We are delighted to bring you the interview of K. S. Shashidhar, former Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Nagaland. Retired and based in Bengaluru, he now educates people about the significance of orchids in their ecosystems, and calls for their conservation and propagation. He is a founder-member of the Orchid Society of Karnataka, which was established in 2005-06 to create awareness about orchid cultivation and conservation. In this conversation, Mr. Shashidhar shares his insights into orchids – their present and their future – drawing from his immense experience of over 37 years.
Your journey with orchids began in 1983 in Nagaland. What inspired you to go into orchid conservation back then? How has the landscape changed, and what progress has been made over these 37 years?
After my degree in agriculture, my interest was in flowering ornamental plants. Initially, I had few Vandaceous orchids, (in the early ’80s) and I was not sure about its care and it did not flower. Later, I joined the Indian Forest Service and went to Nagaland in 1983. During Forest Range training in Dimapur (Nagaland), I was staying in the forest rest house. One morning, I woke up and saw lots of mixed colours on the tree trunks and branches; it was a sight to see. After checking what it was, it turned out to be an orchid Papilionanthe teres (=Vanda teres) with huge flowers. The sight of orchids in its natural habitat attracted me. From then onwards, there was no looking back, wherever I was posted, I came across lots of epiphytes, ferns and orchids, and seeing them in their natural habitat is altogether a different experience for me.
Looking back over the years, there has been an increase in awareness about orchid-growing and is fast catching up as a hobby. The change in land-use, which has occurred not only in Nagaland but in several places in the country, has resulted in the loss of natural habitat for orchids due to reduction in forest cover and fragmentation. Developmental activities and expansion of agriculture area, jhum (shifting cultivation) in Nagaland and in several parts of Northeast has resulted in gradual loss of many of these epiphytes including orchids. There was a time when one could get sight of orchids by travelling for half-an-hour to one hour in Nagaland, and in later years of my career, when I wanted to capture pictures of Vanda coerulea (Blue Vanda), I had to travel for almost six hours before I could see one! It is time that a concerted and focused approach towards conservation of orchids needs to be taken up before it is too late in the day.
Protected Areas (PAs) such as National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Biosphere Parks serve the purpose of in situ conservation, no doubt, but areas outside the purview of these PAs still harbour plenty of orchids. There is a need for an ‘orchid map’ of the country and an initiation of in situ conservation measures by declaring these as orchid protected areas.
Tell us about the ecological and cultural significance of orchids. Why are they so integral to the ecosystem?
In an ecosystem, there are several biotas or components which interact with each other and derive benefits for their sustenance. This operates as a fine-tuned mechanism in nature and keeps the ecosystem vibrant and alive. Numerous macro, microflora (mycorrhiza) and fauna, including orchids, epiphytes, and insects are important components in the ecosystem.
The economic value of the orchids as cut flowers and potted plants which run into multibillion-dollar in the international trade is well known. This has been on the rise in the last decade or so. The ecological role of orchids in the ecosystem has not drawn the attention which it deserves and is often undermined. Orchids are known to be highly advanced plants, developing various contrivances to attract pollinators. Orchids are the indicators of the health of the ecosystem and their presence signifies that the ecosystem is vibrant and lively. The dependence of orchids on mycorrhiza for germination and pollinators (mainly insects) for their propagation are classic cases of interaction with other biotas in nature. It is observed that Euglossine bees, which are native to Central and South America, pollinate as many as 700 species of orchids. Without these pollinators, it would be difficult for the orchids to reproduce in nature. This sensitive interaction in nature has been very well documented by various studies with classic examples. In some cases, the emergence of bees from hibernation and opening of the orchid flower is so well-timed that if there is a delay in the opening of the orchid flower, the emergence of the bees also gets delayed. Orchids are slow-growing, and in an ecosystem, they are the last to perish. And once they are gone, their vanishing indicates that the process has reached a stage of irreversibility.
Culturally, orchids have been part of our various religious and social events. In India, flowers of Aerides (Draupadi pushpa) and Rhynchostylis retusa (Seeta pushpa and Kaphu phool) were adorned by ladies as a symbol of sanctity and womanhood during the spring festival in Assam. Single large flowers of Papilionanthe teres are also used for personal adornment. In Buddhist temples, decoration is made with flowers of Dendrobium hookerianum. Many of the orchids are also known for their medicinal value.
What kind of anthropogenic pressures pose the biggest threat to orchid populations today?
One of the main threats or reasons for the declining population of orchids is habitat destruction and fragmentation. This happens due to land-use changes for various activities (including jhum or shifting cultivation practices in NE India), and it is not only the orchids which are threatened here, the associated flora and fauna are also in decline. Fragmentation of habitats results in loss of species, change in processes such as pollination, and they may not support assemblage of species. It also results in the isolation of populations.
Overexploitation has also been a major threat, especially when it tends to become commercial. The fact that several orchids produce attractive large flowers is itself a threat to their population. Even today, world over, any new discovery of an orchid species will result in rampant smuggling and being sold at exorbitant prices.
We have observed that many of the coffee plantations harbour numerous orchids, and when the trees are either pruned or felled for various reasons, in all probabilities you have seen the last of these orchids. Lack of concern and absence of any rehabilitation program in such cases is a death knell for those orchids. In addition, activities such as widening of roads have resulted in considerable loss of orchid population as no attempts to rehabilitate them have been made.
During your time as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Nagaland, you were instrumental in setting up three community reserves. How has community participation furthered the cause of orchid conservation? How can communities be empowered to do it?
The state of Nagaland has more than 50% of its geographical area under forest and tree cover. About 88% of this comes under the community and individual ownership. This urges any conservation and developmental programmes to involve community participation. With three Protected Areas in the state, there was a need for a network of more conservation areas to conserve the flora and fauna. In this regard, ‘Community Reserves’ have gone a long way in not only achieving conservation objectives but also in supporting livelihood to the community. These Community Reserves are under the ownership of the community in a village, and areas which are rich in flora and fauna have been taken up. These areas are managed by a committee involving villagers and facilitated by an official from the Forest Department. The financial support comes from GOI for initial activities such as watchtower, water reservoir, trails and resting hut to enable tourism. The community will manage and implement all the programs and organise orchid trails and tours to create awareness about conservation and earn revenue for the community. The funding will be for initial infrastructure and maintenance for 2-3 years. Probably the first time in the country, such ‘Community Reserves’ are set up in villages where these are located outside the state-owned areas and entirely managed by the communities. The program is to declare several such reserves and a network of them will go a long way in conservation programmes
Awareness creation is an integral part of your work. What can home gardeners in urban areas do to contribute to the conservation of orchids? How do you create awareness about orchid conservation when working with people in rural areas?
There was a time when it was considered that orchid growing was for elite people and needed lots of special attention. But this myth is broken and has become a hobby for anyone to be taken up. It has gathered momentum in the last decade or so in urban areas including Bengaluru. The Orchid Society of Karnataka was started in 2005-06. We have more than 600 members and most of them are hobby growers. One of the objectives is to popularise the growing of orchids and assisting these hobbyists. We advise the beginners to go for easy growing orchid hybrids such as Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, Cattleyas (in Bengaluru), so that they become conversant with its care and culture. Increasingly, people are going for these hybrids as the wild plants are not easy to grow not only for beginners, and at times even experienced growers will have difficulties in establishing these wild ones. The Society creates awareness regarding the need for conservation of orchids and their gene pool in their natural habitats, which eventually give rise to many more hybrids.
In rural areas, livelihood or the economic dimension comes into picture. One way of doing this is to involve them in growing hybrids for flowers and have a buy-back arrangement and arrange proper marketing of these flowers will be more appropriate. In addition, with the help of the villagers or communities, areas which are rich in orchid population can be set aside as conservation areas and involve the villagers or community in the management of these for trails and tourism activities. The coffee estates, especially, having considerable orchid flora, have gained popularity for tours and trails. Similar ones can be initiated in orchid-rich areas to create awareness about their conservation. The same can be replicated in areas rich in orchids and belonging to the public.
The Orchid Society of Karnataka has advocated for an Orchid Research and Development Centre in the state. What benefits do you foresee this having for long term orchid conservation in Karnataka? Are there any barriers to setting it up?
First of all, to conserve something, we should know what we have and where we have it. A proper survey and a region-wise ‘orchid map’ are more appropriate. We know the orchid-rich regions in the country, but a benchmark survey and status of the species and their monitoring are very much required. These exercises have to be institution-based. In most of the cases, the stakeholders will be Forest Departments and the nearby villagers. In addition, roping in institutions like BSI and local societies such as the Orchid Society of Karnataka is important. The institutional arrangement will ensure continuity and proper monitoring, and helps in taking timely actions to conserve the orchids.Dendrobium macrostachyum
The need of the hour is an institution dedicated to orchids with focused objectives. It will go a long way in conservation of orchids in the region/state. The activities should include not only collection of germplasm (as it is happening in some institutions) but should go a step further in identifying endangered and endemic species, and plan to multiply through technological interventions and re-introduce them in their regions supplementing the in situ conservation programme which is already in place. In addition, those species which have commercial value have to be propagated and made available to hobby growers and others interested. This will reduce the pressure on wild plant collection and ensure a successful conservation programme. These activities can be tied up with other commercial private laboratories (some of them already exist) for mass multiplication.
Considering the orchid wealth of the Western Ghats, which extends from the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala, a regional institute covering the above-mentioned objectives goes a long way in the conservation of orchids in the region. As the area involved is Trans State, a regional institution under the Central Government would be more appropriate. Alternatively, Karnataka can come out with their own R&D unit in collaboration with the Forest and Horticulture Department to foresee the activities. Only an institution-based approach will ensure continuity and sustainment over a period of time. The role of the institutions should be to develop a protocol for mass multiplication of identified species and to also establish market linkages both within and outside the country.
What challenges still remain in the way forward? What other institutional support do you feel orchid conservation still requires?
India, with its orchid wealth of 1,256 species, has tremendous potential to make an impact in the international scenario of trade, and at the same time focus on conservation issues. Orchid conservation cannot happen in isolation, it goes as a package involving all associated flora and fauna. But as of now, hardly any progress is made in the field of hybridisation and commercialisation in the country. With 1,80,168 hybrids registered world over with Royal Horticultural Society, India’s contribution of the number of hybrids registered is 186. Out of this, how many are commercially attractive and are in demand is a question. Whether these are made available to the growers in the country is another. At present (before COVID-19 broke out), lots of hybrids were being imported from Thailand and Taiwan to meet the demands of the growers. This poses two problems. Firstly, as many times, what is imported is made available, restricting the choice of the grower. Secondly, new hybrids for commercial cultivation for cut flowers or potted plants are not easily available as one has to depend on the import. The price factor is another consideration.
In the long run, it is important to grow our own plants which are commercially attractive and made available to not only meet the increasing demand in the country but to have the export potential. To achieve this, there should be an institution-based (with long-term and short-term objectives) approach in collaboration with experienced private growers and nurseries dealing with orchids in places like, Sikkim, Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Imphal, who are already in the picture.
The international market scenario is continuously evolving and keeps changing as per the market preferences and one needs to keep track of these to keep up with the competition.
With technical know-how for mass multiplication, skilled and experienced growers being available and climatic conditions being suitable, we need to only convert these advantages to meet the demands in the country and outside.