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Balancing agriculture and rainforest biodiversity in India’s Western Ghats

Jeremy Hance

mongabay.com

August 08, 2011

When one thinks of the world’s great rainforests the Amazon, Congo, and the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and Indonesia usually come to mind. Rarely does India—home to over a billion people—make an appearance. But along India’s west coast lies one of the world’s great tropical forests and biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats. However it’s not just the explosion of life one finds in the Western Ghats that make it notable, it’s also the forest’s long—and ongoing—relationship to humans, lots of humans. Unlike many of the world’s other great rainforests, the Western Ghats has long been a region of agriculture. This is one place in the world where elephants walk through tea fields and tigers migrate across betel nut plantations. While wildlife has survived alongside humans for centuries in the region, continuing development, population growth and intensification of agriculture are putting increased pressure on this always-precarious relationship. In a recent paper in Biological Conservation, four researchers examine how well agricultural landscapes support biodiversity conservation in one of India’s most species-rich landscapes.

“The Western Ghats are home to more than 1,000 vertebrate species and nearly 5,000 angiosperms [flowering plants] including many that are endemic to the region. What also makes the Western Ghats a crucial conservation region is the fact that it harbors large, contiguous populations of charismatic megafauna such as tigers, Asian elephants and gaur (a large wild cattle),” the researchers explained to mongabay.com in an interview. “Endemism [species found no-where else] is particularly high among amphibian, reptile and plant groups, and these groups contain perhaps the most threatened species. Point endemism (species known to occur in just one location) is particularly common among amphibians,”

The word ‘ghats’ refers to a series of steps leading to a sacred river. Here, the steps are really a long range of hills and mountains covered in tropical vegetation. These hills drain water into large river systems which according to the researcher benefits ‘over 200 million people’. A wholly unique forest, the Western Ghats also serves as a longstanding agricultural area. According to the researchers, 75 percent of the Western Ghats is unprotected and largely used in various ways for agriculture. Despite such widespread human presence, the researchers say the Western Ghats’ biodiversity and human populations have long lived in a relatively balanced state.

“Human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats, although densely populated by people (261 per square kilometer), show two features that are favorable for biodiversity conservation,” the authors explain. “First, the human land use is largely restricted to plantation agriculture, horticulture and forestry resulting in high tree cover across the region. Second, and more importantly, patches of forest, riparian vegetation and swamps are still to be found on private lands, community lands and government lands, interspersed with production areas. These features combine to create favorable habitat and dispersal corridors for a number of organisms, ranging from invertebrates to mega-fauna.”

Yet, as in much of the world, the situation is changing rapidly for the forests of the Western Ghats, perhaps too rapidly.

“Intensive production land use continues to expand, at the expense of both traditional, relatively biodiversity-friendly land use and remnant natural habitats. We are at a very crucial juncture at the moment,” the authors say, adding that an influx of people, increased consumption, and big development projects are putting additional pressure on the landscape. So, how do we protect the biodiversity-friendly features of agricultural landscapes in the Western Ghats in the face of these emerging threats before its too late?

The key, according to the researchers, is to think outside the box by looking towards alternate conservation models that complement the existing network of protected areas. Conserving the unprotected forests that serve as rest-stops in human-modified landscapes for the rainforest’s many moving parts, and pushing for a return to the long standing tradition of biodiversity-friendly agriculture are the most important tasks in the Western Ghats.

The bizarre purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensi) is one of the wonders of the Western Ghats. Only discovered in 2003, it spends most of its life underground. Photo by: Karthick Bala.

The bizarre purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensi) is one of the wonders of the Western Ghats. Only discovered in 2003, it spends most of its life underground. Photo by: Karthick Bala.

“Safeguarding and restoring these natural remnants might have a greater positive impact on biodiversity conservation than, say, solely promoting diverse shade plantation over monocultures. A holistic approach that covers both strategies would, of course, be ideal,” the researchers say, adding that for any expansion of forest protection would require “[looking] at protection schemes which permit for multiple uses of landscapes. Options such as ‘community reserves’ and ‘conservation reserves’ which exist in the current conservation policy but are mostly under-utilized need to be considered more seriously”.

Fortunately, the people of the Western Ghats do not largely view wildlife as competition or pests, the authors point out. In general even big destructive mammals, such as elephants, are not persecuted in the area. The region, they say, has a healthy conservation ethic. But without creative, forward-looking plans and regulations, combined with earnest implementation of laws governing both wildlife conservation and land ownership rights, the tenuous balance between the people and the biodiversity (and in that sense the whole ecosystem) of the Western Ghats may not last.

“It is hard for us to say whether people’s attitudes to biodiversity and conservation are changing, but the growing human population coupled with increasing consumption automatically reduces the space available for biodiversity. Along with this growth, our ability to harm biodiversity—deliberately or inadvertently—is constantly increasing, through improved technology, more potent agricultural chemicals and other forms of agricultural intensification. These two drivers together can be devastating for biodiversity in the Western Ghats human-modified landscapes in the very near future,” they warn.

In an August 2011 interview four researchers discuss the special characteristics of one of India’s greatest tropical forests, the Western Ghats; the challenges given the needs of humans as well as wildlife; and the need for more research in the region.

via Balancing agriculture and rainforest biodiversity in India’s Western Ghats.