Passage to India

IN

Dr Anurag Dhyani’s career as a conservation scientist began with a PHD studying a Himalayan lily that hadn’t been seen for more than 30 years, against the advice of his supervisors. He did end up finding some wild populations of the rare flowers, but only after visiting a temple in despair after 18 months of fruitless searching and seeing them amid the floral offerings that were on sale in the temple.

He is still “The Lily Man” when his 5 year old is asked about what he does. His career then took him to Mekelle University Ethiopia, running couple of community service projects about organic farming and teaching graduate students, and he has been at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden & Research Institute (JNTBGRI) in Kerala for 5 years.

The Research Institute at JNTBGRI, Kerala

The Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic garden was established within the natural forest of the mountains of the Western Ghats, in an area that is recognised as one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” for biodiversity by UNESCO,  “So there’s plenty of opportunity to work here!” Anurag jokes, “Every 5 miles there is a different endemic tree.” Many species feature on the IUCN red list of globally threatened flora and fauna. They have a seedbank for wild plants there, where they can control humidity and optimise temperatures for particular seeds from 4* to -18* and study how seeds behave in storage. Dr. Dhyani is research coordinator with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and works closely with their seed bank. JNTBGRI has eight departments, ranging from Garden management to Plant Genetic Resources, Microbiology to Biotechnology and Conservation Biology.

They work closely with Kerala forest department about access for seed gathering from forest; some of the areas are tiger reserves. There are also risks of cobra on the trees, so while Anurag and his team have strong connections with the plants they are working on, it’s with the caveat that “there is always a second chance to get seeds.”

The 5 species they will focus on for the conservation project supported by The Botanist are all endemic and threatened, so found nowhere else. Finding them is a big part of the challenge; they are all on the international list of endangered species, but some have not been recorded since 1998.

There’s only between 3 and 49 individuals remaining of a cinnamon tree Cinnamomum chemungianum. Collecting seeds from those trees are a race against heavy rainfall and grazing by wild boar and elephants. There’s a flowering hardwood tree Dipterocarpus bourdillonii the “two winged fruit” of the lowland rainforest; other Dipterocarpus are keystone species in the forests of Borneo. The challenge here is locating trees that are mature enough to be producing seeds, and ascertaining whether those seeds are viable. A variety of ixora which is a member of the coffee family, with leathery leaves and tiny flowers is on their list – Ixora johnsonii. It’s a relation of both the herb we collect in Islay for The Botanist distillations ‘Lady’s Bedstraw” and to the plants known as “West Indian Jasmine” where it grows in Florida. An evergreen tree that is related to another Islay plant we use to make gin – bog myrtle – is of serious interest to them. There are thought to be only 20 mature individuals of Syzygium travancoricum left after its natural habitats have been cleared for paddy fields or roads and infrastructure projects. Clove is another Syzygium species; their woody essential oils are used in folk medicine. The fifth species they will try to collect and save is a shrub called Utleria salicifolia. Its tubers are used in several ways medicinally by different communities. It has also been affected by forest fires, and by farmers clearing land with fire.

Modelling may help them locate these target species – they can predict populations to a certain extent, but they have to go into the field. For identification, Anurag has full confidence in the expertise of JNTBGRI’s long-serving taxonomist, Dr Santhosh Kumar. “At midnight, you could throw a stone into the forest and he’ll be able to say “this is the plant”. They are like his children!”

Deep in the forest of the Western Ghats

Anurag himself is looking forward to meeting the plants “in the wild”; once he has bonded with them, who knows, he might become the Cinnamon Man, or Mr Ixora, doing the brilliant work to save them and champion them that he has done with the lily and many other species since 2006. He promises to keep us up-to-date as the project progresses, so watch this space.

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