Indigenous co-management of Lantana-invaded habitats to restore coexistence

Why was this project important? 

The Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRT) has long been home to the indigenous Soliga community. Soligas were traditionally shifting cultivators, hunters, and gatherers. In the 1970s BRT was declared a wildlife sanctuary and the Soligas were sedentarized. They continued harvesting NTFP, but other management practices ceased. In 2010 BRT was recognised as one of 18 Indian tiger-source landscapes, and soon after, it was declared a tiger reserve. BRT is today the only Indian tiger reserve where the Soligas, an indigenous community, continues to reside.

In recent decades, invasive Lantana camara has replaced the grassy understory of savanna woodland in BRT and displaced native vegetation. Lantana spread has reduced forage availability, increased crop depredation, and increased dangerous human-wildlife encounters. Dense Lantana has also reduced Soligas’ access to sacred sites, and younger generations are growing up alienated from the forest and their traditional knowledge.

Forest managers have now initiated large-scale Lantana removal. However, Lantana rapidly returns without post-removal interventions. This project builds on Soliga knowledge and ecological research to experimentally test interventions for scalable best-practices. It involves Soliga elders as advisors and to train a cadre of Soliga restoration practitioners. The ultimate goal is co-management of the landscape. This could restore habitat for wildlife and accord Soligas and their knowledge and cultural practices the recognition they deserve.

Project Partner: Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE)  

Duration: 2024 – 2026

Project goal:  Lantana camara, a tropical American shrub introduced by the British East India Company in the early 1800s, is today amongst India’s most widespread invasive species. In the Western Ghats, Lantana has altered habitat for wildlife and reduced forage availability for wild herbivores. It has been linked to increased crop depredation and dangerous encounters with large animals in landscapes where people historically lived alongside them. The project builds on learnings from traditional knowledge and ecological research to propose scalable best practices for Lantana management to restore wildlife habitat and the culture of coexistence that local communities have evolved over centuries.

What we are doing

The project has initiated a large-scale Lantana-removal and restoration experiment replicated over 10 locations within BRT. The experimental trials will enable us to identify the most scalable restoration interventions (based on effort required, and benefits observed).

The experimental plots provide an outdoor classroom to train and involve younger Soligas as restoration practitioners. Given the erosion of traditional knowledge amongst the younger generation of Soliga, the project will work with Soliga elders to impart training in traditional ecological knowledge and practices, apart from providing them hands-on training to monitor outcomes of restoration interventions. They propose to create, through this, a cadre of Soliga restoration practitioners.

The project will arrange exposure visits to the experimental plots for Forest Officials and staff, to demonstrate the relative efficacy of different restoration interventions, and the benefits of involving local practitioners. The Forest Department is already engaging private players for Lantana removal. Their aim is that they would, likewise, engage trained Soliga restoration practitioners for post-removal interventions and monitoring restoration. Such co-management would have long-term benefits for sustainability and scalability, since Soligas have a long-term stake in this landscape, given their material and cultural links to it.