The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel will soon hold a regional consultation meeting, likely in Thrissur, for identifying areas to be declared ecologically sensitive zones in the Kerala part of the biodiversity hotspot.

The meeting will be followed by visits to the identified areas, V.S. Vijayan, member of the panel, says.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forest has formed the 14-member panel, headed by Madhav Gadgil, former chairman of the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, for recommending measures and assisting the government in the preservation, conservation and rejuvenation of the environmentally sensitive and ecologically significant regions of the Western Ghats.

The Western Ghats is one of the four biodiversity hotspots of the country, housing 1,741 species of flowering pants and 403 species of birds. Forests cover nearly 30 per cent of its area. Wildlife found includes the tiger, the elephant, the lion-tailed macaque, the Wayanad laughing thrush, the Travancore tortoise, snakes and several species of legless amphibians.

The panel's mandate is to assess the ecological status of the Western Ghats region, demarcate areas within to be notified as ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and recommend modalities for the establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority under the Act, the Ministry says.

The committee will look for ecologically sensitive areas outside the protected areas of national parks and sanctuaries. In some cases, the buffer zones of some of these protected areas will be considered. After the identification, discussions will be held with the local bodies under which these areas fall, Dr. Vijayan, former Chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, says.

The panel members may join the inspection trips in the State. The ecologically sensitive zones will be governed by the central Act and no activities, such as mining, which may affect the ecology of the region will be permitted.

The Western Ghats region runs to a length of 1600 km from the mouth of the Tapti river, near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, covering Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The ghats region, which covers an area of about 1.6-lakh sq.km, has been under pressure from population and industry, including tourism, submergence of forest areas, encroachment and mining. Clear-felling of natural forests for plantations, railway lines and roads, soil erosion, landslips, habitat fragmentation and rapidly declining biodiversity have put pressure on the rich biodiversity, the Ministry says.