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Preserving Biodiversity in Kerala

Biodiversity of Kerala has immensely benefited the humankind for ages and must be preserved in a sustainable manner for future generations.

By Anubhav Srivastava

November 20, 2008

Legend has it that Parasurama, one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, killed all the Kshatriyas on earth. In a mood of remorse over the killings, he threw his axe in the sea. The sea receded and left behind as huge landmass which we now call Kerala. If there is one aspect about Kerala which makes it eminently qualified to be called God's own country, apart fro the legend, it is its rich biodiversity. Kerala is a home to nearly 10035 plant species which is 22 per cent of the total number of plant species found in India. A high number of plant and animal species are endemic (unique) to the state. Out of the 3872 flowering plants found in Kerala, 1272 are endemic. 56 out of 102 mammals, 139 out of 169 reptiles and 86 out of 89 amphibians are endemic to the state which speaks volumes about the high level of biodiversity in the state. Kerala has been identified as one of the world's twenty-five biodiversity hotspots with three of India's nineteen Ramsar Convention-listed wetlands – Lake Sasthamkotta, Asthamudi wetlands and the Vembanad-Kol wetlands are located in Kerala.
Kerala is located between north latitudes 8°18' and 12°48' which is the region of humid equatorial climate with an average annual rainfall of 3107 mm. The forest regions in Kerala lie on the western slope of the Western Ghats at different altitudes rising up to2694m above sea level. This steep and abrupt topography create great variations in the environmental conditions. All these factors provide ideal conditions for existence of high levels of biodiversity in the state.

Important flora found here are sonokeling (Indian rosewood), bamboo, wild black pepper, wild cardamom and aromatic vetiver grass. Among animals found here are Asian elephant, Bengal tiger leopard, Nilgiri tahr, palm civet and grizzled giant squirrel. Reptiles like king kobra, python, viper and crocodile are found here. Birds like peafowl, great hornbill, great Indian hornbill, Indian cormorant and jungle myna can also be found in the state. Moreover, Kerala has a long coastline with 44 rivers criss-crossing the state. So lots of marine creatures like prawns, lobsters, crabs, mussels apart from fishes like karimeen (pearl spot), kadu (stinging catfish) and choottachi (orange chromide) are also present.
The biodiversity in Kerala has benefited the human kind for ages. From 3000 BC, foreigners like Assyrians and Babylonians were drawn to the state for the variety of spices available here. Kerala has exported pepper, cardamom, lavender, ginger, garlic and teak, bamboo (called poor man's timber) and ivory products for a long time and still continues to do so. In Kerala forests, we find more than 900 species of highly sought medicinal plants. Kani tribe, a nomadic tribe now settled in Thiruvananthapuram district, revealed the anti-fatigue properties of Arogyapacha plant to the world. Since they pass their knowledge orally through generations, the tribal medicinal system is now being rigourously explored and documented by the state government.
Kerala forests are an excellent source of non-timber forest produce (NTFP), the collection of which provide livelihoods to the local people and are sourced by even big multinational companies. More than 500 species of NTFP are available in Kerala forests and provide edible products, toiletries, tans, dyes, gums, resins, grasses and animal products. Due to the high biodiversity, the state has emerged as one of the highly acclaimed ecotourism destinations in the world. The Western Ghats, with its typical forest ecosystem and natural advantages and the excellent tourism infrastructure in the state have attracted large number of tourists. People come to Kerala for ayurvedic and herbal treatment also. Major wildlife sanctuaries ans national parks located here are Periyar, Idukki, Silent Valley, Parambikkulam, Wayanad, Peppara, Iravikulam and Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary.
However, a cause of concern is that the ecosystem in Kerala is very fragile and many natural and man-made causes pose a great threat to its biodiversity. 159 species of flowering plants are threatened and same is the case with hundreds of animal species. The major man made causes include collection of firewood, illicit felling of trees, cattle grazing, encroachments (Kerala is the most land hungry state in India and has the lowest per capita land holding), poaching, illegal sand mining (leading to land sliding and lowering of water table), unscientific collection of NTFP and mass tourism and pilgrimage undertaken in the forest areas. Forest fire is the biggest natural hazard.
The state has taken a number of steps to retain its rich biodiversity. The first step was taken by the erstwhile state of Travancore which declared forests around Periyar Lake as Nellikkampatty Game Reserve. The Kerala Forest Act, 1961 was passed which was an important step in conservation efforts. Wildlife sanctuaries and national parks were opened and initiatives like Project Elephant were undertaken. A Forest Central Library has been opened at Thiruvananthapuram where books and journals on various subjects, research reports, census reports and multimedia clips and movies are available.

The biodiversity of the state of Kerala has immensely benefited the humanity and to conserve it in a sustainable manner for future generations is the best way to pay for the treasures it has bestowed on mankind.

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India.

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