‘Grass is the engineer and architect of our forest ecosystem’ | Nagpur News

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Gajanan D Muratkar (53), a botanist and professor at Sipna Education Society College of Arts, Sciences and Commerce in Chikhaldara (Amravati), has been shortlisted for the Satpuda Landscape Tiger Partnership (SLTP) Conservation Hero Award-2022 for his invaluable grassland conservation efforts in the landscape of central India. The award, which carries a certificate and a prize of Rs 25,000, was announced on World Earth Day 2022 on April 22. Popularly known as the “Grass Man of India” among forestry circles, he pioneered a grassland development technique in which field staff and officials are involved in identifying local grasses, preparing a bank of seeds, create mother beds and systematically introduce local grasses to create the meadows. In 2012, this technique was developed by him in Melghat, the oldest tiger reserve in the country. Muratkar is also a recipient of Sanctuary Green Teacher Award-2013. TOI told him about his accomplishments.
Excerpts from an interview…
Q. What prompted you to specialize in grassland management?
A. As I work as a teacher in environmental and life sciences, I have always focused on fieldwork and outcome-oriented research in Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR). I started the ecological and environmental study of grasses at MTR. During the same period, I was invited by Forestry Secretary Pravin Pardeshi, Kishor Rithe of the Satpuda Foundation and eminent botanist CR Babu for a workshop on invasive species eradication. This was the turning point as former field manager KP Singh invited me to restore wildlife habitats by removing invasive species. It was hard work and it was there that I realized that grassland development in PAs is useful for wildlife habitat management, especially for herbivores.
Q. Tell us about your successes on the pitch?
A. In 2012, the forest department rehabilitated 9 villages in the central MTR zone. After the rehabilitation of Churni, Vairat, Dhargad, Amona, Gullarghat, Somthana, Kelpani, Nagartas and Barukheda, the cultivated lands were filled with invasive species such as Lantana Camara, wild tulsi and other invasive plant species. We have developed grass nurseries (seed plots) in the middle of the grasslands and also carried out important grassland management interventions like studying soil parameters, identifying grasses, weeds, wild legumes , grass seed collection, drying, storage and enrichment during the month. from May to June by selecting the appropriate sites. I also demarcated each grassland, prepared a grassland management register, collected baseline data, and performed a comparative analysis. Soon the abandoned land was converted into good grassland by the enrichment of palatable grass seeds, browse species and the development of water bodies. In doing so, we have focused on rigorous training programs for frontline staff on grassland development. MTR ranked first in scientific and technical grassland development and the work was appreciated nationally, so this model was replicated in other tiger reserves.
Q. Where has your model been implemented in the country?
A. Over the past 10 years, my technique for eradicating weeds and creating such grasslands has been implemented in tiger reserves and protected areas in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, India. ‘Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and Kerala. I also started a grassland development program in Kuno National Park, MP. The lack of scientific grassland management activities has caused forest degradation. Several grassland management workshops have been held in states with good results. In Kuno, frontline staff turned a 2-hectare plot into a 360-hectare grassy meadow at another rehabilitated site. This helped bring the Cheetah to Kuno. In addition, Sawai Madhopur, Bharatpur, Jim Corbett and Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserves are also waiting for my support. Satpuda Tiger Reserve, MP, has also achieved enormous success through scientific strategies under my leadership over the past decade. It also helped MP to successfully introduce swamp deer to Bori in Satpura. Changes in Kawal Tiger Reserve (Telangana) are doing wonders. 3 years ago, I started grassland management interventions in Palasgaon in Tadoba. The enrichment of palatable grasses and wild legume seeds in the prairie resulted in the development of tender forage grasses and this recorded the displacement of nearly 2,000 spotted deer. These are a few examples.
Q. How do you manage to be a teacher and a grass man in the field?
A. As an academic, my primary task is to carry out teaching, learning, assessment and research work in my institute, but grassland or grassland management work is my passion. I spend my Diwali and summer holidays, as well as my weekly holidays, organizing field trips, workshops and trainings for field staff on grassland development and management. Thank you to my organization that always supports my services with several state governments.
Q. Grasses are common, but why are they ecologically important?
A. Grasses are the monocotyledonous plants with the most adoptive characteristics – morphological, ecological and anatomical adaptations. Grasses are ecologically important because they develop root systems to control soil erosion and maintain and conserve soil moisture and soil microclimate. Grasses also control runoff and maintain habitats for herbivores and carnivores, in addition to bird nesting habitats.
Q. There is not much talk about grass research in India.
A. Yes, that is true, but now the research is ongoing. Grass research requires taxonomic specialization in the identification, classification, phytochemical analysis, and phenology of grasses. Grass research requires microscopic and ecological study at the root level. Generally, botany students are far from studying about grasses as it requires commitment, dedication and passion. The seasonal and topographic variations of grasses necessitate the study of all components. Overall, people seem to value forests more than grasslands.
Q. How and what should be done to conserve grasses?
A. I propose a five-pronged strategy for grass conservation. This includes identification during flowering and fruiting season, identification of native and invasive grasses, in situ conservation of grasses by preparing grass seed collection schedule, development of grass seed plot in depending on the adequacy of the soil and finally the protection of these meadows against fires. .
Q. What is the current status of grasslands in central India?
A. Grasslands occupy almost 24% of the geographical area of ​​India. The grasslands of India have been classified into five major cover types. With the advancement of ecological studies on grassland vegetation, grasslands are very dynamic ecosystems. We have grasslands or savannah grasslands in India which are overgrown with woody growth of vegetation and invasive weeds.
Q. What is the role of grasses in wildlife conservation?
A. Grasses are of two types – soft and coarse. Soft grasses are useful for herbivores that prefer soft feeders and coarse grasses are useful for other coarse herbivores. Grasslands are of three types – smaller, intermediate and higher. Each grassland has an ecological importance. The smaller grasslands are used by wildlife like spotted deer, blackbuck, and chinkara. Intermediate grasslands are used by large herbivores and higher grasslands are preferred for hiding, resting and breeding by wild animals. Wildlife and grasslands are directly associated with each other and therefore grasses are the engineers and architects of our forest ecosystem.
Q. Why is grassland development the buzzword in the country’s tiger reserves?
A. Grassland management is a technical work of managing and improving wildlife habitats. However, the subject has not been given proper prominence in India. Traveling across India over the past decade, I have felt the need for systematic interventions in PAs and forest areas outside PAs, dam impoundment and catchment areas, and resettlement sites. villages. Even in PAs, overgrazed grasslands are degrading and need to be restored through such scientific interventions. It is an ongoing process.
Q. But grassland restoration hasn’t caught the eye.
A. You are right. Even inappropriate interventions by frontline staff in the past have also damaged landscapes. But now the training and workshops have changed the situation on the ground. Grassland restoration is widely applied to increase the naturalness of the landscape and preserve the diversity of native grasses and wild leguminous plants. Grassland restoration includes the study of soil parameters and the suitability of grasses with reference to physical and chemical parameters. This should be done with palatable grasses and suitable fruit and browse species. Once you’ve done that, grassland restoration happens through ecological succession.
Q. What is the difference between grasses grown on lawns and forests?
A. Forest-grown grasses are wild with good resilience and adaptability. Wild grasses are adaptive with good flowering, fruiting and dispersal rates. Lawn grasses are ephemeral and hybridized. Lawn grasses are rhizomatous while wild grasses are uncultivated and unhybridized.
Q. What is your message to the Forest Department?
A. Grassland planning and management is a technical and scientific method. Forest officers should take the initiative to improve the capacity of front-line staff, motivate them for grassland development, avoid exotic grasses, and use only native grasses for grassland development. The forestry department should also initiate certificate or diploma courses in grassland development.

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