The Western Ghats of India supports the densest human population among other global hotspots. The Western Ghats is an escarpment running parallel to the western coast of India’s peninsula for approximately 1,600 kilometres (990 m) and is one among four of India’s biodiversity hotspots. While the Himalaya and Western Ghats are the major hotspots, covering large swathes of the country, the Andaman Nicobar islands are included in the Sunda hotspot, and some parts of north-east India fall under the Indo-Burma hotspot. Quite a claim for any country!
ECOLOGY OF WESTERN GHATS
Western Ghats’ biodiversity includes the presence of over 7000 flowering plants, over 1800 non-flowering species, 139 mammals, 508 birds, 179 amphibians, over 6000 insects species and 290 freshwater fish species. The available biodiversity information lists over 325 globally threatened species and assessment studies indicate the presence of several more species that are not classified due to insufficient data. Surprisingly, even in such a densely populated hotspot, there are new species discovered every year, implying the need for more research.
Twelve fish genera are restricted to the Western Ghats, with a high number of endemics and recent discoveries. Key amphibian species include the newly discovered endemic purple frog, four new species from different genera and numerous caecilians — limbless serpentine amphibians. Key reptiles include mugger crocodiles and the species of the Uropeltidae class, a family of primitive burrowing snakes that are restricted to the Western Ghats. Endemic populations of carnivorous insects, such as dragonflies, are found close streams and waterfalls and are concentrated in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a region lying roughly in the middle of the Western Ghats stretch. Endemic birds include three species of laughingthrush, three species of flycatcher, Nilgiri wood-pigeon, white-bellied shortwing, broad-tailed grassbird, crimson-backed sunbird, Great Pied Hornbill, among others. Western Ghats’ key mammal species include: royal Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, Indian leopard, Nilgiri tahr, Malabar spotted civet, lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur, among others.
With the Western Ghats’ urban and agricultural populations, the region represents a wide variety of cultures. Dense urban cities and industrial towns with their multi-ethnic cultures, derive their essential commodities from the surrounding agricultural lands, with their rural folk. The forests of the Western Ghats also supports numerous indigenous tribes, each with their distinct cultural legacies.
In the colonial period, the Western Ghats was deforested for teak, tea, and coffee plantations, most of which have expanded over the years. Urban and industrial development have had a heavy toll on the region’s biodiversity, and also on its tribal communities. In recent years, tourism has become a severe threat to the hotspot — yet, it has the potential to drive positive change, if the tourism industry can sensitize its audience to the beauty and fragility of the ecosystem.
The landscape of research and conservation efforts in the Western Ghats is changing as numerous governmental initiatives and policies, people-centric NGOs, open access research papers and a dedicated platform for the aggregation of biodiversity information in the Western Ghats Portal to work on conservation measures.
More on the biodiversity and cultures of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve