Global Arena: Himalayas

Kamal Bawa and Sandesh Kadur

Paradise in peril

Hidden wonders of the Himalayas are being lost, even before they are all discovered, due to the economic demands of population growth and the effects of climate change

Photo: Uttam Babu Shrestha

The Himalayas – the abode of Gods, the land of snow, and the last Shangri La – is full of life. The Himalayan ranges of India alone constitute one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots – regions of the world extraordinarily rich in the number of species found nowhere else on earth. The mountains are home to two thirds of all species found in India. And the Greater Himalayas, extending to the Tibetan Plateau and into southeastern China, harbours, perhaps, 10 per cent of our planet’s total.

If the Himalayas as a whole is outstandingly rich in plant and animal life, the Eastern Himalayas are spectacularly so. The tiny state of Sikkim, for example, is just 7,096 square km. But because its altitude ranges from 280 metres to 8,585 metres, it contains examples of virtually every type of ecosystem encountered in the entire Himalayas – from lowland semi-evergreen forests to alpine meadows. It occupies less than 0.0025 per cent of India’s land area, yet hosts 20 per cent of its plant and animal species.

The sheer abundance of the Eastern Himalaya’s ecosystem defies description. It is the teeming home to nine per cent of the world’s mammals, including such iconic species as the Royal Bengal tiger, the greater one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, red panda, snow leopard and clouded leopard – the smallest of the big cats. Its seemingly boundless and beautiful birdlife embraces the Bengal florican, blood pheasant, black-necked crane – worshipped as a reincarnation of an early Dalai Lama – the green magpie, fi re-tailed sunbird and ten species of extravagantly beaked hornbills. The story is repeated with its reptile, aquatic, and amphibious species.

The region’s thousands of plant species include breathtaking varieties of exotic orchids, rhododendrons, primroses and wild ginger. It features countless floral celebrities – cobra lilies, the blue poppy, the ethereal white bat fl ower, and many more. The mountains are also a vast source of medicinal plants, such as the ghostly-looking Sikkim rhubarb – the ‘noble rhubarb’ – which, in flower, punctuates hidden hillsides like a spectral sentinel, almost two metres high, and is prized for its rarity and medicinal properties. Perhaps the most precious – literally – is the legendary caterpillar fungus. This complex of a fungus and a moth caterpillar has long been used in China for a wide variety of treatments, including cancer.

But its reputation as an aphrodisiac, together with the huge increase in buying power of Chinese and Asian communities, has propelled it to a new status as the world’s most prized fungus, worth twice its weight in gold. The hunt for it has led to violence among rival mountain communities who fight over a potentially rich, but often bitter, harvest.

This is just the story so far. New species are still regularly discovered in the Eastern Himalaya. A recent World Wildlife Fund report records 353 new species discovered in the region between 1998 and 2008, including 61 invertebrates – among them, Nepal’s first scorpion – 16 reptiles, 14 frogs, 14 fishes, two birds and two mammals. Many remote ecosystems have yet to be fully surveyed. The state of Arunachal Pradesh, regarded as being among the richest places on Earth, has barely been explored. Similar regions exist on the borders of Myanmar. The Arunachal macaque was identified only a few years ago; the world’s smallest deer, the leaf muntjac, was first recorded in northern Myanmar in 1999.

The Eastern Himalayas’ extraordinary biodiversity and shared evolution in remote valleys and mountain peaks has generated much of the cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity of its people. More than 200 distinct ethnic groups inhabit the region, speaking as many distinct languages and many more dialects. They have a common ecological heritage: they live in, on or under the Roof of the World, the third greatest ice cap on earth, after the North and South poles. It conditions their very existence.

Besides being the Third Pole, the Himalayas are also Asia’s water tower: the mountains serve as the watershed of the continent’s eight largest rivers. More than 1.3 billion people – a fifth of the world’s population – living in the basins of these rivers rely on their waters for sustenance. These ecosystems provide food, fibre, fodder, fuel wood, medicinal plants, wild pollinators, climate and water regulation, and carbon sequestration.

Biodiversity also has irreplaceable religious, spiritual and aesthetic value. Agriculture in the Himalayas is intertwined with, and relies on, surrounding biodiversity.

Yet, even before all its riches have been uncovered, this great natural life support system is under serious threat. The tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayas – a product of millions of years of evolution – is being rapidly lost, due to the economic demands of population growth and the effects of climate change.

Natural ecosystems are being converted for other uses, such as by deforestation or putting land to the plough. Biodiversity is gradually being degraded by extraction of species for trade, or disruption of ecological processes due to habitat fragmentation, pollution, spread of alien invasive species, and diseases – all induced by humans.

Thus, the one-horned rhinoceros, hunted for its purported medicinal properties, is on the verge of extinction. The Bengal tiger, sought for its skin, is threatened. As its forest habitats recede, the red panda – the size of a domestic cat, and a distant cousin of the giant panda – is now regarded as a living fossil, classified as vulnerable. The newly identified Arunachal macaque is already listed as endangered, along with the golden langur, one of the world’s rarest colobine monkeys, itself discovered only in 1955. The danger list is endless.

Fast-growing populations with increasing levels of consumption can overload natural ecosystems. Economic growth to meet the increasing demands inflates energy needs. China and India envisage building about 400 dams on either side of the massive Himalayan watershed – four times the current number. These displace the biodiversity, as well as people, erode rare river life and run risks associated with earthquakes in a seismic hotspot. Then there are the side effects of unregulated tourism, antiquated policies and centralised governance of natural resources.

At the same time, the Roof of the World is leaking. The Himalayas are melting; glaciers are receding. Climate change is affecting the Himalayas more rapidly than almost anywhere. Only the North and South Poles appear comparable. Over the last 30 years, average temperatures in some of the Himalayas may have risen by 1.5°C, far higher than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted. Rainfall patterns, too, have changed, with less rain in non-monsoon periods and bursts of excessive downpour during the monsoon.

Many small Himalayan glaciers have disappeared. Larger ones are retreating at an alarming 10-60 metres per year. Glacial melt waters often feed lakes at the terminal ends, bounded by glacial ice or moraines, which eventually burst under the inflow. In the last 25 years, there have been more than 20 glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) in Nepal and five in Bhutan. The Dig Tsho GLOF of Nepal in 1985 washed away the Namche Hydropower plant. In 1994, the Lugge Tsho flood in Bhutan killed several people and extensively damaged a town 86 km downstream.

Climate change is affecting wild species. Many plants flower earlier, while others are shifting their ranges and moving to higher locations. High altitude species already in mountain-top habitats, with nowhere to go, face extinction. Increased aridity outside the monsoon seasons is likely to reduce agricultural yields.

Cropping patterns are changing. Some changes appear to have positive effects, such as longer growing seasons and experimentation with new crops even at high altitudes. However, growers also encounter agricultural weeds and pests previously unknown. The movement of mosquitoes to higher altitudes is another ominous portent. Disease-carrying agents for both people and other species, including agricultural crops and domestic animals, are likely to spread.

Despite these widespread changes in climate, the impacts on biodiversity, hydrology and on people’s health and livelihoods all remain poorly documented. Government and other agencies are inadequately prepared to meet the inevitable challenges.

So what can be done? We need:

■ A biodiversity audit – an urgent programme of exploration, collection and documentation to assess the full range and conversation status of all Himalayan species and ecological communities

■ An impact assessment to identify what is being lost, how, where and why. We need a comprehensive programme to monitor changes in biodiversity and society’s interaction with it

■ A co-ordinated plan to manage interconnected resources such as water, land and biodiversity in a way that aligns the twin goals of development and conservation.

Currently, these are often managed in isolation by state agencies, without society’s wider participation

■ An informed consensus on the tradeoffs society is willing to accept to counter the immediate threats that infrastructure development and tourism represent to sustainable resource use and conservation of biodiversity

Environmental change presents humanity with a set of challenges which few – if any – of us, are yet truly prepared to confront, intellectually or psychologically. The scale and complexity of forward thinking and commitment required to mitigate this problem is unprecedented. It will require substantial financial, technical and human resources to prepare government and civil society to cope with the change sweeping the Himalayas. Has the world the will to do it?

Kamal Bawa is distinguished professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and founder-president of the Ashoka Trust for Research into Ecology and Environment (ATREE). Sandesh Kadur is an award-winning wildlife photographer and cinematographer. Text and photographs are extracted from their new book Himalaya – Mountains of Life, published by Ashoka Trust. ( It is a sequel to their first collaboration, Sahyadris – India’s Western Ghats

About the author:

Kamal Bawa is distinguished professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and founder-president of the Ashoka Trust for Research into Ecology and Environment (ATREE). Sandesh Kadur is an award-winning wildlife photographer and cinematographer. Text and photographs are extracted from their new book Himalaya - Mountains of Life, published by Ashoka Trust. ( It is a sequel to their first collaboration, Sahyadris - India's Western Ghats


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