Manipur’s Shirui Lily Faces Extinction. Here’s What Can Be Done To Save It.

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Shirui Lily growing in its native habitat, Shirui Hills in Shirui Village 16 km from Ukhrul District Headquarters in Manipur, India. Picture Courtesy: Priyojik Akoijam

Shirui lily (Lilium Mackliniae Sealy) known as Kashong Timrawon locally, a rare bell-shaped flower with bluish-pink petals showing seven colours under the microscope, is the State flower of Manipur. Enthralling hundreds of thousands of tourists who throng to its native habitat, the Shirui Hills located in Shirui Village in Ukhrul district, during its peak season between May 15 to June 5 every year. English Botanist Dr. Frank Kingdon Ward first discovered the flower in 1946 and named it after his wife Jean Macklin.

What remains noteworthy is the belief that this bulbous plant can only be grown in Shirui Hills and attempts to plant it elsewhere by the Britishers never succeeded.

According to the legends of the Tangkhul Naga community inhabiting the village, a princess once lived on the hill with her lover Shirui and after her death, she still continues to live in Shirui Hill, waiting for her lover to return. The Shirui Lily comes from the soil where the princess was supposedly buried. Several other mythologies around Shirui Lily have been passed down over generations, tales told by the indigenous people of Ukhrul with much love and awe for the flower.

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The pride of Manipur now faces a crisis of possible extinction in the future and has been categorised as an ‘endangered species’, where the plant’s genetic resources are getting eroded over time.

The plant, which was reported to be 5 feet tall in 1948 has exhibited progressive decrease in height over the years, where its height dropped to 1-3 ft in 2011 (Meitei,2011) to decrease further to an average plant height of 0.262– 0.328 ft only and a maximum height of 0.984 ft as per a field study by scientists in December 2015.

Even its area of distribution has been altered significantly over the years where the plant that used to grow abundantly from the first peak onwards was found growing only from the third peak onwards in 2011. Since 2015 Shirui Lily can be found growing only in the seventh peak of the Shirui Hills.

What Is Causing The Destruction And Decline?

Scientists have been engaged in research with an aim to identify the factors which endanger the survival and multiplication of Shirui Lily and develop scientific interventions to regenerate and conserve the Shirui Lily. The research has established the cause of the decline of Shirui Lily to be climate change, environmental degradation, irresponsible tourists, and over-exploitation, and incorrect conservation approaches like forest fire coupled with the invasion of the habitat of Shirui Lily by a dwarf bamboo species ‘Machun’.

Dr. Tabitha Langhu from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Manipur Centre in Imphal pointed out that Shirui Lily grows best in the peak of the Shirui Hills as it requires cold climate and high velocity of wind but due to climate change as a global phenomenon, the place is much warmer now. Climate plays an important role in the survival and multiplication of the plant.

Even the approach employed by the local community to conserve the Shirui Lily, through lighting forest fires based on their belief that it will serve to increase the humus of the soil, reduce the growth of invasive species in the habitat, and help the Shirui Lily to flourish is also an incorrect and harmful practice. These forest fires burn down the seeds and the fragile seedlings thereby decreasing the population and retarding the growth of the plant bearing the Lily, besides raising the temperature of the plant habitat.

The scientists who have spent several years conducting research on the Shirui Lily explain how tourists stamp on the plant while walking in the habitat, pluck the flowers or even uproot them, which ultimately reduces the regeneration of the plant species, besides littering the ecosystem with plastic bottles, disposable cups and plates and polluting the environment (Tabitha Langhu, Nandeibam Samarjit Singh and Huidrom Sunitibala Devi. 2016, ‘Effect of Various Factors Which Endanger The Survival And Multiplication of Lilium Mackliniae Sealy, The State Flower of Manipur.’ Int J Recent Sci Res. 7(2), pp.8725-8727).

With Thangjam Surchandra Singh and Dr. Tabitha Langhu at ICAR, Manipur Centre, Imphal

Efforts To Save The Shirui Lili From Extinction 

The scientists advocate for the Shirui Lily to be left as it is in nature, and assured us that nature is capable of healing it without human interruptions caused by a forest fire and unguided tourists.

Scientists Manas Ranjan Sahoo, Mayengbam Premi Devi, Madhumita Dasgupta, Narendra Prakash, and Shishom Vanao Ngachan from ICAR Research Complex for the North Eastern Region, Manipur Center in Imphal have developed an efficient protocol for the micropropagation of Shirui Lily. Their research can address the challenges of the Shirui Lily’s survivability in its natural habitat. An efficient protocol for in vitro regeneration and conservation of Shirui lily would be a lab-to-lab approach to save the rare endangered Asiatic lily species. Such conservation approaches could be helpful to save Shirui Lily from extinction in a sustainable way.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giving priority to research can go a long way to conserve the Shirui Lily because that alone can provide evidence on the magnitude of the crisis, the area of intervention, and the tools of intervention, failing which, the species has a high likelihood of vanishing from its natural habitat. Currently, research is limited to just academic pursuits in Manipur without application either by the government or any development agency.

Scientists have recommended a list of actions that can be taken by the government, both Central and State, like establishing a weather forecast station in Ukhrul that can monitor the rise of temperature and assist the research on Shirui Lily’s survival and multiplication. Also, a centre for Tissue Culture has been recommended which can overcome the barriers experienced by research personnel in obtaining plant specimens from the habitat and loss of specimen due to logistics.

Collaboration between central government research institutions, Manipur University, the line departments within Manipur State Government like Forest, Environment, Agriculture, Horticulture, Rural Development, Tourism, and District Administration, civil society, media and the community in Ukhrul can go a long way in raising awareness on protection of Shirui Lily and implementation of conservation initiatives.

Image Credit: Lamdamba Oinam

The Shirui Lily Festival is organised by the Department of Tourism and Manipur State Government every year since 2017 to spread awareness about the flower. It draws thousands of tourists from within the state and other parts of India, as well as other countries. Live music and Shirock, the annual international rock festival of Manipur, cultural shows, traditional dances, folk songs, beauty pageant, exhibits, indigenous games, and sports competitions like the Shirui Lily Mountain Bike Downhill Race Championship, will mark the four-day-long festival from October 16 to 19, 2019.

Voices From The Community 

The community especially the youth and elders are doing what they can to conserve Shirui Lily but they lack scientific and accurate know-how. Ngachan Luirei, the Convenor of Local Organising Committee, from Shirui Village, in a discussion over the progress in the village owing to recognition and importance attributed to Shirui Lily and celebration of the Shirui Lily Festival, informed that the government was investing in infrastructure in the village that would enhance the festival celebration and tourism considerably.

He added, “There is a danger of only making homestays, guest houses, beautiful venues and facilities for use either during the festival or for tourists coming to Ukhrul at other times of the year without equal importance given to protect Shirui Lily. Imagine, what will tourists see if the Shirui Lily becomes extinct one day?”

With Khavangpam Wungsek, village headman of Shirui Village (black jacket) and Ngachan Luirei, Convenor of Local Organising Committee (brown jacket)

Khavangpam Wungsek, the village headman of Shirui Village shared what the Shirui Lily means to the indigenous people of Ukhrul. “Shirui Lily is the identity of the people of Ukhrul. People from around the world are getting connected to us only because of Shirui Lily. Even the support that we are receiving from the government and foreigners is directed to Ukhrul because of Shirui Lily,” he said

The village headman pointed out how for many tourists, taking a selfie with Shirui Lily has become more important than ensuring they do not cause destruction to the plant or the flower.

Just when the global spotlight is on mitigation of climate change, focusing on the conservation of Shirui Lily will include the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 13 on Climate Action and Sustainable Development Goal 15 on Life on Land, which are global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 for the year 2030.

At the country level, NITI Ayog was established by the Government of India to attain the SDGs. The Manipur State government may develop its annual budget focused on the attainment of SDG 13 and 15 with a three-year action plan and a seven-year strategic plan to protect the endangered Shirui Lily.

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The writer is a rural reporter for print and radio.

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