CHENNAI: It made an entry into Tamil Nadu as part of a government initiative to ensure easy availability of firewood in the early 60s. Now, the invasive species is omnipresent posing a threat to local ecology and bio-diversity. Thorny Prosopis Juliflora, popularly known as Seemai Karuvelam or Velikathaan, has literally become a thorn in the flesh, according to activists.
The dangers posed by it became evident only 15 years ago, as its rapid spread is said to have depleted groundwater and soil nutrients eventually leading to desertification.
“Absorbing excessive water to produce one kg of biomass, it is known to germinate and spread very fast as a weed. Believed to produce less oxygen, birds too do not nest on it. It also affects soil nutrients, endangering soil fertility. Above all, this turns its surrounding droughty,” said Enathi A Poongathirvel, founder of city-based Juliflora Tree Abolishment Movement (JTAM).
According to him, the tree, introduced to help people reeling under a drought situation, has in due course become a major reason for groundwater depletion in many districts, particularly Madurai, Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga where it is found in abundance. It is so resilient that even in the absence of rain or groundwater, it could grow by absorbing moisture in the air, Poongathirvel added.
Formed in August 2013, JTAM has 6,700 volunteers, who have so far destroyed Seemai Karuvelam in over 300 acres in 22 districts. In many places, they faced opposition from those eking out a livelihood by making charcoal from this wood.
“After removing Seemai Karuvelam, our volunteers plant banyan and other trees. On tank bunds, we plant native species like Pungai, Vembu, Vagai etc. At present, JAMT has more than 1,000 requests to destroy Seemai Karvelam trees,” he added.
The BioNet-EAFRINET, working with many international environmental organisations, has listed this as one of the 100 most serious invasive plants on which it has an exclusive section on vital taxonomic information. It says the shrub is a very aggressive invader, replacing native vegetation resulting in complete loss of pasture and rangelands for both domestic and wild ruminants. Consumption of the leaves causes illness and death for livestock. Other impacts are loss of cropland, obstruction to irrigation channels and water resources as well as roads and fishing areas.”
This has been declared a noxious weed in Kenya in 2008 under the Suppression of Noxious Weeds Act, compelling land owners remove them.
On a petition from an activist, C Ananda Raj, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in January last had directed all district Collectors to take steps to remove Seemai Karuvelam, particularly inside river Vaigai, on a war footing. On another petition from him in November last, the court directed authorities to remove the trees within four weeks.
Dismayed at the tardy implementation of court order, activists like Poongathirvel pin their hopes on CM J Jayalalithaa for remedy.