How a desert was saved from trees

November 26, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:53 am IST

The sensitive restoration of Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park recognises that arid lands and scrub are natural ecosystems in their own right

It is a warm August afternoon, with clouds of wailing kites swirling overhead, as a small group of us enters the rocky valley lying in the shadow of Jodhpur’s spectacular Mehrangarh fort. White-eared bulbuls gorge on white berries of ghatbor ( Fleuggia leucopyrus ) bushes nearby as francolins cackle in the distance.

Ahead of us sprawls the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, a landscape of ancient rhyolite — volcanic rocks that formed around 700 million years ago — overlaid by pink sandstone. Here, amidst formidable rocks and arid, thorny desert vegetation lies a remarkable story of ecological revival.

Both architectural and ecological restoration are underway in the 72-hectare Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park. We enter the park at the restored Singhoria Pol, an arched gateway through the old city wall. Integrated into Singhoria Pol, along the stone steps and narrow corridors, are well-designed interpretive displays about the geology of the park, about desert ecosystems, the uniquely-adapted native plants, and about the park’s history and restoration.

Rao Jodha, the ruler after whom the park and Jodhpur city are named, established the Mehrangarh fort in the middle of the 15th century. Desert Rock Park was established just about 10 years ago, in 2006, by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

The Trust then worked with a team guided by the environmentalist and trees aficionado, Pradip Krishen, to ecologically restore the park by painstakingly removing thousands of mesquite ( Prosopis juliflora ) shrubs, an invasive species introduced from Central America that had proliferated among the rocks. The restorationists employed the local Khandwaliyas, expert at detecting hidden cracks and crevices in rocks, to chip away at the stone to remove the invasive mesquite. Over the next seven years, they worked to carefully bring back a multitude of native plant species.

At Singhoria Pol, we meet two of the park’s trained naturalists, Sachin Sharma and Harshvardhan Rathore. The two men, dressed in sand-coloured uniforms, lead us on one of the trails into the park.

Near the entrance, in a small raised bed, plants burst forth in a living display of arid-land microhabitats — sandy soil, rocks, calcified or saline soils. We walk along a cool, dark gully, an old aqueduct cut from rock to carry rainwater from a catchment in the north to Padamsar lake at the base of Mehrangarh fort.

Diaphanous mist

After the monsoon rains, it is hard to visualise this as a harsh, arid landscape. A stream of clear water flows down the gully. Beyond, over open terrain, low carpets of coarse grass sway softly in the breeze. The grasses hold spiky flower heads or wispy inflorescences that, in one species, hang like a diaphanous mist over the green blades. The dark pink missi or cowpea witchweed ( Striga gesnerioides ) spikes upward holding delicate pink blossoms. The plant lies ensconced among rocks at the base of a five-foot-tall candelabra-like plant, the succulent, thorny, leafless spurge or thhor ( Euphorbia caducifolia ). Over the pale, sandy or gravelly soils, herbs like Tephrosia, Indigofera, and creeping Launaea sprinkle small, attractive purple, red, and yellow blossoms. From sandy areas and rocky outcrops grow wiry green shrubs like kair ( Capparis decidua ), dangling red flowers, and milkweeds like kheer kheemp ( Sarcostemma acidum ) that hold white flower clusters, and kheemp ( Leptadenia pyrotechnica ) with their velvety yellow flowers.

Small trees thrust their branches out over the trail: the peeloo or toothbrush trees ( Salvadora persica ), the gum arabic or kumatiyo ( Acacia senegal ) with curved thorns, the desert date or hingoto ( Balanites roxburghii ) with spike-like thorns, and the bordi or jujube tree ( Ziziphus nummularia ) with twigs bearing rows of paired thorns that look like little spears and scimitars that pierce and snag our hats and clothes.

Yet, the harshness and aridity of the landscape is evident. The plants are low, shrubs and trees are scattered and sparse. The stones, hot to the touch even on a late monsoon afternoon, will be blistering in the summer.

Most plants have small leaves, some waxed or sandpapery like the goondi ( Cordia sinensis ), others protected by thorns. To conserve water and survive the heat, many plants have dispensed with regular leaves altogether, and photosynthesise through green stems: wiry as in the kheemp or thread-like in the gymnosperm Ephedra . Below, the plants put out deep, wide roots to access the little water found in the landscape that receives only around 600 millimetres of rainfall over 30 rainy days in a year.

The naturalists point to planted saplings, raised in the park’s nursery from seeds sourced from mother plants in the wider desert landscape around Jodhpur. Many saplings now grow from the same earthen pits or rock crevices from which the introduced and invasive mesquite was carefully uprooted.

Cackles and chuckles

The ecological restoration in Desert Rock Park has been thoughtfully executed, avoiding the ill-advised tree planting that is often carried out under the guise of ‘re-greening’ the desert. The restoration does not regard the arid, rocky terrain, grasslands and thorn scrub as ‘wasteland’, as state agencies are wont to do. It recognises the desert and arid-land vegetation as natural ecosystems in their own right.

The contrast is stark: across the city wall lie stone quarries, disturbed soils, and a monotony of Prosopis . Inside the park, in the carefully restored, sparse yet vibrant vegetation, a multitude of native arid-land species flourish among ancient rocks. By dusk, we sit quietly on rocks as swarms of little swifts titter and careen in the skies above.

Loud cackles of grey francolins subdue the chuckles of laughing doves — birds of earthen tones merging with the rocks. An Indian crested porcupine emerges from behind a thorny bush, her cloak of quills rustling and clicking as she shuffles along on her crepuscular sortie.

Out of the calm evening at Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park — in the company of rock-loving plants and birds and porcupine — arises a sense that with a little care, people too can blend with the landscape and a fountain of life can indeed spring from a desert.

The author is a scientist and writer with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru.

An Indian crested porcupine emerges from behind a thorny bush, her cloak of quills rustling and clicking as she shuffles

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