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The Chilgoza pine faces the risk of extinction. With little or no natural regeneration and runaway commercial exploitation, the survival of the species that dominates the high western Himalayan forests hinges on a bird—the spotted nutcracker.

How, you may ask, is a bird vital to the continuance of a tree? Read on.

The Chilgoza pine dominates the western Himalayan forests at altitudes between 2,000 metres and 3,350 metres. The pine has a patchy distribution across arid mountain valleys in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

In India, the Chilgoza is found in Kishtwar in Kashmir and Pangi, Bharmour and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Kinnaur has the largest Chilgoza forests, covering an area of around 2,000 hectares.

The Chilgoza pine, which grows to 25 metres in height with its distinct three-needle leaves, is botanically known as Pinus gerardiana. It is named after Captain Patrick Gerard, a British army official who discovered it while posted in the region in the 19th century.

The slender Chilgoza seeds are highly nutritious. They are popular in the ‘dry fruit’ market—fetching Rs1,600 a kg in Delhi this season. The seeds are also a preferred choice in the confectionery industry as they are easy to insert into cakes and sweets compared to other nuts.

In 2009, while working on a project to access diverse common property resource regimes in the ecologically fragile western Himalayas, economist Rinki Sarkar stumbled upon a massive stack of pine cones by the roadside in Kinnaur. The sheer volume of pine cones got Sarkar thinking: Are such large-scale extractions ecologically sustainable?

“If the seeds were being extracted for commercial reasons, would it not threaten the long-term sustainability of this rare species of pine? Would collective local governance mechanisms of resource access and use, which have been in existence since traditional times, mediate any such unsustainable trends? After all, the local community had a stake in the resource for livelihood-related returns," said Sarkar.

Sarkar’s accidental discovery of large-scale pine cone extraction led to two studies funded by the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (HPFD)—the village-specific Livelihood and Regeneration Studies of Chilgoza Pine: Seeking Conservation Solutions in Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh, 2009-10, and Assessment of Chilgoza Pine in Chamba District: Unearthing Livelihood Linkages and Regeneration Status for Conservation Alternatives, 2010-11.

There were some other scholars who also studied the Chilgoza. One of them was R.N. Sehgal from Y.S. Parmar University in Himachal Pradesh, with whom Sarkar corresponded during her research. In the 1990s, Sehgal had raised the alarm that there were very few young Chilgoza trees (aged less than 25 years) left in their natural habitat.

In Sehgal’s research area, in Kinnaur and Chamba, all the existing trees were over 60 years old, which reflected an ageing forest with hardly any regeneration. Sehgal also reported the threat from cone borers such as Dioryctria abietella and Euzophera cedrella, which have been destroying standing trees over the years.

In January, a study, Regeneration Complexities of Pinus gerardiana in Dry Temperate Forests of Indian Himalaya, by a group of scientists published in Environment Science and Pollution Research, Springer, also stated that the lack of regeneration had led to the predominance of older Chilgoza trees.

According to the report, the most important factor affecting Chilgoza’s regeneration is the collection of cones by the local people for extracting seeds or nuts, as they fetch high prices in local and international markets. These biotic pressures are affecting new tree regeneration, leading to forest degradation in the high Himalayas, it said.

According to Sarkar and other scholars, things were different in the past.

“In a region where the productivity of agricultural land is low due to harsh nature of the terrain, these pine seeds or pine nuts have always supplemented dietary needs. Interviews with locals indicate that Chilgoza pine nut was the earliest cash crop of the region. Pine nuts were mainly extracted for self-consumption and also a part of the produce was bartered for essential food and non-food items that were not locally available. Only a few enduring households took up this venture as the produce had to be manually transported to the nearest market at Rampur. The whole expedition took nearly seven days after arduous trekking on foot, that too one way," said Sarkar.

“In the 1950s, traditional harvesting rules made it possible to respect trees and allow a small portion of seeds to reach the ground. So, in spite of particularly difficult ecological conditions, the forest was able to regenerate. During the last five decades, the construction of roads (especially National Highway 22) has facilitated people to trade in the valleys. The village communities now sell the nut harvest contracts to private contractors who collect every cone on the tree. So, regeneration has become practically non-existent," write scientists Régis Peltier and Vincent Dauffy in The Chilgoza of Kinnaur: Influence of the Pinus gerardiana Edible Seed Market Chain Organization on Forest Regeneration in the Indian Himalayas, published in the journal Fruits, in 2009.

All the studies on Chilgoza in various journals concluded that there was no natural regeneration in the Chilgoza pine forests and if the current rate of extraction continued, the species would go extinct in the near future.

“Due to excessive lopping, the reckless nature of local extraction for lucrative commercial gains, there is no scope for natural regeneration. Further, there is reason for alarm as decline in snowfall and grazing pressures are also not very conducive for seedling and sapling establishment. The most striking feature that emerges from the study is low seedling and sapling density in relation to the density of trees. This is again an indication of poor natural regeneration. Overall, it’s a vicious cycle of high lopping, declining yields and rising prices," said Sarkar.

Forest officials concur with the studies. They agree that short-term economic returns outweigh ecological concerns, although poverty is a not an issue here.

According to a senior official from the HPFD, who did not want to be named, “There is no natural regeneration of Chilgoza as locals remove all the cones from the tree. They have exclusive rights over harvesting of Chilgoza pine. There was a plan to work on Chilgoza conservation on the findings of Sarkar’s study and even Rs10 crore was earmarked for the project. But the conservation project was shelved in due to lack of funds and disinterest amongst a section of forest officials."

Limited success

For the past five years, around 10 hectares of Chilgoza plantation has been carried out annually by the HPFD. A sapling is raised for three years in a nursery and then it is planted in the field. The survival rate of these saplings in the field is quite good as per a statement from a senior forest department official in Kinnaur. But other than this, the HPFD has not instituted any mechanism whereby some mother trees are saved for seed purposes.

Experts say that the plantation by the HPFD is not widespread and not effective enough for the regeneration of Chilgoza forests.

“Being a native species, the Chilgoza is an important tree of the region, a keystone species critical for the ecosystem. Other than producing nutritional nuts, the pine performs intangible hydrological functions and prevents soil erosion. But as the area under Chilgoza is rapidly shrinking, we are losing genetic stock. We urgently need a germplasm bank to save the species from going extinct, but time and funds seems to be the biggest constraint," said Gurinder Goraya, deputy director general (research), Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Dehradun.

While Sarkar’s research led to a host of recommendations to the HPFD, nothing has been implemented. Among the recommendations were: create Chilgoza forest reserves and monitor land-use changes; critically review the system of auctioning forests to private individuals as this only benefits some influential members of the village community and causes excessive damage to Chilgoza forests; and initiate sustainable harvesting practices and innovative plantation programmes.

There are also other threats to Chilgoza forests, like encroachment by apple orchards, firewood collection, new road construction and hydroelectric projects. The 100 megawatt Tidong hydropower project is said to have led to the felling of as many as 13,000 trees. In this tiny landscape, Himachal Pradesh has undertaken 49 major hydroelectric projects on the Chenab river.

Mutualism

While the regeneration of the Chilgoza remains a cause for concern, what came out of Sarkar’s two studies is the fascinating relationship between the Chilgoza and the spotted nutcracker.

On her field visits, Sarkar noticed young Chilgoza saplings emerging from underneath rocks, in obscure places, on the steep mountain slopes—odd places where the cones couldn’t have rolled down and dispersed seeds.

The Chilgoza produces wingless seeds; therefore, it couldn’t have been dispersed by wind. Moreover, the pine cone does not let the seeds out when it falls on the ground.

“I found regeneration happening at absolutely unanticipated locations, so I kept rolling cones down the slope to find how far and where all they could go. There was no way the cones could land at the spots where I saw young pines growing from below rocky outcrops. So, how was it possible or how did the seeds reach these odd places remained a mystery for some time," said Sarkar.

Locals told her that crows take away the seeds. One day, during her regular walks inside a Chilgoza patch, she found an unknown bird drumming away on a pine tree, like a woodpecker, and managed to photograph it.

It was a nutcracker.

A spotted nutcracker. Photo courtesy Gunjan Arora
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A spotted nutcracker. Photo courtesy Gunjan Arora

The spotted nutcracker, native to the high Himalayas, goes around hiding pine seeds, a vital part of its diet, between rocks and stones to feed on during the long winter.

Food is scarce in the winter months, so the nutcracker’s survival strategy lies in its seed stash—it has to remember its caches one by one, below snow-covered rocks.

The bill of the nutcracker, shaped like a miniature dagger, is specially designed for extracting seeds from ripe pine cones. The bird collects the seeds in its gular sac, a pouch under the tongue, before it buries them under rocks and boulders, far from the reach of competitors.

The nutcracker belongs to the corvid family—the same as crows and jays.

Coincidentally, a tip from Sehgal led Sarkar to the work of Diana Tomback, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and Ronald M. Lanner, professor emeritus of forest resources at Utah State University.

The work of Tomback and Lanner opened an entirely new chapter—mutualism between birds and pines. Mutualism is a term in ecology that refers to the interaction between two species from which both benefit.

Sarkar’s enquiry led to Tomback’s study of Clark’s nutcrackers and Whitebark pines, two keystone species in North America, which co-evolved in a special ecological relationship. Tomback’s paper, Dispersal of Whitebark Pine Seeds by Clark’s Nutcracker: A Mutualism Hypothesis, states, “The evolution of wingless seeds and indehiscent cones in the Cembra pine group was probably a consequence of seed dispersal by an ancestral nutcracker form. It appears that the Clark’s nutcracker-Whitebark pine interaction is both evolved and mutualistic."

In his book, Made For Each Other: A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines, Lanner wrote that corvid-dispersed pines cover large areas in North America, Asia and Europe, yet their story is little known to naturalists or nature enthusiasts.

There were also studies from Jeff Mitton, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, who wrote on the mutualism between the Clark’s nutcracker and Limber pine, a species closely related to the Whitebark pine.

Mitton wrote, “The bird and pine are in a co-dependent relationship sculpted by evolution. Limber pine relies on the bird to harvest, disperse and plant its seeds. While the Clark’s nutcracker relies on limber pine seeds to get through the winter. Both the bird and the pine have evolved morphological traits, a sublingual pouch for the bird and wingless seeds for the pine, to better serve and exploit their partner."

Even the cones are held level, so that they serve as landing platforms for the birds. Further, the seeds are retained in drying cones, so the birds have an accessible, abundant and nutritious resource. Seeds that do not get consumed in the winter months germinate and thus a new pine forest patch grows over the course of time.

Photo courtesy Rinki Sarkar
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Photo courtesy Rinki Sarkar

With no training in ecology or evolutionary biology, Sarkar wrote to Tomback on whether her documentation also holds true also for Chilgoza and the spotted nutcracker. Birds are known to be agents of pollination and seed dispersal, but are the nutcracker and the Chilgoza made for each other?

Tomback wrote back to Sarkar saying, “I do know that nutcrackers take Pinus gerardiana seeds, but we have virtually no information on the ecology of this interaction."

In her correspondence, Tomback also gave the reference of the Swiss Stone pine of Europe, which also depends on the spotted nutcracker for seed dispersal and regeneration. “I should point out that the same conservation issue applies to the Korean stone pine forests of China. This is another bird-dispersed pine that is diminishing in reproduction because of commercial harvest of the seeds," added Tomback.

In June 2015, Sarkar went to meet Tomback in the US and visited the Whitebark pine forest where Tomback did her research. “I could hypothesize that the nutcracker I had photographed, extracting the seeds, was responsible for caching seeds that later regenerated into a Chilgoza pine tree," said Sarkar. Tomback confirmed that Sarkar’s observations were the first of their kind on the Chilgoza forest landscape, although further studies needed to be done.

Now, a scientific collaboration with experts is underway to empirically verify and validate the role of the nutcracker in the regeneration of Chilgoza pine. Sarkar has also planned another study, to involve the local community in a “citizen science framework", to look for a sustainable extraction mechanism to ensure adequate cone density for the nutcracker to play its natural role in the regeneration of the endemic Chilgoza.

Just when all the odds were stacking up against the Chilgoza, nature showed a way. The nutcracker was made for the Chilgoza pine. It’s time now for humans to step back and allow mutualism free play—so that the busy bird with its dagger beak can drum away at the Chilgoza pine cone, pick its slender nuts, hide them, and find them again in an evolutionary tango that will regenerate India’s fast fading Chilgoza forests.

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