The Green Phoenix: plant conservation, habitat restoration and community education in the Western Ghats, India

Only 10% of original forest still covers the Western Ghat Mountains of Southern India. One of the world’s most biodiverse tropical ecosystems, high levels of floral endemism make the forests unique. For generations, local people have cultivated these valuable plants for use in herbal cures and in cooking.

Today, however, human pressure on the region is enormous, and in some areas up to 50% of the plant species are extracted for the burgeoning global medicinal market. Deforestation and the invasion of exotic species are also threatening India’s floral biodiversity. It is feared up to 20% of all native plant species could become extinct within a few decades.

The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary was founded in 1981 to protect these endangered plants. The project has successfully propagated 2,000 species of plant, an incredible one third of the region’s flora. As highly specialised plants, many are rare or endangered, and 40% are endemic. This is the largest collection of Western Ghat species in the world and includes mosses, ferns, orchids, grasses and trees.

The Sanctuary has a trained team of local women – ‘eco-system gardeners’ dedicated to regenerating wild populations of flora. Locally the Sanctuary has acquired small parcels of land, nurturing devastated habitats back to natural forest. In the mountains, work focuses on restoring endangered shola grasslands: a montane ecosystem exclusive to the Western Ghats. Following habitat assessment and species surveys, restoration projects have been initiated in National Parks, temple sanctuarys, community lands, and degraded forest, involving hundreds of landowners.

Suprabha Seshan has lived in these forests for the past 13 years and is Director of Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. Committed to raising awareness of India’s floral wealth, Suprabha founded the ‘School in the Forest’ initiative, helping establish the Sanctuary as an important learning centre where thousands of school children visit every year.

With her dedicated team, Suprabha now aims to expand the Sanctuary as a centre of excellence for learning and education, and as a training resource centre for fledgling conservation staff. Through increased regional collaboration with research bodies, NGOs, and government, Suprabha is committed to increasing the reach of the Sanctuary as a centre for excellence in environmental education and habitat restoration.

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