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17 Sep 2012
India has a wide range of ecosystems and habitats that includes forests, wetlands, grasslands, coasts, marshes and deserts. Almost all the major ecosystem types in the world can be found in India. I have been fortunate to have visited and soaked in the beauty of all these habitats.
Forests - India is among the top 10 forested countries in the world. The actual forest cover (as determined through remote sensing during 2008-2009) is about 69.2 million hectares or 21.1 percent of the geographical area (see Figure 3 and Table 1). In addition, estimates suggest the tree cover (patches of trees that are less than one hectare in area and thus not assessed through remote sensing) to be a little over 9 million hectares. Thus, total forest and tree cover in the country is over 78 million hectares, or 23.8 percent of the country’s geographical area (FSI 2011).
India’s forests are home to a number of charismatic mammals such as the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica), the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee), Indian Bison (Bos gaurus) and the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus). In addition, a number of deer and antelope species are also found in different forest types, including the Indian Gazelle (Gazella bennettii) and Four-horned Antelope (Tetracerus quadricornis). The avifauna of Indian forests is also remarkably rich, including both resident and migratory birds (IC Net 2011).
Grasslands - India has a rich array of grasslands – semi-arid pastures in the western part; Banni grasslands in the Kutch salt desert; humid, semi-waterlogged tall grasslands in the Terai (plains just south of the Himalayas); rolling Shola grasslands on the Western Ghats hilltops; and high-altitude alpine pastures in the Himalayas (Bugiyals). A number of rare faunal species are found in grasslands, such as the Bengal Florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Pygmy Hog (Porcula salvania), Hispid Hare (Carprolagus hispidus), Wild Water Buffalo, Hog Deer (Axis porcinus) and the Swamp Deer (Cervus duvauceli) in the Terai grasslands; the Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) in dry, short grasslands; the Lesser Florican (Sypheotides indicus) in monsoonal grasslands of western India; and the Nilgiri Tahr in the Shola grasslands of the Western Ghats. The grass flora is also quite diverse, composed of about 1,256 species in 245 genera. The grasslands of India are not as well studied as its forests. The estimates of grasslands and shrub lands in India vary from 3.7 percent to as much as 12 percent of the area (UNEP 2001; IC Net 2011).
Wetlands - Wetlands in India exist across different geographical regions and have varied origins. They cover about 10 million hectares or 3 percent of the country’s geographical area and support a variety of life forms including around 150 amphibian and 320 bird species (UNEP 2001). Many wetlands serve as important winter sites for migratory birds. Around 25 of the country’s wetlands have gained international importance as Ramsar sites and six more are to be added to this list.
Coral reefs - The MoEF estimates Indian reef area to contain about 200 coral species belonging to 71 genera spread around 0.24 million hectares. Coral reefs primarily occur in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and Lakshadweep. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands alone have 179 coral species (UNEP 2001).
Mangroves - India has some of the finest mangroves in the world, nestled in the alluvial deltas of the Ganga, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Cauveri rivers and on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Mangrove vegetation is spread over 0.47 million hectares or 0.14 percent of the country’s geographical area. India accounts for around 3 percent of the world’s mangrove vegetation and almost half of it is located in Sundarbans in West Bengal (FSI 2011). The major mangrove species are Avicennia officinalis, Excoecaria agallocha, Heritiera fomes, Bruguiera parviflora, Ceriops decandra, Rhizophora mucronata and Xylocarpus granatum. The Indian mangroves support 105 fish, 20 shellfish and 229 crustacean species. Among a range of avian and mammalian species, a notable inhabitant of mangroves is the Royal Bengal Tiger, which roams the swamps of Sundarbans (UNEP 2001).
Deserts - India has both hot (sand and salt) and cold deserts. The Thar desert – seventh largest in the world – is the main hot sand desert. Several species have adopted themselves to survive in the harsh desert conditions. The flora comprises 682 species (including 63 introduced species) belonging to 352 genera and 87 families. The degree of endemism of plant species in the Thar desert is 6.4 percent, which is relatively higher than the degree of endemism in the Sahara desert. Some of the endemic plant species are Calligonum polygonoides, Prosopis cineraria, Tecomella undulata, Cenchrus biflorus and Sueda fruticosa. The faunal diversity is also rich, with 755 invertebrate and 440 vertebrate species, including 140 bird and 41 mammalian species and the only known population of the Asiatic Wild Ass (Equus hemionus khur). The cold deserts cover 5.62 percent of the country’s geographical area where the temperature can plummet to as low as -50oC during winters. The flora has high level of endemism and these cold deserts are also home to many endangered animal species such as Asiatic Ibex (Capra sibrica), Tibetan Argali (Ovis ammon hodgsoni), Wild Yak (Bos mutus) and Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia).
Pramod Krishnan is Programme Analyst, Environment and Energy Unit, UNDP India
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