Deep inside the dark green forests of Goodrickal at Ranni, there are a couple of patches of land that serve as a hub of trees with a brown-and-white mottled appearance. Called gophers ( Nageia wallichiana), these trees belong to a fabled species – one that has even found a mention in the Bible.
At the sites here, they remain under the strict eyes of the Forest department, with a special team patrolling the area regularly and tending to the trees which are in different stages of growth.
These locations, at Thirukuthi and Kadamankunnu, form the centrepiece of an effort by authorities to offer an optimum habitat for the rare species that has been on the brink of extinction. A break in its regenerative cycle over the decades, according to forest officials, has severely affected its natural distribution here.
“Our conservation sites, spread over a total area of 4.5 hectares, have 38 gopher trees that are over two years old and five others that are matured,” says Money S., range officer, Goodrickal.
According to the official, the plots were identified on the basis of a study by the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI). To ensure the protection of trees, moisture conservation pits have been dug at these sites and fire lines have been erected. Forest officials from the Pachakkanam station and fire watchers have been deployed to keep the sites under close watch.
Found only in a few parts of the world, the gopher trees were believed to have been used by the Biblical patriarch Noah to build the ark to survive the great deluge. However, beyond this biblical connection, the species assumes a botanical significance for maintaining a strict habitat integrity.
Threat to habitat
“In India, these trees grow only in pure, evergreen forests to the South of the Palakkad Gap on the Western Ghats,” explains Jomy Sebastian, a botanist who has studied the species extensively. He attributes the dwindling population of the species to a threat to its natural habitat due to human interventions.
Called Nirampalli in local parlance, the gopher trees once had widespread distribution across a vast area of contiguous forests from the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu to the Achencoil forests and the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) and then at the Mankulam forest division.
“One of these trees is now famously sighted along the route from Kochu Pampa to Gavi inside the PTR,” says Mr. Sebastian.