Nature has liberally painted a variety of landscapes in our country. Many of these have been demarcated as Biodiversity Hotspots — areas that have extremely rich and diverse flora and fauna and are under threat of getting endangered. Officially, four out of the 36 Biodiversity Hotspots in the world are present in India: the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the Indo-Burma region and the Sundaland. To these may be added the Sundarbans and the Terrai-Duar Savannah grasslands for their unique foliage and animal species.
If you drive northwards, up the Himalayas, you will not only feel the change in climate but also witness a continuously changing panorama — broad-leaved trees giving way to evergreen forests of oak and conifers to alpine meadows at much higher elevations where trees can’t grow because of the harsh climate and only ground-hugging plants thrive. Among the innumerable animal species to be seen here is the charismatic western tragopan. Its beautiful plumage — shades of blue, black, crimson and brown speckled with white — would make a textile designer swoon. The male shows off during courtship by erecting two blue horn-like feathers and inflating its purple throat. In the higher reaches, amongst the snowy peaks, roams the solitary snow leopard whose favourite prey is the bharal and ibex.
The Indo-Burma region, one of the largest hotspots, covers Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos PDR and also includes the Gangetic plains, areas around the Brahmaputra river and parts of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This hotspot comprises plains that are fed with rich alluvial soil by several large Asian rivers besides the Ganga and Brahmaputra. Although it is one of the most biologically rich areas, it is also the most threatened. Many of the species found here like the Annamite muntjac and grey-crowned crocias have rarely been seen by human eyes. Threats such as illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss hang over them like Damocles’ Sword. This region is in dire need of stringent legal protection.
The world’s tallest and rarest grasslands are found in the Terrai-duar Savannah region, which form a narrow stretch at the base of the Himalayas — a continuation of the Indo-Gangetic plain in India, Nepal and Bhutan. These grasslands are fed by the rich silt deposited by the monsoon floods every year. The elephant grass is home to the one-horned rhinoceros that appears to be like a grey boulder in the tall grass, Asian elephants and sloth bears, among other animals.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared the Western Ghats, which run from north to south just beyond the western coast of India, as a World Heritage Site. The montane tropical rain forests on these slopes shelter a variety of animals like tigers, black panthers, and leopards. In the southern forests live the arboreal and shy lion-tailed macaques who are in grave danger of going extinct, as man’s activities are causing their forests to shrink. During the monsoon, one can spot the weird pig-nosed purple frog in these forests. Naturalists are still discovering new species of frogs, caecilians and spiders here; but, sadly, many species are also disappearing at the same time.
The part of India that falls in the Sundaland Hotspot is the Nicobar Islands. Interestingly, it extends to the tectonic plates under the Indian Ocean. The hotspot is home to iconic species like orangutans, pig-tailed langurs, Javan and Sumatran rhinos, and proboscis monkeys found only in Borneo. Sundaland also has the distinction of being home to the world’s largest flowers, the rafflesia, which measure one metre across.
The Sunderbans, a set of 104 islands formed by the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, comprises the largest mangrove forest in the world. In this World Heritage Site, the Royal Bengal tigers swim in the creeks, the Gangetic dolphins play in the rivulets, while the estuarine crocodiles bask on the river-banks. In addition, it harbours innumerable species of birds, mammals and fish. The rising sea, owing to global warming, poses a grave danger of drowning these bountiful islands.