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India’s wildlife watch

From the August 2018 issue.

India’s Western Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot, with species ranging from the large – tigers, elephants, and leopards – to the small – birds, amphibians, and butterflies. Research is being done to see how agroforests, including coffee, affect these

Dr Krithi Karanth has an impressive list of titles to her name. Her primary role is Associate Conservation Scientist, Asia, for the Wildlife Conservation Society, but she is also a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in India, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University in the United States, and an Affiliate Faculty member at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in India.

Her father was a well-known biologist and tiger conservationist and she spent much of her childhood accompanying him in and out of jungles, watching tigers in the wild from a young age. She has also been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and a National Geographic Society Explorer.

Karanth has co-authored papers looking at how biodiversity is linked to global markets as well as the practices of individual landholders, and the effects of different agroforest crops, including coffee, on species richness and guild density.

Agroforestry manages both trees and crops or livestock on the same land. In India’s Western Ghats, coffee bushes have traditionally been grown interspersed with native forests, resulting in shade-grown coffee harvested under high canopy trees.

In one such study, Karanth collaborated with political economist Dr Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin and economist Dr Ashwini Chhatre, formerly with the University of Illinois and now with the Indian School of Business.

The review, ‘Political Ecology of Commodity Agroforests and Tropical Biodiversity’, was published in Conservation Letters, a journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, in March 2015.

The three-year project was funded by the National Science Foundation in the US and studied agroforest growing coffee, rubber and areca – a nut that is consumed domestically in India but doesn’t have a large global market.

“They are the three largest commodity crops grown next to our protected wildlife reserves,” Karanth says.

“We felt that, given the critical role they provide, functioning as additional habitats allowing for safe passage for large mammals like tigers and elephants, to housing smaller animals like butterflies and birds and amphibians, it was really important to look at them and compare them.”

The review reported that, although human-modified tropical landscapes are increasingly well studied, the processes that influence and govern biodiversity outcomes, especially in commodity production landscapes such as coffee rubber and areca remain poorly understood.

In a later paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution in September 2016, the researchers compared bird abundancy across coffee, rubber, and areca, in India’s Western Ghats.

Karanth, Robbins and Chhatre were joined by Vishnupriya Sankararaman and Shashank Dalvi, who led the field efforts, and other scientists Arjun Srivathsa, Ravishankar Parameshwaran, and Sushma Sharma, all of the Centre for Wildlife Studies and Wildlife Conservation Studies. Srivathsa is also with the University of Florida.

The study, ‘Producing Diversity: Agroforests Sustain Richness and Abundance in India’s Western Ghats’, states the region has small and isolated protected areas embedded in a matrix of multiple land uses, most of which include agroforests. These agroforests are being increasingly recognised for their supplementary role in conserving wildlife.

The researchers observed 204 bird species, of which 170 were residents. They found that the average estimated richness per agroforest was higher for coffee at 60.5 than rubber (45.4) or areca (34.1).

The most influential factors affecting species richness were tree cover, tree density and rainfall in all agroforests, but the strength of those effects differed, the report states: “Coffee supported higher densities in all four habitat and three feeding guilds compared to areca and rubber.”

Comparing coffee species
For Karanth’s latest paper, published in Scientific Reports in February 2018, she was again joined by Robbins and also Dr Charlotte Chang of Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

This time, they compared different coffee species to compare their ecological impact, in ‘Birds and Beans: Comparing avian richness and endemism in Arabica and Robusta agroforests in India’s Western Ghats’.

“Coffee is a major tropical commodity crop that can provide supplementary habitat for native wildlife,” the introduction reads. “In Asia, coffee production is an increasingly important driver of landscape transformation and shifts between different coffee species is a major dimension of agroforestry trends. Yet few studies have compared the ecological impacts of conversion between different coffee species.”

Although the study recorded some differences in species diversity or abundance between Arabica and Robusta farms, both proved excellent habitats for birds because of the dense canopy cover. Three species were listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species – the Alexandrine Parakeet, Nilgiri Woodpigeon and Grey-headed Bulbul.

The researchers wrote that given future projections for Arabica to Robusta conversion in tropical Asia, the study indicated that certification efforts should prioritise maintaining native canopy shade trees and forest cover to ensure coffee landscapes continue providing biodiversity benefits.

Additional research efforts and analysis are uncovering linkages with other groups such as mammals, butterflies, and trees.

In general, Karanth says, whether they looked at species numbers, diversity, or the type of feeding guilds and habitat guilds, coffee agroforests performed better.

“We are finding that Indian coffee is inherently more wildlife friendly than a lot of the other countries because it’s shade grown, particularly the Arabica as you see the Robusta farmers now trying to do more sun-grown,” she says.

“Because of the high canopy cover, fundamentally Indian coffee is already more wildlife friendly. We have come up with specific recommendations to say, ‘Don’t lop the tree branches in certain months when birds are nesting and regulate use of chemicals and pesticides because that does affect amphibians as well as birds’.”

Keeping the high tree canopy is most important in supporting wildlife, Karanth says, as is allowing free passage for mammals – “not hunting or persecuting animals when they’re walking through their coffee farms”.

One way to encourage farmers to follow such recommendations is to make them economically profitable.

“I do see, as the world starts to appreciate organic coffee, the next step I think is an obvious link to recognise wildlife-friendly products – coffee being one of them.”

Such marketing does take a lot of effort to scale the product and get consumers to buy it, Karanth says.

“There’s an effort to certify farms and also to make sure the coffee tastes good and has a good cupping score, and the combination of the two is what can be taken to market and scaled. I do think if Indian coffee producers decided to sell their coffee with this wildlife-friendly premium branding on it, there is a new economic opportunity that hasn’t been explored so far.” GCR

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