| Biodiversity in the Western Ghats: An information kit |
During the past 40-50 years the plant and animal life in the Western Ghats has been degraded. The environment as a whole has suffered, mainly due to urbanization and so called "development". Many plants and animals have become extinct or are in danger of becoming extinct.
Causes of extinction
• Destruction of habitats, especially in tropical forests.
• Disturbance of small areas that are home to endemic species.
• Pollution because of industry, mining and other human activities.
• Continuous cultivation of single crops such as sugarcane, leading to elimination of "weeds" and pre-existing vegetation.
• Unsustainable shifting cultivation in forests.
• Use of fertilizers, changing the soil chemistry and microfauna.
• Accidental introduction of exotic species. Congress grass (Parthenium hysterophorus) and eupatorium (Eupatorium odoratum) are weeds that were introduced from outside. They are replacing local plant species.
• Preventing fires in forests leads to luxuriant growth of some species and suppresses or eliminates less competitive species. Some plants need a certain amount of disturbance to grow, reproduce and survive.
Growth in the human population is a root cause of many of these problems: the higher the population density, the greater the pressure on the natural environment.
Ecosystems of the Western Ghats and their location Tropical wet evergreen forest Amboli, Radhanagari Montane evergreen forest Mahabaleshwar, Bhimashankar Moist deciduous forest with bamboo breaks Mulshi Scrub forest with drought-resistant plants Mundunthurai
Consequences of biodiversity loss
• Extinction is forever. A species that is lost cannot be regained by means of modern technology. This biodiversity might have proven of great significance for human welfare in the future.
• In a stable ecosystem, all species-animals, plants and microbes-are in a dynamic equilibrium. Any disturbance in one gives rise to imbalance in others. A vanishing plant species can take with it 10-30 dependent species such as insects, fungi, higher animals and even plants.
• The loss of one or even a few species may not affect an ecosystem. But the cumulative effect of many such losses may lead to serious destabilization of natural ecosystems. The time is too short for new species to evolve that are more suited to the new environmental conditions.
• Plant species of medicinal, horticultural, agricultural and biological importance will be lost.
Some of the endangered plants
In situ conservation
Ex situ conservation
A practical conservation alternative is ex-situ: in zoos, seed banks, arboreta and botanical gardens. Conservation in these sites may be necessary for plants and animals that have been lost from their natural range. They can then be reintroduced into the wild.
Conserving crops and livestock
The conservation of biodiversity is not limited to wild species. Over thousands of years, farmers have selected crops and livestock, developing and maintaining many varieties and breeds. These varieties are being replaced by modern, high-yielding strains. They are valuable sources of genes for plant and livestock breeders, and must be conserved before they disappear. These plants and animals can be maintained in two ways: in situ and ex situ. Farmers can help preserve them in situ by continuing their traditional farming practices. Many universities and research institutes maintain ex situ collections of seeds and live plants and animals to help maintain these valuable genetic resources.
Conservation of genes, species and ecosystems is normally done in one of two ways. In situ conservation is based on protection of biodiversity in existing natural areas. Ex situ conservation, on the other hand, involves the establishment of man-made areas where biodiversity is conserved outside of its natural habitat.
In situ conservation is preferred because it allows living organisms to continually adapt or evolve, according to changing environmental conditions. This can be done by establishing biosphere reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and gene reserves.
There is only one biosphere reserve in the Western Ghats, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This reserve helps conserve many endemic and endangered species, economically important species and their wild relatives. It is also hoped to preserve traditional landraces of cultivated plants under traditional agricultural practices around the reserve.
• New biosphere reserves. There is a need for more biosphere reserves and other sanctuaries in the Western Ghats region. The sacred groves and evergreen rainforests in Agastyamalai, Koyna, Mulshi, Amboli, Bhimashankar and Radhanagari areas would be ideal sites for such conservation. Canepalm grows now only in restricted areas in Koyna and Mulshi forests. The Department of Forests in Maharashtra has identified certain forests as important for plant diversity.
• Floristic and ethnobotanical studies are needed to identify valuable genetic variations and species diversity.
• Exclusive habitats should be developed for different plant and animal associations. Rare species of Podostemaceae, for example, grow only on certain rock surfaces with flowing water near waterfalls. Freria indica, a beautiful asclepiad, grows only on rocky slopes. Tree ferns grow only in tropical, wet evergreen forests with thick shade and high relative humidity.
• Protect valuable areas Areas that contain specific habitats should be identified and protected from human and other interference. Measures should be taken to propagate rare and threatened plant species within these areas.
• Sustainable resource management systems are needed that integrate conservation and development.
• Education is needed to increase knowledge and awareness of the importance of the ecosystem and how to preserve it.
Susala gene-bank project
The Four Eyes Foundation, Pune, runs a biodiversity conservation project in Susala island in the Mulshi lake, about 50 km from Pune. The Susala gene bank is an example of what can be done for biodiversity conservation in the Western Ghats.
• Conserve botanical wealth through soil and water conservation measures and protection from human and biotic interference.
• Study plans diversify.
• Introduce and propagate plant species endemic to Western Ghats but not present locally.
• Study genetic diversity of plant species with nutritional, fodder, timber and medicinal value.
• 530 plant species from 110 families (excluding grasses and sedges).
• 75 medicinal species (e.g., Helicteres isora, Fagara budrunga, Lobelia nicotianaefolia and Gymnema sylvestres).
• 30 rare and endangered species.
• 50 wild edible plants.
About 150 new species have been introduced.
For more information, contact: Four Eyes Foundation, 798, Bhandarkar Road, Pune, 411004, India, Fax 91-212-337302
Prepared by B. V. Shetty, V. D. Vartak,
M. C. Suryanarayana and Dr. S. Yadav