|In This Issue:|
From Deforestation to Reforestation
Pinki Mondal, a pre-doctoral fellow in the UF Department of Geography researched forest cover in and around the Pench Tiger Reserve-Maharashtra in central India and found a promising increase in forest cover.
Much research has been done on global deforestation trends and its implication on climate change and species extinction; however, no research had been done on the changing landscape dynamics of the Pench Tiger Reserve-Maharashtra.
The Pench Tiger Reserve-Maharashtra became a national park in 1975 and was declared a tiger reserve in 1999.
"Regular monitoring of these parks is needed," Mondal said, adding, "particularly in developing countries with high human population density because parks are often threatened with encroachment, ineffective management, and lack of financial aids."
It is essential for tigers to have adequate habitat and forest cover. The Pench Tiger Reserve-Maharashtra is only 257 square kilometers, or about 100 square miles, which is a relatively small area to hold a sustainable tiger population. The forest cover within the park is adequate as it is strictly protected, but more forest cover in the surrounding areas is necessary for continued viability of the tiger population.
"It is not possible to bring all the surrounding areas under protection because of high human population," Mondal said. "So, it is critical how surrounding areas are being managed ... clearing in the surrounding areas will make the park more and more isolated."
Changes in government policies and World Bank-funded projects have encouraged planting in the surrounding areas, which is good news for the tiger population.
"So, we can be hopeful that connectivity of this park with other forested tracts, essential to hold a viable tiger population, would be retained and improved over time," Mondal said.
Mondal chose to work with the Pench Tiger Reserve-Maharashtra after a suggestion from Harini Nagendra, a member of her advisory committee. Nagendra is associated with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in India.
Nagendra said, "I suggested (the Pench Tiger Reserve-Maharashtra) as an option to (Mondal) as this is an interesting, biodiversity-rich, endangered forest habitat in central India, and through Ghate (Nagendra's colleague), we (had) an experienced and knowledgeable local collaborator."
Once Mondal had settled on the location for her research, she began to analyze satellite images from 1977, 1989, 2000, and 2007 to generate land change trajectories.
Between 1977 and 1989, the total area of forest cover had decreased by 8 percent within the park. The increasing forest-cover trend began in 1989, after tree felling in the park ceased.
"This is significant, since the national forest policy was revised in 1988 and tree felling became completely banned in any national park (in India)," Mondal said in an E-mail.
In her comparative-observational study, Mondal found that forest cover within the park increased in total area over 30-year span. Between 1977 and 2007, the total area of forest cover increased from 78 percent to 87 percent.
Mondal based her research on Geographic Information Systems data provided by the non-governmental organization SHODH, and field data she collected herself when she visited the Pench Tiger Reserve in 2008 on a UF Tropical Conservation and Development Field Research Grant.
"I must have looked intimidating with my face totally covered with a scarf to fight the heat of central India," Mondal said of her experience. "It used to be 118 degrees out in the field, believe it or not. And I survived it!"
Mondal has already presented her findings in several local and national meetings, including the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting and the U.S. Regional Association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology.
Nagendra said of Mondal's research, "Tigers are flagship species for conservation, and their protection is important not just for the people of India or the United States, but indeed for the whole world."
Mondal is quick to point out that she is not a wildlife ecologist, and that her research doesn't necessarily apply to the tiger population at Pench.
"Forest cover and tiger habitat are not synonymous," Mondal said. "Tigers need more than just the forest ... My study is about forest cover, and not about tiger habitat, which is more of a wildlife ecologist's job."
She does, however, welcome the prospect of extending her findings to the tiger population.
"I would love to extend my findings to wildlife ecology and to collaborate with anybody who is interested in mapping tiger habitats in the future," Mondal said.
Mondal sees her research as having an impact on environmental policy and social awareness.
"My study suggests that with more international financial aid and proper national-level policies, awareness can be raised within the local populace to protect the forest and the tigers. Nobody would care for forests or tigers if their own livelihoods are not sustainable," she said.
But what Mondal really wants from her study is interdisciplinary cooperation to improve the world.
"Since tiger conservation is equally important to India, the U.S., or any other country in the world," Mondal said, "my study sheds a ray of hope that worldwide effort of establishing parks to protect biodiversity is working and all the different scientific communities ... can work together in interdisciplinary settings to make the world a better place."