(August 22, 2022) At dawn, the heavy trapdoor to the roof groans as it is hauled open and the slight figure of Suprabha Seshan emerges, to survey the acres of rainforest that surround her, as far as the eye can see. This is the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad, in the middle of the Western Ghats and conservationist Suprabha Seshan’s home for over two decades. The sanctuary is flanked by the Banasuramala, rising 2000 metres above sea-level, and the Brahmagiris, famous for their shola grasslands.
These days, Suprabha remains more or less off the grid, lost in what she calls “the rewilding of habitat”, far from the rampant consumerism of urban life. To those in the know, however, Suprabha is a towering figure among India’s conservationists – her efforts have been an integral part of restoring some 50 acres of forest land, “nurturing forest beings,” as the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary website would have it. In 2006, Suprabha received the UK’s top environmental prize, the Whitley Award, also known as the Green Oscars. Her writing has also been published in Scroll and the Economic and Political Weekly. Global Indian takes a look at the remarkable life of one of India’s leading conservationists.
“Plants are doing the hardest work, keeping the planet going,” she says, as she shows a group of visitors around the Gurukula Sanctuary. Five acres out of the 50 are open to visitors, usually environmentalists, conservationists, and school kids. “Anything that we can do to serve the plants is a good thing. And plants should not just be seen as ‘plants for edible purposes’ but as creators of environments.”
The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary was founded by Wolfgang Dieter Theuerkauf, who was trying to regrow the rainforest. “We’re a small group of people, who have been concerned with the rapid disappearance of biodiversity,” she says. We believe that plants are the basis of all existence. Without the plants you can’t have animals, without the plants you can’t have human life. Without plants, you don’t have the biosphere.”
Theuerkauf’s approach, Suprabha explains, was a different one, more so when he began his work 40 years ago. “Even now, when we think of reforestation, we do so in terms of tree cover,” Suprabha says. “Yes, it is a tree-based biome of course. But to think of it as only trees is like saying there are only tigers in the forest and no tree frogs,” she told The Kodai Chronicle. GBS looked at orchids and ferns and tender herbaceous plants as well. They asked questions about diversity, evolution, and biogeography. Their approach was through the lens of cultivation, rescue, and restoration.”
The Krishnamurti Foundation, UK to the prairies of the Midwest
After this, she moved to the United States, where she continued to experiment with her own approach to conservation. She studied the annual wheat monoculture, and the topsoil of the grasslands and learned about the indigenous communities of the Midwest.
What does re-growing a forest actually entail? As she walks visitors through the sanctuary, she pauses beside a tree to explain. “These small plants,” she gestures, “are in high danger of being extinct, especially now. We run a search-and-rescue operation’. We go all over the mountains to find them, pick them up and bring them back.” These are around 2000 species in total, accounting for nearly half of the flora of the Western Ghats.
The plants are then brought back for cultivation in the sanctuary’s greenhouses, overseen by the sanctuary’s experts : Laly Joseph, Suma Keloth, Leelamma and Purvi Jain. “We deploy a range of methods, from intensive care nurseries to outdoor habitats rich with herbs, tubers, succulents, shrubs, trees creepers, climbers, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) and lithophytes (plants that grow on rocks),” Suprabha writes in Scroll.in.
This process of rewilding is a delicate one, requiring just the right amount of human intervention. Sometimes, it’s as simple as putting plants in a pot, at other times, the trick is to let the land rewild itself. “it’s the greatest joy to see land that’s been completely decertified come back to life. That’s when you realise the true power of natural life, that it can heal.”
Suprabha has also been involved with work on upland ecology, along with Vasanth Godwin Bosco and Sandilya Theuerkauf, Wolfgang’s son. This became part of an effort to restore the shola-grassland species.