Livestock grazing in the Eastern Ghats forest. According to a study published in October 2017 in Ecological Indicators, the Eastern Ghats have lost 15.83 percent of their forest area over 95 years. Photo: Reshma M. Ramachandran

By T. V. Padma
23 May 2018

(Mongabay) – Natural forests across India are slowly disappearing, a set of new studies shows, contradicting recent government claims about increasing forest cover.

The three studies, published over the past seven months, use a mix of satellite data, ground vegetation observations and historical maps. They show the Eastern Ghats, a series of mountains running along India’s eastern coast, have lost 15.83 percent of its forest area over a span of almost 100 years. Tropical montane forests are also disappearing in the eastern Himalayas in the state of Sikkim, particularly at lower elevations, the reports note, and there is a noticeable decline across all forest types in India.

These findings are at odds with the latest Forest Survey of India report that assesses the country’s forest cover. The FSI estimates India’s forest cover at 708,273 square kilometers (273,466 square miles) in 2017, an increase of just 0.9 percent from 2015. This apparent rise in forest cover has been debated, with some experts pointing out that the government estimates include plantation cover, which are different from natural forests.

The three recent studies add weight to the critics’ arguments.

These studies “very rigorously and unambiguously establish that there is significant reduction in green cover in many natural forest and habitat types of India,” said Vishwesha Guttal, an assistant professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore).

“Of course, many have long suspected this is the case but these studies put any such doubts to rest,” Guttal told Mongabay-India.

“It is important to note that these studies are measuring green cover in natural forest areas,” he said. “The government often keeps claiming that the green cover is increasing, but it is often due to plantations and not due to expansion of forest [cover]. Natural forest cover is an important determinant of biodiversity, ecosystem services and stability of ecosystems and the same cannot be said of plantations. That such natural forests are declining substantially, is not very surprising to many of us working in this area. Yet, it is quite alarming.” [more]

Trio of studies challenges Indian government claim of increasing forest cover

ABSTRACT: Land-cover change in tropical mountains is a significant concern for the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function. In the eastern Himalaya, knowledge on the factors driving these changes is currently inadequate to development conservation and management plans.


We computed land-cover change over a 23-year period for the Sikkim Himalaya in India for the elevation range 800–2800 m using Landsat satellite data and an extensive set of ground measurements of vegetation types and other land use. We then tested how these land-cover changes may be influenced by topography, mediated through decisions on land use.


We carried out supervised classification using ‘Random Forests’, and ensemble-based classification algorithm that is robust and accurate. We then used linear discriminant analyses to test which of seven common topographical variables can be used to discriminate the different land-cover types.


The primary forest in the 800–2200 m elevation range was warm broadleaf forest, whereas the primary forest in the elevation 2200 m −2800 m was Fagaceae dominated forest. Forest cover declined by over 30% in warm broadleaf forest, and primary forest declined by 16% overall, with concomitant increases in secondary forest and agriculture. Elevation was the strongest discriminant of land use, followed by slope and aspect, presumably reflecting peoples' choice on land use based on topography.


Tropical montane forests continue to decline in the Sikkim Himalaya, particularly at lower elevations. Topographical factors determine land use decisions by local communities.

Topographical influence on recent deforestation and degradation in the Sikkim Himalaya in India; Implications for conservation of East Himalayan broadleaf forest



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