Himalaya’s little brother is bursting with biodiversity
18 October 2012 | Fact sheet
Western Ghats World Heritage site, India
The Western Ghats, located on the West side of the Indian triangle, may be dwarfed by the Himalayas in terms of their elevation, but are giants when it comes to the richness and exclusivity of their biodiversity, with species numbers and levels of endemism being extremely high. They are among the most recent inscriptions to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Western Ghats are composed of mountains, large tracts of rainforest, rivers and waterfalls, seasonal mass-flowering wildflower meadows, and what is called the “shola-grassland ecosystem”, which is patches of forests in valleys surrounded by grasslands. The highest peak rises up to 2,695 m, and rainy season lasts from June to November, with up to 6,000 mm of annual rainfall.
Their high biodiversity remains, in spite of many of the natural areas having been disturbed and the region being densely settled.
The serial World Heritage site consists of seven different areas, with a total of 39 different types of protected areas, including Tiger Reserves, National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Reserved Forests. All of these areas are owned by the State and are subject to stringent protection under various laws. The entire Western Ghats region enjoys a high level of formal protection, with the highest protected area coverage on the Indian mainland.
View images of the World Heritage site
Size and Location
The Western Ghats mountain chain is about 1,600 km long running almost parallel to India’s western coast and spanning six Indian States: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa in the north down to Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south. They cover an area of about 160,000 km2 . The serial World Heritage site covers a total of 795,300 ha, which is equal to about 5% of the area of the whole Western Ghats mountain chain.
Flora and Fauna
The Western Ghats and Sri Lanka region is one of the world’s hotspots of biodiversity. It is also among the 8 “hottest hotspots” when considering various measures of endemism, with among the highest numbers of endemic species for any continental tropical area.
The site features a large number of globally threatened species:, they are supposedly home to the world’s largest population of the endangered Asian Elephant, with about 11,000 individuals. Other Indian flagship species that are found here include Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and the gaur (Bos gaurus), also named Indian bison.
Birdlife International has identified he Western Ghats as an Endemic Bird Area with 16 endemic breeding species.
Out of the 135 mammal species, all but 2 are threatened, such as the critically endangered bat Latidens salimalii, the goat-like Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) and primates such as and the Nilgiri Langur (Trachypithecus johnii) and the endemic lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus). According to IUCN estimates, less than 2.500 adult individuals remain of this last-mentioned magnificent macaque.
Even more at peril is the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina), one of the most threatened Indian mammals and classified as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
A species of purple frog belonging to an endemic family that has just recently been discovered is only one example of the importance of amphibians in the Western Ghats. Perhaps not surprising, the diversity of reptiles, fish and invertebrates is remarkable as well.
For a continental area, the Western Ghats have an extremely high plant diversity and levels of endemism. Estimates for the number of native plants range between 4,000 and 5,000 species, with 34% - 38% of them being found exclusively in the Western Ghats.
The dominant vegetation is tropical evergreen and moist deciduous forests, with some tropical dry thorn forest on the leeward side, and stunted montane evergreen forests and grasslands at higher altitudes. Forests cover 93% of the Western Ghats World Heritage site.
Out of all groups of plants native to the Western Ghats, trees hold the record for endemism, with 352 out of 650 species not found elsewhere in the world. A number of plant genera have evolved into many species only found in the Western Ghats, such as Impatiens with 76 of 86 species endemic, Dipterocarpus with 12 of 13 species endemic, and Calamus with 23 of 25 species endemic.
Human impacts, such as human settlements and parts of reservoirs, are evident across the Western Ghats World Heritage site. Villages located within the site cause inevitable issues such as encroachment, livestock grazing, fodder and fuelwood collection, illegal hunting and increasing interest in tourism-related activity among others. Human-wildlife conflict is also a major issue in some parts of the site.
Mining has been identified as another major threat, for example in Kudremukh National Park, which has a large iron-ore mine in the centre which, even though closed down at present, could be reactivated.
Hydroelectricity, irrigation and wind farms are cause for further concern.
Measures have been put in place to control human impacts and some protected areas have been declared “grazing free” thanks to ecodevelopment projects, largely financed by the Government.