Balancing agriculture and rainforest biodiversity in India’s Western Ghats
CITATION: M.O. Anand, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Ajith Kumar, Archana Bali. Sustaining biodiversity conservation in human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats: Remnant forests matter. Biological Conservation. 143 (2010) 2363–2374. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.01.013.
When one thinks of the world's great rainforests the Amazon, Congo, and the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and Indonesia usually come to mind. Rarely does India—home to over a billion people—make an appearance. But along India’s west coast lies one of the world's great tropical forests and biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats. However it's not just the explosion of life one finds in the Western Ghats that make it notable, it's also the forest's long—and ongoing—relationship to humans, lots of humans. Unlike many of the world's other great rainforests, the Western Ghats has long been a region of agriculture. This is one place in the world where elephants walk through tea fields and tigers migrate across betel nut plantations. While wildlife has survived alongside humans for centuries in the region, continuing development, population growth and intensification of agriculture are putting increased pressure on this always-precarious relationship. In a recent paper in Biological Conservation, four researchers examine how well agricultural landscapes support biodiversity conservation in one of India's most species-rich landscapes.
"The Western Ghats are home to more than 1,000 vertebrate species and nearly 5,000 angiosperms [flowering plants] including many that are endemic to the region. What also makes the Western Ghats a crucial conservation region is the fact that it harbors large, contiguous populations of charismatic megafauna such as tigers, Asian elephants and gaur (a large wild cattle)," the researchers explained to mongabay.com in an interview. "Endemism [species found no-where else] is particularly high among amphibian, reptile and plant groups, and these groups contain perhaps the most threatened species. Point endemism (species known to occur in just one location) is particularly common among amphibians,"
The word 'ghats' refers to a series of steps leading to a sacred river. Here, the steps are really a long range of hills and mountains covered in tropical vegetation. These hills drain water into large river systems which according to the researcher benefits 'over 200 million people'. A wholly unique forest, the Western Ghats also serves as a longstanding agricultural area. According to the researchers, 75 percent of the Western Ghats is unprotected and largely used in various ways for agriculture. Despite such widespread human presence, the researchers say the Western Ghats' biodiversity and human populations have long lived in a relatively balanced state.
"Human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats, although densely populated by people (261 per square kilometer), show two features that are favorable for biodiversity conservation," the authors explain. "First, the human land use is largely restricted to plantation agriculture, horticulture and forestry resulting in high tree cover across the region. Second, and more importantly, patches of forest, riparian vegetation and swamps are still to be found on private lands, community lands and government lands, interspersed with production areas. These features combine to create favorable habitat and dispersal corridors for a number of organisms, ranging from invertebrates to mega-fauna."
Yet, as in much of the world, the situation is changing rapidly for the forests of the Western Ghats, perhaps too rapidly.
"Intensive production land use continues to expand, at the expense of both traditional, relatively biodiversity-friendly land use and remnant natural habitats. We are at a very crucial juncture at the moment," the authors say, adding that an influx of people, increased consumption, and big development projects are putting additional pressure on the landscape. So, how do we protect the biodiversity-friendly features of agricultural landscapes in the Western Ghats in the face of these emerging threats before its too late?
The key, according to the researchers, is to think outside the box by looking towards alternate conservation models that complement the existing network of protected areas. Conserving the unprotected forests that serve as rest-stops in human-modified landscapes for the rainforest's many moving parts, and pushing for a return to the long standing tradition of biodiversity-friendly agriculture are the most important tasks in the Western Ghats.
"Safeguarding and restoring these natural remnants might have a greater positive impact on biodiversity conservation than, say, solely promoting diverse shade plantation over monocultures. A holistic approach that covers both strategies would, of course, be ideal," the researchers say, adding that for any expansion of forest protection would require "[looking] at protection schemes which permit for multiple uses of landscapes. Options such as 'community reserves' and 'conservation reserves' which exist in the current conservation policy but are mostly under-utilized need to be considered more seriously”.
Fortunately, the people of the Western Ghats do not largely view wildlife as competition or pests, the authors point out. In general even big destructive mammals, such as elephants, are not persecuted in the area. The region, they say, has a healthy conservation ethic. But without creative, forward-looking plans and regulations, combined with earnest implementation of laws governing both wildlife conservation and land ownership rights, the tenuous balance between the people and the biodiversity (and in that sense the whole ecosystem) of the Western Ghats may not last.
"It is hard for us to say whether people's attitudes to biodiversity and conservation are changing, but the growing human population coupled with increasing consumption automatically reduces the space available for biodiversity. Along with this growth, our ability to harm biodiversity—deliberately or inadvertently—is constantly increasing, through improved technology, more potent agricultural chemicals and other forms of agricultural intensification. These two drivers together can be devastating for biodiversity in the Western Ghats human-modified landscapes in the very near future," they warn.
In an August 2011 interview four researchers discuss the special characteristics of one of India's greatest tropical forests, the Western Ghats; the challenges given the needs of humans as well as wildlife; and the need for more research in the region.
INTERVIEW WITH M.O.ANAND, AJITH KUMAR, JAGDISH KRISHNASWAMY, ARCHANA BALI
Mongabay: What are your backgrounds?
M.O. Anand: I am presently pursuing a PhD in ecology at National Centre for Biological Sciences, India. I am also affiliated with Nature Conservation Foundation, an Indian NGO working for conservation. I work on tree community shifts in tropical forests in the Western Ghats.
Ajith Kumar: I have a Ph.D. from Cambridge University; I am primatologist, with a research interest also in rainforest ecology.
Jagdish Krishnaswamy: I have a B.Tech from IIT-Powai and a Ph.D from Duke University. I am a landscape ecologist and ecosystem hydrologist.
Archana Bali: I have a Masters degree in wildlife biology and conservation from National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. I am pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD in wildlife ecology and climate science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA.
Mongabay: What makes the landscape and wildlife of the Western Ghats unique?
Interviewees: The Western Ghats mountains that run parallel to India's west coast are characterized by strong gradients in elevation (100-2695 meters), precipitation (800-8000 millimeters per year) and soils substrates, which means that one can experience a wide variety of habitat types and a great diversity of life over fairly short distances. The rainforests of the Western Ghats hold a rather unique mix of species, including several plants, amphibians and reptiles of African origin (the Western Ghats are an ancient land form that existed as far back as when the Indian land mass was a part of Gondwanaland, over 200 million years ago) as well as some plant, bird and mammal species of temperate Eurasia that colonized these forests during cooler and wetter times in the earth's history. The region is recognized for high levels of endemic biodiversity, particularly among vertebrates and plants. There are entire genera that are endemic to the region (e.g. all 23 species of the genus Uropeltis (shield tail snakes) are endemic to the Western Ghats).
The long history of human modification of the landscape is another unique feature of the Western Ghats. In fact, Western Ghats is among the most fragmented and densely populated biodiversity hotspots in the world. Today, just about 25 percent of its approximately 160,000 square kilometers area is under forest cover (of which only 10 percent is strictly protected). Across the rest of the landscape, certain agro-ecosystems (e.g. Coffee, Cardamom) play an important role in sustaining some biodiversity or at least providing cover for transient wildlife.
The Western Ghats are also an important source for vital ecosystem services. The region has one of India’s largest stocks of forest and soil carbon, and its varied ecosystem services (importantly water supply and regulation) benefit over 200 million people within and downstream of the range.
Mongabay: What are some of the key species in the Western Ghats? What are the most threatened?
Interviewees: The Western Ghats are home to more than 1,000 vertebrate species and nearly 5,000 angiosperms [flowering plants] including many that are endemic to the region. What also makes the Western Ghats a crucial conservation region is the fact that it harbors large, contiguous populations of charismatic megafauna such as tigers, Asian elephants and gaur (a large wild cattle). Though not the most threatened species, the Lion-tailed macaque, an endemic primate, is the popular flagship of biodiversity and conservation in the Western Ghats. Endemism is particularly high among amphibian, reptile and plant groups, and these groups contain perhaps the most threatened species. Point endemism (species known to occur in just one location) is particularly common among amphibians. Many species of bush frogs (e.g. Philautus dubois) are known from single locations in the Western Ghats.
Mongabay: The Western Ghats has not been as widely studied as other tropical forests in Asia. Why do you think this is?
Interviewees: Historically, perhaps the main reason is that biodiversity research has not been mainstreamed into our university system, unlike in North America or Europe. Instead, wildlife research is restricted to a small number of government and fewer non-government institutions. Further, there are serious limitations on where one can work and what kind of research one can do. Although there are a few exceptions, in general, research in protected areas is discouraged by government forest administrators. The Western Ghats, nevertheless, is the most studied region in India.
Mongabay: What research would you like to see in the future in this region?
Interviewees: In many respects, biodiversity and ecosystem research in the region has merely scratched the surface of a number of interesting and important issues. So far we’ve mostly only been describing overall species community level patterns (such as species richness, diversity) across various land use elements in human-modified landscapes, and, to a significantly lesser extent, tried to understand the variables that drive these patterns. Even these preliminary assessments are highly biased towards a few biodiversity groups (e.g. mammals, birds, butterflies) and sites (e.g. Valparai plateau, Kodagu plateau). As a first step, we need a more thorough assessment of these patterns spanning more biodiversity groups and a greater part of the landscape.
Second, we need to get a far better handle on the mechanisms by which land use change affects biodiversity, which in turn will improve our understanding of how human-modified landscapes need to be managed in order to sustain and improve their biodiversity conservation value. This would involve not only investigations into how various management options within a land-use type affect biodiversity, but also biological interactions between various elements of a landscape. These goals will be best achieved by integrating the fields of population ecology and landscape ecology into biodiversity research in these landscapes.
Research on functional aspects of ecosystems as well as short and long-term trends in ecosystem attributes is generally lacking. A better understanding of the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functions and related ecosystem services would be invaluable in eliciting greater civil society support and enhanced political will to conserve the Western Ghats.
More so than other branches of ecological research, research in human-modified landscapes needs to grow to be more inter-disciplinary, given the dual and often conflicting goals of biodiversity conservation and economic production that are pursued by people in these landscapes.
HUMAN MODIFIED LANDSCAPES WITHIN THE WESTERN GHATS
Mongabay: How can human modified landscapes, such as those in the Western Ghats, aid beleaguered biodiversity?
Interviewees: Barring a few sites, almost all of the Western Ghats has had some human influence in the past. Some of the more human-modified sites in the Western Ghats are best viewed as allies to formal protected areas for conserving biodiversity. In some ways, they help overcome some of the shortcomings of the protected area network, which is small (covers around 10% of the land area of the Western Ghats), highly fragmented, and under-represents a few important habitats such as mid-elevation rainforests. Human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats, although densely populated by people (261 per square kilometer), show two features that are favorable for biodiversity conservation. First, the human land use is largely restricted to plantation agriculture, horticulture and forestry resulting in high tree cover across the region. Second, and importantly, patches of forest, riparian vegetation and swamps are still to be found on private lands, community lands and government lands, interspersed with production areas. These features combine to create favorable habitat and dispersal corridors for a number of organisms, ranging from invertebrates to mega-fauna. Recently, a young male tiger created a record of sorts by dispersing over 280 kilometers (as the crow flies) from a protected area through landscapes dominated by shade coffee and betel nut plantations.
Having presented a case for human-modified landscapes, we feel it is important for us to also discuss the other side of the coin. The general trend over recent years has been towards the erosion of biodiversity value of human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats. Intensive production land use continues to expand, at the expense of both traditional, relatively biodiversity-friendly land use and remnant natural habitats. We are at a very crucial juncture at the moment.
Mongabay: Are some human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats better than others for biodiversity?
Interviewees: Yes, human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats vary quite widely in their importance for biodiversity, especially for threatened, endemic and charismatic species. There are a number of reasons for these differences between landscapes. The first is biogeography. For example, the further south one moves in the Western Ghats, the greater the levels of endemism. Because of this, human-modified landscapes in the southern Western Ghats would harbor more endemic species than similar ones further north.
The nature of land use also plays an important role. Landscapes within which traditional tree-shaded plantations such as coffee and cardamom predominate are quite like natural forests in their physical structure and floristic composition. One can usually find a very good representation of regional forest biodiversity in some of these plantation landscapes. There are cases in the Western Ghats where coffee-dominated landscapes are the last refuge for some highly endemic species. Such landscapes are found in many parts of the central and southern Western Ghats.
Another key determinant of biodiversity in human-modified landscapes is natural forest cover. Human-modified landscapes that retain larger proportions of natural habitat within them tend to support greater levels of biodiversity – especially obligate forest species [those that cannot survive outside of forest], endemic species and charismatic large fauna.
Levels of human disturbance also vary from landscape to landscape, and this too has a major impact on biodiversity. For instance, in spite of stringent laws against all forms of hunting of wildlife, illegal hunting is prevalent across many parts of the Western Ghats, and this is reflected by the fact that many mammal and large birds species are completely missing from some otherwise prime habitat.
Mongabay: What makes human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats different from those, say, in Central and South America?
Interviewees: Human modification in the Central and South America has been primarily clear felling followed by pastures or plantations of monoculture, especially coffee. In contrast, plantations of coffee and cardamom in the Western Ghats involved only clearing of the undergrowth, leaving most of the trees. This has been due to several restrictions on land use dating back to 1860s and continuing even now. Local dependency on bushmeat in Central and South America is also in sharp contrast to that in the Western Ghats, where a much smaller proportion of the population depends on bushmeat.
Mongabay: You describe many of the Western Ghats protected areas as doughnuts. How does that impact wildlife?
Interviewees: What we mean is that most protected areas are not only surrounded by sub-optimal (for biodiversity) habitat, but also have enclaves of sub-optimal habitat within them. These enclaves usually contain a mix of artificial reservoirs, human settlements and agriculture/plantations. Many protected areas are also dotted with settlements of indigenous forest dwellers who graze livestock and cultivate crops. All these activities disadvantage wildlife in a number of ways. Settlements require infrastructure such as roads and power lines, which impede wildlife movement and fast-track the spread of invasive plant species. There is also increased demand on natural resources for timber and fuel-wood, as well as numerous commercial non-timber forest products such as fruits and honey. Illegal commercial and subsistence hunting is a problem which is mostly not talked about, but prevalent across much of the region. Finally, the presence of people in enclaves within protected areas results in some cases of human-wildlife conflict, such as crop raiding by elephants and wild pigs, or livestock depredation by tigers and leopards.
Mongabay: What is the halo effect? Why is this important for forest conservation?
Interviewees: Consider a hypothetical landscape that comprises a habitat patch—say a forest fragment—embedded in a less biodiversity-friendly matrix such as a monoculture shaded coffee plantation. By themselves, monoculture plantations are generally not attractive to most biodiversity groups because they do not provide much by way of resource to forest-dwelling species. But because of the presence of the biodiversity-rich forest patch in the vicinity, one might expect some spill-over of biodiversity into the monoculture plantation, raising its biodiversity conservation value. This is the essence of the halo effect, an expression that was first published by Tubelis and Lindenmayer in a paper in the journal Oikos in 2004. Taking the discussion further, one might also expect, as has been documented in a few cases, that the quality of the patch (in our hypothetical case, the size and integrity of the forest fragment) might increase the strength of the halo.
Mongabay: Why is setting aside more protected land more important currently in the Western Ghats than changing farming tactics?
Interviewees: Human-modified landscapes in the Western Ghats often feature a complex mix of uncultivated (natural) and cultivated habitats. Our paper and other independent studies seem to suggest the presence of a biodiversity halo cast by these remnant natural patches into surrounding cultivated areas in human-modified landscapes. Which suggests that safeguarding and restoring these natural remnants might have a greater positive impact on biodiversity conservation than, say, solely promoting diverse shade plantation over monocultures. A holistic approach that covers both strategies would, of course, be ideal. Innovative conservation models that combine regulated use with conservation (e.g. community reserves, conservation reserves) become important to pursue these goals.
Setting aside some land from cultivation will not only aid biodiversity but can also benefit people. Some recent work has shown that the conservation of corridors for elephants could actually reduce human-elephant conflict.
Mongabay: What are some especially important areas in terms of forest conservation and how much additional area would you like to see protected in the Western Ghats to ensure biodiversity?
Interviewees: We cannot really propose such a target. But we can talk about some specific human-modified areas that require immediate attention. These areas are important because they serve as landscape-level corridors between conservation units. One good example is Ariyankavu Pass, a densely-populated area in the southern Western Ghats, which (tenuously) links the Periyar forest complex in the north to the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai-Agasthyamalai complex to the south. Other such equally important—if not as prominent—examples are to be found right across the Western Ghats. A detailed profile report of the Western Ghats by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund provides a comprehensive list of such corridor landscapes.
When it comes to actually expanding the area of land under formal protection, a good amount of creativity and flexibility would be required. Further expanding the dominant system of protection, through inviolate national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, is unlikely to win much support in the present political and economic context. Instead, we need to look at protection schemes which permit for multiple uses of landscapes. Options such as 'community reserves' and 'conservation reserves' which exist in the current conservation policy but are mostly under-utilized need to be considered more seriously.
PEOPLE OF THE WESTERN GHATS
Mongabay: How do locals view conservation efforts in the region?
Interviewees: There is no one answer to this question, given the great diversity of human communities in the Western Ghats, and a resultant breadth of interactions with, perceptions of and attitudes towards biodiversity conservation. It can be said, though, that in sharp contrast to forest-dwelling communities in the Western Ghats and indeed most conservation landscapes in India, communities in human-modified landscapes of the Western Ghats are financially more secure and enjoy higher living standards. There is perhaps a greater awareness of conservation issues and even interest in conservation in the Western Ghats than most other parts of India. This is best reflected by the large number of local civil society groups working for conservation of biodiversity and natural resources in various parts of the landscape.
At the same time, recent trends, including the intensification of agricultural production, the influx of a large human population following rapidly-growing new economies (e.g. large-scale tourism) and a push for developmental projects (e.g. roads, hydroelectric projects and mines) has somewhat diminished this conservation ethic. It is hard for us to say whether people's attitudes to biodiversity and conservation are changing, but the growing human population coupled with increasing consumption automatically reduces the space available for biodiversity. Along with this growth, our ability to harm biodiversity—deliberately or inadvertently—is constantly increasing, through improved technology, more potent agricultural chemicals and other forms of agricultural intensification. These two drivers together can be devastating for biodiversity in the Western Ghats human-modified landscapes in the very near future.
Mongabay: Are species crossing through or feeding in agricultural fields considered pests?
Interviewees: No. A lot of species cross through and even feed in agricultural fields and are not considered pests. There are, however, substantial losses of crop and property to large mammals, particularly in areas that border, or are enclaves within large protected areas. Still, residents of the landscape in general show fairly high levels of tolerance towards wildlife on their farms, even large and potentially harmful mammals like elephants and tigers.
Mongabay: Given the high human population in the area, how do you provide for sustainable livelihoods for people, while ensuring species don't vanish and ecosystem services remain in tact?
Interviewees: This is a complex problem and there is really no one answer. In most parts of the human-modified Western Ghats the challenge eventually boils down to minimizing and offsetting the economic and societal costs of conservation. At present the burden of conservation and the benefits from conservation are not distributed in a socially just manner. Ideally, this needs to be addressed through various economic incentives, taxes and other policy instruments. There is a need for policy changes that promote better management of human-wildlife conflict, financial incentives to encourage biodiversity-friendly farming and other incentive schemes such as payments for ecosystem services—each appropriately prioritized to suit differing conservation and socio-economic scenarios in different parts of the landscape. At the same time, existing land use policy and law enforcement need to come together to ensure that illegal hunting, deforestation, land use change and other human actions that contribute to livelihoods but hamper biodiversity conservation are kept in check.
Mongabay: Are there any potential drawbacks with payments for ecosystem services?
Interviewees: Yes, there are potential drawbacks. A major stumbling block in many parts of the Western Ghats (especially forested areas) is uncertainty surrounding land ownership, which causes problems when trying to identify the beneficiaries of payment for ecosystem service schemes. Recent legislations that aim to resolve this issue of land ownership (such as the Forest Rights Act 2006) might eventually encourage local communities to be more positive about engaging with payment for ecosystem services schemes. A similar challenge of identifying and fairly rewarding beneficiaries arises in cases where forest land is owned by the government forest department but is largely affected and managed by local communities—as in the case of many sacred groves.
Perhaps the biggest challenge at the moment is to convince urban and industrial consumers of ecosystem services to pay adequately for conservation or management upstream where these services are generated and maintained. At a national level we have a long way to go to popularize this mindset.