“ This universe is the creation of Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all; Individual species must therefore learn to enjoy its benefits by forming part of the system in close relationship with other species; let not the other species encroach upon the other’s right”.
_ Isavasya Upanishad
Over the past century, India’s wildlife has dwindled to a mere fraction of its former strength and the flora and the fauna in the Western Ghats have not fared any better. Reduction in the forest areas means reduction of the wildlife habitat, which due to various factors has become fragmented. Conversion of forests into plantations, roads, railways, agricultural holdings, human settlements, hydroelectric project, irrigation dams, mining and location of industries in forest areas have all contributed to a very sizeable area of forests lost in the Western Ghats. The other factors which contributed to the depletion of wildlife are uncontrolled hunting, poaching and pollution.
Evergreen forests of Uttara Kannada -Pic by Mohan Pai
Deforestation has been one of the major causes for the depletion of wildlife. With the increase in human population and the growing need for resources, forests were cleared or encroached upon for agriculture, for human habitation, for grazing of livestock and for hydroelectric and irrigation dams. Thousands of square km of prime, evergreen forests have been submerged and destroyed in the Western Ghats for the sake of these development projects.
Industries also made heavy demand on forest resources such as wood for paper mills, exploitation of gums and resins, mining of forest land for minerals and ores, building materials, etc. Uncontrolled hunting of wildlife for pleasure, food, furs, skins, horns, tusks, etc. posed a serious threat to the survival of wildlife. The illegal trade in animal skins has been responsible for destruction of a large number of tigers, leopards, deer, fishing cat, crocodile and snakes as well as birds with beautiful plumage. Elephants were hunted for ivory. There are laws in the country to prevent such illegal trade, but these are often violated by unscrupulous elements, traders and exporters. Added to this is the practice of trade in exotic mammals, birds and reptiles and use of animals for biomedical research.
Pollution of air, water and soil due to various industrial activities apart from affecting humans affect the well being of animals also. Industrial effluents containing harmful chemicals discharged into the lakes, rivers and oceans adversely affect the aquatic life.
DDT and Dieldrin, used as pesticides also has major effect on birds, particularly sea birds. The egg shells of birds become thin, making them vulnerable to breakage due to the weight of the female while incubating them. Oil pollution is another serious problem affecting the seas through leakage from cargo ships and due to accidents.
Natural Extinction of Species
Despite, the seemingly complex and stable nature of ecosystems, a large number of animals which roamed the earth in early geological periods have become extinct. Extinction is a natural phenomena in the evolution of animals. Certain species disappear gradually as they are unable to withstand the competition from those that are better adapted. Sometimes a whole group of animals have become extinct as had happened with dinosaurs at the end of Cretaceous period, some 70 million years ago. Many mammals like mammoths and mastodons have also become extinct. Countless other forms of animals and plants have flourished and disappeared. We know about them from fossil records preserved in the crust of the earth. Extinction is irreversible. This has been part of the evolutionary process which has produced more advanced forms of life - a process that has occurred over a vast span of time over millions of years. The greatest contribution of Charles Darwin, who propounded the Theory of Evolution, in his logical explanation for evolutionary changes and appearance of new form of life - natural selection - the success of those organisms that are capable of adapting to the environment, to survive and reproduce.
Extinction of species has taken place over millions of years, long before the advent of man. Primitive man lived in harmony with nature and did not cause the extinction of animal species. However, the spread of civilization across the world and the progressive exploitation of Nature have had an adverse impact on wildlife. Hunting for animals, alteration of the environment, habitat destruction, pollution of the land, air and water, the human population explosion - all these have been responsible for the extinction of animal species in recent times. Since the 17th Century about 120 mammals and 150 birds have become extinct. The rate of extinction due to human interference has accelerated since the dawn of industrial age. In India, the Cheetah, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, the pink- headed duck and the mountain quail have become extinct in the last one century. Many mammals and birds have become rare and endangered and many a natural range diminished in size with increasing deforestation, often confining the animals to small territories.
Animal Association in Hindu religion
The wildlife always had an association with the folklore and the legendary belief of India. Some 30 different mammals are mentioned by name in the Samhita (the four principal Vedas). Among them is the elephant, the favourite of Indra, whose sanctity is enhanced by the belief that eight elephants guard the eight celestial points of the compass. The langur or Hanuman monkey is held in veneration because of its association with the warrior monkeys who helped Rama in his war against Ravana. The lion is one of the many incarnations of Vishnu. The tiger finds mention in the later Vedic texts. The mongoose features in Mahabharata as a teacher of wisdom to King Yudhistira.
The deer is always associated with Brahma, the creator, and is the constant companion of Mahadeva. The wild boar is referred to as ‘Boar of Heaven’. It is told how in the primordial floods Vishnu taking the form of a boar, raised the submerged earth from the waters and supported it on his tusks.
Lord Ganesha, Hanuman, Narasimha, are deities worshipped all over India that have animal association. Different animals and birds are also venerated as vehicles of different deities. Nandi, the bull for Shiva, deer for Brahma, eagle for Vishnu, peacock for Saraswati, tiger for Durga, horses for the Sun God, and so on.
The earliest known record of measures taken for the protection of animal life comes from India. The oldest record which we have today is the Fifth Pillar edict of Ashoka the Great by which game and fishery laws were introduced into northern India in the third century B.C. In this inscription the Emperor had carved on enduring stone a list of birds, beasts, fishes and possibly even insects, which were to be strictly preserved. The mammals named are bats, monkeys, rhinoceros, porcupines, tree squirrels, barasingha stags, brahminy bulls, and all four footed animals which were not utilised or eaten.
The edict further ordains ‘that forests must not be burned, either for mischief or to destroy living creatures’. Centuries later, the Mogul Emperors, sportsmen, men of action and born observers that they were, displayed a deep interest in the animal life of the country.
Their writings are full of descriptions, some in great detail, of the animals, the plants and the flowers of the country over which they ruled.
The animal life of the Indian peninsular region is characterised by the absence of many of the Indo-Malay species which are so abundant in the hill forests of the Himalayas. It is the home of the true Indian fauna of which the spotted deer, the nilgai, the blackbuck, the four-horned antelope, and the sloth bear are typical representatives. They are found no where else. Other species like the gaur, the sambar and the muntjac (barking deer) occur both in India and Malay countries.
The Western Ghats, in sharp contrast to the adjoining dry zone of the Deccan present a region of great humidity and heavy rainfall. The forests covering the western slopes are at times very dense and composed of lofty trees, festooned with perennial creepers. Bamboos form a luxuriant undergrowth. In parts of the range the forests are more open and the banks of clear streams running through them are covered with spice and betel groves.
Malabar Giant Squirrel - Pic by Vivek Kale
Sholas similar to Nilgiris occur in Anaimalais, Palni Hills, Kudremukh and other south Indian ranges. They provide the main shelter to wild elephants, gaur and other large animals of these hills. The most interesting feature of the higher level forests of Nilgiris is their affinity to the Assam hill ranges.
Many of the trees found in these high ranges and some of the forms of animal life are common to both the areas. The forests of the Western Ghats and the south Indian hill ranges have a richer fauna than the remaining areas of the peninsular region.
Among the species limited to these forests are the Nilgiri langur, the Lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri brown mongoose and the striped necked mongoose, the Malabar civet, and the spiny mouse. In the higher levels of the Nilgiris and the Anaimalais are found such characteristically Himalayan animals as the tahr, the pine marten and the European otter.
Endemic species of the Western Ghats
One hundred and twenty species of mammals are known from the Western Ghats of which fourteen species are endemic (found only in that area). The mammalian fauna of the Western Ghats is dominated by insectivores (11 species), bats (41 species) and rodents (27 species including porcupine). Few studies have, however, paid attention to the community structure and organisation of these small mammals in the Western Ghats, although there have been attempts to review our understanding of the status and ecology of smaller cats and lesser carnivores.
The Great Pied Hornbill
Rare, Endangered Species of the Western Ghats
Endangered animals are those whose numbers are at a critically low level and whose habitat is so drastically reduced or damaged that they are in imminent danger of extinction.
In animal population, the tempo of decline accelerates after a gradual fall to a low level; once the local population of a species is much reduced its ability to recoup deteriorates progressively, and with the fall in numbers often the factors of depletion gain lethal potency.
Dhole (Indian Wild Dog) - Pic by Maximus
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) maintains a Red Data Book providing a record of animals which are known to be in danger. In India, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, provides four schedules categorising the fauna of India based on their conservation status. Schedule I lists the rare and endangered species which are afforded legal protection. It is revised from time to time representing the exact status of the species. At present estimate, 81 species of mammals, 38 of birds and 18 amphibians and reptiles are considered to be endangered in India. Conservation efforts have restored the status of some of these animals, like the tiger, rhinoceros, crocodile, etc.
Mating Frogs - Pic by Mohan Pai
Note: This chapter is condensed for the blog. The original chapter in the book gives detailed information about the endemic and other species