Myristica Swamps around Western Ghats are increasingly getting invaded due to the drain of water by farmers for cultivation.
The hinterlands of Kudegod forests of SiddapuraTaluk in Uttara Kannada are like a series of undulated terrain ranges, with a stretch of forests across the inclined land. Amidst the pale, green canopied trees, one can spot the roots as they sprout out of the soil and cause ripple-like structures on the ground, creating tangled knee roots.
The ground appears almost like a dry bed with an occasional glimpse of the canal that cuts through it. It is drier than the other swamp that we visited in Torme village, around 15 kms from Siddapur, in a way that it was thicker with a moister low-bed just like a sponge. The swamps being referred to here are Myristica swamps or Rampatrejeddi (Rampatre is Nutmeg, Jeddi: Swamp) as they are called in the local language, Kannada. These swamps, just like most other swamps of Western Ghats and some other parts of the country like in West Bengal, are home to dozens of plants and animals, including Gymnacranthera (local name is Ondankimara), MyristicaFatua ( Dasapathre) SemecarpusKathlekanesis (Kanugeru), Idea Malabarica (the Butterfly) and Mercuranamyristicapalustris (the frog), exclusively associated with the Myristica Swamps and are also listed as endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Myristica Swamps are a common matter of discussion for the scientific community. The name comes from ‘Myristicae’ or Wild nutmeg (Jakai) known for its use as a spice. These swamps are valuable watershed resources which help in erosion control, sediment retention, and provide a rich biodiversity including several endangered species of both flora and fauna.
Globally, similarfreshwater swamps are found in the valleys of Mississippi and its tributaries, Sweden, Congo, Malaysian Region and Papua New Guinea. In India they are found in Siwalik and Doon valley, Brahmaputra valley ,and Travancore region of the Western Ghats in South India. These swamps, which used to occupy large patches of Western Ghats, are now restricted to less than 300 hectares.
The practice of conserving Myristica Swamps was only initiated ten years ago. Out of 120 myristica swamps in Uttara Kannada alone, around 45 (about one-third) are within the conservation reserves. The remaining two-thirds are vulnerable to encroachment and cultivation. This shows, there is, more disturbance than conservation.
Wetlands, covering an approximate area of one to two hectares, are these small patches of swamps usually found scattered over a larger area. Hence, in order to conserve such swamps, it might be necessary to conserve an entire forest land, almost like sanctuaries that cover around 400 sq. km. And once a swamp area has been declared as a conservation reserve, one cannot draw water from there and it cannot be cultivated. Most encroachments happen out of the need for the local farmers to cultivate banana, areca nut and black pepper. Water is usually drawn out of the swamps through pipes to the lower level ground. Prakash Hedge, a farmer who has an areca nut plantation in Torme village, explains that he usually drew out water from these swamps and utilized it for cultivation. The adjoining forest land is segregated into various parts for the purpose of irrigation, after which the water is drawn out of the swamp to help grow banana, areca nut and black pepper. Dr. Vasudev, Professor of Biology at Forestry College in Sirsi, explained, “The water level is high in the swamp, and it is can also be toxic sometimes for plants like areca nuts, because of the high levels of iron in the soil.” Therefore, the soil is amended first by creating a gap of around 50 to 100 m in length between the adjoining land and the swamp, and the water from the swamp is utilized for irrigation. It could be said that Myristica Swamps are productive only after amendments.
He added, “Encroachment of Myristica Swamps has been going on for a very long time.” People have realized the need to conserve the swamps after they began feeling the water shortage. The swamps, when found 10 years ago, were heavily populated by the species SemecarpusKathlekanesis (kathle means dark, kan means an evergreen forest in Kannada), and just 20 members of the species were found breeding out of the 120 who were discovered back then. The attention that it received from the media helped spread some awareness about the issue.
This discovery fuelled the awareness and sense of importance for the connection between three players in the swamps: SemecarpusKathlekanesis (the tree), IdeaMalabarica (the butterfly that plays the role of a pollinator) and Lion Tail Macaque (LTM, the monkey for seed dispersal). Unlike the earlier groups of LTMs that counted up to 10-12 per group, only 2-3 can be spotted in a group now. The butterfly and monkey are not obligated to Semecarpus in any way, it is a give and take relationship.
Kudegod, a small village with around 10 families, depends on the underground water for their plantations. Keshav D Hegde who owns areca nut plantations stated that the forest thickness and rainfall has decreased over the years. “It is said that by planting RampatreJeddi, the water level in the ground will hold up and avoid soil erosion; for us to take the initiative, we will have to take permission from the forest department to plant that. But we haven’t tried taking permission yet,” he added.
Economically,the swamps are not of much use. But the ecological services that they offer is key. “Swamps feed the river and maintain it perennially, as they gradually release the water over the year. They act as a huge sponge; water comes out of the swamp slowly making it a reservoir,” added DrVasudev.
Most of the swamps are located in remote forest areas which are difficult to reach for the forest department, researchers, and outsiders. Most of the freshwater swamps are either degraded or their area has been reduced due to continuous cultivation. Recently, forest officials and environmentalists have been concerned about conservation of fresh water swamps. Prior to any research and developmental activity, only 52 swamps were known, now 69 additional swamps in Uttara Kannada have been identified and mapped by the Forest Department. The Western Ghats Special Task Force took it as major conservation priority work and the department allocated funds for their restoration like planting some species and making Village Forest Committees (VFC’s) aware of wetland conservation”, said Narsimha Hegde who has worked with Western Ghats Special Task Force.
In 2015, a pilot project was taken up and funded by Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), SnehaKunja Trust, Life Trust of Sirsi, where the local community was contacted to grow around 3000 saplings of SemecarpusKathlekanesis in a nursery and plant them in the Gerusoppa Range as an effort of manual regeneration of the species.
“At present, no such project is going on,” said Prakash Hegde.
[Prakash Hegde talking about how he planted the saplings and the area around]
People living in the vicinity of the swamps do not have much of an idea of the conservation of the wetland and that it needs to be protected. MN Hegde, Head of the Village Forest Committee of Kodegod Village, said, “We don’t really know about Myristica Swamps, but we have a vague idea that these wetlands have long-term ecological importance and we will be prompt in learning about it more and helping the Government propagate the idea of conservation.”
After the maiden project was carried out by the Life Trust of Sirsi, Government of Karnataka has taken its initial steps and is sponsoring a team from Forestry College of Sirsi to carry on the survey, mapping, and identifying species and social issues related to the swamp. Range Forest Officer, Prabhakar M Kaginelli, said, “The team will submit a working paper to the Government in the month of March based on which measures will be taken up by the Government towards the conservation of swamps.”
As much as the scientific community and researchers are aware of the gravity of the situation, local people do not seem to have a clear idea about it. Local people should be informed of their significance through booklets, pamphlets and documents in local dialects. Religious and village heads should be empowered with knowledge and the significance of the swamps. It might be difficult to come up with an exact percentage of the encroached swamp land, however, it could be said that about 70% swamp land is being encroached upon. The pilot project to regenerate species could be taken a step further by involving all villages where the swamps exist. Narsimha Hedge explains, “The hydrological value of the swamp and biodiversity should be explained to the local people, that they should feel proud of it; local people should be engaged in conservation activities by giving them alternative livelihood options—also fencing and declaring the area as conservation reserve.”