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Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve

Great Nicobar is the southernmost island of the Nicobar Islands Archipelago. It covers 103 870 hectares.

Ecological Characteristics

The Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve harbours a wide spectrum of ecosystems comprising tropical wet evergreen forests, mountain ranges reaching a height of 642 m (Mt. Thullier) above sea level, and coastal plains. The region is noted for its rich biodiversity. It houses 650 species of angiosperms, ferns, gymnosperms, bryophytes and lichens among others. The tract is rich in plant diversity and fosters a number of rare and endemic species, including Cyathea albosetacea (tree fern) and Phalaenopsis speciosa (orchid). A total of 14 species of mammals, 71 species of birds, 26 species of reptiles, 10 species of amphibians and 113 species of fish have been reported. The region also harbours a large number of endemic and endangered species of fauna. To date, 11 species of mammals, 32 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and 4 species of amphibians have been found to be endemic. Of these, the well-known Crab-eating Macaque, Nicobar Tree Shrew, Dugong, Nicobar Megapode, Serpent Eagle, salt water crocodile, marine turtles and Reticulated Python are endemic and/or endangered.

Socio-economic characteristics

The Mongoloid Shompen Tribe, about 200 in number, live in the forests of the biosphere reserve particularly along the rivers and streams. They are hunters and food gatherers, dependent on forest and marine resources for sustenance. Another Mongoloid Tribe, Nicobarese, about 300 in number, used to live in settlements along the west coast. After the tsunami in 2004, which devastated their settlement on the western coast, they were relocated to Afra Bay in the North Coast and Campbell Bay. They survive on fish caught from the sea. The settlers and mainlanders, which number over 8 000, live along the southeast coast of the island, practising agriculture, horticulture and fishing. The Shompens move between the Core and Buffer Zones, while the settlers and Nicobarese live in settlements spread along the coast in the Transition zone.

The Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve lies in the Great Nicobar Island, which forms the southern end of the Archipelagic Nicobar Islands. Located in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar islands became a union territory of the Republic of India in 1956. The Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve, which stretches over an area of 1,03,870 hectares, got the UNESCO tag in 2013. The biosphere encompasses nearly 85% of the island of Great Nicobar and includes two National Parks - the larger Campbell Bay National Park in the north and Galathea National Park in the south. 

The Great Nicobar Biosphere is recognised as a terrestrial ecoregion for its rain forests and many endemic species. Its warm tropical climate with temperatures ranging between 22 to 30 degrees C and heavy rainfall during monsoons, helps in the growth of evergreen and deciduous tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests in the interiors and mangrove forests in the coastal areas. A wide range of ecosystems can be seen here ranging from mountain ranges, with the highest peak (Mt. Thullier) being at a height of 642 m above sea level, to coastal plains. Great Nicobar is the only island in the archipelago that has a significant amount of fresh surface water in terms of streams and rivers.

The biodiversity found in the Reserve’s flora and fauna is rich. It includes rare and indigenous species such as Cyathea albosetacea (tree fern) and Phalaenopsis speciosa (orchid). Besides these, there are several species of angiosperms, ferns, gymnosperms, bryophytes, and lichens, too. The Biosphere also has a large number of endemic and endangered species of fauna, including 11 species of mammals, 32 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and 4 species of amphibians. The Crab-eating Macaque, Nicobar Tree Shrew, Dugong, Nicobar Megapode, Serpent Eagle, saltwater crocodile, marine turtles, and Reticulated Python are a few endangered species.

Great Nicobar is an inhabited island and the two main indigenous communities that live here are the Shompen (around 200 in number), and the Nicobarese (around 300 in number), both of Mongoloid origin. The Nicobarese call themselves Holchu, which means a “friend”. The members of the tribes who live inside the island depend on forest resources for their survival and are also horticulturists. The ones living on the coast mainly depend on fishing. These tribes suffered heavy losses during the 2004 tsunami and were relocated to other places on the island such as the Afra Bay on the North Coast and the area near the Campbell Bay.  

The native islanders avoided interaction with the outside world for a long time, but are now open to contact. However, this has led to issues such as the spread of diseases and pollution. Thus, declaring the area as a Biosphere Reserve will help in preserving the indigenous people, their languages, which include Austroasiatic languages and Nicobarese, and other facets of their socio-cultural traditions.  It will also lead to the implementation of management strategies that will preserve the terrestrial, marine, coastal and freshwater resources, and help devise strategies for sustainable development.