National Geographic : 2002 Jan
N THE WARM early morning light the hilltops of Kudremukh National Park in the southern Indian state of Karnataka seem to roll on forever-a limitless mosaic of golden grassland and the stunted, dark green rain forest called shola. There is no sign of other human beings, no sound other than the sing ing of birds and the steady hum of insects from deep inside the forest. As my two com panions and I make our way to the summit, it's easy for a newcomer to believe that the Western Ghats, the mountain chain that runs for nearly a thousand miles along India's southwestern coast, have miraculously been left untouched by man. "I wish that were true," Niren Jain says, surveying the hillsides with his binoculars. "These mountains are a treasure house," Pra veen Bhargav adds, "and it's being systematically looted." Jain is a bespectacled architecture graduate, Bhargav a bearded adman, but both are here as members of a Bangalore-based cit izens group called Wildlife First!, which pledges to do all it can to halt at least some of that pil laging before it's too late. The Ghats serve as the principal watershed for all of peninsular India. Each June black, rain-heavy monsoon clouds sweeping in from the Indian Ocean are intercepted by the west ern summits and relieved of most of their burden-more than 29 feet of rain falls annu ally in some sections-before moving on to spill what little moisture is left onto the more gradual eastern slopes and the broad Deccan Plateau beyond. Some 60 rivers and countless streams tumble westward down the escarp ment. Three of the most important eastward flowing river systems of peninsular India-the Godavari, Krishna, and Cauvery-have their beginnings here as well and have slaked the thirst and watered the fields of southern Indi ans for at least 5,000 years. Located squarely in the tropical zone so that no severe cold can limit diversity and with a wide variety of forest cover, the Ghats yield plant and animal riches only now beginning to be dimly understood. Kudremukh National WESTERN GHATS UNDISTURBED FOREST 5,000 square miles, down from 62,000 HABITAT TYPES Ever green and deciduous forests, grasslands FLAGSHIP SPECIES Asian elephant, Indian tiger, lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri tahr ENDEMIC SPECIES 1,400 plants; 23 mam mals: 17 birds: 89 ren- Park itself was established in 1987 to help preserve the endemic lion-tailed macaque-a reclusive rain forest monkey with a handsome silvery mane now highly endangered because its habitat has been badly fragmented. That dispiriting process began in British times but accelerated after India's independence in 1947 as the relentless demands of an exploding population were felt all along the range. Fast-growing com mercial exotics like euca lyptus and wattle from Australia replaced precious shola on the high slopes.