Why translocation should NOT be an option

Whenever there is a road widening program planned, the first thing done is to clear all the old trees from the road. For governments, this is the easiest thing to do because trees don’t complain and don’t ask for compensation. These days, however, one hears of tree translocation that seems to satisfy all concerned. Those in the translocation business are happy, decision makers and sponsors have a clear conscience, and nature lovers are appeased.

The trees are moved. The road is made. The issue is closed.

No one bothers with how the trees are doing subsequently. And neglected, they die a slow death.

For, translocating a tree is not as simple as removing the whole tree with a giant crane and dropping it in another place, in the hopes that it lives happily ever after. Translocation involves treating a massive tree like a bonsai – cutting branches, trimming roots, treating these with chemicals, killing its soul. What is moved at the end of this process is most often a stump with a few branches and leaves.

The tree at left is a banyan with prop roots and a huge canopy that covers the whole road. It is teeming with life, with at least ten species of birds roosting and nesting in it. It supports biodiverse ecosystems – mammals such as primates, squirrels and bats, reptiles such as snakes, monitor and garden lizards, insects, millipedes, nematodes, epiphytes, bryophytes, fungi, algae and lichens. There is an entire slice of nature living in and on that tree, retaining all of which is crucial for the health of the planet in this age of climate disaster.
The photo at right shows the state of the tree after translocation. In translocation cases we have observed, some live, and are a shadow of their earlier selves. Most die, as has been observed at several locations.

At Tolkata (near Shangri la farm house), a total of 35 translocated ‘stumps’ were found, of which only three banyans have survived. On the same road, before Manneguda and after Tangadipalli X roads, 18 stumps were found, of which some were either Rain trees or Siris and the rest banyan, with only three survivors.

Translocation is therefore not advisable for old and valuable trees. They must be left where they are, and revered as part of our natural history.

Ideally, to prepare a large tree for successful translocation, at least 12 months for the transplanting operation should be allowed apart from the time for consultation, identification of a suitable receptor location and approval process.1 Subsequently the tree requires continued support and monitoring for at least 3 years after the translocation. If at all it surives the process – and that is already a big if – it will take about 25 years for a large translocated tree to regain its lost glory! In all successful transplantation attempts, the whole operation is a delicate, complicated engineering feat and professional teams must include botanists, ecologists, environmentalists and technical personnel. Dedicated follow-up post-translocation care is also necessary. This is rarely, if ever, followed in practice.

In India, there are no guidelines for the process of translocation, as there are in some other countries. Moreover, the government does not have a legitimate database to record the success or failure rate of translocated trees, nor does it have any data on actual survivals.

Financial implications: According to the newspaper report in The Hindu on 22 May 2019, “Over a thousand trees to get fresh lease of life” by V. Geetanath, it could cost up to Rs 70,000 to translocate a tree! And if it is a thousand trees, the cost adds up to Rs. 7-8 crores! That is a very large amount of tax payers’ money, all of which ends up being wasted.

In 2012, The Hyderabad Metro Rail spent nearly Rs 1 crore translocating 384 trees. This high cost drew criticism from experts. “It is irrational to spend so much for relocating a tree to a different location. It should not cost so much,” opined Dr BMK Reddy, an agricultural scientist at the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA). Dr. Janardhan Reddy, botany professor and former principal of the University College of Science, Osmania University stated that the chances of the trees to grow after translocation depend on the age as well. “If a tree is 2-3 years old, it can adjust to the new environment, but if they are more than four years old, they won’t survive”.2

Considering all these factors, translocation should NOT be an option when it involves thousands of trees, as in this case. The NH 163 Project should be replanned to save, in toto, the best stretches with large, mature banyans. The trees can be retained in wide, generous medians with road expansions carried out on either side. Where this is completely infeasible, the trees on one side can be retained and the road widened on the other.

The other alternative is to totally bypass the areas where the banyans are most well grown and at their most mature.

2. https://www.news18.com/news/india/hyderabad-rs-1-crore-for-trees-irrational-say-experts-504946.html