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Meet the ecologist giving grass roots in the Nilgiris

By Natasha Rego,

Restoration ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco has made it his mission to restore the vegetation.

Godwin Vasanth Bosco with the rare golden Kurinji. The plant flowers once in nine years and is endemic to just a few hilltops in the Nilgiris. (Ganesh G)

Godwin Vasanth Bosco, 33, is a restoration ecologist who spent over a decade studying and restoring the Nilgiri plateau, a 5,000 sq km tableland in the Nilgiri biosphere that abuts the Western Ghats (but much higher than them). The hill station of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, for instance, is on the Nilgiri plateau.

This is an area home to species found nowhere else on Earth; some are not even found elsewhere in the Western Ghats. But the Nilgiri plateau is highly endangered. What was a lush mosaic of shola forests and grasslands is now dotted with farms, homes, schools, resorts, even power projects.

Bosco is working to reverse some of this damaging change. Through his ecological services company Upstream Ecology, he maintains a grasslands nursery in Ooty (set up in 2013) where he propagates native plants, especially the grasses that are vital to the ecosystem. He also works with government and private institutions to change mindsets and restore the landscape.

An engineer, he quit his career in 2009 to study plant ecology and threats to it in mountain ecologies, at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (GBS) in Kerala and at Himal Prakriti in Uttarakhand. The following year he started studying the Nilgiri plateau as an independent researcher with the GBS. Bosco has worked to restore over 200 acres of land so far. He is also the author of Voice of a Sentient Highland (2019), which details the impact of climate change on this ecosystem. Excerpts from an interview:

How would you explain the importance of rewilding in India?
It is extremely important that rewilding happens across India. The last few decades have seen rampant deforestation, destruction of grasslands, wetlands, mangroves, rivers, mountain slopes and coral reefs. Water tables are plummeting. Everyone needs to understand that wilderness and ecologically intact spaces are a fundamental basis of everything — every life-supporting system. Rewilding, if in alignment with local and indigenous community’s needs, is ground zero of social and ecological justice.

An important precursor to this step, is safeguarding what still remains, and in India we are faltering on this front.

When you started your nursery, was there community knowledge you tapped into?
Indigenous people don’t grow forest and grassland plants. They don’t have to because they don’t destroy them. So I had to experiment. Native grasses live for very long. They don’t produce viable seeds every year. It was hard to propagate them on the land.

The biggest factor is to allow for time and space to let nature play its role.

What are the three biggest threats to the Nilgiri plateau, in your opinion?
The Nilgiris have a huge number of invasive species, but we’ve reached a stage in conservation where it’s not as big a problem as climate change and habitat destruction by humans. Extreme weather events are occurring frequently and wreak devastation on the land, even where the grasslands are intact.

Because there has been so much excavation and construction, the hydrology has been affected. There used to be thousands of streams across the plateau. You don’t see them now. Water-holding capacity has gone and the topsoil has been washed way. Landslides happen every year now in the monsoon.

How do you go about restoring a patch of land in the Nilgiri plateau?
One of the main starting steps is a baseline study to determine what ecosystem that patch of land belongs to. For instance, in grassland restoration, an area is cleared out and we make space for each type of grass. The patch is monitored for at least a year. Once in two months we go in and remove the weeds, and within a year it establishes itself. The native grasses grow bigger and taller and take over. Shrubs and forest restoration takes longer.

We plant 2,000 to 4,000 clusters of grass on 1 acre. I work with the forest department, schools with large landholdings, and on private land. Some of these places have been growing and maintaining the wrong trees for many decades, so uprooting all of them can be tedious.

Is there a model in the world that you think is a good example of rewilding or cohabiting with nature?
The best models of cohabiting are the places where indigenous peoples and communities are still present and have protected their forests, shrublands and grasslands. These places have thrived with these human communities for millennia. To work well as a model, the local and indigenous communities need to be empowered to facilitate change and rewilding, and it cannot just happen by working with a few stakeholders. Perhaps an effective model for other parts of the world could stem from India.

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