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Every tree has a story – it is time to listen!

Read time: 5 mins

Photo: Vignesh Kamath/Research Matters

During our childhood, trees were one of the few things that always held a special place in our hearts. They came alive as characters in many bedtime stories – benevolent and gracious. The urge to carefully preserve every fallen leaf between the pages of books seemed unstoppable – no matter what. Their serene shade invited us to play through the endless day, until our legs were too tired to stand on their own. Each tree had a story to share…

Enter urbanization, the gentle giants made way to flyovers, roads and grand buildings, snatching away those precious memories in the process. While most of us acknowledge that we have recklessly cut down the trees around us, none of us may have an accurate answer to questions like ‘how much of the green cover did we lose in the past decade’ or ‘how many trees were cut in the last year in a city like Bengaluru’. Pinning numbers to these questions instantly become a challenge!

But why is such trivial information so hard to find? Blame it on the data, say experts. For one to precisely answer these questions, adequate data about the number of trees that existed in the past and that exist today, along with their location, needs to be recorded. Unfortunately, not many thought this data to be an important one to maintain. Until now, that is. Thanks to some forms of ‘tree census’ across the country, the gap is slowly closing.

Today, there are a few organisations and institutes that conduct regular tree censuses to monitor trees around them. But who accounts for those that line the roads or the one in your backyard? This is where a widespread participation from not just researchers and nature enthusiasts, but from common citizens like you and me, become necessary – to count every tree and tell their story!

The ‘Neighbourhood Tree Campaign’ (NTC) is one such opportunity that helps everyone to track trees around and connect with them. Started by the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP), this citizen-science initiative aims at mapping trees across the country with the help of ordinary citizens. “The whole idea is to sensitize the community about the plants and trees around their surroundings”, says Dr. R Ganesan, Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

The humble beginnings of the Neighbourhood Tree Campaign

Started in 2014, NTC is an annual event that sees enthusiastic participation from people in all walks of life, mapping trees in their neighbourhood. The procedure is similar to uploading your favourite photo on social media. Using a simple smartphone application, users click a few pictures of a tree, its leaves, flowers, fruits and other details, and record its location on the map in the app. This information is then sent to IBP and ecology experts take a look at the images to identify the tree, its species and the family it belongs to. In addition, interested researchers and public can use this data to learn more about the biodiversity around them.

In its first edition, the campaign registered a total observation of over 3300 trees from 584 participants resulting in the identification of 680 species of trees – both native and exotic. In addition to tree mapping, a few partner organizations conducted tree walks to help communities appreciate the biodiversity around them.

Subsequent campaigns have seen a steady growth in the number of participants and observations coming from across the country. In 2015, the campaign started to collect additional data on phenology, uses and folklore associated with the tree observations. By 2016, the campaign had successfully identified a total of 2623 species, with most of them having a dedicated page on IBP. This growth signifies that the campaign might soon reach its objective of documenting all tree species in India, with at least one image and one location associated with it.

For 2017, the Neighbourhood Tree Campaign started on the 22nd of April and is currently underway until the 30th of April, and the numbers are already impressive. As per the website (http://treesindia.indiabiodiversity.org/show), there are close to 16000 observations by about 1300 users! The participants definitely seem to be gathering all the steam to contribute towards mapping trees, sharing a story close to their heart, and helping researchers and conservationists with the much needed data. What’s more, you could also win a prize by contributing the most number of observations or the best story!

A tree census, unlike peoples’ census, is a low-key affair. In spite of the limited resources, campaigns like NTC have shed light on the numbers of many tree species endemic to India. Each year, trees like neem, areca palm, sacred fig, copperpod, gulmohar, mango, jackfruit, Indian banyan, African tulip, cluster fig and silver oak figure in the top observations.

Citizen-science: The power of numbers

The success of all citizen-science initiatives, like NTC, rests on citizens or common people who come together to make a difference - either by collecting data or analysing them. Driven by large populations spread across the length and breadth of the country, these initiatives leverage the power of people, rather than depend on a few individuals and organizations to catalyse a change – be it monitoring trees or watching for frogs.

In the recent past, India has seen a wide range of citizen-science initiatives gaining momentum due to a mix of global and local activism, and the awareness about environment among the general public. The India Biodiversity Portal, Season Watch, Sparrow Watch, Frog Watch, are all examples of initiatives that have used the eagerness of citizens to contribute towards conservation, help collect valuable data and monitor a wide variety of biodiversity. Apart from IBP, other organizations like Gubbi Labs, Wildlife Conservation Foundation and Nature Conservation Foundation offer similar opportunities for everyone to contribute to this growing knowledge base.

There is a strong perception about science being the realm of scientists and researchers, usually off-the-limit for general public. But, with active participation from citizens in such initiatives that are open to all, this perception is slowly changing. In fact, involving the public has resulted in tremendous results -- the recent discovery of Karaavali Skittering Frog in the Western Ghats, or the 80-odd exoplanets in our galaxy -- are all testimony to this. It is now time to use this power, not only to innovate and discover but also to preserve and protect. In the face of a warming planet and looming climate change, it is perhaps time to step up our efforts to save the last green corners of the Earth.