In the Weeds

India's uphill battle with Lantana camara

Samuel Curtis and William Jackson Hooker / Wikimedia Commons
28 February, 2022

MADABA BELONGS to the Betta Kuruba tribe, an indigenous pastoral community in Karnataka. With an enviable understanding of native grass species, he is a prized hand at Bandipur National Park, which has focussed on restoring and managing its grassland since 2019. The plan involves, among other things, removing weeds and planting native grass species in their place. The job is tiresome, as Bandipur is covered with a wide variety of weeds, including eupatorium, parthenium and lantana.

“Only tribals have the expertise to do this job,” Muniraju, a range forest officer at Bandipur, told me. Muniraju is in charge of grassland management in his range—one of 13 in the national park—as well as drawing fire lines before the summer begins, so as to control the regular wildfires Bandipur has been witnessing.

Weed removal is an important part of this process. Madaba and sixty other members of his community work all day, for three to four months, removing weeds by hand, only to see them back and thriving the next year. “I’ve been doing this work for twenty years,” Madaba told me, in November 2019. “I’ve seen these weeds getting only worse.” He was particularly irked with Lantana camara, a thorny plant that grows in thickets. “Among all the weeds,” he said, “it’s the most difficult to remove.” The thicket needs to be hacked through, after which the plant has to be uprooted, rolled and pushed to the side, where it is later burnt.

It is not just Bandipur that is struggling with Lantana camara, which is considered one of the ten worst invasive plants in the world. A recent study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India found that lantana was present in 154,837 of the 207,100 square kilometres surveyed. Based on this, the authors estimated, 303,607 square kilometres—44 percent of all forest land in India—is suitable for invasion by the weed, which prefers “warm, humid, fertile areas, degraded by extractive human use.”