Pioneering solutions to address invasive species in the Western Ghats: A new partnership!

Target six of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) directs us to “Eliminate, minimise, reduce, and or mitigate the impacts of invasive alien species on biodiversity and ecosystem services…”  

This International Day for Biodiversity, we are delighted to announce a partnership with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), to pioneer solutions for invasive species and align ourselves with this year’s theme - Be part of the Plan. 

Lantana camara, an inedible, invasive tropical American shrub, is replacing native plants eaten by iconic species like elephants and gaurs in several landscapes across India. It's spread is threatening biodiversity and coexistence in the affected landscapes.  

In 2021, we presented London’s biggest environmental campaign where 125 life-size elephant sculptures made of Lantana camara were exhibited across the city. This CoExistence Campaign was a solution to the problem of the invasive species, raised awareness about the myriad ways people share spaces with their wild neighbours and reimagined the paradigm of human-wildlife relations into one of coexistence. 

Despite the short-term solution, the problem of wide-spreading lantana continues. This includes the savannah landscapes of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Tiger Reserve (BRT), which functions as a corridor connecting the Western and Eastern Ghats.  

Gaur And Chital Deer Grazing Together At Biligiriranga Wildlife Sanctuary

Circa 1997, lantana covered only 4.3% of the open landscape, leaving sufficient grass for food and room for herds of large herbivores to move around.  

Today, most of BRT is covered with the thorny hedges and vines of the plant. This makes food scarce and movement almost impossible for wildlife and the indigenous Soliga community who have traditionally resided in region, leading to an increase in human-wildlife conflict incidents. 

Through our partnership with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), we are supporting an innovative study to control the spread of Lantana camara and restore natural vegetation and wildlife to their native habitats.  

The study builds on ecological research as well as the traditional knowledge of the indigenous Soliga community, who used their nuanced understanding of the ecosystems around them to manage the BRT landscape. This partnership is possible through the CoExistence Fund, set up with the funds raised as part of our CoExistence Campaign. 

Developing solutions rooted in local ethos and indigenous knowledge 

Savannahs like BRT have adapted to cool fires that burn quickly at low temperatures through the forest floor.  

So, the Soliga community’s traditions such as ‘taragu benki’ which involve setting fire to forest litter - the loose leaves and other debris on the landscape floor- helped manage the landscape in BRT and controlled the invasion of lantana. 

When the Soliga people were unable to conduct their traditional practices, the Latana camara invasion escalated, covering large swathes of the savannah.  

Sites of deep cultural value to the community are now inaccessible, and the soil changes caused by the lantana plants have led to a decline in agricultural and forest produce, leading to starvation and increasingly negative interactions between people and herbivores who venture into human-settlements in search of food.  

The Lantana problem: It will come back 

The leaves and stems of the lantana plant are inedible to herbivores, causing nausea and illness. However, the bright colours of the lantana flower are attractive to bees and birds alike, which disperse the seeds across landscapes. 

Large-scale removal efforts work for a time, then the seeds, lying in wait in the ground, sprout yet again, crowding out the native plant species that are essential to the health of wildlife and their habitats.  

In the face of such relentless invasives, building on traditional practices like taragu benki offer a starting point to devise more permanent solutions to remove the lantana plant.  

2048Px Lantana Camara At Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (2)

We are excited to begin this new journey supporting a pioneering study with the intent to address key ecosystem challenges and pave new approaches for habitat restoration and coexistence. 

Stay tuned for more updates on our study with ATREE and the Soliga community, as well as our other projects by signing up for our newsletter here.