Drying wetlands

Ladakh's high altitude wetlands are under severe stress from the livestock population as well as tourist influx

Published: Monday 30 April 2001

Drying wetlands

-- (Credit: Photographs:Otto Pfister)located at altitudes of 4,000-5,000 metres, the wetlands in the Changtang area of eastern Ladakh attract a large variety of wildlife as well as humans with their livestock. This area covering thousand of square kilometres lies within the boundaries of the Changtang Wilderness Area or the proposed High Altitude Cold Desert National Park. With total rainfall hardly exceeding 100 millimetres annually, the environment is semi-desert like with large dry steppes in open valleys, sporadically dotted with marshes and lakes. They are fed by small mountain rivers mainly during early summer, when the snow from the surrounding peaks melt. Towards autumn, many rivers cease to flow and wetlands dry out or water levels in the lakes decrease.

It is vital to conserve the slow-growing vegetation in the high altitude wetlands. But increased human interference is taking a toll on the fragile environment. In the 1950s and 1960s, moderate nomadic movement was observed in the region and pastures were lush and abundant. But over the last few decades, the vegetation cover has degraded mainly due to increased domestic livestock pressure.

The Changtang and Rupchu areas accommodate 41 villages and hamlets with a total population of 8,000-odd settled and nomadic (indigenous) residents and 1,500 Tibetan refugees. The latter crossed the borders during the early 1960s. The population growth rate is estimated to exceed 2.8 per cent. This is resulting in new settlements being built, new suitable lands being converted into agricultural fields and brooks being diverted to irrigate these areas.

Besides, the area also holds a substantial number of domestic animals. The Changtang area alone maintains an estimated 140,000 livestock population, 90 per cent comprising of sheep and goat and the remaining 10 per cent yak, zo (crossbreed between yak and cow) and ponies. These animals directly compete with the wild ungulates such as the Tibetan wildass, blue sheep, Tibetan argali or the rare Tibetan gazelle. The continuous growth of the domestic livestock increases not only pressure on herbivorous wildlife, but also leads to heavily overgrazed pastureland, resulting in wind erosion and accelerated devastation.

The ecosystems are also under pressure from the influx of tourists. Open to outsiders since 1974, the number of tourists visiting Ladakh has rapidly increased over the last two decades. Earlier the visitors were allowed to access only the Indus Valley west of Leh, Hemmis National Park and Zanskar area. But by securing a seven-day 'special permit' from the local administration in Leh, new regions -- such as Tsomoriri, Tso-Kar, eastern Nubra valley and western Pagong-Tso -- have been made accessible since 1993. The tourists are generally driven in locally hired off-road vehicles to these high altitude plateaus. Due to poor or non-existent infrastructure in the visited places, the visitors are mainly accommodated on camping grounds. Though tents are pitched within defined areas, waste management is totally neglected and all sorts of remains litter the sites. Further, most tourists are ignorant of the disturbance caused to wildlife by their appearance while trekking along the wetlands or driving in close proximity to them. Plans are afoot to open up new destinations like the upper Indus river valley towards the Tibetan border allowing tourists and pilgrims to access the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet directly through Ladakh. This would result in considerable disturbance to prime wetlands like Dungti and Fukche, which are also the nestling and feeding grounds of the endangered black-necked crane.
Seeking a change Today, a major hindrance to the conservation of the Ladakhi ecosystems is the wide-ranging illiteracy or the ignorance of the need to conserve nature. Surveys conducted in the region revealed illiteracy rate exceeding 95 per cent among the nomads. The main reasons of lack of education are remoteness of their living quarters, the scarcity of schools and the conflict between the nomadic lifestyle and the constraints to attend regular education. This deficiency renders any attempt to implement nature preservation measures difficult.

Some of the local schools run by the sos Kinderdorf International, an international non-government organisation offering education where government schools are missing, and the Tibetan schools, which are managed by the Tibetan government-in-exile but also accessible to the non-Tibetan community, offer mostly boarding facilities and try to convince the nomadic society to allow their children to attend school. The department of wildlife protection (Jammu and Kashmir) in Leh, also offers a one-week nature trip to high school students every year, which is effective in bringing the young generation closer to nature.

Due to the predominantly nomadic or semi-nomadic nature of the local adult human population, awareness-building campaigns could be of immense help. Schoolteachers showed eagerness to make their skills available in arranging adult education programmes. According to them, winter is the most appropriate season to do so as most of the nomads settle down during the cold months in or near the villages. This would require fieldwork, too. The programmes could include topics like minimum literacy, credit and saving schemes, eco-awareness together with wetland and wildlife conservation.

A priority issue would be to promote pasture management especially around the high altitude wetlands. The nomads visit these areas during the summer months (May to September). If the nomads could agree to 'social fencing' throughout summer, parts of the pastureland would remain ungrazed and the vegetation would regenerate properly. By October, nomads would harvest the high-standing grass from the areas set aside for winter fodder, when food shortages take a heavy toll on the livestock population. In this way, nobody would feel deprived from access to traditional pastureland. The nomads seemed supportive to such a proposal provided the entire community respects the practice. But it is vital not to link the decision to a 'law', but develop an understanding to respect the agreement.

Education and tourism
Very few visitors to Ladakh are aware of the ecological sensitivity of the area they are travelling through, the disturbance to flora and fauna and the problems of garbage disposal. Since the government plans to open up more areas to tourists, it would be important to develop the areas taking into consideration environmental and culturally aspects so as to reduce eco-hazards to the minimum.

Further, the application form for a 'special permit' should contain clear basic rules of conduct. Maintaining an information centre in Leh or displaying 'dos and dont's' panels at the various check posts and camping sites could also be useful.

The travel agents and the taxidrivers accompanying the tourists should be made responsible to manage any garbage produced -- it means by carrying everything it back to Leh. To further strengthen awareness towards conservation, travel organisers, guides, cooks and drivers should be made to attend a yearly compulsory tailor-made environment education course. By the end of the workshop, they should be provided with an 'eco-license'. Only bearers of such a licence should be allowed in future to handle, accompany or guide tourists to conservation areas.

The implementation of these measures would not only offer immediate protection to various eco-systems, but would ultimately bring about positive changes in Ladakh's fragile environment.

The author has conducted extensive studies on Ladakh's biodiversity, including its avifauna, and environmental hazards. Currently, he is working on a book on birds and mammals of Ladakh

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