The state has planned an ambitious drive of planting two crore saplings on July 1 to protect the dwindling green cover. But showing the way on how grasslands can be developed and protected from open grazing and forest fires are tribals of Western Ghats.
At Kalsubai Harishchandragad wildlife sanctuary in Ahmednagar, tribals of 10 villages have set up their own Raakhan Raan, grassy patches of land that are treated as sacred groves and serve as a means of fodder security during drought.
So enthused are the state forest officials with the traditional manner in which tribals are doing their bit towards ecological conservation, especially as rare species of grass are now being found here, that they have decided to replicate the same model at the Bhimashankar wildlife sanctuary in Pune district.
Sunil Limaye, Chief Conservator of Forests (Wild life), Pune division, told The Indian Express that despite several efforts to increase the green cover, open grazing by cattle, encroachment and illicit tree felling have posed a challenge.
Only recently, state forest officials pointed out, the green cover in Maharashtra was only 20 per cent as against the required 33.5 per cent. Of a total of 307 lakh hectares, only 61.35 lakh hectares are under green cover and hence the ambitious drive by the state to plant two crore saplings on July 1.
As part of the forest department’s conservation efforts, the focus is also on how tribals at Akole tehsil of Ahmednagar district under the Kalsubai Harishchandragad wildlife sanctuary have been protecting their grasslands. “Even if the tribal family has just five acres of land, they will ensure that grass is allowed to grow on at least one acre of land. Here, they will not allow their cattle to graze. These efforts have now created scenic grassland patches,” Limaye said.
“So far, there has been very little documentation about this unique conservation method. We launched our survey two years ago and found that these tribes, like Mahadeo Koli and others, protect part of their private land to create grassy patches. These are protected from open grazing through mutual understanding among the tribes. These tracts of land are purposely harvested after grasses complete their life cycles and disperse their seeds. Hence, they also act as seed banks for grass species in an otherwise overgrazed scenario,” said Jui Pethe, an ecological researcher.
Pethe, along with Vijay Sambre, principal investigator of Lok Panchayat, an NGO at Ahmednagar involved in conservation of biodiversity, are part of the Maharashtra Gene Bank project funded by the state’s Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Commission. Through this project, they have also undertaken a survey of the fodder areas and Dangi livestock conservation efforts in 15 villages and 40 hamlets of Akole tehsil of Ahmednagar district.
In fact, the survey findings now show that rare species of grass like dicanthium armatum, eulalia trispicata have been found in these Raakhan Raan which are locally extinct in the open grazed areas of the villages, Sambre said.
So far, the survey has covered five villages where the local pastoral community has committed themselves to forest regeneration. Each family had a herd of 100 cows earlier, but due to various reasons like reduced resistance to diseases, now the numbers have come down to each family having just 25- 30 cows.
“We plan to survey another five villages soon,” they said.
“These grassland patches are similar to Devrai or sacred groves. Not only do they serve the purpose of large-scale grass collection sites, but they also play a huge role in the total milk production in the state,” Pethe said.