Freshwater Biodiversity Assessments in the Western Ghats

Western Ghats: Fishes, Molluscs, Odonates, and Plants

A two year (2010-2011) project funded by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF)

The Western Ghats assessment project was completed in September 2011. The final report can be downloaded from the link on the right. Below are the key results from the project.

The Western Ghats in India is one of the world’s most heavily populated Biodiversity Hotspots, providing for and supporting 400 million people through water for drinking, transport, irrigation, and hydroelectric power, together with food and resources to sustain livelihoods. However, the pace of growth of the Indian economy and rates of industrial and urban development are not in tune with the conservation needs of this freshwater ecosystem and the remarkably high diversity of species they contain. In most instances the development planning process does not consider the ecosystem’s requirements, mainly due to a lack of adequate information on the distribution and status of freshwater species and the threats they face. There is also little appreciation of the value of freshwater ecosystems to the livelihoods of many people, often the poorest in society. In response to this need for information and raised awareness, the IUCN Global Species Programme’s Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, in collaboration with the Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO), conducted the Western Ghats Freshwater Biodiversity Assessment to review the global conservation status and distributions of 1,146 freshwater fishes, molluscs, odonates and aquatic plants.

The geographic scope of the project included all major river catchments with their origin within the Western Ghats Biodiversity Hotspot. The Tapi, Krishna, and Cauvery systems are included, with freshwater species native to the Western Ghats states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh and western and southern portions of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Chattisgarh, assessed. The IUCN Red List Criteria, the world’s most widely accepted system for measuring relative extinction risk, were applied to assess the status of all species, with information on each species compiled by more than 40 experts from the Western Ghats and elsewhere.

Map showing the extent of the Western Ghats freshwater biodiversity assessment.

Key Outcomes

•    The Western Ghats hotspot, originally designated for its plant species, is confirmed as a globally significant centre of diversity and endemism for freshwater species.

•    Close to 16% of the 1,146 freshwater taxa assessed are threatened with extinction, with a further 1.9% assessed as Near Threatened. Approximately one-tenth of species were assessed as Data Deficient.

•    Within the Western Ghats, catchments in the southern part of the region in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and southern Karnataka have the highest freshwater species richness and levels of endemism, but also contain the highest number of threatened species.

•    Although many protected areas are located within or near areas of the richest freshwater diversity, the southern Western Ghats region also experiences the highest level of threat to freshwater species.

•    The northern Western Ghats region within Maharashtra has a lower recorded freshwater diversity than the southern region. Although this trend supports the expected relationship between species richness and rainfall, the lower diversity is probably due to inadequate surveys in the freshwater ecosystems of the west flowing rivers of the northern Western Ghats.

•    Aquatic plants and fishes are the most heavily utilized freshwater groups in the Western Ghats. Twenty-eight percent of aquatic plants are harvested for medicinal purposes, and 14% and 13%, as food for people and animals, respectively. More than half of all fish species are harvested for human consumption, and a growing percentage (37%) of species are captured for the aquarium trade. Eighteen percent of mollusc species are used as food for humans.

•    The main threats impacting freshwater biodiversity in the Western Ghats include pollution (with urban and domestic pollution ranking as the worst threats followed by agricultural and industrial sources of pollution), species use (including fishing and collection for the aquarium trade), residential and commercial development, dams and other natural system modifications, alien invasive species, agriculture and aquaculture, energy production and mining.

Disparoneura apicalis, a Vulnerable species of dragonfly from the Western Ghats

Disparoneura apicalis, a Vulnerable species of dragonfly from the Western Ghats

Photo: Francy Kakkassery


Key recommendations / conclusions
•    Taxonomic studies, inventories and monitoring of freshwater fauna and flora of the Western Ghats are urgently needed.

•    Many species are narrowly distributed within the Western Ghats, where destruction or alteration of a small catchment may lead to their extinction. Actions required include protection of key habitats, prevention of flow modifications where possible, conservation of specialized ecosystems such as Myristica swamps, prevention of agrochemical use in upper catchments, and regulation of tourism in critical habitats.

•    Improved enforcement of pollution laws is needed along with effective effluent treatment and better solid waste disposal protocols.

•    Investigations into the spread and impact of invasive alien fish and plant species are an immediate priority. A national policy on the introduction of alien species and their management is required.

•    Environmental impact assessment of development activities must be evaluated for their impacts to freshwater ecosystems.

•    Awareness programmes promoting better understanding of the values, sustainable use, and management of wetlands and rivers are crucial to eliminate public perception of wetlands as wastelands.

•    Given the rapid rate of development across the region, politicians, legislators and other relevant stakeholders must be given access to key biodiversity information for freshwater ecosystems and this should be integrated within decision-making and planning processes.

•    Legislation to protect species and habitats exists across the region, but implementation and enforcement need to be more effective. Threatened and endemic species of freshwater fish of biological and socio-economic importance should be included within the National Wildlife Protection Act.  

•    Workshops involving local and regional stakeholders should be carried out to identify and prioritise a set of Freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) based on the potential KBAs identified in the current study. Management plans for these areas can then be implemented to benefit both the many dependant people and the rich biodiversity that these areas support.

The Cauvery River near Gaganachukki Falls in Kollegal, Karnataka

The Cauvery River near Gaganachukki Falls in Kollegal, Karnataka

Photo: N.A. Aravind

Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) for Kerala and Tamil Nadu

In 2013, CEPF funded IUCN to build upon the IUCN Red List Assessments of freshwater biodiversity (published in 2011, see Molur et al. 2011) by working with relevant stakeholders to identify and validate Key Biodiversity Areas for Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The aim of this project was to better inform conservation and development activities in the Western Ghats region by providing reliable and accurate data on important sites for freshwater biodiversity, and to identify policy (and conservation action) relevant opportunities.

Before the stakeholder workshops, potential freshwater KBAs were identified by applying the KBA criteria with the IUCN Red List assessment data for freshwater fishes, crabs, shrimps, molluscs, dragonflies and damselflies, and selected families of aquatic plants using individual sub-catchments defined by HydroBASINS as the default ‘sites’.

In total 34 KBAs were identified, delineated and validated for Kerala and Tamil Nadu during the two workshops. The resulting KBA network incorporates the ranges for 235 KBA trigger species (110 of which are threatened with extinction, 196 are restricted range, 10 are biome restricted). In addition, a total of 132 potential site champions and stakeholders were recommended for the various KBAs.

Specific policy and conservation opportunities and actions for using the KBA data. The actions agreed upon were a culmination of discussions to identify the most achievable activities considering the limited time and resources available to workshop stakeholders. The activities are grouped in to four groups; Local action; Environmental Impact Assessments; National level policy change; Mainstreaming KBAs into State and local policies and can be seen in the KBA workshop report available HERE.

In addition to the work identified to inform policy and conservation using the KBAs validated through this project, a key recommendation was to expand the freshwater KBA identification process for the whole of India, this will make the freshwater KBA concept and data more relevant and influential for national (and State) policy, and legislative processes.

KBA data availability

All the KBA data (including the KBA and focal area GIS shapefiles, and individual KBA data sheets) are freely available through a number of different online sources, including:
- India Biodiversity & Western Ghats data portals.
- Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool
- Zoo Outreach Organisation



Photo: KBA delineation and validation workshop for Kerala © Kevin Smith

  • Fishing in the Bhavani River

    Fishing in the Bhavani River

    Photo: CRG

  • Fish harvest on the Krishna River

    Fish harvest on the Krishna River

    Photo: Mandar Paingankar

  • The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

    The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

    Photo: CEPF

  • About Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO) engages in the active conservation of species through its unique principles of conservation network engineering; providing a platform to organisations and individuals to share and promote issues and concerns that help improve policies for conservation in South Asia.
Results from the ‘Refining and validating freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) for Kerala and Tamil Nadu’ workshops