Friday 13 November 2020

Lost and found: The story of a plant and how a village is trying to protect it

 In a village called Lathedi in Kutch, amid the semi-arid landscape, a small patch of land has been fenced with thorny branches by the local community. The aim, they said, was to guard a precious species of plant that has been re-discovered in Gujarat after a gap of 104 years. Olax nana—the plant species—was last reported from the Saurashtra region in Gujarat in the early 1900s and has since not been found during various surveys.

“Re-discovering this vanaspati (plant) in our Lathedi is a matter of pride for us,” said Jitubhai Jadeja, a local community member, “This is why we are extremely cautious to save this plant and hopefully see it propagate to a bigger area.”

The Olax nana plant that has been re-discovered in Gujarat after 104 years. Photo by Pankaj Joshi.

Finding the lost plant

Olax nana is a low undershrub, up to 60 cm tall, and is listed as a threatened species in the Gujarat Biodiversity Act. It was last reported from the state’s Porbandar district in 1910 and had since not been seen in subsequent surveys, including by the Botanical Survey of India.

“I was personally working in this area (in the Saurashtra region) between 1996 and 2003, but did not see this plant species,” said P.S. Nagar an assistant professor at the botany department in The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda said. The exact reason behind the disappearance of the plant species in the region is not yet ascertained.

In 2015, however, during an “extensive study on endangered and threatened species of plants in Gujarat”, said Nagar, Olax nana was re-discovered near Lathedi in Kutch. There were 43 plant specimens in a 100 square metre area.

Pankaj Joshi of the NGO Sahjeevan, which was part of the team that found the plant species in Lathedi, said that due credit must be given to the village BMC—Biodiversity Management Committee—whose members, along with others from the NGO, brought him the first sample to be identified.

“I first saw the sample at night—it was a dry piece and I was almost sure that it was Olax nana,” Nagar told Mongabay-India, “The next day, we went to the place.  And there, in a patch of grassland, it was re-confirmed that Olax nana has been found again.”

New, but old

The news spread fast, but the local community could not really relate to the excitement and jubilation. “We had no idea what this plant was, or what was its name in our local language,” Jadeja said, “Not even the elders of the village have any idea about this plant. But how could we? The plant was missing for more than a hundred years!” Slowly, with awareness activities organised by Sahjeevan and the village BMC, men, women, and children understood the significance of finding this missing plant near their village. It instilled a sense of pride.

But there was a basic question: what was its name in the local language?

“It took us nearly a year to figure out the plant’s local name,” Jadeja said, “We asked the elders, others in the locality; finally, with the help of local Ayurveda practitioners, we found out its name: Sudiyo.”

The work of the BMC

Once the name was found, the BMC members put up a signboard near the plant patch, elaborating the significance of its rediscovery after more than a century and the importance of its conservation. BMC is an initiative of the National Biodiversity Authority, which is the nodal agency to implement the provisions under the Biological Diversity Act 2002.

The idea behind forming BMCs at the local level is to involve the local community in promoting conservation and sustainable documentation of biological diversity. Preparing and updating the People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR), which details biological resources and traditional knowledge, is also a function of the BMCs.

The Lathedi BMC was therefore formed following the same agenda under the Gujarat State Biodiversity Board. The state board had, in 2011-12, identified different technical groups like Sahjeevan to identify, to help train and involve the local community members in the formation of BMCs.

Local community leader Jitubhai Jadeja with Olax nana. Photo by Jitubhai Jadeja.

In Lathedi, the BMC also visits the local primary school in the village and talks to the children about the importance of conservation—not just of Olax nana, but of all flora and fauna. Giving an example, Joshi said that once a group of students from MS University had come for a field visit to see the Olax nana plant, soon after its rediscovery.

“We were supposed to accompany them to the field from Bhuj (the nearest city, 90 km away) but got stuck with some other work. So I asked them to go to the village and ask anyone about the plant,” he said, “They were sceptical, but on reaching and then enquiring, a group of children took them to the area and told them about the plant. That is the level of awareness among the children.”

Conservation: different methods, one aim

Although it was lost—and found—in Gujarat, Olax nana, however, has continued to be reported in other parts of India—Assam, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, and Punjab. “It is not an abundantly found species but what makes this plant biogeographically interesting is its presence in a diverse landscape,” Nagar said.  “Unfortunately, not enough efforts are put in search and conservation of rare plants. They definitely need more boost.”

The local community in Lathedi has taken the conservation work of the ‘re-discovered’ Olax nana upon themselves. Photo by Pankaj Joshi.

Exploring different means of conservation, Joshi said that they are in talks with MS University about tissue culture of this plant in order to help its propagation in a wider area. “It (the talks) is an ongoing process. In the meanwhile, we have also started approaching private labs for tissue culture,” he said.

Nagar, however, opined that in-situ conservation—conservation of an endangered plant or animal species in its natural habitat—is the ideal route. Ex-situ conservation means relocating an endangered plant or animal species from their natural habitat to protected areas equipped for their protection and preservation.

The local community of Lathedi, however, is doing what it can to protect and preserve the plant species from possible harm.

“Most of us here and in Kutch are pastoralists; I have a dairy business and have 10 cows,” Jadeja said, “This means is that we have a lot of grazing animals around and the Olax nana plants are threatened by goats and other animals. So we have put a fence around the patch with babool tree (Gum arabic) branches that are very thorny.”

It is not a permanent structure and overtime—in monsoons particularly—the fence gives away. But the locals keep an eye out and put the branches back. They have also requested Sahjeevan to help put up a wired fence. “The number of plants has not increased. We found around 43 and they are still around the same number,” Jadeja said. “It’s not possible for us to do seed propagation in new areas. That is for the experts to do. But we are happy that Olax nana is flourishing here. A lot of students from far off places come to see these plants; Lathedi has become famous.”

(Source: Mongabay)

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