Random clumps of wild paddy, sugarcane and several other types of tall wild grass extend to the marsh where a rangale of about fifty to sixty swamp deer sat in peaceful oblivion in the vast expanse of the alluvial grassland in the Terai region in northern Uttar Pradesh.

Kaushik Sarkar, a biologist from Bengaluru, stood for a panoramic view on an elevated observation post (machan). This rich biodiversity on the banks of river Sharda is home to various thriving and dwindling species of flora and fauna.

He explained that these grasses grow very tall and very fast and serve a purpose. The vegetation in this region is very high and it provides plentifully to a wide range of herbivores and carnivores. There also happen to be several species that are endemic to the Terai region.

India has a variety of grasslands across distinct geographies: Banni and Vidi are coastal grasslands in the Rann of Kutch region of Gujarat; the floating grasslands of Manipur are found in its water-logged areas; the tropical (Shola) grasslands of the Western Ghats are concentrated largely in Karnataka.

Further, the montane type (high elevation) grasslands are found in several other regions, such as Kashmir (as Margs or Bahaks grasslands), Uttarakhand (as Bugyal and Dzukou grasslands), Himachal Pradesh (as Khajjiar grasslands), Nagaland (as Saramati grasslands), and Manipur (as Ukhrul grasslands).

Grasslands add up to nearly 24 per cent of India's geographical area; but not only are there no laws pertaining to their conservation, about 17 per cent of India's land, comprising ravines, grasslands, shrublands, water-logged and marshy areas, and pastures, are written off as wasteland.

However, a scant understanding and pervasive ignorance of this type of biodiversity and its ecological significance have pushed them to the backseat in the drive for environmental restoration and conservation.

How grasslands became wasteland

Grasslands differ from forests in the manner that forests form a canopy that only sparingly allows sunlight to reach the ground, letting little grass coverage below the trees. There are multiple distinctions between forests and grasslands from the ecological perspective, but historically, particularly since colonial times, forests were a source of timber and generated revenues. So, they assumed great economic value.

Grasslands, on the other hand, did not generate any produce of understandable commercial value that could be readily exploited. Hence, they were classified as wastelands.

However, grasslands are one of the most used ecosystems by humans, even more than forests. Kaushik explained that grasslands were some of the largest areas where humans settled. Grasslands, thus, hold significance as culture, particularly regarding food, began evolving here.

Ecological significance of grasslands

As mentioned, there are several species that are exclusive to the Terai region. Likewise, various grasslands have their own unique ecosystems defined by their distinct dynamics of cyclic interaction of flora and fauna -- an example of which would be tigers hiding under tall grasses to prey on swamp deer and other herbivores that feed on a variety of grasses available in the region.

Biologist Anup Prakash Bokkasa emphasised that overlooking grasslands will lead to losing species -- they are "not wastelands", he asserted.

Additionally, in the light of rising global temperatures, "the future of life on Earth depends on how much carbon lies underground. Grasslands are one of the highest holders of carbon below the ground level," he explained, adding that "Grasslands hold more carbon than forests, and that's why they are extremely critical."

Devoid of legal protection

The Field Director of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, which extends from the Terai grasslands, B. Prabhakar, in conversation with IANS, reiterated: "Forests catered to the needs of the British. So, they planted trees such as eucalyptus, teak, etc. even in the grassland areas. We are now restoring them." Eucalyptus is an invasive species introduced by the British.

As far as legal protection of grasslands goes, the forest officer explained that "when an area is declared as a reserve, everything in that area is legally protected. That includes grasslands."

In the absence of any legislation exclusive to grasslands, the tracts beyond the reserve areas fall vulnerable to environmental degradation.

Although a specific law pertaining to grasslands will make no difference in the functioning of the forest department, the senior official maintains that "it will make a difference in the grasslands beyond the forest areas and to biodiversity."

Coming together for a common goal

Acknowledging that conservation of an expansive ecosystem demands a great deal of data documentation and record keeping, besides constant upgrade of technical know-how and subject matter expertise that it is best comprehended and done by biologists and conservationists, Anup pointed out that the bureaucracy has already plenty on its plate with its administrative responsibilities.

Drawing attention to the role of non-governmental and quasi-governmental arms and engagements of the government that cooperate for smooth functioning towards the common goal of conservation of biodiversity, the much-needed expertise in the subject matter and the technical know-how thus brought in serve to complement the efforts of the government towards environmental restoration and conservation.

With regard to roping in non-government agencies, the Dudhwa field director affirms that they are already on board. Several private organisations, as well as universities, are closely involved in research projects.

Both the biologists that IANS reached out to belong to 'The Habitats Trust', an organisation that focuses on the conservation of lesser-known species and habitats that are threatened.

Kaushik Sarkar executes scientific projects on the ground in the Dudhwa region, and Anup Prakash Bokkasa leads the on-ground initiatives of The Habitats Trust.

Although not to the extent of public-private-partnership, non-governmental agencies such as The Habitats Trust and its researchers working closely with the government contribute significantly to the effect of impactful decision-making and implementation by the government authorities.

The government grants access to the researchers and they have a say in wildlife management practices. Prabhakar recounts an instance of the efforts made in tandem: Upon the suggestion of researchers in the Dudhwa region, islands were created in the swamps for barasingha (swamp deer).

Interventions of such kind are required in the wake of plummeting populations of species and fragmentation of habitats. For the Terai region, which is seasonally inundated, swamp deer need drier, higher grounds to move to. In the absence of a natural option, artificial ones such as these mounds were created.


Considering the need to highlight the ecological importance of grasslands, and its potential in checking climate change, a habitat-centric approach to conservation is arguably the way forward.

The fact that cheetahs were recently brought from Namibia directs attention to grasslands as the cheetah is a grassland-dwelling animal. Reintroduction of cheetah into the wild must mean a step towards restoring its habitat -- the grasslands (albeit the arid ones).