I was driving along on a forest road in Buxa Tiger Reserve. The trees on both sides were in unnatural straight lines and equidistant, suggesting that this was a ‘plantation’. As we moved on, a curious looking clearing came into view. Instead of trees, grassy tussocks were ensconced behind an electric fence. The local guide said that it was “a grassland plantation.” The phrase was confusing at first. To me, the words ‘grassland’ and ‘plantation’ were opposites. In the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary and much of semi-arid and arid India, plantations of trees were established at the expense of grasslands. But here before me was an attempt to create a grassland habitat using the principles of forestry plantation. But the electric fence was still unexplained. The local guide chipped in, “The electric fence has been put so that wild animals do not eat the grass.”
I was sure that I had mis-heard. “If animals cannot eat the grass, why has it been planted?” I asked him. “There is a plan to introduce rhinos,” he said, “and this is a small plantation, if the results are good, there will be larger grassland plantations for the rhinos”.
Unlike now, grasslands covered vast areas of the North Bengal region in the early 20th century and were home to Indian rhinos, Bengal floricans and hispid hares. Trophy photographs accompanying the hunting accounts of the Maharajah of Cooch Behar provide proof of the vegetation. By his own admission, the maharaja preferred to hunt in these grasslands. It was around this time that Indian forests were reserved, and Sir Dietrich Brandis, a German forester, was appointed as the first inspector general of forests in the then nascent Imperial Forest Service. He efficiently sowed the seeds for management of Indian forests for timber. This involved dispossessing native inhabitants of their lands and rights, implementing the taungya system of plantation and so on. Soon, every square inch of land had a tree on it. These activities continued after Independence — the vast North Bengal grasslands had all but disappeared. It was this historical chain of events that the fenced grassland plantation was seeking to reverse.
In his memoir, Thirty-seven Years of Big Game Shooting in Cooch Behar, the Duars, and Assam: A Rough Diary, the maharaja records that an astounding 207 rhinos were shot. Perhaps because of this and other reasons, in West Bengal, rhinos are now only found in the Jaldapara and Gorumara national parks. To avoid inbreeding problems in the Jaldapara rhino population, there are plans to introduce a few rhinos from Assam in the adjoining Buxa Tiger Reserve, in the hope that the populations will interbreed. Hence the ‘grassland plantation’ protected by a fence.
Grassland plantations were first established in Jaldapara National Park in 1968, after floods laid waste to the natural grasslands which were absolutely essential for the rhinos. Unfortunately, Tanusree Biswas, a Wildlife Institute of India researcher, found that these were overrun with weeds and were not beneficial to the animals, unlike natural grasslands.
Flooding has always been an integral part of the Terai ecosystem. North Indian rivers desert old channels, carve out new ones, flood their banks, deposit silt and create new habitats. Animal species had adapted to this constantly changing landscape. Now, with tea gardens and agricultural fields abutting rivers, floods pose a grave threat to humans. The NBFCC was given a staggering 155 crores for flood control measures. The effect of such huge interventions on river flow patterns and grasslands is not known. But ‘grassland plantations’ will not be sufficient for grassland species. The phrase, ‘grassland plantation’, should be replaced with ‘grassland restoration’ in policy documents along with a change in relevant mindsets. Slowly phasing out some land uses along river banks and building flood tolerant mindsets among planning commissions and locals can make the people and wildlife of these fascinating grassland ecosystems resilient.