In Kerala’s Wayanad, weekend warriors are destroying trees to protect ecosystem: Here’s why

The origins of the invasive Senna Spectabilis species have been traced to the forests in Kerala's Wayanad from the 1970s

ByDileep V Kumar

Published May 21, 2024 | 8:00 AM Updated May 21, 2024 | 8:00 AM

Cutting trees to protect ecosystem

In Kerala, deep within the forests of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, the members of a nature club are on an unconventional mission – to destroy trees. Before you raise your eyebrows, take a closer look at their noble cause.

The 200-odd members of this nature club, a diverse group ranging from school students to professionals, are all united by a common goal, which is to combat the invasive species Senna Spectabilis.

Another thing that unites them is their shared history as former members of a school environment club, fostering a deep-rooted passion for environmental conservation from an early age.

The club, named Prithvi Root, consists of those who were members of the Ramakrishna Mission Higher Secondary School’s (Meenchanda) Prithvi Environment Club.

Also Read: Rewilding revolution: Kerala Forest Department partners with NGOs to restore ecosystems

Mission Manja Konna

Members of Prithvi Root at Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary

Talking to SouthFirst, Ranjith Raj KG, a patron of Prithvi Root said, “It’s not about destroying trees. It’s about protecting the ones that rightfully belong here. Senna Spectabilis suffocates the local flora, leaving the forest vulnerable.”

By removing the species, the group is restoring the natural habitat so that native flora and fauna can continue to thrive, he said.

Elaborating on it, Raj said, “By removing Senna Spectabilis, we’re restoring the natural habitat for native flora and fauna to thrive.”

According to him, it was in November 2023 that Mission Manja Konna was conceived.

“We had several rounds of discussions within and with the Forest Department and on March second week (2024), we began our mission,” says the patron. 

How Mission Manja Konna came to be

“In 2010, when we were at Muthunga as part of nature familiarization, we spotted this Senna Spectabilis. Then one of our faculty members warned that these trees could become an ecological issue,” recollects Ranjith.

“The conceptualization of Mission Manja Konna is a confluence of ideas,” he adds. 

According to him, as the impact of Senna Spectabilis was discussed widely, Prithvi Root decided to do something (about it) and began researching. It was then that the club’s secretary Sugamya P, a project fellow at the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, came out with a research paper on Senna Spectabilis.

“Armed by the information we (had) gathered, we approached the Sulthan Bathery Range Forest Office. To our surprise, they were also planning to address the Senna Spectabilis invasion. After five to six meetings with forest personnel, we began our mission on March second week,” explains Ranjith.

Also Read: Kerala farmers chop down trees in desperate bid to deter elephants, safeguard crops

Debarking trees

A member of the Prithvi Root engaged in debarking

According to Ranjith, every weekend, members of all ages and professions unite to take up the task.

“Lawyers, teachers, and doctors don gloves, grab tools, and embark on a mission to help the forest reclaim its balance. Usually, each expedition will have 10 to 30 members. The mission has completed nine weeks and we have debarked three hectares of Senna Spectabilis, that is some 1000-odd trees,” says Ranjith.

However, he added that it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“There may be lakhs of such trees in the sanctuary. And it may take us years to complete the ongoing process. The challenge of fresh Senna shoots emerging is also there. Thus, constant monitoring is needed,” Ranjith explains. 

The process

Debarking in progress

The members start by removing the tree’s bark, going downwards from breast height (1.3 meters above ground level) to the soil surface and, in some cases to the roots, and then leave it to dry up. fore

Prithvi Root members say that since there are no funds available with the Forest Department, the expenses are met by the members themselves.

“But the department gave us transportation. Upon reaching Muthanga, they arrange a vehicle for us to enter the area where debarking is in process. They also provide us with a cook and two security guards. Stay facility is also provided by them,” said a member of Prithvi Root.

Kerala wants to emulate Tamil Nadu

Talking to SouthFirst, an official of the Sulthan Bathery Range Forest Office said, “The sanctuary is spread across 34,440 hectares and there may be lakhs of Senna Spectabilis trees which need to be debarked.”

According to the official, as the existing norms would not allow cutting down trees from a protected area or a wildlife sanctuary, debarking is the only option.

“This fast-growing, Senna Spectabilis species disrupts the delicate ecosystem, chokes out native flora and threatens biodiversity. Our counterpart (Tamil Nadu Forest Department) is also undertaking a similar mission in Mudumalai and Satyamangalam Tiger Reserves. But they are cutting down the trees,” said the official.

It is learnt that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department approached the Madras High Court highlighting the need to cut down the trees by citing its ecological impact and secured a favourable verdict.

The Tamil Nadu Government, which had rolled out a dedicated invasive species removal policy, has also roped in Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited (TNPL) to remove the invasive trees and use the wood for manufacturing paper. The government in Tamil Nadu, it’s learnt, is also in talks with cement manufacturing units so that they can use the logs of Senna Spectabilis and other invasive species in the cement kilns.

Citing these aspects, the Forest Department is planning to approach the Kerala High Court to eradicate the invasive species from Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

Origins of Senna Spectabilis in Kerala

Earlier, the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) found that there are nearly 22 invasive species in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and Senna being one of them could pose a major threat if proper action is not taken soon.

In a 2019 report, the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS), an NGO, observed that the invasive species Senna Spectabilis is very hardy and survives under challenging conditions and that eradicating the species from a landscape can take years.

The report also traced the origins of Senna Spectabilis to the forests of Wayanad.

“It was in the 1970s that the Social Forestry wing of the Kerala Forest Department got Senna seeds from abroad and distributed saplings to people across Wayanad as a ‘social forestry initiative’ since the plant had very beautiful flowers,” the report states.

Further, it states, “There was no proper study done back then before introducing this in Wayanad. They planted 3-5 saplings around the Muthanga Range Office, from where it started to spread into the forest.”

According to WCS, animals in the forest completely avoid areas where there is Senna growth. There will not be any living creatures, not even insects, and no undergrowth like grass where Senna plants grow.

(Edited by Neena)