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The nutcracker and the pine

The chilgoza pine tree depends on the Kashmir nutcracker to disperse its seeds. Photo: Andrew Spencer  

The chilgoza pine tree and a bird called the nutcracker rely on each other to survive. Wind disperses the papery winged seeds of most pines. Without flight appendages of their own, the chilgoza nuts wait for a bird, the chisel-beaked nutcracker, to carry them.

Unlike any other bird, the nutcracker stores the seeds in a special pouch below its tongue and buries them far and wide to be eaten later. In winter, the bird’s phenomenal memory leads it to the tens of thousands of buried treats. The nuts that aren’t eaten germinate to become the next generation of chilgoza (meaning ‘pine nuts’ in Urdu) pines. Economist Rinki Sarkar stumbled upon this extraordinary story of mutual dependence when she accidentally turned into an ecological sleuth.

The nutcrackers aren’t the only ones to find the pine nuts delicious. Every September, in years past, men climbed chilgoza pine trees in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh to knock down the pineapple-like cones. Their partners below gathered them, and later, the entire village broke open the cones to gather the edible seeds. Although all pine nuts are edible, the fat-heavy oblong chilgoza nuts were highly prized. Garlands of nuts made traditional wedding gifts as well as offerings to deities. The seasonal bounty also sustained residents through the winter months. But Sarkar discovered this wasn’t a rosy local enterprise anymore.

Risky job

In the old days, handicapped by a lack of roads and the nuts’ short shelf life, villagers harvested and shared the delicious seeds equitably within the community. Not only was it a time and labour-intensive job but also risky since the chilgoza pine trees preferred growing on dry, steep hill slopes. Then roads brought access to markets and a new lucrative crop: apples. “Every villager was encouraged to grow apples and not their local crops,” says Sarkar. “It was a drastic transition.”

With Kinnaur apples fetching handsome profits, residents had no time to collect pine nuts. Neither was their negligible income from these seeds an incentive to put their lives in danger.

Every year, they auctioned the right of harvest to contractors who hired immigrant workers for the job. Since the nuts are in high demand before Diwali, the workers, also anxious to return home for the festival, hacked the branches bearing cones instead of delicately picking one cone at a time.

“It was a near-total extraction for the market,” says Sarkar. “Chilgoza grows in a very restricted area. It can’t handle this level of exploitation.”

Although the species ranges from Pangi and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh to eastern Afghanistan at elevations between 2,000 and 3,500 metres, its small stands are isolated by towering mountains.

Unspoken damage

The reckless methods of harvesting damaged the ageing trees which produced lesser yields and fewer seedlings germinated the following year. Sarkar feared for the future of the slow-growing species.

“They were lopping the big branches which had more cones,” she says. “Trees won’t survive this mutilation. It was a transformation for me as well. They neither move nor make eye contact like animals. But when they are mutilated, you have the same feelings.”

The young chilgozas sprouted, sometimes in clusters, in odd locations such as between rocks, at the base of trees, and through mats of moss.

“I remember thinking a cone couldn’t have reached here,” says Sarkar. “Something is wrong.”

She rolled a few pine cones down slopes to see where they came to rest. They didn’t settle in the awkward places where the seedlings grew. The villagers said a crow buried the seeds as a dog would bury its bone. Among the branches flitted woodpecker-like birds, which Sarkar identified as the Kashmir (or large spotted) nutcracker of the crow family.

This unbridled exploitation may lead to the undoing of a unique relationship forged over millennia on the steep slopes of the Western Himalaya.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 4:09:23 AM |

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