On a wild food trail

Anapantham is a name familiar to those who have done the trek from Parambikulam National Park in Kerala, India, down into the western valley following the historic Cochin Tramway, an engineering marvel built during the British times. Historically, these forests along the western face of the Anamalais were called Cochin State Forests and were heavily exploited for timber. The indigenous Kadar people, for whom these forests and rivers are part of the ancestral domain, were in fact hired by the British for a range of plantation and other developmental activities in the region, the Tramway construction being one of them.

Following a landslide in 2002, the Kadar folk of Anapantham were rehabilitated to a settlement called Shastampoovam on the edge of a degraded forest. Life in the upper catchment of Karuvannur river, for the Kadar, is sustained by the forest they were born into. Men, women and children in this new settlement go in search of honey, resin, medicinal plants and wild food. In the olden days, they may have traded and bartered with people in the plains for forest produce. All of the summer months are spent traversing the mountains, and most honey and resin is harvested before the monsoon intensifies. The produce is sold to the Forest Development Agency based on fair prices and a profit sharing mechanism.

It is a cloudy morning in early July. Chandrika and Shaju are headed into a patch of forest close to their home to gather fruits of the Eendh tree, called Queen Sago in English and Cycas circinalis in Latin. I am out with them on a photo documentation of non-conventional nontimber forest products (NTFPs), as part of the community enterprise building carried out by the Conservation and Livelihoods Team of River Research Centre in Kerala. Their two dogs zig zag across the trail, run back and forth, making sure they keep an eye out for anything dangerous. I remark on how the path is overgrown and looks unused, and Chandrika quips, “No terrain in the wild is unfamiliar for us; we wouldn’t get lost even in the dark.”

The Cycad is a gymnosperm from Jurassic times, and is endemic to the Western Ghats. The trunk bears permanent leaf scars, and the leaves resemble palm leaves. Across the Western Ghats the species is subject to heavy harvest pressures from exploitative commercial trade of seeds, male cone, leaf and pith. The fruits are toxic to wildlife, so the natives of Anapantham know there are no competitors and always plenty for people. Queen Sago is a staple food in the traditional diet of indigenous communities, quite a favourite delicacy among the Kadar people, often favoured over rice.

Apparently it is only the fruits that are not sought after by wild creatures! The leaves of Cycas cirinalis are host to the mellow looking Plains Cupid butterfly. The larvae secrete a sugary liquid with amino acids. Ants living on the Cycad feed off this secretion, and in turn protect the larvae from predators. One is intrigued how ancient this association might be…were the Plains Cupid butterflies in search of this Cycad even during the Jurassic times?! For now, Chandrika and Shaju are out to find an adult Cycad, and we have crossed two perennial streams. Once we get to an adult with profuse fruiting, the harvest is rather quick. Shaju climbs on the crocodile-like scaly bark of the trunk and plucks off bunches of fruits. The collection is bundled up in a dhoti (a large piece of cloth – like a sarong – traditionally worn by men) and carried back to their home on the edge of the forest.

Preparing Eendh to eat is labour intensive. After removing the fruit’s hard shell, the seeds are halved and left to dry over a woodstove for a couple of days. They are then tied in a jute sack and immersed in flowing water in a stream for 5-7 days to get rid of the toxin, cycacin. For this leaching process one must choose a stream that is not populated with crabs for they can come and nibble on the seeds right through the sack.

One final step of drying over the woodstove, and then the seeds are ready to be cooked and eaten with meat. Well dried, smoked seeds can be saved for more than three years. Sometimes they are stored in powder form to make a porridge, or a jaggery and coconut based delicacy!

Today, Queen Sago it is eaten far less than in earlier times, either because it is considered less sophisticated than mainstream food or because harvest and treatment is an arduous task. By reviving some of these food ways and finding niche markets for wild food it might be possible to not only secure indigenous livelihoods but also keep alive the knowledge of local resources and their ecology and distribution. Through establishing a relationship with harvesters, the effort is to inculcate sustainable harvest protocol for NTFPs and practices

that help protect species such as Cycas circinalis in the long run. The project hopes to demonstrate that it is possible for native communities to take on conservation stewardship roles and use forest rights in meaningful ways, alongside conserving ethnobotanical knowledge.

Further reading:

Krishnamurthy V., L. Mandle, T. Ticktin, R. Ganesan, C.S. Saneesh and A. Varghese. 2013. Conservation status and effects of harvest on an endemic multi-purpose cycad, Cycas circinalis L., Western Ghats, India. Tropical Ecology 54(3): 309-320.

L.W. Wu. 2010. Elucidating origins of the Cycad Blue (Chilades pandava): a threat to cycad plants worldwide, with a discussion on the evolution of Cycas feeding behavior. PhD thesis. National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, Taiwan.

Ramakrishnan, V. 2020. Conservation through private initiative: A case study in the Western Ghats, India. https://www.iucn.org/news/ commission-environmental-economic-and-social-policy/202003/ conservation-through-private-initiative-a-case-study-westernghats-india.

This article is from issue


2020 Sep