Culture, Community, and Conservation: Assessing Ecosystem Services of Relic Myristica Swamps in a Changing Landscape

Culture, Community, and Conservation: Assessing Ecosystem Services of Relic Myristica Swamps in a Changing Landscape

Priya Ranganathan

Nestled in tiny pockets of the biodiverse Western Ghats, one of India’s most endangered and ancient ecosystems breathes.

 I am a PhD student at ATREE and a 2022 Prakriti Research Fellow, studying the impacts of landscape fragmentation and a loss of hydrological connectivity on the relic Myristica swamps of Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. Using an ecohydrological approach and focusing on community-centric conservation, I am looking at the ways in which people relate to these biodiverse freshwater ecosystems by quantifying the various ecosystem services of swamps and their ecohydrology. My research is guided by Dr. Jagdish Krishnaswamy from IIHS and ATREE who has worked extensively on the ecohydrology of the Aghanashini river basin in Uttara Kannada, and Dr. G. Ravikanth, who has years of experience in studying the flora of Myristica swamps.

As a part of the Prakriti Research Fellowship by CARPE-Ecosattva, I am utilising a three-pronged approach to understanding the complex ecology and ecosystem services of Myristica swamp. But what are Myristica swamps? These relic swamp forests were first formed when India was still a part of the supercontinent of Gondwanaland, during the time of the dinosaurs. At the end of the Cretaceous period, when India separated from Madagascar and began drifting northwards, its movement over an active volcanic hotspot known as the Deccan Traps caused violent volcanic eruptions that led to the creation of the Western Ghats and, subsequently, India’s unique vegetation and climatic conditions.

Myristica swamps are characterised by rare obligate swamp tree species in the Myristicaceae family (Myristica fatua var. magnifica and Gymnacranthera canarica) and extremely high endemic biodiversity, but few swamps remain today where once they formed a vast chain across the Western Ghats landscape. As these swamps vanish, the threatened biodiversity that call them home also fades, as do cultural ties to forest gods that are worshipped in sacred swamps. Prior studies have shown that the endangered lion tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) and hornbills act as primary seed dispersers of Myristica fatua var. magnifica, while crabs are secondary seed dispersers that help prevent seed predation by rodents such as the Malabar giant squirrel (Krishna & Somanathan 2014). Additionally, certain swamps are the sites of long-standing local deity worship. Some of the deities worshipped here are Chowdi, the mother water goddess, and Hulidevararaaya, the tiger god (pictured below).

Above: A stone statue of Hulidevararaaya, the tiger god who is said to protect the swamp forest.


Very few swamps fall within protected forests or are subject to protection by environmental law, especially in Uttara Kannada where local communities have long-standing ties to the land and rights over resources and forest products. The region is known for its expanding plantations, especially arecanut, which is highly water intensive and is thus a major reason behind the draining of swamps and diversion of the streams that feed them. Thus stems the need to explore the community ties to these swamps and the potential for community-based conservation and restoration of degraded swamps comes into focus. I hope to understand the different views of stakeholders, ranging from the Forest Department to local environmental NGOs to villages that worship at swamps and those that do not associate swamps with sacredness, and work with them to create better management goals for swamps.

In my first field visit to the Myristica swamps of Uttara Kannada, I was amazed to see the dense canopy and sustained soil moisture even in peak summer. Unlike the surrounding forest, the swamps were alive with the faint booming calls of macaques and the gentle gurgling of the forest stream that fed the swamp. One of the first swamps I visited was Darbejaddi, a tiny swamp accessible only by bike, and then on foot, a good distance from the main road. The swamp was located downstream of an arecanut plantation and had highly fluctuating pH and turbidity at different places, indicating that the surrounding land use was impacting the character of the water. She also noticed the high odonate and amphibian diversity. One endemic odonate spotted in the swamp was the Myristica Sapphire, which breeds in swamps, and a frog in the Nyctibatrachus genus that also utilises the sluggish streams of Myristica swamps as critical breeding habitat. I also visited Chaare, a sacred swamp where Hulidevararaaya is worshipped. There, she learnt about the cultural value of swamps from a local arecanut farmer who grows his crops by the swamp but avoids entering the relic ecosystem out of fear of retribution by the tiger god. More surveys with villagers living near swamps will be crucial to develop a better understanding of the ecosystem services people associate with these swamps, as will biodiversity surveys and an in-depth analysis of the ecohydrology of swamps in Uttara Kannada. A scientific base is critical if swamps are to be managed and protected from further land degradation.

Involving the local communities in conserving these swamps is an important component of my research, both to help preserve and restore them and to build a lifelong relationship between younger members of the community (who may not prescribe to ancient religious traditions) and these biodiversity hotspots. Community-based conservation empowers locals and places them and their needs on the conservation map, aiding both in creating sustainable management plans for Myristica swamps while fostering community interest and longevity.