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Western Ghats

The Western Ghats form a continuous mountain chain, running parallel to the west coast, interrupted only by the 30 km long Palghat Gap. With 58 protected areas consisting of 14 national parks and 44 wildlife sanctuaries extending to a total area of 13,595 sq km, the Western Ghats is one of two biogeographic zones (the other being the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) with the highest level of coverage by protected areas in India. With nearly 43,611 sq km of the original 1,600 km stretch covering an area of 140,000 sq km remaining as forest land, the Western Ghats ranks seventh in terms of endemicity, with 125 genera of plants and vertebrates. As much as 11.2% of the original area of this hotspot is covered under IUCN Protected Area categories I to IV, giving it a rating of 'third in the world' when evaluated under criteria of integrity and high long-term conservation potential.

This mountain range also serves to protect peninsular India from heavy gales and storms seen during the monsoons. Areas at the highest elevations receive rainfalls that vary between 2,000 and 6,000 m of rain. Places like Kudremukh and Agumbe in the Western Ghats have recorded rainfalls up to 400 mm on single days, reported as the highest 24 hour annual rainfall seen anywhere in the world.

The Western Ghats are home to some of the world's finest non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests with eight wet, evergreen forests at altitudes < 850 m, five at medium elevations between 850-1,500 m and three at higher elevations. Vegetation types include, tropical, dry, thorn forests in the low-lying, rain shadow areas and plains on the eastern side. At elevations of 1,500 m, deciduous and tropical rainforests predominate. Besides, the region has a unique mosaic of stunted, montane, evergreen forests called 'shola' and rolling grasslands at altitudes above 1,500 m. Tropical rainforests represent primary centres of species richness and endemism within the Western Ghats and cover approximately 20,000 sq km. Dry, moist deciduous and scrub forests cover another 20,000 sq km . Globally threatened flora and fauna in the Western Ghats are represented by 229 plant, 31 mammal, 15 bird, 43 amphibian, five reptile, one insect and one fish species. Of the globally threatened species in the Western Ghats, 129 are 'Vulnerable', 145 are 'Endangered' and 51 are 'Critically Endangered'.

Floral endemism is very high in the Western Ghats. With 5,000 species of flowering plants, belonging to nearly 2,200 genera and 217 families, about 1,700 species i.e., 35% are endemic. The region has 58 endemic plant genera, 49 of which are monotypic and some highly speciose, like the genus Niligirianthus which has 20 species. Some prominent genera and families are represented by large numbers of endemic species like Impatiens which has 76 of 86 species endemic, Dipterocarpus with 12 of 13 species endemic and Calamus with 23 of 25 species endemic. Of the 490 tree species recorded from low and medium-elevation forests, 308 (63%) species representing 58 families are endemic. The only gymnosperm tree, Podocarpus (Nageia) wallichianus, is also endemic. Of the 267 species of orchids (representing 72 genera), 130 are endemic. About 63% of India's woody, evergreen taxa are endemic to the Western Ghats. Of the nearly 650 tree species found in the Western Ghats, 352 (54%) are endemic. Tree genera endemic to the Western Ghats include Blepharistemma, Erinocarpus, Meteromyrtus, Otenophelium, Poeciloneuron and Pseudoglochidion. Four species belonging to the genus Myristica are found in the southern areas of this region. Other genera endemic to the Western Ghats include Adenoon, Griffithella, Willisia, Meineckia, Baeolepis, Nanothamnus, Wagatea, Campbellia and Calacanthus. Of the eight species of bamboos in the genus Ochlandra, six originate in the Western Ghats. At least 325 globally threatened (IUCN Red Data List) species occur in the Western Ghats.

A number of large mammal and bird species in the Western Ghats including Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), tiger (Panthera tigris), wild dog (Cuon alpinus), vultures (Gyps bengalensis and G. indicus) and great hornbills (Buceros bicornis) are 'landscape' species whose conservation cannot depend upon a site-based approach alone and requires the protection of larger landscapes.

The region has nearly 139 mammal species (48 of them bats) with 17 endemic species. Three endemic genera are represented by a single species: Pearson's long-clawed shrew (Solisorex pearsoni), Kelaart's long-clawed shrew (Feroculus feroculus) and Salim Alis fruit bat (Latidens salimalii). Flagship mammals include endangered species like the lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) and the endemic Nilgiri tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius). One of the most threatened Indian mammals the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina) has been identified only in the Malabar plains. The Western Ghats are also home to the world's largest population of endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), with about 11,000 animals.

Nearly 508 species of birds thrive in the Western Ghats. The region has been identified as an important global Endemic Bird Area with 17 endemic species of birds and over 60 Important Bird Areas. Of the endemics, seven species occur in low elevation forests and include the grey-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus), white-bellied treepie (Dendrocitta leucogastra) and Malabar parakeet (Psittacula columboides). Endemic species found at higher elevations include the white-bellied shortwing (Brachypteryx major), Nilgiri flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudata) and broad-tailed grassbird (Schoenicola platyura).

The highest levels of vertebrate endemism in the Western Ghats have been noted among amphibians and reptiles. Of the 179 species of amphibians reported, 117 species (65%) in nine genera are endemic. One family of endemic amphibians, the Nasikabatrachidae, with the species Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis represents the only endemic, amphibian family. The Western Ghats have 157 species of reptiles, with an endemism of 62% and endemism among the genera being 25%. Families such as the Uropeltidae (46 of 47 species), Geckonidae (19 of 30) and Agamidae (20 of 26) exhibit very high endemism. Besides terrestrial vertebrates, 288 species of fish belonging to 12 orders, 41 families and 109 genera have been reported, of which, 118 species, i.e. 41% are endemic. Among the invertebrates, there appears to be a wide variation in levels of endemism within groups, like the tiger beetles, where endemicity of 80% has been reported, while among butterfly species, only 37 of the 330 species reported are endemic.

Thousands of sacred groves and temple forests all over the Western Ghats reflect the deep veneration that people of the region still have for the forests. People's movements that have succeeded include the protection of the Silent Valley National Park in Kerala and the closure of the mines in and around the Kudremukh National Park. Major reasons for loss of habitat and biodiversity include the conversion of forest land into plantations of tea, coffee, teak, eucalyptus and wattle, and construction of reservoirs, roads and railways. In one study that assessed change in forest cover between 1973 and 1995 in the southern part of the Western Ghats using satellite data found that the area (approximately 40,000 sq km) had lost 25.6% of its forest cover. Of the 20-23% of the natural forest vegetation of the Western Ghats thought to remain, a large portion exists in a highly fragmented state.

Kazmierczak, K. 2000. A field guide to the birds of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistn, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives. OM Book Service, New Delhi, India. 352 pp.

MoEF. 2006. India's Tentative List of Natural Heritage Properties to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. UNESCO, Paris, France.

[The information has been sourced from the Conservation International website on biodiversity hotspots ( Accessed in February 2008.]

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