There’s a place on the Gulf of Kutch where the desert merges with the sea. Flamingos with brilliant, pink plumage come here in their thousands to build nest mounds from the mud, and then raise their young. It’s just one among many extraordinary sights in a country that can claim one of the world’s richest natural heritages: 89,451 species of fauna including 390 of mammals, 456 of reptiles, 209 of amphibians and 1232 of birds.
From these, the nation has chosen the tiger as its national animal, the peacock as its national bird and the lotus as its national flower.
India’s total forest cover is reported to be around 63.75 million hectares – a rise of nearly 3900 sq km since 1997. Tropical forests are found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Western Ghats and the greater Assam region. There are a few patches left in Orissa. The commercial value of the trees within these forests has opened them to exploitation; in the Western Ghats, for example, Indian rosewood (Dalbeigin lafifblia), Malabar kino (PterocaiTUs mur-supiiimj and teak have been virtually cleared from some areas, although India still has some amazing teak forests.
Alpine, temperate and subtropical vegetation can be found in the Himalaya. Above the snowline hardy little plants like anemones, edelweiss and gentian grow. Farther down, in the monsoon-soaked foothills, are mossy evergreen forests with cinnamon, chestnut, birch and plum. On the terai (plain), the dominant vegetation is usually sal (Shoreu rubusta), a hardwood tree. The Indian banyan (fig) tree is dotted throughout India.
In the harsh extremes of India’s hot deserts the khejri tree (Prosopis cirrerat-iu) and various strains of acacia (scrubby, thorny plants well adapted to the conditions) flourish. Any plant here needs to withstand temperatures of 50°C plus. Many have roots that can snake down deep into the soil to find water, and the leaves on most are small to minimise evaporation.
Introduced species, such as the eucalypt, are surviving at the cost of native species in many parts of India.
The Himalaya harbours a particularly hardy range of creatures. Ladakh’s freezing, high altitudes are home to the yak, a shaggy, homed wild ox weighing around one ton; the two-humped Bactrian camel, which inhabits high-altitude dunes; a wild sheep called the Ladakh urial; the Tibetan antelope: the bharal (blue sheep): the kiang (Tibetan wild ass); the Himalayan ibex; and the Himalayan tahr. Other Himalayan inhabitants include black and brown bears (found in Kashmir ), marmot, mouse-hare and musk deer. The musk deer are delicate creatures lacking antlers, but with hare-like ears and canines that in males look like tusks. This animal, not a true deer at all, has been hunted mercilessly for its musk, which is used in perfume.
When it comes to mystique, none of these animals matches the snow leopard. It’s so elusive that many myths have grown up around it; some believe it can appear and disappear at will. There are fewer than 5000 snow leopards left in the world, and the number is dropping. They can still be found in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
The endearing but very rare red panda inhabits the bamboo thickets of the eastern Himalaya where it feeds on bamboo shoots, fruit, leaves and insects. Sikkim is one of the last refuges of the red panda.
The lakes and marshes of Kashmir provide temporary homes to migrating waterbirds, geese and ducks, many of which fly all the way from Siberia to winter here. Some species exhibit an extraordinary affinity with high-altitude travel; the red and yellow-billed crow-like choughs are capable of flying well above 5000m.
Down on the lowlands India teems with life. It is here that nature and humanity are locked in the most intense competition for land and livelihood. Nature is on the run in many places; animals are losing their habitat as poverty and population pressures drive people beyond their cities and villages, and possibly into poaching and hunting (see Endangered Species, following).
The Ganges and Yamuna Rivers merge on the northern plain before twisting and turning along for thousands of kilometres to empty into the Bay of Bengal, creating a delta of some 80,000 sq km. Within this delta are the swampy Sunderbans, home to a large population of tigers (numbering 269 in 2002), aquatic reptiles, fish, crabs, wild boars, visiting sea turtles, snakes and chital (spotted deer). The chitals have adapted to the environment’s saltiness by acquiring the ability to secrete salt from glands. In the freshwater reaches of the Ganges River (Ganga) live Gangetic dolphins, Shiva’s mythical messengers; crocodiles (mugger or marsh crocs, plus the narrow-snouted antediluvian looking gharial), scavenger crabs and many species of fish.
The one-horned rhino and elephant can still (only just) be found in the northern grasslands.
The harsh deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are surprisingly well populated. The chinkara (Indian gazelle), the wild ass, the Indian wolf and the black buck have all adapted to the heat, salty soils and limited water resources of the region. The 1400-sqkm Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat is the last refuge of the Asiatic lion; in May 2002 these were numbered at an estimated 327. These lions lack the impressive shaggy mane of their African relatives and they have an extra fold of skin on their bellies.
India’s primates range from the extremely rare golden langur, found near the Bhutanese border, to more common species such as the bonnet macaque and its northern cousin, the rhesus macaque. The rainforests of the south also have rare lion-tailed macaques, glossy black Nilgiri langurs and the endangered slender loris (the slow loris are found in eastern India ).
Distributed reasonably widely in peninsular India are dhole (wild dogs), jackals, and several species of deer and gazelle, including the relatively common sambar. Barking deer and mouse deer are now quite rare. The snake-killing mongoose, immortalised by Kipling, is still hale and hearty.
Those averse to slithering creatures may prefer to ignore the fact that India has 238 species of snakes, 50 of them (including 20 species of sea snakes) being poisonous. Found widely in India, the cobra, king of the snakes (at least mythologically), is the world’s largest venomous snake – it grows up to Sm long. Its characteristic pose of arousal, hood spread, is an enduring image for anyone who’s seen a snake charmer at work. Other poisonous snakes include the krait, Russel’s viper and the saw-scaled viper. Harmless snakes include the rat snake, which looks disturbingly like a cobra, the bright-grecn vine snake, the dark-brown bronze-back tree snake and the rock python.
The forests of the Western Ghats, which stretch all the way south from Mumbai to the tip of the peninsula, harbour a wealth of wildlife and plant life. Within their wet, relatively undisturbed confines can be found one of the rarest bats in the world, the small fruit-eating Latidens salimalii, flying lizards that can glide for up to 12m, sloth bears, leopards, jungle cats, hornbills and many other birds. Here, on the mountains’ rocky, misty slopes is the last remaining stronghold of the endangered Nilgiri tahr, or cloud goat.
Beyond the mainland, in the waters of the Bay of Bengal to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west, lie the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep, respectively. Bottle-nosed dolphins, a rich bird population, marine turtles, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, fish and coral are all found here. Also in the Andamans is a small population of elephants (some of which roam wild) brought over from the mainland by logging companies. These elephants are capable of swimming up to 3km between islands. Another oddity found in this part of the world is the coconut or robber crab, which (despite weighing up to 5kg) scuttles up coconut trees and tears open the fruit with its strong claws.
Wildlife sanctuaries have existed since ancient times in India, but after Independence many more were created. In 1972 the Wildlife Protection Act was introduced to stem the abuse of wildlife, followed by other conservation-oriented legislation such as the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act. India is one of 143 signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites) brought into force in 1975 to regulate the trade in endangered wildlife. There have been a number of initiatives, such as Project Tiger (launched in 1973 to protect India’s wildlife), however most have had limited success and attract more criticism than praise. Ultimately, the immense pressure from a growing population hungry for land, a massive demand for animal body parts from the Chinese medicine market and an international market for skins and fur are proving to be virtually insurmountable forces.
India is one of 12 so-called megadiversity countries which together account for up to 70% of the world’s biodiversity. It’s the only country in the world that is home to both lions and tigers. But all across India many species are facing a perilous future. The tiger, India’s national animal, seems to personify the situation. In 2000 the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) believed that at least 100 tigers had been slaughtered by poachers in that year alone. With skins used as trophies and bones ground into virility potions (as are rhinoceros horns), a whole tiger can fetch at least US$10,000. While the statistics for the tiger population are unclear, it is clear that as long as its natural habitats are decreasing and poaching continues, the tiger’s days are numbered.
The one-horned rhinoceros’ position is equally tenuous as it loses its natural grasslands habitat to sugarcane plantations and other cultivation. Its horn, actually matted hair, is sought for its supposed medicinal properties, as are its urine, flesh and blood. Assam has India’s largest population of these rhinos. The snow leopard, which is found in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, is also endangered. Its fur fetches high prices, so it continues to be a target. The Olive Ridley turtle population on the coast of Orissa is under grave threat from shrimp trawling, mangrove destruction, increasing pollution and beach development on nesting sites. Strategies have recently been enforced to save this endangered species, thankfully resulting in increased breeding. For more details, see the boxed text ‘Orissa’s Endangered Turtles’ in the Orissa chapter. Other animals on the endangered list include the barasingha (swamp deer), the tortoise and the Ganges River dolphin, numbering just 1200-1300 in 2002. At present there are less than 3000 Indian elephants in the wild and although conservation efforts have had positive results, poaching and elephant deaths in captivity continues to pose a real threat to the existing elephant population.
A 2001 report indicated that poaching in Uttaranchal’s Corbett Tiger Reserve was rampant, with bamboo stick-wielding park rangers posing little opposition to the well-equipped, organized teams of poachers. The reserve’s tiger population has dropped from 130 to 100 in the past two years, while the elephant numbers have plummeted from 500 to 400. There are allegations that some park officials are in cahoots with the culprits, making the poaching crisis a problem of mammoth proportions.
India has 88 national parks and 490 wildlife sanctuaries, which constitute about 4.7% of the entire country. India currently has 12 biosphere reserves that aim to conserve the diversity of ecosystems and promote research into ecological conservation.
Parks and sanctuaries are a major tourist drawcard. Wherever possible, book in advance for transport and accommodation and check whether a permit is required (see individual regional chapters for details).
Most parks offer jeep or van tours; some have boat trips or elephant safaris to approach wildlife more discreetly. Watchtowers and hides are also sometimes available and are ideal for observing wildlife close up.