Suprabha Seshan

The urgency of saving the wildernesses of the Western Ghats from death cannot be overemphasised: we are running out of time.

THE GREAT montane wildernesses of the Western Ghats, in particular the grassland-forest systems, have been reduced to tiny and tattered fragments of what they once were. In fact, there is serious speculation among ecologists that they might be dying.

Ecosystem death is the process whereby a patch of habitat, if it becomes too small and isolated, or (too) disturbed too frequently, or (too) choked with non-native species, starts to lose its own species, its capacity for self- sustenance and more significantly, for self-repair. Ecologists warn us that wild systems can collapse even if they are protected, especially if they are small and isolated. The decline in health may be gradual for a long period and then sudden. No one can precisely say when this may occur, since ecosystems are still relatively mysterious things. But it is unequivocally understood that most of the world's wild places, if not all, are further deteriorating from the combined effect of stresses on different fronts. To name three of the most severe: the spread of invasive exotic species (plants, fungi and animals), global climate change with its highly unpredictable consequences, and habitat fragmentation.

Tropical montane systems along with the Arctic tundra are among the most vulnerable ecosystems today. As the climate warms, cold-loving species will have no higher, cooler place to move to. Species from lower latitudes will move up as temperatures rise. Where will these plants and animals go once they have reached the North Pole? Or if they are in the tropics, once they have fled to the tops and edges of mountains?

It was in the Mukurthi National Park that our team from the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (GBS) learned the signs of ecosystem decay: upfront. Despite the best of efforts, we have come to worry that Mukurthi teeters on the terminal brink, slips on a slow but sure downward slide. The fact that exotic plant species such as wattle, gorse and broom (introduced by the British in the 1800s), can be found in every valley of the National Park alone is a sign of ill health. The fact that some native species are found in patches of less than 20 sq meters (and nowhere else on the planet) is highly worrying to plant conservationists like us. The fact that some species reported earlier from the Upper Nilgiris are not to be found in this final refuge or anywhere else, is singularly alarming.

Mukurthi's condition, we fear, may be critical. Being small and highly invaded by aggressive exotics, with a high percentage of endemics that are very vulnerable, the grasslands of Mukurthi may well succumb (perhaps to exotics, perhaps to scrub, perhaps to lower elevation species) and they may well succumb soon. Yet because the area is protected and awarded the highest degree of protection as a National Park, it is believed to be safe. This is a dangerous belief and pure folly. Wattle does not respect a park boundary. Nor do gorse or broom. The folly lies in our failure to perceive how complex living systems operate under duress and in failing to try to correct our mistakes while we still have a chance.

In truth these high elevation tropical grasslands are flagship systems and hence the silent struggles of Mukurthi (and perhaps Eravikulam and Kudremukh) are both symbolic and real. Their decay represents the slow deaths of a million other places and their health for sure is linked to the health of all. These systems generate and sustain the waters of our survival; they are composed of a fabulous array of plant forms that turn the mountains into giant orographic collectors of rain and mist and thus into the fountainheads of many of our rivers.

There are many cogent reasons why the world needs places free of exotics though that may well be an impossible task to achieve.

Improved benefits to humanity are surely the least of those reasons. Better ones range from aesthetic to the ecological. Water, for instance, gurgles perennially out of these high mountain meadows, which function as a huge sponge. In contrast, wattle plantations tend to dry out the hill slopes while impoverishing them.

We certainly cannot afford to lose any more time. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that a fifth of all plant species may disappear in the next few decades. What moral responsibility does this warning charge us with? Especially when we now know undeniably that the health of ecosystems, and therefore of humanity, comes from the wealth of species, from life-diversity.

Plants are the basis for all ecosystems. And yet, humankind's real awareness and appreciation of them, our once abundant knowledge of the power of plants, degenerates to pathetic levels, much to our collective peril. We urge the stewards of the environment to work more closely with the plants. If anything, they can absorb the looming desolation of our era.

We have ideas on how the rare and fragile plant members of the Mukurthi uplands could be nudged to better futures and how the disturbed and degraded areas of the Park could be healed. To begin with, we recommend: the exotic species must be removed. Secondly, the National Park must be enlarged, widened. Thirdly, the most threatened plant communities must be given a helping hand.

There is an enlightenment of sorts that appears to be slowly happening. Whether it will evolve quickly enough to spare our final refuges from the ravages of our time, from further senseless plantations, from climate change and total ecosystem collapse really remains to be seen. It depends on every single one of us who would be nature's citizens.

The urgency cannot be overemphasised: we are running out of time.