It was around 2007 that Mohammed Dilawar, a sparrow conservation activist, realised how difficult it was to find a native Indian plant species for his home in Nasik. Nurseries were selling foreign species in abundance, but native ones had just disappeared. Over the years, his massive sparrow conservation efforts had taught him that the deterioration of sparrows and plants went hand-in-hand.
Ten years since, Dilawar’s nursery, based in Nashik, is richer by 400 varieties of desi plants. This is all thanks to a systematic species recovery programme that he and his organisation, Nature India Native Plant Research, have aggressively implemented in various parts of Maharashtra.
“We have created 25 city forests that with a large species index of native plants species which will become refuge for biodiversity having a large ecological spill over effect. The beauty of these plants is that all of them are indigenous alternatives to non-native ones. For example, we replaced Hamelia with Woodfordia Fruticosa (commonly known as the fire-flame bush), Cascabela Thevetia with Nerium Oleander, and so on,” Dilawar tells The Better India.
“India has a large diversity of native plants exceeding over 35,000 species. Common house sparrows, bees and other bird species have declined, because their primary habitat is missing. Native plants evolve over thousands of years in a particular region as per local climatic conditions, soil, etc, and are a significant part of the balance of nature. They provide leaves, stem sap, nectar, pollen, fruits and seeds that serve as food and shelter for butterflies, insects, birds and other animals. Due to lack of awareness and scientific knowledge, people tend to underestimate the flora around them, which is known as “Plant Blindness”. This can pose disastrous consequences for not only the environment, but also for their health,” says Chief Botanical Officer, Varun Sharma.
Before we delve into how Dilawar and his green crusaders are achieving this impressive feat, it is important to understand why native species need to be restored before they are irrecoverably lost.
Why is there a decline?
Native species play an integral role in keeping the ecological balance in check. Since they are suited to the regions, they require less maintenance, thus ensuring healthy growth. They act as gene pools for the ecosystem, and provide valuable food security to birds.
According to a 2017 Down to Earth report, 77 of the 387 Indian plants listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List are ‘critically endangered’ and six are ‘extinct’. The same report also states that over a 100 tree species in the Western Ghats are threatened or critically endangered. These alarming figures reflect the reality of every region in India, whether it is Mumbai, which has 75 per cent non-native trees, or Uttarakhand, where 8 species are critically endangered.
Several reasons can be attributed to this, right from unchecked deforestation to unplanned concretisation, illegal extractions, biotic interferences, excessive use of insecticides, fires, and climate change.
“We need to trace our history in order to eliminate the root causes. First, non-native species penetrated via the British invasion, and now the builders are responsible for this. To integrate concepts like lawns and botanical gardens inside the complex, they use non-native plants to enhance aesthetics. Landscape architects have brought in biodiversity from across the world, but this has been at the cost of our desi plants. Farmers-turned-nursery growers are also responsible for this. We have systematically thrown out ecological diversity and paved the way for mass-producing trees,” Dilawar says.
Bringing back native species
After creating a team of experts, desk researchers and volunteers, Dilawar spent nearly seven to eight years on research. The team travelled to several parts of India to study the species, soil structure, habitats, geographical conditions, characteristics and nature of species. They collected and sampled seeds and saplings.
The exercise is ongoing and the team has collected various species of herbs, shrubs, algae, lichens, climbers, palms, grass, ferns, orchids, wildflowers, and so on. Some rare species include Canarium strictum, Vateria indica, Erinocarpus nimmonii, Arenga wightii, Corypha umbraculifera, Pinanga dicksonii, Albizia amara and Albizia odoratissima.
If this was an excruciating exercise, there was another challenge that awaited them, “We made a checklist of plants but procuring them from local nurseries was a daunting task. Many owners couldn’t even identify native from non-native plants. This slowed our progress,” Dilawar says.
Once there was a sufficient collection of saplings and seeds, Dilawar and his team executed their first restoration project on Wipro’s 35-acre campus in Pune in 2015. When they started the plantation drive, the campus had 24 native species. Within a few months, it boasted of 240. “We saw seed dispersal of the native plants through birds. The ecological spill effect led to an increase in bird and butterfly population. It was a wonderful learning experience,” he says.
After Wipro’s positive result, the organisation tied up with various government departments, NGOs and private companies in Mumbai, Pune, Palghar and Nasik to build 25 high-density forests of plant native species. Each forest has a minimum of 40 native species.
To ensure that the growth of the plants is healthy, the organisation looks after the maintenance for two to three years, till all plants have matured enough to sustain on their own. Then, the protection and maintenance is handed over to the company or government department. The survival rate of all our forests is above 95 per cent, says Dilawar.
Apart from planting forests, the green warriors also sell native saplings in their nursery. These saplings are couriered to those residing outside Nasik. “The reason we are keen on supplying the sapling to individuals is lack of awareness. A majority of plants sold in commercial nurseries — which are spread across the length and breadth of the country — are non-native plants that play little to no ecological role. We have 400 species in our nursery and our aim is 5,000,” Dilawar says.
Through consistent efforts, Dilawar and his team have ensured that ecological balance is restored, and these native plant species, that have gone long neglected by us, find their rightful place in our environment once again.
All images are sourced from Mohammed Dilawar.
Edited by Divya Sethu