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Reclaiming the Rajasthan desert from a voracious Mexican plant

 

Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India

The Mehrangarh Fort from the Park in Rajasthan, India, June 2014, where the Prosopis juliflora has thrived. Photograph: Pradip Krishen

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Reclaiming the Rajasthan desert from a voracious Mexican plant” was written by Maseeh Rahman in Delhi, for theguardian.com on Monday 28th July 2014 04.00 UTC

Long after a 19th-century English watercolourist painted the massive outcrop of barren volcanic rocks on which the formidable Jodhpur fort is perched, a modernising maharajah went up in his two-seater Tiger Moth plane to scatter bagfuls of mesquite seed in order to green his desert kingdom in Rajasthan.

The Prosopis juliflora variety of the mesquite that the flying maharajah planted in the 1930s not only lay siege to his fort, described by Rudyard Kipling as “the work of angels, fairies and giants”, but eventually took over large stretches of the Thar desert.

The thorny, leguminous mesquite can grow to be either shrub or tree, and was imported by the colonial British to afforest the desert wastelands of western India. It is hardy, drought-resistant and originally from Mexico. Today it dominates over half a million hectares across the country’s arid zones, and has been at the centre of debates over the ecological, social and economic impact of introducing exotic species into India.

Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India

West view of Mehrangarh by GF Lamb, 1890. Courtesy British Library

In Jodhpur, villagers have renamed the Prosopis juliflora as baavlia (“the mad one”), with good reason. “It can grow even in the crevices of hard volcanic rocks on little bits of moist soil and it outcompetes and chokes all vegetation,” said naturalist Pradip Krishen, who is attempting to bring Rajasthan native plants back. “In the Kutch region of Gujarat it even eliminated Asia’s largest grasslands.”

But scientists at the government’s Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur look at it differently. While recognising the damage caused by Prosopis juliflora, they emphasise its usefulness in a backward economy – its wood, for instance, is excellent for fuel and its pod provides not just food for cattle but also flour for the poor. But the main reason for the official support for the plant is its invincibility – even Australia is struggling to eradicate it.

Invasive Species: Euphorbia caducifolia

Euphorbia caducifolia with Mehrangarh Fort in background, Rajasthan, India, June 2014. Photograph: Pradip Krishen

In the 1890 water-colour of the Mehrangarh citadel, the multi-stemmed cactus-like succulent thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia) and other native plants and shrubs can be seen in between the volcanic rhyolite rock, which geologists say is 750m years old. Once Prosopis juliflora took root, the native plants were ousted, but they have now been reintroduced, thanks to an extraordinary effort at ecological restoration.

In 2006, Krishen took up the assignment to convert 70 hectares of the rocky land around the fort into a nature park. The biggest challenge was to uproot the Prosopis juliflora from the hard rhyolite. The “mad one” regenerates unless its roots are destroyed to a depth of 18in (46cm).

 

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