The Indian High Altitudes

Congratulations to Yash Veer for publishing this piece in the Tehelka.

The future of biodiversity in the higher Himalayas lies outside protected areas

The northern part of India is rimmed by a 2,500 km stretch of mountains, the Himalayas, the land of snow. Covering over a million sq km, it includes low Siwalik foothills at 400 m, through the Middle Himalayas, to massive peaks above 8,000 m, going further in its rainshadow into the Trans Himalayas.

Usually, rainfall declines from east to west and from south to the northern Trans Himalayan cold-deserts, causing an immense vertical and horizontal diversity of habitats. The non-forested areas above 3,200 m in the west and 4,200 m in the east cover over 1.5 lakh sq km. About 45 percent of this high altitude area is a vast expanse of permafrost, glaciers and sheer rock faces, largely uninhabitable.

The Himalayas host unique biodiversity including at least 350 species of mammals, 1,200 species of birds, 635 species of amphibians and reptiles and numerous plants. Over 335 species of wild relatives of cultivated crops are found here. The higher Himalayas also have the highest diversity of wild relatives of domestic animals — sheep (urial, argali), goats (markhor, ibex), cattle (yak) and equids (kiang). There are numerous biologically important wetlands that form breeding grounds for waterfowl.

Only a part of this region’s biodiversity is covered by more than 30 wildlife Protected Areas (PA) that dot the higher Himalayas. Unlike the rest of the country, where most biodiversity are locked in habitat ‘islands’ formed by PAs, here it is spread continuously in the entire region. For example, it is estimated that over 60 percent of the snow leopard population, a flagship of this ecosystem, may be outside PAs. The same is true for other species such as Ladakh urial, Tibetan argali and takin, of which less than 1,500 may survive in India.

While wildlife values are pervasive in the landscape, so is the use by the resident agro-pastoral communities who use the mountains for pasture, some cultivation, collection of biomass and medicinal plants. With increasing human population, the growing people and wildlife interface is probably posing greater problems. Wild herbivores in places have been out-competed by increasing domestic stock, while in other regions poaching and conflict are decimating wildlife. With the recent thrust of developmental pressures, primarily to match up with the tremendous infrastructural boom on the Chinese side, there is a great risk of prime areas getting overrun by such

One offshoot of the recent thrust of development is the huge influx of poor migrant labourers. Many of them are alleged to be involved with poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Garbage from many labour campsites, military camps and tourist facilities has resulted in an explosion of feral dog population that threatens local wildlife, including

Realising that traditional conservation approaches may not be effective in these areas, the MoEF, in collaboration with the Himalayan states, NGOs and communities, developed an alternative strategy in 2009. Project Snow Leopard is a landscape and knowledge based conservation programme that doesn’t limit itself to the PAs and utilises recent lessons from participatory work to achieve holistic ecosystem conservation. Finally, we are moving in the right direction but, given the challenges, it

Bhatnagar is a biologist working in the Higher Himalayas and director, Snow Leopard Trust-India.

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