Meet the ecologist rooted in the Nilgiris


Godwin Vasanth Bosco, 33, is a restoration ecologist who has spent over a decade studying and restoring the Nilgiri Plateau, a 5,000 square kilometer plateau in the Nilgiri Biosphere that borders the Western Ghats (but much higher than you). The mountain station of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, for example, is located on the Nilgiri plateau.

This is an area that is home to species not found anywhere else on earth; some are not even found anywhere else in the Western Ghats. But the Nilgiri Plateau is seriously endangered. What was once a lush mosaic of Shola forests and grasslands is now littered with farms, houses, schools, resorts, and even energy projects.

Bosco is working to reverse some of these damaging changes. Through his ecological service company Upstream Ecology, he runs a grassland nursery in Ooty (founded in 2013), in which he propagates native plants, especially grasses that are vital for the ecosystem. He also works with government and private institutions to change mindsets and restore the landscape.

The engineer finished his career in 2009 to study plant ecology and their threats in mountain ecologies at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (GBS) in Kerala and at the Himal Prakriti in Uttarakhand. The following year he began studying the Nilgiri Plateau as an independent researcher at GBS. Bosco has so far worked on restoring over 200 hectares of land. He is also the author of Voice of a Sentient Highland (2019), which details the effects of climate change on this ecosystem. Excerpts from an interview:

How would you explain the importance of rewilding in India?

It is extremely important that the naturalization take place across India. The past few decades have seen rampant deforestation, destruction of grasslands, wetlands, mangroves, rivers, mountain slopes and coral reefs. Water levels are sinking. Everyone needs to understand that wilderness and ecologically sound spaces are a fundamental foundation for everything – any life support system. Rewilding, when it is in harmony with the needs of local and indigenous communities, is the zero point of social and ecological justice.

An important preliminary to this step is securing what is left, and in India we are stalling on that front.

The Nilgiri Plateau is a 5,000 square kilometer plateau in the Nilgiri Biosphere, which is characterized by a mosaic of Shola forests and grasslands. (Godwin Vasanth Bosco)

Was there any community knowledge that you used when you started your kindergarten?

Indigenous peoples do not grow forest and grassland plants. They don’t have to because they don’t destroy them. So I had to experiment. Native grasses live a very long time. They don’t produce viable seeds every year. It was difficult to spread them in the country.

The biggest factor is to allow time and space for nature to play its part.

What do you think are the top three threats to the Nilgiri Plateau?

The Nilgiris have large numbers of invasive species, but we have reached a conservation level where it is not as much of a problem as climate change and habitat destruction by humans. Extreme weather events are common and wreak havoc on the land, even when the grasslands are intact.

With so much excavation and construction going on, hydrology has been compromised. There used to be thousands of streams across the plateau. You don’t see them now. The water holding capacity is gone and the topsoil has been washed away. Landslides now happen every year during the monsoons.

How do you go about restoring a piece of land in the Nilgiri Plateau?

One of the most important starting steps is a baseline study to determine which ecosystem this area belongs to. In the case of grassland restoration, for example, an area is cleared and we create space for every type of grass. The patch will be monitored for at least a year. Once every two months we go in and remove the weeds, and within a year it establishes itself. The native grasses get bigger and taller and take over the upper hand. Shrubs and forest restoration take longer.

We plant 2,000 to 4,000 tufts of grass on one hectare. I work with the forestry department, schools with large estates and on private property. Some of these locations have grown and cared for the wrong trees for many decades, so uprooting them all can be a chore.

Is there a model in the world that you think is a good example of rewilding or coexistence with nature?

The best models of coexistence are the places where indigenous peoples and communities are still present and have protected their forests, scrub and grasslands. These places have thrived with these human communities for millennia. In order to function well as a model, local and indigenous communities must be empowered to enable change and rewilding, and this cannot be done by working with a few actors alone. Perhaps an effective model for other parts of the world could start from India.

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