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Forests in Flux

Soham S Kacker, ASP Scholar at Ashoka University, talks about his research experience in the Mukteshwar valley, where he is trying to understand how forests are structured and how these structures evolve with time and human interventions

What determines where a certain plant grows? Is it the conditions of the site where a seed falls? Or is it dependent on how the seed got there in the first place – by air, by water, or by an animal carrier like a bird? In a forest community of thousands of plants growing in a single square kilometre, the presence and survival of each individual is dependent on the answers to these questions. Together, they form a forest which functions as a whole – to stabilise soil, store water, support biodiversity and provide natural resources. Since different forests have different characters and functions, answering these initial questions is vital to understand which kinds of forests grow where – and how they may change over time. In landscapes where local communities and economies are closely dependent on forests, the answers to these questions can determine the survival and prosperity of innumerable people. 

My research in the Mukteshwar valley of the Uttarakhand Himalayas aims to answer some of these questions with respect to the typical Oak-Pine forests which cloak the mountains of the region. While these forests have been the focus of academic work in the past, most studies have focused only on trees, my study looks at both trees and woody shrubs and how they interact with birds – in order to answer those initial questions with a finer resolution. Understanding how forests are structured and how this structure may change with time and human intervention lies at the heart of determining the future of livelihoods and sustainability in the area. 

A photograph from inside a preserved dense oak forest. The density and complexity of the ecosystem is evident from the tangle of undergrowth and huge trees. 

The initial stages of my research have undoubtedly been the most exciting, since they were set against the inimitable wooded landscape and under the clear blue skies of the Mukteshwar valley. After the initial stages of experimental design and preparation with my advisors at Ashoka, I stayed in the valley for six weeks, collecting data in the forests. The Mukteshwar region is an uneven patchwork of what we identified as three distinct forest types: pine forest, dense oak forest and degraded oak forest. We surveyed each forest type through measurements of canopy densities; leaf litter depth; the species and diameters of adult trees; the species and heights of seedlings; and signs of degradation such as cutting or burning. Each day brought new challenges – from scaling difficult terrain (we walked an average of 5-6 kilometres a day), to identifying scores of plants, to reaching trees through dense and often thorny undergrowth. The challenges, however, were offset by wonderful rewards: the incredible species we encountered; lunch breaks with panoramic views; and eating fresh fruit from the local orchards. 

A small window into the fascinating botanical diversity of our study sites – L to R: Cotinus coggygria, Deutzia staminea, Prunus cerasoides, Pyracantha crenulata, Hypericum oblongifolia. 

Back in Delhi, we began to slowly enter, clean, and analyse the data collected in the field. We had surveyed nearly 2000 adult trees and 12,200 seedlings representing over 140 species! Certain findings became initially apparent – dense oak forests showed the highest species number and density. They were also shadier and darker, providing a sheltered environment for seedling growth. On the other hand, degraded oak and pine forests faced greater human intervention in the form of cutting, lopping and grazing of trees – which threatened the survival of seedlings. We noted that degradation had a selective impact on seedling survival – favouring some species over others and skewing the composition of the forests. We are still in the process of analysing our data, but the initial findings seem to suggest a vital role of disturbance, and therefore of human activity in determining the structure of these forests. 

The diversity of the undergrowth in a regenerating forest patch – in the densest patches, a single frame can contain over 15 species of plants!

We can add another question to our initial line of enquiry –if a forest is cut down, what grows back in its place? Today, forests are being cleared at an astonishing rate, and research such as mine helps to identify what is the future of these sites. Comparing our data with existing data on bird diversity data from the area will help shed light on how plants and animals colonise degraded land. Potentially, this work can be used to inform policy on conservation, and better equip forest-management at the local and regional level. This also means local communities will be better able to manage and benefit from these forests. Every step of my research from conceptualisation to analysis to funding has been supported by my advisors and mentors at Ashoka University, Shivani Krishna and Ghazala Shahabuddin, to whom I am deeply grateful. Part of this research has also been funded by the generosity of the Environmental Studies Department Summer Research Grant – for which I am very grateful. 

This article is extracted from an interview conducted by Dr. Yukti Arora 

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka