Posts Tagged 'Ecosystems'

Indian Rainforests

An article by Mohan Pai

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The Indian Rainforests


Rainforests – the Lungs of the Planet Earth
Tropical rainforests are vital to the global ecosystem and human existence. They are a world like no other and are unparalleled in terms of their biological diversity. Tropical rainforests are a natural reservoir of genetic diversity which offers a rich source of medicinal plants, high-yield foods, and a myriad of other useful forest products. They are an important habitat for migratory animals and sustain as much as 50 percent of the species on Earth, as well as a number of diverse and unique indigenous cultures. Tropical rainforests play an elemental role in regulating global weather in addition to maintaining regular rainfall, while buffering against floods, droughts, and erosion. They store vast quantities of carbon, while producing a significant amount of the world’s oxygen. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earths surface and even though they now only cover 6% of the earth, they are home to almost half of the worlds population of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, bird life and plant life.
Tropical rainforests are located in a band around the equator (Zero degrees latitude) in the area between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5° North latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° South latitude).This 3,000 mile (4800 kilometres) wide band is known as the ‘tropics’.

The equator is a line that circles the centre of our global world and is situated halfway between the north and south poles. Temperatures at the equator are high. These high temperatures cause accelerated evaporation of water, which results in frequent rain in rainforests in the tropics.

World Rainforests
 
Tropical rainforests are found between latitudes 10° N and 10° S. This includes the Amazon Basin of South America, the Zaire Basin of Africa and the islands and peninsulas of South-east Asia.In Southeast Asia, the tropical rainforests are found in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Burma and Papua New Guinea. The rainforests found in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are in small patches and strips, while on the other hand, Indonesia contains one-tenth of the world’s rainforest and 40% of all Asian rainforests! However sadly, as Indonesia is progressing further into modernisation, it is losing its rainforests to commercial logging and human settlements. Malaysia too has lost about two third of its lowland forest to plantations. On a brighter side, Papua New Guinea still has areas of rainforest yet to be disturbed, due to its mountainous terrain. Papua New Guinea is home to many amazing animals, one being the largest butterfly in the world; the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing. Its wing span can reach up to 10 inches wide!
Although they cover less than 2 percent of Earth’s surface, they house an estimated 50 percent of all life on the planet. The immense numbers of creatures that inhabit the tropical rainforests are so great—an estimated 50 million species— they are almost incomprehensible. The sheer range of numbers alone suggests the limited extent of our knowledge of these forests. For example, whereas temperate forests are often dominated by a half dozen tree species or fewer that make up 90 percent of the trees in the forest, a tropical rainforest may have more than 480 tree species in a single hectare (2.5 acres). A single bush in the Amazon may have more species of ants than the entire British Isles. This diversity of rainforests is not a haphazard event, but is the result of a series of unique circumstances.
Layers
A tropical rainforest is typically divided into four main layers, each with different plants and animals adapted for life in that particular area: the emergent, canopy, understory, and forest floor layers.

Emergent layer
The emergent layer contains a small number of very large trees called emergents, which grow above the general canopy, reaching heights of 45-55 m, although on occasion a few species will grow to 70-80 m tall. They need to be able to withstand the hot temperatures and strong winds in some areas. Eagles, butterflies, bats, and certain monkeys inhabit this layer.

Diagram: Coutesy Animal Corner
 

Canopy layer
The canopy layer contains the majority of the largest trees, typically 30-45 m tall. The densest areas of biodiversity are found in the forest canopy, a more or less continuous cover of foliage formed by adjacent treetops. The canopy, by some estimates, is home to 50 percent of all plant species, suggesting that perhaps half of all life on Earth could be found there. Epiphytic plants attach to trunks and branches, and obtain water and minerals from rain and debris that collects on the supporting plants. The fauna is similar to that found in the emergent layer, but more diverse. A quarter of all insect species are believed to exist in the rainforest canopy. Scientists have long suspected the richness of the canopy as a habitat, but have only recently developed practical methods of exploring it. As long ago as 1917, naturalist William Beebe declared that “another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles.” True exploration of this habitat only began in the 1980s, when scientists developed methods to reach the canopy, such as firing ropes into the trees using crossbows. Exploration of the canopy is still in its infancy, but other methods include the use of balloons and airships to float above the highest branches and the building of cranes and walkways planted on the forest floor. The science of accessing tropical forest canopy using airships, or similar aerial platforms, is called dendronautics.

Understory layer
The understory layer lies between the canopy and the forest floor. The understory (or understorey) is home to a number of birds, snakes, and lizards, as well as predators such as jaguars, boa constrictors, and leopards. The leaves are much larger at this level. Insect life is also abundant. Many seedlings that will grow to the canopy level are present in the understory. Only about 5 percent of the sunlight shining on the rainforest reaches the understory. This layer can also be called a shrub layer, although the shrub layer may also be considered a separate layer.

Forest floor
The forest floor, the bottom-most layer, receives only 2 percent of sunlight. Only plants adapted to low light can grow in this region. Away from riverbanks, swamps, and clearings
where dense undergrowth is found, the forest floor is relatively clear of vegetation because of the low sunlight penetration. It also contains decaying plant and animal matter, which disappears quickly due to the warm, humid conditions promoting rapid decay. Many forms of fungi grow here which help decay the animal and plant waste. It takes up to 20 minutes for rain to actually touch the ground from the trees. Forest floor – Mahadayi Valley, Karnataka.
Because of the ample solar energy, tropical rainforests are usually warm year round with temperatures from about 72-93F (22-34C), although forests at higher elevations, especially cloud forests, may be significantly cooler. The temperature may fluctuate during the year, but in some equatorial forests the average may vary as little as 0.5F (0.3C) throughout the year. Temperatures are generally moderated by cloud cover and high humidity.
 
PRECIPITATION

An important characteristic of rainforests is apparent in their name. Rainforests lie in the intertropical convergence zone where intense solar energy produces a convection zone of rising air that loses its moisture through frequent rainstorms. Rainforests are subject to heavy rainfall, at least 80 inches (2,000 mm), and in some areas over 430 inches (10,920 mm) of rain each year. In equatorial regions, rainfall may be year round without apparent “wet” or “dry” seasons, although many forests do have seasonal rains. Even in seasonal forests, the period between rains is usually not long enough for the leaf litter to dry out completely. During the parts of the year when less rain falls, the constant cloud cover is enough to keep the air moist and prevent plants from drying out. Some neotropical rainforests rarely go a month during the year without at least 6″ of rain. The stable climate, with evenly spread rainfall and warmth, allows most rainforest trees to be evergreen—keeping their leaves all year and never dropping all their leaves in any one season. Forests further from the equator, like those of India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Central America, where rainy seasons are more pronounced, can only be considered “semi-evergreen” since some species of trees may shed all of their leaves at the beginning of the dry season. Annual rainfall is spread evenly enough to allow heavy growth of broad-leafed evergreen trees, or at least semi-evergreen trees. The moisture of the rainforest from rainfall, constant cloud cover, and transpiration (water loss through leaves), creates intense local humidity. Each canopy tree transpires some 200 gallons (760 liters) of water annually, translating to roughly 20,000 gallons (76,000 L) of water transpired into the atmosphere for every acre of canopy trees. Large rainforests (and their humidity) contribute to the formation of rain clouds, and generate as much as 75 percent of their own rain.
The Amazon rainforest is responsible for creating as much as 50 percent of its own precipitation. Deforestation and climate change may be affecting the water cycle in tropical rainforests. Since the mid-1990s, rainforests around the world have experienced periods of severe drought, including southeast Asia in 1997 and 2005 and the Amazon in 2005. Dry conditions, combined with degradation from logging and agricultural conversion, make forests more vulnerable to wildfire.

Rainforests Waters
Tropical rainforests have some of the largest rivers in the world, like the Amazon, Madeira, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Negro, Orinoco, and Zaire (Congo), because of the tremendous amount of precipitation their watersheds receive. These mega-rivers are fed by countless smaller tributaries, streams, and creeks. For example, the Amazon alone has some 1,100 tributaries, 17 of which are over 1,000 miles long. Although large tropical rivers are fairly uniform in appearance and water composition, their tributaries vary greatly. Many tropical rivers and streams have extreme high and low water levels that occur at different parts of the year. In addition to rivers, rainforests have conventional, free-standing lakes and so-called oxbow lakes, formed when a river changes course. These lakes are home to species adapted to the quiet, stagnant conditions. Tropical waters, whether they be giant rivers, streams, or oxbow lakes, are almost as rich in animal species as the rainforests that surround them. But they, too, are increasingly threatened by human activities, including pollution, siltation resulting from deforestation, hydroelectric projects, and over-harvesting of resident species.

Forest – the mother of rivers

There is an umbilical connection between healthy forests and water regimes. Forests are nurseries and cisterns for our life giving rivers. Forest areas give birth to all the major and minor rivers. Most of the rivers spring from some unknown forests. Because of the slope the rain water cannot stay to soak into the earth, it flows downhill rapidly taking some of the earth with it This run-off on the hillsides will only be halted, and water will percolate into the earth where there is a good tree cover. In fact a forest “traps” rainwater and channels it into underground streams.
 
World’s Largest Pharmacy

Medicinal plants and herbs which are in great demand by Pharmaceutical MNCs e.g. Mappia foetida used for the treatment of ovarian colon cancers. The tree is the richest source of Camptothetician (CPT) used in the treatment of these cancers.

Tropical rainforests are called “the world’s largest pharmacy” because of the large amount of natural medicines discovered in rainforests that are derived from rainforest plants. For example, rain forests contain the basic ingredients of hormonal contraception methods, cocaine, stimulants, and tranquilizing drugs. Curare (a paralyzing drug) and quinine (a malaria cure) are also found there.
CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

Rainforests around the world still continue to fall. Does it really make a difference? Why should anyone care if some plants, animals, mushrooms, and microorganisms perish? Rainforests are often hot and humid, difficult to reach, insect-ridden, and have elusive wildlife.
Actually the concern should not be about losing a few plants and animals; mankind stands to lose much more. By destroying the tropical forests, we risk our own quality of life, gamble with the stability of climate and local weather, threaten the existence of other species, and undermine the valuable services provided by biological diversity. While in most areas environmental degradation has yet to reach a crisis level where entire systems are collapsing, it is important to examine some of the effects of existing environmental impoverishment and to forecast some of the potential repercussions of forest loss. Continuing loss of natural systems could make human activities increasingly vulnerable to ecological surprises in the future. The most immediate impact of deforestation occurs at the local level with the loss of ecological services provided by tropical rainforests and related ecosystems. Such habitats afford humans valuable services such as erosion prevention, flood control, water treatment, fisheries protection, and pollination—functions that are particularly important to the world’s poorest people, who rely on natural resources for their everyday survival. Forest loss also reduces the availability of renewable resources like timber, medicinal plants, nuts and fruit, and game. Over the longer term, deforestation of tropical rainforests can have a broader impact, affecting global climate and biodiversity. These changes are more difficult to observe and forecast from local effects, since they take place over a longer time scale and can be difficult to measure.
Deforestation and the Global Carbon Cycle
Carbon dioxide ( CO2) is the major gas involved in the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming. All the things that produce CO2 (like car burning gas) and the things that consume Co2 (growing plants) are involved in the “global carbon cycle”. Tropical forests hold an immense amount of carbon, which joins with oxygen to form CO2. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide. Each acre of tropical forest stores about 180 metric tons of carbon.
Deforestation increases the amount of CO2 and other trace gases in the atmosphere. When a forest is cut and replaced by cropland and pastures, the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks (wood is about 50% carbon) joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere as Co2.The loss of forests has a great effect on the global carbon cycle. From 1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide (including that in the United States) released 122 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, with the current rate being 1.6 billion metric tons per year. In comparison all the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) burned during a year release about 6 billion tons per year.Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect, and may raise global temperature. The role of fossil fuels burned by cars and industry is well known, but tropical deforestation releases about 25% of the amount released by fossil fuel burning. Tropical deforestation, therefore, contributes a significant part of the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
Today tropical rainforests are disappearing from the face of the globe. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) per day. World rainforest cover now stands at around 2.5 million square miles (6 million square kilometers), an area about the size of the contiguous 48 United States or Australia and representing around 5 percent of the world’s land surface. Much of this remaining area has been impacted by human activities and no longer retains its full original biodiversity.
 
The Rainforests of India
The rainforests in India are the centres of species richness and endemism and due to this has the status of being one of the 12 mega-biodiversity countries in the world. Even the two hotspots in India, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas, owe their status due to the presence of rainforests therein. These forests form very important catchments areas for major river systems, maintain soil and water fertility not only in the immediate vicinity but also hundreds of kilometers away, harbours rich indigenous culture with long traditions of sustainable use of traditional knowledge systems especially on medicines and wild relatives of cultivate crops. It is to these rainforests that more than 80% of the endemic flora and fauna of India are confined. Being the most complex ecosystem, the rain forests are living laboratories in which complex ecological, biological and evolutionary processes that have shaped the Earth.

Bamboo brakes, Muthodi, Karnataka

 
Tropical forest cover in India has been reduced to two major areas: the coastal hills of the Western Ghats (about 55,000 square miles or 135,000 sq. km) and 14,000 square miles (34,500 sq. km) in Northeastern India. Very little of India’s forest cover is considered pristine. 22.8% —or about 67,701,000 hectares—of India is forested. Change in Forest Cover: Between 1990 and 2000, India gained an average of 361,500 hectares of forest per year. The amounts to an average annual reforestation rate of 0.57%. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change decreased by 92.3% to 0.04% per annum. In total, between 1990 and 2005, India gained 5.9% of its forest cover, or around 3,762,000 hectares. Measuring the total rate of habitat conversion (defined as change in forest area plus change in woodland area minus net plantation expansion) for the 1990-2005 interval, India gained 1.0% of its forest and woodland habitat.Biodiversity and Protected Areas: India has some 2356 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 18.4% are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 10.8% are threatened. India is home to at least 18664 species of vascular plants, of which 26.8% are endemic. 4.9% of India is protected under IUCN categories I-V.

Rainforests of the Western Ghats
The Western Ghats hill range in India contains spectacular landscapes and an incredible array of wild species, many found nowhere else in the world. One among the world’s 34 most biologically diverse “hotspots”, the region has representation of a wide variety of natural ecosystems from grasslands and dry forests to rainforests, rivers, and streams, threatened by a multitude of human activities such as industrialisation, agriculture, grazing, hunting, deforestation, fragmentation, and degradation. Today, rainforests in the Western Ghats occur largely as fragments within a landscape matrix dominated by commercial plantations of tea, coffee, and other cash crops. With an annual deforestation rate of 1.2%, the southern Western Ghats is losing about 500 square kilometres of forest every year. NCF’s programme focuses on human impacts on wild species and habitats, biological surveys, human-wildlife conflict research and mitigation, and restoration to turn the tide of destruction towards conservation.

Forests of the western slopes of the Western Ghats, Konkan

The northern portion of the range is generally drier than the southern portion, and at lower elevations makes up the North Western Ghats moist deciduous forests ecoregion, with mostly deciduous forests made up predominantly of teak. Above 1,000 meters elevation are the cooler and wetter North Western Ghats montane rain forests, whose evergreen forests are characterized by trees of family Lauraceae.The evergreen Wayanad forests of Kerala mark the transition zone between the northern and southern ecoregions of the Western Ghats. The southern ecoregions are generally wetter and more species-rich. At lower elevations are the South Western Ghats moist deciduous forests, with Cullenia the characteristic tree genus, accompanied by teak, dipterocarps, and other trees. The moist forests transition to the drier South Deccan Plateau dry deciduous forests, which lie in its rain shadow to the east.
 

Clear felling, Mahadayi Valley, Karnataka

 
Above 1,000 meters are the South Western Ghats montane rain forests, also cooler and wetter than the surrounding lowland forests, and dominated by evergreen trees, although some montane grasslands and stunted forests can be found at the highest elevations. The South Western Ghats montane rain forests are the most species-rich ecoregion in peninsular India; eighty percent of the flowering plant species of the entire Western Ghats range are found in this ecoregion.

Tropical Montane – Bedthi River Valley, Karnataka

The animal life of the Indian peninsular region is characterised by the absence of many of the Indo-Malay species which are so abundant in the hill forests of the Himalayas. It is the home of the true Indian fauna of which the spotted deer, the nilgai, the blackbuck, the four-horned antelope, and the sloth bear are typical representatives. They are found no where else. Other species like the gaur, the sambar and the muntjac (barking deer) occur both in India and Malay countries. The Western Ghats, in sharp contrast to the adjoining dry zone of the Deccan present a region of great humidity and heavy rainfall. The forests covering the western slopes are at times very dense and composed of lofty trees, festooned with perennial creepers. Bamboos form a luxuriant undergrowth. In parts of the range the forests are more open and the banks of clear streams running through them are covered with spice and betel groves.
The Nilgiris, an offshoot of the Western Ghats, rise precipitously to form extensive grassy downs and tablelands seamed with densely forested gorges or Sholas. They are composed of evergreen trees with dense undergrowth.

1. Malabar Giant Squirrel 2. Lion tailed Macaque

 
Among the species limited to these forests are the Nilgiri langur, the Lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri brown mongoose and the striped necked mongoose, the Malabar civet, and the spiny mouse. In the higher levels of the Nilgiris and the Anaimalais are found such characteristically Himalayan animals as the tahr, the pine marten and the European otter.
 

Endemic species of the Western Ghats

One hundred and twenty species of mammals are known from the Western Ghats of which fourteen species are endemic (found only in that area).
 
The mammalian fauna of the Western Ghats is dominated by insectivores (11 species), bats (41 species) and rodents (27 species including porcupine). Few studies have, however, paid attention to the community structure and organisation of these small mammals in the Western Ghats, although there have been attempts to review our understanding of the status and ecology of smaller cats and lesser carnivores.
 
Rainforests of the Northeast India
 
The Northeast India lying between 22-30 degree N latitude and 89-97 degree E longitude, and sprawling over 2,62,379 sq.km., Northeast India represents the transition zone between the Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese biogeographic regions and a meeting place of the Himalayan Mountains and Peninsular India. It was the part of the northward migrating ‘Deccan Peninsula’ that first touched the Asian landmass after the break up of Gondwanaland in the early Tertiary Period. Northeast India is thus the geographical ‘gateway’ for much of India’s flora and fauna, and as a consequence, the region is one of the richest in biological values. It is in this lowland-highland transition zone that the highest diversity of biomes or ecological communities can be found, and species diversities within these communities are also extremely high.
 
Northeast India is blessed with a wide range of physiography and ecoclimatic conditions. The State of Assam has extensive flood plains, while Khangchendzonga in Sikkim stands 8586 m. tall. Cherrapunjee in the State of Meghalaya holds the record for the highest rainfall in a single month (9,300 mm) as well as the most in a year (26,461 mm) in India, while the nearby Mawsynram has the world’s highest average rainfall (11,873 mm). The forests in the region are extremely diverse in structure and composition and combine tropical and temperate forest types, alpine meadows and cold deserts. There are regions, for example, in the State of Sikkim, where the faunal assemblages also change rapidly from tropical to subtropical, temperate, alpine and finally to cold desert forms.
 
After the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Western Ghats, Northeast India forms the main region of tropical forests in India, especially the species-rich tropical rain forests. The tropical semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forests in the lowlands of this region extend south and west into the subcontinent, and east into Southern China and Southeast Asia. The subtropical forests of the region follow the foothills of the Himalaya to the west; also extend into Southeast China in the east. Himalayan temperate and subalpine zone forests extend from northern Pakistan and adjacent Afghanistan through Northeast India to Southwest China. Each of the eight States of the region, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura, boast of several endemics in flora as well as fauna. This region represents an important part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot.
 
1. Dooars forests, North Bengal 2. Golden Langur
 
The primary vegetation in extensive areas of the Northeast India has been disturbed and modified and in some places destroyed by seismic activities, frequent landslides and resultant soil erosion. While these natural causes have contributed only marginally to the change in vegetation type, it is the activity of Man that has led to the irreversible transformation in the landscapes and has resulted in colossal loss of biodiversity in the entire region. Human influences have pushed many species to the brink of extinction and have caused havoc to natural fragile ecosystems. Such devastations to natural ecosystems are witnessed almost everywhere in the region and is a cause of great concern.

 
1. Slow Loris 2. Reticulated Python

Northeast India has 64% of the total geographical area under forest cover and it is often quoted that it continues to be a forest surplus region. However, the forest cover is rapidly disappearing from the entire region. There has been a decrease of about 1800 sq.km. in the forest cover between 1991 and 1999. More worrisome still is the fact that the quality of the forest is also deteriorating, with the dense forests (canopy closure of 40% or more) becoming degraded into open forest or scrub. Though there is a succession of several edaphic formations, a vast area of land has already been transformed into barren and unproductive wastelands. This being the case, the statistics of ‘more than 64 % of the total geographic area in this region under forest cover’ could be misleading. For example, though the forest cover in Manipur extends to 78% of the total geographic area, only 22% of forest area is under dense forest cover and the rest has been converted to open forests.
 
 
Except in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of Assam where substantial areas are under agriculture, little of the land is available for settled cultivation. Hence, shifting agriculture or slash-and-burn agriculture is the major land use in Northeast India and extends over 1.73 million ha. Different agencies have come up with different figures concerning the total area under shifting cultivation (jhum) in the region. What is not disputable is that with an ever shortening jhum cycle, the other human influences have caused environmental degradation with disastrous consequences.The forests of Assam once acted as a sponge, absorbing the tremendous impact of the monsoons. The natural drainage of the vast northeastern Himalaya is channelled through Assam and with the loss of thick forest cover, Brahmaputra, one of the largest and fastest flowing rivers of the subcontinent is creating havoc in the State. Floods that have devastating effects are now common to Northeast India and protecting the forests is a difficult problem.
 
 
The Rainforests of the Andamans & Nicobar Islands

 
The Andamans and Nicobar Islands have tropical evergreen rain forests and tropical semi-evergreen rainforests as well as tropical monsoon moist monsoon forests.
 
There are 572 islands in the territory, of which only approximately 38 are permanently inhabited. Most of the islands (about 550) are in the Andamans group, 26 of which are inhabited. The smaller Nicobars comprise some 22 main islands (10 inhabited). The Andamans and Nicobars are separated by a channel (the Ten Degree Channel) some 150 km wide.The total area of the Andaman Islands is some 6,408 km²; that of the Nicobar Islands approximately 1,841 km².

 
Aerial view -Andamans & Nicobar Islands

Andaman & Nicobar Islands are blessed with a unique tropical rainforest canopy, made of a mixed flora with elements from Indian, Myanmarese, Malaysian and endemic floral strains. So far, about 2,200 varieties of plants have been recorded, out of which 200 are endemic and 1,300 do not occur in mainland India.The South Andaman forests have a profuse growth of epiphytic vegetation, mostly ferns and orchids. The Middle Andamans harbours mostly moist deciduous forests. North Andamans is characterised by the wet evergreen type, with plenty of woody climbers. The north Nicobar Islands (including Car Nicobar and Battimalv) are marked by the complete absence of evergreen forests, while such forests form the dominant vegetation in the central and southern islands of the Nicobar group. Grasslands occur only in the Nicobars, and while deciduous forests are common in the Andamans, they are almost absent in the Nicobars. The present forest coverage is claimed to be 86.2% of the total land area.

 
 
 
References: Wikipedia, Mongabay,com, Animal corner.com, The Western Ghats by Mohan Pai, Nature Conservation Foundation, Biodiversity of Northeast India an Overview -V.Ramakantha, A.K.Gupta, Ajith Kumar
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A Primer of Ecology

An article by Mohan Pai

(This is the last chapter from my book “The Western Ghats” published in 2005)

“There is nothing in nature to prove that it cares more for our human species than daffodils. We may one day vanish as quickly and as radically as thousands of other breeds before us. Mother nature has no mama’s darlings…when the balance of nature is threatened, it always finds a way to restore that balance, at whatever cost. If endangered by us, nature will strike back and show no more concern for Michaelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart than for daffodils. We are dealing here with an overwhelming force, that of life itself and we know next to nothing about it. The only thing we know is — nature has no favourite among species.

Romain Grey  in ” Vanishing Species”

 

 

How to destroy a fragile ecosystem

 

10 Easy Steps

Ecosystems such as the Western Ghats which have global significance, are classified as HOT SPOTS. Globally, about 18 hot spots have been identified. These spots are extremely rich in species, have high endemism, and are under constant threat. Hotspot areas are particularly rich in floral wealth and endemism, not only in flowering plants but also in reptiles, amphibians, swallow-tailed butterflies, and some mammals. These
are extremely fragile biosystems and need to be nurtured and protected for the sake of the environmental well-being of the people. However, we are witnessing a mindless destruction of these systems.

The 10 EASY steps adopted for the destruction process are as follows:

1. Destroy as much as natural forest as possible by clear felling. Plant monoculture (teak, eucalyptus, acacia, etc.) in the name of afforestation.
2. Build dams for irrigation and power. In the process, destroy thousands and thousands hectares of natural forest. Allow the area to be submerged and displace the tribals and local populat ion. Promise resettlement – over the years keep promising – make trauma of displacement more painful. In the process, also kill a vast number of endemic species in the area, so that they are lost forever. Also decimate wild life of the area by submersion or fragmentation of their habitat. Blasting of rocks, the
rumble of machinery, the incursions by human help greatly in reducing the fauna in the Ghats.
3. Allow encroachment in the forest area and then legalise it through legislation.
4. Start large-scale mining operations within the forests. Apart from destroying the habitat complex of highly threatened flora and fauna, it will result in high degree of pollution of the rivers and land surrounding water course. The forests will be replaced with heaps of mined waste. It will also effectively kill and re duce the aquatic fauna. There will be a decline in agricultural productivity due to deposition of mine tailing.
5. Establish large-scale paper mills and plywood units by clearing large tracts of prime forest land and allow them a free hand with the forest timber.
6. Install an Atomic Power Plant right in the midst of the forest again by destroying an immense amount of prime forests. Ignore the hazards it entails for the area.7. Build Railways through the thick forest and cause as much damage as possible through clearing the prime forests and
tunnelling.
8. Clear large tracts of natural forests for cash crops like coffee, cardamom, tea, spices, etc.
9. Protect poachers and smugglers – offer them political patronage so that they can kill with impunity thousands of tuskers for Ivory and other endangered animals for their skins; smuggle out millions of tonnes of valuable timber.
10. Pass on this knowledge to your children so that whatever green patches may be left could be effectively eliminated in the end.

What is ECOLOGY ?

All life on the earth is interrelated and interconnected in someway or the other. Living organisms are dependent upon their physical environment – the land, water, air.The study of the interrelationship between plants, animals, and the environment is called ECOLOGY.One of the fundamental aspects in ecology that helps us understand the interrelationship between plants and animals, animals and animals and plants, animals and human beings, is their requirement of food.Food chains & food-web.Green plants are the primary producers of food. They make simple carbohydrates during the process of photosynthesis, with the help of carbon dioxide and water by utilisation of the energy received from the Sun. When herbivore animals eat plants, they get energy through this food. When they are eaten by carnivore, the latter get the energy required for their life activities. For example: grass —> grass hopper —-> frog. This is a simple food chain. Now, if a frog is eaten by a snake, and the snake by an eagle, it becomes a complex food chain. Several such food chains exists in nature. An interconnected network of different food chain that occurs among inhabitants of a particular natural habitat is called food-web. The food-web is a delicate network of interrelationship between the species involved, representing a balanced and self-contained living system. Destruction of any one link in this food-web will have an adverse impact on the other or the entire system itself. For example if the carnivores like tigers and leopards are exterminated, the population of the deer will increase unchecked and this in turn would destroy the vegetation more rapidly, giving no time for plants to regenerate.

Interrelationships in nature take many forms – plants and vegetation provide home for animals; insects and birds pollinate flowers; animals help the dispersal of seeds of plants; parasites infest plants or animals. Some are beneficial associations between organisms (symbiosis) and others are not. There are also nature’s cleanup crew – the crow, the eagle, the hyena, and others who act as scavengers and bacteria aiding in decomposing the dead which play an important role in returning organic and inorganic components of dead animals and plants back to nature, to be used and reused by subsequent living organisms.

Nature provides a very complex, yet balanced, interrelationship between plants and animals. Together with the biogeochemical cycles such as water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, mineral cycle, etc., recycling essential elements between living organisms and the environment; all life on the earth is interconnected. It is necessary to understand these ecological relationships to appreciate the importance of conservation of animals and plants and the non-living resources that nature has provided on our planet earth.

Biosphere & Biomes

Life on the earth may have begun to evolve some 3,500 million years ago. Today there are over half-a-million variety of plants and a million different kind of animals.

All life is confined to a thin layer of the earth called BIOSPHERE. The Biosphere of the earth can be divided into a number of BIOMES or natural habitats with specific climatic and geographical characteristics that help sustain a variety of plants and animals adapted to survive in a particular region.A biome is made up of biological communities that interact with each other in a particular life zone. A tropical rainforest, for example, is a biome which is the home for a wide variety of plants and animals suitably adapted to live in the habitat that constitutes the forest. The higher canopy of tree branches sustain arboreal animals, such as monkeys, flying squirrels and birds; the dense forest floor sustains tigers, deer, snakes, insects, millipedes, etc.The rainforest is characterised by warm and moist climate with plenty of rainfall. Similarly oceans, lakes, grasslands, wetlands,coniferous forests, deciduous forests, deserts and coastal regions constitute different biomes or self contained environments with typical plants and animals suitable to survive in these habitats.Thus nature provides an extremely complex and intricate network of living things delicately balanced and adapted to inhabit the diverse climatic and geographical regions on our planet. This is our natural heritage; a heritage in which we ourselves are one of the many species of animals, depending upon the entire system for our sustenance and survival.

What is biodiversity ?

The term Biodiversity encompasses the variety of all life on the earth. It is identified as the variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes which they are part, including diversity within and between species and ecosystems. Biodiversity manifests at three levels:
a) Species diversity which refers to the numbers and kinds of living organisms.
b) Genetic diversity which refers to genetic variation within a population of species.
c) Ecosystem diversity which is the variety of habitats, biological communities and ecological processes that occur in the biosphere.Biological diversity affects us all. It has direct consumptive value in food, agriculture, medicine, industry. It also has aesthetic and recreational value. Biodiversity maintains ecological balance and continues evolutionary process. The indirect ecosystem services provided through biodiversity are photosynthesis, pollination, chemical cycling, nutrient cycling, soil maintenance, climate regulation, air, water system management, waste treatment and pest control.Biodiversity is not evenly distributed among the world’s more than 170 countries. A very small number of countries lying wholly or partly within the tropics, contain a high percentage of the world’s species. These countries are known as Megabiodiversity countries. Twelve countries have been identified as megabiodiversity countries: India, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Madagascar, Zaire, Australia, China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Together these countries contain as much as 60 to 70 per cent of the world’s species. India is one of the 12 megabiodiversity centres in the world.India is divided into 10 biogeographic regions:Trans-Himalayan, Himalayan, Indian desert, Semi-arid zone, Western Ghats, Deccan Peninsula, Gangetic Plains, North-East India, Islands and Coasts.

Ecosystems

An ecosystem is a place where nature has created a unique mixture of air, water, soil and a variety of living organisms to interact and support each other. It is a living community of plants and animals of any area together with the non-living components of the environment such as soil air and water. The living and non-living interact with each other in such a manner that it results in the flow of energy between them. In a particular ecosystem the biotic community consists of the birds, reptiles, mammals, insects and other invertebrates, bacteria, plants and other living organisms.An ecosystem includes not only the species inhabiting an area but also features of the physical environment. Energy cannot be produced without the consumption of matter; the pyramid of life therefore has a wide base of vegetation, the smaller herbivores that feed on plants, and a much smaller number of carnivores. Eco-system ecologists are interested in the exchange of energy, gases, water and minerals amongst the biotic (living) and the abiotic (non-living) components of a particular system; therefore they tend to study confined areas that are easier to control or monitor. Small and relatively self-contained ecosystems are called microsystems because they represent miniature systems in which most of the ecological processes characteristic of larger ecosystems operate but on a smaller scale. A small pond is an example of a little ecosystem. On the other hand, the largest and the only really complete ecosystem is the biosphere. An ecosystem can exist in any place where there are varied forms of life. Even the park near your home or a village pond can be an ecosystem as there are different forms of life here and they coexist.
One of the most productive ecosystems is at the point where sea water meets freshwater.Conservationists have now realised that in order to save the natural world, ecosystems as a whole have to be saved. Unless the entire ecosystem is preserved, the individual species will not be able to survive for long.Human activities clearly demonstrate the interdependence of all ecosystems – acid rain that falls on forests is carried to pristine lakes far from the source of pollution.

Deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels change the composition of the atmosphere and perhaps contributes to the alteration of the earth’s climate. The most important lesson to be learned about life on earth is that most things on the earth are interdependent and interconnected – actions taken have a much larger impact than one can think of.

Genetic Biodiversity

All forms of life on earth, whether microbes, plants, or human beings, contain genes. Genetic diversity is the sum of genetic information contained in the genes of individual plants, animals and micro-organisms. Each species is the storehouse of an immense amount of genetic information in the form of traits, characteristics, etc. The number of genes ranges from about 1000 in bacteria to more than 400,000 in many flowering plants, each species consists of many organisms and virtually no two members of the same species are genetically identical.An important conservation consequence of this is that even if an endangered species is saved from extinction it has probably lost some of its internal diversity. Consequently when populations expand again, they become more genetically uniform than their ancestors. There are mathematical formulas to express a genetically effective population size that explain the genetic effects on populations that have gone through a bottleneck before expanding again such as the African Cheetah or the North American Bison.Subsequent inbreeding in small populations may result in A) reduced fertility and B) increased susceptibility to disease. Genetic differentiation within species occurs as a result of sexual reproduction, in which genetic differences between individuals are combined in their offspring to produce new combinations of genes or from mutations causing changes in the DNA.Genetic diversity is usually mentioned with reference to agriculture and maintaining food security. This is because genetic erosion of several crops has already occurred leading to the world’s dependence for food on just a few species. Currently, a mere 100 odd species account for 90% of the supply of food crops and three crops – rice, maize and wheat – account for 69% of the calories and 56% of the proteins that people derive from plants.

Species

Species is a group of class of animals and plants having certain common and permanent characteristics that clearly distinguish it from other groups or species (Concise Oxford Dictionary). They are populations in which gene flow occur under natural conditions. By definition, members of one species do not breed with those of other species. Unfortunately, this definition does not work in species where hybridization, self fertilization, or parthenogenesis (reproduction of offspring without fertilization by sexual union) occurs. New species may be established in several ways. The most common method is a geographical speciation (formation of new biological species), the process by which the populations that are isolated diverge through evolution by being subjected to different environmental conditions. Biodiversity is most commonly used and measured by species diversity. There are two major reasons for this: Species are still the most identifiable collective unit of biological organization and the loss of species seems the most irreversible and final of all forms of diversity. Species diversity can be expressed in terms of richness, that is the number of species in an area – for example you can count the number of plant species in your garden which will give you the species richness in your garden. Thus, if you have one neem tree and one mango tree, the tree species in your garden will be two. Ecologists have come up with various diversity indices, which focus not only on the number of species present but also on the number of individuals of a particular species.Diversity indices are of more value to ecologists, since they give an idea of the composition of the communities existing in an area, and help identify species that dominate the community in terms of their abundance, biomass or cover. Species diversity is not uniform throughout the world, some areas are very species rich while others are species poor. Again while one area may have hundreds of plant species another may have an incredible insect diversity. A striking pattern is the increase in diversity from poles to the equator, thus while the tropical areas team with life, temperate areas which are closer to the poles have fewer kind of plants and animals, while the polar regions are stark and barren. Tropical forests are amazingly diverse, a single hectare may contain 40 to 100 different kinds of trees. In contrast in a coniferous or a deciduous forest only about 10 to 30 species can be found.Latitudinal variations are not the only emerging pattern. Diversity is also closely linked to altitude or elevation. The plains of India have a varied species of plants but as you go up, the decrease in the moisture contents in the atmosphere reduces the number of species. The desert area has the least number of species. There are certain species that are endemic to a region that is, they are found in only a particular area and are very special to that area. They have evolved to adapt to that area only and if their habitat is destroyed (e.g. by deforestation) they can easily become extinct. Some plants and shrubs are endemic to only a particular type of forest, such as some found in the evergreen forest will not be found in any other type of forest area. Take the Western Ghats as an example – animals endemic to this area include the Rusty Spotted cat, Nilgiri marten, the Lion-tailed macaque, and the Nilgiri langur.

Forests

The forest is a complex ecosystem consisting mainly of trees that have formed a buffer for the earth to protect life-forms. The trees which make up the main area of the forest create a specialenvironment which, in turn, affects the kinds of animals and plants that can exist in the forest.The FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) has defined forest as land with crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10% and area of more than 0.5 hectare. The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 m at maturity in situ. In the tropical and subtropical region, forests are further subdivided into plantations and natural forests. Natural forests are forests composed of indigenous trees, not deliberately planted. Plantations are forest stands established by planting or/and seeding in the process of afforestation or reforestation. There are about 16 major types of forests in India from the tropical type to the dry type.Forests can develop wherever there is an average temperature greater then about 10 Centigrade in the warmest month and an annual rainfall in excess of about 200 mm annually. In any area having conditions above this range there exists an infinite variety of tree species grouped into a number of stable forest types that are determined by the specific conditions of the environment here. Forests can be broadly classified into many types some of which are the Taiga type (consisting of pines, spruce, etc.). The mixed temperate forests with both coniferous and deciduous trees, the temperate forests, the sub tropical forests, the tropical forests, and the equatorial rainforests.In India it is believed that organized exploitation of forest wealth began with an increase in hunting. Ashoka the Great is said to have set up the first sanctuary to protect the forest and all life in it. The Mughal rulers were avid hunters and spent a great deal of time in the forests.
It was during the British rule that the first practical move towards conservation in modern times took place. They established ‘reserved forest’ blocks with hunting by permit only. Though there were other motives behind their move, it at least served the purpose of classification of and control over the forests.
Soon after independence, rapid development and progress saw large forest tracts fragmented by roads, canals, and townships. There was an increase in the exploitation of forest wealth. It was only in 1970s that the importance of conservation of forests was realised and the preservation of India’s remaining forests and wildlife was given a front seat.

The Wetlands

Wetlands are areas lying along the banks of rivers and lakes and the coastal regions. They are life supporting systems providing fish, forest products, water, flood control, erosion buffering, a plant gene pool, wildlife, recreation and tourism areas. Though they are endowed with a rich biodiversity, yet of late they are being greatly exploited. Many Wetland species have become threatened and endangered because of their dependence on a particular type of wetland eco-system, which has become seriously degraded or destroyed. Such is the case with swampy grasslands and the flood plain wetlands of the Ganges and Brahmaputra river valleys. Large areas have been converted to agricultural land or there has been widespread over-grazing. Removal of sand, gravel and other material from the beds of rivers and lakes has not only caused destruction of wetlands but has led to sedimentation, which has affected other areas. The introduction of exotic plants has had an adverse effect on these areas. The water hyacinth, a native of South America, is now a major pest in many areas forming a vast floating shield over the surface of the water and clogging up rivers and canals. A number of factors have been responsible for the depletion of wetland areas, mainly the mangrove forests, along the coasts of India. Intensive aquacultural development, deforestation, pollution from tankers, domestic waste, agricultural runoff and industrial effluents are some of the factors. Most of the surviving mangroves are now confined to West Bengal and the islands in the Bay of Bengal.In 1981, Chilka Lake, India’s largest brackish water lagoon, was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International importance. But its fragile ecosystem has of late come under threat due to both anthropogenic and natural factors. It provides refuge to thousands of migratory birds and the balance in ecosystem has to be maintained to ensure safe habitat for the birds.

Exotic Species

As opposed to native species, which are indigenous and found naturally in an environment, animals and plant species introduced from other countries and which are not otherwise found locally are termed exotic. These introduced or exotic species can adversely affect the ecosystem.In India large variety of exotic animal and plant species, have been introduced from other parts of the world through the ages. Some exotic plants have turned into weeds, multiplying fast and causing harm to the ecosystem, e.g. Water hyacinth and lantana. Exotics are invariably introduced without their natural enemies that control and balance their spread in their native land, and hence grow and flourish without any hindrance and cause harm to the environment. Therefore, when planting saplings, remember to choose only those that form a part of the natural ecosystem of an area. In a stable ecosystem, all species – animals, plants and microbes – are in healthy coexistence. Any disturbance in one gives rise to imbalance in others and this is what happens when an exotic species is introduced.Introduced species can often negatively affect native species. While they are selected specifically for their adaptability and in the long run often out number native species and compete with them for the resources. This results in the expansion of the introduced species and the decline of native species. Plants from all over the world have been brought to India and grown here. Some have proved beneficial while others have not. Vegetables such as chillies and onion have been brought from South America and Persia (modern day Iran) respectively. Coffee, Cashew, eucalyptus and many more species have come from abroad. Some quick growing plant species were brought from Australia for afforestation programmes such as the acacia and eucalyptus. The demand for wood in different industries led to a growth of forest area under these species. These trees shed the leaves on the ground and do not allow other plants to grow nor do they decompose easily. During the rains there is heavy erosion and poor percolation in these areas. Thus the introduction of these species has caused more harm than good to the forests and the soil in general. Some weeds have not been intentionally introduced but have come accidentally as for instance the Mexican weed came along with American wheat that came as PL 480 aid from the USA in the 1960s when quarantine rules were not so strict. In fact all plants and seeds that come from another country should be quarantined to ensure that no other foreign material has come with it.

Source : Edugreen – Teri, New Delhi

 

 

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Western Ghats, India – Ecosystems Conservation & Wildlife Protection

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).

Ecosystems Conservation and Wildlife Protection

The protection of wild life has a long tradition in Indian History. Wise use of natural resources was a prerequisite for many hunter-gatherer societies which dates back to at least 6,000 B.C. Emperor Asoka’s edicts of the third century B.C. depicts one of the earliest conservation laws.
Centuries later, the Mogul emperors, sportsmen, men of action and born observers that they were, displayed a deep interest in the animal life of the country. The ethos of conservation and reverence for nature and wildlife as reflected in some of the exquisite images depicted in Indian art, painting, sculpture and architecture and use of animal fables from early literature like Panchatantra and Hitopa-desha are more relevant today than they were centuries ago.

Pre-colonial rulers had set up hunting reserves in many parts of India. In later years some fine sanctuaries were established in what was then British India, and in a few of the princely states. Well known examples are Bandipur in Karnataka, Corbett Park in Uttar Pradesh, Vedanthangal in Tamil Nadu.

Water hole at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary, Wayanad – Pic by Mohan Pai

But for the protection given to the Lion in Junagadh State and to the Great Indian Rhinoceros in Nepal and Assam, these two animals would have been exterminated long ago. Natural ecosystems have evolved over millions of years. A remarkable feature of the ecosystems is the basic stability of populations that they sustain, providing for a natural balance. Each ecosystem sustains a variety of organisms adapted to their environment and participating in a cycle of events involving interdependence between organisms and the physical world around them. Deforestation has been one of the major causes for the depletion of wildlife. Wild animals are left with no alternative but to adapt, migrate or perish. Widespread habitat loss has diminished the population of many species, making them rare and endangered.

There was a wholesale slaughter of wild creatures during late 19th and early 20th century during the colonial period. ‘In sheer numbers, over 80,000 tigers, more than 1,50,000 leopards and 2,00,000 wolves were slaughtered in a period of 50 years from 1875 to 1925’ (Mahesh Rangarajan). The beginning of the Second World War in 1939 resulted in enormous pressures on Indian forests for timber in early 1940s. Contractors moved in and large tracts of forest were cut down. They had guns, they hunted on a large scale. Few accurate records exist of the slaughter that took place.
The wood was even sent to Burma and beyond for building all that the British required. The forest service was fully occupied in this task.

After independence in 1947, a spate of ill-advised developmental schemes, an uncontrolled push for agricultural land, and unmonitored hunting wrought havoc on wilderness.
A series of river valley projects sprung up in prime wilderness areas. While this habitat devastation was taking place, the elite took to more sophisticated guns and tougher vehicles like jeep to make inroads into the forest and shoot thousands of tigers and other game. It was free-for-all. The British had left but the Indian elite was on a binge to shoot tigers. Shikar companies sprang up everywhere, enticing hunters from all over the world to the killing game.

With a growing concern for the fast dwindling wildlife, the Government of India in 1952 set up the Indian Board of Wildlife, as also state wildlife boards. Wildlife together with forestry, has traditionally been managed under a single administrative organisation within the forest department of each state or union territory, with the role of central government being mainly advisory. There have been two recent developments. First, the Wildlife (Protection) Act has provided for the creation of posts of Chief Wildlife Wardens and Wildlife Wardens in the states to exercise statutory powers under the Act. Under this act it is also mandatory for the states to set up state wildlife advisory boards. Secondly, the inclusion of protection of wild animals and birds in the concurrent list of the constitution, has proved the union with some legislative control over the states in the conservation of wildlife. The situation has since improved; all states and union territories with national parks or sanctuaries having set up wildlife wings.

The adoption of a National Policy for Wildlife Conservation in 1970 and the enactment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972 lead to a significant growth in protected areas network, from 5 national parks and 60 sanctuaries to 87 national parks and 485 sanctuaries in 2000.
The network was further strengthened by a number of conservation projects, notably Project Tiger, initiated in April 1973 by the Government of India with support from WWF and the Crocodile Breeding and Management Project, launched in April, 1975 with technical assistance from UNDP/FAO.

The large number of protected areas indicates concern for conservation. However, not all biogeographic provinces have received adequate attention, and vital habitats have been left unprotected. As many as 105 of India’s protected areas (out of a total of 571 parks and sanctuaries) are located in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago alone. But the sanctuaries occupy only a small percentage of total mainland, barely 4 percent of mainland India. Many of them are small; 113 sites are less than 20 sq. km in extent, and some of these are too isolated from other wilderness sites to form viable habitats. Only 25 wildlife reserves in India cover more than 1,000 sq. km each.

Protected Areas of the Western Ghats

Western Ghats is an area of exceptional biological diversity and conservation interest, and is one of the major tropical evergreen forest regions in India. As the zone has already lost a large part of its original forest cover (although timber extraction from the evergreen forests of Kerala and Karnataka has now been halted) it must rank as a region of great conservation concern. The small remaining extent of natural forests, coupled with exceptional biological richness and ever increasing levels of threat (agriculture, reservoirs, flooding, plantations, logging and over exploitation) are factors which necessitate major conservation inputs.

The system of Protected Areas in the Western Ghats includes Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the first and the largest biosphere reserve in India, 13 National Parks and 45 Wildlife Sanctuaries. The largest national park is Bandipur with an area of 874 sq. km and the largest wildlife sanctuary is in the Anaimalai hills having an area of 841.49 sq. km the 58 protected areas together cover an area of 14,140.36 sq. km this amounts to 8.8% of the Western Ghats area. Of this, Bhadra, Bandipur, Periyar, Kalakad Mundanthurai are Project Tiger Reserves (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1998). Some of the protected areas in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have also been designated as Project Elephant Reserves. The Bandipur national park in Karnataka is flanked by the Mudumalai sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, the Nagarhole park in the north and the Wayanad sanctuary in Kerala in the west thereby providing a continuous corridor and the largest habitat area to elephants.

Project Tiger

It is believed that there were more than 40,000 tigers in India some 80 years ago. Habitat destruction, rampant poaching and hunting brought about a sharp decline in their numbers. The National census of tigers in 1972 recorded the existence of only 1827 animals.


Considering the alarming endangered status of this majestic animal, the Government of India with support of WWF launched a scheme to protect the tiger called “Project Tiger” with nine sanctuaries declared as tiger reserves.
More tiger reserves were added in due course of time and today there are 28 national parks/sanctuaries under Project Tiger.
The main objective of Project Tiger was: “To ensure maintenance of a viable population of tiger in India, and to preserve, for all time, areas of biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people”.

The then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, a strong supporter of the Project, and of conservation in general observed, “The tiger cannot be preserved in isolation. It is the apex of a large and complex biotope. Its habitat, threatened by human intrusion, forestry and cattle grazing, must first be made inviolate”.

Project Tiger is a holistic conservation programme. The tiger cannot be saved in isolation. Saving the tiger involves the maintenance of a viable population of its prey species – the herbivore animals. For the herbivores to survive it has to be ensured that the vegetation of the forests is rich and varied. Thus saving tiger means saving an entire ecosystem.

The project is administered jointly by the wildlife departments of both the states and the centre. Project tiger, initiated in 1973, is one of the most comprehensive conservation efforts ever launched. At the apex of a complete biota, the tiger can be saved, not in isolation, but by making its habitat sacrosanct. Populations of rhinoceros, elephant, swamp deer, gaur and several other species have been preserved in this way.
Tiger Reserves in the Western Ghats

Project Elephant

Project Elephant, a scheme sponsored by the Government of India has designated 10 elephant reserves in the country of which 4 are in the Western Ghats. The four reserves also contain a mosaic of vegetation types and ecosystems harbouring high diversity of flora and fauna. For each elephant reserve a perspective plan has been provided which identifies the spatial integrity, important corridors, conservation issues and recommended action.

 

Dubare Elephant Camp, CoorgPic by Mohan Pai

Elephant Research and Conservation Centre (AERC 1998) has set up GIS database for 39 divisions comprising the four reserves in the Western Ghats. The AERC has also established a database on the demography and mortality of elephants and human elephant conflicts within the reserves.
Source: Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre (1998); ENVIS (1998)

Note: About 6,000 sq. km of these reserves are actually outside the limits of the Western Ghats yet contiguous. An estimated 6,822 elephants occur in this area.

Since the launch of the tiger conservation movement and the ‘Project Tiger’ in India, the tiger has made a dramatic recovery. Improvement in the quality of habitat and available prey has been considerable not only within the Project Tiger reserves, but also outside in Anaimalais and Nagarhole in the Western Ghats. Further to the managing the systems of Protected Areas and initiatives such as afforestation, eco-development, Joint Forest Management, the state departments of forests have mooted programmes that specifically address conservation of endangered vertebrates. Chief amongst these is the annual wildlife census organised by the forest departments. These censuses have enabled the closer monitoring of the status of some of the endemic and endangered mammals of the Western Ghats. Programmes on captive breeding and ex-situ conservation of such mammals and reptiles have also been coordinated by the forest departments through the zoos.

 

 The protection of wild life has a long tradition in Indian History. Wise use of natural resources was a prerequisite for many hunter-


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