I step into my sturdy ankle-high shoes with leech socks on my feet, worn over my regular socks, and tighten the laces, tying them securely in double knots; they better not come off at any point while I crawl underneath that jungle out there! It is interesting how the British used the term ‘jungle’ for what we know as ‘forest’, and how the word ‘junglee‘ has come to denote something wild, uncontrolled, undisciplined, and difficult. So yes, I would rather not enter that particular jungle – the thorn-bearing small-leaved, pink-and-yellow-flowered shrubby jungle, the undergrowth entanglement that the whole forest community (animal and human alike) seems to avoid – the ubiquitous and menacing Lantana camara!
Lantana – a native shrub of Central and South America – was brought into the Indian subcontinent in 1804 by the British, as an ornamental plant to adorn the gardens of institutions and private homes. Finding no biological control, but several dispersing agents who fed on its sweet berries, it spread rampantly and unrestrictedly all over the subcontinent. It thrives in all kinds of ecosystems within the country today, changing landscapes and transforming ecosystem functioning to a great extent.
I am off on my daily routine of reaching designated vegetation measurement plots which have been set up years ago at BRT Tiger Reserve – in 1997 to be precise – by scientist Siddappa Setty of the research organisation ATREE, where I am working on my PhD. He studied the vegetation in these 8 m x 50 m plots to try and document what is growing in the forest: trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, and anything else. These plots were revisited in 2007 by another colleague, Bharat Sundaram, who enumerated what was there after those ten intervening years; he found a humongous increase in the number of stems of the invasive shrub, Lantana camara (henceforth referred to as lantana).
I am here to measure how much the lantana has spread over the very same plots that were first studied two decades ago, to try to find whether the structure of the understorey shrub lantana (the height and canopy spread) is somehow connected with the overstorey canopy of the luxurious large trees of diverse types in this tiger reserve. I start the day with a plan of how to go about reaching the designated plots we are going to visit today, and estimate the amount of time we will take to reach each of these plots by measuring the distances to these locations from our drop-off point on the road.
My field assistants Mahadeva and Upendra are so well-versed with the whole landscape, that they can guesstimate the time taken for reaching the plots at my pace, way slower than their hardy practised walk. Once we finalise the amount of work for the day, a jeep drops us at the junction on the road from where we take our walking path. We stand before a wall – a wall of lantana! This is the first barrier to our entrance into the multi-tiered forest. The way the undergrowth now looks has never existed in this form ever before, seemingly impenetrable and impregnable like a fortress wall, thick and dense, with thorns to hurt those who dare enter.
Lantana is a light-loving shrub, and establishes itself around the edges of forests or in open lands. In forested areas, it then spreads rapidly in the undergrowth, occupying the niche spaces of other native understorey species as well as climbers, forming dense, continuous thickets. Due to its aggressive nature, it disallows other native species to establish – be they understorey shrubs or large trees – leaving no gaps, thus changing the structure of the forest. This in turn affects the fauna; berry-feeding birds have a blast, dispersing more and more of its seeds, changing the forest further! In time, this may have long-lasting impacts on the structure and functioning of the entire ecosystem.
We try to find the foot trail that is supposed to begin from here, leading towards the upper reaches of the hill we need to climb to reach our spot. After a bit of searching, we do find the trail-head, and start walking. Slowly, the lantana wall parts way, and we find it around us on either side, but not blocking our path.
As humans, we are lucky. We have tools. Wherever we encounter the lantana barrier, Mahadeva or Upendra lead and start hacking through its thick layers, to make way for us to walk.
But what about the poor animals? A sudden snort is heard at a distance of only about 2 metres from where we are trying to cut through the bush. A Spotted Deer is stuck in the dense undergrowth, and shoots off an alarm call on hearing us approach. It sees no way to get out and away from us, given the profuse growth around it.
We stop short and wait for it to figure out a safe exit from this devil-or-deep-sea position, and then resume our hacking and walking routine. It takes a whole 45 minutes to cover a distance of only about 20 metres!
Then suddenly, we are free. We enter into denser forest, far from the road, with fewer shrubs of lantana, and more of Strobilanthes or Grewia, which are native Indian forest undergrowth species. They allow us to walk unhindered and free. We reach our destination and take measurements at five different spots within a plot of 80 m x 5 m; I measure the overstorey tree canopy height and openness, and the height and number of stems of lantana underneath. Done for this plot and location, we head back the way we came. The next vegetation plot is only 2 km away, and possibly easier to reach over the hill that stands before us rather than through a dense undergrowth of lantana; It could take us the whole day to find a way to walk through it!
We head back to the road, to the jeep which will take us on a roundabout way around the hill, and approach the other plot from elsewhere. We get off the vehicle and head into the forest. This time, Upendra is exceedingly cautious, as the area is known to have elephants regularly. We start our walk towards the plot: the GPS says it’s about 450 metres in the northern direction. About 100 metres into the trail surrounded by lantana, Upendra suddenly stops short and gestures to be quiet. He’s sensed elephants close at hand. Heard? Smelled? Intuition? I will never fathom his ability to ‘sense’ them in the forest! The three of us stand absolutely still, breathing lightly. We listen intently, struggling to see above, beyond, and through the dense thickets. We hear a slight sound, as if a single stick is being stepped upon. It is crazy that we are trying to spot an animal that is about 7 feet tall, weighs about 3000 kgs, and is grey in colour against a backdrop of green and brown! There’s possibly even a group of them? Yet, we can’t detect them in this dense lattice of enmeshed twigs and leaves! As huge as they are, elephants can be extremely silent animals, and one wouldn’t detect their presence until actually face to face with them.
The elephants have finally been spotted. Upendra decides to climb a tree to try and locate them so that we can decide whether to continue walking forward, or head to a safer place. He climbs only about 10 metres into the Anogeissus tree nearby, and then clambers down rapidly. He gesticulates animatedly upon reaching the ground: we had better make a beeline for our lives, as they are only about 25 metres away, eating merrily! We start moving back on the path, as silent as we are able to contain our highly excited mental states, at as fast a pace as we can. But this time, the thorny thicket appears like a dense interlocking mesh that we try to defy; we fall, scramble, rise, crawl, wriggle, creep, and thankfully escape to a safe distance, away from the gnarly lantana, into plain open forest! Looking over our shoulders, we thank our stars that the elephants were too engrossed in their delicious meal of tree bark and young shoots. Saved, yet again, by the instinct of a forest dweller! We decide to leave this area to the elephants today; we could always come back to work here later.
Managers in forest departments in various regions of India are doing their best to try to control this menace using several methods. While uprooting and exposing the roots of the shrub has been tried in some places in northern India, cutting at the base of the stem repeatedly every year when it coppices has also been attempted. In Karnataka, bio-control measures using a beetle, Teleonemia scrupulosa, have also been tried in a controlled manner to control lantana’s spread. To explore the possible uses of lantana, it has also been gainfully harvested to make useful products such as brickets for fire, or even furniture. Some people have undertaken the tackling of this menace by uprooting and immediate replacement by native grasses and shrubs in order to bring about a complete restoration of the landscape. All such attempts, and more studies, are needed to halt the hazard of lantana from proliferating into our beautiful tropical forests, so that animals can roam free.
My time spent in two consecutive seasons at the BRT Tiger Reserve for field-work is filled with such amazing encounters with wildlife: mostly endearing, sometimes scary. There are so many anecdotes to narrate, and so much to experience with all our senses. The one thing I have taken back, however, is the difficulty that wild fauna is facing due to the ubiquitous presence and proliferation of the green barrier of lantana, making it extremely difficult for them to go about their daily activities without any threat to their lives.