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Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), Pacha-Palode, Trivandrum, India

Volume 2 Number 3 - May 1994

Nelson, Carl

They say that "the God who made Kerala had a green thumb", and who could argue? At first glance, this fertile southern Indian state appears as a green and dynamic ecosystem. Yet, as with most of the world's areas of rich biodiversity, Kerala is under threat. Only ten years ago, forest covered 15% of the state, whereas that figure is today more like 13%. A bulwark to this ever-growing erosion is the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), 40 km from the state capital, Trivandrum.

TBGRI's inception was the Keralan Government's response to the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, where it was resolved that tropical botanic gardens should be established so "that the plant wealth of the world could be properly exploited, whilst ensuring preservation of valuable germplasm for the use of future generations". Hence, the garden's foundation in 11979; state-funded, but managed autonomously. However, the Institute's planning was not without obstacles. One government minister questioned the need for it, remarking that the whole of Kerala was a botanic garden.

In its conservation role, TBGRI faces the pressures of deforestation and commercial exploitation. Kerala's economic backbone is its plantations in which a variety of crops are grown: rubber, tea, coffee, pepper, tapioca and teak (the timber for Lord Nelson's ship, HMS Victory, came from Kerala). Export of these resources provides the state with valuable foreign currency, so valuable that the state government encourages plantation expansion by offering growers grants and agricultural expertise.

Food crop production does not mirror that of cash crops. Kerala's yield per acre of food crops is one of the lowest in India. Annual food crop production fails to meet demand by 50%. The problem is highlighted by the fact that only 30% of cultivated land is devoted to paddy farming, a figure that has failed to increase over the last 15 years, even though population density exceeds 200 people per square kilometre.

TBGRI itself occupies 300 acres of formerly degraded forest and cassava cultivation. The Arboretum's major collection is that of Ficus, with 61 species grown, including the banyan (Ficus benghalensis), a tree revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. There are also examples of species of economic value such as fig (Ficus carica) and rubber (Ficus elastica).

Monsoon rains allow planting and are an opportunity to expand the bambusetum and the collections of tropical palms, native and medicinal plants. Beyond the formal, managed collections, the garden includes tracts of natural forest. Here, TBGRI staff have identified some 100 woody native species. Plants represented in moist, deciduous, upland forest include Dalbergia latifolia, Pterocarpus marsupium, Terminalia alata, T. paniculata, Semecarpus anacardium and the huge Butea parviflora.

A 2.5 km strip of evergreen forest grows alongside the Chittar River, a perennial source of irrigation that circumnavigates the gardens. Here, there are examples of Artocarpus hirsutus, Calophyllum apetulum, Hopea parviflora, Vateria indica and the only native gymnosperm, Gnetum ula.

Some 10 km away from the garden are the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains, a range that runs from Bombay, down the west coast to the southernmost tip of India, Cape Comorin. The highest points reach 2,600 metres, but the average altitude is about 900 metres. Separated from its northern counterpart by the 45 km Palghat Gap, the South Western Ghat range has a flora of 2,500 plant species, 120 of which are endemic. One of these is Gluta travancorica, the red wood of which is exploited for local carving.

Though of prime ecological significance, areas of the Ghats were destroyed by a dam construction policy implemented in the 1970s. Even now the region is under constant threat. Each year, thousands of pilgrims trek through the mountains to pay homage at Hindu and Buddhist temples. Such traffic has an obvious negative effect, exacerbated by the pilgrims' demand for firewood and shelter whilst en route. The Institute sees its role as preserving threatened species through ex situ policies and educating local people of the need for conserving these resources.

The "Blue Vanda of Asia" is a success story of TBGRI's conservation strategy. This orchid (Vanda coerulea) grows as an epiphyte in the humid, evergreen forests of northern India, Burma and Thailand. Massive deforestation and unregulated commercial exploitation means that its distribution is now confined to isolated tracts of land. Furthermore, existing populations are too small as to be self perpetuating. Ironically, in the 19th century, Joseph Hooker of Kew was partly responsible for the plant's exploitation. On one of his field trips, he noted having collected "seven men's loads of this superb plant for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew"!

The Plant Biotechnology Division at TBGRI has given Vanda coerulea high priority within the conservation programme, a position readily deserved since V. coerulea is listed in Appendix I of CITES and is included in the IUCN lists of Rare and Endangered Plants of India. Micropropagation techniques utilise meristematic leaf-bases and leaves to multiply populations that are then available for a comprehensive recovery strategy.

At a local community level, the Institute's staff are working amongst local tribespeople. The scientist's aim is both to assess a tribal group's dependence upon naturally occuring medicines and to make use of the potential within modern science. The garden's collection of medicinal plants is represented by 700 species.

TBGRI operates in the shadow of cost-cutting exercises, a scenario all too familiar to the international botanic garden community. Moreover, world recession has done little to favour the community's future. India itself has unemployment of 20 million and imposes strict currency controls in efforts to bolster the rupee within the international money market. Conservation is too often regarded as a luxury implemented at the expense of profit; profit that could resolve a country's deficit. Whatever the arguments, the truth is that botanic gardens require stable and constant funding. If this is not met, how can we be expected to fulfil the UN's 1972 protocol?