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The power of connections: India to establish Asia’s largest protected forest

India has stepped up forest conservation efforts in recent years, with a major project underway to establish a large swath of uninterrupted habitat through the designation of additional protected areas and expanding those already under protection. If realized, these areas would converge to become Asia’s largest unbroken protected forest, encompassing approximately 15,000 square kilometers (5,790 square miles) over three states.

The southwest state of Karnataka is leading efforts, declaring protections for nearly 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 square miles) of forest since 2012. In addition, Karnataka has worked with adjoining states Tamil Nadu and Kerala to connect 8,766 square kilometers (3,386 square miles) of previously protected areas.

Karnataka rainforest in the Western Ghats. Photo by: Morgan Erickson-Davis.
Karnataka rainforest in the Western Ghats. Photo by: Morgan Erickson-Davis.

Southern India is home to the Western Ghats, a region of hilly rainforest that skirts the western coast. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the world’s eight top biodiversity “hotspots,” with an estimated 1,800 species that are found nowhere else. Much of the current expansion project targets areas of the Western Ghats, and would provide migration corridors vital for wide-ranging animals such as Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus). Migration corridors reduce the chances of human-wildlife conflict and make it easier for populations to mix, thereby bolstering genetic diversity and long-term chances of survival.

Conservation in India can be a tricky issue. In addition to a plethora of unique species, the country is also inhabited by more than 1.2 billion people, making the protection of vital forest areas a delicate balancing act. While most people live in densely-populated cities, many also live in small towns and villages scattered throughout India’s wildernesses. When these areas are issued high-level protection by India’s Forest Department, the people who live within them are often displaced. Additionally, designation of protected areas is often done by the Indian government at a national level, a process that often mires projects in bureaucratic limbo.

A forest stream in the Karnatakan Western Ghats, where three new species of fish were discovered in recent years. Photo by: Morgan Erickson-Davis.
A forest stream in the Karnatakan Western Ghats, where three new species of fish were discovered in recent years. Photo by: Morgan Erickson-Davis.

However, Karnataka has found ways around both these problems. It is overseeing forest protection expansion at a state level, thus allowing the project to proceed more quickly. It is also allowing communities already residing in the affected areas to remain there while blocking heavy industry activity such as mine and dam development.

“In comparison [to industry development], existing villages do not pose any serious threat to conservation,” former forest official BK Singh told the BBC.

Once completed, the unbroken forest expanse would contain 15 major watersheds and stretch more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Karnataka’s northern border with Goa to its southern borders with Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Next steps include expanding forest protection near the Karnataka-Kerala border and connecting fragments of forest preserves in the Western Ghats highlands.

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