India’s Western Ghats is an ecologically unique biodiversity hotspot recognized by the United Nations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) in association with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) have been supporting projects by conservationists and researchers in the area.
The exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism in this mountain chain represents some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests in the world. Natural history and evolution of the species in the sub-continent was shaped by the unusual geological history of the subcontinent.
Separation of the Indian Plate from the Gondwana beginning from 120 million years ago lead to a long-term isolation of the subcontinent. During this isolation Indian plate moved from southern hemisphere into the northern hemisphere with an astonishing speed. While crossing the tropical belt it experienced a wide range of climatic changes. It stayed as an isolated landmass for more than 70 million years until it collided with Asia. The collision initiated the formation of the Himalayas. The Western Ghats remained as a prominent feature during the geological migration. Long-term isolation enabled evolution of a very high proportion of endemic species. Later when the contact is reformed the diversity became even more pronounced with migrants coming from Asian and African flora and fauna.
The Western Ghats have a fascinating influence on large-scale biophysical and ecological processes over the entire Indian peninsula. The mountains of the Western Ghats and their characteristic montane forest ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather patterns that mediate the warm tropical climate of the region, presenting one of the best examples of the tropical monsoon system on the planet. The Ghats act as a key barrier, intercepting the rain-laden monsoon winds that sweep in from the south-west during late summer.
The Western Ghats of southwestern India is one of the most densely populated of the 35 global biodiversity hotspots. Therefore, its forests face population pressure for timber and agricultural land. To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must contain at least 0.5% or 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70% of its primary vegetation. Today only one-third of the Western Ghats’ natural vegetation remains in healthy condition. Remaining forests are highly fragmented and face increasing degradation.
CEPF’s projects focus on the Western Ghats, which stretches across an area of 180,000 square kilometers along the west coast of India. The region performs important hydrological and watershed functions, sustaining the approximately 245 million people who live in the Indian states that receive most of their water supply from rivers originating in the region.