Savannahs, in India?

Savannahs of the Serengeti (Photo from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/walking-with-wildebeest-in-the-serengeti-7mdnx27dh)

We all have this beautiful picture in our mind of Wildebeests, Zebras, Elephants and Cheetahs running around in an enormous grassland and a sunset in the backdrop. Everybody knows what this grassland is called and where it is found- the Savannahs of Africa. How beautiful! We all want to visit these beautiful Savannahs at least once in our lifetime! 

But what if I told you that Savannahs are majorly found in India as well? Sounds crazy, right? However, it’s actually true. India also has huge tracts of Savannahs.

What is a Savannah anyway?

Savannahs are an ecosystem that have a mixture of trees and grasses, and are characterised typically by an open tree canopy and a grassy layer on the ground. The tree density might be a continuum ranging from:

  1. Near zero trees at all in a Savannah, just an open grassy region. (Grasslands)- example: Serengeti in Africa ; region around Saswad in Pune, India.
Grasslands from the region around Saswad, Pune. (Photo from https://sustain.round.glass/habitat/wilds-saswad-vibrant-grassland-near-pune/)

2. A few scattered trees with the grassy layer on the ground. (Scrublands) – example: the hills in Pune city, India.

A Scrubland habitat with a few scattered trees on one of the Pune Hills

3. A fairly high density of trees, but not dense enough to shade out the grassy layer on the ground. (Wooded Savannahs) – example: Pench, Nagzira, Tadoba, Bandipur etc. in India.

Nagzira Tiger Reserve in Central India, a perfect example of a Wooded Savannah. (Photo by Paresh Deshmukh)

All these are the different kinds of Savannahs found throughout the world and in India. The grassy understory is the distinguishing feature of any kind of Savannah.

Different types of Savannahs based on the density of trees, the continuous grassy understory is present everywhere

Now let us understand what a forest is. A forest is a closed canopy ecosystem with a dense tree cover. There is no grassy understory in a forest, unlike a Savannah (for example- Bhimashankar, Lonavala, Mahabaleshwar, Amboli in Maharashtra, India.)

Forest at Amboli, Maharashtra. Note that a continuous grassy understory is absent. (Photo from https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Type-locality-of-Calliophis-castoe-Amboli-Sindhudurg-district-Maharashtra-India_fig9_260086304)

Savannahs in India are not something rare to find. There might be a Savannah right next to your house. In fact, almost the entire peninsular region of India to the east of the Western Ghats is a Savannah. Be it the dry, thorny scrub plains of the Deccan Plateau in Maharashtra, the dry lands of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the so called “Deciduous Forests” of Central India or even a few regions up North and several regions down South, are all Savannahs. 

Distribution of the African and Asian Savannahs (source)

Why aren’t we aware of the Savannahs of India if they cover such a large portion of the land in our country? 

The reasons are deep rooted in our history. During the British colonial era, the foresters trained in forestry traditions of the West looked at these habitats from a commercial perspective. Timber and other such extracts were important to them. Since they only focused on trees, Savannahs with some trees in it were labelled as “Deciduous Forests” (There go your Central Indian Savannahs). Due to this forestry-centric bias of the Brits, the open grassy biomes were labelled as degraded forests or wastelands that require help. Since these lands didn’t earn them any revenue, they were either converted into forests by planting commercially valued trees or were given away for other purposes to generate revenue. The Brits left us with this system and this nomenclature. Open Grassy Biomes with minimal or no tree cover were etched as “Wastelands” in the minds of the governments and the rest were termed as “Deciduous Forests”, “Thorny-Scrub Forests” etc. The word Savannah was lost. Labelling what is not a “forest” as a “forest” causes issues, as both are different habitats. These misconceptions and wrong terminologies created a lot of problems that we are facing even today. (Some of which you’ll be reading in my next blog)

During the post-independence era, a lot of transformations occurred with the Green Revolution. These so-called Wastelands were converted into “forests” by carrying out tree plantations of exotic species or were made into farmlands. A great example of this would be the Gliricidia monoculture on the hills of Pune city. The forest department did a mass plantation of Gliricidia sepium– a tree native to Mexico, on all the hills of Pune city that were originally Savannahs, in the 1950s. Today, we only have a small portion of these hills that still have their original Savannah habitat, the rest is covered by Gliricidia that has drastically changed the ecosystem. 

Exotic Gliricidia sepium monoculture by the forest department on the hills of Pune city

Following the colonial mindset, most of us think that Indian Savannahs are of a recent origin, and were created due to human activities. If this were indeed true, that is, if there were forests here before the savannahs, one would expect to see signs of high tree density causing canopy closure, without a grassy understory in the past. However, historical records- photographs, notes, paintings that take us back a few hundred years show that these habitats were as they are right now, a few centuries ago. Paleoecological research, survey of pollen fossils suggests that these lands were dominated by grassy species and typical savannah species even a few million years ago. In fact, there are typical Savannah plant species that we find in these lands today that have evolved over millions of years to thrive only in this ecosystem. There are so many species of fauna that have evolved over millions of years to be only found in the Indian Savannahs, they are endemic to this region. Take for example the Fan Throated Lizard- a typical Savannah group of lizards that are only found in the Indian Savannahs. Molecular phylogeny suggests that these lizards have evolved over millions of years with the Savannah ecosystem. Their activities are so dependent on this ecosystem that they wouldn’t survive if suddenly this ecosystem were to disappear tomorrow. 

Typical wildlife of the Indian Savannahs- (1) Deccan Fan Throated Lizard (2) Indian Gazelle (3) Indian Red Scorpion (4) Indian Nightjar

Now considering our earlier hypothesis that these Savannahs were actually forests before they got degraded, we wouldn’t find so many endemic species of flora and fauna that have evolved over millennia to thrive only in this ecosystem. This proves that the Savannahs of India are indeed quite ancient and not recently formed due to anthropogenic activities. 

Sadly, we still believe in this narrative that the Brits put forth of Indian Savannahs being degraded forests and our policies are designed according to this belief. Till this date, most of the Savannahs in India except a few that have been wrongly categorised as some kind of a ‘forest’, don’t have a legal protection status. Our education teaches us that these long stretches of land with negligible tree cover are “barren” and are wastelands, that we need to plant trees in them to give them life, which is, although well intended, but not supported by science. Savannahs are still converted to farm lands, dump yards or are given away for urbanisation. The government has also proposed afforestation projects to make these habitats green “AGAIN”. These Savannahs have been as they are right now since the past 4 million years. There’s no question at all of making them “green AGAIN”.

Pits and trenches dug by the Forest Department on the hills of Pune city which are essentially Savannahs, for tree plantation. (Photos by Ashish Nerlekar)

Scrublands and Grasslands might appear to be dry and lifeless to us, however they are actually full of life. They are home to a variety of plant, mammal, bird, arthropod, reptile and amphibian species that cannot thrive anywhere else. Clearing these habitats or converting them into something else under the name of development, planting trees here will only lead to its destruction and the extinction of the many MANY species that depend on it for their life. A classic example of this is the Great Indian Bustard. We all know that this species is on the verge of extinction with only a few hundred birds alive. The major reason for this is habitat loss, destruction of the Indian Savannahs. It’s high time that we realise and appreciate the importance of our Indian Savannahs and conserve them.

The critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Indian_bustard)

What can we as individuals do to protect the Indian Savannahs? 

The very first thing that we can do is call them Savannahs, or the vernacular equivalent- for example, ‘Malraan’ in Marathi. They are not barren lands, they are not wastelands, they are also not deciduous “forests”. We must understand the importance of these Savannahs. Like Forests with tall, green trees, these dry Savannahs are equally important habitats that are home to a unique flora and fauna. We must understand that activities such as tree plantations in these habitats, however well intentioned they are, are not ecological. Once we start acknowledging and appreciating the identity of our Savannahs, only then can we make policies that favour not only the Forests but also these ancient Savannahs that cover a major land of our country. 

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Also, did you know- these Savannahs have been maintained ecologically by regular fires since millions of years. Yes, the ones that we call “Forest fires”. But aren’t forest fires bad and cause destruction to the environment and the ecosystem? Turns out, we’ve been looking at them all wrong. Not all Forest fires are bad. In fact, we need some of these fires! Read about it in my next blog (which would be the second blog from this series about Savannahs)- ‘Are Forest fires really bad?‘ . Here’s the link- https://kswild.video.blog/2021/01/17/are-forest-fires-really-bad/

If you have any queries or want to have a discussion, you can comment below or ping me on Instagram (@ks_wild). I would be happy to have a chat. 

Special thanks to my friend Ashish Nerlekar for his help with this blog.

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Here are a few references that would give you a further insight on how the Indian Savannahs are ancient, their importance and how their destruction in any form- urbanisation, conversion, tree plantation etc. can have irreparable consequences:

1) Ratnam, J., Tomlinson, K. W., Rasquinha, D. N., & Sankaran, M. (2016). Savannahs of Asia: antiquity, biogeography, and an uncertain future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1703), 20150305. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2015.0305

2) Ratnam, J., Sheth, C., & Sankaran, M. (2019). African and Asian Savannas: Comparisons of Vegetation Composition and Drivers of Vegetation Structure and Function. Savanna Woody Plants and Large Herbivores, 25-49. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jayashree_Ratnam/publication/335603812_African_and_Asian_Savannas_Comparisons_of_Vegetation_Composition_and_Drivers_of_Vegetation_Structure_and_Function/links/5dade0c0299bf111d4bf8780/African-and-Asian-Savannas-Comparisons-of-Vegetation-Composition-and-Drivers-of-Vegetation-Structure-and-Function.pdf

3) Kumar, D., Pfeiffer, M., Gaillard, C., Langan, L., Martens, C., & Scheiter, S. (2020). Misinterpretation of Asian savannas as degraded forest can mislead management and conservation policy under climate change. Biological Conservation, 241, 108293. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000632071931256X?casa_token=EsBaurTZdFoAAAAA:SE7nqaXCO_–wDt6txBHKx8vZMBREJ4KkBocB3hNnU979oXQgINKU4iSioHjXCkb5-UjeiXZKOA

4) https://researchmatters.in/news/identity-crisis-indian-savannas

5) https://thewire.in/environment/open-savannahs-versus-wooded-thickets-whats-the-future-for-punes-hills

6) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnitRnnLBPU&t=257s

7) https://www.atree.org/wfd_savannas

Published by ks_wild

I am a 19-year old Nature and Wildlife enthusiast from Pune, MH, India. I'm currently studying Media and Communication at SCMC,Pune. I've been pursuing my interest in Wildlife and Photography since childhood. I also make Wildlife films, short films and documentaries that I post on my YouTube channel 'ks_wild'. I love to travel and share my experiences, tell stories to people. Apart from Wildlife, I love to sing and dance though I'm not good at it, play sports, especially badminton and talk a lot haha. Please do support my work on my YouTube Channel and my Instagram '@ks_wild'. :)

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