A walk in Sikkim

Print edition : February 10, 2012

RHODODENDRON ARBOREUM IS the first of the rhododendron species to flower in the Sikkim Himalaya. In the background is the plateau Tso Lhamo, at 5,490 metres.-

Conservation of the geographically diverse and bilogically rich state has become an ecological imperative.

IN the summer of 2007, I was helping the Sikkim Programme Office of WWF-India conduct a three-day training programme for officers and other staff of the Sikkim Forest Department on field methods to assess the status of the red panda ( Ailurus fulgens). The red panda is a cute-looking carnivore of the eastern Himalaya and south-western China. It is also the State animal of Sikkim.

On June 1, 2007, as part of the training programme, a young forest officer by the name of Karma Legshey led us on a visit to the rugged and beautiful Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary (KAS, 30 square kilometres). Kyongnosla is about 30 km from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. We started our walk at an altitude of 3,300 metres from the bridge across the Rongchu (chu means stream) on the Gangtok-Nathula road. The Rongchu gushed merrily down a shallow valley, its water snow-white in the rapids and emerald-green in the pools. The far-off mountains stood shrouded in mist and the sky was laden with patches of dark rain clouds indicating that the south-west monsoon was imminent. We walked along the right bank of the river for about half a kilometre, went up the mountain slope along a stream and, after attaining an altitude of nearly 3,500 m, turned back to the road along the steep, rhododendron-draped slope. That was the second of my three visits to Sikkim (in April 2006, May-June 2007 and March 2011) which have together helped me understand the conservation situation in the State.

Sikkim is a landlocked Indian State nestled in the eastern Himalayas. Spread below Mount Khangchendzonga (about 8,585 m), the third highest mountain peak in the world, this thumb-shaped State has borders with Nepal in the west, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the north and east, Bhutan to its south-east and West Bengal to its south. It is the second smallest State (7,096 sq km) after Goa (3,702 sq km) and one of the least populous States in the country. Despite its tiny size, Sikkim is geographically diverse because of its location in the Himalaya. The climate ranges from the subtropical (300 m) to that of the snowbound peaks of the Khangchendzonga range.

RHODODENDRON GRIFFITHIANUM, WHICH flowers in May-June.-

Sikkim has become one of India's most visited States owing to its reputation for cleanliness, scenic beauty and political stability. The Teesta and its tributary, the Rangeet, are the major rivers and they join at Teesta Bazaar on the border with West Bengal.

Protected areas

A major problem for this small State is the small sizes of its protected areas. The total area covered by the eight protected areas is about 2,183 sq km (31 per cent of the total geographic area, and the highest of any State in India). Among them the largest is the Khangchendzonga National Park (1,784 sq km). The area coming under the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve is 836 sq km and the total area coming under conservation is 2,620 sq km. In India, biosphere reserves do not have legal status.

PRIMULA SPECIES OF herbs that grow in areas that are snowbound in winter.-

The average size of the other protected areas is about 57 sq km, which is too small for the conservation of large mammals, which are already decimated by heavy hunting in the past. In fact, the sambar deer is extinct in Sikkim, in contrast to adjacent Bhutan where it is found in broad-leaved forests even at 3,500-4,000 m, thus enabling the tiger to occur at these high altitudes. For that matter, even other mammals such as the barking deer, the goral and the serow seem to be extremely rare in spite of the availability of splendid habitats. The tiger no longer occurs within the geographical limit of Sikkim, and conflict reports indicate that the clouded leopard may be much more common than the common leopard. Problem species such as the black bear and the wild pig seem to be common if data on conflict are any indication.

FLOWERS OF MAGNOLIA campbellii.-

The KAS, one of the eight protected areas in Sikkim, was established in 1984. It is on the right, or western, bank of the Kyongnosla river valley, which was ravaged by massive timber extraction for defence needs during India's border conflict with China in 1962. The credit for restoring the KAS to its present glory goes to the late Chezung Lachungpa, an officer of the Indian Forest Service. He had several decades of experience across Sikkim, and in the 1980s he undertook intensive plantation of various tree species, with a special focus on the rhododendron species.

TIGER PAINTING BELOW Kupub on the Sherathang-Rhenock road. In the past, possibly tigers were common at the tri-junction of Sikkim-Bhutan-north Bengal.-

The altitude of the KAS ranges from 3,300 m to 4,100 m, and it is part of a much larger mountainous landscape that extends to the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary in the north to the Gangtok Zoological Gardens in the south-west and to the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary in the south. Interestingly, this stretch of mountains was used by tigers in the past as there was report between 1978 and 1981 of a tiger killing cattle near Lacheng village, not far from the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. The tiger disappeared thereafter.

THE RED PANDA, the State animal of Sikkim, is arboreal. When it descends to the ground it is extremely vulnerable to predation.-SAVITA RAO

The KAS is small, but it harbours 14 species of the rhododendron, including Rhododendron niveum, the State tree of Sikkim. It is home to birds such as the monal pheasant, the blood pheasant (State bird of Sikkim), the satyr tragopan and the Tibetan snowcock and mammals such as the pika, the marmot, the goral, the serow, the musk deer, the barking deer, the Tibetan fox, the red panda, the black bear, and possibly the snow leopard in winter. During our short walk in June 2007, I saw signs of the goral and the musk deer, and one of the Forest Department staff saw a pair of blood pheasants with four chicks.

During the three visits I made to Sikkim, I also visited the Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary (52 sq km), closer to Gangtok, the Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary (35 sq km) in south Sikkim, the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (104 sq km), which is contiguous with the Singalila National Park in West Bengal, the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary in the north and the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary (124 sq km) in the east. Twice I drove down from Sherathang, near Nathula, to Rhenock, and somewhere below Kupub village I saw a golden yellow tiger painting on a rock. I thought it might have been commissioned by the Army. Walking in these protected areas gave me the opportunity to understand the problems and potential of Sikkim, particularly for the conservation of large Himalayan mammals that occur here.

THE HIMALAYAN TAHR. Ernest Schaffer, a German biologist, made an expedition to north Sikkim in 1930 and discovered this distinct variety in Sikkim.-

It is unfortunate that in spite of the efforts by the State government, garbage is still a problem here. It is more so in the countryside. The only large mammal I saw during my visits was a group of Himalayan langur, looking beautiful in their winter coats, near the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. As a result of extensive road construction, even in areas where it should never have been considered in the first place, landslides are a major problem. During my last trip in March 2011, Forest Officer Monee Ram Rai showed me several places where the problem of landslides had been addressed effectively with suitable eco-restoration measures.

RHODODENDRON HODGSONII IS one of the beautiful rhododendron species in the Himalaya.-

The magnificent Teesta river is being tamed for the construction of six power plants. In addition, there are proposals for several micro-hydel projects. Pawan Kumar Chamling, the Chief Minister of the State, who was presented the Down To Earth Greenest Chief Minister award in 1998 and has been reigning for the past two decades, believes that when the hydel projects are completed, Sikkim, with excess power to sell, will be economically prosperous.

Hooker's journals

The Sikkim Himalaya, comprising the present State of Sikkim and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council of West Bengal, covers 12,700 sq km of extremely mountainous terrain. Much of the credit for drawing the attention of the scientific community to the biological richness of this region goes to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, an eminent Victorian botanist (1817-1911) and a friend of Charles Darwin. Darwin writes of Hooker as the one soul from whom he unfailingly received support when he expostulated his ideas on natural selection.

RHODODENDRON THOMSONII FLOWERS start wilting in early May.-

In 1848-49, Hooker braved ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, leeches, inclement weather, high-altitude sickness, irregular supplies of basic provisions and the hostility of the powerful Diwan (Prime Minister) of Sikkim (the aging King was an ineffective ruler) to survey up to about 6,000 m, venturing well into Tibet.

RHODODENDRON FALCONERI. THE large leaves that are rufous on the ventral side help in its identification.-

On a subsequent longer expedition in Sikkim, he and his friend, Archibald Campbell, representative of the British East India Company at Darjeeling, were both arrested as they travelled towards Chola Pass in Tibet. Even so, he managed to collect 6,000-7,000 plant specimens which he then deposited at the Kew Botanical Gardens, of which his father was then director. Hooker too eventually became the director of the Kew Botanical Gardens. His monograph Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya describes all the 36 species of Sikkim. His report brought this genus of trees with its showy flowers importance as a horticulture species.

TREVESIA PALMATA, ONE of the most attractive plants seen in the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary.-

S.T. Lachungpa, a fourth-generation forester in Sikkim, believes that there could be more than 40 species of the rhododendron in Sikkim. He also makes keen observations on the visible impact of climate change in Sikkim. For instance, mosquitoes, previously unknown here, are now invading north Sikkim because of the warming weather. Similarly, a very valuable tree species, Alnus nepalensis (Nepalese Alder), originally confined to the 1,500-2,000-m belt, is now found at higher altitudes. Local people find that preserving yak meat is a challenge now because temperatures do not stay low enough in winter for the meat to be properly frozen.

CHAMPAK, OR MICHELIA excelsa. It requires greater protection and propagation.-

Interesting information on large mammals emerges from Hooker's two-volume book Himalayan Journals, which is dedicated to Charles Darwin, whom he describes as an affectionate friend. Hunting was a way of life in those days, and Hooker frequently obtained meat from the mountains. He writes that the flesh of musk deer females and young males is delicious, but the flesh of adult males is unpalatable because of the odour of the strong musk that they produce. In his writings he mentions the Tibetan woolly hare, the Tibetan antelope, the Tibetan gazelle, the bharal (the blue sheep), and the argali ( Ovis ammon), a wild species of sheep that sports magnificent horns and is a relative of the big-horn sheep ( Ovis canadensis) of North America. Interestingly, nowhere does he mention the goral, the Himalayan tahr, the serow, the leopard, the snow leopard, the black bear or the dhole (wild dog). The credit for discovering the Himalayan tahr in the Sikkim Himalaya goes to Dr Ernest Schaffer, who did this during his expedition to Tibet from Sikkim in 1930. He and his small team were turned back by the Tibetans because he was a Nazi German.

FALLEN BLOOD-RED FRUITS of Sterculia villosa, which are common in early May in lower Sikkim.-

In the Himalayan Journals, Volume II, Hooker provides a drawing of an antler of the Sikkim stag ( Cervus elaphus wallichii, now reported to be extinct in Sikkim), which measured 54 inches in length. Hooker reported the deer to be a native of the Choombi (Chumbi) valley in Tibet, where the sub-species of this deer is still in existence. During that time, Choombi valley was part of Sikkim. Once, Hooker's dogs caught an ungulate at an altitude of 2,760 m. He called it the Regean and describes it as half goat, half deer, dark and lean, its flesh as rather good and tender. My surmise is that it may have been a young serow.

In the past, both the Teesta and the Rangeet were famous for the golden mahseer, but now the status of this extremely beautiful and immensely valuable fish remains bleak as a result of overfishing, construction of dams and siltation in the rivers. The decline of snowfall over the decades in Sikkim Himalaya has affected the glacial lakes in the north-eastern part of Sikkim, which also suffer as a result of siltation, and could be a threat to the introduced population of rainbow trout and brown trout which can be a great asset for promoting ecotourism.

YOUNG LEAVES OF Rhododendron arboreum in the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in early May.-

Several ideas for the conservation of large mammals in Sikkim come to my mind. The high Himalayas still have populations of the Himalayan tahr, the wild ass, the bharal, the argali and the snow leopard which are possibly connected to the other populations in the Himalayas. Recently, Pranay Chanchani, a young student from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, spent nearly six months in the Tso Lhamo plateau (over 4,300 m) studying the conflict between livestock and wild ungulates (the Tibetan argali, the Tibetan gazelle and the Tibetan wild ass) and concluded that wild ungulates survive here only because of the non-hunting tradition of the local people and the seasonal absence of grazing by yak and sheep. There is a lesson in this for large mammal conservation in other parts of Sikkim too: no hunting (which also includes snaring), no grazing in the wildlife habitats and no free-ranging dogs. Dogs can be a great threat to all forms of wildlife, particularly to the less-agile red panda.

The Gangtok Zoological Garden can be used for breeding the sambar for reintroduction. Efforts should be made to protect the golden mahseer, wherever possible, in the Teesta and the Rangeet. There is an urgent need to create the tri-junction peace park encompassing the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary (Sikkim), the Neora Valley National Park (West Bengal) and the Torsa Strict Nature Reserve (Bhutan), as a collaborative project with West Bengal and Bhutan, to bring the tiger back to Sikkim.

COLOURFUL FLAGS WELCOMING visitors to north Sikkim. Sikkim has become one of India's most visited States owing to its reputation for cleanliness, scenic beauty and political stability.-

The gaur will then eventually find a permanent home here. Much greater importance should be given to the propagation and protection of various species of oaks, Campbell's magnolia ( Magnolia campbellii) and Champak ( Michelia excelsa).

It should be ensured that the pharmaceutical factories on the banks of the Teesta do not release untreated effluents into the river. All road and dam construction works should be concluded as early as possible and the ugly scars on the landscapes caused by these constructions covered by adequate eco-restoration programmes, enabling Sikkim to rediscover its unmatched scenic beauty.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with WWF-India and Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.

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