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Indian Savannas are NOT Wastelands

Read time: 6 mins
Indian Savannas are NOT Wastelands

Photo credit: Karthick Bala

Tropical savannas, replete with large expanses of grasslands, are often misclassified as wastelands. According to a recent study, these ecosystems are home to several plants not found anywhere else on earth.

The land is a finite resource. Although India accounts for about 18% of the world’s population, it is only 2% in terms of land area. This has led to a notion of categorising all available land as either being productive or otherwise. The Department of Land Resources, under the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, estimates that approximately 68.35 million hectares of land in the country is lying as ‘wastelands’. And that 50% of these are in non-forest lands, which, when ‘treated’ appropriately, can be made ‘productive’. These degraded, non-forest wastelands are typically landscapes with grasslands having a combination of open scrub, often having rocky outcrop or open canopy ecosystems. Just that they remain uncultivated, making them ‘unproductive’ and thus called ‘wastelands’.

Ecologists are now disputing this notion of ‘wastelands’ as these landscapes considered as Indian savannas are also part of ‘Tropical Grassy Biomes (TGBs)’. A new study published recently (22 Jan 2022) in Biotropica, highlights the importance of Indian savannas and demystifies certain myths surrounding them. The popular imagination, even among ecologists, has been that endemic species are primarily found in biodiversity hotspots like the forest biomes of the Western Ghats or the Himalayas. However, this study argues that the Indian savannas are also unique ecosystems thriving with endemics. The team of researchers, A. Nerlekar, A. Chorghe, J. Dalavi, R. Kullayiswamy, S. Karuppusamy, V. Kamath, R. Pokar, R. Ganesan, M. Sardesai, and S. Kambale from different states contributed to this study.

To ascertain this, the researchers have reviewed an exhaustive list of floristic and taxonomic sources spanning various spatial scales from the national to the local level up to September 2020. For analysing them, they have compiled a list of species described in these ecosystems based on their discovery date; elevation and precipitation; latitude and longitude of the type locality; functional type classification; plant height; range size; and flower and inflorescence length. The researchers have also looked into the discovery patterns in these landscapes both over time and space.

Savannas, too, have endemics

This study reveals at least 206 endemic plants in this region, represented by 47 families, with 201 were angiosperms and five gymnosperms. The study points out that of all the endemic plants recorded, 17 are reported to be threatened by the risk of extinction in the IUCN Red List, and most newly discovered species await a formal assessment.

So clearly, we have been misrepresenting Indian savannas for a long time, remarks Ashish Nerlekar, the lead author of this study. Reasoning why we may have overlooked them, Ashish Nerlekar says, “First is due to the colonial legacy, we still think that these savannas are degraded forests that house negligible endemic species. Second is the lacking appreciation that these are ancient ecosystems worthy of conservation. While the forests have received considerable attention, savannas are barely recognised today as distinct ecosystems. Third, researchers have conducted disproportionately more biodiversity studies in the forest biomes, assuming there's nothing much of value in the savannas.”

More to discover

In addition, they have also analysed the discovery patterns of the endemic plants. They find that  the discovery rate of the endemic plants in the Indian savannas is exponential and shows no signs of flattening, indicating a significant proportion of undescribed species. Furthermore, the researchers predict that 633 and 912 species would be described by the 2050s and 2100s, respectively.

Indian savannas are ancient ecosystems rich with endemic plants, and botanists are yet to discover several plants. Vignesh Kamath, a co-author of the study, notes that, “Future endemic plant discoveries are likely to be small-statured species in high elevations of the Eastern edge of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats mountain ranges. Based on these findings, more field studies and conservation efforts need to be directed to these regions - this could lead to many more new endemic species discoveries.”

Mistaken identity

In another study by M D Madhusudan, independent researcher and Abi Tamim Vanak, Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, they have mapped the distribution and extent of these landscapes, including savannas, deserts, rocky outcrops, calling them Open Natural Ecosystems (ONEs) using Google Earth Engine. They have also prepared an interactive map of ONEs available here: https://tinyurl.com/open-natural-ecosystems. They estimate that they occupy over 300,000 sq km or 10% of India’s landscape, which is also closer to the estimate by the Department of Land Resources, classified as ‘wastelands’.

Madhusudan notes that by representing these as ‘degraded’ or ‘waste’ areas, it ends up looking reasonable to target them for climate change mitigation activities such as establishing renewable energy projects such as solar and wind farms or ‘reforestation’ projects for carbon sequestration. “Ironically, such measures pose a further threat and prove to be detrimental to the biodiversity of these landscapes. As a result, we are losing such ecosystems at a far greater pace than rainforests, compromising the survival and habitat of their endemic species,” he remarks.

Further, Vignesh points out, “As a consequence of mistaken identity, large scale land conversion and tree planting in the wrong places is leading to rapid loss of savannas. We hope that our findings will help recognise the importance of Indian savannas and bring more attention to protecting these biodiverse ecosystems”. Thus, those promoting tree planting, including the forest department and ‘conservationists’, need to rethink the damage being done on these natural ecosystems.

Time to rethink on ‘Wastelands’

Madhusudan argues that these ecosystems support millions of pastoral and agro-pastoral communities who graze their livestock in these areas. Therefore, it would be a very narrow and wholly inaccurate way to think of them as wastelands. Ashish points out that this also stems from the colonial forestry legacy that only valued landscapes with trees that provided timber and the rest naturally tree-less landscapes, including grasslands as of low conservation value.

Ironically, the Department of Land Resources, Government of India has a program called ‘Integrated Wasteland Development Programme’ that is proving to be counterproductive and threatening the savannas and thus many endemic species found in these ecosystems. They have also prepared a Wasteland Atlas of India mapping out such lands, which are mostly the open natural ecosystems.

Going by the recent studies, it is only prudent to scrap such programs and the notion of wastelands itself, and refocus on conserving the Indian savannas too, which have been systematically degraded by human intervention.

Ecologically, there are no wastelands.


Editor’s Note: An edited version of this has been published in Deccan Herald earlier.

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.