Stretching from the world’s loftiest mountains to sultry coastal swamps, the Indian landscape is wonderfully diverse -- just like the country’s cultural makeup. India harbors plenty of scrubland, dry woodland and moist evergreen forest, but among its most unique and precious ecosystems are widely scattered grasslands. Threatened nearly everywhere by human development, some of these communities historically supported remarkable wildlife assemblages.
Some of the world’s most remarkable grasslands once carpeted large tracts of the floodplains of rivers rolling out of the Himalayas onto the Indo-Gangetic Plain -- mainly composed of alluvial sediments -- between the Yamuna and Brahmaputra drainages. Most of these grasslands have been lost to agriculture. Depositions of silt during seasonal monsoon floods and the gradient of alluvial terraces establish a patchwork of swamp woods and wet grasslands of different types, which transition to sal forest in the foothills. Both tall and short grasses are found here. The “kans,” or elephant-grass belt of floodplain flats and low terraces, constitute the world’s tallest grasslands, forming towering thickets that may exceed 6 meters (20 feet) in height.
The Terai-Duar floodplain grasslands historically supported large numbers of big game, and remnant populations of one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, gaur, nilgai, water buffalo, an impressive diversity of deer, pygmy hogs and Bengal tigers persist in highly scattered refuges such as Dudwha National Park in Uttar Pradesh and Kaziranga National Park along the Brahmaputra in Assam. Sheltering in tallgrass thickets, rhinos and other grazers keep other grasslands close-cropped, forming natural lawns called “chaurs.” Tigers melt into the tallgrass, finding rich pickings among the Terai-Duar’s ungulate masses. Kaziranga -- the preeminent global reserve for one-horned rhinos and wild Asiatic water buffalo -- boasts the world’s densest tiger population.
Other Low Grasslands
While the Turai-Duar grasslands are mainly maintained by regular flooding, other grassland ecosystems in India have developed on the fringes of lowland desert and semi-desert, under the influence of prolonged seasonal drought and, in places, chronic heavy grazing of livestock. Arid grasslands, for example, fringe the Rann of Kutch in northwestern India, where the Luni River descends out of the Aravalli Hills to a complex of desert and seasonal salt marsh inland of the Gulf of Kachchh. These parched, saline plains support a surprising diversity of large mammals, most notably the Asiatic wild ass, but also blackbuck, nilgai and chinkara; carnivores include the Indian wolf, striped hyena and caracal. Wolves and blackbuck also enact their age-old predator-prey dance upon the grasslands of Velavadar National Park, set near the Gulf of Cambay coast. The park’s open country also provides critical habitat for other grassland specialists, such as the lesser florican and harrier hawks, which gather here in their greatest global roost.
A world away from sun-baked semi-desert steppe and steaming floodplain tallgrass, mid- and high-elevation meadows in India’s mountain ranges and highland plateaus represent an entirely different grassland environment. Native grasses in the Himalayas -- the world’s greatest mountain range, formed from ongoing tectonic buckling -- include fescues and tussocks, which tend to intermix with a rich herb groundcover. The alpine meadows and shrublands of the eastern Himalaya, stretching from the Kali Gandaki Gorge to Myanmar, are particularly botanically diverse, boasting more than 7,000 species of plants. Typical creatures include Himalayan marmots -- hunted by black eagles and Himalayan brown bears -- as well as several large grazers, including nimble blue sheep and hulking takin. Also notable are the highland “shola” grasslands of the Western Ghats, one of the scarps marking the edge of the Deccan Plateau. These glades are intermixed with tropical forests and apparently perpetuated by the action of frost and fire at elevations mainly above 1700 meters (5,576 feet).
- World Wildlife Fund: Terai-Duar Savanna and Grasslands
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Tarai
- National Geographic Magazine; Kaziranga: Grassland Kingdom; Douglas Chadwick
- World Wildlife Fund: Rann of Kutch Seasonal Salt Marsh
- Sanctuary Asia: Velavadar (Blackbuck) National Park
- Parks; Temperate and Alpine Grasslands of the Himalaya: Ecology and Conservation; G.S. Rawat
- World Wildlife Fund: Eastern Himalayan Alpine Shrub and Meadows
- Government of India Planning Commission: Report of the Task Force: Grasslands and Deserts
- Return of the Unicorns: The Natural History and Conservation of the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros; Eric Dinerstein
- Encyclopaedia of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; Om Gupta
- Anup Shah/Photodisc/Getty Images