Diversity in Ecosystems of Maharashtra

The State of Maharashtra, ‘the great kingdom’, is rich in biodiversity.  It is equally diverse in its distinctive folk cultures.  Each of its four major biogeographic and cultural regions have  spcefic geographical climatic and landscape settings.  They include the Northern belt of teak forests and the Satpudas; the semiarid Deccan Plateau grasslands and Thorn Forests; the biologically rich and fragile evergreen and semievergreen forests of the Western Ghats; and the distinctive ecology of the coastal belt with its terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  Its fresh water aquatic ecosystems are equally diverse. Great rivers and their impoundments are distributed across the length and breath of this diverse land.  Each of these biogeographical regions are linked with distinctive ancient cultures which are now being homogenized and lost due to Maharashtra’s escalating development profile, which is based on rapid economic growth.


Central Highlands 

In North Maharashtra Deciduous Teak Forests have been notified as important Protected Areas and Tiger Reserves which are located in the hilly tract. They include Melghat, Pench, Nagzera, Navegaon, and Tadoba.  There are patches of forests such as the ‘Glory of Allapally’ in Gadchiroli where the imposing trees surpasses our wildest dreams of what giant ancient forests must have looked like in the past.  The trees assend into the sky on wilde buttressed roots and trunks gnarled and flutted with age.  Their girths give one a feeling of returning back to a wilderness hundreds of years ago.  The Satpudas of the Central Highlands of India were one of the most abundant regions of wildlife in India.  They had tigers in large numbers, and gaur, sambar, cheetal that lived in great herds.  The birdlife is surprisingly linked to species associated with the Eastern Himalayas, and the Western Ghats as these ranges were once physically connected through an ancient hilly connection that has disappeared in a distant prehistoric era.  Both the dry and moist teak forest and the wetter eastern sal forests still have pockets of good wildlife habitat.  The Narmada river much altered by dams and changes in landuse had fish fauna that is now threatened by fragmentation.

This is the region where ancient man lived in the cave shelters of the hills and have left behind incredible drawings of their hunter gatherer and agricultural lifestyle.  The drawings depict hunting deer, and tigers with bows and arrows and spearing the herbivores for much needed protein.  Their art forms have left their mark on tribal culture to this day.

The forest dwelling tribal people of today such as the Korkus of Melghat, the Kokanas in the West and the Bhils, and Gonds to the East are forest dwelling people who live and farm small patches of land in the forest across the inaccessible hilly region.  Their unique cultures, language, dress codes, artifacts, dance and farm knowledge are now threated and overrun by the influence of ‘modernization’.

The Deccan Plateau with its semi arid grassland and scrub forests form a vast region traversed by great rivers.  This threatened and altered landscape was once the home of great herds of blackbuck, and small groups of chinkara.  It was also the home of the Indian wolf.  As the herbivores were lost due to landuse change and hunting, the wolf increasingly became dependent on shepherds flocks.  The grassland birds such as the Great Indian Bustard and florican are now driven to critically low populations.

The hardy Maratha farmers who lived here had crops of bajra and jawar that withstood the vagaries of the monsoon.  They had to live through many repeated drought years. The small residual grass covered patches are now surrounded by a vast matrix of irrigated sugarcane and horticulture.  Industry dots and fragments this landscape into a mosaic of different land use types in thousands of small patches which the wild herbivores cannot use or cross.  The unique culture of this semiarid region includes the migrant Dhangar shepherds who move their flocks of sheep each year from the central high plateau across the high passes in the Western Ghats, to greener pastures of the coastal belt.  The men and boys move their flocks along their traditional routes and follows the West – East ridges that separate the catchments of the great rivers of the Deccan.  Every night the migrant Dhangars coral their sheep in the farmers fallow fields.  The sheep dung is used as superrich manure and the farmer pays the Dhangar in cash or kind for this service.   The Dhangar women-folk drive their caravans with all their belongings, with a few of their livestock, and their shepherd.  Their lambs and dogs, chickens, perched in baskets on their small ponies along with tent material, household articles, and snotty delightful smiling children forms their mobile world.  The lives of the Dhangars is tough, simple and their fitness levels are very high.

The Western Ghats have been included as one of the 12 important hotspots of biodiversity in the world.  The Sahyadhris were once the home of tigers, leopards, sambar and gaur in a continuous forest belt ranging from the Dangs of Gujarat through Maharashtra into Goa and south wards into Kerala.  The Sahyadhris of Maharashtra are now increasingly fragmented and their high levels of ecosystem diversity has been degraded severally by new forms of landuse.  The fragile hill forests are crises-crossed and disconnected by roads and dams across nearly every emerging river valley.  The adjacent landscapes in the Deccan and the coast are severely altered by urbanized and industrial complexes.  This has led to serious landuse changes in the Ghats.  The forests of the Ghats have been recently damaged by growing cities spreading towards them and by the devastating influence of neo urbanization even within this Ecologically Sensitive Area of global importance.

The hill forests have diverse moist deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen formations.  A single hill slope can include over a hundred species of trees alone.  Shrubs, climbers, leanas and ground flora of herbs, ferns, fungi, and bryophytes profusely cover the less disturbed fragments of vegetation.  Many of these species are endemic to the Ghats.  These forests were increasingly fragmented through the British Period.  The teak was extensively used for their shipbuilding.  Shivaji Maharaj who is considered a great warrior, was also a great statesman.  His thinking on forest protection in his nation was enshrined in his forward thinking edict in which he says that people protect trees with the same sentiment as their children.  Thus he proclaims that a ruler who orders felling of a tree must be considered to have perpetrated an act of tyranny!  Alas this foresightedness is unfortunately forgotten.

The canopy of evergreen forests is the home of small pockets of the rare Malabar Giant Squirrel.  The bird life and richness of reptilian and amphibian fauna is extremely high. Insect life is crucial for pollinating the wild flora as well as crops.  Large moth’s such as the spectacular Atlas and Lunar moths flap through the dusk.

Certain elements of the landscape such as plateau tops are of great conservation significance as they are covered by monsoon ground flora consisting of endemic and rare plant species.  These floral marvels form splashes of color covered in rolling mists of the monsoon clouds that are unmatched in their beauty.  The steep escarpments to the west that overlook the coast are covered with sparkling cascades and waterfalls.  The great Mahseer fish of the streams are now close to extinction.

The Mahadeo Koli tribal stream fisherman and Maratha paddy farmers of the Eastern slopes of the Ghats have maintained a large number of ancient small sacred groves which constitute bench marks of relatively undisturbed ‘old growth’ forests of great biological significance.  The complex rituals with which these local people moderated extraction of resources from the groves are however rapidly disappearing.  The ‘Kaul’ ceremony which depended on a chance factor where two grains of wheat were placed in trickles of water on the side of the dieties platform, was used to permit or refuse cutting of a branch of a tree, or permission from the fearful diety for the extraction of a resource.  This depended on which grain fell off the platform first!  The ritual thus gave a 50-50% chance for preventing damage to the grove.  The older generation of Mahadeo Koli tribal pujaris are now gone and youngsters do not believe in this ritualistic performance that once preserved the grove.  Ancient folklore surrounding the groves and their miraculous initiation is also being rapidly forgotten.  As these sentiments vanish due to modernization the sanctity of the diety and the fearful tigress avtar of the tiger god (Vaghdeo) will soon be forgotten altogether.  The groves had unique animistic names of the dieties which were mostly visualized as a tigress who had to be appeased and the sanctity of her grove had to be respected by all the village folk.  This indigenous and traditional management system will rapidly disintegrate, requiring new managerial rules and regulations to be constituted if these precious ancient groves are to be protected by local people themselves in future.

The lives of local people of the coastal and hilly areas were depicted through Warali paintings of the Dhanu, Jawhar, Thane, belt.  This was once perpetrated in wall paintings using a unique traditional art form by the women of the household.  They were done on the inner wall of the hut for ceremonies and rituals such as marriages. The tiger, snakes, birds and trees were repeated motifs.   Since the 1970s this has changed to a commercial art done by Warli men and even other nontribal artists.  The style, context and content which was once based on the traditional warli ‘Dev-chowk’ and ‘Lagna chowk’ is now altered in commercial paintings and reduced to a subtheme.   Village scenes of agricultural activities, trees, animals and even modern landscapes have emerged as a major thematic representation of their currant life styles in saleable paintings.  Even the gods represented in them have changed from animistic tigers and snakes to representing the Hindu pantheon.  The women who traditionally used rice paint on a cowdung base for their home decoration in frescos have forgotten how this was done!  The Warlis now depend on the village boys who have taken over this art form from which they earn a meager living selling their brown and white combination of drawings with even a dash of other colours which are painted on paper to urban art dealers.  They in turn sell them at a much higher price.   As their simple motifs are easy to depict the art form is being diluted and altered loosing its individuality in a process of deculturaization and commercialization.  The tigers and ‘panchmukhi’ horse riding ‘dev’ of their sacred hill temple have given place to buses and even factories with billowing smoke chimneys and buses.

The greatest threat to the landscape has been the mining concessions in the Ghats that have left large devastated blanks.  Evergreen forests cannot grow back on these mined out deserts.  Added to this are the new townships spreading in the Ghats like cancer.  Thus this great and in valuable natural heritage will be lost forever.

The coast of Maharashtra was once covered in evergreen vegetation with patches of mangrove swamps.  The forests had tiger, leopard, gaur and deer.  The diversity of reptiles and amphibiia is very high.  The marine ecosystem had a large wide continental shelf where great schools of fish lived.  Patches of coral were the breeding grounds of a wide range of small fish.

The Coastal belt has been the home of marine and estuarine fresherfolk.  The Koli’s live alongside the paddy farming community of the coastal farmlands where the Kokan farmers grow paddy in the terraced flat lands by bunding the torrents of monsoon rain water that flows out of the Sahyadris.  Their fertilizer came from the neighboring forests of the Western slopes of the Ghats where the farmers lop the biomass.  They  dry it in bales and burn it in their fields before the monsoon.  Once a sustainable practice, its expansion has led to forest degradation, reducing wildlife habitat suitability for a diverse range of flora and fauna.  The loss of these species, threatened by extinction is irreplaceable.  The newer development of ports, roads, urban growth, industry are even more devastating. The forests are shrinking and mangroves in the river deltas are vanishing into urbanized areas and industry. These were the richest breeding grounds of marine fish and crustacea.  Even more disastrous has been the overfishing caused by  trawling by commercial fisheries, where even small fish and other marine life is caught and even thrown away or discarded as waste!  Dolphins and turtles are killed by the deep large fishing nets, and the coral is torn apart.

The freshwater aquatic ecology of Maharashtra is equally damaged.  Wetlands have vanished and been partially substituted by the artificial back waters of the Irrigation Dams in the Deccan.  The river tributaries in the ghats once the home of fish such as Mahseer that could grow to a length of over a meter is gone, except where it is introduced by the Tata’s in their Hydro lakes.  The aquatic avifauna of rivers and lakes has seen drastic reductions in their population.  Urban and industrial pollution has damage even these seminatural ecosystems often beyond repair.

However, all is not lost!  One can return and restore our natural forests, grasslands and protect our residual natural forests, grasslands and coastal vegetation through careful scientific ecorestoration.  It needs a sense of commitment and a rekindling of our love for Nature.