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| Last Updated:02/04/2018

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In a first, acknowledging the importance of a neglected ecosystem, Pune wildlife division and IISc partner to research its optimum management to benefit fauna

For most, the cliched definition of a forest is restricted to tall green trees and a thick canopy of foliage. But, in the pursuit of this stereotype, the importance of the grassland ecosystem, which supports several species of important flora and fauna, is often diminished to that of a wasteland. However, moving away from this narrow outlook, the forest department has — for the first time — acknowledged the significance of grasslands, now looking into not only preserving them, but also scientifically studying the system to manage it better and improve its quality.

Pune wildlife division of the state forest department, along with the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has started studying the optimum grass height for grasslands. "Excessive grass is not beneficial to most species. We are studying what optimum height benefits not just the wildlife, but also helping generate employment locally for excess grass to be removed by hand and utilised for cattle," said Sunil Limaye, chief conservator of forests, Pune wildlife division.

To ascertain the impact of this exercise, researchers have already trimmed grasses in certain patches down to a test height, while keeping other areas untouched. They have also removed some plantations of exotic trees that are ideally not suitable for grasslands. The Pune wildlife division has several grasslands under it, including at Rehekuri Blackbuck Sanctuary, Mayureshwar Supe Sanctuary (known for chinkaras), Nannaj Bustard Sanctuary (whose flagship species is the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard), etc.

The study aims to help focus not just on height but also what grasses are palatable for varied species. "In a large part of the country's grasslands, management is done without evaluation. Amid this, the Pune division is evaluating exactly what height of grasses benefits wildlife. For example, the blackbuck actually prefer to eat short grasses, considering that they are more nutritious. When grasses are cut, the new ones that grow are more tender and edible for them. Moreover, short grasses give a better view of predators and keep them alert enough to escape, as opposed to tall grasses — this could help them pay attention to feeding and resting," said Dr Kavita Ishvaran, assistant professor at CES in Bangalore. She further said that accumulated high grasses can lead to high heat fires, which are not beneficial to the ecology.

So far, whatever experiments have been done have indicated to locals that the wildlife prefers short grasses. "The research is shedding light even on some lesser known facts about the Great Indian Bustard, like the fact that the birds prefer tall grass species like Sehima nervosum for laying nests, but eat short grass. Therefore, our plan needs to include both types of grass to benefit the species," said Sarang Mhamane, a local from Nannaj, who helps the forest department.

Dr Sujit Narawde, a researcher from Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), who has worked extensively on grasslands, said, "This is a good approach by the department towards managing grasslands scientifically. Neither under-protection nor overprotection is required for them — we need to achieve a golden mean. For instance, if grasses are left too high, many birds avoid living in them."