Sand mining in the Kaveri River, Tamil Nadu. Photo: P Jeganathan (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Legume Gone: The Shocking Reasons for a Tree’s Extinction in India

It appears to have been wiped out by pollution, development and illegal mining by “sand mafias.” Will other plants soon follow?

Sand is big business — and a dangerous one.

Around the world illegal sand mining — often run by vicious “sand mafias” — has been linked to black markets, violence and even murder. It’s the shadier side of a multibillion-dollar industry with a voracious appetite for minerals used in everything from construction to electronics to toothpaste.

This criminal activity has already caused massive ecological problemswherever it occurs, and now the sand mafias appear to have contributed to something new: the extinction of a rare tree in coastal India.

According to a paper published in March in the journal Phytotaxa, an exhaustive search along the coasts of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, has failed to find any evidence of a rare legume tree known as Vachellia bolei. Researchers have declared the species is “possibly extinct.”

The paper itself blames “habitat destruction and other anthropogenic factors” for the possible extinction. That’s fairly general, but an email from the research team gets more specific.

“We strongly believe that sand mining, illegal felling of trees and conversion of coastal sand dunes for cultivation might be the major reasons for the possible extinction of Vachellia bolei,” write the authors, K. Sampath Kumar, K. Kathiresan and S. Arumugam.

The researchers conducted more than 100 surveys between 2012 and 2017 looking for Vachellia bolei and other local plants. As they write, it wasn’t always the easiest work. Illegal mining has eliminated many coastal sand dunes, causing severe coastal erosion, and “it is not even possible to survey some of the areas that are under the ‘control’ of these mafias,” they say. (They add that they never felt as though they were in danger, although they were blocked from exploring mining areas by workers who thought they were investigative journalists.)

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