Forests of India
The ‘jungles’ of India are ancient in nature and composition. They are rich in variety and shelter a wide range of avifauna and mammals and insects. The fact that they have existed for very long time is proved from the ancient texts all of which have some mention of the forests. The people revered forests and a large number of religious ceremonies centred on trees and plants. Even today in parts of India the sacred groves exist and are worshipped.
When Chandra Gupta Maurya came to power around 300 BC, he realized the importance of the forests and appointed a high officer to look after the forests. He launched the concept of afforestation on a large scale. These rules continued even during the Gupta period.
During the Muslim invasions a large number of people had to flee from the attacks and take refuge in the forests. This was the beginning of a phase of migration to the forest. They cleared vast areas of forests to make way for settlements.
The Muslim invaders were all keen hunters and therefore had to have patches of forests where they could go hunting. This ensured that the trees in these areas were not felled, and the forest ecology was not tampered with.
During the early part of the British rule, trees were used for timber and forests were cut for paper. Large numbers of trees such as the sal, teak, and sandalwood were cut for export also. The history of modern Indian forestry was a process by which the British gradually appropriated forest resources for revenue generation. Trees could not be felled without prior permission and knowledge of the authority. This step was taken to ensure that they were the sole users of the forest trees.
But after some time, the British began to regulate and conserve. In 1800, a commissioner was appointed to look into the availability of teak in the Malabar forests. In 1806, the Madras government appointed Capt. Watson as the commissioner of forests for organizing the production of teak and other timber suitable for the building of ships.
In 1855, Lord Dalhousie framed regulations for conservation of forest in the entire country. Teak plantations were raised in the Malabar hills and acacia and eucalyptus in the Niligiri Hills.
In Bombay, the conservator of forest, Gibson, tried to introduce rules prohibiting shifting cultivation and plantation of teak forests. From 1865 to 1894, forest reserves were established to secure material for imperial needs. From the 18th century, scientific forest management systems were employed to regenerate and harvest the forest to make it sustainable. Between 1926 and 1947 afforestation was carried out on a large scale in the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In the early 1930s, people began showing interest in the conservation of wild life.
Around the same time the Indian rulers of the States also started conservation of habitats to help conserve the birds and mammals. Though all of them were hunters and between them and the British they cleaned at least 5000 tigers if not more. But still these areas of conservation helped save the species from extinction and formed most of the modern National Parks.
The new Forest Policy of 1952 recognized the protective functions of the forest and aimed at maintaining one-third of India’s land area under forest. Certain activities were banned and grazing restricted. Much of the original British policy was kept in place, such as the classification of forest land into two broad types.
The next 50 years saw development and change in people’s thinking regarding the forest. A constructive attitude was brought about through a number of five-year plans. Until 1976, the forest resource was seen as a source of earning money for the state and therefore little was spent in protecting it or looking after it.
Today India’s forests are protected in National Parks like Corbett and Nagarhole or in Sanctuaries like Pakhui and Little Rann of Katch. The modern way of thinking has resulted in Biosphere Reserves and Biodiversity Hotspots and extensive research on them have resulted in rediscovery of new species of mammals like the Leaf Deer in Arunachal Pradesh or the Hook Nosed Frog in Western Ghats.
Supporting more than 14 percent of the wild fauna and a higher percentage of the wild flora of the world the forests of India is an intricate web of life with many surprises to explore. As we proceed to an era of advanced wildlife management and as the pressure on the forests all over the world increase the need of the hour is to realize the potential resource that the forests have both economically and from the natural point of view.
A brief description of the wildlife zones of India is given below :
Stretching from Ladakh to the Lahul-Spiti the Trans-Himalaya covers an estimated land area of 186,200 sq. km. Trans-Himalaya, means beyond the Himalaya. Outside the Indian region, the Trans-Himalaya is very extensive, covering a total of nearly 2.6 million sq. km. comprising the Tibetan plateau.
Nursery to the Indus, Brahmaputra and Sutlej; decorated by the Zanskar, Ladakh and the Karakoram, the Trans-Himalaya is home to some of best biological grandeur which survive this cold desert conditions through their ability to economise resources.
Some rare fauna like the Black Necked Crane breed in the brackish lakes like Tso Morari, Hanle and Chushul. Some parts of the Trans-Himalaya are above the snowline, including the Siachen, a 1,180 sq. km. glacier said to be the largest outside the polar regions!
Though the landscape is characterised by a distinct lack of natural forests, along the river banks and valleys, some greenery does exist with willows, poplars, wild roses and many herbaceous plants and shrubs which is home to at least eight distinct species and/or sub-species of wild sheep including the nayan or great Tibetan sheep (Ovis ammon hodgsoni), the urial or shapu (Ovis orientalis), the bharal or blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and the ibex (Capra ibex).
On the plateau of the Trans-Himalaya, The Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsoni) or the chiru, and the Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) are occasionally sighted. Smaller animals of the region include pikas, marmots and Tibetan hares. The mountains are shared by predators like the snow-leopard or ounce. The Pallas cat, Indian wolf and the lynx can also be seen with extreme luck.
The Himalaya – the world’s youngest, loftiest and most breathtaking mountain chains are home to several tropical life forms, Extending some 236,300 sq. km. in the Indian region, the Himalaya accounts for nearly seven per cent of the country’s total surface area. The Himalaya has extreme habitat types, ranging from arid Mediterranean and temperate in the western parts, to warm, moist, evergreen jungles in the east. Currently there are 56 protected areas in this zone and this cover roughly five per cent of the total surface area. 10 of these protected areas are National Parks where one can expect to see the amazing diversity of the flora and fauna that this region supports. In the luxuriant eastern parts where the tree-line is higher, animals like the red panda, binturong and several lesser cats can be seen with some effort. Of the existing 56 protected areas in the Himalaya, at least 41 lie in the temperate sector either completely, or partly (the higher reaches of some of these protected areas merge into the third major habitat type, the high-altitude sub-alpine).
The sub-alpine habitat type, above the middle level temperate sector (higher than 3,500 metres) consists of birch, rhododendrons, junipers, dwarf bamboo and a mixture of open meadows and scrub-dotted grasslands. As habitat types change, a noticeable transformation takes place in the faunal community as well. The higher reaches house several threatened species such as the ibex, shapu, wolf and snow-leopard. Nearly half the 56 protected areas in the Himalaya extend partially or extensively into the high-altitude sub-alpine.
This area is supported with protection programmes like Project Hangul, the Himalayan Musk Deer Ecology and Conservation Project, the Snow Leopard Project and several Pheasant Projects.
The Himalayas offers fantastic trekking and overland journey options to enjoy the fascinating wealth that is nurtures in its icy folds.
The Indian Desert
Spread through the majestic states of Gujarat and Rajasthan the Indian Desert is an amazing place to look for truly fantastic wild flora and fauna. Animals that never drink and plant seeds that can stay alive for years without water are typical of the miracles of this most fragile zone. In the Indian subcontinent, deserts, with an area of about 225,000 sq. km. account for just under seven percent of the total land area.
Divided into two distinct sub-divisions- Thar desert region covering 180,000 sq. kms. in the state of Rajasthan and the Rann of Kutchh, covering some 45,000 sq. kms. of western Gujarat it is a land of grand mirage and miracles. The desert system is characterised not so much by the variety and numbers of animal species but by the adaptations exhibited to tackle the rigours of desert life. The Thar shows a good extent of endemism in its faunal structure. The desert cat, desert fox, the winter-visiting houbara bustard and several sandgrouse species, as also a few reptiles are found only in the Thar. Blackbuck, chinkara, the Indian wolf, caracal, great Indian bustard can also be seen here.
In contrast to the sandy Thar, the Little and the Great Ranns, with very similar vegetation communities, have a high variety of faunal and floral composition. Though the Ranns are predominantly flatlands, they are interspersed with raised mounds or islands, locally called bets. Both the Ranns have unique faunal communities. The Great Rann is best known for its huge breeding colony of lesser flamingoes. The Little Rann is the only home of the wild ass in the Indian peninsula, besides playing host to a fair number of houbara bustards, sandgrouse and other avifauna.
The Semi-Arid Zone
Between the Indian desert and the Gangetic Plain, the Semi-arid Zone encompasses a total area of 508,000 sq. km. Covering nearly 15 per cent of India’s area, with vast grasslands and some fascinating forests home to the Leopard, Tiger and the Asiatic Lion this is a truly wild belt of India. Most of this zone houses the flat, alluvial deposits of the Indus river drainage system. The region comprises predominantly cultivated flatlands, interspersed with a network of wetlands — marshes and rivers.
Consisting of the Punjab Plains in the North home to the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, Harike and Sultanpur and parts of Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat in the South the Semi-arid Zone is a vast land-mass. The Aravalli and the Vindhya mountain ranges dominate the central portions of this zone. An interesting feature of the zone is the heavy rainfall region of Mount Abu in the southern Aravallis. Here several plant and animal species bear close affinity to the Western Ghats. Plants such as those of the genus Acacia, Anogeissus, Balanites, Capparis, Grewia and several others clearly have African affinities. What is however, very interesting is the high density of wildlife (mainly ungulates) in the protected areas here, where livestock grazing and other adverse impacts have been controlled. The herbivores in this area include nilgai, blackbuck, chowsingha or four horned antelope, chinkara or Indian gazelle, sambar and spotted deer, the last two being more or less restricted to the forested mountain ranges and valleys.
The Semi-arid Zone boasts of a good population and variety of predators including the wolf, caracal and the jackal, all of which have close relatives in Africa. Two of the finest tiger reserves – Ranthambore and Sariska — are located in the Aravallis. Amongst the richest of Indian wildlife areas, these two wilderness areas are true showpieces of Indian wildlife. On the whole, it can be stated that while the Semi-arid Zone does not exhibit any great endemism, it nevertheless holds viable populations of several species of conservation criticality today. Besides those mentioned above, others include the sloth bear, Lesser Florican, the Great Indian Bustard, mugger, gharial, several turtles and also waterfowl, both resident and migratory.
The Western Ghats
Along the west coast of India — beginning from the Surat Dangs at the western extremity of the Satpuras in south Gujarat, for over 1,500 km. to the southern tip of India in Kerala — stretch the Western Ghats, a mountain range second only to the Himalaya in magnificence. The Ghats are the second largest tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forest belt of the sub-continent. There is a high degree of biological endemism; species desperately in need of preservation.
The natural forests and protected areas of Western Ghats still house a biological wealth matched only by the North-east. The famous forests of Silent Valley form a part of this vital forested swatch. A wide climatic (rainfall and temperature) and geographical (altitude and associated mountain spurs) gradient exists in this zone. This is manifested in a tremendous diversity of vegetal communities and animal associations. From the coastal plains along the western flanks, the zone rises up to a maximum altitude of 2,735 metres in the south, while falling gradually (sharply in a few places) along the eastern side, towards the dry Deccan Peninsula.
The Western Ghats Zone covers barely five per cent of India’s area, but its biological richness can be best understood when one realises that 27 per cent of all the species of higher plants recorded in the Indian region are found here (about 4,000 of 15,000 species). Further, almost 1,800 species are endemic to the region. The Nilgiri-Travancore-Anamalai-Palni-Cardamom hill areas in the southern parts of the zone exhibit the highest degree of endemism. Further, several interesting plant associations are observed in the evergreen forests of the Zone. There are montane ‘shola’ forests, riverine or swamp forests and nearly half a dozen other evergreen-species associations, mostly observed in the southern half of the Zone, where numerous ancillary mountain ranges converge to produce a region of exceptional diversity. Because of the heavy rainfall and healthy soil conditions that much of the Zone’s southern half enjoys, cash crops like coffee, cocoa, cardamom, rubber, tea and pepper are extensively grown, setting in their wake additional man-induced habitats.
The Western Ghats Zone is also characterised by a series of forest gaps or breaks, that are actually valleys that break the continuity of the mountain ranges and accordingly of the biological components as well. Some of the major ones are the Palghat Gap, the Moyar Gorge or Gap and the Shencottah Gap. These series of gaps have resulted in preventing the spread of certain species and have hence, facilitated local speciation and endemism. The associated mountain ranges such as the Anamalais, the Nilgiris and the Agastyamalais are all separated by clear-cut barriers and besides the interesting floral speciation, a distinct faunal endemism and/or local speciation, is also found. Areas such as this are in urgent need of study and documentation.
Though this zone has healthy populations of much of the animal species characteristic of peninsular India (tiger, elephant, gaur, dhole, sloth bear, panther and several species of deer), it also exhibits a fairly good degree of endemism among primates, ungulates, carnivores, rodents, squirrels and several birds. Amongst amphibia, most of the species and nearly half the genera are endemic, while a good degree of endemism is visible also amongst reptiles, fish and insects, most faunal endemism and restriction being only in the central and and southern parts of the zone. Several of the zone’s faunal components are of great interest (and importance) in that they have helped provide justification for what is called The Hora Hypothesis. This explains the spread of several species from the Himalaya and North-east along a once continuous central Indian mountain range into the Western Ghats, giving rise to several interesting biological linkages between the Western Ghats, the Himalaya and North-East! More natural history field research would reveal vital clues to the management of such areas.
Presently, of all the Bio-geographic Zones, The Western Ghats with 44 Sanctuaries and National Parks, covering some 15,935 sq. km. has the highest percentage of protected areas. However, the two sub-divisions of this Zone (viz., the coastal plains and the main Western Ghats) do not enjoy the same extent of protection. The coastal plains, from north to south, cover 60,000 sq. km. (37.5 per cent) of the zone. This is one of the most highly developed and populated areas of the country. It is also the area with the least number of protected areas. Only four sites (three Sanctuaries and one National Park) totalling a mere 240 sq. km. (less than 0.5 per cent) exist in this section of the Western Ghats. Taking the tremendous pressures on this region into consideration, even by the most conservative estimate the total protected area percentage in this region can barely be extended beyond one per cent. Bombay’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park is the only National Park in this sub-division!
In marked contrast to the coastal plains region, the 100,000 sq. km. main Western Ghats region has the largest extent of protected areas in India. 41 sites (six national parks and 35 sanctuaries) cover 15,695 sq. km. or 15.8 per cent of the total area. On paper this might seem to be a considerable area, but taking the exceptional biodiversity of this Zone into consideration, not only is this inadequate, but it is not uniformly distributed and some of the vital eco-zones, such as the Coorg, Palnis and the Upper Nilgiris have either been totally overlooked or are barely represented through tiny reserves.
To successfully conserve the rich biological wealth reveal vital clues to the management of such areas. of evergreen tropical forest regions, it is imperative that there be large-sized, unbroken protected areas that have a minimum disturbance. The forests in the northern half of the Western Ghats are highly fragmented, as a result of which considering areas for protection is not possible. Hence the emphasis here is on smaller units, with a well spread network to incorporate as much of the diversity as possible. Less than 25 per cent of the protected areas network of the Western Ghats lies in the northern half — Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa. Currently the largest, contiguous stretch of wilderness exists in the Nagarahole-Bandipur–Mudumalai belt of Karnataka and TamilNadu, and the adjoining Wynaad region of North Kerala. This forms a more or less unbroken protected area conservation unit of over 2,000 sq. km. The significance can be gauged from the fact that the forests hold an estimated 1,500 elephants — India’s largest protected population of pachyderms. Additionally, this area is home to several other threatened species. The other well-protected portion of the Western Ghats extends over 1,500 sq. km. in the Anamalai Hills region of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The highest point in mainland India, south of the Himalaya, is to be found here as can some of the finest examples of lowland Dipterocarp forests, which rise up into the sholas. The presence of extensive moist deciduous forests adds up to the fact that this is undoubtedly peninsular India’s richest bio-zone. Unfortunately, extensive plantations and related human disturbances threaten much of this region, which is fast losing most of its viable evergreen forest units. The Periyar-Cardamom Hills belt in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is a major elephant conservation area. The grizzled squirrel too is found here, perhaps nowhere else in India. The total protected area unit in this region extends some 1,227 sq. km., much of it under great pressure from all sides.
Located more or less at the southernmost end of the Western Ghats Zone are the Agastyamalai Hills in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Separated from the northern Kerala forests by the Shencottah Gap, the Agastyamalais have an interesting biological commonness with the forests of Sri Lanka. There is great endemism observed here in the floral and lesser faunal (amphibians, insects etc.) communities. Mundanthurai and Kalakad Wildlife Sanctuaries form the southernmost range of the tiger in the sub-continent. The entire protected area unit of this belt works out to just over 1,000 sq. km.
It is believed that under the existing conservation programmes in this Zone, much of the endemic floral community appears relatively secure. However, the habitat of some of the faunal elements of principal concern, though well-protected in pockets, is under threat from plantation encroachments. Rodgers and Panwar recommend a substantial increase the size of the main conservation units in this zone, particularly in the main Western Ghats region.
Almost two dozen more protected areas have been recommended, to offer adequate protection to species in additional areas. However, inspite of this increase in the number of protected areas, the actual network will be reduced by nearly 500 sq. km. This is because much of the over 5,000 sq. km. Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, being a much disturbed and interfered area, is proposed to be degazetted, for it is realised that it is far more advantageous to have healthy, undisturbed reasonably good-sized areas than a huge, highly disturbed region where much of the conservation and management programmes cannot even be implemented. Implementation, in fact, is a key factor in the success of all wildlife plans which have invariably sounded good on paper, yet failed in practice.