- Dr. Sarika Kulkarni

   Chief Executive; Raah Foundation

Western Ghats: India's Natural Treasure

Western Ghats: A Lifescape

India houses a unique natural treasure, the Western Ghats, which are ancient mountains that play an essential role in shaping the country's ecological diversity and cultural heritage. Stretching over a considerable expanse of approximately 160,000 square kilometers, the Western Ghats form a significant part of the mountainous terrain in India. This mountain range is a testament to the country's geological richness, spanning several states and showcasing an unparalleled bounty of biodiversity.

Renowned as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats boasts an astonishing array of flora and fauna. Its lush forests and vibrant ecosystems harbor various life forms, contributing immensely to the nation's ecological wealth. Classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Western Ghats are home to numerous species classified under varying conservation statuses. From the critically endangered lion-tailed macaque to the vulnerable Malabar large-spotted civet, these mountains shelter a rich tapestry of wildlife, with many species facing varying degrees of threat.

Beyond its ecological significance, the Western Ghats hold historical and cultural significance. Indigenous communities have resided in these hills for centuries, nurturing a symbiotic relationship with nature and contributing traditional knowledge to biodiversity conservation.

However, these pristine mountains face an array of modern-day challenges. Urbanization, deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and unsustainable agricultural practices pose severe threats to the delicate balance of this biodiversity hotspot. The encroachment of human activities endangers the wildlife and the indigenous communities dependent on these ecosystems.

The Living World

The Western Ghats, recognized as a biodiversity hotspot, hosts a rich array of flora and fauna, including numerous species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) under the Red List Data of Rare, Endangered & Threatened Species (RET). This designation categorizes species based on their conservation status, highlighting those facing endangerment.

Numerous faunal species residing in the Western Ghats have been classified under different threat levels by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some of the significant species under threat are:

  1. Lion-Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus): This primate species is unique to the Western Ghats and is classified as critically endangered due to habitat loss and fragmentation.
  2. Malabar Large-Spotted Civet (Viverra civettina): Another notable species, the Malabar large-spotted civet, is listed as vulnerable due to the degradation of its habitat and hunting.
  3. Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius): This mountain ungulate is endemic to the Nilgiri Hills and is classified as vulnerable due to habitat loss and poaching.
  4. Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus): The Malabar Pied Hornbill is a bird species found in the forests of the Western Ghats and is vulnerable due to deforestation and hunting.
  5. Purple Frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis): This peculiar amphibian species is endangered due to habitat destruction and restricted distribution.
  6. Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica): The Giant Squirrel is an arboreal mammal dwelling in the canopy of Western Ghats forests and is vulnerable due to habitat fragmentation and hunting.
  7. Indian Purple Frog (Nasikabatrachus bhupathi): Another unique amphibian species in the Western Ghats is critically endangered due to habitat loss.

The Western Ghats is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot that harbors an exceptional variety of plant species, many of which are listed under the Red List Data of Rare, Endangered & Threatened Species (RET) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Due to habitat loss, deforestation, climate change, and human activities, several plants in the Western Ghats face varying degrees of threat. Here are a few noteworthy RET plant species found in the Western Ghats:

  1. Tessellated Vanda (Vanda tessellata): This orchid species is considered vulnerable due to habitat degradation and collection for horticultural trade.
  2. Travancore Rose Chestnut (Syzygium travancoricum): Deforestation and land-use changes have caused the endangered status of this tree species, which is endemic to the Western Ghats.
  3. Indian Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum malabatrum): The Indian Camphor Tree is classified as vulnerable due to threats from habitat degradation and overexploitation for its valuable timber and essential oils.
  4. Ebony Tree (Diospyros ebenum): The Ebony Tree is listed as an endangered species due to the extensive logging of its valuable timber and the loss of its habitat.
  5. Mountain Daffodil (Dipcadi montanum): This plant species is vulnerable due to habitat loss from agriculture and human activity.
  6. Western Ghats Palm (Rhopaloblaste augusta): This palm species is categorized as vulnerable due to the destruction of its habitat and overharvesting.
  7. Fantastic Ceropegia (Ceropegia fantastica): This flowering plant is classified as vulnerable due to loss of habitat and collection for horticulture.

The Western Ghats houses a diverse range of flora and fauna, including the abovementioned species. However, the survival of these species is at risk due to various factors such as habitat loss, deforestation, climate change, and human activities. To ensure the preservation of biodiversity in the Western Ghats, engaging in conservation efforts, habitat preservation and restoration, sustainable land management practices, and community engagement is essential. These measures can help safeguard the future of these remarkable species.

How much is its spread?

The Western Ghats are a UNESCO World Heritage Site located along the western coast of India. They cover multiple states and a diverse range of ecosystems. The states that make up the Western Ghats are Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry.

In Maharashtra, the Western Ghats extend through parts of the state, including the Sahyadri Range and hill stations like Mahabaleshwar. Portions of the Western Ghats also run through Goa, offering rich biodiversity and verdant landscapes. Significant stretches of the Western Ghats are present in Karnataka, including the Nilgiri Hills, Kodagu, and various wildlife sanctuaries. In Kerala, most Western Ghats cover areas like Wayanad, Munnar, and Periyar National Park. In Tamil Nadu, the Western Ghats extend into the Nilgiris and Anaimalai Hills, which are known for their biodiversity. A smaller portion of the Western Ghats also touches the union territory of Puducherry.

These states collectively host a plethora of ecosystems, diverse flora and fauna, and numerous endemic species, contributing significantly to India's biodiversity. The Western Ghats serve as a critical watershed and habitat for various species, making it a crucial ecological region that warrants conservation and protection efforts.

Get Up and Act! Because ….

The Western Ghats, a natural wonder of India, is facing significant threats to its biodiversity due to the degradation and loss of its mountain ecosystems. There are several reasons for this alarming trend:

  1. Deforestation and Habitat Loss: Rampant deforestation caused by human activities is one of the primary threats to the Western Ghats. They are converting forests for agriculture, urbanization, infrastructure development, and industrial expansion, resulting in the loss of essential habitats for diverse flora and fauna.
  2. Fragmentation and Habitat Degradation: The fragmentation of habitats due to roads, dams, and human settlements disrupts the ecological connectivity within the Western Ghats. These fragmented habitats limit species movement, leading to genetic isolation and reducing biodiversity resilience.
  3. Unsustainable Agricultural Practices: Unsustainable farming practices like monoculture and slash-and-burn cultivation lead to soil erosion, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity hotspots in the Western Ghats.
  4. Climate Change Impacts: The Western Ghats are not immune to the effects of climate change. Altered weather patterns, erratic rainfall, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events pose significant challenges to delicate ecosystems, impacting species distribution, phenology, and overall ecosystem health.
  5. Invasive Species and Pollution: Introducing invasive alien species and pollutants into the Western Ghats disrupts the native ecosystems, threatening indigenous flora and fauna and altering the ecological balance.
  6. Overexploitation and Poaching: Illegal logging, overharvesting of forest resources, and wildlife poaching further exacerbate biodiversity loss in the Western Ghats, targeting endangered species for commercial gains.

The Western Ghats face various threats to their ecosystems, which put many species at risk of extinction and compromise the region's ecological resilience. Urgent and concerted efforts are necessary to mitigate these threats and maintain the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the Western Ghats. Sustainable land-use practices, conservation strategies, community engagement, and strict enforcement of environmental regulations are crucial to safeguard this natural heritage for current and future generations.

In summary, the Western Ghats symbolize nature's beauty and represent India's rich biodiversity. Preserving and protecting this natural heritage is not just a choice but a responsibility that requires everyone's joint efforts to ensure the continued existence of this ecological wonder. As keepers of these priceless mountains, we must cherish, protect, and support the Western Ghats to benefit present and future generations.

The author of this article is Mr Rishikesh Patil, VP - Ecological Restoration at Raah Foundation