As man bulldozes through the environment, changing it according to his whims and fancies, forest reserves increasingly become islands of wild fauna lying amidst plantations, agricultural fields and pastures.
Well, this doesn't exactly displease ecologists. For example in the tropics coffee plantations which run on ecologically sustainable methods can form effective buffer zones around protected areas. These can provide 'transit lounges' for many wildlife species that require connectivity between forests.
A study of mammalian communities in 15 coffee plantations around the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats (near Chikmagalur district) has put down 28 species of mammals, seen during six months from December 2005 to May 2006.
Archana Bali, from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) arrived at these figures of mammal species richness and abundance , with the help of indirect evidence in belt transects and track plots, and from sightings during night surveys.
Plantations of coffee, tea, cardamom and teak have caused extensive fragmentation of habitat. Their extent of about 3,300 sq. km is approximately 25 per cent of the total protected area network in the Western Ghats, says Bali.
Indian coffee is traditionally grown under shade. This comprises native forest tree species. Several ecological scientists have proven that such traditional agricultural practices are in sync with the conservation of native biodiversity.
Yet as Ms Bali's study, which was published recently in the journal Biological Conservation, notes, modern coffee planters in India shade coffee with the silver oak (Grevelia robusta). This is an exotic timber-producing tree from Australia. Its perks are vigorous growth and a worth of about $ 700 per cubic metre of timber, which serves as an additional source of income against the fluctuations of coffee prices.
Conversion to monoculture has been seen to bring about a loss of biodiversity in other coffee growing regions of the world. Now Ms. Bali's study throws up possibilities that it might be the same case in the Western Ghats.
The study goes on to look at how coffee estates can be merged into conservation of protected areas. This is based on the hypothesis that mammalian communities in coffee plantations would depend on their proximity to the protected area, vegetation characteristics, and in particular, the extent of silver oak.
At least 28 species of mammals were spotted in the 15 estates. These include the bonnet macaque, common langur, sambar, mouse deer, Indian muntjac, spotted deer, gaur, and wild pig, a solitary sighting of an elephant, sloth bear, jackal, dhole, tiger, common leopard, small cats, civets, Indian giant squirrel, jungle striped squirrel, and two other squirrel species.
The study has shown that a rich pool of mammal species make use of the coffee estates. The estates closer to the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary have a greater diversity of mammal species, notes the study.
Planters must be made partners in the initiative to conserve this biodiversity, opines Ajith Kumar, of the Wildlife Conservation Society (India Programme) and co-author.