North Western Ghats Moist Deciduous Forests

North of Wayanad, the South Western Ghats Moist Deciduous Forests give way to the North Western Ghats Moist Deciduous Forests. They extend from Maharashtra in the north to Karnataka in the south. Above them, at higher altitudes, lie the North Western Ghats Montane Rain Forests. Given below is a description of the ecoregion by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF):

The ecoregion represents the swath of moist deciduous forests around the montane rain forests in the northern section of the Western Ghats Mountains. It extends through Maharashtra and Karnataka States in western India. The ecoregion has Gondwanaland origins. During the Cretaceous, the Deccan Plate detached from Gondwanaland and drifted northward to reattach with the northern Eurasian continent. Millions of years later, geological uplift gave rise to the Western Ghats Mountains, which began to intercept the southwestern monsoon rains, creating a moisture gradient from wet conditions in the windward side of the mountains to increasingly dry habitats on the leeward side. Rainfall ranges from 1,500 to 2,000 mm annually, with a 4- to 5-month dry season. Mean annual temperature ranges from 24 to 27°C, but maximum temperatures can exceed a stifling 40°C inland.

The vegetation is influenced by the southwestern monsoon, and corresponds to Champion and Seth’s southern Indian Moist Deciduous Forest type, and consists of moist, teak-bearing forests, moist mixed deciduous forest without teak, and secondary moist mixed deciduous forests. Characteristic species include Tectona grandis, Grewia tiliaefolia, Lagerstroemia lanceolata, Dillenia pentagyna, Kydia calycina, Bambusa arundinacea, Dalbergia latifolia, Adina cordifolia, Pterocarpus marsupium, Xylia xylocarpa, Wrighia tinctoria, and Schleichera oleosa. The teak forests on lateritic soils have typical understory species represented by Cleistanthus collinus, Holarrherna antidysenterica, Bauhinia racemosa, and Kydia calycina. Important climbers include Ichnocarpus frutescens, Dioscorea spp., Butea superba, Bauhinia vahlii, and Smilax macrophylla. Patches of evergreen forests extend into these moist deciduous forests, with rain forest species such as Cinnamomum malabaricum, Syzygium gardneri, Mrystica dactyloides, Kneema attenuata, and Diospyros sylvatica.

The ecoregion harbors eighty-seven mammal species, but unlike in the montane rain forests, none are endemic to this ecoregion. However, several of the mammals in the ecoregion are threatened, including the tiger (Panthera tigris), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), gaur (Bos gaurus), slender loris (Loris tardigradus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), chousinga (Tetracerus quadricornis), and squirrel (Ratufa indica). Tigers used to roam the forests of this habitat, but because of extensive habitat loss and hunting, populations have been severely depleted. The southern section of the ecoregion overlaps with a high-priority TCU and also borders on the Nilgiri Hills, which harbor one of Asia’s most important elephant populations. The bird fauna is much richer, with more than 345 species, including 5 near-endemic species (table 1) that are shared with the adjacent montane forest ecoregion.

Endemic and Near-Endemic Bird Species (an asterisk signifies that the species’ range is limited to this ecoregion)

  • Columbidae Columba elphinstonii 
  • Bucconidae Ocyceros griseus 
  • Pycnonotidae Pycnonotus priocephalus 
  • Timaliidae Turdoides subrufus 
  • Psittacidae Psittacula columboides

The globally threatened spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) and lesser florican (Eupodotis indica) are also part of the ecoregion’s bird community. Several hornbills – Malabar grey hornbill (Ocyceros griseus), Indian grey hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), and great hornbill (Buceros bicornis)-that need tall, mature forests for nesting can be used as focal species for conservation management. However, relative to the south Western Ghats, the northern parts of the Western Ghats have been poorly surveyed.

More than three-fourths of the natural habitat in this ecoregion has been cleared or converted, and only scattered fragments remain. However, even these fragments represent important habitat for the Indian megafauna, especially as an extension of the montane forest ecoregion and in the context of connectivity with lowland habitats. The thirteen protected areas cover about 2,200 sq km, but most of these protected areas are small. Three of the eight protected areas – Bhadra, Shettihally, Sharavathi Valley – that overlap with the North Western Ghats Montane Moist Forests are more than 500 sq km.

Protected Areas That Overlap with the Ecoregion

  • Bhimashankar
  • Shoolpaneshwar
  • Purna
  • Karnala
  • Tansa
  • Koyna
  • Chandoli
  • Cotigao
  • Anshi
  • Bhadra
  • Shettihally
  • Sharavathi Valley
  • Mookambika

Forest clearing and human encroachment remain the biggest threats to this ecoregion’s natural habitat and biodiversity. Large areas have already been converted into rubber, tea, and coffee plantations. Because of extensive forest fragmentation, it may not be possible to create additional large protected areas without extensive restoration. Poaching is a serious problem in the ecoregion. The dense human population led to a change in conservation status from endangered to critical. This ecoregion falls within Udvardy’s Malabar rain forest biogeographic province.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Malabar Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica). The photograph was uploaded by N. A. Naseer, a famous wildlife photographer and environmental activist whose work is focused on the Western Ghats. Malabar Giant Squirrels are arboreal creatures, living in the canopy of peninsular India’s extensive forests.