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Conserving the Green Jewel of India

Western Ghats contributes 30% of regional biodiversity. More efforts are required to save this forest patch

Mugdha Singh
Publish Date: Sep 22 2016 1:03PM | Updated Date: Sep 22 2016 1:03PM

Conserving the Green Jewel of India

India is home to the iconic tigers, dholes and even lions, as well as many species found nowhere else in the world. This unique wildlife jamboree resides in vast green covers made with native and indigenous flora. 

Western Ghat is one of the most know forest patches and wilderness area in India. It stretches across 1,600 kilometers (990 miles) along India’s western coast from the state of Tamil Nadu at the subcontinent’s southern tip to Maharashtra in the north, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The range is home to thousands of different plants and animals, and is also host to a high level of endemism – meaning that many of species that live there are found nowhere else.
While India is host to hotspot biodiversity areas like the Western Ghats, yet it is also a subcontinent with the world’s second-highest human population, and as India’s 1.3 billion people vie for space, wilderness has often lost out. Such is the case in the Nilgiris District of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Once covered in a mosaic of montage forest and grassland, the Nilgiris was transformed into a land of plantations over the past two centuries.  In the last 200-odd years, the district has lost around 80 percent of its native vegetation, but now efforts are underway to restore the landscape to its indigenous state.
The Centre in year 2016 announced that a new policy is in the offing to conserve the UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Site of the Western Ghats. 
“The Centre will formulate new policies that will conserve the rich biodiversity of the area, at the same time ensuring that the livelihoods of the people residing in this region,” the then Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said.
Pankaj Kopade, a PhD student at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural history (SACON) who has been studying Western Ghats for the past many years said, “The Northern Western Ghats are a highly fragmented forest cover. During my fieldwork I observed many endemic birds, dragonflies and butterflies in this area that are rather unique in one way or other. Most of these species were evergreen or semi evergreen forest dwellers.”
Talking about conservation of these Ghats, Kopade told Policy Pulse, “Developmental activities in Ghats such as developmental projects and highways are in future going to further degrade the forest cover. Therefore, sensitive areas in Western Ghats as recommended by Prof. Madhav Gadgil's Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel should be protected.”
“The endemic dragonflies are forest specialists requiring forested streams with a high canopy cover. It means for conserving these endemic species we need to conserve currently intact forests and freshwater habitats and promote connectivity in forest fragments by conserving and creating corridors,” he added.
“I have recorded, 64 species belonging to 40 genera, spread across 12 families during the survey. The list contains seven new spatial records. Out of these seven species, four species were found in Maharashtra for the first time. The list contains two near-threatened species, Heliogomphus promelas and Blue Ground-Skimmer or Indothemis carnatica,” said Kopade, who was also lead researcher in the survey on bird and odonata (type of insect) survey.
Another expert from the land of Western Ghats shared his opinion with Policy Pulse. SR Sumanth from National Institute of Oceanography said, “Western Ghats are well known for their scenic beauty with lush green ambience and countable abundance of free-living biodiversity right from small insects to big mammals.”
“These vast green forests of Ghats are now replaced by sprawling tea estates, coffee plantations, exotic tree plantations, and by invasive species of grass and small plants. Along with the loss of forest habitat, plants and animals are also disappearing,” he added.
Talking more about the Ghats, Sumath said, “Monsoon is the most eagerly awaited natural phenomenon in the Ghats. It beautifies the surroundings, lowers the atmospheric temperature, soothes the environment and quenches the thirst of the droughty summer. Apart from the direct benefits to humans, monsoons also ensures the sighting of several animals which either undergo summer aestivation or remain dormant and unseen prior to the monsoon in the protected area of the Ghats.”
“Western Ghats (also called Sahyadris ranges) have a vast expanse starting from Maharashtra and extending down southwards till mid Kerala harbouring biodiversity rich areas like Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Matheran, Mahabaleshwar, Netravali wildlife sanctuary, Bhagwan Mahaveer wildlife sanctuary, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, Wayanad National park, Coorg and many more such spots making a wide green stretch along the 4 states in the region,” shared Sumanth.
Sumath further told policy pulse, “It is self-explanatory why this region is being regarded as one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of the world. Moreover, it harbors several endangered species like the purple frog, rufous-breasted laughing thrush, Salim Ali’s fruit bat and Malabar large spotted civet and endemic species such as Nilgiri wood-pigeon, Malabar grey hornbill, short wings and Nilgiri tahr, making the conservation of this region critical and extremely sharp and area specific policies needed to revive the area,” he added.
Amit Patil, resident of Mumbai and researcher in NIO Goa had lot of experiences with wildlife of Western Ghats in different seasons. He conducted independent surveys as well as with those being in the teams of BNHS, SACON, Mumbai University and some other groups working on avian fauna of the region. He also has great interest in other aspects including floral diversity.
“We get to witness the profuse growth of moss, fungi and lichens which are key aspects of an ecosystem. Spiral ginger, Tumbergia species (with beautiful white flowers), Glory lily, Smithia sensitiva (press- me-nots) are some endemic plants of the Western Ghats. The cup-and-saucer tree is also commonly sighted,” said Patel.
Describing the species level, Patel said, “Oriental dwarf kingfisher migrates from south towards the Western Ghats during monsoon and perch themselves in the vicinity of coastal water bodies. Other major birds include lesser whistling ducks, Asian open bill, painted stork, white ibis, pied crested cuckoo (chaatak pakshi) sits on the top most branch of a tall tree and stares at the clouds as it waits for the first rain drop of the monsoon to quench its thirst.”
Environment Policy
The persisting dilemma faced by policymakers is that they find it hard to figure out which side to favor - Development or Conservation. On one hand, we cannot completely escape from development in the region but at the same time, we cannot compromise conservation of wildlife too.  Conservationists are hoping that “reverse the deforestation” initiatives can be achieved by re-establishing native vegetation on degraded land. It could be a long term solution for conservation of Western Ghats, they feel. 
Experts suggests that if industrialization is indeed inevitable in the vicinity of wildlife habitats, then the concerned authorities must ensure various other things such as lessen the pollution levels that affect surrounding wildlife.
The policy for the region should cover all aspects of ‘development’, with proper appraisals and annual research. But we have to admit that this is often unlikely to turn into a reality. Industrial pollution affects wildlife and when the pollution levels are a sure threat to the natural fauna/flora, then the policy must favor ‘conservation’ here.
Prioritization of conservation areas, total land type, and native animal species need to be clearly documented in the Western Ghats, India.
People’s movement
Maharashtra Governor CH Vidyasagar Rao too had said earlier that biodiversity conservation should be a people’s movement. Referring to the unprecedented drought in Marathwada recently, the Governor said conserving water, maintaining clean water bodies, and managing water resources judiciously is critical to sustain the life and livelihood of people and to preserve biodiversity are part of the policies that are long understood, but difficult to implement, said an expert.

A few of species of Western Ghats

Lesser golden flameback, Indian pitta etc can be seen feeding on the insects and bugs during monsoon season.

Mantis, ladybird, tortoise shell beetle, red silk cotton bug, grasshopper and many more insects dominate during the monsoon.

Beautiful and flamboyant butterflies including Orange owlet (flat), Blue marmone etc are commonly seen in here.

Snakes like Rat snake, Green bamboo pit viper, Russels viper, Vine snake, Bronze back etc are still have an habitat.

Leeches, Centipedes, millipedes and Giant wood spiders are seen active during monsoon.