This is a simple guide that lists out the most popular questions related to grasslands, to understand what they are and their ecological significance. Please click on a topic for detailed information.
- What are grasslands?
- Where do they occur?
- Are they different from forests?
- Grasslands around the world
- Area under grasslands and important grasslands of India
- Distribution of grasslands by type of grass cover
- Classification of grasslands
- Why are grasslands important?
- Why are they important for the rural economy?
- Common animals and birds found in grasslands
- State of grasslands in India
- Regulation and protection of grasslands
- What needs to be done to restore them?
Grasslands are highly dynamic ecosystems that include vegetation that is mainly dominated by grass or grass-like plants. These can be in the form of natural and semi-natural pastures, woodlands, scrub and steppe formations (Intermediate areas between forests and deserts made up of small grasses). The UNESCO defines grassland as “land covered with herbaceous plants with less than 10 percent tree and shrub cover” and "wooded grassland as 10-40 percent tree and shrub cover".
Grasslands occur where rainfall is usually low and/or the soil depth and quality is poor. Low rainfall prevents the growth of a large number of trees and shrubs in abundance but is sufficient to support the growth of grass cover during the monsoon. Low rainfall can also trigger droughts and fires that prevent the development of dense forests but grasses can survive fires and heat and their stems can grow again from where they have been burnt off. Many of the grasses dry up during the summer months while the grass cover grows back from the rootstock and the seeds of the previous year during the next monsoon. This change gives grasslands a seasonal appearance with periods of increased growth followed by a dormant phase.
Yes. Grasslands occur where there is sufficient moisture for grass growth but where environmental conditions, both climatic and anthropogenic, prevent tree growth. They can, therefore, be called as ecosystems that occur in areas with low rainfall; somewhere in between deserts where there is very scanty rainfall and forests where there is plenty of rainfall.
Grasslands cover about two-thirds of the landmass of the world and makeup about one-fourth of the earth's surface. Grasslands contain diverse types of grasses numbering to over 10,000 and about 12,000 species of legumes that often grow with grasses.
Grasslands are usually divided into two categories—tropical (grasslands located near the equator such as those in Africa, southern Asia, Australia and northern South America) and temperate (grasslands located between the equator and the poles including those in North America, Europe, southern South America, Africa and Australia). Some of the typical grasslands found in the world include prairies, savannas, veldts, steppes, llanos, campos, downs, meadows, moors, pamir, pampas, pantanals, patanas, punas, pusztas, and sahel.
Grasslands occupy nearly 24 percent of the geographical area in India. According to Rawat and Adhikari (2015), the major types of grasslands in India are the alpine moist meadows of the Greater Himalayas; alpine arid pastures or steppe formations of the trans Himalayas; hillside grasslands in the mid-elevation ranges of the Himalayas; 'Chaurs' of the Himalayan foothills; 'Terai' grasslands on the Gangetic and the Brahmaputra floodplains; 'Phumdis' or floating grasslands of Manipur; 'Banni' and 'Vidis' of Gujarat; savannas of western and peninsular India; plateau and valley grasslands in the Satpuras and Maikal hills; dry grasslands of the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu plains and 'Shola' grasslands of the Western Ghats.
Grasslands are made up of different varieties of grasses that vary regionwise depending on the climatic conditions, altitude, topography, soil moisture and soil depth that make them one of the most diverse ecosystems supporting a range of flora and fauna. The table below gives the region-wise distribution of grasslands by type of grass cover in India.
No attempt has been made until recently to update and revise the classification of grasslands in India. Chandran (2015) provides a recent classification based on the distribution of grasslands by biogeographic zones into:
- The coastal grasslands
- The riverine alluvial grasslands
- Montane grasslands
- Sub-Himalayan grasslands of Terai region
- Tropical Savannas
- Wet grasslands
Grasslands provide vital ecosystem services such as water and climate regulation that support agriculture, biogeochemical cycling, carbon storage, cultural and recreational services. Besides these, they are important reservoirs of the crop gene pool and many of the crops like wheat, corn, rice and millets that support human survival have originated from grasslands. Grasslands also serve as a critical habitat for a range of plants and animals.
In India grazing-based livestock husbandry plays an important role in the rural economy. Pasturelands over an area of 12Mha constitute the main grazing resources that are available (Roy and Singh, 2013). Nearly 30 pastoral communities in hilly or arid/semi-arid regions in the northern and western parts of India, as well as 20 in temperate/hilly regions, depend on grazing-based livestock production (Roy and Singh). The table below provides a list of pastoral communities in the country that depend on grasslands for their livelihoods.
10. Common animals and birds found in the grasslands
Many rare species such as The Bengal Florican, One-horned Rhinoceros, Pygmy Hog, Hispid Hare, Wild Buffalo, Hog Deer, Swamp Deer in Terai grassland, the Great Indian Bustard in dry, short grasslands, the Lesser Florican in monsoonal grasslands of western India, and the Nilgiri Tahr in the shola grasslands of the Western Ghats are some examples of animals and birds that thrive in the grasslands.
The grasslands are under tremendous pressure from grazing and conversion endangering birds and wildlife. For example, besides tigers, the Great Indian Bustard is now on the brink of extinction while the Lesser Florican now survives only in scattered pockets due to the loss of grasslands.
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11. State of grasslands in India
Grassland ecosystems continue to be one of the most neglected ecosystems in the country and are increasingly under threat of being exploited and destroyed for economic gains or being treated as wastelands. Many natural grasslands like wet grasslands of Terai and Shola grasslands of the Western Ghats, dry grasslands of Deccan are being converted to plantations even in Protected Areas (PAs). Anthropogenic pressures, land-filling, over grazing, habitat destruction or fragmentation, uncontrolled growth of invasive species and climate change are further increasing the threat to grasslands.
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12. Regulation and protection of grasslands
Although grasslands have an important role to play in the rural economy and biodiversity conservation, it is shocking to know that there is still no policy in place to protect grasslands.
The Task Force Report on Grasslands and Deserts in 2006 submitted to the Planning Commission of India aptly describes the precarious situation the grasslands are in. It states, “Grasslands are not managed by the forest department whose interest lies mainly in trees; not by the agriculture department who are interested in agriculture crops; nor the veterinary department who are concerned with livestock but not the grass on which the livestock is dependent. The grasslands are the ‘common’ lands of the community and are the responsibility of none. They are the most productive ecosystems in the subcontinent but they belong to all, are controlled by none, and they have no godfathers.”
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13. What needs to be done to restore them?
Grassland as critical habitats was first recognised by the National Forest Commission in 2003 and recommended protection of grasslands to protect wildlife and livestock by developing a centrally coordinated and funded scheme. The need for a policy on grasslands was identified in the Report of the Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts submitted in 2006 to the Planning Commission of India. The report had suggested special schemes for the conservation of grasslands and made the following recommendations:
- Formulate a National Grazing Policy to ensure the sustainable use of grasslands and biodiversity conservation.
- Modifications in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) guidelines to include grasslands and deserts into ecologically-fragile and environmentally-sensitive areas
- Start Integrated Research and Development Programmes in the grasslands to understand the impact of climate change and land use practices on grasslands
- Start centrally-sponsored Project Bustard and Project Snow Leopard initiatives considering that these are the critically endangered species surviving in grasslands
- Include grasslands and desert ecosystems in Protected Area system
- Start a separate division or section to look after grasslands issues
However, none of these recommendations have been implemented as yet. Experts feel that a good start would be to update this report and work on its recommendations on an urgent basis.