When Tarsh Thekaekara and Shruti Agarwal spotted a lone fig tree in sea of tea bushes in southern India, they knew it had to be special. The researchers were documenting sacred groves in tea plantations to see if they helped conserve wild species. They learned that the fig tree was all that remained of a grove consecrated by local Paniya people who, for generations, had convinced tea estate managers not to fell the tree.
As in many other countries, fig trees have been sacred species in India for thousands of years. Wherever they grow, figs are also key resources for wildlife. Thanks to their curious biology, they feed more bird and mammal species globally than any other fruit and so sustain the seed dispersers of thousands of other plant species. In India, and in many other countries, fig trees could play key roles in protecting biodiversity and regenerating lost forests — but policies to protect these trees are rare.
Writing in the Indian Express, Thekaekara and Agarwal tell how they returned to the lone fig tree and set up camera traps to find out what wildlife visited. They soon recorded monkeys, many bird species, civets and a species of flying squirrel. “As the figs ripened and fell to the ground, the place really came alive,” they write. “Porcupine, wild boar, barking deer, sambhar deer, bear and, even, an elephant! A leopard also walked by, probably feeling like she was missing the party, and to try to dine on a couple of fig-eaters!”
Thekaekara and Agarwal highlight the important ecological role the tree plays in a landscape dominated by tea bushes. “The irony is that even with this knowledge, there is no official protection for the tree,” they write, “and it could legally be cut if the correct permissions are sought.” They note that, across their study area, many sacred groves had been reduced to just a solitary tree — most commonly a fig tree.
In India’s urban areas too, the loss of wildlife-friendly trees is elevating the importance of surviving fig trees. In a new study, Harini Nagendra and colleagues documented 5504 trees at religious sites— 62 temples, churches and Hindu, Christian and Muslim cemeteries — in Bengaluru (Bangalore).
Compared with trees in the city’s parks and streets, the trees at religious sites were far more likely to be native species, which offer more to local biodiversity. As in the tea plantation, fig trees (Ficus species) are disproportionately important in urban areas as they feed so many birds and mammals, and at least one fig species was present at 71% of the religious sites the researchers surveyed.
“Fig trees play a critical role in supporting Bangalore’s threatened biodiversity,” says Nagendra. “Bangalore’s tree cover is extremely fragmented, and Ficus trees act as keystone species, improving canopy-to-canopy connectivity and supporting a wide range of species, including birds, butterflies, bees, bats, macaques, and even the endangered slender loris.”
The researchers found 286 individuals of just one fig species — the banyan, Ficus benghalensis — at the religious sites, where it was the fourth most common tree species. But in the city’s streets and parks, all species of fig trees were relatively rare. None ranked in the top ten species the researchers counted there. Nagendra and colleagues says the large numbers of Ficus trees in sacred sites “demonstrate a strong potential” for urban conservation.
“Unfortunately, there is no policy to promote the planting or fig trees, or to conserve them,” Nagendra told me. “Many Ficus trees in Bangalore are heritage trees, decades and even centuries old. Yet many are now under threat, their branches pruned, the bases concreted, or are cut down for road expansion projects.”
In fields and cities in India and all across the tropics, fig trees play key roles in sustaining wildlife. The ecological importance of these trees results from their 80-million-year old relationship with their pollinator wasps, and it helps explain why fig trees have become embedded in religions in many countries.
Over millennia, diverse cultures have protected fig trees but few societies today value them in the same way. Yet, with the right policies in place, these trees could help us to address 21st century challenges — from conserving biodiversity to restoring forest cover.
Tarsh Thekaekara is a biodiversity conservation researcher with The Shola Trust. Shruti Agarwal worked with The Shola Trust before joining the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. Harini Nagendra is a professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
Read more about the many ways fig trees have shaped our species and the world about us in my book, published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. Readers in India can buy the book here.
A fig tree (Ficus religiosa) alongside a Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman in Bengaluru (Bangalore) — Anoop Negi (reproduced with permission). See Anoop Negi’s website for more images.
Jaganmohan, M. et al. 2018. Biodiversity in sacred urban spaces of Bengaluru, India. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 32: 64-70. [Read online]
Thekaekara, T. & Agarwal, S. 2018. The Ficus in the Tea: The fight for the lonely atti maram (fig tree). The Indian Express. 22 April 2018. [Read online]