Acting on exaggerated fears that 'pollen' from female poplar trees may aggravate COVID-19 related respiratory illness, authorities in strife-riddled Kashmir have ordered axing of tens of thousands of such trees, evoking sharp reactions from scientists and environmentalists.
The Kashmir administration, in a memo dated 2 April 2020, has ordered ‘lopping and felling’ of 42,000 female poplar trees planted by the government’s social forestry department. It has also directed district level administrators to ensure that farmers and private land owners cut the trees, popular for their low cost timber, within a week.
The department, which has already felled 26,000 such trees in the past, wants to finish chopping off branches or cutting down whole trees before the flowering season in April and May. It is in this season that the trees start releasing their fluffy seeds enveloped in a cotton-like blanket, confused as pollen. Female trees do not shed pollen, it is the male of the species that does so.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration declared the coronavirus infection an epidemic on 17 March 2020 and said any person who refuses to follow the government’s orders on prevention or treatment of the disease will face legal action. In another release last week, the government said the 'pollen' from female poplar trees could cause “influenza-like infections” and “may create unnecessary panic among the general public amid the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Scant data on allergens
While data on the allergenic potential of the poplar tree on the local population is scant, studies in some other parts of the world suggest that the Kashmir administration may be overestimating the danger from the poplar trees.
In a detailed proteomics study1 on the tree’s allergens, a group of Chinese researchers found that of the 178 distinct proteins in the poplar pollen, 28 could be identified as allergens. Another study2 conducted in the Hungarian city of Szeged found that only 6.8% of hay fever patients got the disease due to poplar tree pollens. These patients were found to be sensitive to other pollens, such as grass. The researchers found that poplar pollen sensitivity was a relatively rare cause of hay fever since patients who complained about the seed hairs were all found to be sensitive to grass pollens, which they concluded were the real cause of their disease.
Botanists in Kashmir also do not agree that the trees have a major role in triggering respiratory ailments or that they could worsen the COVID-19 situation in the region. “There is no scientific study to prove that female poplars are responsible for causing major allergies and respiratory infections in Kashmir or elsewhere,” Anzar Khuru, a senior Botanist at Kashmir University, told Nature India.
“People do complain about the menace of cotton tufts released by female poplars around this time every year. But, it doesn’t mean we should do away with a massive number of trees within a few days,” Khuru said calling it an ‘environmental catastrophe’ in the making.
There could be a more scientific way to approach this, he said. “The government should urge people to use masks rather than felling millions of poplar trees. One could think of phasing these trees out gradually over time if it is found to be a health menace,” Khuru said.
Jauhar Rafeeq and Tanveer Ahmad, doctoral scholars in the forestry faculty of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences of Kashmir (SKUAST-K) suggest that simple pruning of the canopy could reduce the shedding of seeds, thereby avoiding an ecological disaster.
A senior pulmonologist of Kashmir, who requested anonymity in the wake of a government order which bars health officials to speak publicly, also emphasized that the role of female poplars in causing respiratory infections is yet to be established. “The number of respiratory ailments certainly spikes during this season. But, many other plants also flower around this season. So, believing that the female poplars are responsible for all this is too far-fetched,” he said.
Researchers at the Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar have maintained that most respiratory diseases in Kashmir are due to dust particles suspended inside households1. “92 per cent people are allergic to house dust, 73 percent to lawn grass, 65 percent to pine tree pollen, 59.3 percent to Chinar tree pollen and 18.2 percent to poplar tree pollen,” Naveed Nazir Shah, a professor at GMC told a conference in Srinagar in 2016.
An ecological nightmare
According to official estimates, there are 18 to 20 million female poplar trees in various districts of Kashmir. “…there are various nurseries of this species in the districts of Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag,” read the minutes of a meeting conducted by Kashmir’s Divisional Commissioner, Pandurang Kondbarao Pole on 2 April 2020.
Over the past few years, female poplar trees have been branded as culprits for causing allergies and respiratory tract ailments in the region. They are erroneously called Roosi Phras (or Russian poplar) in the local language despite having no connection to the country. People call the seed cover ‘cotton’ and blame it for all spring-time respiratory ailments.
In 2014, responding to a public interest litigation from a Srinagar resident, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court directed the state government to ban female poplar trees in the state capital. In subsequent years, the High Court asked the government to identify and fell female poplar trees across Kashmir given the ‘health risks’ they pose. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of female poplar trees were cut down, mostly during 2016 and 2017.
The ‘Russian poplar’, first introduced into Kashmir in 1982 as part of a World Bank aided project, has now almost completely replaced the indigenous variety Kashur Phras (the Kashmiri poplar tree), which takes 40 to 50 years to grow fully. The imported species matures in about 15 years making it ideal for commercial growing.
The Russian poplar has become an important low-cost timber option for Kashmiri farmers and generates livelihood for thousands in the region. The wood is used for roofing rafters and making crates to transport valuable horticultural produce like apples, pear and peaches besides its utility in the plywood industry.
1. Zhang, J. et al. Proteomic analysis and candidate allergenic proteins in Populus deltoides CL. “2KEN8” mature pollen. Front. Plant Sci.(2015) doi: 10.3389/fpls.2015.00548
2. Kadocsa, E. et al. Aeropollinologic and allergologic studies for the clarification of poplar tree hay fever. Orvosi Hetilap. 134, 2081-2083 (1993)