest. And after that – well, after that comes what makes it worth it.
Once a year, come June and July, the work really begins. Obtaining land from one of the surrounding coffee or tea estates, they take hardened saplings (which are usually one or two years old by now) in their thousands aaaand plant them. They select them based on what they can withstand – water-loving trees for swampy conditions, high-altitude trees for hilltop locations, and so on – thus maximizing their chances of survival. With enough luck and a little weeding, a few years later they have a thriving secondary rainforest where previously was sometimes nothing, or perhaps just Eucalyptus. These ‘new forests’ provide corridors between fragments, restore the health of old fragments, and generally take a step closer to making the place something what it was like a few hundred years ago – healthy, thriving rainforest, largely devoid of humans.
And it all starts with this.
All photographs were taken and edited on a smartphone.