Dr Gajanan D Muratkar is popularly known as the ‘grass man of India’ for his pioneering work in habitat and meadow development.
He has been credited with establishing a meadow development technique in which field staff and officials are involved in identifying local grasses, preparing a seed bank, creating mother beds, and introducing local grasses systematically to create meadows.
He has used this technique to create meadows in several Tiger Reserves and Protected Areas in 12 states across the country. “Grasses,” says the botanist and professor at Sipna Education Society’s Arts, Science and Commerce College at Chikhaldara, Maharashtra, “are the architects and engineers of our forest ecosystem.”
He has been awarded the Satpuda Landscape Tiger Partnership (SLTP) Conservation Hero Award for his work in grassland conservation efforts in the central Indian landscape.
“I am a professor and teaching and research has always been my primary duty. But I have found my passion in grasslands development work,” says Dr Muratkar.
Grasses — architects of forest ecosystem
Studies on grasses are rare in India, says Dr Muratkar, who did his PhD research on ‘Ecological and Environmental Study of Grasses of Melghat Tiger Reserve’.
“People give more importance to forests than focusing on grasslands, which in fact are directly associated with wildlife. Grasses play an important role in soil moisture conservation, water conservation, micro, and macro habitats and are the basic producers of the forest ecosystem.” he says.
“There are basically two types of grasses — soft and coarse — and three types of grasslands or meadows — smaller, intermediate and taller, with each having its own ecological significance. The smaller grasslands are useful for grazing habitat, intermediate is for hiding and grazing, and taller grasslands are for breeding, hiding and nestling habitats.”
For this reason, he opines, it is integral to conduct studies and research on grasses.
A model replicated in 12 states
A botany scholar, Dr Muratkar has been working as a professor of environmental science for the past 25 years. His research during his PhD was a starting point for him to explore the scope of grasslands.
“After finishing my research, I decided to work on wildlife habitat management, which also involves grassland development, management, and conservation. It was during the same period that I was assigned a project at the Melghat Tiger Reserve to restore wildlife habitats in areas where a few villages were rehabilitated,” he recalls.
With this, Dr Muratkar started his journey in 2008, with converting agricultural lands with invasive species into grassland habitats. This was where he developed his grasslands development technique, he says.
“It involves a lot of steps, starting from studying soil parameters, identifying grasses and weeds to training forest staff and frontline workers in meadow development,” he says.
His work at Melghat Tiger Reserve was a huge success, and his efforts were not only appreciated on a national level, but were also replicated in other tiger reserves and such protected areas across the country.
“Currently, the meadow development technique has been implemented in tiger reserves and protected areas in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. So far, I have worked in 33 out of the 52 tiger reserves in the country, as well as in Chitwan Tiger Reserve in Nepal,” says Dr Muratkar, who conducts meadow development workshops thrice a year in the tiger reserves, offering hands-on training to the staff. He also monitors the development by visiting the sites once in a few months.
According to him, ignorance of meadow management activities would affect forests and their inhabitants. “I am glad that my efforts on meadow development have been fruitful. In Palpur Kuno National Park, the forest staff was able to expand 2 hectares of grass meadows into 360 hectares after rehabilitating 21 villages, which helped bring cheetahs to Kuno. Also, the Satpura Tiger Reserve has been able to successfully develop grasslands under my guidance, which eventually helped them in bringing swamp deers,” he explains and points out that the Satpura Tiger Reserve project was the most challenging one, and hence his favourite.
“Around 52 villages were rehabilitated for the Satpura Tiger Reserve. Besides, the topography and landscape of the reserve were extremely difficult. But I am glad that I was able to successfully turn it around, winning the reserve an award from National Tiger Conservation Authority for meadow development,” he notes.
“Some of the challenges in the field of grassland management are the invasion of woody tree species, invasion of exotic species, the lack of a proper technique for meadow development or habitat management and suitable funding,” he adds.
He says that as a full-time academician, he was able to embark on such a journey because of the support and encouragement of his colleagues. “As I work as a professor, I spend my weekends and holidays on my workshops, field visits, and training. My college management and all the staff have been supporting me constantly and it keeps me going,” he smiles.
Nandkishor Kale, deputy director (core), Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, has known Dr Muratkar for 10 years.
He says, “In 2012, while I was working at the Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve, three villages were rehabilitated, and that’s when we sought his help to transform the region into a grassland. After I took charge at the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, I worked with him for the restoration of grasslands in places where villages were rehabilitated. Since we don’t have many meadows, we wanted to convert the village land, for which he helped us immensely.”
He adds, “Dr Muratkar is very passionate about the work he does. He is very good at training people and has a knack for communicating concepts easily to the staff and labourers.”
Talking about his current projects, Dr Muratkar says that he is working in different protected areas of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, etc. Today, he has around 22 students working under him to manage grassland development projects across the country.
“I wanted to pass this on to the next generation. So, I have selected and trained MSc and PhD students who are interested in this field of work from different parts of the country. I have recruited two students each for every tiger reserve and they have been working under my guidance,” he says.
Edited by Divya Sethu; Photo credits: Dr Gajanan D Muratkar