Ground zero within

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Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Ground zero within

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.

Linking Up

 Yaks grazing on a hillside in The first patch of virgin forest was cleared in Sikkim at Nathula Pass, after the king invited the Indian Army to protect the kingdom in 1962. Remote areas were connected by roads to facilitate movement of the army. But development activity began in right earnest after 1975, when Sikkim merged with India. As inaccessible areas were linked and population increased, human activity in undisturbed areas affected vulnerable species.

Road construction involves felling of trees and destruction of vegetation. Once constructed - if preventive action is not taken - roads accelerate erosion of hillslides, causing landslips and landslides, which further destroy flora. With increase in touristic activity, these problems become worse.The Sikkim government, with the participation of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (wwf), the us Agency for International Development, and Green Circle, a Gangtok-based non-government organisation, has organised workshops to educate tour operators and local entrepreneurs on ecologically sound touristic development. Although this is a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to counter the impact of tourism on the environment. Restricting tourism is the only way to ensure that it benefits rather than hurts the environment.

Sikkim is extremely rich in flora and fauna. Most of these species are highly adapted to local climatic and soil conditions. The climatic variation in Sikkim is such that a comprehensive study needs tremendous effort and huge resources. Although a greater part of land in the state is owned by the department of forests, it is not equipped to deal with the problem. While some efforts have been made by the Botanical Survey of India, the Zoological Survey of India, and recently, the wwf, the state of scientific study of biodiversity in Sikkim is far from satisfactory.

The wwf started its field office in Sikkim in 1995. It is currently carrying out an ethno-botanic study of medicinal plants in the state. It has already carried out other small surveys - to establish the existence, for instance, of 'shou' or the Sikkim stag (Cervus elaphus shouii). But researchers, including those with the forest department, are still not sure about the existence of this species.

In fact, the forest department's annual administrative report 1995-96 underscores its ineffectiveness - only 19 mammals (out of 144) were listed as principal endangered species. Informally, forest officials admit that at least 20 other species are highly endangered, and many have not been sighted for the past two decades. "Our study areas have been limited to sanctuaries. Moreover, high-altitude species are not studied at all except through sporadic exploratory expeditions lasting for a few days," says one forest official.

There is an urgent need to conduct research on endemic and vulnerable plant and animal species in the state and their inter-relationships. More research, for example, needs to be done on non-hybrid orchid species and the role of pollinators, like bees, in their reproduction. Since more than 60 per cent of orchid species depend on certain trees for growth (epiphytic orchids), such trees should be identified to prevent their felling.

Even more important is the need to institute well-tested conservation management practices, like setting up a protected areas network. Currently, as Sikkim forest secretary P K Basnett admits, only 29 per cent of the total land is under protected areas.According to the state forest department's estimates, fuelwood consumption alone will rise to about eight lakh cubic metres by the turn of the century. Unless woodlands are given a protected status, and local people given incentives to grow commercial species in buffer areas - a practice recently initiated by the forest department - the future of forests and all plant and animal species in Sikkim is grim.

Edited by Sagar Singh with inputs from Indira Khurana.

Blushing unseen
Endangered and rare plants of Sikkim
SPECIES STATUS
Acer hookeri Endangered
Acer osmastonii Endangered
Ceropegia hookeri Endangered
Cymibidium whiteae Endangered
Didiciea cunninghamii Endangered
Lactuca cooperi Endangered
Paphiopedilum fairaeanum Endangered
Pimpinella tongloensis Endangered
Pimpinella wallichi Endangered
Zeuxine pilchra Endangered
Acronema pseudotenera Indeterminate, not found after 1892
Angelica nubigene Indeterminate, not collected since 1849
Coelogyne treutleri Indeterminate, not collected after 1875
Cotoneaster simonsi Indeterminate, not found after 1884
Pternopetalum radiatum Indeterminate, not collected since 1892
Areneria species Vulnerable, not collected after 1912
Codonopsis affinis Rare
Cypripedium himalaicum Rare
Aconitum ferox Vulnerable
Cymbibium eburneum Vulnerable
Cymbibium hookerianum Vulnerable

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