Invasive alien plant species (IAPS) are considered to be one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss and thereby altering the ecosystem services and socio-economic conditions through different mechanisms. India’s biodiverse ecosystems are threatened by a variety of alien plants like Lantana camara, Parthenium hysterophorous, Prosopis juliflora, etc, introduced during British colonisation. Lantana alone has pervasively invaded 44 per cent of India’s forests.
Impact of Invasive Alien Plant Species
Apart from its spread in different ecosystems and occasional reports on its association with birds, little is known about how invasive plants affect an ecosystem in the long term. There is even greater confusion when one asks about how alien plants impact native ecosystems. Many naturalist observations would rightly suggest that alien plants like Lantana camara are associated with rich sightings of birds and butterflies and provide ‘green cover’ for many other wildlife.
At the same time, many others would count its harmful impacts on native plants and other ecosystem components. Due to the absence of reliable scientific data and mixed opinions on the impact of alien species, there exists a dilemma regarding the need to manage them. In the face of rapid, pervasive invasions, this inaction could threaten ecosystems’ sustenance.
New Study on Invasive Alien Plant Species
A recent study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management has found that several alien invasive plants growing together can have a detrimental effect to the biodiversities in tiger habitats. The plants can put pressure on native forage plants and drive away wild herbivores — the food source for the big cats.
The research paper has deciphered many negative impacts of multiple co-occurring alien plants on biodiversity and what it means for conservation in the era of global changes. The study is the first of its kind in India and was conducted in Kanha Tiger Reserve, comparing uninvaded native forests with old-growth invasions of single and multiple alien plants.
Impact on Soil, Native Plants and Wildlife
The researchers evaluated the differences in soil parameters, native grasses, herbs, shrubs, tree regeneration, habitat use by mammals, herbivory, bird occurrence, etc. “Native forests are packed with biodiversity, particularly with rare species and interactions. Contrastingly, invaded areas only sustain a few commonly found species,” said Rajat Rastogi, the lead author of the study.
Co-occurring invasive plants like Lantana, Ageratum conyzoides, Pogostemon benghalensis, etc, have a magnified cumulative impact than their individual impacts, causing ecological homogenisation in invaded regions, the paper found. Multiple alien species together affected soil nutrients, which may have depleted the richness of diverse plants. “The abundance of rich grasses and herbs, the signature component of these ecosystems, was the most affected.
There was hardly any regeneration of important plants like amla or even the most common tree — the sal,” reported Rastogi. Native wild herbivores like chital and sambhar did not prefer the commonly found plants in invaded areas. They preferred rare forage plants, which were already depleted in infested areas. “Although wild herbivores consumed a limited portion of alien plants.
With monotonous invasion stands, their dependence on native forage increases”, the lead author said. An elevated herbivory pressure on native plants and reduced habitat use in areas with a pervasive long-term invasion of multiple alien plants was noted by the research. “Invasions might slowly deplete the native plant populations and might lead to diseases in the herbivores,” it said.
Reduced forage availability for herbivores like sambar and chital, which are major prey for tiger, leopard, and dhole in this landscape, threaten the sustenance of these carnivores in invaded regions. “The future of these tiger ecosystems can thus be grim. It is indicative of an ‘invasion-centric forest ecosystem’ historically unmatched, defaunated and functionally downgraded” the study says.
Challenges and Solutions
The study highlights the challenges in managing invasive alien plant species and the need for immediate action. The current approach of controlling invasive species is mainly reactive and not proactive, which leads to delayed management actions and increased costs.
The study suggests that an integrated approach of early detection, rapid response, and long-term management of invasive alien plant species is necessary for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The study provides a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of invasive alien plant species on biodiversity and ecosystem services in tiger habitats. It highlights the importance of early detection, rapid response, and long-term management of invasive alien plant species for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The research is a call to action for conservationists, policymakers, and managers to take immediate steps to control and manage invasive alien plant species in order to protect India’s biodiverse ecosystems and the species that depend on them.