Savannas – large expanses of grass-dominated landscapes dotted by shrubs and woody trees – are often referred to as ‘wastelands’ in India. They have long been considered to be remnants of forests degraded by human disturbances such as fire and grazing. However, studies indicate that the savanna grasslands of peninsular India are ancient ecosystems that pre-date humans and hold high species richness, endemism and unique biodiversity. Tropical forests are looked upon as great carbon sinks, however, grasslands are an integral part of the carbon cycle as they store large amounts of carbon under the surface.
Photo: Kalyan Varma
The biodiversity that savannas fosters not only has enormous ecological value, but also substantial socio-economic and cultural value by offering livelihood support to millions of people. They have played an immense role in the development of mankind. This includes one of the marginalised groups, the pastoralists, who contribute greatly to the massive industries of dairy, wool and meat and their native breeds of livestock.
The semi-arid savanna grasslands of India nurture a variety of native flora and fauna that sustain on the low rainfall and extreme temperature variability. The Indian semi-arid savannas are home to some charismatic critically endangered species like the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) and lesser florican (Sypheotides indicus). Among other species found in these grasslands are the Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), the Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur), and the winter visitor Asian Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii).
Pallid harrier. Photo: Kalyan Varma
The habitat also boasts of rich lesser fauna such as the spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx species), lizards of the lacertid family and several avian species such as larks, pipits and cranes along with plants like Olax and Ephedra. A recent study found that the Indian savannas contain 206 endemic plant species, a whopping 43% of which were described only in the last two decades. More endemic species await to be discovered.
In this interview, we speak with Dr. Ovee Thorat, an independent researcher who comes with a mixture of disciplinary backgrounds as she has moved from her training in core natural science subjects to incorporating more of humanities and social sciences in her work. Her areas of interest are issues of resource access and rights, commons and commoning, pastoralism, rangeland ecology, and politics of wildlife conservation. She says she is happiest with people, plants, colours and questions. Here, she talks to us about grasslands in India with a clarity that helped us learn more about their situation and the way forward to conserve them.
Dr. Ovee Thorat
Over to Dr. Thorat:
WCS-India: What is your earliest memory of being allured to studying semi-arid grasslands? What about them inspired you to choose the path you’ve chosen?
Dr. Thorat: I felt comfortable in drylands. The toughness and dynamic nature of grasses and herbs attracted me. The coolness of desert nights, endless horizons, cranes and larks, the calmness of shepherds, and liking for livestock added to it. Leaving the romantic side aside, when I started exploring the field of ecology by working as an intern with wildlife researchers and conservationists, I realised that there was a lot of focus on charismatic animals such as the tiger and supposedly pristine landscapes such as the forests. Yet, there were some people who were beginning to talk about human-wildlife interaction and landscapes other than protected areas. This interested me solely because I wanted to be more just in what I choose to work on. I then decided to work on the wolf and realised – thanks to mentors and courses at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), an institute that encourages interdisciplinarity – that I cannot study the wolf without studying the shepherd, and I can’t do that if I can’t understand the ecology and the history of grasslands in the country. It was this heart-opening journey that inspired me to work on grasslands.
Indian wolves. Photo: Pravin Jagtap
WCS-India: Could you please explain the context of your work and the work you are currently doing?
Dr. Thorat: I did a PhD on political ecology of grassland development and conservation in Banni grasslands located in Kachchh, Gujarat. From there I moved to a short study on landscape transformation in a Special Economic Zone in Andhra Pradesh while also teaching a course on Environmental Communication as a postdoctoral fellow. I have currently initiated a small project on identifying critical grazing and camping sites used by the pastoralists in Jammu and Kashmir and associated environmental and social justice issues. The overall approach I use is Political Ecology – a recently developing field that intertwines political economy, environmental history and ecology among other fields with a critical lens and has justice at its core. An important question that it tries to answer is who wins and who loses in the way landscapes are governed.
WCS-India: Why, according to you, are grasslands as important as any other ecosystems?
Dr. Thorat: All places hold something for us to learn about and learn from. Grasslands are no different.
Spiny-tailed lizard. Photo: Anuroop Krishnan
WCS-India: Why do you think these landscapes have not gained as much attention for conservation as they deserve?
Dr. Thorat: We are still battling with some unchallenged ideas such as any drylands being considered wastelands or degraded form of forest ecosystems. Tagging anything as wastelands make it open for putting it to use for more “productive” use such as infrastructural development, afforestation, urban expansion, and other such activities that otherwise can’t be carried out in protected forests or agricultural land. Grasslands have such close and complex links with herbivores (both livestock and wild) and humans, that it is difficult to separate them from these elements, making them unattractive to anyone who wants to conserve pristine nature.
Secondly, grasslands in India do not hold charismatic mammals such as the tiger or the elephant, and hence have remained out of the discourse of wildlife conservation.
The hardy Banni buffalo is a native breed found primarily in the Kachchh district of Gujarat. Photo and caption: Dr. Ovee Thorat
WCS-India: Would you like to share an experience you want to highlight from your time at the site of your work?
Dr. Thorat: It was during my PhD thesis related work that I spent a long time in the field. On one of these days, there was a meeting organised between the local community and the forest department. I was hopeful to see some interaction about the pressing issues related to management of the grasslands. However, within a few minutes, there were raised voices from both sides as NGOs remained spectators. This incident and many more showed me how important dialogue and interactions between different stakeholders are to address conservation issues.
WCS-India: What do you think the current semi-arid grasslands conservation situation is like in your area of work?
Dr. Thorat: New studies that identify grasslands as ‘old-growth’ and ‘savanna’ have been useful in changing the ecological discourse of grasslands. However, a lot of unlearning needs to be done to enrich our understanding of grasslands. Fire and grazing are still considered disturbances, pastoralists are still thought to be the main problem of the grasslands, and the tenuous status of commons continues. NGOs often make a stand with either romanticisation of pastoralists or aims of settling them rather than accepting the dynamic and complex connection that people have with grasslands. Research, activism, as well as governance of grasslands remain stuck and neglected except for a few examples in addition to the largely colonial approach to conservation of grasslands.
Maldharis, a traditional pastoralist community, move with their native Kankrej cattle. Photo: Dr. Ovee Thorat
WCS-India: What are the significant wildlife that rely on this landscape for their very survival?
Dr. Thorat: We are still exploring species in grasslands, from lacertids that are newly described and lizards that are unique to these habitats such as the spiny-tailed lizard to rediscovery of rare plants such as Olax nana, grasslands hold significant wildlife. While in Kachchh, I remember being surrounded by hundreds of chattering common cranes – never have I experienced that anywhere else. Apart from that, mammals such as the wolf, markhor, blackbuck, and birds such as the great Indian bustard, florican, sociable lapwing are known to depend on the grasslands. If I am to expand to the notion of biodiversity, and not stay limited to wildlife, there are many native livestock breeds that are dependent on grasslands too.
Lesser florican. Photo: Ashok Chaudhary
WCS-India: How do you think local communities can contribute and be involved in conserving the semi-arid grasslands of our country and thereby the wildlife that lives there?
Dr. Thorat: Based on my experience so far, more than the local community, it is the government, researchers, NGOs, and activists that need to contribute to grasslands to conserve them. Supporting and keeping alive nomadic pastoralism and other activities, supporting wool and other livestock-based products, and respecting the rights of the local community, revival of village commons would go a long way in conservation of grassland and the wildlife. Until the base of justice and trust is not built and local institutions are not strengthened, we cannot expect the local community to do what we might think is necessary.
Photo: Vishwam Singh
WCS-India: What do you think is the way forward for the conservation of these landscapes?
Dr. Thorat: I see a lot of hope in interdisciplinary approaches when it comes to research and knowledge building, and in decentralisation and support of local institutions when it comes to governance. These two things are key to conservation of grasslands in the country.
For additional reading:
Interview by Sourabha Rao