The Promise and the Politics of Rewilding India

For rain-forest conservationists, part of the job is to find ways to make it easier for humans and other animals to share territory. When monkeys began removing roof tiles from plantation workers’ houses and stealing food, Mudappa and Raman advised the families on better waste disposal, and provided new roofing, which the plantation installed. After

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For rain-forest conservationists, part of the job is to find ways to make it easier for humans and other animals to share territory. When monkeys began removing roof tiles from plantation workers’ houses and stealing food, Mudappa and Raman advised the families on better waste disposal, and provided new roofing, which the plantation installed. After a trip to Borneo, where they saw orangutans using cables to cross roads, they devised their own zip lines for macaques, made of recycled hoses from fire engines.

But these kinds of interventions do little to relieve the financial pressures faced by the plantations. The chairman of Parry Agro’s board, M. M. Venkatachalam, has spoken of trying to “make restoration an economic activity that can sustain itself.” He told me that balancing fiscal and ecological considerations is “a huge challenge—definitely in India, with its large population, where land is in short supply.” One of Parry Agro’s tea plantations is organic, but, he said, it yields less than half of what chemically treated plantations do. Parry Agro’s parent corporation also owns one of the country’s largest fertilizer companies: “India requires huge amounts of it to provide food for the population.” Yet chemical fertilizers can harm the fertility of soil and lead to pest infestations, and pollute the water and air. When I asked Venkatachalam about some of N.C.F.’s initiatives, he agreed that “greater diversity can improve the soil and control pests,” but said that now wasn’t the time to invest: “As prices fall and wages rise, the tea industry is going through financial difficulties.”

Mudappa and Raman, anticipating concerns about cost, have figured out how to practice a form of restoration virtually for free, with help from another endangered species: the great hornbill. In an essay, Raman describes it as “a giant among birds”—up to four feet long, sheathed in black and white feathers, with a “huge, grotesquely caparisoned beak” of bright yellow and a matching “horny protuberance,” called a casque. The female, after breeding and nest-building, lays her eggs and seals herself in with her droppings. She leaves a narrow opening, where her mate can leave food and she can “forcibly eject” her further waste, “like a bazooka blast.” Late on our second afternoon, as we drove through a stretch of forest, Raman jammed on the brakes, crying, “Look!” We leaped out and saw twelve great hornbills, their distinctive beaks and plumage just visible as they soared above the canopy.

Mudappa was inspired to pursue ecological restoration after watching how hornbills and civets—voracious consumers of fruit and dispersers of seeds—practice it. Based on this knowledge, she and Raman are beginning a study for a new plan, in which some of the Australian silver oaks that dot the tea plantations would be replaced with native strangler figs. The seed of a strangler fig, they write in “Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats,” is dropped by a hornbill, a bat, or a macaque into a “cozy nook on the high branches of the host tree,” where it can’t be eaten by deer or elephants. The sprout begins to send leaves above those of the host, and sinewy roots creep down the trunk and into the soil. Gradually, the roots form a thick, multipronged trunk, which smothers the host.

The strangler’s practice might seem like the basis for a horror movie, but, as Mudappa talked about their idea, it seemed like an act of poetic justice: replacing a pretty but ecologically negligible import with natives that produce tens of thousands of figs each—a perpetual feast for insects, birds, bats, and other pollinators. It would bring biodiversity to the tea fields, and potentially increase their yield. Mudappa said they have no intention of seeing all the oaks slowly consumed—“just ten to twenty per cent.” The only thing required of the plantations would be a “behavioral and attitudinal change”: stopping workers from lopping off fig sprouts when they trim the oaks each year.

Before I left, Mudappa and Raman invited me to their house in Valparai, for a cup of tea. Raman spoke hopefully about their work as a model of coöperative restoration between rewilders and planters. Mudappa countered that donors aren’t interested in models; they want projects that run like businesses, with quick, deliverable progress: “They say, ‘We want to scale up. What is your exit strategy?’ But restoration requires the long-term engagement of ecologists. I’m just happy that people want to restore parts of their land, and let us restore what’s left. Why shouldn’t this continue?”

Every day when Krishen is at home in Delhi, he walks in the Central Ridge—the forest that led to his discovery of the fortitude and bounty of trees. In September, 2src2src, he took some friends to marvel at a stand of seventy-foot kaim, the tree under which Krishna is said to have played as a boy. They took a wrong turn and came upon a vast open space, perhaps ten acres, that the Delhi Forest Department’s earthmovers had scraped clear of ground cover. The workers had created “a military-style grid” for trees that would need far more water than the dry soil of the Ridge could provide. Krishen wrote a sharp letter to Delhi’s lieutenant governor, and a scathing piece about how the Forest Department was proceeding “in dire ignorance of even the basic tenets of ecological restoration”—a process that would cause soil runoff and the sure death of ill-suited saplings. He called up several journalists, who returned with him and reported on the desecration.

Krishen has spent years campaigning for the restoration of the Ridge, which he believes could be “the most beautiful urban jungle in the world.” In 2src21, he was asked to serve on a six-member committee to advise the Delhi government on a plan for restoring biodiversity there. One major objective was to eradicate Prosopis juliflora, Krishen’s old nemesis, which, he estimated, had overtaken ninety per cent of the forest. The plan’s author—C. R. Babu, a professor emeritus at the University of Delhi’s Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems—wanted to remake the Ridge along the lines of New York’s Central Park, with tennis and handball courts. His proposal involved introducing at least half a dozen species that don’t grow in Delhi. But, he explained, water tanks could be installed and contour trenches dug to keep the soil moist. The branches of Prosopis would be periodically lopped, and native plants installed beneath.

When Krishen objected that the plan wouldn’t contain the Prosopis or restore the original flora, Babu retorted, “We do not need your half-baked theoretical knowledge.” An exchange of haughty e-mails followed, and Babu soon resigned, saying that he couldn’t work with the committee. Still, his plan remained. The minister in charge of forests persuaded the committee to agree to a pilot scheme of twenty-five acres, and Delhi’s Forest Department began to put it into effect.

Krishen is accustomed to thwarted projects, which he calls “my little paper airplanes with bent noses.” One restoration effort, in the northwest Himalaya, was cut short when the nonprofit that he was working with ran out of money. But unreasonable resistance fires him up. He has several new books in mind, one of them a journal about the Central Ridge. It is sure to be part love letter to the native survivors, part screed against the British and Indian governments for despoiling the forest even as they aimed to prettify it, and part outline for a restoration project that would demonstrate how to invite the wilderness back into the city.

In the meantime, the ideas espoused by E.R.A. are spreading in India. Officials in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been working with ecological restorationists for years. “Things are changing,” Ramesh Krishnamurthy, who leads courses for forest officers at the Wildlife Institute of India, told me. “A landscape-level approach for biodiversity management is functionally taking root.” Krishen and Raman are preparing their own training materials for forest departments.

One afternoon, Krishen took me through a section of the Central Ridge that he hopes will one day be rewilded. The Ridge is part of the Aravalli hills, which stretch northeast from Gujarat through Rajasthan and into Delhi. The range, Krishen wrote in “Trees of Delhi,” with a touch of competitive pride, is more than a billion years old, “compared to just fifty million for the Himalaya.” As I walked with him and his dogs, we turned onto a wide trail spread with hay. It followed colonial precedent: the British viceroy saw the Ridge as a pleasant place to ride horses—an “amenity forest.” Today, a cavalry regiment of the Indian Army leases a polo ground there. The hay prevents the horses from kicking up dust. Passing a pile of garbage, Krishen explained that the spot was a dumping ground for the polo clubhouse.

Krishen’s description of the forest was interrupted by a rude screech: a parakeet overhead. He sometimes finds crude wire traps for game animals—left, he speculated in one essay, by policemen “having their idea of manly fun.” Still, some wildlife remains: a subset of the original bird population, plentiful butterflies, and well-fed feral pigs, macaques, and cows, which congregate at the forest’s entrances. Krishen deplores its derelict state—“the Rutputty Ridge,” he calls it—but he is stubbornly hopeful: “Unlike everywhere else in Delhi, where we are very likely to have drenched the ground with chemicals and other toxic effluvia of human civilization, the Ridge’s soil is still alive.” ♦

An earlier version of this article imprecisely described the size of wooded patches in the Valparai plateau.

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