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

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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.

DIPANKAR GHOSE Di­rec­tor, Species and Land­scapes Pro­gramme, WWF-In­dia

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