How Valley of Flowers got World Heritage Site tag

The tag will bring higher visibility and increased tourism to the area

By Chandra Prakash Kala
Published: Wednesday 17 October 2012

kalaThe Valley of Flowers has immense natural beauty and a bonanza of flowers. However, carrying out research there demands physical fitness, patience and perseverance. Long back in April 1993, when I first started surveying the Valley of Flowers National Park, nestled amid some of the majestic snowy peaks of Himalayan mountains in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, I was quite sceptical of my success. I was not even sure whether I would complete the study.

But my many years of stay and study in the valley resulted in dozens of research articles and two books. I was able to come out with a first ever list of 500 flowering plant species growing within the Valley of Flowers National Park. But the most rewarding result of my tiring research was its use in getting the park its status of a World Heritage Site.  It brings higher visibility and increased tourism to the area and binds the country to protect the location.

It also allows for monetary benefits from member countries in case of a natural disaster and for upkeep. As on March 2012, 189 nations of the world’s 194 nations have signed the treaty known as the World Heritage Convention. The Convention emphasises on the protection of world cultural and natural heritage and was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on November 16, 1972.

Getting the tag

In 2004, the Valley of Flowers National Park was nominated for the World Heritage Site status by the Government of India. As technical advisory body to the World Heritage Committee, IUCN–the world conservation union–carries out technical evaluation of all natural and mixed properties nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List. The evaluation process includes an external review of each nomination by experts knowledgeable about the site and the natural values they represent. Usually, eight to 10 independent experts are involved in reviewing each nomination. They primarily include members of the World Commission on Protected Areas, other IUCN Commissions and scientific networks.

To evaluate the Valley of Flowers nomination, IUCN deputed M J B Green who has done research on the Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) in and around the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand. He along with Georgina Peard of IUCN visited the Valley of Flowers and met local leaders, forest department officials and relevant organisations in India. 

The dates of meeting of IUCN World Heritage Panel were approaching fast (December 13-17, 2004) to examine the valley’s nomination, and IUCN was still looking for authentic scientific data on the Valley of Flowers. Green and Peard contacted me in the first week of December 2004 and requested me to provide my comments as an independent reviewer on the basis of my research in the area.

To assess the Valley of Flowers as a World Heritage Site, three major criteria were taken into account by the IUCN to place before the World Heritage Committee. These were: (i) exceptional natural beauty (ii) population of rare, endangered and high altitude flora and fauna (iii) status of conservation and management. The Valley of Flowers met all these criteria.

Remote sensing studies showed that of the total 87.5 sq km park area, about 70 per cent remains under perpetual snow. Rest of the area harbours 520 vascular plant species; of these, 500 species are flowering plants. Occupation of such a small area by this huge number of flowering plants makes the place a botanical paradise. Besides, the alpine meadows (the area above natural tree line abounding in low herbs) of the Valley of Flowers is the repository of valuable medicinal and aromatic plants. 

imageThere are many alpine meadows and valleys in the Garhwal Himalayas, such as Khiron Valley, Raj Kharak, Chinap Valley, Har-Ki-Dun and Dayara Bugyal, that have similar geomorphological conditions, elevation ranges and flowering plant composition such as the Valley of Flowers. But based on my experience, none of them is as diversethan the Valley of Flowers in terms of floral wealth.

In terms of plants per unit area and their frequency, the population of rare and endangered plant species is higher in the Valley of Flowers than in other alpine meadows of the Indian Himalayas. The number of threatened plant species, especially of medicinal values, is higher in the Valley of Flowers than in the other protected areas of the Indian Himalayas, including the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Pin Valley National Park, Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary, Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary and Hemis National Park.

As per the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, livestock grazing has been prohibited in the park area from 1982 onwards. Since then, natural herbaceous formations have been taking shape in the park area, which includes Polygonum polystachyum or Himalayan knotweed colonisation.

Polygonum polystachyum proliferates in the disturbed habitat types such as eroded slopes, bouldery area , avalanche prone areas and in the fragmentary tree line zone. It helps check soil erosion due to its proliferation in the disturbed habitat types and its deep rooted rhizomes in the soil.

Besides, the natural tree line has started taking shape at the lower altitudes in the Valley of Flowers, which has been repeatedly used by pastoral communities for firewood and other purposes in the past while camping in the Valley of Flowers.

The Valley of Flowers, eventually, fulfilled all the required conditions and hence it was declared as the World Heritage Site on July 14, 2005 by UNESCO, and I took a deep breath of relief. 

Chandra Prakash Kala is a faculty member with the  ecosystem and environment management division of Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal

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