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Saving the Himalayan oaks
by Shirley Nairn

An interview with David Cranwell, a New Zealander who has undertaken the saving of the Himalayan evergreen oaks of Northern India, which are dying as the result of soil erosion and deforestation. 


Himalayan evergreen oaks of Northern India are dying in their thousands and are now one of the most endangered species of trees in the Himalayas. Population pressures on their delicate ecosystem have caused erosion and deforestation, and this now rare evergreen oak (Quercus Leucotrichophora) is in danger of extinction.

In 1994, New Zealander David Cranwell, Product Development Manager for ENZA New Zealand (International), was sent to Uttar Pradesh on a World Bank feasibility study on the growing of pipfruit (apples and pears) in the State. David saw the destruction of the oak forests with resultant desolation of the land, and decided to try and save the trees. Share International correspondent Shirley Nairn interviewed David Cranwell at his home in Havelock North, New Zealand.

Shirley Nairn: You have established a trust called the Ranichauri Eastwoodhill Trust. Can you tell us what prompted this name and how you started this new project?

David Cranwell: First of all, I have a real love of trees. Before I went to India, I visited Eastwoodhill in Gisborne [New Zealand] which has the largest collection of Northern Hemisphere trees in the Southern Hemisphere. It was started by a farmer. I spent two days there and a tree that really interested me was the Himalayan Oak. I tried to get a tree for myself but they were unavailable in New Zealand.

Then I went to India on a World Bank project in Uttar Pradesh, which is the largest and poorest state in India. We were up in the foothills of the Himalayas and that's where I saw the Evergreen Oaks. I also met an ecologist there, Dr Sah, from the G.B.Pant University of Agriculture and Technology at Ranichauri. He told me the farmers cut leaves and branches off the trees to feed the cattle. They also use the wood as fuel. The oaks are so heavily cropped that they don't have acorns and the trees get weaker. Thousands of hectares of Himalayan Oaks have been lost.

SN: What was the next step you took?

DC: I asked Dr Sah if there would be a possibility of working with him at the University of Ranichauri. While talking, I was thinking that if we could grow the acorns and sell the trees in New Zealand we could help the work of conservation to progress in the Himalayas. The University at Ranichauri is strapped for development cash and can only support a small conservation nursery. They know what the problem is but money shortages prevent them from advancing conservation to the level they would like. I thought I could start this programme in New Zealand. Dr Sah said: "Yes, we could work together," and that he would give any help needed from the University if we could help with funds.

SI: That was the start of a co-operative effort involving two countries?

DC: Yes. Back in New Zealand I applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for an import permit for some Himalayan acorns. The species was allowed to be imported under quarantine. I wrote to Dr Sah and said we could bring them in thinking he would probably send me 50 acorns. The import permit allowed a maximum of 2,000 acorns. A parcel arrived containing 2,000 acorns. They were grown in a commercial nursery with a 60 per cent germination rate. The second batch a year later I raised myself, achieving 85 per cent germination.

SI: You must have done a lot of research and asked for help from many institutions in order to set up the Trust.

DC: Not really. I had an idea which I felt good about. I approached Sir Edmund Hillary, who spent 30 years providing funds for hospitals and schools in Nepal. I asked his opinion of the concept. He responded by saying it was "a wonderful idea" and that he would love to help in any way he could. [Sir Edmund Hillary had been New Zealand High Commissioner in India for 3 years.] The present New Zealand High Commissioner in India gave us $10,000 which we used to buy two New Zealand designed propagation houses with mist systems which have been shipped to India. The new houses have replaced the almost derelict house at the University. These houses will be used to increase the researchers' ability to propagate cuttings and raise seedlings to be used for conservation in the area. ENZA put money into producing brochures and a local company of barristers and solicitors are providing all legal and financial work free of charge.

SI: What role will the Trust play in India?

DC: The role will be very much in the background. We don't want to be seen as going into Northern India and telling the local people what to do. We would like jointly to identify key problems; provide resources to the villagers, enabling them to manage the projects; and in time plan to have a student exchange between India and New Zealand for students and graduates. We hope the links between New Zealand schools and schools in Ranichauri will in time promote a positive relationship between Indian and New Zealand children.

SI: How do you plan on selling the trees in New Zealand?

DC: In September this year I'm giving up my full-time position with ENZA to concentrate on the project to ensure its success. The Himalayan Oak is a large tree, 16-18m, so is more suited to places like parks and schools rather than to small city areas. The primary focus is for companies and individuals to buy and donate trees to schools, but a number of trees have also been bought by individuals as memorials. As part of the package, a booklet and video about the project is included with each tree.

From the July/August 1997 issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005