Monsoon memories

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Rhododendron thomsonii with its attractive deep red flowers.

Rosy purple flowers of R. companulatum.

A worker of the Border Roads Organisation clearing a road after a landslide.

The hardy yak is a valuable animal in the high altitudes.

During the monsoon Sikkim becomes a land of waterfalls.

Gyatso Bhuti and Palmo, his wife, at their shop at Zero Point, which is at an altitude of 4,500 metres.

R. cinnabarium, which is widely distributed.

The monsoon season sees explosive growth and flowering of Digitalis purpurea. Here a scene in Lachung village.

setusum had purple-pink flowers, AJTJ DSCN0452

A village sitting perilously close to a hillside that caved in.

R. campylocarpum with its bell-shaped yellow flowers.

R. glaucophyllum, a dwarf rhododendron.

Euphorbia sikkimensis in bloom. The plant is endemic to Sikkim.

Primula denticulta in its alpine habitat.

A project site. Construction of dams and roads poses a threat to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas.

Some landslides in the valley are triggered by developmental activities.

IMPOSING, high, steep mountains clothed in a mantle of greenery with patches of white clouds either drifting across or resting atop them characterise large parts of north Sikkim during the monsoon. Human settlements with cultivation dot the slopes and the base of the mountains in most places. Dense forests are largely confined to the mountaintops and deep valleys. In many places rainwater gathered in these forests emerges as waterfalls, making Sikkim a land of waterfalls.

Sikkim was affected seriously by the September 2011 earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. It also has a perennial problem of landslides, particularly in places where roads are built after blasting mountainsides using powerful dynamites. Two hydel power projects —Rangit Stage-III and Teesta V—of NHPC Ltd are functional and Teesta IV is in the planning stage. Private companies have planned 25 more hydropower projects on the Teesta river and its tributaries. But for various reasons, the projects have not made much headway.

This unregulated development—which in many cases involves blasting and tunnelling—is extremely detrimental to the mountains and is resented greatly by the Lepchas living in Dzongu, their homeland on the right bank of the Teesta.

The Bhutias, living in the Lachen and Lachung valleys, fear that in spite of their united resistance, even their valleys may one day be devastated by the construction of hydel projects. Both the Lepchas and the Bhutias complain bitterly about the enormous levels of corruption involved in the construction of these projects.

With an interest in understanding further the rich biodiversity of Sikkim, particularly its floral diversity and large mammal fauna, I made a three-day visit to northern Sikkim in June 2012.

Mammal fauna

Talking of large mammals in Sikkim, it can be said that the mountain ungulates, such as the Tibetan wild ass, the bharal (blue sheep), the argali (mountain sheep) and the Tibetan gazelle, are confined to the cold deserts, which in Sikkim, as in other mountain States, form the northernmost habitat and run east to west. Other mountain ungulates, such as the musk deer and the tahr, are confined to the Great Himalayan range, which is to the south of the cold desert. Tahrs are confined to the Phimphu valley and Arraleungchok, in north and west Sikkim respectively, in the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP).

According to Gut Lepcha, former Chief Wildlife Warden of the State, the cave where the German biologist Ernest Schaffer stayed and studied the tahr in 1938 is still called the German cave and it is at an altitude of 2,700 metres. The goral and the serow are found in the Great Himalayan range and other locations. The serow, for example, is found in the unexplored B2 nallah on the border of north and east Sikkim and in the hills of the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS).

The goral is found in many other places as well, such as the Fambong Lho WLS near Gangtok. The black bear, the wild pig and the barking deer occur much more widely; the first two get into conflict with people. The barking deer seems to be extremely low in density, which may be the result of snaring and predation by free-ranging dogs.

Only two species of primates, the Assamese macaque, commonly seen along on roads, and the Himalayan langur, occur in Sikkim. The red panda, the State animal of Sikkim, has a wider distribution and prefers the oak and conifer forests. The occurrence of other notable species such as the leopard, the snow leopard, the clouded leopard, the golden cat and the dhole in the KNP has been confirmed by camera-trap studies by the Wildlife Institute of India.

Land cover

The land cover in Sikkim is divided into 15 categories. Of these, oak forests, which are productive for species such as the barking deer, the wild pig, the serow and the Himalayan langur, constitute 16 per cent. Alpine scrubs and meadows, which are crucial for species such as the Tibetan wild ass, the bharal, the argali and the Tibetan gazelle, constitute 14 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. Anyone entering Sikkim from West Bengal will also see less than 1 per cent cover of sal forests. All through Sikkim there are agricultural lands but they constitute only about 8 per cent of the total cover.

The journey

On June 7, the day of my journey from Gangtok (1,650 m), the weather was rainy and misty and therefore even the majestic mountains at a distance of a kilometre or so were not visible. Our destination for the day was Lachung village at an altitude of 2,700 m, 117 kilometres from Gangtok, where Gyatso Bhutia, the driver of the vehicle, had his home which offered a homestay facility. Although the road was rough in some places as a result of heavy rains, the drive was enjoyable as the weather was cool, the vegetation all around was lush and green, and there were richly coloured flowers on either side of the road. Waterfalls were seen all along the road. Smartly dressed, healthy children going to school gave the impression that in north Sikkim they have enough to eat; they grow all they need in the salubrious climate.

During the drive, Paljor Bhutia, the forest guard who accompanied us, said that during his two years as a guard, he had seen the barking deer only once and had no sightings of either the red panda or the black bear. According to him, although poaching with guns was not prevalent, the snares that people set for wild pigs could kill other animals such as the barking deer.

Even after my four visits to Sikkim which involved extensive travelling through habitats where the barking deer, the goral and the wild pig can occur, my only sighting was a group of Himalayan langur on the left bank of the Lachung river in the Lachung valley. When we went past Chungthang village, my attention was drawn to the fact that this village was the worst affected by the 2011 earthquake. The local people, particularly the Lepcha community, blame the hydel projects for the earthquake and feel that they are altering the Teesta landscape and its ecology.

The stay, the family

My room in Gyatso Bhutia’s home was upstairs and had two windows, one facing south and the other east. A magnificent spruce ( Tsuga canadensis) and the roaring Lachung river, beyond which rose the high mountains, mostly covered with dense forest, formed the view from the south-facing window. Through the window facing east, the mountains, with snow resting on the top, could be seen.

On the 8th, the weather was pleasant with a bright sun and a blue sky. We drove to Zero Point via the 43 square kilometre, picturesque Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, which is in the Yumthang valley (3,650 m).

Gyatso’s family works hard to educate its two children in Gangtok. Gyatso takes tourists around, and his wife, Palmo, runs one of the eight shops at Zero Point (4,500 m), paying a monthly fee of Rs.20,000 to the Lachung village committee. At 78, Gyatso’s mother is still healthy and active; in her younger days she used to carry apples over the mountains to Tibet, sell them and bring back salt and animal fat. She gets her energy by eating sathu and beef, drinking chang and sleeping for 10 hours every night!

The rhododendrons

By June, rhododendron flowering comes to an end in the lower altitudes (Sikkim has 38 of the 90 rhododendron species in the country), and I was lucky to see several species still flowering. Snowfall and, later, rains had been heavy in the higher altitudes of Sikkim. In the lower part of the sanctuary, landslides, causing scree and boulders to roll down the mountain slopes, had badly damaged the riverbeds that had a profuse growth of Rhododendron thomsonii, attractive with its deep red flowers. R. glaucophyllum, the dwarf rhododendron, was flowering on the riverbank.

Although not many in number, R. barbatum, one of the finest of the red-flowered species, stood conspicuously and competed with R. thomsonii in beauty. As we drove further, I saw an abundance of R. compylocarpum with its bell-shaped yellow flowers in the valley as well as on the mountain slopes. R. campanulatum was not so numerous but the flowers, pale mauve to rosy purple, were beautiful. R. cinnabarium, with its cinnamon red tubular flowers, was much more widely distributed.

The alpine habitat, where there were domestic yak feeding, had a profuse growth of Primula denticulata (deep purple flowers) and P. calderiana (petals, dark purple to maroon). R. setusum, with its purple-pink flowers, was extremely attractive. The beautiful pink flowers of R. aeruginosum made the plant look like rose bushes. R. anthropogon, one of the smallest of the rhododendrons, had white flowers with a pinkish tinge. R. nivale formed dense cushions; this species can grow even at altitudes as high as 5,400 m and its flowers are purplish.

The ugly side

As I drove up, stopping and taking pictures, several vehicles drove past me towards Zero Point and, surprisingly, none of them stopped and no one got off to see and photograph the splendid rhododendrons and primulas. When I reached Zero Point, I had the shock of my life; the place was full of garbage. Litter left by people coming there from different parts of India was all over the place and was getting into the stream, which eventually flows as Lachung chu (river).

Zero Point is frequented by the bharal and wherever the bharal goes the snow leopard follows. The shopkeepers complained bitterly that no one listened to them and they had to bring people from Lachung to clear the garbage periodically. I suggested they keep two or three large metal wire baskets for the tourists to throw the garbage in. Each vehicle entering the sanctuary should be made to pay Rs.100 “as garbage collection fee” and with this money a few persons from Lachung village can be employed to collect garbage from the trails and the road at Yumthang and Zero Point. In fact, every vehicle entering Sikkim should carry a garbage bag so that passengers do not throw garbage on the roads or in the forest.

The village

That night there were non-stop heavy showers, which made the road to the sanctuary impassable and gave me enough time to wander around the village. There was a profuse growth of Digitalis purpurea in many locations and I was told that this beautiful flowering plant came up every year without any effort from the villagers. There were patches of Euphorbia sikkimensis, which is endemic to Sikkim. On the ground there were blood-red fruits of Fragaria vesca; humans have been consuming this fruit since the Stone Age. The birds I could spot were the red-billed chough, the white-capped redstart, the white-collared blackbird, the Himalayan whistling thrush and the Rufous turtle dove. Possibly, I heard the breeding call ( gneeegneee) of the Rufous Sibia.

People cultivated wheat, barley, mustard and potato and I was surprised that there was no crop-raiding even by wild pigs. Possibly all potential crop-raiders have been poached out. Each house had an enormous stock of firewood (as wood is needed in the winter to keep the house warm). I learnt that the villagers had the permission to gather wood from the forest at a nominal cost. I thought it would be prudent to grow a large number of Alnus nepalensis (now, owing to climate change, this species is reported to grow even at 3,000 m) in all the vacant lands around the village, which would not only provide firewood but also act as a barrier to reduce the impact of rolling and falling rocks when there were landslides.

On the 9th, the day of my departure, there were four landslides between Lachung village and Chungthang, and one was massive, with a stretch of nearly 200 m caving in. The debris was cleared by a Border Roads Organisation worker using a bulldozer.

There were at least 30 vehicles, including some Army ones, waiting for the man to clear the road. Many stood watching and admiring the way he pushed earth and stones into the deep Lachung river valley and against the base of the mountain slope. His machine moved up and down, making the road flat and motorable. He worked hard for four hours. Our vehicle was at the end of the line and when the road was ready I saw the vehicles going past the man and his heavy machine one by one. Sadly, none greeted him before leaving.

Dam building and road construction, involving blasting and tunnelling, hurt the fragile mountains, and the mountains respond with landslides, which cause enormous damage. People living and working in the mountains, albeit mentally and physically toughened, suffer. Besides monetary and material assistance, human kindness will be a great source of strength to them.

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

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