Posts Tagged ‘Biodiversity’

Super Tree!

The Khejri, Prosopis cineraria, will give any wilderness survival expert a run for his money.  In an environment that endures as little as 100mm rainfall each year, competition for water is the game.  For Khejri, winning is easy.  It is capable of lodging roots 30 metres into the ground and accessing water obscured from the grasps of animals and other plants alike.  Withstanding great variation in temperatures, it easily copes with summer heat in the 50⁰C range and winter nights that can bottom at around 0⁰C.  Almost evergreen and thriving in the harshest of conditions, it is a super species, with all the stamina, vigor and resilience of a great warrior. 
Huge, untouched Khejri tree
A Khejri or Prosopis Cineraria

Like a true hero, it is patient benefactor, generously giving shade from the pitiless heat of the sun, feeding our animals, providing fruits fit for our consumption, releasing nitrogen for our soil, stabilising dunes, medicating the weak, fuelling our fires and supplying the most sophisticated air-pollution filtration system known to man.  Over the years this old combatant has seen its surroundings change, as wilderness gives way to rising agriculture, political systems ebb and flow under the weight of oppressive regimes, industrialisation and mechanization.  It patiently stands by as many human lifetimes pass before its eyes and we increasingly reap the gifts that Khejri gives to us but provide it with nothing in return.

Back in 1485 AD, this was recognised by a prolific leader named Guru Jambheshwar, or Jambhoji, who understood its importance and made his followers swear never to cut green trees.  These people, the Bishnoi community, have faithfully devoted themselves to this cause and vehemently protect all green trees, especially Khejri.  The most famous and astounding story is that of Amrita Devi, which took place in the year 1730 AD.  Stop anywhere near Jodhpur and you will find this story has become a legend, proudly disclosed by all communities to tourists and stoppers by. 

Painting of Amita Devri found at the Bishnoi Village Camp near Khejarli

Painting of Amita Devri found at the Bishnoi Village Camp near Khejarli

So it is told, the Maharaja of the area had plans to build a princely palace and needed a substantial quantity of firewood to produce lime.  He sent forth his forces to a large population of Khejri trees, in Khejarli, to cut them down.  Amrita Devi, a loyal Bishnoi mother versed in the teachings of Jambhoji, faced the soldiers and proclaimed that anyone wishing to cut a tree would have to first cut through her.  Weaponless in her protection of the trees, it is said that she hugged the nearest Khejri, forcing the axe-wielding soldiers to cut through her neck.  Incensed at the loss of tree and fellow compatriot, villagers came from all around to face the Maharaja’s army.  By the end of the massacre, 363 Bishnois had given their lives in sacrifice to save green trees.  Appalled at the situation and overwhelmed by the dedication of the villagers, the Maharaja passed a decree legally protecting green trees, which stands to this day.  Furthermore, it is highly likely that the term ‘tree hugger’ originated 280 years ago when Amrita Devi demonstrated a mother’s love for our hero, the Khejri tree.

 

In modern times the tree is not simply threatened by people intent on destruction for firewood.  It is the bearer of a crueler ill, falling victim at the hands of farmers who are unintentionally harming their protector.  Of the gifts donated by Khejri, there is a vital foodstuff for domestic animals known as ‘Loong’.  In addition to providing feed in times of scarcity, Loong is highly nutritious, increasing both the quality and quantity of milk yield in cows, buffalo and goats. 

Camel Cart being loaded with Khejri

Lopping provides both Loong and firewood

Another repercussion, only identified in the last few years, shows that lopping also creates an ideal habitat for invasive beetle larvae.  Species such as Gahen, Derolus discicollis, which are huge beetles, bore into the open shoot or branch and lay their eggs.  Growing larvae need lots of nutrients and extract these from their host, the Khejri tree, further weakening its condition.

The Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI) in Jodhpur kindly permitted me to accompany them on a research mission to assess mortality rates in the Khejri population.  It was fascinating day, not least because the AFRI Khejri specialists are a diverse and knowledgeable crew of experts.  We visited several farms, quantifying tree populations, assessing the incidence of infection and causes of death in each.  While the team collected samples for analysis, it gave me time to gauge the considerable share drying out from the top branches downwards, all at varying stages of dilapidation.  Hanging off many trees were mushroom-like growths, the trees were not just under attack from shoot-boring beetles but fungi causing heart rot and root damage too.  AFRI experts earmarked healthy trees for further scrutiny, in the hope that some form of immunity could be identified, and took samples for lab analysis from deceased trees.  Although there were undoubtedly pockets of healthy, undamaged trees in view, farmers typically reported that they were loosing between 1 and 5 trees per year.  They were confounded by the loss and could not understand the cause, let alone administer treatment.  Care alone can be woefully inadequate where knowledge is not available, especially in remote farming communities with high illiteracy.

Painting of the Khejarli massacre displayed inside the temple

Bishnois: Passion for wildlife protection and ready to fight for it.

Naturally, in depth analysis of deceased Khejri means that one had to be uprooted, which happened to take place in a Bishnoi-owned farm.  No sooner had men begun to expose the roots with shovels than a greyed, weather-worn lady came approaching at implausible speed.  She was furious, spitting out protestations in her native tongue, Marwari.  It took some time for her husband and the team of experts to calm her down, explaining that the tree had already expired with no chance of recovery, that the scientists mean no harm and only wanted to help solve the problem.  Despite the eccentricity of the situation, I was greatly encouraged to see that the Bishnoi were not simply legendary idealists but still actively impassioned about wildlife protection and ready to fight for it.
Lopped Khejri tree just starting to reshoot

Lopped Khejri tree grappling to produce new shoots and leaves

 

Khejri is the treasured state tree of Rajasthan and sacredly embodies the divinity of nature for the Bishnoi, so it is not short of care from supporters.  However, under siege from ignorance, overuse, root borers, shoot borers, fungus and inhibition of its natural functions, will this be enough?  Dr Ahmed, AFRI expert, explains “Farmers need to be educated about the perils of lopping and receive remuneration for the loss of an essential animal fodder source.  Excessive agricultural mechanisation also causes problems; it does not allow the slow growing Khejri saplings time to take root.  In turn this means that we are also contemplating these problems in the context of an ageing Khejri population.” 

In mythological stories of super heroes and far-fetched odds, the protagonist comes alarmingly close to perishing at the hands of wrong doers.  In these dearly loved tales the champion always conquers in the end, albeit with a few friendly nudges in the right direction.  The Khejri now hangs on this precipice, the part in the story where the situation is seemingly bleak.  The question is whether this treasured great warrior will continue to be the king of survival experts and recover from persecution.  We are its trusty sidekicks and have a responsibility to ensure the Khejri’s survival by spreading branches of awareness as far as we can reach.  If only trees could talk!

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Bishnois’ design for life

More than 500 years ago a forward-thinking man, aged just 34 years, created a code that has become a religious way of life for a community of around a million people. 

Painting of Guru Jambheshwar Ji

Guru Jambheshwar Ji, innovative founder of the Bishnoi religion

Originator Lord Jambheshwar founded the Bishnoi creed upon 29 principles, which explains a name derived from the words ‘bis’ meaning twenty and ‘nau’ nine.  With firm roots in Hinduism, Bishnois have maintained many traditions and regard Guru Jamboji, his broadly used title, as an incarnation of the god Vishnu, the sustainer.  Nonetheless Bishnoism has marked adaptations from its parent religion, like burial rather than cremation – a particularly constructive selection in the arid Thar Desert where tree preservation is paramount.

Bishnois are renowned for their care for animals, trees and the environment.  In the last 10 years they have received much media attention in India following the misdemeanor of Salman Khan, a popular Bollywood actor who was caught hunting gazelle and black buck.  The Bishnois exposed his crimes and ensured that he was brought to justice, playing a leading role in the trial.  They shrewdly used the attention surrounding the incident to raise the profile of desert conservation and demonstrate their intolerance towards anyone who disregards nature or the law. 

Within the 29 principles, Bishnois are commanded to care for wildlife, never cut green trees, provide common shelters for animals that would be slaughtered and only eat vegetarian food.  Consequently, their name has become synonymous with conservation and the religion is regarded by many as the world’s first environmentalist doctrine.

Bishnoi man feeding millet to chinkara

Bishnoi scattering millet to feed wild gazelles

Many people comment that gazelles, or chinkaras, tend to congregate around Bishnoi villages because they feel safe there.  They are easy to spot around the communities and, though typically shy, allow people within a few metres without becoming nervous.  Could this confidence be a result of Bishnoi kindness? 

Indeed whilst living with a Bishnoi family my bedroom has become a kind of nature reserve.  First came my least favourite, the crickets, whose strumming echoes dramatically off the stone walls throughout the night, next was the lizard, who eats crickets, then a pair of sparrows, who cause little bother nesting in the light fitting, and finally some mice living under the hard wooden bed.  The mice, which do have a nocturnal gnawing habit, made me wonder how Bishnois cope with infestations and pests.  What happens when wild creatures cause inconvenience and damage?  Compromise is not an option; humane traps can be used to relocate creatures but a true Bishnoi will never intentionally kill or harm any living animal.  Using my room as an example, I was also fascinated to see that Bishnois do not osteracise the natural world to the outdoors like we do.  There is a western attitude that creatures are fine outside but a troublesome pest once indoors.  Thinking about it here, it seems irrational, particularly as most animals are afraid of, or uninterested in, humans.  Here nature is as free as we are, and if they roam into the house that is their prerogative.

Bishnoi woman wearing traditional clothing and jewellery

My host's mother dressed in traditional clothing and jewellery

There are distinguishing clothing and jewellery used by Bishnois so it is easy to identify their communities when you know how. 

Red, black & white print on Bishnoi skirt

Distinctive design on Bishnoi skirts

Most noticeable is a printed design used solely for Bishnoi women’s skirts, complemented by unique types of jewellery, such as a marital pendent worn on the forehead, a big half moon shaped nose ring and a large rectangular gold plate on the chest.  Men are much more simply dressed, normally just wearing white lungis, tunic and turban, or pagari. 

Bishnois try not to be fond of material possessions.  However, a woman’s gold jewellery is an exception because it is given as a gift at marriage, when she goes to join the house of her father-in-law.  Money is not endowed because it is easily frittered and wasted, whereas gold is a long-lasting investment.

Cleanliness also features highly in the 29 principles, with rules about taking an early morning bath, washing before eating, drinking clean filtered water and a monthly religious day called amavasya, devoted to internal and external cleansing.   It takes place each moonless night and is typified by a day of rest from all work.  One main aspect of the day is a type of fast whereby no heavy food is consumed, only raw fruit and veg.  Elsewhere this is recognisable as a vogue detox recommended by elite dieticians and nutritionists, here it has been part of the religious code for hundreds of years.   Scientific by design, it is understood that the moon controls our digestive system, like it controls the tides, so fasting on this day helps to cleanse the body.  Rest also ensures that every individual has time for reflection, spiritual contemplation and internal cleansing at least once a month.

Fundamental moral codes are also covered in Guru Jambheshwar’s 29 principles, as addressed by most world religions, including avoiding telling lies, deterring theft, promoting forgiveness and refraining from intoxicant use, specifically prohibiting smoking, alcohol and opium use.  The benefits of which are easy for us to comprehend even if we do not choose to practice. 

Cooking chipatis over an open fire

Where lifestyles are so different, we can't automatically understand everything

Some Bishnoi principles are not so easily understood by foreigners to the culture of the harsh desert climate for which they were designed.  Admittedly, when I first read the 29 principles, there were some that I could only identify as being slightly eccentric.  For example, one rule prohibits wearing the colour blue and another keeps women away from household chores for 5 days during her menstrual period.  The more deeply I understand the culture and context, the more I realise that these rules were created with exceptional common sense as well as profound perception.  Over the coming months, I will delve into the detail and convey ways for outsiders to connect understanding to the more unusual tenets.  If you’re interested, read the 29 principles – just remember to keep an open mind.

Taken as a whole, Lord Jamboji’s 29 principles form a complete practical guide for harmonious living, not only with the nature but also for physical, psychological and social well-being too.  It is a simple, doable way to lead a good life, tailored for the farmers of the Thar desert.  Most people will know the term ‘sustainable living’ and, in the UK, it is generally perceived as a marketeers buzz phrase to make us feel that we’re doing our bit to combat ‘environmental issues’.  Here the environment is not seen as a problem.  Sustainable living is just part of a happy, healthy life, not a source of sacrifice.

The Thar desert: A contradiction in terms?

DESERT (Definition as per Oxford Dictionaries, April 2010)

 

Rolling dunes as far as the eye can see

Bare expanses of desert are present but rare in the Thar

Noun

  • a waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand

Verb

  • abandon
  • leave (a place), causing it to appear empty

Adjective

  • uninhabited and desolate

 

Conjure the image of a subtropical desert into mind and you will most likely picture a vast expanse of uninhabitable sand dunes.  Therefore it comes as something of a surprise to find that the Thar uniquely supports rich vegetation, wildlife and culture. 
A pair of eagles

Eagles

Conditions are extreme, with intense summer heat, failing monsoons and a rapidly dwindling water table, but flora and fauna are still thriving here.  Agriculture not only sustains the local population but makes reliable profits at markets as far away as New Delhi.  In most villages there are new stone buildings popping up in amongst the huts, and in some cases dramatically out-numbering them.  Where biodiversity is concerned, neither time nor patience are required to sight exciting and rare wildlife, like black bucks, blue bulls and gazelles, eagles, vultures and kites, to name just a few.

Man and wife in traditional dress in the desert

Pilgrims travelling over 300km on foot to pray for a child after 15 years of marriage

Survival in the Thar Desert requires toughness in order to cope with the relentless and unforgiving climate.  Even the majority of plants and shrubs have evolved deadly looking thorns.  Similarly, the people who live there are robust and sturdy, with weather-beaten faces and surprising physical strength even at old age.  Over thousands of years, life-preserving knowledge has been passed through the generations, enabling each community to adapt and flourish.  Communities are still segregated by caste, such as Bishnoi, Jat or Rajput, but whichever the group family always reigns supreme.  Families live collectively with many generations under the same roof, working together to generate income, care for the dwelling and raise children.

On our first day in the desert we stumbled upon a farm near Sika where the farmer was very happy to answer some questions and show us around.  For generations his family had owned and worked 16.5 hectares, or about 41 acres of agricultural land.  Having just harvested a yield of ground nut, he was in the process of sewing the winter wheat. 

Green, unripened Ber fruits

Unripened Ber fruits

One thing that was immediately impressive was the efficiency of this desert farm; it was almost entirely self-contained, requiring little from the outside world and putting nothing to waste.  In addition to the agricultural produce, many uncultivated shrubs and plants were also used in some capacity, whether for firewood, animal fodder, roofing, pillow stuffing, medicine or food, like the sweet, red fruits of the Ber shrub.  Water was collected using 3 tube wells and electricity was the only fixed cost, on which 10,000 rupees, or £150, was spent per month.

Two cows and four buffalo, fed on shrubs and leftovers from crop production, produced about 40 litres of milk per day, 5 for family use and 35 sold at market.  Sold at 20 rupees per litre, this meant the farm generated 700 rupees (£10) in income per day or an equivalent 255,500 rupees (£3650) per year, providing that none of the cows were in calf.  Another valuable commodity, the farm played host to around 30 Khejri trees, which, as well as providing highly nutritious loong for animals, also provide Sangri fruits consumed by people.  According to our friendly farmer, one tree could generate as much as 80kg of Sangri and selling for 180 rupees per kg at market.  Across 30 trees, that is a potential 432,000 rupees or £6171 income per annum.  With few costs and high efficiency, I came to the conclusion that this farm was a highly profitable business.  Certainly, the numbers above would be enough to make my family, who are small-holding sheep farmers in rural Warwickshire, incredibly jealous.

The future of the Thar Desert and its current agricultural prosperity is not at all promising and clear-cut.  Unchecked mining and deforestation means that the water table is unstably diminishing and that the desert is expanding.  Over utilisation of resources and rising agricultural mechanisation also puts strain on the whole ecosystem, causing new problems to arise. 

Male gazelle

How can we secure the future of the Indian gazelle?

Wild animals are illegally poached and the spiraling dog population is causing particular problems for animals like gazelles and black buck.  Education in India is free and only on the brink of becoming compulsory, so many farmers’ children choose not to attend and stay at home to help on the farm instead.  Resultant illiteracy makes it difficult to promote awareness of threats to the desert ecology and sustainable agricultural techniques.  At the governmental level there are also many problems, such as the necessary rapid growth for combating famine and poverty clashing with the need to protect the natural environment.

The problems of the Thar Desert highlight the need for protection of the plentiful wildlife and unique, culturally rich communities that live within it.  One community standing at the forefront of desert protection is the Bishnois, indigenous followers of a religion sworn to safeguard its flora and fauna.  Over coming articles, the Bishnoi religion and their valuable involvement in the future of the desert will be explained as per my experiences of living in their community.  With regards to the Thar, it may fit the technical label of a desert but other associations do not apply, deserted it most certainly is not.

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