Science paper places mountain chain on list of 137 ‘irreplaceable’ protected areas globally

The case for conserving the Western Ghats has now got the empirical backing of a Science magazine paper, which calculates that the mountain chain is the world’s second-most “irreplaceable” site for threatened species.

Even as the Union Environment Ministry on Thursday declared a third of the 140,000 sq km forest stretch “no-go” for development projects, the Science paper places the area at second place on a list of 78 ecologically “irreplaceable” sites for the sheer number of threatened species it harbours. The list includes 137 protected areas and spans 34 countries. The Western Ghats, however, tops the “irreplaceability” index for amphibian species threatened with extinction. As many as 179 amphibians and 157 reptiles found here are endemic (or unique) to this region, which happens also to be the habitat to several endangered mammals, such as the lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Tahr and Nilgiri Langur.

For the study, researchers evaluated the irreplaceability of each of the world’s 173,461 protected areas (and of another 2,059 proposed sites). These together are habitat to 21,419 mammals, birds and amphibians, of which 4329 are globally threatened.

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta National Park tops the list as habitat for threatened species, while Venezuala’s Formaciones de Tepuyes tops the list for “overall irreplaceability” of the ecosystem.

The Western Ghats traverses six States along India’s western coast and was inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list last year for its “exceptional levels of plant and animal diversity and endemicity”.

“In areas of high irreplaceability for species at risk of extinction, there is no time to lose in establishing effective management necessary to prevent extinctions,” say the authors, who represent several international universities and research institutes such as University of Tasmania, Australia; International Union for Conservation of Nature, Switzerland and University of Bath, the U.K.

While management plans often tend to “focus on charismatic species”, they “sometimes deliver no benefits to, or can even jeopardise the persistence of, other species” the paper says, adding that “in such cases, we propose that species for which a Protected Area has the highest conservation responsibility should be the first consideration for management and monitoring.”