India is a land of incredible biodiversity, with approximately 91,000 species of fauna and 45,500 species of flora residing in its myriad habitats and larger ecosystems. Home to four of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, India has high levels of endemism in its flora and fauna, meaning these species are found nowhere else in the world (Image: India Biodiversity Portal). This International Day for Biological Diversity, let’s take a look at some of India’s incredible biodiversity and appreciate what all we stand to lose if we continue to dismiss the importance of living with nature.
India’s four biodiversity hotspots are: the Himalayas (top left); the Indo-Burma hotspot, encompassing Northeast India (top right); the Western Ghats (bottom left); and the Sundaland, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (bottom right). These hotspots have high densities of endemic wildlife, as well as unique cultural heritage. In India, wildlife and humans live side by side in the most unique of places, be it the Sundarbans mangrove forest where tigers and men cross paths or the arid Thar Desert, where nomads frequently interact with gazelles and blackbuck. In the high Himalayas, people depend upon their domestic livestock for a living, while the snow leopard and Himalayan wolf hunt wild argali and bharal in these same highlands (Images: National Geographic Traveller – India).


The source of some of India’s major rivers, the last stronghold of glaciers, ever-rising, a land where only the strongest survive – the Himalayas are India’s crowning jewel and home to some of her most incredible and least-studied wildlife and plants. The lower Himalayas begin in the Siwaliks, where large mammals such as the Asian elephant and the Bengal tiger make their home. Moving upwards into the lesser, and eventually the snow peaks of the Himalayas, life becomes sparser, and tougher. The Himalayas are home to nearly 25,000 species of plants, and the Eastern Himalayas are one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots. The Himalayas experience increasing precipitation from west to east, and can be divided into five parallel vegetation zones: the foothill forests, Himalayan temperate forests, sub-alpine forests, alpine vegetation in the Greater Himalayas, and vegetation in the Trans-Himalaya (Rawat et al. 2017). Flora include deodars, blue pines, juniper, rhododendrons, and vast meadows with wildflowers and shrubby vegetation. The Himalayas are also home to a variety of fauna including those pictured here (clockwise starting at top left; Image credits Wikipedia Commons unless specified): Himalayan tahr, Himalayan monal pheasant, Himalayan marmot, Himalayan wolf, argali, Himalayan brown bear (P.C. Alexander Junek), Himalayan griffon vulture (P.C. eBird), and the snow leopard (P.C. Briana May). 


With dense forest cover spreading over 54.16% of the region, it is no wonder that Northeast India holds a vast array of biodiversity. Not only does this region see a variety of species of flora and fauna, but cultural heterogeneity and diversity of language is also common across the seven sister states. 43% of the plant species in India are found here, with 39% floral endimicity. Ecologically, this area is included in the Eastern Himalayan hotspot as well as the Indo-Burma hotspot, and serves as a corridor for wildlife dispersal between the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China. The region has 19,976 km of rivers watering its land and it has a wide range of ecoregions, from the floodplains of the Brahmaputra valley in Assam to the wettest place on the planet in Mawsynram, Meghalaya, from the tropical rainforests of Nagaland to the alpine meadows of Arunachal Pradesh. These forests are home to the only ape on the Indian subcontinent, the Hoolock gibbon (bottom left photograph), as well as one of the rarest felids, the Clouded Leopard (left centre photograph), one of four big cats found in Arunachal Pradesh (the other three being the tiger, the leopard, and the snow leopard). Manipur is home to the last wild population of the brow-antlered (“dancing”) deer, the sangai. Biodiversity in this hotspot faces a large threat from the illegal wildlife trade; indeed, one of the most traded species is the Tokay gecko (top right photograph, P.C. Blick Winkley). Other rare endemic species pictured above include: the red panda; the Amur falcon (P.C. Ramki Sreenivasan); the Indian one-horned rhinoceros; the golden langur; and the Great Indian hornbill.  


Enter a world of dense tropical forest, with frothing rivers pouring from these hills down towards the Konkan coast and into the Deccan Plateau. The Western Ghats (known as the Sahyadris) begin in Maharashtra and travel 1,600 km down into Kerala, where they melt into the Nilgiri Hills and the Eastern Ghats. Home to over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 508 birds, 179 amphibians, and 139 mammals, with approximately 320 globally-threatened species occurring in its depths, the Western Ghats is also home to 10% of the world’s Bengal tigers and the largest global population of Asian elephants. Once a connected network of dense forest, the Ghats are now a patchwork mosaic of plantation, grassland, reservoirs, and urban settlements, creating issues of fragmentation throughout this landscape. Endemic wildlife to this region (pictured clockwise starting from the top left) include: the gaur, the Nilgiri langur, the bonnet macaque, the dhole (Asiatic wild dog), the sambar, the Indian/Malabar giant squirrel, the Asian elephant, and the Bengal tiger. Many conservation efforts are focusing on these monsoon mountains that hold so many wondrous natural resources and likely host species that are yet to be discovered. 


The densely-forested islands of the Andaman and Nicobar comprise the Sundaland biodiversity hotspot. Surrounded by turquoise waters and riddled with a variety of flora from India, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, 200 species of which are endemic, these islands are teeming with life. Twelve types of forest can be found across the main island groups here, with epiphytes ruling the South Andamans, moist deciduous forests covering the Middle Andamans, and lush evergreen forests sprawled across the North Andamans. The Nicobar islands lack evergreen vegetation and one can barely find deciduous cover here, but this set of islands host unique grasslands. Fauna in these islands include (pictured above clockwise from the top left): the Nicobar long-tailed macaque; sea turtles; the Andaman catsnake (P.C. Sameer Ghodke); vast coral reefs; the Andaman wild boar; dugongs, which are the state animal of the Andamans; saltwater crocodiles; and the Nicobar pigeon (P.C. eBird). Remote and home to indigenous tribes, these islands pose a challenge to ecologists and likely hold many secrets in their depths. 


Welcome to the world’s most crowded desert, the Thar. Known as the Great Indian Desert, this expansive landscape is not quite as barren as it appears to the initiated eye. Small clumps of vegetation are common here, lending the region its classification as Northwestern thorn scrub forest. Hillocks and gravel stretches intersperse sandy expanses here. This region is home to 23 species of lizards and 25 species of snakes, as well as a variety of rodents and larger mammals. The almost-national bird of India, the Great Indian Bustard, fights extinction in this desert, making a stand in Desert National Park near Jaisalmer. Mammals include the caracal, the desert fox, the desert cat, Indian gazelle (chinkara), and the blackbuck. Indian wild ass can be found in pockets near the Rann of Kutch to the south of the desert. Over 140 migratory and resident bird species occupy the Thar, including the critically endangered white-backed vulture and a variety of eagles. The Indian peafowl is a resident breeder in the desert too, adding a touch of colour to the golden landscape. 


Wetlands are some of the world’s most productive and vital ecosystems, providing a host of ecosystem services and crucial ecological roles. In India, wetlands are found across all biomes and include mangrove swamps, freshwater swamps, lakes, ponds, rivers, reservoirs, tanks, paddy fields, salt marshes, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. They range from marine to estuarine to freshwater and can be found at all elevations. Wetlands play a major role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon, preventing flooding, protecting coastlines against rising sea levels and increasing storm intensity, and provide food for a growing population. However, they are some of India’s least protected and most understudied ecosystems. Wetlands are crucial to sustaining biodiversity; indeed, most of India’s commercial fisheries depend upon wetlands for continued harvest. Migratory birds require wetlands when flying over India, and these feathery visitors draw many tourists to sites such as Keoladeo National Park and Chilika Lake. The Sundarbans mangrove forest is home to the only population of swamp-occupying tigers and is currently playing a major role in reducing the damage caused by Cyclone Amphan. Wetlands are the main habitat of the rare fishing cat, one of the small felids found in India. Loktak Lake, a wetland in Manipur, is the last stronghold of the Manipuri dancing deer, the sangai, in the wild. 37 wetlands in India are protected under the international Ramsar treaty, yet countless others are drained and converted for agricultural and development purposes. 


India’s natural beauty is one of her crown jewels, and yet it is under constant threat. The Himalayas face the consequences of global warming as glaciers melt and threaten to flood the cities in the plains below. Wetlands are drained to meet agricultural and developmental demands, or polluted past usable levels. Rivers are dammed and diverted, or even linked in attempts to cure water shortages in drier parts of the nation. Mountains are blasted in search of minerals, ore, and fossil fuels, leading to widespread deforestation and displacing countless wildlife. Coral reefs suffer the side-effects of water pollution and the Thar faces blame as land degradation is confused with an advancing desert. The illegal wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflict pose threats to endemic wildlife, and indigenous tribes face the dilemma of traditional ways of living in an increasingly-modern nation. In the face of human need and greed, how can biodiversity make a stand? Yet India still holds onto its position as one of the world’s most biodiverse nations and forest cover still remains despite a vast human population. Perhaps there is hope for India’s biodiversity, hope that stems from a long history of living alongside nature rather than instead of nature. And when we realize that our natural wealth is indeed national wealth, the wild heart of India will beat freely once more.

Author’s Recommendations:

There are a lot of wonderful books and documentaries on India’s natural wonders and wildlife, some of which are listed here. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but I highly recommend the below options:


The Vanishing – Prerna Singh Bindra – the tale of India’s disappearing species that will remain with you long after you turn the final page

Let Them Eat Shrimp – Kennedy Warne – a look into the magical world of mangroves and the ecosystem services they provide

Cities and Canopies – Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli – enchanting stories of the history of various tree species found in Indian cities and the many uses for their fruit, leaves, and other parts in traditional recipes and medicines

The Wild Heart of India – T.R. Shankar Raman – biologist Shankar Raman tries to blur the boundaries between man and nature through his vivid portrayal of the struggle between these two seemingly-opposing forces

A Life with Wildlife – M.K. Ranjitsinh – a cult classic for wildlife lovers, this book will make you long to return to the lap of nature and its wild denizens


Wildest India (5 part series – Amazon Prime) – a look at five of India’s most alluring ecosystems: the Thar Desert, the Western Ghats, the Northeast, the Gangetic Plains, and the Himalayas. One of my favourite documentaries to date!

Wild Karnataka (Karnataka Forest Department) – a visual treat, this documentary takes the viewer through the jungles, rivers, and plains of Karnataka to explore its rare wildlife and wildest places

Indian Leopard: The Killing Fields – a documentary on the leopards of India’s densest commercial capital, Mumbai, and their quest for survival in this megacity. This film is a visual delight and suspenseful, yet does not villanise this misunderstood cat.

The Pack (Krupakar and Senani) – a look into the secret lives of India’s wild dog, the dhole. Highly recommended for its wealth of information and gorgeous filmography.

The Truth about Tigers (Shekhar Dattatri) – India is home to the world’s largest remaining wild tiger population, but is all well and good for this big cat in its home turf? This documentary, which relies on the voices of experts in the field of tiger ecology, brings home the hard truth of tiger conservation and the road to recovery for this big cat.


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