Eastern Himalayas, the treasure trove
In the past decade, scientists have discovered over 560 new species from the region where climate and vegetation vary at every step
THE EASTERN Himalayas is a region with unparalleled biodiversity and stunning landscapes. This is because the region is located at an altitude that ranges from a few hundred metres to over 8,000 metres, with Mount Kangchenjunga as its highest peak. This great altitudinal variation has contributed to climatic diversity and vast range in vegetation across the region, which extends from Darjeeling district of West Bengal, Sikkim, parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to central and eastern Nepal and Bhutan.
Vegetation types include dry-deciduous forests in the foothills to moist-deciduous, montane sub-tropical and temperate in the middle altitude areas to sub-alpine and alpine in the high Himalayas. It is a place where people of different cultural and spiritual heritage coexist with a fascinating assemblage of flora and fauna. For millennia, people have relied on the region’s environmental services and natural resources. Millions of people in this region and in downstream areas directly or indirectly depend on the water that flows down from the eastern Himalayas.
Small wonder that scientists are still discovering new species from the region. Between 2004 and 2009, researchers discovered 350 new species from the region. These include two new species of mammals— Arunachal macaque ( Macaca munzala) and Burmese leaf deer ( Muntiacus putaoensis), the world’s smallest deer species. Discovery of two mammal species implies the rich natural heritage of the region, particularly at a time when cutting-edge science brings latest information from every corner of the world onto a smartphone screen, and there are very few places that have not been explored by scientists.
The richness of its biological diversity was proved again between 2009 and 2014 when scientists discovered 211 news species from the region. Non-profit World Wide Fund for Nature ( WWF) collated information from published papers and reports to show that we are sitting on a rich treasure trove of fascinating species waiting to be discovered.
Its report, “Hidden Himalayas: Asia’s Wonderland–New species discoveries in the Eastern Himalayas, Volume II 2009-2014”, includes discoveries of 133 plants, 39 invertebrates, 26 fish, 10 amphibians, one reptile, one bird and one mammal. Some of the fascinating species include sneezing or snubnosed monkey ( Rhinopithecus strykeri), a shy bird species named spotted wren-babbler ( Elachura formosa), Himalayan pitviper ( Protobothrops himalayansus), miniature dracula fish ( Danionella dracula), dwarf snake head fish ( Channa andrao), and the strikingly blue-eyed frog ( Leptobrachium bompu). Plants discovered include Impatiens lohitensis and a new wild species of banana, Musa markkui.
The report also highlights an important issue: how to protect the region’s natural heritage from increasing developmental activities in the Eastern Himalayan region.
There is no doubt that the Eastern Himalayan region is at a crossroads. As we continue to unearth the treasures of the Himalayas, scientific research shows that the region is under grave threat from climate change and increasing developmental activities. It’s time we focussed on conservation efforts together as a team beyond the borders of our countries to collaborate and exchange valuable information leading towards conservation of natural resources in this magnificent region.
It’s now up to the governments and policy makers to decide whether they should follow the current path of development that does not take environmental impacts into account, or take an alternative path towards greener, more sustainable and inclusive development for the region.