M.J. Ravindranath and Usha Iyer-Raniga
India is a country of vast diversity, both biological and cultural. Located in the Asian continent at the junction of the bio-geographic provinces of Africa, Eurasia and the Orient (Gadgil 1991), India is bounded on the north by the Himalayas-the most fragile and the highest mountain system in the world-on the south-west by the Arabian Sea and on the south-east by the Bay of Bengal. As a result, India has a multitude of climates, soil types and ecosystems. It also has an astounding diversity of languages, religions and cultures.
India's climate ranges from perpetual snow-cover of the Himalayas to near equatorial conditions in the south, from mangroves to humid tropics and from hot to cold deserts. And with a population of more than 900 million, and an annual growth rate of 2.11 per cent, India is soon expected to take the place of China as the most populous country in the world.
A record 1,652 languages are spoken by its people as their mother tongue, with thirty-three spoken by over 100,000 people each. India's population is predominantly rural, and has been increasing in numbers and people per square kilometre over the last decades (see Table 5.1).
India is one of the top twelve mega-diverse nations in the world. Indeed, India's biodiversity is extraordinary; it includes almost all the major ecosystems of the world. While the country only has slightly over 20 per cent of its land area under forests, of which less than 12 per cent has close forest cover, there are roughly 45,000 species of plants, or about 12 per cent of the global plant wealth. There are about 15,000 species of flowering plants, constituting 6 per cent of the world's flowering plants. More than 33 per cent of these species are endemic and are located in 26 endemic centres (Khoshoo 1991).
In terms of diversity of fauna, India has over 68,300 species of animals of which 60,000 are insects, about 1,600 fish and 372 mammals. The rate of endemism is 33 per cent in reptiles (7.2 per cent of the world's reptiles) and 62 per cent in amphibians (4.4 per cent of world's total). There is also a wide range of domestic animals, including buffaloes, goats, sheep, pigs, poultry, horses and camels. Although no clear estimates are available,