The majestic Himalaya under threat
The king of all mountains
Since ages the Himalayas remained a subject of focal attention not only for sages, seers, poets, philosophers but also for scientists and wilderness lovers all over the world. The great poet Kalidasa had described this mountain system in the following words: "There is a mountain in the north, pervaded by Divinity named Himalaya, the king of all mountains. Stretching from east to west it is located on the earth as a measuring rod ."
Of all the mountain systems of the world the Himalayas are the longest and the highest range of mountains which harbours a rich and varied diversity of the spectrum of fauna and flora. The Himalaya is characterised by complex zones of strike slip movement and its age is estimated at about 30 million years; although the grandeur of Himalayas conveys an impression of immutability, it actually has an inbuilt fragility and is susceptible to rapid structural collapse. This is due to the geotectonic processes, which have been and are still building it. It is really bestowed with rich diversity of flora and fauna, unique river systems and a variety of mineral deposits besides the scenic splendour. The Himalayan ranges stand guard over the Indian subcontinent: they are responsible for bringing rains to many regions lying to the south, they also prevent the cold and dry winds of Central Asia from entering India, hundreds of rivers and streams rising from the Himalaya carry water to the parched plains of northern India.
It presents a matchless beauty consisting of snow covered peaks like Mount Everest, Nanda Devi, Trisul, Neelkanth etc. attractive glaciers like Pindari, enchanting landscapes and waterfalls like Vasundhara Kempty, thick forests full of wildlife, archaeological monuments and religious temples like Badrinath, Kailash, Manasarovar, Gangotri and Yamunotri etc. The Great Himalayan region is one of the few remaining isolated and inaccessible areas in the world today. Some high valleys in the Great Himalayas are occupied by small clustered settlements. The Middle Himalayas region is a complex mosaic of forest-covered ranges and fertile valleys. While not as forbidding as the Great Himalayas to the north, this range has nonetheless served to isolate the valleys of the Himalayas from the plains of the Indus and Ganges rivers in Pakistan and northern India.
The area is very rich in vegetation and form a complex ecosystem of diverse flora and fauna, snow covered peaks, waterfalls, sparkling and gurgling streams, religious temples and holy shrines. India has been bequeathed with the majestic Himalayan range, that feeds and preserves life throughout the north. Tranquillity and peace are synonyms with these mountains.
The concept of wildlife conservation has a long and hoary past in India. In ancient India people were fully acquainted with principles, practice and the need for wildlife protection and conservation. In many ancient texts there were specific rules which prohibited people or kings from killing animals in an indiscriminate manner. Medicinal plants, birds and animals were highly protected, having been given religious significance. Cutting of trees and hunting were totally banned around village temples or sacred places (so numerous in the Himalayan regions) and there was adequate provision to look after the orphaned and injured animals. In this way the traditional practice of protecting wildlife and the natural resources within prescribed territoris had evolved from earliest times. Kautilya's "Arthashastra" dating back to 4th century BC advocated the creation of Abhayaranyas - a word which has presently been adopted for wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas. Only during the muslim rule and the early phase of British rule in India there was an indiscriminate and large scale plunder of wildlife...
Fragile environment of highlands
Environment of highlands in general and of the Himalayas in particular, is ecologically fragile in nature. In highlands, with the increase in altitude the capability to minimize environmental disturbances declines. Steep slopes, great range of altitude and uncertain climatic conditions are immensely vulnerable to disturbances that add to the present phase of mismanagement of human enterprises. Regional variations in environmental degradation exist in the Himalayas: conditions range from a critical situation in the Himalayas of Nepal, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Kashmir to a moderately serious situation in Bhutan and the eastern Himalayas. If rapid development continues in Bhutan and the eastern Himalayas without due regard for the conservation of wildlife areas, the problems there may assume critical proportions in the near future. Today, in the Himalaya, the position of wildlife, in general, is alarming, and many species are greatly endangered and are fighting a losing battle for their survival mainly due to increasing anthropogenic activities of habitat destruction and environmental degradation.
Today it is quite dismaying to note that the pristine glory and healthy aura of the Himalayas have been greatly damaged by man who has lavishly over- exploited all natural resources just for his greed and luxury without realising its consequences. The modern man of today has adopted most unnatural and self- centred attitude towards nature due to which he himself is responsible for serious damage to the ecology/ environment of the Himalayas.
The Himalayan region is prone to ecological disturbance by any kind of excessive activity, be it tourism, road construction, grazing, logging, lopping or any other developmental project; moreover, any ecological imbalance in this region not only affects adversely the ecology, social and economic structure of this mountain range but also reflects on the ecology, hydrology and socio- economy of the lower plain areas.
Flora and fauna, land and waters
The list of the plants in Himalayan region is quite enormous and of potential value; most of them are aromatic and medicinal plants of India, being used in perfumery and traditional medicine, since ages. Many of the species of aromatic and medicinal plants which were highly priced in ancient times are now a days on the verge of extinction. The extinction of species is a natural process in the scale of time, but the manmade factors like over exploitation for commercial purposes, destruction of habitats and over grazing should completely be avoided to ensure the safety of the whole environment.
In spite of several slogans and measures to save the vanishing species of animals throughout the world, they have reached a sorry plight and, in the Himalaya in particular many species have totally disappeared and some are under pressure of extinction at an alarming rate. In the Himalaya, especially, pollution, indiscriminate use of pesticides, and trade of wild animals in the commercial market and for scientific experiments, for the zoos, the legal hunting and illegal killing by poachers are many declining factors. The selfishness of man has, in fact, misused the entire animal kingdom without caring about the disastrous effects: such unabated conflict between man and Nature has resulted in repercussions of irrevocable damage and ecocrisis in different parts of the Himalayas. One of the most damaging effects on the population of high- altitude animals is the increment in herds of sheep, goats and buffaloes in the upper meadows that serve as 'dinner tables' for high- altitude herbivores. The carnivore population of the higher- altitude biotopes depends directly upon the population of herbivores. Prevention of human exploitation of the forests and of livestock grazing is difficult: it is for this reason that only a few National Park have been established in the Himalayas. But it is essential that sound habitat practices be adopted and the high- altitude grasslands be legislated as "off- limits" for domestic stock (it is for this very reason that there are no deer left in the Ladakh region).
The lofty Himalayas are being slowly robbed of their butterflies, with at least 50 percent of the species showing a massive decline in less than a decade.
The decline of the butterflies is to be attributed to human interference - vehicular traffic, habitat loss, pollution, deforestation, spraying of pesticides and smuggling." During the faunal survey of the Ladakh region (of Jammu and Kashmir), we recorded just 25 species of butterflies, which is almost half the actual recorded species," the entomologist said. "Such a decline is quite alarming and will affect the survival of other fauna."
The Himalayan glaciers that feed Asia's five largest rivers are in no danger of disappearing by 2035, as claimed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report. In fact, only the glaciers that melt into the Ganges are shrinking, according to the most detailed analysis yet of how climate change will affect key Asian glaciers.
The aim of the study was to determine how rising carbon dioxide levels will affect Asia's "water towers" – the glaciers whose meltwater supplies drinking and irrigation water to 1.4 billion people. And although the glaciers are safe for now, the study warns of drought to come: the five rivers will be able to water crops for almost 60 million fewer mouths by 2050.
60 millions fewer people – 4.5 per cent of the world's population – will be able to feed themselves using water from the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Indus, which supports the world's largest irrigation system.
Deforestation and other problems
The rate of random felling of trees and damage to various grasslands has denuded many Himalayan mountains. It has been estimated that 1.5 million hectares of forest cover is disappearing every year and another 1.0 million hectares is estimated to have become non- productive as a result of improper use of the natural resources. The deforestation has not only destroyed the homes of various tribal communities but also habitat of rare and valuable wild animals and birds. Construction of hill roads, mining activities, forest fires, building of great dams and reservoirs and modern tourism are the main causes of this deforestation. A study of the present rash and thoughtless destruction of natural resources clearly indicates our very existence on this earth is gravely threatened if we do not take care of the forests and the mute denizes they hold: when adequately and wisely mantained the forests non only provide direct economic benefits to mankind, but also the strongest insurance of Nature against such eco- disasters as floods, droughts and landsides. During road construction and mining activities huge portions of fragile mountaineous regions are cut or destroyed by dynamite and thrown into adjacent valleys and streams. These down felling land masses not only weaken the already weak mountain slopes but also increased the turbidity of the streams. Also the construction of large river valley projects has created environmental problems in Himalayas mountains. Many environmental problems like destruction of flora and fauna, increase in seismic activity, changes in water quality, rise in ground water table, submergence of mineral deposits, resettlements of displaced populations, soil erosion and health hazards etc. are caused directly by these projects. The sight of bulldozers clearing mounds of mud and rocks in order to widen the road for heavier traffic is a frightening sight; on the same route attempts to tame the wild Bhagirathi by damming it is a jarring experience!
The rapid growth of human and livestock population have increased the resource use pressures on the mountain forests and protected areas to a considerable extent. Consequent upon this, a large proportion of pastures, forests and marginal lands were diverted to crop farming in the entire Himalayan region. This has lead to the devastation of virgin forests and poor and meagre secondary growth. This resulted in massive soil erosion, as I've said previously, heavy runoff, reduced dry season flow in springs, streams and rivers and progressive decline in crop yield. The rapid industrialization is fast polluting air, water and soil in the Himalayan foothills. Pollution of the Himalayan environment beyond a certain limit will be most formidable in the sense that these hazardous chemical pollutants will be carried far away from Himalaya through perennial streams: poisoning of Himalaya would thus be linked with entire food chain of North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and from their onward journey from the Himalayan mountains, the perennial rivers will eventually dump all kinds of pollutants into the Bay of Bengal. With the increase of ecological degradation by man other problems in the Himalayan mountains are also fast increasing. There is an alarming acceleration of the shrinkage of water resources, rapid soil erosion, climatic vagaries, frequent landslides, droughts, flash floods, silting of rivers and other environmental hazards.
It is said that the conservation of environmental resources such land, forest, wildlife etc. and the economic development, the gain of wealth are often opposite. But the fact is that the socio- economic status or the level of prosperity and the state of environment in a region, have a very close degree of association between them: a safe environment always means a wealthier life.
Uncontrolled and unplanned tourism disturbs and destroys the ecological balance of the mountains and create environmental pollution. Tourism has also introduced new life styles which have a disruptive influence on local traditions and social cultures. Mushroom growth of poor quality restaurants and hotels has been increased due to tourism. The rubbish and debrish left behind by the tourists are not effectively disposed off, and consequently they pollute the river systems.
The proponents of tourism in India have coined a new slogan to attract the dollar- flashing tourists: "She's young, She's old, She's wild, She's beautiful!" Himalaya- where India is still "wild and beautiful" and offers perfect fantasy- is supposed to be an area of tremendous potential for the growth of the tourist industry. Year after year the rush of tourists in the Himalayas is increasing to uncontrollable levels: humanity is seen spilling out of every form of conveyances into a sweaty mass, desperate on making the most of every penny that has gone into the process of undertaking the holiday. Mute Nature sags under the strain imposed upon her while the residents look on in helpless dismay. As for example: the Valley of Flowers of world fame was discovered only some six decades ago; as a result of its publicity by Tourism Ministry, millions of tourists started pouring into this Valley. This process went on for years and a time came when flowers resumed to bloom; only then, the government closed the Valley for five years. It has hardly recuperated, that the government reopened it for turists: conflicting interests clash as time passes by...
Trekking is the latest craze with the trendy youth but, unfortunately, it is only superficial trekking, therefore means just climbing up and down over treacherous mountains, not following the rules that go with this sport. Superficial trekking enthusiasts thus leave in their wake mounds of garbage and ecological distruction. The ungainly oxygen cylinders, the PVC waste and the synthetic wrappings and empty bottles and other refuse lie strewn along the expedition routes, waiting for the non-existent garbage disposal team to come and pick them up. Tragically enough, in this case, we have only isolated cases of a few people in the West making a lot of noise in the international media-circuits and achieving and doing very little to keep the Himalayas clean. For the story of pollution in the Himalayas is as old as the history of mountaineering, when the first climbers from Europe came to 'conquer' the highest peaks in the world. The Nepal Mountaineering Association was able to bring down 16 tonnes of garbage from the Sagarmatha (Everest) base camp at a cost of 24 million rupees (560,000 dollars), which is an expensive waste transport, and according to an estimate there are 50 tonnes of waste up there. There are existing laws for climbers but no one seems to adhere to them.
The tourism pressure will be antagonistic to the Himalayan environment and the losses cannot be repaid by the hard cash/ dollars being earned through the modern tourism.
In addition to sincere wilderness lovers, visitors to wildlife preserves include a fairly large number of such tourists who belong to higher income group and affluent class of the society and accustomed to all comforts and want to enjoy all modern amenities of life even in wildlife protected areas! Thus the increasing popularity of these areas has now created vast potentials for the development of tourism on the one hand, while on the other it has paved the way for the continuous degradation of the fragile and delicate ecosystem of the protected areas by exposing them to unwanted human interference, which ultimately proves detrimental to the interest of wildlife and also are contrary to the well conceived priciples and objectives of wildlife conservation.
There is an urgent need to preserve the ecological and evironmental security of the Himalayas. This can only be achieved if man returns to Nature and establishes a cordial and respectful relationship with all the natural resources. Only the immediate, consistent and stringent measures to save the ailing Himalayas can restore the fasting deteriorating pristine glory of the rich and varied Himalayan resources. On the contrary, any further delay in this action would certainly be an invitation to doomsday for the Himalayas and its denizens.