Linking Up

Development of a protected area network is necessary to save the plants and animals of Sikkim

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

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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