PROJECTS

PATTERNS AND PROCESSES UNDERLYING COMPLEX ECOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL DYNAMICS IN AN ARID PASTORAL SYSTEM. INITIATING LONG TERM RESEARCH IN THE BANNI GRASSLANDS OF KUTCH, GUJARAT

Our approach will combine field surveys and experimental manipulations with the collation and analyses of extant data, both in the short and long term, to develop a more synthetic understanding of the Banni grassland ecosystem across spatial and temporal scales. In the short-term, this will involve characterizing the current and historical status of the system in terms of the spatial and temporal patterns of key ecological and social parameters, e.g. spatial patterns of biodiversity of different taxa, land-use patterns and land tenure, extent and distribution of invasive species, etc. In the medium to long-term, our focus will be on investigating the ecological and social processes responsible for generating the observed patterns. Implicit in our approach is the understanding that ecological and social systems are intimately coupled, and neither can be fully understood when ignoring the other. We outline our specific objectives in more detail in the sections below.

Short-term research program: understanding patterns

For any conservation strategy to be effective and useful, it must be preceded by a recognition of how different ecological and social variables are configured across the landscape. Given this, our first objective will be to develop spatially explicit maps of biodiversity and other key environmental and social variables for the Banni landscape using a combination of remote sensing and field surveys.Specifically, we will

i) Quantify the animal husbandry-related economy of the region (as a means of countering the mainstream notion of the Banni as a largely unproductive wasteland)
ii) Undertake an institutional analysis to understand the nature of local controls relating to the intensity and geographic variation in pastoralist access to and use of the Banni;
iii) Collate historical evidence relating to pastoralist use of the Banni, including formal contractual arrangements between the pastoralists and the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rulers of the area
iv) Collate published and unpublished information to develop spatially explicit maps of rainfall, temperature and soil properties (e.g. soil type, texture, nutrient availability and salinity) for the landscape.
v) Initiate vegetation surveys to characterize vegetation communities based on plant species association patterns in the landscape, and determine the biotic and abiotic factors that underlie the observed associations.We will couple this with GIS and remotely sensed information to generate vegetation maps for the region.
vi) Use a combination of field surveys and remotely sensed information to characterize the extent, current distribution, and rate of spread of Prosopis juliflora, the dominant invasive species in the region.
vii) Use established survey techniques to generate distribution maps of key faunal taxa in the region (e.g. mammals, birds, pollinators).
viii) Characterize nutrient levels in plants and soils to develop a nutrient profile of the landscape, and relate these to patterns and intensity of herbivore use, both native and domestic.
ix) Develop maps of the region based on the ‘use’ of the landscape by pastoral and other communities, and determine the level of congruence between ‘use’ maps and ‘vegetation’ maps.
x) Compile household-level data for the Banni, specifically, information on livestock holding by species, selling and buying of animals, selling and buying animal/milk products, net income generated by month (high and low), caste composition (for possible difference between groups), mortality rates of animals, and possession of assets.

These data will serve as the baseline for longer-term studies in the region. We will also collate temporal data on rainfall patterns and livestock populations from both published and unpublished sources to look at trends over time.

Medium to long-term research program: understanding processes

i) Grazer impacts on species diversity, plant production and nutrient cycling in the landscape: We will use a combination of long-term grazing exclosures and short-term movable cages to quantify patterns of herbivore consumption, and its attendant implications for plant species diversity and productivity, across the different vegetation types in the landscape.
ii) Top-down versus bottom-up control: In order to effectively manage any ecosystem, it is critical to understand what factors limit primary production, and in-turn all other organisms at higher trophic levels. Such an understanding is key to predicting the implications of long-term changes in both climatic variables and pastoral practices, on subsequent ecosystem functioning. We will combine fertilization experiments with herbivore exclusion experiments to determine the extent of top-down versus bottom-up control on ecosystem processes in the Banni grasslands.
iii) Interactions between native and domestic ungulates: In order to effectively manage native herbivore and carnivore populations in the region, we need to better understand how grazing by domestic herbivores influences patterns of habitat use by native ungulates. We will use field surveys to determine the extent to which livestock facilitate or complete with native herbivores.
iv) Long-term vegetation dynamics: We will set up long-term monitoring plots in different vegetation types in the region. Both biotic (species richness, diversity) and abiotic variables (e.g. moisture, salinity, nutrients) will be periodically monitored in plots to understand longer-term trends in vegetation in the different plant communities in the region.
v) Prosopis and the invasion problem: We will initiate a series of experiments and surveys to understand the mechanistic basis of Prosopis invasion of grasslands, and the implications of Prosopis invasion for native biodiversity and ecosystem processes. In addition, we will also initiate experiments to look at the effects of Prosopis removal on subsequent community and ecosystem dynamics in order to develop effective grassland restoration programs.
vi) Ecological history of the Banni grasslands: We will characterize the paleo-ecological history of the Banni grasslands by characterizing the pollen and charcoal profiles of soil cores collected in the region. When combined with carbon dating of sediments, this will allow us to recreate the vegetation and fire history of the region.
vii) Possible effect of externalities on pastoral economy: We will conduct macro level simulations to study the effects of various externalities. These include the entry of dairies in the area, the effects of drought, the effects of drivers such as tourism, Prosopis gasification, and different property rights regimes (e.g., if individual land rights and stall feeding is promoted how would it affect the Banni pastoral economy?). We would also simulate the potential effects of greater economic integration on the pastoral economy.

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Contact Information

Banni Research Centre,Hodko, Bhuj
E-mail: banniresearch@gmail.com