The lonely atti maram (fig tree) in the middle of the expanse of tea was always a mystery. Tea plantations need varying shade — lots of it in the summer and none in the monsoons. The exotic Australian silver oak is the choice of shade tree, since it can be lopped or chopped at will. They have quickly become synonymous with tea plantations — planted in neat rows, all maintained at the same height and amount of foliage. The orderly manicured look that complements the tea bushes. In the middle of this was the incongruous, expansive ficus. Not quite a fish out of water, but almost. For many years we went by the tree noticing it for being out of place, but never stopping to find out its story.
And then we finally found out, almost by chance. It turns out that the Paniyas, across many generations, have never allowed the estate managers to cut it. So this tree, along with a companion stone and a small natural spring at its base, is all that is left of their kaavu (sacred grove). The Paniyas were very pragmatic about their choice of place — the tree provided valuable shade, water and some food — all essential requirements for their spirits. The “Adi-vasis” (first people) ironically now find themselves last on the socio-economic spectrum. They have lost all their land to the waves of immigrants into the Nilgiris, since like most indigenous people, they had no concept of individual land ownership. But despite repeated attempts, they refuse to give up their atti maram and kaavu. Their entire village was willing to fight for it, even when the land it stood on legally (and unjustly) had been given to a large tea estate by the government.
We were in the process of documenting sacred groves across tea plantations in Gudalur taluk of the Niligiris in Tamil Nadu, to try and figure out the importance they played in conservation of biodiversity. We were expecting to find patches of forests scattered across the landscape, that would be filled with an exciting array of plants, trees and animals. But from village to village, we largely found small patches of land, and often just these sad looking lone trees, in the middle of an almost green desert of tea and silver oak. To say we were disappointed was an understatement. We were great proponents of community conservation, and were hoping to find that large areas of forests were being conserved by Adivasi communities through their cumulative sacred groves. But here we found many of the sacred groves had been reduced to single tree sacred sites, with almost no area to measure. Tea was even planted under most of the canopy in some cases. We were clearly disappointed that local communities and their belief systems were not actually saving significant areas of forests. But what we did notice, was that the the most common tree in all these kaavus, was the ficus — trees that are well known for playing a very important role in conservation.
The ficus genus hosts a large number of species, and is, perhaps, best known in India for Ficus religiosa, the peepul tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The great banyan (F. benghalensis) is also a ficus, and one of the largest organisms in the world in terms of the area it covers through its aerial roots that form a clonal colony. And then of course, there are figs, the all important fruit that make it a keystone species, whose removal (like in the keystone of an arch) will result in the collapse of many other species around it. Hundreds of insects, birds and a flurry of life emanate from every fig tree. While we knew all this, we were also aware that these lonely trees in the middle of tea estates were almost like arches left standing after the building had been demolished, no longer holding up the building. With no land around these very important trees, we assumed they had little or no conservation significance. We didn’t look into the issue much more. We moved on.
A few years later though, in trying to document the various animals that came through tea estates, we came back to the lonely fig tree. If there were animals coming through estates, that tree would be the place to find them. Camera traps are better known for photographing tigers, but we put a few up in the sacred fig tree, some also pointing downwards. What we found after a month was quite incredible. During the day, of course, the mammals included people, people, people and a few monkeys (bonnet macaques), people and more people. There were a large number of birds as expected, including some exciting rare visitors like the great hornbill. The nights were when the tree came alive. The first week we found that civets were regular visitors, mostly the brown palm civet. Then, we found a flying squirrel, which was exciting for us because none of us had seen one clearly, since they came out only at night. In the weeks that followed, as the figs ripened and fell to the ground, the place really came alive. Porcupine, wild boar, barking deer, sambhar deer, bear, and, even, an elephant! A leopard also walked by, probably feeling like she was missing the party, and to try to dine on a couple of fig-eaters! Other than a tiger, almost all the other large mammals in the region were seen under the fig tree. All this in the middle of an expanse of tea, where almost no animals were seen (or even imagined) during the day.
The atti maram, despite its very lonely existence in the middle of the tea plantation, still played a very important role. Not just for the lesser life forms that we all know are important, but, sadly, care less about — they provide food across the food chain, even for the largest of land mammals, the elephant. The irony is that even with this knowledge, there is no official protection for the tree, and it could legally be cut if the correct permissions are sought. But the Paniyas will continue to fight for it, at least for this generation and, hopefully, the next.
Agarwal worked with The Shola Trust before joining the Centre for Science and Environment in 2015; Thekaekara is a biodiversity conservation researcher with The Shola Trust.