The 1,80,000 sq km that the Western Ghats are spread across constitute just five per cent of the total landmass of India, but the same area is home to 30 per cent of the plant, fish and bird species found in the country.
Issues of deforestation, growing population and overgrazing, however, continue to plague the region that extends from the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, passing through Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been considering the inclusion of the Western Ghats on their list of World Heritage Sites. Could this be a step in the right direction?
Commenting on the inclusion that is likely to be made in June of this year, environmentalist Bittu Sahgal says, “The recognition is long overdue. The title instills national pride and can sometimes overcome national greed.”
Sahgal adds that the combined effects of geology and climate have blessed the mountain range — something he deems a “botanical wonderland” — with “unprecedented biodiversity”. “The forests of the Western Ghats are the source of the Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri rivers — the genetic source of tomorrow’s foods and medicines,” says Sahgal, adding, “Future generations will need these landscapes not merely to feed themselves, but to feed their spirit as well.”
The only way that India can adapt and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change is by protecting its natural ecosystems, particularly those of the Western Ghats, believes Sahgal.
According to Atul Sathe, Public Relations Officer at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the inclusion is likely to create worldwide publicity and help ensure that funds are available for conservation and eco-tourism projects.
“The Western Ghats are home to several rare, as well as endemic species, including birds like the Malabar Trogon and Great Pied Hornbillas, animals such as the Lion-tailed Macaque and Nilgiri Langur, as well as insects, fish, amphibians and plants,” says Sathe.
He adds that since the Ghats are the source of major rivers, including the Tungabhadra, Kaveri and Moyar, besides providing water, it is also a source of livelihood for thousands of people. “The ports and creeks along the western coast are crucial to the economy of the region.
It is also home to a rich cultural heritage in the form of the forts, temples and caves, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka,” says Sathe. Forests have a stabilising effect on the monsoon over the western slopes and the western coast that are the lifeline of the region. “Transportation can be kept navigable and silt-free, if forests on the Western Ghats are preserved,” adds Sathe.
No token gestures, please
Nature writer and photographer Sunjoy Monga is wary about the inclusion and says that it should be more than a symbolic gesture.
“It is easy to declare a World Heritage Site, but it is difficult to sustain the effort in a densely populated country like India,” he says.
Monga adds that while there are numerous spots in the Ghats that have been turned into sanctuaries and national parks where the process of conservation is underway, the challenge is to focus on specific ecologically rich pockets in the southern region of the Ghats.
“Current conservation efforts have addressed only the needs of small clusters within the Western Ghats, because of constraints,” says Monga, adding, “The rising population and rampant tourism practices put a strain on natural resources and undermine ongoing conservation efforts.”
Power in numbers? Not always
Increased attention is not always a good thing, according to Prakash Dubey, member, state Wildlife Board, who is averse to the current tourism model. “People going in hordes to see an animal in a national park is not conducive to the welfare of animals, and hardly helps the conservation process,”
Dubey, however, still believes that the inclusion might be a step in the right direction, as it is likely to put pressure on the government to conserve places that might not otherwise have come under the scanner. “In the past, conservation panels have been formed, but there wasn’t much happening on the ground level,” he says, adding that the solution might lie in having a panel that includes experts from within the government as well as outside to ensure a balance.
Sahgal’s advice is to ensure that people living next to biodiversity hotspots are the first beneficiaries of all tourism and ecosystem services that arise as a result of these efforts. He says, “Perhaps locals should set an example and follow Frieden-srieich Hunertwasser’s dictum enunciated over a century ago: ‘You Are a Guest of Nature, Behave’.”
Did You Know?
> The Western Ghats are likely to have been formed 150 million years ago when the Pangea land mass broke up to form Gondwana and Laurasia.
> The Western Ghats cover 1,80,000 sq km and are home to roughly 5,000 flowering plant species, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species.
Yogesh Kardile, Documentary filmmaker and founder of Amazing Sahyadri.com
The inclusion might lead to better control over non-regulated deforestation and forest fires that are rampant in the Sahyadris. There needs to be greater awareness about the region so that people treat it with respect. Locals need to be made part of conservation efforts.
Mazhar Asif, director, nature knights
There is a lot of scope for adventure tourism in the Western Ghats, which has not yet been explored. The government needs to draft a better policy and invest in eco-tourism industry for the region. It will open up better employment opportunities for local youth, as well as provide Mumbaikars with better places to visit. Activities such as kayaking, rafting and cycling should be encouraged in the Western Ghats.