Caring for the Earth

"Collective efforts by scientists, local residents, environmental activists and the media, substantiated by scientific data can help put an end to degradation of natural resources, which are the bulwark of conservation".

Among the many quiet contributors to the mapping of the country's natural treasures is Dr. Jayashree Vencatesan, Smithsonian Fellow and researcher, who has gone into wetland ecology, human impact on nature and the life of tribals in the forests.

Her post-doctoral thesis on human-impacted plant species in Mudumalai Wildilfe Sanctuary is perhaps her best-known research work on biodiversity. Recently the State Pollution Control Board assigned her the task of studying the city's last remaining wetland, the Pallikaranai marsh. Collective efforts substantiated by scientific data will help protect natural resources from degradation, she tells P. Oppili.

EVEN WHILE doing her under-graduation in Home Science, she developed a love for environment and ecology. Soon after obtaining her masters in the same discipline, she switched over to studying biodiversity.

During 1993-95, Jayshree Vencatesan took up the study on `Food security in five different ecological systems'. For the study, she chose Kancheepuram as a rain-fed district, Pudukottai for semi-arid region, Kovalam near the city for coastal eco-system, Kolli hills for hill areas and an urban slum in the city Allikulam, popularly known as Lily Pond area. "The study really kindled my interest to learn more about ecology and to work for green issues", she recalls.

Soon after completing the project, she registered with the Madras University's Department of Bio-Diversity and Biotechnology to do her doctorate. Her topic was "Biodiversity and Gender Correlates of Food Security — a case study of Kolli Hills, South India". During her research she studied the landscape of Kolli hills during different ages in detail.

Her doctorate thesis was divided into three parts — the first one retraced the history of Kolli Hills during the Sangam age (300 BC to 300 AD), the colonial period from 1792 and the final part being the current period beginning 1960. She says that during the Sangam era several efforts were made to protect natural resources and during this period only the land classification was brought in (Thinai in Tamil).

On the tribals in the hills, she says, "It is amazing to learn more about these forest dwellers. They still practice some of the traditional hunting methods such as use of snares, spheres and traps. Except the cattle, the tribals eat everything", she says. They are always sure about their ability to identify habitats, forest tree species, birds and insects.

She travelled far and wide in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary while doing her post-doctoral research. Here again, the increasing strain caused to the forests by human activity was researched in depth. "Forest reserves as refuge for human impacted plant species — a case study of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary' was her topic. While doing the research she had an opportunity to interact with some of the forest communities like Moundadan Chettys, Betta Kurumbas, Jenu Kurumbas and Paniyars.

These people mainly depend on plant species around them for their survival. They extensively use plants on various occasions such as construction, rituals, oil extraction, hunting, and fishing, besides making farm implements. In their community lands, the species diversity is quite high, she says.

Tribals are very intelligent people, she observes. This was evident from their conscious decision not to raise two of the endemic tree species. The particular species of trees, which they call "Aanai Maram" (elephant trees), because of the attraction that the bark holds for the elephants, is one. Raising such a species would mean inviting a man-animal conflict.

With her experience in biodiversity research, along with another scientist, she has started a non-governmental organisation called Care Earth. Recently the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) asked her to study the inland wetlands of India. While she studied the socio-economic aspect of these threatened natural assets, her counterpart Dr. Ranjith Daniels studied the ecological aspects, she says.

Her assignment from the SACON led to further interest in the wetlands. Last year the State Pollution Control Board asked her to conduct a detailed study on Chennai's last natural asset — Pallikaranai marsh which is suffering from degradation caused by human impact. Two components were there in the study — to document the biodiversity and to map the extent of the marsh to define or identify viable unit of management.

It took nearly four months to complete the work and the report was submitted to the Board.

The study was made public and later out of interest she did a survey of the existing marshland, she says.

Collective efforts by scientists, local residents, environmental activists and the media, substantiated by scientific data can help put an end to degradation of natural resources, which are the bulwark of conservation, she feels. "Sadly many talk about rights but no one is ready to think of responsibilities", she says.

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