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Photo: Ananda Banerjee
Photo: Ananda Banerjee

Climate change is as much local as it is global

We don't need to look far for examples of climate change effects. There are many local stories in our own backyard

Around a fortnight ago, just when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate pact, a veteran naturalist, sitting in the Kanha National Park, said, “I have rarely seen the barasingha munch so much on leaves before!" The barasingha, a rare swamp deer with magnificent branched antlers, is known to feed solely on grass, aquatic vegetation and a few shrubs.

According to local naturalists, there is a change in the barasingha’s feeding habits because its favoured grass is slowly disappearing. The grasslands of Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, with its famed deer and tiger population, were empty as we took a round of a meadow.

On 1 June, Trump announced that his country was pulling out of the historic Paris Agreement. The pact, agreed by 195 countries in December 2015, is aimed at countering the threat of climate change by keeping global mean temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Across the world, we can already see small changes all around us—beyond the dramatic images of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.

“Climate change is as much local as it is global, and it’s the smaller stories on how communities are being affected that often move people the most," says Bill McKibben, well-known American environmentalist and author of The End Of Nature.

But since climatology is complex, and the perceived threats or impact are not immediately visible, it’s a topic which is difficult to communicate. However, there are many local stories in our own backyard. Here is a small example.

I spent the last fortnight in the forests of central India—in and around two famed national parks and tiger reserves, Pench and Kanha. In the 19th century, this forest landscape was celebrated in two iconic books—Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (1894) and Captain James Forsyth’s The Highlands Of Central India (1871).

Apart from rich biodiversity, the vast forests that Forsyth eulogized in his book, are also home to one of the oldest tribes of India—the Gonds.

These forests exist today in fragmented patches. From 1880-2012, the average global temperature on earth increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius, according to US space agency Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. During the same period, India lost about 40% of its forest cover.

The Gonds of Pench hold the forest close to their hearts. Their principal deity, Bada Dev, the creator and protector, lives in the saj tree (Terminalia elliptica,or the crocodile bark tree), and their knowledge of the forest and its ways is second to none.

Aage jaisa jungle aur nai raha (the jungles are no longer what they used to be), I was told by the village elders in a Gond hamlet. In the past, it used to drizzle for days at a stretch, but now the rain comes down in short and heavy spells and the water drains away quickly, they said. Annual rainfall figures may not change but the number of rainy days is down and rainfall has become erratic. Due to this change, the soil is unable to absorb the rain and recharge the water table, resulting in drier forests. Scientists at the US’ Stanford University have also corroborated the Gond observation in a study which predicts that extreme dry and wet spells will lead to more droughts and floods in central India.

Nature is a complex web. As moisture in the soil dries up, it affects the regeneration of the forest and its undergrowth—grasses and shrubs. In Kanha and Pench, this has led to weed infestation and the rise of climate-resilient exotic species such as Parthenium hysterophorus, Hyptis suaveolens and Lantana camara, which have overpowered native species.

For example, Parthenium, which originates in central and south America, is known to cause widespread damage to grass and farm land and can lead to respiratory problems. Exotic species (species not native to a particular region) tend to be introduced either accidentally, through international trade, or for ornamental reasons.

In Kanha, at least two long-term scientific studies show that grasslands known for hosting diverse populations of herbivorous wildlife are shrinking even as the ranks of the herbivores increase.

“Most of the grasslands (meadows) within the reserve have changed drastically, resulting in the preponderance of less palatable and fire-resistant grasses and decrease in cover of perennial fodder species. Several grassland patches have been taken over by alien invasive species," states a 2016 Wildlife Institute of India report.

The profusion of non-palatable grasses has forced herbivores to move out of grasslands and raid croplands in villages—many of them tribal villages—on the edges of forests. And as these herbivores move towards human habitation, predators—especially the tiger—follow in search of food. This in turn leads to increasing human-wildlife conflict, posing a huge challenge for the forest department to manage and protect species.

Climate change affects forests immensely. Since the beginning of the 20th century, temperatures in India are said to have increased by more than 1.2 degrees Celsius. Add erratic rainfall to the mix, and it’s a far from ideal scenario.

We often forget the invisible force of climate in our lives, the little changes that slowly alter our planet. Despite what climate change deniers like Trump may suggest, the connection and impact are impossible to miss.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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