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A teacher and saviour of orchids in Bengal’s Terai belt

Ashis Kumar Roy is no ordinary teacher of life sciences at the Sri Narashingha Vidyapith, Darjeeling District. For the past 20 years he has worn a second hat as the conservator and saviour of the endangered epiphytic orchids in their natural habitat in the Dooars, Jalpaiguri and Terai Regions of West Bengal. To ensure the sustainability of his work and these beautiful orchids, many of them with medicinal properties, he has involved students who he taught as well as local communities in their conservation

The survival of the epiphytic orchids that grow on trees and are native to the area, was being threatened due to deforestation and Roy created awareness on the importance of these orchids and their gorgeous blooms for future generations. His work is purely voluntary and has sustained because of his passion and his ability to involve student and the local communities.

A student of botany, Ashish Kumar Roy’s interest in the orchids began in 2000 when he was teaching in a school in the Kelabadi Tea Estate of Jalpaiguri. Felling of trees in and around the forested areas was a regular phenomenon and as the trucks laden with wood rolled out they would crush the large number of epiphytic orchids – roots and flowers – that fell off the hewn trees.

“It was like nature’s bounty being trampled underfoot. I had to do something,” Roy recalls. It took him time to understand how he could save the orchids. He read about them, consulted people in the community who had traditional knowledge and even people in the forest service.  Then he began pulling out orchids with their roots from trees marked for the axe. He tied them with ropes to similar host trees with thick barks and sprayed them with anti-fungal till they took root in the host tree.

The work was too much for an individual, so Roy began motivating his students from Class Five to Nine to help him.  He took photographs of the beautiful orchids, organised field trips for students and helped them identify host trees. The final lesson was on transplanting the orchids.  Soon, he was able to build a team that learnt to value the trees and plants that needed protection and preservation.

There are about 100 species of epiphytic orchids that grow on Sal, Shisham, Kadam, Mango, all trees with thick barks. When a tree is to be cut, the community carefully takes out the orchids with their roots and grows them on another tree. Though the orchids bloom throughout the year, most blooming takes place in March/ April when the forests and the tea gardens are a riot of colour. With community involvement, the passion to save the beautiful orchids with their medicinal value grew.

Roy says it is important that the host tree should be akin to the ones from which they have been yanked out so these details had to be passed on the students and the community.  His old students have moved on but, hopefully, they will value orchids and their ecological importance where ever they are, he adds. As a government school teacher, Roy was transferred every few years but the work and building of community support for the orchids continued. Currently, he is working in the government school in Darjeeling District. There is invariably a core team of 50 to 60 students and locals who share his knowledge and commitment for the orchids.

In 2021, Roy received the Shiksha Ratna award from the Government of West Bengal.  He also received kudos and financial support from the Dr Esteben M. Reol, director of the Botanical Garden of Madrid, Spain, with whom he shared a dais when presenting a paper on the ethno-medical importance of the epiphytic orchids of the Terai Region. The Bangalore Environment Trust has also endorsed his work. Foresters and nature lovers rallied around him and the local station of AIR at Siliguri supported his work with interviews and broadcasts highlighting the ecological importance of the orchids and their medicinal value.

Orchids belong to the Orchidaceae family and the entire family has been included in Appendix 11 of the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES).  In fact, orchids have a great role in maintaining the balance of canopy eco-systems.

A comparatively new passion is documenting the medical value of the epiphytic orchids. Roy has done a field study in 14 tea gardens of the Terai Region between 2018 and October 2021. Epiphytic orchids are perennial herbs. The Oraon and Kharia are the dominant tribal communities and he spoke to some 18 tribal men and women known for their traditional knowledge about orchids. 

Every part of the orchid plant — the roots, flowers, leaves, stem, bulbs — have medical properties but it is the leaves that are used most often. They are used for treatment of diarrhoea, fractures, dislocated bones, rheumatic pains, nose bleeds, earache, asthma, skin diseases, muscular pain and cuts and wounds. Because of their medicinal value and beauty, orchids are also being smuggled out to neighbouring countries.

July 2022