Seeds obtained from the droppings of animals, like civet cats, can give birth to a rainforest! Unbelievable, but true. And this simple truth has been put into practice by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), an NGO working in the Anamalai ranges at the tail end of the Western Ghats. In fact, NCF has successfully demonstrated how denuded rainforests can be restored, with the dual objective of biological conservation and creating a transit corridor for animals.
The rainforests in Western Ghats are a hotspot of biological diversity and home to a large number of endangered species, which include elephants, leopards, small carnivores like the civet cat, giant squirrels, lion-tailed macaque and birds like the hornbill.
In areas where tea plantations are numerous, rainforests have become severely fragmented. One such stretch is Valparai, located in the heart of the Western Ghats on a plateau amidst the Anamalai hills in Tamil Nadu. Valparai has a population of over a 100,000 and is one of the largest producers of tea in the state.
Surrounded by the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu) and other wildlife reserves in Kerala, Valparai's unique location places it in the path of elephant herds and other animals, which move from one sanctuary to another in search of food and water. The fragmentation and denudation of rainforests has restricted the movement of animals, leading particularly to frequent elephant-human conflict.
NCF started out with the strong conviction that conservation goals cannot be met only by the protection of already existing rainforests. An active effort to restore rainforests in areas where they had been denuded due to human occupation also needs to be made. And so, in 2000, began the Rain Forest Research and Restoration project, headed by Dr Divya Mudappa and Dr T R Shankar Raman (a husband and wife team).
The restoration idea, through these special seeds, came to Mudappa when she was working on her doctoral thesis - on the ecology of the endemic brown palm civet and the effect of rainforest fragmentation on small mammals and small carnivores. (The palm civets are arboreal, largely fruit-eating, mostly nocturnal mammals. They have cat-like bodies with long tails and belong to a family called Vivverdiae, closely related to the cat family.) During the course of her work - which began in 1995 - she found that the seeds she obtained accidentally from the scat of a civet cat could germinate into plants.
She discovered that the seeds obtained from the excreta of animals are enriched by the chemicals present in the digestive system. Although other seeds sprout as well, these seeds are generally likely to grow into healthier plants. Examining the excreta of animals is routine practice when studying an animal, as it provides vital clues about the diet of the animal. However, this is the only project in India that uses seeds from the excreta of animals to grow plants on a large scale.
NCF researchers collect seeds only from the roadside (for seeds on the roadside do not normally have the opportunity to germinate, unlike seeds in the forest) or from the excreta of animals and birds. The seeds are then sown in soil beds and given protection from sunlight and pests. After they mature in sunlight, they are planted in habitats close to their original homes.
For such a massive experiment, land is required. NCF realized that their venture would be successful only with the assistance and cooperation of planters and companies in the region. They requested planters to set aside a portion of their land for rainforest regeneration.
Some of these plots were originally covered with coffee and cardamom, and abandoned after it was found that these crops were not economically viable. As coffee is always grown without clearing the forest of its uppermost canopy of trees, the much-needed shade for growing the transplanted species is readily available. In fact, the regeneration was quicker here compared to saplings planted in bare plots, which are exposed directly to the sun.
NCF first clears the plots of weeds and pests and then performs the transplantation. Generally, planting is carried out just after the monsoon. The seeds were first sown in 2000, and it takes the saplings about a year to grow enough to monitor. So, since 2001, every year, NCF has been carefully monitoring these plots, and taking a census twice a year - once after the dry season and once after the monsoons.
Areas that were patches of land overgrown with weeds just four years ago, are today home to many healthy, tall saplings. The survival rate of the transplanted species is high, giving a good indication of the success of the programme.
NCF has now forged partnerships with Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL), Parry Agro Industries Ltd. and Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd. (BBTC), who have designated plots in their plantations as rainforest biodiversity conservation areas. The total area identified for restoration purposes is around 400 hectares.
Since 2001, NCF has successfully transplanted over 10,000 saplings belonging to over 65 rainforest species like Cullenia, Mesua, Pallaquam - traditional tree species of this region - along with pioneer species like Clerodendron, Macaranga etc.
NCF is also involved with BBTC in an attempt to replace exotic eucalyptus trees, which provide shade to coffee and vanilla plantations. Eucalyptus has been found by environmentalists to be a 'water-drinker'.
The NCF is funded by the Netherlands Committee for the International Union for Conservation of Nature under their Tropical Rainforest Programme. Funding also comes from Barakat Inc, a US-based non-profit organization.