Synergistic impacts of anthropogenic fires and aridity on plant diversity in the Western Ghats: Implications for management of ancient social-ecological systems

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Charuta Kulkarni, Walter Finsinger, Pallavi Anand , Sandra nogué, Shonil A. Bhagwat


Identifying the impacts of anthropogenic fires on biodiversity is imperative for human-influenced tropical rainforests because: i) these ecosystems have been transformed by human-induced fires for millennia; and ii) their effective management is essential for protecting the world’s terrestrial biodiversity in the face of global environmental change. While several short-term studies elucidate the impacts of fires on local plant diversity, how plant diversity responds to fire regimes over long timescales (>100 years) is a significant knowledge gap, posing substantial impediment to evidence-based management of tropical social-ecological systems. Using wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India as a model system, we discuss the synergistic effects of anthropogenic fires and enhanced aridity on tropical plant diversity over the past 4000 years by examining fossil pollen-based diversity indices (e.g., pollen richness and evenness, and temporal β-diversity), past fire management, the intervals of enhanced aridity due to reduced monsoon rainfall and land use history. By developing a historical perspective, our aim is to provide region-specific management information for biodiversity conservation in the Western Ghats. We observe that the agroforestry landscape switches between periods of no fires (4000-1800 yr BP, and 1400-400 yr BP) and fires (1800-1400 yr BP, and 400-0 yr BP), with both fire periods concomitant with intervals of enhanced aridity. We find synergistic impacts of anthropogenic fires and aridity on plant diversity uneven across time, pointing towards varied land management strategies implemented by the contemporary societies. For example, during 1800-1400 yr BP, diversity reduced in conjunction with a significant decrease in the canopy cover related to sustained use of fires, possibly linked to large-scale intensification of agriculture. On the contrary, the substantially reduced fires during 400-0 yr BP may be associated with the emergence of sacred forest groves, a cultural practice supporting the maintenance of plant diversity. Overall, notwithstanding apparent changes in fires, aridity, and land use over the past 4000 years, present-day plant diversity in the Western Ghats agroforestry landscape falls within the range of historical variability. Importantly, we find a strong correlation between plant diversity and canopy cover, emphasising the crucial role of maintenance of trees in the landscape for biodiversity conservation. Systematic tree management in tropical social-ecological systems is vital for livelihoods of billions of people, who depend on forested landscapes. In this context, we argue that agroforestry landscapes can deliver win-win solutions for biodiversity as well as people in the Western Ghats and wet tropics at large.



Biodiversity, Environmental Sciences, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics, Sustainability


agroforestry, biodiversity conservation, evidence-based policymaking, fire management, Social-ecological systems, wet tropics


Published: 2020-10-01 13:19

Last Updated: 2021-01-23 12:52

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Data and Code Availability Statement:
The corresponding data will uploaded to online palaeoecology repositories very soon.