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Biodiversity - Use and Conservation

R.P. Singh and J.P. Singh

The Indian subcontinent represents one of the richest diverse genetic resources.
However, with the advent of cut and burn agriculture, green revolution/commercialized
agriculture, the area development projects and the related activities of these diverse
resources are on decline at a fast pace. The overgrazing, deforestation and over
exploitation of native resources under range situations have eroded the biodiversity
from this unique ecosystem. However, in spite of these biotic pressures rich
biodiversity is still visible in the remote and tribal population dominated areas. The
north-eastern, peninsular and the trans-Himalayan areas still maintain a rich
biodiversity.

The selective extinction of many animals from the forest/ grazinglands has
disturbed the ecosystem to such an extent that problems of rodents, reptiles and
termites have assumed alarming position in some situations (Shankar et al 1995).
These factors have further added to the fragility of ecosystem and erosion of
biodiversity.

Uses and values of biodiversity

Plant species provide a variety of products like food, medicines and raw materials.
Some plant extracts are used in the manufacture of glue, soaps, cosmetics, dyes,
lubricants and polishes. The plants also provide an important source of renewable
energy.

Food plants

One of the most fundamental values of plant biodiversity is in supplying the food
for human, domesticated and wild animals and different organisms. Of the estimated
250,000 species of flowering plants at global level, about 3000 are regarded as food
source and only 200 species out of these have been domesticated.

In the traditional agro-ecosystems newly domesticated plant types and primitive


cultivars emerged from their wild ancestors. Occasional crosses continued to occur
between the crops and their wild relatives which increased genetic diversity for further
selection and improvement. Many cultivated species may not have survived under
domestication without the interchange of genes between wild relatives and cultivated
crops (Oldfields 1984).

Crop genetic resources

The genetically transmitted characters of the crops and wild relatives such as
rapid growth and high yields, food quality, stress (biotic and abiotic) tolerance vis-a-vis

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environmental adaptations are of potential value for hybridization and breeding a
desired type of plant. Recent plant collections in the Himalayan foot hills of
north-eastern India have provided a large number of primitive rice cultivars having
resistance to major pests and diseases. The variations shown by old land races are of
great importance in our crop | improvement programmes.

Genetic erosion or the loss of genetic diversity is an issue of serious concern in


relation to sustainable global food security.

Medicinal plants

Around 119 pure chemical substances extracted from some 90 species of higher|
plants are used in medicines throughout the world. Indian medicine system is largely;
dependent on such drug plants. The local people particularly the tribal population rely
on indigenous and traditional medicines. The WHO has listed over 21,000 medicinal
plants and most of these are temperate species. The Indian subcontinent had been one
of the rich emporia of 2500 plant species used in indigenous treatment. Aconitum,
Dioscorea and Ephedra species are some of the many endangered plants. The
collection of medicinal plants from the remote and interior areas provides employment
and fetches earnings.

Environmental value

The biological resources make indirect contributions to the welfare and stability
of society. Environmental functions support economic activity by recycling important
elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen and by acting as buffer against excessive
variations in weather, climate and other natural events outside the control of human
beings. As natural habitat declines, the ecological processes slow down. The rich
biodiversity helps in the sustainability/stability for existence, and risk aversion.

Therefore ecologist and nature conservationists are much aware of conservation


of overall biodiversity for sustainability. Shankar et al 1995 quotes that "biodiversity
changes in rangelands under various kinds of utilization ranging from protection for hay
harvest to in situ grazing provides clues to reversing the process of degradation and
bringing in the rehabilitation and stability of rangelands productive systems".

Conservation of biodiversity

Khoshoo (1993) summarizes different options available for conservation of


biodiversity. Both in situ (on site) and ex situ (off site) means of conservation are
equally important and to be considered complementary to each other. In situ
conservation of crop genetic resources has sometimes not been given importance. As
in situ conservation provides a natural reservoir of crop genetic resources and this
method is dynamic over ex situ since plants can continue to evolve in the natural
habitat. In Himalayan region a number of protected areas-biosphere reserves, national
parks and wildlife sanctuaries are in existence and are proposed. Rawat (1994) has
proposed potential areas for plant conservation in various biogeographic zones of
Himalaya. In situ conservation is also important for many wild species including the

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wild relatives of crops for which no adequate ex situ methods are available.

For ex situ conservation in Himalayan region, Khoshoo (1993) emphasised the


need of seed, organ, tissue or genebanks, although these can be established at
minimal cost because of the proximity of glaciers in the region. On the other hand a
network of botanical gardens and arboreta is also urgent and important for
conservation of wild germplasm of various crop, forest and medicinal species.
In situ conservation through maintenance of traditional farming system

The traditional farming systems have a key role in in situ conservation of plant
diversity. The traditional farming systems were developed by farmers over years of
experience to suit specific ecological conditions with a view to attaining stability and
diversification in production (Singh and Misri 1995). The objectives of adopting mixed
cropping were to reduce the risk of total crop failure due to uncertainty of monsoons
and to have a variety of products, etc. As in Ladakh depending upon the local
conditions, double or mixed cropping system is practised (Dhar et al 1994). Seeds of
local cultivars of pea are always grown as a mixed crop in Ladakh. Amongst
pseudocereals, buckwheat (Fagopyrum spp.) is cultivated as a regular mixed crop and
utilized as food, fodder, etc. Khoshoo (1993) rightly emphasised that "agro-ecosystems
have not received any attention from ecologists even though there are permanent
changes of the original ecosystems".

Many traditional agro-ecosystems are located in centers of diversity of crop


plants and the treasure of wild and weedy relatives of crops is found there. In India
primitive agriculture is practised in the peninsular, north eastern and other tribal
inhabited areas and represents a treasure house of genes for resistance to pests and
diseases, adaptations to stress situations and several other promising agronomic
attributes. Many of the wild relatives are growing in association with these traditional
agricultural systems managed by farmers with crops for specific uses. In traditional
agroforestry system multipurpose tree species are used by the natives for food, fodder,
medicine, fuel, construction material, etc. Grewia optiva is widely planted along the
agricultural field bunds, boundaries by the inhabitants in Siwalik Himalaya for fodder
and a variety of uses. In north-eastern India among the dwellings and margins of
courtyards fruit trees like Elaeocarpus floribunda, Myrica esculanta, Garcinia spp.,
Morus spp., Docynia sp. are planted. Tree bean (Parkia roxburghii) is also commonly
planted in N-E region and three types of plants are well recognised by the natives.
Altieri et al (1977) refer that certain weeds are managed with crops by farmers,
resulting in increased biological-pest control. In some cases weeds are left out in the
field by the farmers for fodder, food and other purposes. A number of plants are used
by the tribal societies as live hedge along the field, house boundaries which have
multiple uses and also act as pest control.

Thus, first there is an urgent need to study the different traditional


agroecosystems/ farming systems in the Himalayan region and after that we can
incorporate the indigenous crops and other native forage germplasm in the design of
self-sustained agroecosystems, with a view to maintaining and conserving the local
genetic diversity available in the area. The farmers practising primitive agriculture
should be provided incentives and advantage for growing traditional varieties.

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In situ grazing and biodiversity

Grazing in the grasslands has played a key role in changing the botanical
composition, which, however, varies with the type of grass cover, its palatability etc.
Overgrazing and conversion to croplands represent the most obvious impact on the
native biodiversity of grasslands. As overgrazing causes retrogression, moderate
grazing decelerates the rate of succession whereas light grazing and complete
protection accelerates the successional process. Overgrazing stimulates growth of
weeds and loss of diversity. The weeds such as Lantana camera, Parthenium
hysterophorus, etc., are replacing the undergrowth in many places. In Assam
overgrazing reduces the tall grass cover to tufted grass type to Chrysopogon aciculatus
and Imperata cyclindrica (Shankarnarayan 1977).
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On the other hand species diversity is increased and manipulated by light to
moderate grazing intensities, especially in the more humid grasslands such as the tall
grass prairie in the United States. Spread of herbs such as Polygonum polystachyon,
Osmunda claytoniana, Impatiens spp. was also observed in valley of flowers in
Himalaya after the ban of livestock grazing since the declaration of the valley as
National Park (Naithani et al 1992).

Light to moderate grazing is an appropriate tool to increase and conserve the


diversity

Rehabilitating degraded lands through biodiversity conservation

Collection and conservation of diverse germplasm especially of forages has an


important and yet unrealized role in rehabilitating the degraded rangelands. Ecosystem
degradation can be reversed by selecting replacement of species adapted to specific
situations. The overgrazed grassland/rangelands may be improved by reintroducing
the indigenous species in the system.

Intensive field surveys and germplasm collection of multipurpose native species


are urgently needed for rehabilitation of degraded lands by the introduction of these
species. This can also lead to the conservation of range plant gene pool.

Traditional conservation practices

Since times immemorial conservation of natural resources has been an integral


part of the human culture in different ways. The traditional beliefs in certain
plants/animals have descended from generation to generation in primitive human
societies. As the best example of this, we find the concept of sacred groves in different
parts of India especially in Khasi hills, Maharashtra, Goa and also in the Himalayan
region. As a result of these sacred groves, we still possess a great heritage of diverse
gene pool of many forest species. Some plant species are considered sacred having
socio-religious attachment. The plants of Celtis australis are found on graveyards in
Kashmir. The holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is commonly planted in houses in northern
India and considered sacred herb and is also used for medicinal purposes. There might
be, however, some unknown scientific or psychological basis in these beliefs.

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Gadgil and Berkes (1991) refer that various traditional ecosystem approaches
require a belief system which includes a number of prescriptions for restrained
resource use. In Ladakh, to avoid the mortality in alfalfa plants, Lamas (religious
priests) introduced a practice that no farmer will harvest his fields unless they
determine the auspious day for this purpose and the harvest will be initiated by Lama
only with a sickle made of Yak horn (Singh and Misri 1995). This practice, though a
superstition, judiciously utilizes the alfalfa crop and the crop stand remains stable.

Thus extensive folklore surveys are necessary in remote tribal areas to assess
the potential of traditional conservation values, i.e., sacred groves, sacred plants,
magic or religious beliefs about certain plants, traditional restraints, etc. This
background information will enormously help in biodiversity conservation programmes.

Ex situ conservation

Maintenance of ex situ populations of plants is carried out by a number of


institutions including botanical gardens, forestry research institutes, and agricultural
research centers. This involves three methods:

Field gene banks: It is an assemblage of diverse plant species and their range
of genetic diversity in an area. The plant materials are conserved and are available for
breeding, reintroduction, research and other purposes. This method is useful for long
living perennials trees and shrubs.

Botanical gardens often have collections which are effectively field gene banks.
These gardens also accommodate some endangered plants.

Seed banks: Seed banks are the most efficient and effective methods of ex situ
conservation for sexually reproducing seeds under long term storage. It is an effective
and compact method of storage but is dependent on secure power supply, careful
monitoring and testing of seed viability and regeneration in cases where the viability
falls below a certain level. In India, NBPGR, is one of the largest depositories of PGR.

There are a number of seed banks in the world with specialisation in the nature
of the collections, geographical area, taxonomic groups, wild plants, forestry trees, etc.

In vitro storage: It refers to the conservation of germplasm through meristem


tissues in test tubes. These methods are suited for the long term storage of propagules
of species which otherwise can not be maintained in seed banks. However, this method
has limitations in applicability.

Strategies for biodiversity conservation

1. Fixing the centers with responsibility in the trans-himalayan region for


undertaking the work related to biodiversity of plants.

2. Survey (folklore/contacts with local/religious leaders/ tribes on the spot visits and
consultations of literature) of the PGR available at present, endangered and
extinct species. The use of NGO's and use of PRA technique may be useful.

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3. Collection, identification and documentation of fodder/ pasture and other
associated species in the ecosystem.

4. Study the impact of nomadic graziers/pastoral communities on vegetation; and


also their traditional grazing management.

5. Study traditional farming/cropping system, traditional agroforestry, village


gardening, etc.

6. Study utilization pattern of land races, primitive cultivars of


cultivated/domesticated plants.

7. Study impact of myths, totems and taboos observed by rural people and tribals
with respect to conservation.

8. Eco-geographical survey of gene pool of crops and related species.

9. Investigate techno-economic capabilities of inhabitants on biodiversity


conservation.

10. Fund requirement and availability.

People's participation in biodiversity conservation

People's participation is very important to integrate ecosystem conservation and


rural development as it is necessary to know the needs for they depend on a particular
ecosystem (Khoshoo, 1993). The indigenous people are the integral part of the
ecosystem. They are not only familiar with several plant/animal species in their
ecosystem but also| understand the ecological interrelationship of the various
components of their resource! base better than most modern foresters, biologists,
agronomists and ecologists. With constant association with the surrounding vegetation,
they learnt to utilize many plan' species for their day to day needs.

Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) technique may play an important role in


planning the biodiversity conservation through people's participation. It may help to
acquire past and present available resources in the region, their problems and
priorities. It will also help to collect and document traditional wisdom about surrounding
vegetation, local flora, exotic flora, fauna, etc. The PRA exercise will also assess the
feasibility of conserving traditional varieties, primitive land races, wild relatives of crop
plant in situ along with the traditional farming system which sustains it.

Linkages at regional/national levels

The efficient and working linkages between the centers being established under th
programme and the well established institutions which are already engaged in th
participating country are important for exchanging the informationNacilities they have.
India such organizations are Ministry of Environment & Forests, Botanical Survey
India, Zoological Survey of India, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Wildlife
Institute of India, Forest Research Institute, G.B.Pant Institute of Himalayan

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Environment and Development, C.S.I.R. Complex, Palampur, Defence Research and
Development Laboratories at Leh, Almora and Jorhat, State Agricultural Universities-
G.B.Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (campus Rani Chouri), Shere
Kashmir Agricultural University, Srinagar, Jammu University. Garhwal University, NEH
University, H.P.K.V. Palampur, VPKAS, Almora and NEH Complex and their centers,
etc. In addition, the nurseries of the State Forest Department could also be interlinked.
The contact with the NGO's, the local leaders and Institutions shall be of great use.

Such linkages may be used for collecting information on biodiversity including the
extinct and endangered plants as well as sites for their conservation.

References

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insect pest management systems: a review illustrated with bean (Phaseolus
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Anonymous 1994. Ehnobotany in India - A Status Report. Ministry of Environment and


Forests, Govt. of India, New Delhi.

Arora, R.K. 1988. Lite support species of the Himalayan region, pp. 47 - 50. In
R.S.Paroda, P.Kapoor, R.K.Arora and Bhag Mal (eds). Life Support Species.
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Dhar. U. Vir Jee and P.Kachroo 1994. Ladakh: An update on natural resources pp
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