The Western Ghats are a collection of heterogeneous geological formations that separate the wet Malabar Coast from the arid interiors of the Indian peninsula. They play a key role in directing the South Western monsoon and providing water to peninsular India’s thirsty plains. Starting at the tip of India at Kanyakumari, the mountains rise abruptly from the sea and plains. The Western Ghats continue in a nearly unbroken 1,600 kilometers mountainous spine and end at the Tapi River on the border between Maharashtra and Gujarat. From Karnataka northwards, the Ghats meet the expansive Deccan Plateau. The northern reaches of the Ghats, called the Sahyadris, are younger volcanic mountains and are a unique physical feature in South Asia. Compared to the southern Ghats these ranges are lower in elevation. The Sahyadris fall in steep, dramatic ghats (steps) to the sea along the Konkan coast north of Goa. It is here, in places like the hill station of Mahabaleshwar, that one can see the obvious reasons for the name “Western Ghats.”
The southern Western Ghats include the Ashumba, Anamalai, Cardamom, Palani and Nilgiri Hills. These hill ranges are made up of very old horsts that were uplifted in Pre-Cambrian times. Biologically rich, the Western Ghats are blessed with high rates of endemism (a term used to describe species that are isolated to a limited area and found nowhere else). In recent years as a global alarm has sounded on declining biodiversity, the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka have been designated as one of 25 “Global Biodiversity Hotspots.” This designation made by Conservation International, one of the leading organizations dealing with biodiversity, considers the two mountain ranges as one critical unit under threat from anthropocentric forces.
In 2012 many key sites in the Western Ghats are named as a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. While the recognition is appreciated the pressure on the Western Ghats from human activities continues unabated. Today mining, human settlement expansion, hydroelectric dams, sprawling estates and introduced species threaten the biodiversity, water delivery capacity and beauty of the Western Ghats.