The heartbreaking story of the desert grass you should care about

Written by Bua Kumar, for CNN

To the casual observer, ornamental grasses may look like a simple landscape shrub but, if placed in their right place, they can create the illusion of 3D complexity.

This image of one of the world’s largest non-native grass species, known as the lion grass or lion dentatum, has raised the profile of this shade of green, and led to a good-natured, public debate over its role in the environment.

This feature is in partnership with the website Wastelands , where sometimes you can’t find better highlights than these.

Richard Atkeson was born on a nature reserve in Oklahoma in 1948. After graduating with a degree in forestry and agriculture, he went on to become a naturalist in the Fish and Wildlife Service and a senior hydrologist with the Geological Survey of Canada.

Atkeson is now a Senior Scientist and Field Fellow at the Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (BCF) and brings a visionary, ecologically-conscious approach to everything he does, and at BCF, he works to foster awareness around thorny issues of land use, biodiversity and restoration.

His talks are regular and energetic events, attracting audiences from around the world.

One of Atkeson’s most prolific travels is one he takes in search of grasses in Middle Eastern deserts, such as the Shaikh Zayed Desert in Abu Dhabi.

“During the course of my travels, I was very struck by the variety of grasses in the desert and the exquisite attention paid to their intricacies,” Atkeson says.

Courtesy Biodiversity Conservation Foundation

“Sometimes these grasses get driven to extinction by human activity: with clear cuts, for example, or with landfills or grazing for cattle.

“One of the most significant opportunities is to encourage and train local people, so they can become viable alternatives to invasive species like the lion grass.”

The BCF has documented the history of lion grass in America’s northeast, as well as found it in Dazhan, Turkey, Baghdad, Hanoi, East Timor, South Sudan, and Mali.

In the Sahara, lion grass replaces eucalyptus trees, on the Kenyan coast, it is used to stabilize the dunes.

In Indonesia, the grass spreads a colony in the driest places, where it feeds the seedlings of pandas and other plants.

“Many species appear to be totally unaffected by invasive species,” Atkeson said.

“In some instances, the presence of an invasive species often initiates an exodus of host species.”

There is a growing human footprint on the land.

“On land cleared for agriculture, humans may inadvertently clear habitats for introduced grasses and trees and this may provide perfect conditions for the reproduction of pests, like the sand flea, which we have all become accustomed to,” Atkeson said.

According to Hebbage Jones, BNF Regional Manager for East Africa, just the mention of the word “urbanization” generates debate between urban and rural people.

“The Southern Province of Uganda is now mainly rural. However, we’ve seen that current urban growth is unsustainable and driving prices of food up, pushing farmers out of their lands. There’s a big struggle between existing farmers and urban people who are motivated to grow crops with toxic chemicals.”

Atkeson hopes the grass grows, too.

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