Geography and Major Biomes of India
India is the seventh largest country in the world and Asia's second largest nation with a total area of 3,287,263 square kilometers. encompassing a varied landscape rich in natural resources. India is shielded by the world's highest mountains, the Himalayas in the north. The southern part of India takes the shape of a peninsula and divides the Indian Ocean into the Bay of Bengal to the southeast and the Arabian Sea to the southwest. The southern tip of Kanyakumari is washed by the Indian Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Lakshadweep group of islands in the Arabian Sea are also a part of India.
India has a great diversity of natural ecosystems from the cold and high Himalayan ranges to the sea coasts, from the wet northeastern green forests to the dry northwestern arid deserts, different types of forests, wetlands, islands and the oceans. India consists of fertile river plains and high plateaus and several major rivers, such as the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Indus. The climate of India is determined by the southwest monsoon between June and October, the northeast monsoon between October and November and dry winds from the north between December and February. From March to May the climate is dry and hot.
India, being a vast country, shows a great diversity in climate, topography and geology and hence the country is very rich in terms of biological diversity. India's biological diversity is one of the most significant in the world, since India has only 2% of the total landmass of the world containing about 6% of the world's known wildlife.
The country has 10 different bio-geographic zones and 26 biotic provinces.
Ladakh mountains, Tibetan plateau
Northwest, West, Central and East Himalayas
Punjab plains, Gujarat Rajputana
Malabar plains, Western Ghats
Central highlands, Chotta-Nagpur, Eastern highlands, Central Plateau, Deccan South
Upper and Lower Gangetic plains
West and East coast, Lakshadweep
Brahmaputra valley, Northeast hills
Andaman and Nicobar
1. THE TRANS-HIMALAYAN REGION
This area is very cold and arid (4,500 - 6,000 mts. above msl). The only vegetation is a sparse alpine steppe. Extensive areas consist of bare rock and glaciers.
The faunal groups best represented here are wild sheep and goats (chief ancestral stock), ibex, snow leopard, marbled cat, marmots and black-necked crane.
2. THE HIMALAYAN REGION
The fantastic altitude gradient results in the tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayan region. Flora and fauna vary according to both altitude and climatic conditions: tropical rainforests in the Eastern Himalayas and dense subtropical and alpine forests in the Central and Western Himalayas. The lower levels of the mountain range support many types of orchids. On the eastern slopes, rhododendrons grow to tree height.
Animals of Himalayas show several behavioral and physiological adaptations. Sambar and Muntjac are found in the subtropical foothills, serow, goral and the Himalayan thar are found in the temperate and subalpine regions, snow leopard and brown bear inhabit the alpine region. Carnivores are the most elusive of all mammals in the Himalayas. There are a variety of carnivores in the higher mountains, some of which are rare and threatened with extinction.
3. THE INDIAN DESERT
The natural vegetation consists of tropical thorn forests and tropical dry deciduous forests; sandy deserts with seasonal salt marshes and mangroves are found in the main estuaries. Typical shrubs are fog growing on sand dunes. Sewan grass covers extensive areas called Palli.
Thar desert possesses most of the major insect species. 43 reptile species and moderate bird endemism are found here. No niche of the Thar is devoid of birds. The black buck was once the dominant mammal of the desert region now confined only to certain pockets. The gazelle is the only species of the Indian antelope of which the females have horns. Nilgai the largest antelope of India and the wild ass, a distinct subspecies, is now confined to the Rann of Kutch which is also the only breeding site in the Indian subcontinent for the flamingoes. Other species like desert fox, great Indian bustard, chinkara and desert cat are also found.
4. THE SEMI-ARID REGION
The semi-arid region in the west of India includes the arid desert areas of Thar and Rajasthan extending to the Gulf of Kutch and Cambay and the whole Kathiawar peninsula. The natural vegetation consists of tropical thorn forests and tropical dry deciduous forests, moisture forests (extreme north) and mangroves. The sandy plains have a few scattered trees of Acacia and Prosopis. The gravelly plains have Caltrops, Gymnosporia, etc. The rocky habitats are covered by bushes of Euphorbia while species of Salvadora and Tamarix occur mainly near saline depressions.
The lion of Gir is the endemic species in this zone.
5. THE WESTERN GHATS
They cover only 5% of India's land surface, but are home to about more than 4,000 of the country's plant species of which 1800 are endemic. The monsoon forests occur both on the western margins of the ghats and on the eastern side where there is less rainfall. This zone displays diversity of forests from evergreen to dry deciduous.
The Nilgiri langur, lion tailed macaque, Nilgiri tahr, Malabar grey hornbill and most amphibian species are endemic to the Western Ghats.
6. THE DECCAN PENINSULA
The Deccan Peninsula is a large area of raised land covering about 43% of India's total land surface. It is bound by the Sathpura range on the north, Western Ghats on the west and Eastern Ghats on the east. The elevation of the plateau varies from 900 meters in the west to 300 meters in the east. There are four major rivers that support the wetlands of this region which have fertile black and red soil. Large parts are covered by tropical forests. Tropical dry deciduous forests occur in the northern, central and southern part of the plateau. The eastern part of the plateau in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa has moist deciduous forests.
Fauna like tiger, sloth bear, wild boar, gaur, sambar and chital are found throughout the zone along with small relic populations of wild buffaloes, elephants and barasingha.
7. THE GANGETIC PLAIN
The Gangetic plain is one of India's most fertile regions. The soil of this region is formed by the alluvial deposits of the Ganges and its tributaries. The four important surface differences recognized in the geomorphology of the plains are
- Bhabar - pebble studded zone with porous beds
- Terai - marshy tract
- Bhangar - older alluvium of the flood plain
- Khadar -newer alluvium
The Gangetic plains stretching from eastern Rajasthan through Uttar Pradesh to Bihar and West Bengal are mostly under agriculture. The large forest area is under tropical dry deciduous forest and the southeastern end of the Gangetic plain merges with the littoral and mangroves regions of the Sunderbans.
The fauna includes elephants, black buck, gazelle, rhinoceros, Bengal florican, crocodile, freshwater turtle and a dense waterfowl community.
8. THE COASTAL REGION
The natural vegetation consists of mangroves. Animal species include dugong, dolphins, crocodiles and avifauna. There are 26 species of fresh water turtles and tortoises in India and 5 species of marine turtles, which inhabit and feed in coastal waters and lay their eggs on suitable beaches. Tortoise live and breed mainly on the land.
Over 200,000 Olive Ridley turtles come to Orissa to nest in the space of three or four nights. The highest tiger population is found in the Sunderbans along the east coast adjoining the Bay of Bengal.
Lakshadweep consists of 36 major islands - 12 atolls, 3 reefs and 5 submerged coral banks - making this group of islands more than three hundred kilometers to the west of the Kerala coast. The geographical area is 32 sq. km. and the usable land area is 26.32 sq. km. The fauna consists mainly of four species of turtles, 36 species of crabs, 12 bivalves, 41 species of sponges including typical coral, ornamental fishes and dugongs. A total of 104 scleractinian corals belonging to 37 genera are reported.
9. THE NORTH-EAST
Biological resources are rich in this zone. The tropical vegetation of northeast India is rich in evergreen and semi-evergreen rain forests, moist deciduous monsoon forests, swamps and grasslands.
Mammalian fauna includes 390 species of which 63% are found in Assam. The area is rich in smaller carnivores. The country's highest population of elephants is found here.
10. THE INDIAN ISLANDS
It is a group of 325 islands, Andaman to the north and Nicobar to the south. The two are separated by about 160 Kms by the ten degree channel of the sea. The rainfall is heavy with both Northeast and Southwest monsoons. At present, 21 of the 325 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar islands are inhabited by unique plants and animals. About 2,200 species of higher plants are found here of which 200 are endemic. The Andaman & Nicobar islands have tropical evergreen forests and tropical semi-evergreen forests as well as moist deciduous forests, littoral and mangrove forests.
112 endemic species of avifauna, the Andaman water monitor, giant robber crab, 4 species of turtles, wild boar, Andaman day gecko and the harmless Andaman water snake are found only in these islands. The Narcondam hornbill is a large forest bird with a big beak found only in Narcondam. Coral reefs are stretched over an area of 11,000 Sq.Km. in the Andamans and 2,700 Sq.Km. in Nicobar.
Biodiversity of Indian Forests
The variability among living organisms from all sources including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part. This includes diversity within species between species and of ecosystems.
India shares 12.53 % of world’s biodiversity. India has 3.9 % of grasslands, 2.0 % of hot deserts, 4.1M hectares of wetland ecosystems. India is the 7th largest country in the world and one among the 17 mega diversity centers.
- 45,000 + species of wild plants
- 89,000 + species of wild animals
- At least 320 species of wild relatives of crops have been originated here.
- 1,39,000 species of plants, animals and microbes.
- More than 4 lakh species are yet to be identified
- There are three mega centers of endemism and 26 micro centers of endemism.
ANIMAL SPECIES IN INDIA AND WORLD
Flora of Indian Forests
Total number of plant species recorded in the world are 2,50,000 . In India there are about 45,000 species, 33% of which are native. There are 15,000 flowering plant species which is 6% of the world’s total species. Areas rich in endemism are the Northeast, the Western Ghats and the Northwestern and Eastern Himalayas. Andaman & Nicobar Islands contribute at least 200 endemic species to the endemic flora.
No. of species
Fauna of Indian Forests
Total animal species recorded in the world is around 11,96,903. India has about 86,874 of these animal species.
No. of Species
India possesses little more than 7% of the total animal species of the world. This percentage is higher than that of the plant species. Out of a total of 86,874 animal species, insects alone comprise 68.52% and chordates 5.70%
Among the large animals, 173 species of mammals, 101 of birds, 15 of reptiles, 3 of amphibians and 2 of fishes are considered endangered.
Conservation History of Indian Forests
There is enough evidence to show that dense forests once covered India. The changing forest composition and cover can be closely linked to the growth and change of civilizations. Over the years, as man progressed the forest began gradually depleting. The growing population and man’s dependence on the forest have been mainly responsible for this. Natural history in India has a long heritage with a recorded history going back to the Vedas. Natural history research in early times included the broad fields of palaeontology, zoology and botany. These studies would today be considered under field of ecology but in former times, such research was undertaken mainly by amateurs, often physicians, civil servants and army officers. Natural history in India was also enriched by older traditions of conservation, folklore, nature study and the arts.
Early History of Indian Forests
Vedic Period: All ancient texts have some mention of the forest and the activities that were performed in these areas. Forests were revered by the people and a large number of religious ceremonies centered on trees and plants. The Agni Purana, written about 4000 years ago, stated that man should protect trees to have material gains and religious blessings. Around 2500 years ago, Gautama Buddha preached that man should plant a tree every five years. Sacred groves were marked around the temples where certain rules and regulations applied
300-185 B.C.E (Maurya Dynasty): When Chandra Gupta Maurya came to power around 300 BC, he realized the importance of the forests and appointed a high officer to look after the forests. Ashoka stated that wild animals and forests should be preserved and protected. He launched programs to plant trees on a large scale. These rules continued even during the Gupta period.
Later History of Indian Forests
1526-1707 (The Mughals): During the Muslim invasions a large number of people had to flee from the attacks and take refuge in the forests. This was the beginning of a phase of migration to the forest. They cleared vast areas of forests to make way for settlements.
The Muslim invaders were all keen hunters and therefore had to have patches of forests where they could go hunting. This ensured that the trees in these areas were not felled, and the forest ecology was not tampered with. The Mughals showed more interest in gardens and their development. Akbar ordered the planting of trees in various parts of his kingdom. Jahangir was well known for laying out beautiful gardens and planting trees.
1612-1947(Colonial India): During the early part of the British rule, trees were felled without any thought. Large numbers of trees such as the sal, teak, and sandalwood were cut for export. The history of modern Indian forestry was a process by which the British gradually appropriated forest resources for revenue generation. Trees could not be felled without prior permission and knowledge of the authority. This step was taken to ensure that they were the sole users of the forest trees.
But after some time, the British began to regulate and conserve. In 1800, a commissioner was appointed to look into the availability of teak in the Malabar forests. In 1806, the Madras government appointed Capt. Watson as the commissioner of forests for organizing the production of teak and other timber suitable for the building of ships.
In 1855, Lord Dalhousie framed regulations for conservation of forest in the entire country. Teak plantations were raised in the Malabar hills and acacia and eucalyptus in the Niligiri Hills.
In Bombay, the conservator of forest, Gibson, tried to introduce rules prohibiting shifting cultivation and plantation of teak forests. From 1865 to 1894, forest reserves were established to secure material for imperial needs. From the 18th century, scientific forest management systems were employed to regenerate and harvest the forest to make it sustainable. Between 1926 and 1947 afforestation was carried out on a large scale in the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In the early 1930s, people began showing interest in the conservation of wild life.
During World War I forest resources were severely depleted as large quantities of timber were removed to build ships and railway sleepers and to pay for Britain’s war efforts. Between the two wars, great advancements in scientific management of the forests were made, with many areas undergoing regeneration and sustained harvest plans being drawn up. Sadly, emphasis was still not on protection and regeneration but on gaining maximum revenue from the forests. World War II made even greater demand on the forest than World War I had done.
1947-Post Independence: With the independence of India in 1947, a great upheaval in forestry organization occurred. The princely states were managed variably, giving more concessions to the local populations. The transfer of these states to the government led to deforestation in these areas. But some forest officials claim that the maharajas cut down a lot of their forests and sold them. This may have been the case in some instances, but a lot of forest had existed and has been lost since the government took over these states.
The new Forest Policy of 1952 recognized the protective functions of the forest and aimed at maintaining one-third of India’s land area under forest. Certain activities were banned and grazing restricted. Much of the original British policy was kept in place, such as the classification of forest land into two types.
The next 50 years saw development and change in people’s thinking regarding the forest. A constructive attitude was brought about through a number of five-year plans. Until 1976, the forest resource was seen as a source of earning money for the state and therefore little was spent in protecting it or looking after it.
In 1976, the governance of the forest came under the concurrent list. ‘Development without destruction’ and ‘forests for survival’ were the themes of the next two five-year plans, aiming at increasing wildlife reserves and at linking forest development with the tribal economy. But a large gap between aim and achievement exists still.
Over the years, many rules and regulations were introduced by India. In 1980, the Conservation Act was passed, which stipulated that the central permission is required to practice sustainable agro-forestry in a forest area. Violations or lack of permits was made a criminal offense. These nationalization wave and laws were intended to limit deforestation, conserve biodiversity, and save wildlife. However, the intent of these regulations was not matched by reality that followed. Neither investment aimed at sustainable forestry nor knowledge transfer followed once India had nationalized and heavily regulated forestry. Deforestation increased, biodiversity diminished and wildlife dwindled. India's rural population and impoverished families continued to ignore the laws passed in Delhi, and used forests near them for sustenance.
Indian Forests at Risk
Since the early 1970s, deforestation threatened not only the ecology but their livelihood in a variety of ways, people have become more interested and involved in conservation. Forest areas in several parts of India, such as Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand, were vulnerable to illegal logging by timber mafias that have coopted or intimidated forestry officials, local politicians, businesses and citizenry. Another major threat has been the practice of slash-and-burn by local people in the northeastern states of India (Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya) from ancient times. The forest land would either be burned or cut off for cultivation to grow food. Approximately, 15,000 square kilometers of forest land has been under such cultivation, and just a sixth of this land has actually produced any crop at any given year. Apparently, this practice of slash and burn has caused damage to the dense forests, to the soil, to the flora and the fauna, and contaminated the air thus causing pollution. Consequently, posing threat to the flora and fauna of that area and also endangering the environment.
Indian Fauna at Risk
India is still home to some of the most beautiful creatures in the world. There are 400 wildlife sanctuaries and 80 National parks in India, which give shelter to the wide range of wild and endangered wild animal. Because of deforestation and other human activity wild animals lost their habitat and reached at risk of becoming extinct. India has lost their animals due to environmental pollution, deforestation, loss of habitat, human interference, poaching and hunting.
All animals and birds in India are rated as Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN) or Vulnerable (VU). Mainly endangered animals in India are big cat family which includes snow leopard, Bengal tiger and Asiatic Lion. Other India’s endangered animals are purple frog or pig nose frog, great Indian vulture, Indian giant squirrel, giant Indian fruit bat, great birds and King Cobra. Some of the extinct animals of India includes Asiatic cheetah, pink headed duck and Indian aurochs.
List of most endangered wild animal species of India
- Indian Tiger: All members of Felidae family which includes three great cats; Asiatic lion, Bengal tigers, wild cats and leopard. Their population have dwindled because of the excessive poaching, they are on the verge of extinction. There are only 1411 Royal Bengal Tiger left in India. Asiatic or Great Indian lion is found only in Gir National Park. One of the most endangered species of Felide family is snow leopard, found only in Himalayan Ranges. Snow leopard along with another Felidae member clouded leopard are the two highly endangered species of big cats found now only in the Great Ranges of Himalayas.
- Indian Dolphin: The Ganges River Dolphin is member of Cetacea family, which includes marine mammals porpoises and whales. Dolphins primarily found in the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers and their tributaries in India. They share their habitat with crocodiles, fresh water turtles. The blind dolphin of holy river Ganges is the national aquatic animal of India. The Indian River Shark is also listed as one of the endangered species in India.
- Gharial: The gharial is one of the three crocodilians found in India - the longest of all living crocodilians. Gharial is mostly found in the holy river Ganges. The king of rivers is also found in Chambal, Irrawaddy and Brahmaputra rivers. The Gharial is listed as the most critically endangered species in India. Mass Gharial deaths in Chambal river is still a mystery - one of the major causes is thought polluted river water.
- Indian Bustard: The Great Indian bustard is one of the world’s heaviest flying birds and one of such rarest birds of Indian Sub-continent. The Bird is found only in some parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Less than a thousand survive today and the species is threatened by hunting and loss of its habitat. Indian Vulture is another endangered birds of India, vultures were being found dead and dying throughout India. Indian King Vulture found sharply in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
- Indian Rhinoceros: The Great Indian Rhinoceros also called as one-horned rhinoceros is primarily found in parts of north- eastern India. The Indian Rhinoceros has a single black horn which is present in both male and female species. The Great Indian Rhinoceros is the fourth largest animal in the world. Today about 3,000 rhinos live in the wild, 2,000 of which are found in Manas and Kaziranga National Park of Assam. Excessive hunting for its horn has reduced their natural habitat drastically.
- Black Buck: Black buck also known as Kala Hiran is a species of antelope found mainly in India. It is one of the most beautiful and graceful animals of antelope species in India. Due to extensive poaching and habitat loss, black buck population has been reduced drastically. The antelopes of India can be seen in a few protected areas like the Guindy National Park (Tamil Nadu) Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh and Chilka in Orissa and also some parts of Rajasthan and Punjab.
- Indian Wild Ass: Indian wild ass also called Khur is a subspecies of Asiatic wild ass found only in Rann of Kutch. Its last refuge lies in the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch and its surrounding areas of the Greater Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. It was classified as a highly endangered species in India due to its meager number of 362.
- Indian Wild Dog: Indian Wild Dog or Dhole is one of the top predators of wild forest, living in packs, hunting co-operatively and is considered a highly social animal. Asiatic wild dog is also called the whistling hunter because it has an extraordinary vocal call. Dhole is found in national parks of Assam, Bengal, Gujarat, Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, and Nilgiri Biosphere reserve of south India. It is estimated that only 2500 Dholes are left in the wild. Threats to the dhole species include habitat destruction and loss of its main prey.
- Nilgiri Langur: The Nilgiri Langur is found in the Nilgiri Hills of the Western Ghats in south India. Its range also includes Kodagu in Karnataka, Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu and many other hilly areas in Kerala. The Nilgiri Black Langur is a member of one of the 13 species of monkeys found in India which is endangered due to deforestation and poaching for its fur and flesh. Indian golden langur falls in the same category of endangered animals of India.
- Red Panda: The beautiful and endangered species, the Indian Red Panda also known by the name Red Fox. There are two kinds of species of Red Panda and only one species of red panda is found in India. India has 20 protected areas in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal’s Kangchen Dzö-nga and Namdapha national parks. The endangered Red Panda lives in temperate climates, in deciduous and coniferous forests, usually in an under-storey of bamboo and hollow trees.
Indian Flora at Risk
India is home to approximately 49,000 plant species - equating to about 12 percent of the known species in the world. At least 20 percent of India's plant species are threatened or endangered. The main causes of the reduction in the population of plants are destruction of their natural habitats, commercial harvesting and exploitation, and low reproduction rates.
- Corypha Species: Talipot palms, Corypha species, are tall palm trees that are endangered. Some species are found only in cultivated locations. The tree grows 50 to 60 years before blooming and then slowly dies. This has led to a decline in its population.
- Cycas beddomei: Commonly called Peritha or Pireetha, is an evergreen plant that grows 15 to 20 feet tall. It grows on dry open slopes, open woodlands and grasslands in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Its population has been decimated by harvesting for trade and medicinal uses, and is considered critically endangered.
- Decalepis hamiltonii: Decalepis hamiltonii is a shrub that grows in deciduous forests of Peninsular India. It is endangered due to habitat destruction and over-exploitation. All parts of the plant contain alkaloids and glycosides that are used in medicines and pesticides. Some common names for Decalepis hamiltonii are Maredugeddalu, Nannari and Sariba.
- Ilex khasiana: Another critically endangered shrub is Ilex khasiana. There are only three or four known plants left on Shillong Peak in the Khasi Hills. The plant population has declined due to the plant's low rate of reproduction.
- Kingiodendron pinnatum: Malabar Mahogany, Kingiodendron pinnatum is a large tree that grows in the forested hills of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is endangered due to over exploitation, habitat destruction, and low reproduction rates.
- Madhucca diplostemon: Madhucca diplestomon is a small tree that grows in the forests on Deccan Peninsula. It is endangered due to habitat destruction caused by agriculture, clear cutting and human habitations.
- Myristica Species: Myristica magnifica and M. malabarica are endangered trees that are native to Western Ghats. The swamp lands and lowlands where they normally grow have been drained for agricultural use.
- Pterocarpus santalinus: Reds Sandalwood, Pterocarpus santalinus is a tree that grows only in the dry, deciduous forests of Eastern Ghats is considered endangered due to logging and clear cutting of its habitat. In addition, its harvesting being used in medicine and cosmetics.
- Syzygium travancoricum: The sacred grove of the Siva Vishnu temple at Kalassamala, near Kunnamkulam, in Thrissur, the 3.5-acre grove has 110 Syzygium travancoricum (Kulavetti or Vathamkolli in local parlance) trees, a critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List. The trees, which grow in freshwater swamps, are endemic to India. The Red List says fewer than 200 of the species are left. The sacred grove of Aickad is reported to have four of them, while Guddrikal has 15 to 20. A major threat faced by the trees is that the swampy wetland habitat has been widely drained and converted into paddy fields.