The Priority Species and Critical regions of India
Habitat and distribution
In India, the Asian elephant was once widely distributed throughout the country, including in states like Punjab and Gujarat. Currently, they are found in four fragmented populations, in south, north, central and north-east India. Extreme habitat generalists, their habitat ranges from wet tropical evergreen forests to semi-arid thorn and scrub forests. However, highest densities of the elephant population are found in tropical deciduous forests. Elephants are ‘mega-herbivores’ that require vast tracts of forests, rich in food and water to survive.
Historically, Indians have through their long association with captive elephants that go back 4,000-5,000 years developed strong cultural and religious links with these mega herbivores. This makes elephants an excellent flagship species in generating public support for their conservation. Owing to their diverse range of habitats and large home ranges, elephants help protect the biodiversity within their range. Even their large dietary requirements enable elephants to have a significant impact on the trees and other vegetation, which results in a modification of their habitat. Thus their conservation could help maintain the biological diversity and ecological integrity of large forest tracts.
At the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated that India probably had many thousands of tigers in the wild.The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Government of India, have been conducting tiger estimation surveys in partnership with NGOs. WWF-India was the key NGO partner of the WII and NTCA in conducting the comprehensive country-wide tiger estimation exercise in 2010-11, which revealed a mean tiger population estimate of 1,706.
Based on a census using the pug mark technique, the number of tigers in 2002 stood at 3,642. As per the 2008 tiger estimation exercise conducted by WII in association with the NTCA using camera traps, there were only 1,411 tigers left in the wild in India.
The tiger is not just a charismatic species or just another wild animal living in some far away forest.
The tiger is a unique animal which plays a pivotal role in the health and diversity of an ecosystem. It is a top predator which is at the apex of the food chain and keeps the population of wild ungulates in check, thereby maintaining the balance between prey herbivores and the vegetation upon which they feed. Therefore, the presence of tigers in the forest is an indicator of the well being of the ecosystem. The extinction of this top predator is an indication that its ecosystem is not sufficiently protected, and neither would it exist for long thereafter.
If the tigers go extinct, the entire system would collapse.
For e.g. when the Dodos went extinct in Mauritius, one species of Acacia tree stopped regenerating completely. So when a species goes extinct, it leaves behind a scar, which affects the entire ecosystem. Another reason why we need to save the tiger is that our forests are water catchment areas.
Therefore, it’s not just about saving a beautiful animal. It is about making sure that we live a little longer as the forests are known to provide ecological services like clean air, water, pollination, temperature regulation etc.
What are white tigers?
A centennial event! Tiger numbers have finally increased!
The number of tigers in the wild is now 3,890! This updated minimum figure, compiled from IUCN data and the latest national tiger surveys, indicates an increase on the 2010 estimate of ‘as few as 3,200’, a first ever in the last 100 years.
With every tiger, we protect around 25,000 acres of forest.
When tigers are protected, we save so much more. As a large predator, the tiger shapes the ecosystem in which it lives.
One Horned Rhino
The Indian rhino has a single horn, which is present in both sexes. It is the largest of all the Asian rhinos. Considered to be the most amphibious of all the rhino species, the Indian rhino is an excellent swimmer. It can run at speeds of up to 55km/hr for short periods of time. Though it has an excellent sense of hearing and smell, its eyesight is relatively poor.The animal is solitary as a rule, though several may occupy the same patch of forest or water hole.
Habitat and distribution
The preferred habitat of an Indian rhinoceros is alluvial flood plains and areas containing tall grasslands along the foothills of the Himalayas. Formerly, extensively distributed in the Gangetic plains, today the species is restricted to small habitats in Indo-Nepal terai and northern West Bengal and Assam. In India, rhinos are mainly found in Kaziranga NP, Pobitara WLS, Orang NP, Manas NP in Assam, Jaldapara NP and Garumara NP in West Bengal and Dudhwa TR in Uttar Pradesh.
Indian Rhino Vision 2020
An ambitious plan to expand the distribution of Assam’s state animal, the greater one-horned rhinoceros, took yet another big leap, with the translocation of two rhinos from the Kaziranga National Park to the Burachopari Wildlife Sanctuary on 29 March 2016.
This operation was part of the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020) programme launched by the Assam Forest Department in partnership with WWF-India, the International Rhino Foundation and US Fish & Wildlife Service in 2005.
The programme aims at increasing the number and range of rhinos in Assam through wild-to-wild translocations from Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary to potential Protected Areas including Manas National Park, Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary, Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. The vision is to attain a population of 3000 wild rhinos in Assam, distributed over seven of its Protected Areas by 2020.
Habitat and distribution
Snow leopards live in the mountainous regions of central and southern Asia. In India, their geographical range encompasses a large part of the western Himalayas including the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas. The last three states form part of the Eastern Himalayas – a priority global region of WWF and the Living Himalayas Network Initiative
Snow leopards prefer steep, rugged terrains with rocky outcrops and ravines. This type of habitat provides good cover and clear view to help them sneak up on their prey. They are found at elevations of 3,000-5,000 metres or higher in the Himalayas.
The snow leopard is listed as Endangered on the IUCN-World Conservation Union’s Red List of the Threatened Species. In addition, the snow leopard, like all big cats, is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which makes trading of animal body parts (i.e., fur, bones and meat) illegal in signatory countries. It is also protected by several national laws in its range countries.
Habitat and Distribution
Smooth-coated otter is distributed throughout the country from the Himalayas and to the south in India. It is sympatric with other otter species in the Western Ghats and the northeast India.
Smooth-coated otters are found in areas where freshwater is plentiful, preferring shallow and placid waters— wetlands and seasonal swamps, rivers, lakes, and rice paddies. Where they are the only species of otter, they may be found in almost any suitable habitat, but where they are sympatric with other species, they avoid smaller streams and canals in favour of larger bodies of water. Although they are often found in saltwater near the coast, especially on smaller islands, they require a nearby source of freshwater.
Major threats to Asian otter population are loss of wetland habitats due to construction of largescale hydroelectric projects, conversion of wetlands for settlements and agriculture, reduction in prey biomass, poaching and contamination of waterways by pesticides. Poaching for pelt and other body parts that are believed to possess therapeutic properties. Few nomadic hunting tribes eat otter flesh. Reductions in prey biomass (fish stocks) and infrastructural developments have led to disappearance of otters from the many streams and rivers which were once major otter habitats.
Ganges river dolphin
Habitat and Distribution
Ganges river dolphins prefer deep waters, in and around the confluence of rivers. The distribution range of the Ganges river dolphins in India covers seven states namely, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The upper Ganga River (in Uttar Pradesh), Chambal River (Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), Ghaghra and Gandak Rivers (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh), Ganga River, from Varanasi to Patna (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), Son and Kosi rivers (Bihar), Brahmaputra from Sadia (foothills of Arunachal Pradesh) upto Dhubri (on the Bangladesh border) and Kulsi River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra River, form ideal habitats for the Ganges river dolphin.
Once present in tens of thousands of numbers, the Ganges river dolphin has dwindled abysmally to less than 2000 during the last century owing to direct killing, habitat fragmentation by dams and barrages and indiscriminate fishing. It is for these reasons that despite high level of protection, its numbers continue to decline. The absence of a coordinated conservation plan, lack of awareness and continuing anthropogenic pressure, are posing incessant threats to the existing dolphin population.
Habitat and Distribution
The Nilgiri tahr inhabits the open montane grassland habitats at elevations from 1200 to 2600 m (generally above 2000 m) of the South Western Ghats. Their range extends over 400 km from north to south, and Eravikulam National Park is home to the largest population. The other significant concentration is in the Nilgiri Hills, with smaller populations in the Anamalai Hills, Periyar National Park, Palani Hills and other pockets in the Western Ghats south of Eravikulam, almost to India’s southern tip.
Nilgiri tahrs exist only in small, isolated populations due to extreme habitat fragmentation and illegal hunting. They are, as a result, vulnerable to local extinction. The reasons for the decline of tahr populations have not been fully understood. Despite several studies over the years, there are only rough estimations of Nilgiri tahr populations. The species has always been under severe stress on account of the construction of numerous hydroelectric projects, timber felling and monoculture plantation of eucalyptus and wattles. All these development activities, especially the plantation activities affect the heart of the tahr habitat, which are the grasslands – sholas.
The Sarus crane is the tallest flying bird in the world standing 152-156 cm tall with a wingspan of 240cm
Habitat and distribution
The Sarus crane has three disjunct populations in the Indian sub-continent, south-east Asia and northern Australia with an estimated global population of 25,000-37,000 individuals. In the Indian subcontinent, it is found in northern and central India, Terai Nepal and Pakistan. It was once a common site in the paddy fields of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Assam. Their population is now on the decline with only 15,000-20,000 found in India, a majority of which are in Uttar Pradesh. The Sarus crane is known for its ability to live in association with humans, inhabiting open, cultivated, well watered plains, marshlands and jheels. These areas suit them well for foraging, roosting and nesting.
The main threat to the Sarus crane in India is habitat loss and degradation due to draining the wetland and conversion of land for agriculture. The landscape of its historic range is rapidly changing due to construction of highways, housing colonies, roads, and railway lines. More recently, many deaths have been recorded due to collision with power lines. Also, due to the increase in agricultural land, Sarus cranes are left with no choice but to forage in these fields, and as a result ingest pesticides, which lead to poisoning.
Black Necked Crane
Habitat and Distribution
The high altitude wetlands in the Tibetan plateau are the main breeding ground of the species. These wetlands with small mounds provide an excellent habitat to the birds for breeding. These birds winter at lower altitudes where they feed mainly on the leftovers in rice and potato fields. This species is found in India, China and Bhutan and breeds in high altitude wetlands in the Tibetan plateau at elevations of 2950-4900 m above mean sea level. High altitude marshes and lakes of Tibetan Plateau (Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Gansu), Sichuan (China), and eastern Ladakh (India) are the known breeding grounds of black-necked crane. The major wintering flocks are in Tibet, Yunnan and Guizhou (China) and Bhutan (Phobjika and Bomdaling Valleys). A small wintering population is also found in Sangti and Zimithang valleys of Arunachal Pradesh in India.
The major threat to the successful breeding of black-necked crane is the damage to the eggs and chicks, caused by feral dogs. These dogs are owned both by armed forces as well as by the local nomads. Another threat to the bird is the loss of habitat. The human pressure on the wetlands, the primary habitat of cranes, has increased tremendously over the last decade. The increased grazing pressure on the limited pastures near the wetlands is also leading to the degradation of the wetland habitat.
Satpura Maikal landscape
Satpuda Maikal Landscape (SML) sprawls across 19 districts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh covering a total area of 1,43,551km2. Of this, roughly 40,837km2 is under forest cover, with some of the country’s most famous tiger reserves and Protected Areas. This landscape supports 30 per cent of the world’s tiger population and 17 per cent of India’s tiger population with some of the largest contiguous forested tracks connected through wildlife corridors. Some of the tiger reserves critical from a conservation standpoint in this landscape are Kanha, Satpuda, Pench, Melghat, Tadoba and Achanakmar.
Terai Arc Landscape
Nilgiris Eastern Ghats Landscape
The Nilgiris Eastern Ghats Landscape (NEG) is the foremost elephant country of the subcontinent. It has the single largest contiguous population of Asiatic elephants in its range and holds the key to the long term survival of the species. Over 6,000 elephants live in the Nilgiri and Eastern Ghats Landscape which spreads over an area of about 12,000km2. Other large mammals found in the area are the gaur, sambar and tiger. The terrain of the landscape is mostly undulating with low hills. The area extends from the south of the Brahmagiri hills in Karnataka through the Wayanad plateau into the northern Nilgiri hill slopes and the Mysore plateau which links up to the Sigur plateau and the Moyar river valley.
The Moyar valley rises up the slopes of the Eastern Ghats leading into the Thalamalai plateau going up to the east of the Biligirirangan range into Bargur, Sathyamangalam and Madeshwaramalai up to the Cauvery River.
Southern Western Ghats Landscape
The Southern Western Ghats (SWG) cover an area of 7000km2 through the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and harbour a very rich floral and faunal biodiversity. It forms one of the largest contiguous blocks of ‘good’ forest cover in the Southern Western Ghats. This region harbours high levels of endemism and over 15 per cent is under the Protected Area network. Some of the important and unique habitat types found here include wet evergreen forests and sholas in the higher elevations. The Southern Western Ghats is also a priority terrestrial and freshwater ecoregion of the world.
North Bank landscape
Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape
The Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape (KKL) is a vital site situated within the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. KKL is spread over 25,000 km2 south of the Brahmaputra River in Assam, touching the neighbouring states of Meghalaya and Nagaland in north-eastern India. The vision for this biodiversity-rich and culturally-diverselandscape is to ensure that large mammals, especially tigers, elephants and rhinos persist in connected ranges with minimal wildlife-human conflict.
Kaziranga National Park, the biggest protected area (PA) in this landscape is connected with the rest of the landscape through four corridors, namely Panbari, Haldhibari, Amguri and Kanchanjhuri, which are facing anthropogenic pressures. This landscape has a population of about 2500 elephants – about half of Assam’s elephant population and more than 70 per cent of Assam’s tigers. In addition, this landscape boasts of more than 2,000 rhinos, comprising close to 90 per cent of the rhino population of India. This makes the area critical for protection and conservation of wildlife and their habitats.
The region is also endowed with rich ethnic diversity. The diverse cultural and traditional practices among the ethnic tribes and other communities contribute to a complex demographic structure throughout the landscape.
Khangchendzonga Landscape lies at the heart of the eastern Himalayas. It includes the state of Sikkim as well as northern West Bengal. The area lies in the shadow of the towering 8,585-metre Khangchendzonga peak – the third highest mountain in the world. ‘Khangchendzonga’ literally means five repositories of God’s treasure, namely gold, silver, gems, grains and Holy Scriptures.
This landscape is nestled in the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot. A wide variety of endemic and threatened species thrive here because of the variations in elevation, climate, vegetation and habitat type. It is listed among the world’s ten most critical centres for biodiversity and endemism, with a vast array of floral and faunal species. Over 220 water bodies are found in Sikkim, fed mostly with glacial melt water, which also are the main sources for rivers in the state
The northern part of this landscape is comprised of the mountainous state of Sikkim, which has about 82 per cent of its geographical area under forest jurisdiction. Darjeeling district and parts of Jalpaiguri in northern West Bengal constitute the southern part of this landscape. The total area of this landscape is less than 10,000 km2. Due to a wide range of altitudes here, between 150 metres and 8500 metres, this landscape boasts of a great variety of plants that range from tropical and temperate to alpine and tundra. This is one of the few regions in the world to exhibit such diversity in a small area. A great variety of wild animals found in this area include the Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, clouded leopard and gaur in the lowland areas and the red panda – Sikkim’s state animal, Asiatic black bear, goral, serow, snow leopard, Himalayan tahr, Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan argali, and musk deer are found in the higher reaches. Sikkim is also renowned for orchids. It is home to an impressive 695 species of butterflies of the 1438 butterfly species found in India.
Western Arunachal landscape
Western Indian tiger landscape
The Western Indian Tiger Landscape (WITL) is spread over an area of 30,000km2 across the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh at the intersection of the Aravalli and Vindhya mountain ranges, the oldest hill ranges of India. It comprises two tiger reserves, two national parks and nine wildlife sanctuaries, all connected to each other through wildlife corridors in the form of territorial forests, reserve forests and tributaries of the river Chambal.This landscape supports the westernmost population of the Bengal tigers in India, and the world
The famous Ranthambore Tiger Reserve holds the source population of tigers, which disperse into adjoining national parks and wildlife sanctuaries through the wildlife corridors, in search of new territory, food and mate\
The landscape is a mix of dense forests comprising mostly dhak trees, a species known to withstand long periods of drought and heat, and grasslands on plateaus. Old ruins, palaces and forts form the backdrop of these forests, which were once the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur. While the tiger is the top predator here, other endangered wildlife include, the leopard, striped hyena, caracal, jungle cat and the black buck. The forests and wildlife here are threatened by habitat degradation, habitat fragmentation, encroachment, poaching of tigers and prey species and human-wildlife conflict.
One of the most important waterfowl refuges of the world, a Ramsar site and a World Heritage site, Keoladeo National Park (KNP) is known for its rich biological diversity.
It is a man-made and managed wetland and was notified as a bird sanctuary in 1956 and elevated to the status of a national park in 1982. The reserve, primarily used as a waterfowl hunting reserve while protecting Bharatpur from frequent floods also provided grazing grounds for village cattle.
This 29 km2 reserve, locally known as Ghana, is a mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps, and wetlands. These diverse habitats are home to over 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, five species of lizards, seven amphibian species, seven turtle species and a variety of other invertebrates. Every year thousands of migratory waterfowl visit the park for wintering and breeding. By virtue of being one of the best bird areas of Asia, KNP attracts over 100,000 visitors every year.