बुधवार, ८ फेब्रुवारी, २०१७

Gloom on the Bloom

Prerna Agarwal
An Inlaks Ravi Sankaran fellow and TheRufford Foundation’s Small Grants recipient is a Pune based researcher. Since June 2012, she has been studying the impact of tourism on the vegetation of Kas plateau, a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site.
Photo credit– Neha Mujumdar
Here she shares her journey, the importance of the Kas plateau and how they are trying to save it. 

1. Prerna Agarwal, the Kas Woman! How did it all begin? Please share your journey with us. 

Around ten years ago, I visited Kas plateau for the first time. I was mesmerized by the carpets of wild flowers and that image of a pristine undisturbed Kas stayed in my memory. When I returned to Kas in 2008 as a Master’s student of Biodiversity studies, my image of a pristine Kas was shattered. There were as many people as flowers on the plateau, cars were parked on the flower beds, and visitors crushed hundreds of flowers under them to get that perfect photograph! This experience disturbed me deeply 
Impatiens lawii flowers
Kas is home to more than 350 flowering plant species, many of which are endemic and listed in‘the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species’. Every year thousands of visitors flock to Kas to witness such carpets of wild flowers.

Photo credit : Prerna Agarwal
While on a five month research fellowship at the University of Leeds I visited the Malham limestone pavement, a unique rocky habitat like Kas. I was amazed at the way tourism pressure was managed by allowing visitor traffic only on selected trails and extremely informative sign boards. Following this, I assisted Dr. Aparna Watve on a project on rocky plateaus, which gave me an opportunity to closely interact with the people working on plateaus in Maharashtra and understand the threats faced by each of the fifteen plateaus selected for the project. This experience exposed me to existing information gaps in rocky plateau conservation and formed the basis of my project on Kas and my journey began in 2012. 
Trampling effect
Trampling of vegetation by tourists is the biggest threat to Kas
Photo courtesy – Satara forest department
2. Why did you choose to work on Kas plateau? 

Plants found in extreme environmental conditions and their survival strategies have always fascinated me. Kas, a high altitude lateritic plateau, has a special ephemeral plant community. Plants here have adapted to complete their life cycle in five months of the monsoon, June-October, and lie dormant in the form of tubers, rhizomes and seeds for the rest of the year. During the dry months, the plateau appears to be ‘barren’ but it is a wrong notion. This is a very important time for the species as they are preparing themselves for the next monsoon. Hence, Kas was the perfect study site to cater to my research interests and an urge to conserve the biodiversity of this landscape. With time I started getting more interested in how these communities are responding to tourism pressure which forms the basis of my current work. However, it was the emotional connect I have with this place that initially pushed me to take up this work.

Different plants bloom during different times of the year, thus these rocky plateausare never barren!Euphorbia nana, for example, flowers in the peak of summer! 
Photo credit: Prerna Agarwal
3. What is a plateau? What are the unique features and importance of it? 

Flat areas on top of mountains are referred to as ‘high altitude plateaus’. In Maharashtra we find both high altitude and coastal plateaus which are either comprised of basalt or laterite. These plateaus can be viewed as terrestrial islands, disconnected from surrounding plateaus by valleys. Islands have many endemic species because they are geographically disconnected from the mainland and evolutionary processes lead to formation of unique biodiversity. Similarly, these terrestrial islands i.e. plateaus have many endemic plant and animal species. In addition, on each plateau, one can find different microhabitats defined by varied soil depth and water availability such as rock pools, soil covered areas, deep soil areas, rock surfaces. The unique geology, diversity of microhabitats and the resultant endemic biodiversity supported are the exceptional features of such rocky plateaus. They also serve many ecosystem services such as groundwater recharge and pollination. Hence, the so called ‘barren areas’ are in reality biodiversity hubs! 
Lateritic plateaus, popularly known as Sadas (सडा),are a characteristic feature of the northern Western Ghats and support highly specialized plant communities
Photo credit-Pratik Joshi
4. Tourism on Kas is constantly rising, why? 

‘It is an inevitable destiny: the very reasons why a property is chosen for inscription on the World Heritage List are also the reasons why millions of tourists flock to those sites year after year’ - Mr. Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO Paris.
During peak season, the number of tourists visiting Kas on weekendscantouch 50,000 per day, putting immense pressure on this habitat. A network of informal paths has been formed in the tourist zone. And traffic woes are beyond imagination
Photo credit (both photos)– Prerna Agarwal
This is true even for Kas. It was declared as a Natural World Heritage site because of its exceptional aesthetic and biodiversity value. The mass blooming phenomenon is the very reason why thousands of people visit the plateau every year in the monsoon. Sharing of picturesque flowering and landscape images on social media and wide coverage by the local media, blogs, and online articles have all played their role in making this fragile habitat popular. 

Kas fits the bill of a weekend get-away perfectly as it is just a couple of hours away from mega cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Kolhapur and is easily accessible. It is close to the popular hill station of Mahabaleshwar and visitor surveys have indicated that many combined their visit to Kas with Mahabaleshwar. Unless we have a proper outreach program in place, in my opinion, this issue of rising numbers will continue. 
During peak season, the number of tourists visiting Kas on weekendscantouch 50,000 per day, putting immense pressure on this habitat. A network of informal paths has been formed in the tourist zone. And traffic woes are beyond imagination
Photo credit (both photos)– Prerna Agarwal
5. You are studying the impact of tourism on Kas. How increased tourism is affecting this unique place and how are you working towards mitigating the ill effects of it? 

I am currently working as an independent researcher for the conservation of wild plants at Kas plateau through community participation. I have been studying the impact of human trampling, using both experimental and observational methods, on the herbaceous plant communities of the plateau since 2012. My results show clearly that the high levels of vegetation trampling on Kas are having adverse effects on the plant communities. I have been working closely with the Forest department and have given suggestions to regulate tourist movements by creating designated paths and reducing the visitor numbers, which is the biggest challenge at hand. 
Segregation of Solid waste done by members of JFMC and project volunteers
Tourist organizations have been experimentally roped in who help carry back the plastic waste collected, to their respective cities whenever they tour Kas. So far five organizations have volunteered to be part of this solid waste management model.
Photo credit– Rutwick Bardapurkar
Apart from the trampling study, developing a solid waste management model and conducting a two month long guide training program for the local people were other important aspects of the project. I am very happy to inform you that ten locals now conduct guided tours independently on the plateau. As far as the solid waste management goes, we have roped in tourist organizations as volunteers who carry back the waste collected by the JFMC, to their city whenever they bring a tour to Kas. This model has been working successfully since the past three years. 
Segregation of Solid waste done by members of JFMC and project volunteers 
Tourist organizations have been experimentally roped in who help carry back the plastic waste collected, to their respective cities whenever they tour Kas. So far five organizations have volunteered to be part of this solid waste management model. 
Photo credit– Rutwick Bardapurkar
6. Please share your most memorable experience while working in this field? 

I think the most memorable one was when I saw the local guides independently lead tours in 2015 for the first time after three years of rigorous training. I felt the entire team’s efforts were paid off when we received positive feedback from the visitors. Hearing the guides use scientific names fluently left the visitors and me awestruck! It was even more encouraging when the guides approached me towards the end of the season requesting more training, but now on butterflies and birds. 
Training local men as nature guides
Nature guides have played an important role towards regulating tourism. The guide ensures his group adheres to the marked trail and that no one litters on the plateau.
Working with the forest department has been a memorable experience in itself. They have supported my work and have taken initiatives to implement my suggestions. 
Receiving Certificate of Appreciation from Shri Praveen Singh Pardeshi, then Principal secretary of Maharashtra Forest dept, CCF (Kolhapur Territorial) M.K. Rao and then DCF Satara,Territorial) N.R. Praveen
Photo courtesy – Prerna Agarwal
7. As a woman, did you face any hurdles to move into this field? 

I feel the research environment today in our country is much more receptive to women field biologists than what it was a few decades ago. I was fortunate to be guided by the right people at every step, and have the unconditional support from my family. At Kas, both the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) members and the Forest department were always eager to help. It was around 6 pm on a rainy day and I was still monitoring my vegetation plots when I got a call on my mobile phone from Ashok, a JFMC member, someone had deflated my vehicle tyres parked a kilometer away from the plateau. I, along with my two volunteers, rushed to the site, and I was deeply touched to find all of the samiti members waiting for me. Since it was almost dark by this time, they insisted that we stay in the village for the night and helped me repair my vehicle the next day. This, and many such incidents have etched a strong sense of belonging in my heart to the people of Kas. 

8. Any message for our readers? 

Kas is not just another tourist spot, but a region of irreplaceable biodiversity value and a heritage site. It should be viewed more as an education place than a recreation destination. There is much more to learn from this natural wonder rather than just visiting to click selfies and sharing them online. 

Often, visitors complain- ‘the flowers are miniscule; we were expecting larger flowers shown in images online’. Unfortunately, the images seen online are macro-shots of flowers. In reality, the flowers here are really tiny- sometimes the entire plant is just your thumb size. We have received suggestions like ‘The forest department should add more manure’ or ‘managers should remove all the plants and put tulips’. Visitors often forget that Kas is a ‘natural habitat’ and needs to be conserved in its original form. Each plant is a treasure of thousands of years of evolution. 

Kas, is our own natural heritage. It may sound clichéd, but the future of this World heritage site lies in our hands. Let us strive towards transforming ourselves from being just ‘tourists’ to ‘conscious travelers’. 
Such awareness boards form a part of the open interpretation centre on Kas, which was started in 2014.
Photo credit- Prerna Agarwal
-Parikshit Suryavanshi