Western Ghats clusters are UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Western Ghats, older than the Himalayas, and described as one of the world's eight ‘hottest hotspots' of biological diversity were inscribed in the UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites list in July 2012. ATREE was one of the organizations in 2006, that had supplied the science for identification and nomination of sites in the landscapes of Agasthyamalai, Periyar, Anamalai, Nilgiris, Upper Cauvery in Kodagu, Kudremukh, and Sahyadri. These were thirty-nine sites in seven sub-clusters of the Western Ghats. The proposal was made by the Ministry of Environment and Forests based on expert inputs from ATREE, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun.

Earlier, in 2011, the Committee removed Assam's Manas Wildlife Sanctuary from the ‘world heritage in danger' list after taking into account the significant improvements made for its management. The Sanctuary was inscribed on the danger list in 1992, seven years after UNESCO declared it a world heritage site. India currently has 23 cultural sites and 5 natural sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, but the newest addition would boast an additional 7,953 sq km of area in the Western Ghats.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, the official World Heritage advisory body on nature, did not recommend the Ghats for inclusion as it considered that India needed to put in more work to meet the standards for nomination that the convention had set up in its operational guidelines. A team of UNESCO appointed IUCN representatives had visited India in October 2010 to evaluate the scientific, technical and administrative aspects of the proposal, as a part of the process of declaring a proposed area as a heritage site. The Committee also factored in the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests for the conservation and protection of the Ghats. At the announcement of the Western Ghats as World Heritage sites, Tim Badman, Director of IUCN's World Heritage Programme said, "We welcome these sites to the World Heritage List, but note the conservation challenges that they face will need additional monitoring by the World Heritage Committee to ensure that these sites meet the requirements that accompany listing as flagships for global conservation."

Conservation imperative

The UNESCO recognizes Natural World Heritage sites as areas representing pre-eminent spots of biodiversity that must be identified, protected and conserved by a global community. Sites are selected for their outstanding universal value, based on the magnitude of identifiable biological and cultural significance. Criteria include sites containing the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, or representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes, among others.

The Western Ghats are a biological hotspot harbouring 60 Important Bird Areas (IBA), 325 globally threatened species, many endemic species and sacred groves (Krishnaswamy et al, 2006), across six states.

The area of 150,000 sq km boasts a varied ecosystem with a historical Gondwanaland origin and significant global value. The Ghats can lay claim to a unique landform and biodiversity; however they are also under threat of increased developmental pressure from energy needs. Coffee, tea and rubber plantations too have grown over the years, leaving the area with less undisturbed space. It is expected that areas of the Western Ghats pronounced World Natural Heritage sites will be able to restrict some development, allowing these areas to be better conserved. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has also constituted a Western Ghats Natural Heritage Committee to oversee the nominated sites. This committee will work to address the conservation, development and livelihoods concerns and manage the site with respect to stated UNESCO goals.

ATREE's Dr. Jagdish Krishnaswamy has been nominated to this management team, which incorporates clear goals on maintaining biodiversity of the unique landscape; meeting livelihood needs of local communities; providing recreational opportunities compatible with conservation objectives; and promoting research and monitoring to support management. The Western Ghats World Heritage Committee met in September 2010 to review itinerary and logistics for the two-member technical team of Wendy A. Strahm and Brian James Furze, the IUCN team that would evaluate the current nominated sites before the Committee met in June 2011 to take a decision. The team assessed the scientific, technical and administrative aspects of the Western Ghats proposal through site visits and interactions with scientists, conservationists and government officials. ATREE hosted an interaction meeting on 17th October 2010, with the IUCN team, scientists, conservationists, media and other civil society representatives who are committed to the conservation of the Western Ghats at ATREE, Bangalore.

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Works Cited

Das A., Krishnaswamy J., Bawa KS., Kiran M., Srinivas, V., Samba Kumar, N, Ullas Karanth, K. 2006. Prioritization of Conservation areas in the Western Ghats, India. Biological Conservation 133(1):16-31.
Krishnaswamy, J, Raman, TR., Prasad, A., Raghunath, R, & Datta, A., Mishra, C., Madhusudan, MD., Kiran, MC., Das, A., (2006). India's tentative list of natural heritage properties to be inscribed on the unesco world heritage list Retrieved from