Tiny flowers of pink, yellow and purple emerge against the backdrop of the bright green thickets of shrub in the Bandipur National Park on Mysore-Ooty Road. But the flowering shrub that hosts them is Lantana camara , one of the most invasive of plants that has taken over the country’s forests, driving wild animals out for foraging. In the Bandipur National Park, an estimated 60% is affected by Lantana, which hinders the growth of native vegetation that herbivores such as deer and elephants feed on. Further, its fruit is toxic to animals.
Native to South America, Lantana camara was brought to India by the British as ornamental plants, possibly as long as 200 years ago. Forest officials in different parts of the country have watched helplessly as the invasive plant has spread, and efforts to contain it have gone largely in vain.
Could a new approach by Junglescapes, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation, hold out some hope for dealing with the Lantana menace? Ramesh Venkataraman, managing trustee of the NGO, says 2,500 acres of forestland affected by Lantana and other invasive plants in the hills surrounding Bandipur has been ecologically restored.
The first step is to cut the plant below the root stem to ensure it doesn’t grow right back, a method originally recommended by scientist C.R. Babu and his colleagues at the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems.
Using the help of villagers, Junglescapes then seeded the surrounding areas with native species of grass and then dug trenches and small water storage structures to aid the regeneration of the undergrowth and the forest.
Such passive restoration has worked better than direct planting of saplings, according to Mr. Venkataraman, whose organisation won an award for its work from the Society for Ecological Restoration, Washington D.C. The return of natural vegetation has been attended by the return of birds and animals.
On an early morning birding trip in Chikyelchetti village, near the restored forest hills, there are over 40 species of birds, including the Jacobin cuckoo, Purple-rumped sunbird and the Fantail flycatcher. K.N. Mahesha, an ornithologist from Kunagahalli village, who volunteers for Junglescapes, says elephants used to come to his village in search of food, but with the return of native trees, such incidents have come down.
A natural antidote
The forest department is banking on a bug to deal with the Lantana menace in both Bandipur and Nagarhole. Called Teleonemia scrupulosa , or Lantana Lace, it has made a comeback and has begun eating the Lantana leaves vigorously. “A group of entomologists came down to study the Lantana leaves affected by the bug recently and they identified it. Now we are using the bug to carry out biological control of the spread of invasive plants,” says Ambady Madhav, Director of the Bandipur National Park.
Lantana Lace (or the Mexican Bug) has been released in the worst-hit areas like Hediliaya, Kundkere, Himmavad Gopalaswamy Betta and N. Begur in Bandipur. C. Jayaram, Additional Principal Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), said the forest department was intrigued by the large-scale drying up of Lantana in Bandipur some time ago. It turned out that this was because of Lantana Lace.
Some wildlife activists, however, strike a note of caution. Sudheer of Voice for Wildlife worries about the impact of these bugs on native plants. “What if the bug mutates and becomes a greater menace,” he asks. But Mr. Jayaram believes such fears are unfounded, saying that the bug has been used as biological control measure against the invasive plant all over the world.