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Filling in the (forest) blanks: the past, present and future of India’s savanna grasslands

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Filling in the (forest) blanks:
the past, present and future of
India’s savanna grasslands
Abi T. Vanak, Ankila J. Hiremath, Siddhartha
Krishnan, T. Ganesh and Nitin D. Rai
Smitha Shivaswamy
ECOLOGICAL HISTORY OF
SAVANNA GRASSLANDS IN INDIA
For most people, savannas conjure up iconic
images of vast open African landscapes, with
giraffes, elephants, and large herds of wilde-
beest, zebras, and other herbivores. In reality,
savannas are a pan-tropical vegetation forma-
tion, from the pampas and cerrados of Latin
America, to the plains of northern Australia.
The term ‘savanna’ refers to any vegetation
that is a combination of grasses and trees.
Savanna composition can vary widely, from
largely grass-dominated landscapes dotted
with the occasional tree, to almost-closed
woodlands with a grassy understory, and
everything in between. On a climatic gradient,
tropical and subtropical savannas lie between
deserts at the drier end, and deciduous forests
at the moister end, but the boundaries of the
savanna biome tend to be fuzzy, and can be
influenced by anthropogenic factors (e.g.,
livestock grazing, fire) as much as by climate.
Asian savannas have, in particular, been
grossly misconstrued for reasons that are part
biogeographical and part historic. Biogeo-
graphically, much of South and Southeast
Asia lies at the wetter end of the savanna-cli-
mate region, making Asian savannas struc-
turally similar to deciduous forests. This—in
conjunction with a history of colonial forestry
that emphasised trees over other vegetation,
and timber production over other uses of
natural ecosystems—meant that savannas
were considered to be forests that had been
degraded by fires, herbivores, or other human
influence. The fact that these systems were
in the global bioclimatic envelope of tropical
savanna grasslands was always ignored1.
This misclassification of grasslands as de-
graded forests belies the long existence of
1 The Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems – Grasslands,
classies as much as 17% of India’s land mass as
having native grasslands.
savannas in Asia. The earliest unequivocal
fossil evidence for grasses on the Indian sub-
continent comes from Central India, where
paleaoecologists have found grass phytoliths
(fossilised fragments of plant material) in
fossilised dinosaur dung dating back to the
late Cretaceous period (about 60 million years
ago). Grasses were probably not very dom-
inant at that time however, as grasses were
only a small component of these dinosaurs’
diets, which comprised several other plants
including trees and palms. Grasses became
dominant only 5–8 million years ago, when
the savanna biome seems to have synchro-
nously spread across several parts of the
globe, including present day India, Pakistan,
and Nepal. On the Indian subcontinent, this
appearance of savannas has been pegged
to a marked change in climate. The sudden
(geologically speaking) uplift of the Tibet-
an plateau around this time is thought to
have resulted in the development of the
Indian monsoon, marking a change from a
year-round warm, wet climate to a strongly
seasonal one. The fossil record of this period
shows a significant shift in vegetation, with
forest plants making way for grasses. The
fossil record also shows that large herbivores,
giraffes, and other grazing ungulates make an
appearance on the Indian subcontinent at this
time, as do recurring fires.
SAVANNA GRASSLANDS AND
HUMANS IN INDIA
While there are many environmental histori-
cal studies on Indian forests and their trans-
formation during the colonial period, pre-co-
lonial histories of forests, let alone of pastoral
lands, remained sparse. But these sparse
studies provide valuable historical descrip-
tions of grasslands, their use, and manage-
ment. David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha’s
edited volume (1998) contains contributions
on pastoralism in pre-colonial Mughal and
colonial India. In his chapter in this book,
Chetan Singh draws upon sources such as
90 91
Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari, and opines that the
environment affects the economic and polit-
ical relationship between the Mughal suze-
rainty and rural classes. Whereas ‘pastoralist’
and ‘pastoralism’ serve as useful proxies to in-
fer grassland presence, the biome is occasion-
ally invoked more directly to establish such
identities. From their topography of occupa-
tion, Singh infers the identity of some very in-
dependent tribes in conflict with the Mughals,
to be pastoralist. When he writes that the
movement of Mughal armies was restricted
in arid regions where animal husbandry was
the main occupation for instance, we can,
with some confidence, assume that savanna
grassland characterised these regions. Singh
senses pastoralists’ abundance from a ‘stray
remark’ by Fazl on livelihood opportunities
being ‘as abundant to the labourer as forage
for his cattle.’ Examining Mughal records on
regions like Surat, Rajasthan and Chamba
(a Himalayan kingdom), Singh argues that
livestock, which some scholars claim were
maintained in larger numbers in the Mughal
period than in later centuries, were owned in
substantial numbers “by pastoralists whose
herds grazed” “innumerable pastures”.
Alturi Murali’s chapter in the same volume on
forests in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, refers to
Murty and Sontheimer’s ethnoarchaeological
research from 1980 on pastoralism in Kur-
nool, and on prehistory of pastoralism in the
Southern Deccan as a whole. These studies
point to the antiquity of dairy and agricul-
tural systems. Inscriptions from the 11th to
14th centuries AD, when the Chalukya-Cholas
and Kakatiyas ruled, indicate the revenue
roles of temples. The ‘pullary’ or grazing land
tax was an important revenue source for the
state. Similarly, in their pioneering ecological
history of India, Madhav Gadgil and Ram-
achandra Guha (1992) qualitatively estimate
the geographical expanse of agro-pastoralism
from the drier north-western tracts along
with the Indus plains to the Deccan peninsula
as preferred grazier habitat.
Many references to grasses, grasslands, and
savanna were also made in colonial botany,
and in some volumes there also remains the
potential for inference. In Volume 1 of James
Sykes Gamble’s Flora of the Presidency of Ma-
dras (1935), Gamble divides the Madras Presi-
dency roughly into floristic regions, including
the Sal region in the North, the “Dekkan”
region, and the “semi-desert” region. The
last of these comprises Coimbatore, Salem,
Trichinopoly (Trichy), Madura (Madurai), and
Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli) districts, but much
of these semi-desert regions are permanent
grazing lands or temporary agricultural fallow.
For instance, in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, the
semi-desert would include meichal (grazing)
grounds, farm fallows, and temple grazing
commons. Savannas in the Travancore plains
are possibly also averred to by Gamble as
“grassy forests” where he notes the growth of
the Hardi tree (Dalbergia lanceolaria), which
is commonly associated with moist savan-
nas. On the other hand, Gamble specifically
refers to the “grassy savannahs” in the more
arid Cuddapah (Kadappah), Mysore (Mysuru),
Coimbatore, and Madura (Madurai).
MODERN TRANSFORMATION OF
SAVANNA GRASSLANDS
India’s environmental history suggests that a
forest- and timber-centric view of the land-
Nomadic pastoralists such the Dhangar of
Maharasthra have fully adapted to the dynamic
cycles of productivity in the semi-arid savannas
of central India. (Photo: Kalyan Varma)
scape has had enormous implications for
grasslands, their biota, and the people and
livestock that have depended on them. The
pressure to make landscapes productive has
been a historical effort. Under the British,
these lands were considered wastelands since
they did not provide revenues to the state’s
coffers. Such a categorisation of land had
implications for not only the landscapes but
also for the people: productive lands were
settled by members of mainstream society,
who produced revenue for the state, and, in
turn, benefited from state schemes. ‘Waste-
lands’ and the communities that depended on
them, on the other hand, consisted largely of
mobile pastoralists and associated groups that
became peripheral in the eyes of the state.
Savanna grasslands were reserved as forests
starting in 1865, with grazing constituting a
forest offence. Both high altitude grasslands,
and savannas in the Indian plains appeared
inadequate in the Colonial calculus. In some
cases, they were seen as ‘forest blanks’ and
replaced with tree plantations. In other cases,
such as in Punjab and Haryana, the conversion
of pastures to irrigated agriculture was seen
as a great symbol of British ingenuity.
It is estimated that about 20 million ha of
grassland and shrub land, and 26 million ha of
forests, were lost in India between 1880 and
2010. In the post-colonial era, the fastest rates
of transformation occurred in the years fol-
lowing the Green Revolution with a shift from
rainfed, subsistence agriculture to irrigated,
industrial-scaleagriculture.Whatissignicant
intheseguresisthedierenceinperspective
towards such losses. Whereas forest loss re-
ceived enormous attention both in the popular
imagination as well as in legislature, the loss of
savanna grasslands has largely gone unnoticed.
CURRENT STATUS OF SAVANNA
GRASSLANDS IN INDIA
India’s grasslands and savannas are still the
poor cousins of forests. They either contin-
ue to be converted into forms of production
such as agriculture (where possible through
improved irrigation), or solar farms, etc., or
they continue to be targets of afforestation
schemes that transform the landscape.
Vegetation maps still depict the biomes of
India as forests, with the exception of the hot
Thar desert in the northwest, and the cold
desert of Ladakh in the far north. Several
unique ecosystems—the shola grasslands of
the Western Ghats, the flood plain savannas
of the Terai, the high altitude grasslands of
the Himalaya, and the extensive arid and
semi-arid savannas of western and central
India—get subsumed under some category
of forest (e.g., scrub or thorn forests) or as
‘forest blanks’. This categorisation at once
condemns these ecosystems, the species that
uniquely occur in them, and the livelihoods
and rich cultures of the pastoralist commu-
nities that have historically adapted to life in
these variable and challenging environments.
Because of these historical and biogeographic
legacies, the current status of grasslands in
India is bleak. A recent analysis that quanti-
fied the extent of semi-arid savannas in India
found that only between 1 and 9 % of the land
area of 11 states was classified as savanna.
The savannas of the Deccan plateau, spread
over Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Karnataka,
Ironically, grasslands are under most threat from
forestry departments, which see these areas as
degraded ecosystems and therefore candidates for
aorestation activities. (Photo: Kalyan Varma)
92 93
Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, have suf-
fered large scale conversion due to the spread
of irrigated agriculture, forestry plantations,
and industrialisation. The remaining patches
are also under threat from various factors
including renewable energy schemes, biofuel
plantations, afforestation under compensato-
ry afforestation interventions, urbanisation,
and industrialisation. The drier grasslands and
scrub savannas of Western Rajasthan have
been transformed due to irrigated agriculture,
whereas in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu the rapid
spread of invasive species, such as Prosopis
juliflora, has resulted in massive woody en-
croachment of grassland habitats.
CAN INDIA’S SAVANNA GRASSLANDS
SURVIVE THE 21ST CENTURY?
With increasing anthropogenic pressures on
decreasing land resources, and with acquisi-
tion of forest and agricultural land fraught with
diculty,theattentionofthegovernmentand
policymakers has turned to savanna grasslands.
With less than 7% of existing savannas under
the protected area network, it is perhaps no
surprise that policy makers view these ‘barren
wastelands’ as a prime target for development
activities. For example, not long ago, over 4,000
ha of semi-arid savannas were diverted for an
ambitious ‘Science City’ project in Karnataka.
India is rapidly progressing towards becoming
an energy surplus nation, with a major focus
on new and renewable energy sources; of
these, wind and solar power are the two big-
gest contributors. The Government of India
is targeting a five-fold increase in renewable
energy to 175 gigawatts by 2022. Most of the
newly installed, and planned, solar capacity is
in areas that have the highest solar irradiation
in the country, which, as would be expected,
are the arid and semi-arid regions. Large
tracts of savanna grasslands have now been
fenced and converted to solar farms, resulting
in further loss of access to grazing lands for
pastoralists, as well as loss of biodiversity.
Both these new as well as old threats affect
ecological processes as well as the people—
especially pastoral communities—who use
and manage grasslands. The low productivity
and the patchy distribution of pasture for
livestock means that pastoralists and their
livestock have to move long distances to
track resources. This movement of people and
livestock is dynamic, and subject to rainfall
variability. Recent efforts to increase incomes
from pastoralism have seen initiatives to
provide market access and provide fodder
to ensure higher and consistent production.
This has resulted in pastoralists moving less.
The implication of reduced mobility is that
grassland use is restricted to smaller areas,
which then tend to experience greater use
and degradation, leaving them vulnerable to
colonisation by invasive species. On the other
hand, a complete lack of grazing can also
alter grassland species composition and may
even result in lower levels of diversity, with
only a few species dominating.
There are also pressures from intensifica-
tion of agriculture due to enhanced water
availability through irrigation. This not only
leads to habitat loss, but also to an increase
in use of harmful pesticides. For instance, the
intensive use of pesticides on crops due to the
building of the Telugu Ganga canal in Kurnool
An icon of the Indian savanna, the blackbuck
antelope, once counted in the thousands, is
now isolated to a few pockets of grasslands
throughout the country. (Photo: Kalyan Varma)
district is supposed to have led to the death
of several open country birds, including many
raptors. Irrigation in dry lands also leads to
homogenisation of agriculture and increase in
commercial crops, leading to a loss of fallows
that served as refugia, further threatening
grassland biodiversity. Grasslands are there-
fore undergoing significant changes either
through alternations in pastoral practice or in
land use. These changes are a direct result of
the desire to increase productivity from what
are perceived as unproductive wastelands.
These continued threats to India’s savannas
and grasslands, and to the biodiversity and
people that inhabit these landscapes, may,
ironically, be stemmed because of the decline
of one India’s most iconic species. The great
Indian bustard is on the verge of extinction. It
has been uplisted on the International Union
for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List
from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically Endangered’.
Similarly, other obligate grassland species,
such as the lesser florican, and the steppe
eagle, a winter migrant to India, have been
uplisted to ‘Endangered’. These population
declines are an indication of changes in the
broader landscapes that are beyond habitat
loss. Because of these species, grasslands
are getting renewed attention from conser-
vationists, policy makers, and the general
public. Just as forests are more than tigers,
grasslands are more than bustards, and one
hopes that such resurgence in interest to
conserve these species translates to not only
major policy changes, but also to action on
the ground to conserve grasslands, their
people, and biodiversity.
Further reading
Murty, MLK., and GD. Sontheimer. 1980.
Prehistoric background to pastoralism in the
southern Deccan in the light of oral traditions
and cults of some pastoral communities. An-
thropos 75(1/2): 163–184.
Ratnam, J., KW. Tomlinson, DN. Rasquinha, and
M. Sankaran. 2016. Savannahs of Asia: antiq-
uity, biogeography, and an uncertain future.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
371(1703): 20150305.
Tian. H., K. Banger, T. Bo, VK. Dadhwal. 2014.
History of land use in India during 1880–2010:
large-scale land transformations reconstructed
from satellite data and historical archives. Global
and Planetary Change 121: 78–88.
Vanak, AT., A. Kulkarni, A. Gode, C. Sheth,
and J. Krishnaswamy. 2015. Extent and status
of semi-arid savanna grasslands in India. In:
Ecology and Management of Grassland Habitats
in India (eds. Rawat, GS. and BS. Adhikari) Pp.
192–201. Dehradun: ENVIS WII.
Whitehead, J. 2010. John Locke and the govern-
ance of India’s landscape: the category of waste-
land in colonial revenue and forest legislation.
Economic and Political Weekly 45(50): 83–93.
Many species, such as the critically endangered
great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), are
wholly dependent on the savanna grasslands,
and as the grasslands have disappeared, so have
these iconic symbols of the Indian savanna.
(Photo: Abi T. Vanak)
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Background Large-scale hunting and various anthropogenic pressures in the recent past have pushed the Asiatic caracal ( Caracal caracal schmitzi ), an elusive medium-sized and locally threatened felid species towards local extinction in India. Though widely distributed historically, it has been sparsely reported from several regions of central and northern states in India till twentieth century. Later, the species distribution became confined only to the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, which have had reported sightings in the twenty-first century. In order to highlight the potentially suitable habitats for Asiatic caracals in India, we targeted forth-filtering of the spatial model ensemble by creating and utilizing the validated and spatially thinned species presence information ( n = 69) and related ecological variables (aridity, NDVI, precipitation seasonality, temperature seasonality, terrain ruggedness), filtered with anthropological variable (nightlight). Results Out of eight spatial prediction models, the two most parsimonious models, Random Forest (AUC 0.91) and MaxEnt (AUC 0.89) were weighted and ensembled. The ensemble model indicated several clustered habitats, covering 1207.83 km ² areas in Kachchh (Gujarat), Aravalli mountains (Rajasthan), Malwa plateau (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh), and Bundelkhand region (Madhya Pradesh) as potentially suitable habitats for caracals. Output probabilities of pixels were further regressed with converted vegetation height data within selected highly potential habitats, i.e., Ranthambore Kuno Landscape (RKL) (suitability ~ 0.44 + 0.03(vegetation height) **, R ² = 0.27). The regression model inferred a significant positive relation between vegetation height and habitat suitability, hence the lowest ordinal class out of three classes of converted vegetation height was masked out from the RKL, which yielded in an area of 567 km ² as potentially highly suitable habitats for caracals, which can be further proposed as survey areas and conservation priority areas for caracals. Conclusion The study charts out the small pockets of landscape in and around dryland protected areas, suitable for caracal in the Indian context, which need attention for landscape conservation.
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