Forays of Ignorance

There is something seriously amiss in the way studies of wildlife have been conducted in Sikkim

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Forays of Ignorance

Collecting made easy: rate pla A major factor accounting for the decline in species in Sikkim is lack of study of the ecosystem and inadequate conservation. As A R K Sastry, director, Biodiversity 'Hotspots' Conservation Programme (bhcp) of the Worldwide Fund for Nature says: "Studies conducted on the biodiversity of Sikkim are not enough to enumerate all species. Every scientific expedition to the state results in discovery of new species."

Some plants and animals became extinct before they could be studied. According to officials of the forest department, species have become endangered as a result of loss of forest cover. Scientists with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar based in Sikkim put the blame largely on human depredation. "Nobody knows for certain why certain species have become extinct," argues Upadhya of the norc.

However, Sastry says that there are many factors responsible for decline in plant and animal diversity. "Unscientific harvesting of plants is one of the reasons for rapid depletion of flora. Where only the leaf of a plant is required for medicinal use, people destroy the whole plant." Deforestation, landslides, high-altitude human colonisation, development and power projects, uncontrolled grazing, and the breakdown of crucial ecological links can together account for the extinction of species in Sikkim, according to Sastry.

P S Ramakrishnan of jnu is of the opinion that sudden human interference in the pristine ecology of Sikkim may have led to a disbalance, resulting in a chain of extinction of species. Mahendra Lama of the same university, who has done an extensive study of Sikkim, shares this view. "With the destruction of forests, the habitat of many delicate species has been destroyed," he says. No one disputes the fact that there has been degradation of forests in Sikkim. The forest cover in 1988 was 50 per cent of the land area and by the mid-1990s it was down to 44 per cent. Currently it stands at 36.3 per cent, according to N C Shenga of the Sikkim Forest Department.

Says Gylo, an 80-year-old villager: "I used to graze cattle in the gaucharan forest (earmarked for grazing) and get fuelwood from the khasmal (village forests, used for fuelwood). Now, there is no more forest for grazing or fuelwood." Depletion of forests meant for grazing and fuelwood has made reserve forests the new target for grazing and collection of fuelwood. "Cattle grazing in the fragile ecological areas must have caused destruction of plants. Since regeneration of vegetation at high altitudes is quite slow, it can lead to destruction of species," explains forest secretary P K Basnett.

But livestock grazing and the growth in population alone have not contributed to the degradation of forests and the environment. Increase in tourism to the state in the past decade has also caused a lot of harm.

The touristic invasion
Until 1980, Sikkim hosted a mere 1,000 tourists per year. Between 1988 and 1994, tourists arrivals grew 155 per cent and crossed the 100,000 mark in 1995. The greatest increase has been in domestic tourism. Since 1980, international tourist arrivals in the state have trebled, but domestic arrivals have grown seven-fold. The number of foreign tourists has hovered around 6,000 for the past seven years. In contrast, domestic tourist arrivals increased from 12,862 in 1980 to 100,400 in 1997.

To cater to tourists, infrastructural activity has increased, changing land-use and affecting the environment. But the adverse effects of tourism go beyond development activity. Fascinated by the natural beauty of Sikkim, tourists have made inroads into hitherto undisturbed, environmentally fragile areas (see box: The spoils of tourism).This has led to degradation of forests, change in density and composition of species and loss of rare plants. Damage to plant life, in turn, has affected fauna.

Inconsistent studies
The greatest single problem that has led to environmental degradation and loss of species is lack of awareness and initiative on the part of researchers and the government. The techniques used to study flora and fauna have been inadequate, unmethodical and inconsistent. Not surprisingly, species considered extinct have often been 'rediscovered'. For instance, Yoania prainii , an orchid discovered in 1898 and later considered extinct, was rediscovered a hundred years later in Chungthang Valley by divisional forest officer S Z Lucksom.

Censuses conducted by the state forest department depend on the study of footprints or pugmarks and sighting of animals. These techniques are not reliable. Moreover, conservation is hindered by administrative problems, as the case of the southern kiang shows. The kiang was reported to exist in south Tibet as far as back as 1849. It was sporadically seen in Sikkim and is mentioned in the journals of the Bombay Natural History Society in the years 1909, 1911 and 1915. As recently as 1992, the Equine Specialists Group had declared it extinct.

However, nomadic herdsmen in Sikkim often reported spotting the animal. More recently, defence personnel stationed in border areas claim to have seen the kiang. Obviously, the animal has preferred remote pastures. In 1962, the Indian Army was invited over to Sikkim, and has remained in border areas inaccessible to most researchers. Landmines have been laid in many patches in these areas. This has not only prevented study of rare animals like the kiang, but has also led to decimation of its population. According to army officials, the three-strand barbed wire fencing around landmined areas has been damaged at many places in Dongkung-Chho Lhamo. But these patches of lush green grass attract kiangs and locals have often reported seeing kiangs being blown apart by landmines.

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