Article by Gokul G. K.
Google the word ‘biodiversity’ and the first set of photos to appear on your screen would be either of a thick green rainforest or a blue-green ocean. So, why are we here talking about snow-covered mountains, which look seemingly unfriendly towards life? You might be surprised to know that the Himalayas, which Include the entire Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), is one among the four biodiversity hotspots in the country (the Western Ghats, the Indo-Burma region and the Sundaland (includes group of Islands) being the other three).
The IHR covers an area of over 5,30,000 sq km, about 16% of the total geographical area of the country, spanning across 11 Indian states and union territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and States of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and West Bengal.
Part of the Indian Himalayan Region. Credit: Geoex
The Himalayan range is one of the youngest mountain ranges on the planet, and is considered the highest in the world. The northeast Himalayas holds a record of sheltering 163 endangered species, including the wild water buffalo (aka Asian buffalo, Asiatic buffalo and wild Asian buffalo), one-horned rhino, and as many as 10,000 plant species, of which 3,160 are endemic.
Before we delve more into the topic of biodiversity in the IHR, it is pertinent to understand this word ‘biodiversity’ in some detail. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines biodiversity as ‘the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.’ In other words, it is the variation among living organisms from different sources.
Kanchenjunga peak during sunrise. Credit: Condé Nast Traveler
According to Geography and You, ‘nearly 65% of the total geographical area of the IHR is legally designated as forest land (National Forest Policy, 1988). However, this does not necessarily mean that all this area is actually under forest cover. These parts either remain covered under perpetual snow or are alpine pastures that do not support tree growth due to harsh climatic conditions. Therefore, in fact, forests cover only about 42% of the total geographical area of the Himalayan region. Of this, 50% is under very good forest cover, and 21% is under dense forest canopy.’
Portion of the Himalayas in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: Britannica
This 42 percent forest consists of tropical deciduous forests in the foothills, temperate forests in the middle altitudes, coniferous, sub-alpine, and alpine forests in higher altitudes. These finally give way to alpine grasslands and high-altitude meadows followed by scrublands.
According to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), of the estimated 10,000 species of plants in the Himalaya Hotspot, about 3,160 are endemic as mentioned above, and as are 71 genera. The publication, Faunal Diversity of Indian Himalaya, lists 30,377 species/subspecies in the region. The largest family of flowering plants in the hotspot is the Orchidaceae, with 750 species.
Besides a rich floral population, the region also boasts a strong faunal biodiversity. About 16% of Indian mammals are present in the state including birds, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. 75 species of mammals belonging to 54 genera, 21 families and 8 orders dwell in these heights. Carnivores represent 32% of the total mammalian fauna of the state. These include a number of mammals that are endemic to the hotspot like the Endangered golden langur (Trachypithecus geei). It is home to majestic creatures like the snow leopard, Himalyan wild yak, Himalayan tahr, and monal. The region also boasts a healthy density of Bengal tiger and greater one-horned rhinoceros.
Earlier this year, scientists from the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) have concluded that India is home to both the species of red panda – Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani). The red panda is a mammal species native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China.
Red Panda. Credit: Mathias Appel (Red Panda Network)
According to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), at least 353 new species have been discovered in the eastern Himalayas (the vast region spanning Bhutan, the northeastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, North Bengaland Sikkim, the far north of Myanmar (Burma), Nepal and southern parts of Tibet) between 1998 and 2008, equating to an average of 35 new species found every year for the last 10 years. The discoveries include 242 plants, 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, 2 birds and 2 mammals, and at least 61 new invertebrates.
Climate change as a threat
The rich and varied biodiversity of the Himalayas is threatened by climate change. A study carried out in the western Himalayas by scientists of the Zoological Survey of India has predicted the loss of about 73% of the Himalayan brown bears (Ursus arctos isabellinus) habitat by the year 2050. “These losses in habitat will also result in loss of habitat from 13 protected areas (PAs), and eight of them will become completely uninhabitable by the year 2050, followed by loss of connectivity in the majority of PAs. Furthermore, simulation suggests a significant qualitative decline in remaining habitats of the species within the protected areas of the landscape,” Lalit Sharma, head of the wildlife section of ZSI and the lead author of the study, told The Hindu.
Himalayan brown bear in Ladakh. Credit: Surya Ramachandran (RoundGlass Sustain)
Some studies predict that over the Indian region, warming could be about 2.1 to 2.6°C in the 2050s and 3.3 to 3.8°C in the 2080s.
One of the key findings of a significant study, conducted in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountain ranges, titled, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, was that ‘in the future, even if global warming is kept to 1.5 °C, warming in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region will likely be at least 0.3 °C higher, and in the northwest Himalaya and Karakoram at least 0.7 °C higher. Such large warming could trigger a multitude of biophysical and socio-economic impacts, such as biodiversity loss, increased glacial melting, and less predictable water availability – all of which will impact livelihoods and well-being in the HKH.’
As this article mentions, the rapidly increasing temperature and the resulting climate change can not only impact the biodiversity of the region but can also obliterate the endemic livelihoods and culture of the people of the Himalayas, as most of these livelihoods and much of their lives are intertwined with the mountains and its creatures.
Now Google the word ‘biodiversity’ again. The first set of photos to appear would still be either of a thick green rainforest or a blue-green ocean. But now you know, even in silence of the snow-covered mountains, or in the darkness of a cold lake, there are numerous magnificent creatures of evolution that exist just like we do.