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An Afternoon in the Country's Ancient Ecosystem-Myristica Swamp

by Anushka Saikia

View of Myristica Swamp in Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, Thenmala, Kerala

Photo: Anushka Saikia

It was the summer of 2021 when I was posted in Thenmala in the district of Kollam in Kerala for a project. Kollam was receiving heavy rainfall by then. One such wet afternoon, just after our fieldwork we decided to head on to the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary in Thenmala. I was previously told by my colleagues how a patch of Shendurney harbours one of the rarest and endangered ecosystems in the country, the Myristica swamps. I had no idea what these swamps look like until we reached the patch after walking a long trail of evergreen tropical forest deep inside the sanctuary, crossing puddles and dense forest floor. Suddenly we started stepping on some strange looking narrow ring-like structures that stood upright under the tall trees, all spread out on the ground.

With monsoons hitting the peak, the ground was inundated, and the peculiar-looking structures were nothing, but a mosaic of knee and stilt roots. The knee roots were very similar to those of aerial roots in a tropical mangrove ecosystem, while the stilt roots were appearing like giant ropes tied to the bottom of the trees to support them in the soft and boggy soil. Myristica swamps got its name from the evergreen trees of the Myristicaceae family which is one of the relic families of flowering plants surviving since 1960 when it was first reported from the Travancore region of Kerala. The swamps host many species of trees and are home to innumerable other biodiversity including vertebrates and invertebrates. However, the two most important tree species in Myristica swamps are the Gymnacranthera canarica and Myristica fatua magnifica which is an endangered species as per IUCN Red List.

This ecosystem was earlier distributed in the entire Konkan coast in the western coastal regions of India, however currently thrives only in Southern Kerala, Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, some parts of Goa and very recently reported in the Northern parts of the ghats of Maharashtra. The rapid anthropogenic alterations of these patches to monoplantations such as cashew, rubber, coffee, areca nut and teak have threatened these sensitive ecosystems to a great extent. Besides being home to several habitat specialists organisms, these ancient ecosystems have the potential to store carbon in huge amounts and help fight climate change. A recent study of Myristica swamps in Karnataka by T.V. Ramachandra of IISc, Bengaluru, in 2018 found that these swampy forests have a higher ability of carbon sequestration than any non-swampy forests. He also highlighted that myristica swamps have the prospect of ensuring water security in the entire Indian peninsula by bettering the hydrology of the Western Ghats.

“These swamps form a linkage between different water bodies in Thenmala and Kulathupuzha. It retains the water during the monsoons and then slowly releases the stored water to the nearby streams and the Kulathupuzha River during dry seasons”, informed the forest guard who accompanied us on the trail.

Cookeina Speciosa dwelling on the foot of tree trunk

Photo: Anushka Saikia

It was already evening, the sky turning grey as if it would rain in a minute or two. I was trying to capture the cup fungi, Cookeina speciosa dwelling on the foot of a tree trunk, when my colleagues were already walking back the trail “Hey Anushka, hurry up. It is going to rain.” I was in Kerala for just another month and I was wondering how certain ecosystems are so particular to only some places on the Earth that it is an enigma in itself.

The existence of Myristica swamps remains unknown to many conservationists, forget about its inhabitants. These gradually shrinking ancient swamps, if not conserved, will extinct from the country in the blink of an eye. The disappearance of such an ecosystem would with it, take to grave much potential research of not just undiscovered flora and fauna, but also an effective means to combat the changing climate in the world.

About the Author:

Anushka Saikia is a wildlife biologist at Elephant Research and Conservation Division of Aaranyak, Guwahati, Assam.

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