Beauty and biology: the Shangri La

  • 29/06/1998

Beauty and biology:     the Shangri La Toshi, a little girl in Gangtok, wakes up everyday to see a montage of pictures of wild animals - the golden langur, red panda, blue sheep and others she cannot recognise - on the wall. Looking out of the window, she can see the mountain ranges with Kangchendzonga peak standing out majestically. If you ask her whether she has seen these animals in real life, she shakes her head dolefully. Then she perks up. "Once upon a time all these animals lived there," she says, pointing towards the mountains.

Toshi is quoting her parents, who have told her about the blue sheep, the red panda and the golden langur. Her parents, in turn, were mostly told about these animals by their parents. "The wildlife of Sikkim has vanished. The last time I saw a red panda was two decades ago," says Toshi"s father, a forest official. And he is not alone in lamenting the loss.For Toshi"s generation, the animals have been preserved on light-sensitive paper - photographs taken in the early part of the century by the British. But if conservation activity is not speeded up, many other species may vanish - remaining on paper alone.

Even documentation of species found in Sikkim is poor. The Gazetteer of Sikkim, published in 1928, remains the only comprehensive source of information on flora and fauna. Compiled from studies conducted by British travellers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it identified over 200 mammals, some 2,600 species of butterflies and moths, and 550 birds - accounting for nearly 30 per cent of the entire bird population of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka combined.

The first botanic study of Sikkim was conducted by J D Hooker in 1848. He published his findings in the Himalayan Journals - later renamed Flora Indica - between 1849 and 1851, enumerating 2,920 species of flora. The Gazetteer pegged the number of plant species at 4,000, while the Botanical Survey of India places it close to 5,000 - making Sikkim a heaven for researchers and plant lovers.

But this Shangri-La (paradise on earth) - as Sikkim has been called - is fast deteriorating. Most species have not been studied and scientific conservation practices are inadequate. "The state of scientific study is so poor that we are not sure how many species exist and how many have vanished," says Ekalavya Sharma, director of the Sikkim chapter of the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development (gbpihed), Gangtok.

Infinite Variety

Home to thousands of species of plants and animals, Sikkim is a treasure house of biodiversity that is disappearing fast

SPREAD over 7,299 sq km, with a population of 4,20,000, Sikkim is the meeting point of the Central and Eastern Himalayas. It has a climatic range from the tropical to the alpine. In fact, the change in altitude and climate is so rapid that it is possible to descend from the "arctic" heights to the "tropical" lowlands in a couple of hours in Sikkim, says Eklavya Sharma. For example, the Tista river that flows across Sikkim originates from Lake Cholamu at 18,000 ft and descends to Chungthang at 5,000 ft - a fall of 163 ft per kilometre! To botanists like P S Ramakrishnan, professor at the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (jnu), New Delhi, Sikkim "seems to be a laboratory of all climates put together for study".

Deposits left by glaciers that covered Sikkim during the Ice Ages still dot the countryside. These moraines are rich in minerals, and land below 10,000 ft is usually ideal for agriculture. On its western border, Sikkim has a number of peaks over 20,000 ft, including the third highest mountain in the world, Kangchendzonga (28,168 ft). The state has many lakes, both spring-fed and river-fed. Most of these are in west Sikkim, which has the steepest mountains, and are found at altitudes ranging from 6,000 ft to 12,400 ft.

Trees, flowers and ferns
The small state is home to some 5,000 flowering plants and trees, and 400 non-flowering plants like ferns, lichens, liverworts, algae and fungi. About two per cent of these are found exclusively in Sikkim. The forests consist of mixed vegetation, and have been divided into three groups, representing broad climatic types (see box: The silent forests).

Flowering plants like gladiolus, primula, potentilla, iris, gentian, anemone and orchids thrive in Sikkim. Rhododendrons grow profusely on the Singalila range, bordering Sikkim and Nepal. There are over 46 species of rhododendron in the state. These trees sometimes dominate whole hillsides, which blush in shades of pink, orange and red. Some 30-odd species of primulas (Primula spp.), growing at altitudes ranging from 3,657 m to 4,572 m, are found here. Many of these were carried to Britain by botanists and travellers and have become known as "British" flowers. Primula sikkimensis, native to Sikkim, is found at elevations between 3,350 m and 4,572 m. It resembles a gigantic cowslip and is one of the few primulas that have thrived in Britain.

But Sikkim is best known for its orchids. The state has close to 600 orchid species. According to R C Upadhya, director of the National Orchid Research Centre (norc), Gangtok, most of the endemic orchids are either extinct or non-traceable. The norc was established in 1996 to study orchids and develop strategies for their conservation. In 1976, India ratified cites. Two years later, a blanket ban was imposed on export of orchids. The ban followed reports that exporters, who claim they were selling cultivated plants, were over-exploiting the wild. The ban was subsequently lifted in 1979, but the problem remains (see box: Blossoms in the dust).

Since then, the state government has identified two sanctuaries for preservation of orchids. However, the norc has yet to start functioning fully. Upadhya feels that it would take many years to identify and document all species of orchids and their habitat. According to M Ahmedullah of the Indian Subcontinent Plant Specialist Group, at least seven species are already extinct.

The state has some 150 species of gladioli. In south Sikkim, gladiolus species are being cultivated in Turuk, Pachghery, Rumbung and Lower Sadam belts. The market for gladioli bulbs has grown phenomenally in the past few years and they are being cultivated by locals on private land or even land obtained on lease for one or two years.

Medicinal plants like Aconitum species, Artemisia vulgaris, "kutki" (Picrorhiza kurrooa) and "jatamansi" (Nardostachys grandiflora) are also found in Sikkim. These herbs, found in high-altitude grasslands, are threatened by over-grazing and over-harvesting. Villagers who have been using medicinal plants lament the decline in plant populations. Says Ugen Bhutia of Yuksom township, a base camp for mountaineers: "There was a plant that was used to cure high fever. It was plentiful earlier. But I can"t find it any more, even in remote forest areas."

Several species of Lycopodium and Selaginella, or true fern, are found in Sikkim. The European club moss (Lycopodium clavatum) is abundant above an elevation of 1,524 m.

The shy and the dying
Only 144 mammals are known to exist in Sikkim, according to the Sikkim forest department (Administrative report, 1995-96). Of these, 39 have been declared rare and endangered under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. In fact, the status of rare animal populations in the state is not known (see box: Rare animals). Some are thought to be extinct, others may be on the verge of extinction. Usha Lachungpa, research officer in the wildlife circle of the state forest department, explains that scientific study of high-altitude wildlife is hampered by the fact that they are extremely shy.

The east Himalayan tahr (see box: An ancient genus) or "shapi" has been found only west of Tsungthang, at Fimphu and along the ridges of Lamaangden. According to forest department estimates (based on sighting), its population may be between 70-100 heads. The Himalayan langur and Assamese macaque have also been found in these areas.

There are three animals that have been very rarely sighted in the past decade or so - the red panda, musk deer and bharal (blue sheep, Pseudois nayaur). Alpine musk deer (Moschus sifanicus) and forest musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) are reported to be found in 12 locations in north and west Sikkim, and in Kangchendzonga National Park. Since illegal trade in musk obtained from its pod has continued over the years and the animal is hardly ever sighted in sanctuaries today, it has been concluded that the population of musk deer has gone down drastically. "Ten years ago one could easily see a musk deer in the higher region of Kangchendzonga park. Now it is as rare as a red panda," says Ugen Bhutia, a tourist guide.

In fact, the phrase "as rare as a red panda" just about describes the fate of the state animal of Sikkim. People who live near the park say that ten years ago the red panda could easily be spotted by visitors to the park. Now the animal seems to have disappeared. The last time a red panda was sighted was in 1995, after a gap of two years.

The natural draining of the famous Green Lake in Kangchendzonga National Park has also endangered the population of bharal. A group of about 100 bharal lived off vegetation that the lake supported. After the draining and reduction in vegetation, the last time these animals were spotted was in 1993, when two small herds consisting of 10 and seven individuals were seen.

Another rare animal, the southern kiang (Equus kiang polyodon), assumed extinct, was sighted in 1987-88 and 1992. But the herd size and the animal"s habits could not be documented. According to Usha Lachungpa, who sighted the kiang in Lachen Valley, there is only 25-30 sq km of habitat suitable for the kiang in Chho Lhamo National Park.A small population, probably numbering less than 100, lives in the area but the animal has not been sighted after 1992.

The case of butterflies of Sikkim is similar. Reports that trade in butterflies (that are mounted by collectors) is threatening their existence in the Northeast have not been officially confirmed. Indeed, well-known species like "Gem Silver Spot" and "Blue Apollo" can still be seen at altitudes above 3,962 m. But in Butterflies of Sikkim, the first catalogue published in 1888 by Elwes and Mollers, 536 species were listed. The number currently reported by the Sikkim forest department is 422 species. The status of 114 species remains uncertain.