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India's Western Ghats are under the protection of this amazing team

Conservationists help climate-threatened plants in the Western Ghats mountain range
Conservationists help climate-threatened plants in the Western Ghats mountain range   -   Copyright  AFP
By Ben Anthony Horton  with AFP

As deforestation and climate change ravage India's Western Ghats mountain range, an all-female rainforest force is battling to protect one of the area's last enclaves of biodiversity.

The UNESCO heritage-listed region is home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species.

But at Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a group of 27 women act as guardians to the plants that may be lost forever.

"We are trying to salvage what is possible. It is like a refugee camp or a hospital," says Suprabha Seshan, one of the curators at the reserve.

"The intensive care unit is in the pots and then when you take them out that's like the general ward where they get other forms of primary health care.”

She estimates that more than 90 per cent of the forest that once graced the area has now disappeared.

‘This forest is our guru’

The sanctuary was created as a haven for the native flora struggling for survival against climate change, in the hope of slowly repopulating the region with Indigenous plants.

Gurukula, which means a 'retreat with a guru', was set up 50 years ago by German conservationist Wolfgang Theuerkauf.

"Wolfgang said 'this forest is our guru'," Seshan explains.

Since then, three generations of ‘rainforest gardeners’ - women from local villages in the Kerala state - have worked with botanists to build up the sanctuary.

Dressed in big boots to protect against cobras, the women put in long days in the forest, the sanctuary's greenhouses and the nursery.

They replant the suffering flora, sift compost and make a natural pesticide from cow urine.

"We have between 30 and 40 per cent of the Western Ghats flora under conservation here," says Seshan.

However, in 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the threat of habitat loss in its World Heritage Outlook report.

Seshan, who has worked at the sanctuary for 28 years, has seen things deteriorate first hand.

"When I came here plastic was still not a part of our culture,” she says.

“When Wolfgang found the first plastic bag in the river, he said: 'civilisation has arrived.'"

Transplant success

By fighting off bloodsucking leeches, the rainforest gardeners care for a multitude of endangered ferns, flowers and herbs that grow in the area.

The small plants of the Western Ghats are vulnerable to rising temperatures, rainfall fluctuations and the loss of habitat, says Seshan.

"The more the climate changes, the more their reproductive life strategies have to change to adapt."

Laly Joseph, a senior gardener who has worked at the sanctuary for 25 years, scours the mountains for species that need to be moved to Gurukula for intensive care.

She tries to find simple ways to replicate the natural conditions of each plant.

Three years ago, she discovered a struggling Impatiens jerdoniae with red and yellow flowers. She successfully transplanted the plant onto a tree - and now it is thriving.

Joseph says that saving a rare species is incredibly satisfying.

“I am happy when they’re happy," she smiles.

But she fears the increasingly unpredictable climate may destroy their work.

The Western Ghats normally get up to 500 centimetres of rain a year, but the monsoon season is becoming increasingly erratic.

"They wilt, they can’t pollinate, they don’t get seeds. That is the way you lose species," says Joseph.

"I suffer when a tree has fallen, when the rainforest dies."

Watch the video above to find out more.

Video editor • Ben Anthony Horton