Large swathes of rare Nilgiri martens’ habitat under threat from development: study

The elusive Nilgiri marten. File.

Around 62 percent of the habitat of the Nilgiri marten ( Martes gwatkinsii), a rare species of marten endemic to the Western Ghats, lies outside protected areas, and as a consequence, could be lost to development and agriculture, a recent study indicates. Martens are small carnivores belonging to the weasel and badger families.

With less than 1,000 estimated individuals believed to exist in the wild, this fragmentation of the Nilgiri marten’s habitat could weaken the existing population, caution researchers who conducted the study. The results of the study were published in a paper titled, ‘Distribution and conservation status of the endemic Nilgiri marten,’ in the journal Mammalia, earlier this year.

The researchers used camera traps, systematic searches and secondary records (scientific papers, social media, technical reports and other means) to identify locations where the species has been spotted. Researchers then used modeling tools to overlay the known habitats of the species with data about forest loss and commercial plantations to assess the anthropogenic threats faced by the Nilgiri marten.

The study showed that the maximum number of individuals inhabit Shola ecosystems, typically semi-evergreen forests, evergreen forests and forest patches interspersed with grasslands and plantations. The researchers also recorded the presence of the species in the upper reaches of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in the Nilgiris for the first time.

Speaking to The Hindu, T.T. Shameer, a lead author of the paper said that the study estimated that while a total area of 8,921 square kilometers of the Western Ghats could potentially serve as a suitable niche habitat for the species, only 3,353 square kilometers or 38 percent of its habitat is currently within protected areas, while the rest of the marten’s habitat lies in multi-use areas.

The authors also state that a total of 94 square kilometers of forests in areas which could potentially have served as habitat for the species have been lost over the past two decades, while around 599 square kilometers of habitat is under commercial plantations for commodities such as tea, coffee and timber.

Mr. Shameer said that the Nilgiri marten is known to inhabit five habitat clusters in the Western Ghats – Brahmagiri, Nilgiris, Anamalai, Cardamom Hills and Agasthyamalai. He said that it was important for future research to ascertain the population of the species to aid in conservation, and ensure that conservation efforts are focused towards protecting existing habitats of the species outside protected areas.

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