This year marks the 30th anniversary of the remarkable but relatively little known ‘Save Western Ghats March’ , a response to the socio-ecological challenges the area grappled with. A diverse set of people—scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, activists, journalists and local communities—marched together for 100 days along the length of ghats and met at a conference in Goa to discuss the issues.
The march was as much an exercise in envisioning the future as it was an acknowledgement of the past—of the extreme richness of this ancient mountain range that extends from River Tapti to Kanyakumari.
Straddling six states, from Gujarat to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the 1600-odd kilometre-long Western Ghats is home to an astonishing diversity of life and supports innumerable human communities and cultures. It is an ecosystem that is 50 million years old; humans made an entry here only 12,000-15,000 years ago.
Home to hundreds
The beauty of the landscape is unmatched, endemism in the forests is high, and nearly 250 million people living in peninsular India are nourished by the many rivers that originate here. The forests are also home to hundreds of globally threatened species, including rare and unique ones like the Malabar torrent toad, the Nilgiri langur, Wroughton’s free-tailed bat, the Nilgiri laughing thrush and many species of caecilians, the limbless amphibians.
The Western Ghats are recognised today as one of the world’s top 35 biodiversity hotspots and for very good reason. What the march did way back in 1987 was to offer a unique opportunity to understand the place and its people. It was an exercise in creative activism that might also be considered prescient, predating as it did the international recognition the Ghats have achieved in the last three decades. The idea of a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ was first articulated only in 1988.
Conservation efforts in the Western Ghats have indeed been varied. The mountain range is dotted by a number of wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, tiger and elephant reserves and traditional sacred groves ( devrai in Maharashtra, deverakadu in Kodagu and kavu in Kerala) that have existed for centuries.
It is important in this context to recognise that the Western Ghats are, perhaps, the most intensely studied system in the country and one where maximum initiatives and efforts towards conservation have been attempted. While some have been small and localised, others have had appeal and relevance cutting across State and political boundaries.
These include the 1970s agitation to save Silent Valley in Kerala from a dam project, the large conservation research and action project initiated here under the aegis of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) a few years ago, and the much more recent (but mainly unsuccessful) effort to declare large parts of the ghats ecosensitive.
Its richness, wealth and conservation efforts notwithstanding, the Western Ghats continue to host a whole range of serious and complex challenges: unregulated mining is ravaging large parts; a number of rivers have been (and continue to be) dammed, resulting in the loss of riverine ecosystems and the submergence of pristine forests; a rapidly growing network of roads and rail lines is fragmenting forests; there’s habitat loss due to urbanisation; agriculture, plantations and the introduction of exotics is leading to a rise in human-wildlife conflict; and tribal communities continue to be marginalised with the loss of access to resources and livelihoods.
It is estimated that only a third of the mountain range is still under natural vegetation, and this too is highly fragmented and degraded. And in spite of this state of affairs, there is much here to be learnt and found.
Frogs are an excellent example of this. In a phenomenon that has taken many by surprise, more than 160 new species of amphibians, mainly frogs, have been discovered in the Western Ghats in the last decade. Fourteen new species of dancing frogs were discovered in 2014, and 12 new frogs have already been discovered this year.
The frogs, both old and new, could be hugely useful for humans too; researchers, for instance, have recently found an antimicrobial peptide on the skin of the frog Hydrophylax bahuvistara that might be the next medicine for flu. Frogs are also one of the most sensitive creatures and among the first affected by changes such as forest loss or climate change. They are critical ecological indicators and their discovery in larger numbers only suggests we have a larger responsibility.
The Save Western Ghats March from three decades ago remains hugely relevant—the Western Ghats are unique, important and still under threat.
Pankaj Sekhsaria researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society, and technology.