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22 May 2016 | For mountains and people

Mountain biodiversity: Sustaining lives through generations

Janita Gurung & Neha Bisht

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Mount Kangchenjunga seen from Sikkim, India. Photo Credit: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

More than a hundred and fifty years ago, the British naturalist explorer, Joseph Dalton Hooker, traversed the eastern Himalayas in and around the shadows of Mount Kangchenjunga, from Sikkim to eastern Nepal. He marveled at the rich diversity of plants and wildlife he encountered during his travels. He was equally struck by the diversity of the local mountain people, especially their use of local natural resources in their daily lives.

Had JD Hooker travelled through the Hindu Kush Himalayas today, he would have been no less impressed. Mountain people continue to mainstream biodiversity into their lives and their livelihoods.

People, livestock and pastures

The Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir Landscape, with an area of more than 30,000 square kilometers, is spread across Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. It is home to many pastoralists who depend on livestock grazing for their livelihoods, deriving meat, wool, butter and other milk products. Yaks, goats and sheep have been traditionally reared for centuries in the high pastures of this landscape.

Between June and September, these pastures are alive with grasses and sedges, flowering plants including gentians, primroses, cinquefoils and louseworts, and plants found nowhere else in the world, such as Kaschgaria brachanthemoides, Polygonum sibiricum, and Tamarix taklamakanensis. During these summer months, these pastures are a source of forage for domestic livestock, as well as for wild ungulates such as the Marco Polo sheep, blue sheep, Himalayan ibex and Tibetan wild ass.

Generating income from forest products

In the shadows of the sacred Mount Kailash, there is transboundary landscape spread across China, India and Nepal. While the northern part of this landscape is high and dry, the lower terrain consists of alpine birch-rhododendron scrub, subalpine fir forests, temperate oak-lyonia-rhododendron forests, tropical pine and mixed forests, and farmlands built on steep slopes and valley floors.

The forests on this landscape offer a variety of products that local communities use to generate income. The chyura/chyuri tree (Diploknema butyracea) – commonly known as Indian butter tree – is found at an altitude of 600m–1500m, usually along rivers and in shady valleys. Butter, or ‘ghee’, extracted from the seeds of this tree is used for cooking, skin emollient and medicinal purposes.

Rittha (Sapindus mukorossi), commonly known as soap nut, is a subtropical tree that grows at an altitude of 1000m–1400m. Extracts from the fruit of this tree is used as a substitute for washing soap and shampoo in rural areas. The fruits are also exported regionally, as well as to Europe, where saponin is extracted to manufacture soap. About 450 tonnes of rittha are exported from Nepal every year.

Benefits of ecotourism

Every year, more than half a million tourists visit the region south of Mount Kangchenjunga. Spread across Bhutan, India and Nepal, the Kangchenjunga Landscape consists of alpine grasslands, evergreen coniferous and moist sub-tropical forests, and lush tea gardens. The area offers a panoramic view of the Kangchenjunga range. Endangered wildlife such as snow leopard and red panda can be sighted in the landscape. There are sacred sites like temples, caves, forest groves and lakes, as well as village ‘home-stays’ that offer opportunity to experience local culture. These features make the landscape attractive to tourists. Tourism provides livelihood opportunities to thousands of local people: lodge and hotel operators and their staff; farmers who supply vegetables, fruits and livestock to hotels and restaurants; flower growers and florists; yak and horse operators who transport tourists and their luggage; porters, guides and interpreters; transport operators and vehicle owners; and tour operators, among others.

Mainstreaming mountain biodiversity

Biodiversity continues to be an integral part of mountain people’s livelihoods in the Hindu Kush Himalayas – both for sustenance, as well as for employment and income generation. Development plans that mainstream biodiversity provide opportunities for sustainable management of resources. They can also ensure that communities are able to benefit from sustainable use of their natural resources.

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