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Hotspots: India’s Western Ghats
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India’s Western Ghats

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By Geoffrey C. Ward Photographs by Frans Lanting

Treasured watershed of India, these coastal mountains feed grasslands, forests, and a burgeoning human population. Biologist E. O. Wilson introduces a series examining such hotspots—among Earth’s richest ecosystems.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

A brief visit to Nagarahole offered insight into the ecological wealth that once characterized the Ghats—and much of India. When [my friend] Ullas and I drove into the park one evening after dark, our lights captured two sloth bears, their heads buried in a termite mound. As we slowed to a stop, one scuttled into the forest. The other, too intent on lapping up succulent insects to notice us at first, eventually yanked its dust-covered head out of the mound, woofed resentfully, and hustled off. A mile or so farther down the road Ullas slowed again at the sound of elephants crashing into the interior. The whole forest seemed to sway in the dark, and Ullas stepped on the gas.

I was awakened three times that night, first by the calls of panicked spotted deer that had likely sighted a leopard, then by the low spacing call of a distant tiger, finally by elephants trumpeting like half a dozen deranged brass players tuning up. Shortly after dawn the following morning we watched two dozen gaur drift soundlessly across a jungle track and disappear in the mist beneath teak trees so tall they made even those huge bovines look small.

An afternoon boat ride on the lake that separates Nagarahole from Bandipur National Park took us past scores of elephants feeding on tender onshore grasses. There may be more elephants in these two parks than anywhere else in India, and when one lead cow elephant decided it was time to move back into the bamboo at the forest’s edge, her band of pushing, shoving followers formed an impressive traffic jam. Near the other end of the vertebrate scale, two muntjac stags, each less than two feet tall, battled furiously on the side of the road that led back to the rest house. Their finger-length antlers locked, they tore at one another with sharp, tusklike canines for several minutes before staggering off separately into the forest, heads down, mouths gaping with exhaustion. The loser’s legs trembled violently as he retreated; ribbons of blood flowed down his flanks to splash in the dust.

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How can the needs of people be met without destroying the Western Ghats or other valuable habitat and species? Join the discussion.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The only known population of critically endangered bats exists in a three-story limestone cave surrounded by pristine evergreen forest in northern Karnataka. A grassroots organization led by Durgesh Kasbekar, a tenacious member of India’s Natural History Society, may well save this rare bat from extinction.

Durgesh has a good track record. In 1999 he and a few colleagues convinced the state government of Goa, a small state in the northern Western Ghats mountain range, to place fragmented sections of forest under protection. These new wildlife sanctuaries were combined with other protected areas to create a large reserve in which tigers, leopards, sloth bears, gaur, deer, and numerous other forest dwellers could live and hunt free from threatening human intrusions.

Adjacent to the Goa sanctuaries, in the state of Karnataka, is the proposed Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary, sole home of Wroughton’s free-tailed bat, Otomops wroughtoni. Durgesh and a band of concerned citizens again rallied, this time convincing the Karnataka forest department to officially request protected status for the 210-square-mile (540-square-kilometer) Bhimgad forest. State approval is expected. When the legislation passes, the adjoining sanctuaries in Goa and Karnataka will make up the largest protected area in all of the Western Ghats. Potentially devastating environmental threats from encroaching mining, timber, and hydroelectric companies will be diverted.

This is good news for all the mountain dwellers, and perhaps especially for the little-known O. wroughtoni,whose cave would have been submerged if a nearby river were dammed for a hydroelectric plant as once planned. Thus a small band of volunteers has saved the sole habitat of one species and helped preserve the freedom of dozens of other endangered animals. Durgesh has convinced government and industry that the needs of humans and tigers—and bats—can all be met without harming one another.

—Barbara W. McConnell

Conservation International
An introduction to the mission and strategies of the Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization.

Hotspot Program
A listing and more detailed information about Conservation International’s hotspot program.

Western Ghats
A site with several links to biodiversity information specifically about plants and animals of the Western Ghats.

Kudremukh National Park
Background information about the park and links to articles on conservation issues. Links also available for details on the issues surrounding the Kudremukh Mining Company, which operates in the park.


Conservation International. Biodiversity Hotspots (a map). Conservation International, 2000.

Mittermeier, Russell, et al. Hotspots. Agrupacion Sierra Madre, 1999.

Myers, Norman. “Threatened Biotas: ‘Hot Spots’ in Tropical Forests.” The Environmentalist. (Vol.8, no.3, 187-208, 1988).

Myers, Norman. “The Biodiversity Challenge: Expanded Hot—Spots Analysis.” The Environmentalist. (Vol. 10, no. 4, 243-256, 1990).

Olson, David M. and Eric Dinerstein. The Global 200: A Representation Approach to Conserving the Earth’s Distinctive Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund, 1998.

Tewari, D. N. Western Ghats Ecosystem. International Book Distributors, 1995.

Wilson, E. O. The Diversity of Life. W. W. Norton & Co., 1992


Ward, Geoffrey C. “India’s Wildlife Dilemma,” National Geographic (May 1992), 2-29.

De Alwis, Lyn. “A Nation Rises to the Challenge,” National Geographic (August 1983), 274-278.

Plage, Dieter and Plage, Mary. “Legacy of Lively Treasures,” National Geographic (August 1983), 256-273.

Putman, John J. “India Struggles to Save Her Wildlife,” National Geographic (September 1976), 298-343.

Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah. “The Bathing and Burning Ghats at Benares,” National Geographic (February 1907), 118-128.


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