News Release

Collateral damage: Western Ghats freshwater species in peril

22 September 2011
Miss Kerala (Puntius denisonii). Photo: Will Darwall

Freshwater species in the Western Ghats, India, are being sacrificed as collateral damage in the race for rapid economic development. For the first time, comprehensive data are available on the conservation status and distribution of all freshwater fishes, molluscs, dragonflies, damselflies and aquatic plants across peninsular India. Water pollution from agricultural and urban sources, overharvesting and invasive species are the major threats that have led to 16% of freshwater species in the region for which we have sufficient data being classified as threatened with extinction on The IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM.

Alarmingly, the centre of threat is within the Western Ghats Biodiversity Hotspot, one of the Earth’s most biodiverse areas, running along western peninsular India. “This unique and up-to-date information will provide invaluable guidance to policy makers, developers and conservation practitioners alike,” says Sanjay Molur, Executive Director, Zoo Outreach Organization (ZOO). “It will allow for informed decisions to be made to ensure the survival of our precious freshwater species.”

The results of this latest report show that freshwater fish are the most threatened group in peninsular India, with more than a third (37%) at risk of global extinction. For example, the Endangered Deccan Mahseer (Tor khudree), is one of the most sought-after food fish in the region. Sadly, due to overharvesting, invasive species and pollution it has declined massively in the past decade leaving some fisheries facing collapse. Another iconic species of fish, Miss Kerala (Puntius denisonii) is also classified as Endangered, as it is targeted and collected indiscriminately for the ornamental fish trade and its habitat is being impacted by water pollution from plantations and urban areas.

“If we continue to degrade our freshwater systems and overharvest our resources, we will not only lose biodiversity but also the many valuable services that nature provides us for free,” says Rajeev Raghavan, Conservation Research Group (CRG) at St. Albert’s College, Kochi. “Safeguarding these essential natural resources is important, and will become even more so given increasing population growth. If we act now based on the information available, we can make a huge difference to the future of biodiversity and the people that depend upon it.”

Many communities across India, particularly those living in the poorest areas, are heavily reliant upon these freshwater species for their livelihoods. This report shows that more than half (56%) of all fish and 18% of all mollusc species in the region are being used for food, and that aquatic plants have a diverse range of uses, with 28% of species providing valuable medicinal resources.

For example, an Endangered freshwater periwinkle, Cremnochonchus syhadrensis, is only known from the northern Western Ghats in Maharashtra State, where it is impacted by pollution and water abstraction. It is highly habitat-specific, found only in the spray zones of waterfalls, and hibernates in rock crevices during the summer. Unfortunately, recent survey work has failed to find the species in one of its few remaining locations. Aquatic plants, such as the Endangered Aponogeton satarensis, are also affected. This species of pond weed is found only in a few temporary pools in the Western Ghats hill plateaus in Maharashtra where it is being impacted by development of windmills and increasing levels of tourism.

“The results of this work show the importance of the Western Ghats Hotspot for freshwater species - not only does it harbour a high level of species richness, it also contains many species found nowhere else in the world,” says Kevin Smith, Programme Officer, IUCN’s Global Species Programme’s Freshwater Biodiversity Unit. “Unfortunately, we have also found that this particular hotspot contains the greatest number of threatened species in peninsular India – this all points to an urgent need for environmental sustainability to be given higher priority in economic development.”


Find out more and read the full report, 'The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in the Western Ghats, India'.


For further information, please contact:

Michael Dougherty, Regional Communications Coordinator, IUCN Asia Regional Office.
e. t. +66 2 662 4029 (ext. 142) m. +66 81 371 4687

Kazimuddin Ahmed
, IUCN India Communications. e. t. +91 11 26257742 m. +91 997 114 7926

Kathryn Pintus, Communications Assistant, IUCN Global Species Programme.
e. t. +41 22 999 0154

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