Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka

Synopsis of Current Threats
Transformation of the Western Ghats landscape is believed to date back to the 1800s accelerating through the early twentieth century and continuing today. In the Western Ghats of Karnataka alone, nearly 12 percent of the forests have been completely lost in the past two decades (Ramesh 2001). Of the 62,000 square kilometers of potential area of evergreen forests in the Western Ghats, Gadgil and Meher-Homji (1986) estimated that only between 5,288 square kilometers (8.5 percent) and 21,515 square kilometers (34.7 percent) remained in the mid 1980s along the ranges. A more recent assessment by Myers et al. (2000) estimates that of the 182,500 square kilometers of primary vegetation that was estimated to have existed in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka, only some 12,450 square kilometers (6.8 percent) remain today. Menon and Bawa (1997) estimated that, between 1920 and 1990, 40 percent of the original natural vegetation of the Western Ghats was lost or converted to open/cultivated lands, coffee plantations, tea plantations, and hydroelectric reservoirs. Open/cultivated lands accounted for 76 percent and coffee plantations for 16 percent of the conversion respectively.

Proximate Threats to Biodiversity in the Region
The remnant natural ecosystems of the Western Ghats are currently subject to a plethora of threats that vary widely in the nature and intensity of their impacts on biodiversity. Proximate threats fall into two broad categories: localized threats such as illegal hunting, extraction of NTFPs, livestock grazing, and forest fires, and landscape-level threats such as mining, roads, large and micro-hydel power projects, wind farms, large-scale agricultural expansion, and creation of monoculture plantations. All these threats either independently or synergistically influence biodiversity in the hotspot. Very often, threats are intricately meshed together in complex and myriad ways making it a difficult challenge to tease apart their impacts. The following is a description of the most prevalent forms of proximate threats to the biodiversity of the Western Ghats.

Livestock Grazing
Livestock grazing within and bordering protected areas by high densities of livestock (cattle and goats) is a serious problem causing habitat degradation across the Western Ghats. Growth in livestock densities often accompanying human population growth inevitably results in serious conflicts between villagers and forest department officials. The problem is pervasive across the Western Ghats.

Illegal Hunting
Illegal local hunting driven by tradition or demand for wild meat is pervasive across the Western Ghats. Hunters employ guns as well as a wide array of ingenious traditional methods such as poisoning, snaring and trapping (Karanth 1986, Madhusudan and Karanth 2002). This threat is largely under-appreciated in terms of its intensity, extant, and impacts on wildlife. Wild meat is a nonessential part of the diet of hunters who frequently have access to alternative sources of animal protein. Recent sociocultural changes have had a profound influence on patterns and intensity of hunting.

Conflict with Large Wildlife/Retaliation
Given that the Western Ghats exists within an intensely human-dominated landscape, human-wildlife conflicts are a common phenomenon. Very high human population densities in several parts of the hotspot further exacerbate the intensity of conflict. For example, villagers living close to Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in the State of Karnataka, lose approximately 11 percent of their annual grain production to raiding elephants every year. Marauding leopards and tigers annually devour some 12 percent of their livestock holdings (Madhusudhan 2003). Compensation schemes are often inefficient and largely fail to achieve their objectives of alleviating livestock and crop losses.

Extraction of Forest Products
Human communities living within and adjacent to protected areas in the Western Ghats hotspot are frequently dependent on the extraction of NTFPs to meet a diversity of subsistence and commercial needs. For example, in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka, out of the 310 NTFP species extracted for various purposes, 40 species are collected for regional and global markets and 110 species are collected for consumption (Hegde et al 2000). Sustainability of NTFP extraction in the wake of expanding human populations and changing consumption patterns are critical issues that need urgent attention.

Fuelwood and Fodder Extraction
The extraction of fuelwood and fodder constitutes a significant and pervasive consumptive use within the Western Ghats. Overall, extraction of wood from both live and dead plants represents a serious threat negatively affecting canopy gaps, regeneration (lower fruit and seed production), stand density, basal area, and population structure and frequently resulting in the local extinction of overharvested preferred species. There is significant habitat degradation for the first several hundred meters into most forest fragments.

Hill agroecosystems in the Western Ghats are today dominated by tea, coffee, rubber, and monocultures of various species including the recently introduced oil palm. Nair and Daniel (1986) report estimates of; 750 square kilometers of tea plantations above an elevation of 1,500 meters, at least 1,500 square kilometers of coffee plantations, and 825 square kilometers of cardamom estates. Large-scale planting of coffee in the Western Ghats began in 1854 when the British established themselves in Kodagu. Over the years, tea, coffee, eucalyptus, cinchona, wattle, rubber, cloves etc. have displaced extensive patches of natural forests throughout the Western Ghats and are frequently associated with encroachment of surrounding forest areas. Plantations owned by private individuals and corporate sector continue to grow in the Western Ghats and constitute an important source of fragmentation of natural habitat within the hotspot. They also represent potentially important corridor areas for certain wildlife species.

Human Settlements/Encroachments
Human settlements where legal and/or traditional rights of land ownership occur both within and outside protected areas all across the Western Ghats and represent a significant landscape level threat. In the mountainous regions of Western Ghats, the human population density varied between 100 and 300 habitants per square kilometer and only at a few places was lower than 100 (Pascal 1988). Growing populations within these settlements, in addition to changing lifestyles and consumption patterns are associated with intensifying impacts of human activities in surrounding forest areas.

The unrestricted use of agrochemicals in the vicinity of forests, particularly in tea and coffee estates, causes serious damage to forest ecosystems. Pesticide threats to amphibians, even in concentrations as low as a few ppm (parts per million). Thus, threat to the aquatic biota from the pollution of aquatic systems from agrochemicals and sediment loads is a very serious problem.

Public Behaviors and Attitudes
Despite rich biodiversity-related cultural practices and traditions, there is clearly a lack of appreciation of the need to conserve biodiversity among the broad mass of the people in India. Many people realize the importance of trees and there is universal recognition of the need to conserve forests; this does not extend however, to the diversity forests contain. Likewise, most Indians abhor killing (including hunting), but few recognize the distinction between the slaughter of domestic animals and the hunting of game. Building broad public awareness of the biological wealth of the Western Ghats and the need to conserve it is therefore of paramount importance.

Legal and Illegal Logging
Although revenue generation is not a stated management or policy objective of protected areas or other forest types, generally, forests represent a major source of revenue for the State. Until the ban on green felling in early 1980 in India, logging was a significant factor in degradation of biodiversity. Even now, legal logging activities authorized by State forest departments that include the extraction of bamboo and cane, thinning of teak plantations and removal of dead and fallen trees, probably have significant negative effects on biodiversity. In addition to legal extraction, both selective and large-scale illegal felling of trees occurs within protected areas.

In addition to the threats described above, other major local level proximate threats to biodiversity within the Western Ghats include fire, poaching for the commercial wildlife trade, illegal quarrying, presence of invasive plant species and mini and micro-hydel projects as well as larger irrigation, hydel, wind energy, pipeline projects, power and telecom lines, roads and railroads. Figure 9 below shows the distribution of proximate threats to protected areas in the Western Ghats.

Figure 9. Frequency Distribution of Threats to Protected Areas in the Western Ghats (Total number of protected areas surveyed = 58)

Relative Importance of Proximate Threats
Analysis of distribution patterns of proximate threats (local and landscape level) in the Western Ghats describes the relative importance of these threats. The term “threat” is used to represent factors affecting biodiversity. These factors vary in the degree to which they actually represent “threats.” For this analysis, The Western Ghats was divided into one degree grids that were further divided into 15-minute grids. A total of 249 fifteen-minute grids were scored for the presence or absence of six landscape level threats: that included the following: reservoirs built for irrigation and hydel projects, wind energy farms, mining, roads/highways/power/telecom lines, pipeline projects, and railroads. Predominantly human-modified landscapes were eliminated from the analyses using LandScan Global database (LandScan 2001 Global Population Database, Oakridge, TN: OakRidge National Laboratory). Of these threats, roads, highways, power, and telecom lines were found to occur in all grid cells without human settlements thus ranking highest in terms of frequency of occurrence across the hotspot. In addition, the following local level threats were identified: leaf litter collection, logging by state, quarrying, fodder removal, fire, hunting, livestock grazing, illegal logging, invasives and exotics, NTFP extraction, and fuelwood collection. Of these, illegal logging, hunting, exotics and invasives, fuelwood collection, and livestock grazing were found to be most widespread across the hotspot occurring in all grid cells excluding human settlements. Overall, local level threats such as hunting, livestock grazing, etc. are far more widespread than landscape-level threats associated with large-scale changes in land use. Threats differ significantly in the nature and intensity of their impacts. The analysis measured the frequency of threat occurrence and not the actual impacts of threats.

Macro-Level Analysis of Root Causes of Biodiversity Loss in the Western Ghats
Underlying the proximate threats are demographic and macroeconomic factors that ultimately drive the loss of biodiversity. The distinction between proximate and ultimate or the root causes of biodiversity loss is often based on arbitrary criteria. Nevertheless it is obvious that many of the proximate factors such as extraction of resources, hunting or human settlements can be directly traced to population pressures, macroeconomic factors, poverty, or poor governance.

Population Growth
The population of India has almost doubled during the last forty years, and assuming 1 percent annual deforestation rate, the forest area has been roughly reduced by one-half during the same period. Expanding populations place a high demand on cultivated land and push the agricultural frontier to remote forested lands. Between the 1920s and 1980s, conversions of forest into agricultural land or open areas accounted for 40 percent of the deforestation in the Western Ghats (Menon and Bawa, 1997). In the 1950s and 1960s, expanding populations and the famine-driven Grow More Food campaign led to state-supported clearing of forests for agriculture. This led to an increased demand for forest products as well as increased pressure on forests.

Enhanced demand for forest products is a function of both population trends and changing consumption patterns. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, is manufacturing more numerous and a more diverse array of drugs and health related products that are based on wild plants than any time in the past. The growing middle class is using more forest products such as rattan, timber, paper, incense-sticks, gooseberry, shampoos, coffee, tea, and spices. Demand for products that grow best in habitats where forests are undisturbed is increasing as a result.

Macroeconomic Policies
Macroeconomic policies that affect biodiversity cover a range of assumptions and actions on the part of the government as well as civil society.

Undervaluation of forests or natural ecosystems is assumed to be a major factor responsible for loss of biodiversity. From the 1960s to 1980s forests were largely valued in terms of the amount of timber they contained and not for goods such as NTFPs and genetic resources, nor for ecosystem services. The government agencies assumed that larger returns could be obtained from clearing natural forests and replacing these forests with plantations, often of exotic species, to yield timber and wood for industrial purposes. There was large-scale deforestation as a result. Many of the cleared areas could not be adequately planted with native or even exotic species. In addition, many of these areas lost natural habitats yet remain classified as “forests” under the land-use categorization adopted by the state departments.

Another manifestation of undervaluation is the construction of a large number of hydroelectric and irrigation projects in the Western Ghats. These projects not only submerge forests, but the infrastructure such as roads and power transmission lines needed to support them as well as the human settlements that are created to house employees continue to degrade the surrounding biodiversity in natural habitats. Out of the 52 dams built across the rivers from southern Western Ghats before 1990, 28 were located in the wet evergreen forest zone (Nair, 1991).

Undervaluation of biodiversity indirectly continues even after the construction of the hydroelectric dams. Electric power and water for irrigation derived from the rivers in the Western Ghats and throughout India are highly under-priced and the provision of such services that are derived from natural capital are highly subsidized. Underpricing and subsidies result in increased consumption and waste. Technical inefficiency in power transmission and pilferage of electric power, common in India, further contribute to increased pressure on natural resources.

International trade regulations, particularly the removal of tariffs, make it easy for forest products to move from one country to another. The availability of cheap products from natural forests anywhere in the world prevents investments in local plantations and indirectly increases pressures on local forests as well. In the Western Ghats, trade in cash crops such as coffee, tea and spices have been a major driver for encroachments by the plantation sector. High prices combined with weak protection of wild biodiversity by the state have led farmers and owners of large plantation estates to clear adjoining forests.

Property Rights
Ownership and operational rights attached to forests can, both positively and negatively, affect biodiversity. Increased stake of communities in natural ecosystems either through participatory management or tenurial control is widely assumed to result in more effective conservation than without such management in control. Indeed in some parts of India, commonly managed forests are better stocked than other forests (Ghate, 2000), whereas over a much wider area community owned forests have totally degraded (Shyam Sundar and Parameshwarappa 1982). The negative effects were evident in the 1960s, when in anticipation of the naturalization of forestland in many parts of the Western Ghats, owners of the private forests started to clear land to sell timber and maximize their returns from the land.

Poverty is assumed to be a major factor leading to the loss of biodiversity. Although quantitative data are lacking, biodiversity rich areas in the Western Ghats have a mixed high concentration of communities with low and middle-income levels. Expenditures in health, education and agriculture by government agencies are also generally higher especially in Kerala and Karnataka. In general, compared to the eastern plains of Southern India wages and social services in the Western Ghats are better. Indigenous groups and migrants from other areas largely populate forests in the Western Ghats. The indigenous groups had practiced shifting agriculture, but with the appropriation of their lands into forest reserves and protected areas, shifting cultivation in the remnant forest areas agriculture is no longer feasible or sustainable. Thus, access to land for settled agriculture is limited. Moreover, the poor lack financial capital and skills to enhance outputs from their limited physical assets. Thus they have no alternative to sustaining their livelihoods from logging labor and harvesting wild biodiversity that ironically provides long-term economic security. The extent to which degradation of habitats itself contributes to increase in poverty is less understood than the reverse linkage between poverty and environmental degradation.

Poor governance includes ineffective management plans, lack of inter-sectoral cooperation and centralized bureaucracies with outmoded rules of service. Management plans often are not scientifically developed, lack scientific inputs and are not faithfully implemented. Moreover, management plans do not recognize the stake of local communities and the civil society in the maintenance and use of biodiversity. Thus, rarely does management involve stakeholders other than the state agencies. Consequently, local communities are often in conflict with the state agencies and thus conflict results in hostility to and alienation from the state agencies. Natural ecosystems resources in India are managed on a sectoral basis. First, there are a plethora of organizations that manage forests, wetlands, soils, watersheds, livestock, water and mining. All these resources or activities are linked with biodiversity. Yet there is very little coordination of activities among the various agencies managing different resources. Second, even within the forest department there are wildlife wings, territorial wings and forest development corporations, again, with little coordination for managing and conserving biodiversity although the creation of separate wildlife wings has definitely shifted emphasis from logging, plantations and silviculture to protection of wildlife, especially within protected areas.

Centralized bureaucracies lack transparency and accountability, both of which are necessary to inhibit poor management and/or corruption. As a result, there are few incentives for strong administrative performance, nor are there significant consequences for officials who do not adequately administer conservation policies. Centralization of decision-making and lack of specialized knowledge also contributes to ineffective and unscientific management. Such lack of accountability and training is exacerbated by the short tenure of forest officials in a particular position, which prevents implementation of plans requiring long-term leadership. The underlying problem is the absence of an institutionalized framework where management is professionalized and the latest scientific tools and concepts are integrated with the active collaboration of civil society.

In summary, biodiversity loss can be traced to a number of factors. The importance of different factors varies in time and space. There have been no serious attempts to analyze factors underlying biodiversity loss in the Western Ghats. Policy interventions to stem degradation of biodiversity or to achieve desired conservation outcomes would have limited success in the absence of quantitative analyses of the relative magnitude of various factors responsible for habitat loss and degradation. Mitigation of threats requires greater involvement of civil society that must understand the true value of biodiversity and consequences of its degradation.

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