Biodiversity Degradation in the Western Ghats

By: Dr Priya Davidar
Land use changes related to agriculture and other developmental activities along with intensive harvesting of non timber forest products have led to loss of forests, grasslands and biodiversity in the Western Ghats. Although some of these activities contribute significantly to local household incomes, non sustainable resource extraction can be deleterious.

Sustainable resource extraction in the Western Ghats is possible under particular conditions, i.e., low population density, simple technology, localised resources and limited expansion. However, due to heavy dependence on forests, even subsistence livelihoods, such as in India, could lead to deforestation although the relationship between deforestation and wealth is not straightforward. Deforestation has multiple scalable causes that differs geographically, warranting site and case centric policies for them to be effective.

We have conducted three studies in different regions of the Western Ghats to measure the impact of resource collection on the vegetation. Major forest products collected in each region were identified; collection intensity was estimated and socio economic correlates of resource collection were assessed to test the hypotheses that dependence on forest resources would increase with human density and decrease with levels of protection.

Article 6 Image 1

Study regions

Kogar (Shimoga Division of Karnataka) in the Central Western Ghats with predominantly agricultural economy was the northernmost study site. Three agrarian systems: pioneering stage of agriculture by immigrants, mixed farming and intensive cash cropping was examined in terms of their dependence on forests. This region possesses forests under the reserve forest and wildlife sanctuary categories which are in different stages of degradation. Reserve forests permit collection of forest products and livestock grazing, whereas wildlife sanctuaries, at a higher level of protection, prohibit collection, but allow livestock grazing. The resource use patterns were assessed between 1992-1994.

The Sigur region connects the reserve forests of the Sigur plateau with the neighbouring protected areas covering over 3300 square km and supports a population of 1800 to 2300 elephants. It is one of the four most important zones for long term conservation of the Asian elephant due to its relatively intact habitat. Sigur’s forests provide critical migration corridors for the elephants. However, the contiguous and expanding settlements have left only narrow corridors for elephant movement and is in need of protection, as pointed out in several studies. The grazing pressure in this region has resulted in low tree densities, poor recruitment and more open cover compared to forests with low levels of grazing pressure. The resource use patterns were assessed in 2007.

The Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), situated in the Southern Western Ghats was established in 1988. It has the highest level of protection and resource collection. Livestock grazing is not permitted in the core zone. The eastern boundary of KMTR is adjacent to rich agricultural land consisting of 145 villages/hamlets with about 30,000 households located within 5 km from the reserve boundary. The dry forest adjoining the reserve has been extensively degraded due to resource extraction pressure and livestock grazing. The study on resource use was conducted between 2000 to 2002.


Published and unpublished research resources were used to assess the forest resource usage in these three sites. Accordingly, forests were coded from the lowest to the highest levels of protection: reserve forests were listed at the top followed by wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserve respectively. A Spearman’s rank correlation tested whether human density and levels of protection were associated with collection intensity. In Kogar, Sigur and KMTR, the domestic energy sources of households were compared using a χ2 test to see whether fuel wood collection was common to the regions.

Results showed that fuel wood collection was common to all regions, fodder and green leaves were collected in the predominantly agricultural regions of Kogar and KMTR whereas cattle manure was collected in the Sigur region. KMTR had the highest population density and the highest level of protection, and the lowest collection intensity whereas Kogar had the lowest level of protection, the lowest population density and the highest collection intensity (Table 1). The high correlation (rs= –0.92, p < 0.0001) suggests that levels of protection significantly influenced collection intensity independent of human density.

In the Sigur Plateau, daily wage labourers, mainly women in the four study villages collected fuel wood and cattle manure. About 3825 ± 80 kg of wood were removed per day from Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary using four major entry points over an area of 20 km2; collection of cattle manure covered over twice this area. Although fuel wood was mostly for household consumption, sale to local businessmen was also common. Agricultural income was miniscule whereas tourism was the major economic activity in the region.

In the fertile region of KMTR, agriculture was an important occupation. About 46 per cent of the households used forest resources – fuel wood, fodder and green leaves for organic manure, were the three major products collected. Fuel wood was sold and was also used for household consumption whereas the other products were collected solely for the homestead.

Article 6 Table 1

Withholding the extensive dependence of local communities on forest products such as fuel wood, fodder and green leaves, collection intensity was negatively associated with the levels of protection, indicating the importance of protected areas in lowering human pressure on forests regardless of human density. Collection intensity was higher at Kogar and lower in Sigur and KMTR. However, the dry forests of Sigur and KMTR could not support the same levels of anthropogenic pressure as the wet forests of Kogar due to their lower productivity. Fuel wood collection was the major activity in all the three regions essentially as a source of domestic energy. Fodder and green leaves were also collected but not as intensively. Commercial collection of cattle manure was a major activity in the Sigur region and in the adjacent Bandipur National Park due to proximity to a regional market. Large herds of scrub cattle that have no maintenance costs are driven into the protected areas for grazing, where they have an adverse effect on wild herbivore densities by lowering the carrying capacity of the forest.

The forest users ranged from the poor and marginalised to wealthier agricultural households and tourist resorts. For example, in KMTR, households buying fuel wood belonged to the highest mean income cohort in the region; households that collected fuel wood for domestic use had intermediate income levels whereas households that collected wood for sale, the lowest. In Kogar, the wealthier farmers contributed disproportionately to loss of biomass from forests due to cash cropping and their ability to extract more products from longer distances. Elite tourist resorts in the Sigur region utilised wage labour to harvest forest fuel wood for bonfires and barbecues. The availability of wage and farm labour is probably one factor that drives extraction of forest resources by households. Availability of non farm employment reduces tropical deforestation. Therefore, any developmental activity or infrastructural projects encouraging influx of wage labour are potentially responsible for increased deforestation. In contrast, households depending on forest products to augment household income face a rapidly diminishing resource base. Thus, it is in their economic interest to encourage non forest based livelihood options. Dependence on forests by rural households for low cost energy and fodder leads to forest degradation and
loss of biodiversity. It is, therefore, crucial that rural energy and fodder requirements are addressed at the policy level. Subsidised community managed forests and private plantations should be encouraged as a source of fuel wood and fodder.


Conserving in a human dominated landscape

Conservation of biodiversity in the Western Ghats is a challenge. A time series analysis of land cover change in the Sigur region showed that the rate of loss of forest cover has nearly doubled between 1989 and 1999 (21 ha/year) as compared to between 1973 and 1989 (12 ha/year). The protected areas in the Western Ghats have long, porous boundaries, often bordering human settlements. Policing is difficult – compounded by problems of governance. However, protected areas are important in reducing human pressure on forests. Upgrading the existing reserved forests into more stringently protected areas would be necessary for the long term conservation of this region. Many indigenous communities, prominent among which are the Todas of the Nilgiris have conserved biodiversity through traditional practices, and should be integrated into protected area management. It is becoming increasingly clear that forest managers need the support and confidence of local stakeholders for enforcing conservation measures. Forests have low local use value but high indirect use value for the national as well as the global
community. Therefore, understanding the local causes of deforestation is a first step towards framing realistic policies and innovative conservation solutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *