Dr. Pankaj Chandan The Indian Himalayan region with an area of 5,33,000 sq. km. includes 9 mountain states and two Union Territories from north and north-eastern borders of India. These are a complex chain of mountains ranging upto an altitude of 8,850 mtrs above mean sea level. The word Himalaya has originated from Sanskrit word Hima meaning snow and alaya meaning abode, so it literally means abode of snow. At international level this mountain chain in India shares borders with 6 neighbouring countries. This makes Himalayas a key strategic location in the region. Besides this the region is blessed with wide variety of flora and fauna and its communities add to the rich and diverse culture of India. Ensuring safety of Himalayas and protecting wildlife of the region is a great service to the nation. Safe borders and safe wildlife habitats will ensure continued and sustained ecological benefits not only in Himalayas but also to billions in the plains. It is important to note that biodiversity across Himalayas is the fuel that keeps our critical ecosystems nourishing and running sustainably. At the same time Himalaya has tremendous role in safeguarding people’s lives and health. Moreover, Himalaya is not just a resource to be utilized but a heritage to be cherished and celebrated. Since ages these mountains have acted as an abode to seek enlightenment. Our Yogis have always used this serene platform to connect with supreme power. Here in Himalaya Hanuman found life saving Sanjivini and here only resonated sacred flute of Krishna. This is the place from where all Vedas originated. Even today from Himalaya only, we get rare and endemic medicinal plants not found anywhere else in the world. In many religious scriptures, Mount Kailash has been referred as guardian of Vedas and vedic knowledge. Also Himalaya has always remained a source of inspiration and passion for mountaineers. We are celebrating World Environment Day 2020 when the whole world is in grips of a global pandemic, which has brought entire planet earth to a standstill. On this World Environment Day each one of us has a role to play in ending biodiversity loss and in preserving nature. This write-up on Himalayan Wildlife on the eve of World Environment Day 2020 is to ensure that each one of us takes pride in having such a unique natural treasure. More biodiversity means more secure life forms on earth including human beings. We need healthy forests to keep climate stable. We need millions of pollinators and billions of soil organisms to keep food we eat in supply. Currently we are losing biodiversity faster than any other time in human history. Never ever in the history we realized the importance of nature so much than today. We must recognize the fact beyond any doubt that our own health and well-being is closely linked to the natural world specially to wildlife and its critical habitats. Importance of Himalayan Ecosystems The rich capital in the Himalayas has tremendous potential to sustain lives of communities and billions down in the plains. This vast mountain chain with a breadth of 250 – 300 Km stretches over 2,500 Km from UT of J&K in western part to state of Arunachal Pradesh in eastern part. This region covers 16.2 per cent of the total area of country and has 3.86 per cent of the total population of Indian republic. The present COVID-19 crisis has highlighted huge costs and risks of unbalanced, destructive and wasteful relationship with the planet and its natural resources and how much we depend on nature for our health and welfare. In few weeks a virus has brought the global economy to knees affecting the most vulnerable in our society. From here we cannot move back to normal but we have to adapt to a new normal, which will be based on respect for every living creature. Here we need to realize the importance of critical mountain ecosystems like Himalayas and value them for the range of services they are providing to us. Therefore knowing and saving wildlife species in the region will go a long way in maintaining the ecological character of these mighty mountains. Birds in Himalayas: The avian diversity of Himalayas is unique and attracts thousands of visitors every year who visit these mountains to watch these winged creatures of the region. Of the 1,300 bird species recorded in India, till date 940 bird species have been reported from Indian Himalayan region. This is 80 per cent of the total number of birds found in India. This avian diversity in Himalayas belongs to 401 genera and 94 families under 23 orders. Of these 940 bird species, 450 birds breed in Himalayas and 39 species are endemic to the region. The key bird species found in Himalayas are, Black-necked Crane, Kashmir Flycatcher, Demoiselle Crane, Western Tragopan, Bar-headed Goose, Cheer Pheasant, Saker Falcon, Upland Buzzard, Himalayan Monal, Dark-rumped Swift, Ibisbill, Great Hornbill, White-napedYuhina, Salim’s Mountain Finch, Himalayan Quail, Long-billed Bush-Warbler and Humes Ground Pecker. Some of these birds may migrate even to lower Himalaya depending upon seasonal variations. Since most of Himalayan birds have lesser altitudinal migration range and highly specific habitat choice, they are in forefront of facing extinctions. The much diverse habitats within Himalayas have supported and provided a chance to the Himalayan birds to adapt and evolve to their niche over thousands of years. Mammals of the Himalayas: Of the 428 mammalian species reported from across India, 291 species have been recorded from Indian Himalayan Region. Of these, 40 species are found in Trans-Himalayas, 77 from north-west Himalaya, 102 from Western Himalaya and 172 from Eastern Himalaya. The iconic mammal species in the Indian Himalayan Region are Snow Leopard, Markhor, Kashmir Stag or Hangul, Eurasian Otter, Lynx, Asiatic Ibex, Tibetn Antelope or Chiru, Himalayan Marmot, Himalayan Brown Bear, Slow Loris, Himalayan Wolf, Wild Yak, Musk Deer, Red Panda and Clouded Leopard. Ever increasing human-wildlife interactions in the entire Himalayan region are leading to human-wildlife conflict, which is a serious cause of concern. There is an urgent need for mitigation efforts to reduce this conflict as this is leading to rapid decline of many mammalian species in the Himalayas. Floral Diversity of the Himalayas: As a result of complex topography, typical geology and diverse climatic conditions, a wide range of diverse floral assemblages have evolved in the region. Alpine Desert Steppe, Sub-alpine forests and tropical moist deciduous forests are key vegetation types in the region. Also Himalayan Grasslands upon which the nomadic tribesdepend for their livelihood are equally important. In many parts of high Himalaya, Nomadism has over the years evolved as a way of life. Since these nomads cannot afford to stay at one place so they keep moving from one place to another in search of limited pastures. Past hundred years of research on the flora of Indian Himalayas has revealed that currently there are 10,503 species of plants in the Himalayan region. Of these 1700 have been reported to have medical value. This itself speaks about the importance of Himalayas as a natural source of medicines for various types of ailments. Himalayan Waters: Within Himalaya an estimated 4 million springs provide direct drinking water to the people. At the same time, Himalayan wetlands are crucial for biodiversity and sustainable economic growth not only locally but also at the river basin and regional levels. In addition they regulate micro-climates and have immense livelihood, cultural and spiritual significance for the communities living amongst them. Yet despite their importance, they are under increasing threats from climate change, tourist and unsustainable exploitation not only of the wetlands themselves but also of the catchments draining into them. And there is a risk that these threats could lead to negative knock-on effects right down the rivers systems that they supply. Realising the importance of many Himalayan wetlands as source of water and as key habitats for migratory birds, nine wetlands covering an area of 1603.5 sq. km in Indian Himalayan Region have been declared as Ramsar Sites or wetlands of International importance. Among these Himalayan wetlands some key names are Surinsar-Mansar, Wular and Hokersar Wetlands in UT of Jammu & Kashmir, Tsomoriri in UT of Ladakh, Pong Dam in Himachal Pradesh and Deepor Beel in Assam. All these Himalayan wetlands are key habitats for thousands of migratory birds. Also it is worth mentioning here that major rivers originating in Tibet and passing through Indian Himalayas provide key bird migration routes to the migratory birds in the Central Asian Flyway (CAF). Protected Area Network: In order to provide adequate protection to the unique wildlife of Himalaya, currently there is a network of protected areas within Indian Himalayan region. Of the 104 National Parks in India, 28 National Parks are in Himalayas. These National Parks cover an area of 2.97 per cent of the total area of Indian Himalayan Region. Similarly of the 551 Wildlife Sanctuaries in India, 99 Wildlife Sanctuaries are in Himalaya. These Wildlife Sanctuaries cover an area of 5.38 per cent of the total area of Indian Himalayan Region. These protected areas provide protection to diverse flora and fauna of Indian Himalayan Region. Kishtwar High Altitude National Park and Dachigam National Park in UT of J&K, Hemis High Altitude National Park in UT of Ladakh, Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh, Corbett National Park and Valley of Flower National Park in Uttarakhand, Khangchendzonga National Park in Sikkim, Kaziranga National Park in Assam and Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh are some of the key National Parks in Indian Himalayan Region. Similarly Trikuta Wildlife Sanctuary, Jasrota Wildlife Sanctuary, Hirapora Wildlife Sanctuary, Limber Wildlife Sanctuary and Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary in UT of J&K, Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary and Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary in UT of Ladakh, Dhauladhar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary, Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand, Barsey Rhododendron Wildlife Sanctuary in Sikkim, East Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary and Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam and Eagle Nest Wildlife Sanctuary and Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh are key Wildlife Sanctuaries in the Indian Himalayan Region. All these protected areas are playing a key role in conservation of rare and endangered flora and fauna of Himalaya. Threats: It has been estimated that tourism related activities are already generating 23 thousand tons of solid waste in Indian Himalayan Region everyday. If the envisaged tourist load of 240 million by 2025 becomes a reality, the problems associated with such tourism will get worse. As per estimates of NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India), currently of the 4 million springs in the Indian Himalayan region, at least one third are drying up and more than half witnessed decline in water discharge. The unplanned and unregulated developmental activities have already increased the vulnerabilities and is compromising with the unique values of the Himalayas. Thousands of feral and free ranging dogs are recognized as a key threat to wildlife in the region. Presently we have lost seeds of all traditional varieties of pulses and other sources of food. Also it is quite evident that biodiversity loss cross Himalaya has severe implications including the collapse of our food and health systems. Ever increasing human wildlife conflict is a cause of concern and with our more intrusions into critical wildlife habitats emerging threats from zoonotic diseases is also increasing by every passing day. Wild animals of all kinds are trafficked along commercial routes that connect continents and distant countries, potentially amplifying the spread of pathogens. In most of the cases these animals have enormous potential to transmit viruses, particularly when they come in direct contact with human beings along all these commercial routes. Ever increasing linear infrastructure in the form of road networks and powerlines across Himalayas is a serious cause of concern. Our history is full of facts about self-sustaining models supporting Himalayan communities since ages. It is the humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates conditions for survival of viruses and become cause of global pandemics like COVID-19. Also it has profound impact on health and economy of poor and rich mountain communities alike. Many scientific studies have proved beyond doubt that Himalaya is highly vulnerable to climate change and this is likely to impact the diverse flora and fauna in the region. The Himalayan communities need to be much more resilient and Government should formulate policies towards enhancing the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change. Sudden loss of livestock due to uncertain patterns of snowfall and invasion of locust in the scarce pastures in Himalayas has huge implications for vulnerable communities as well as for wildlife in the region. What needs to be done: The wildlife across Himalayas is dispersed and need to be managed carefully. Today we need a green recovery mission that recognizes the importance of nature as our defence mechanism. We need to realize that without plants there will be no oxygen and without bees to pollinate there will be no fruits and nuts. For stable and healthy Himalaya we need sustainable way to produce food, sustainable way to build infrastructure, clean energy to address climate change and biodiversity loss. Present time is our greatest chance to build a safer future for our children with nature at the heart of it. All of us need to understand that protecting wildlife is protecting ourselves from future pandemics. Get back to basic and back to organic farming should be a slogan. With Swachh Bharat we also need a mission for Swachh food. Organic production of food needs to be completely revived. The risk of more pandemics like COVID-19 in near future underlines the urgent need to safeguard critical wildlife habitats like Himalaya. We need a better understanding of how Himalayan Mountain chain functions and in particular its role in defending us from spread of diseases. Under the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic when we regularly see the images of labourers in big cities desperately trying to move back to the villages. A vast majority of these are from mountain areas. The need of the hour is for our policy makers to realize that there is a urgent need to build green economy and use this as a tool to eradicate poverty from the poor and marginalized sections of the society. Himalaya is safe with its composite ethnic communities and coexistence of humans with the wildlife of the region. However problems in Himalayas came with unsustainable models of development in the region. To achieve sustainable development in the Himalayas we need green infrastructure and green jobs through a new model of green governance. In order to protect Himalayas participation from the common masses in plains is equally important. They need to realize the great ecological services, which this mountain chain is providing to the country at large. Secure Himalayas are in larger interest of national security both from Defence and from ecological point of view. Focus must be on diversification of livelihoods and farming in Himalayas has to be attractive profession as well. We must curb illegal wildlife trade and consumption wherever possible. Also all development activities in Himalaya should be focused to lift weaker sections of the society. NITI Aayog has already identified the sectors like revival of springs and Ecotourism in Himalaya to be taken up as national missions. In addition to this, the green skill development and Entrepreneurship must take a center stage for creating more local based employment opportunities. There is a urgent need to establish a strong and well equipped wildlife knowledge centers both in western as well as in eastern Himalayas. Such centers can help to develop a comprehensive database on current status of wildlife and associated threats in Indian Himalayan region for informed decision-making. At the same time regional level collaborations need to be developed for conservation of migratory wildlife species. This will help to address issues that have regional level conservation implications. Conclusion: Our solutions are in nature and protecting wildlife is protecting ourselves. We must understand that each species of wildlife is not just an entity but has got a functional value. The present crisis has also a deep lesson that we must immediately stop the illegal trade in wildlife and its products. There is an urgent need to strike a balance between human health, environmental health and animal health. Presently a large number of scientific studies are proving the fact that loss of nature and overexploitation of natural resources is the key factor behind global pandemics. Here in Himalaya we also need to look at every creature with love, regard and respect. Present time is high time to look at Himalaya with much more respect and to realize the well-known fact that human health is closely linked to planet’s health. Everyone needs to realize that Himalayan wildlife is unique and we must take pride in protecting and celebrating this uniqueness. Therefore it is vital that every Himalayan creature must be respected and given due attention which it deserves. This will be a great service to the nation as well, as Himalaya has a critical role in shaping sustainable development of India. This is the only way to protect natural treasures like Himalaya and to build a future where humans live in harmony with nature. Himalayan wildlife needs to be a key focus for post 2020 biodiversity framework. Present COVID – 19 crisis has also communicated a loud and clear message that more urgent then ever, despite all our technological advances we are clearly dependent on healthy and vibrant ecosystems for everything we live on. Hence we must realize that our solutions are in nature and not in exploiting nature. We need to get back to basics and back to nature. Together this is possible. (Author leads WWF-India’s Conservation work in Western Himalayas and has over 2 decades of field experience of working across Himalayas)
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