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Exploring India: Land of a Thousand Contrasts
by Sanjeeb Baruah

Rainforests, sand dunes, mangroves, temperate coniferous forests... few countries in the world can match India's astonishing geographical diversity. All harboring some of the biggest concentrations of endangered wildlife on earth.

Often known as the cradle of civilizations, India is home to 16 percent of the world's population. What few people know is that 411 species of mammals, 1,232 birds, 456 reptiles, 219 amphibians, 2,546 fish, 83,436 kinds of invertebrates and over 50,000 plant species also call this subcontinent home.

The country is the last refuge for a number of highly endangered and threatened species such as the Asiatic lion, lion tailed macaque, pygmy hog, hispid hare and the Gangetic river dolphin.

It is also host to two of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots, the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, 16 of the world's most important wetlands as defined by the RAMSAR convention, including the renowned saltwater Chilika lake in eastern Orissa, and five natural world heritage sites in the UNESCO list -- Keoladeo National Park, Kaziranga National Park, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Sundarbans National Park and the Nanda Devi National Park

While five of the most magnificent parks in India, are covered under the UNESCO list, other sanctuaries are famed as well for their wildlife and glimpses into jungle life.

The Jim Corbett National Park, the oldest park in the country, just a six-hour drive from the national capital New Delhi, is famed for its Bengal tiger and Asiatic elephant. The 520 sq km park, which forms the northwestern limit of the Asian elephant's current range, is home to 112 tigers, the highest density of the wild cat in the world.

The data was compiled by the Wildlife Institute of India with the help of satellite imagery, camera trapping and recording pugmarks. Corbett's famed Dikhala grasslands offer unparalleled elephant viewing and tiger sightings.

The grasslands of western India are as famous for their hunting animals as they are for their grazing herds. The Indian cheetah is now extinct in its range but the other big cats - lions and leopards still prowl the plains.

The Gir Sanctuary in western Gujarat state with its thorny scrub forests and grasslands was once a favorite hunting preserve. The last Asiatic lions still eke out a precarious existence in their thorny scrubland kingdom in Saurashtra, where some 350 odd still exist.

In the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, over 70 percent of the nearly 1,300 species of Indian birds are to be found.

The Manas National Park, designated a World Heritage site in 1985, in the eastern state of Assam is situated on the foothills of the Himalayas and named after the mighty Manas River.

Not far from Manas is the Kaziranga National Park with its elephant grasslands and tropical deciduous forests, situated on the banks of the mighty River Brahmaputra. Also a World Heritage site in Assam, Manas' swamps and tall thickets of elephant grass make it an ideal home for the greater one horned rhinoceros - and also tells a remarkable tale of the comeback of the endangered animal.

From five rhinos a century ago, the 430 sq km park today boasts of nearly 70 percent of the world's estimated 2,700 such herbivorous beasts.

There are many others, Sariska in Rajasthan, the Bandhavgarh park in Madhya Pradesh and Periyar in southern Kerala being just some of them.

Like everywhere else, efforts are on in India to conserve its wild world threatened by the demands of development, disasters and destruction.

Wildlife conservation NGOs and the government have been working at different levels to conserve India's vanishing wildernesses. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), for instance, got together with the Assam Forest Department to set up the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) in Kaziranga in 2002.
"Each year, CWRC handles nearly 200 cases of animals which are injured, distressed or abandoned in various circumstances and would have died if left alone in the wild," said Dr. Anjan Talukdar, the wildlife veterinarian at the centre.

In February this year, six elephant calves reared at the centre were set free in Manas National Park, making it the first ever attempt in the country to release hand-raised elephant calves back to the wild.

"Besides elephants and other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and avian species are also rehabilitated and hand-raised in the centre," said Talukdar.

The judiciary has also stepped in to save India's wildlife.

The interest in conservation has led the Supreme Court to pass a number of significant orders and judgments to save the endangered wildlife.

The Supreme Court, for instance, asked the Jammu and Kashmir government to ban the sale and the manufacture of shahtoosh shawls and stole, made from the wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope chiru.

Hope lies where there is a will and effort to make a change. There was hope for wildlife when children across the world contributed the $1 million, which formed the seed trust for Project Tiger, launched in 1973 by India to save the tiger from extinction.

And there is hope when the apex court adds muscle to the fledgling conservation movement in India.   

18-Aug-2007
 
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