- Peaceful protests and requests by local community members in Ladakh Himalayas led to change in routes of a major motorsport rally whose original course ran through fragile ecosystems of the cold desert biosphere.
- Conservationists argued that the fallout of the rally would disturb Himalayan brown bear activity ahead of its hibernation and would intrude on wetlands that are the breeding sites of the globally threatened black necked crane.
- Speed driving in the region also kicks up dust that deposit on leaves of plants and generates black carbon aerosols that can spike local temperatures.
A recent stir launched by wildlife enthusiasts and activists in the Ladakh Himalayas over a major motorsport rally intruding upon ecologically sensitive areas of the cold desert, including high-altitude wetlands, has forced organisers to change disputed routes of the event, conservationists said.
A section of wildlife conservation groups had protested against the Raid de Himalaya, the world’s highest cross-country rally raid, for its decision to enter new routes in wildlife sensitive regions in the state during the course of the motorsport event from October 8 to October 14.
Organised by the Himalayan Motorsport Association annually, the rally in its 20th edition navigates through some of the toughest terrains of Kargil, Zanskar and Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Holding that the rally would go off-road in certain stretches and would negatively impact the unique flora and fauna of the region, such as the Himalayan brown bear, a section of wildlife conservation organisations had urged the administration to intervene by directing the organisers to skip the sensitive stretches.
The cars kick up dust and deposit black carbon aerosols as they zoom past the rally course, while indiscriminate honking disturbs animals, experts contend, adding that the rally could leave damaging traces on the flora and fauna of the region.
With its barren steep slopes and undulating landscape, the Ladakh region of India, is part of the Tibetan Plateau. Its sparse wetlands and lakes are located at an elevation of 4000 to 5000 metres in an area known as Changthang or Rupshu-Kharnak.
The Tsomoriri and Tsokar wetlands, surrounded by marshes and meadows, in Changthang are very important breeding sites for waterfowls and represent the only breeding ground of the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) and the vulnerable black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) outside China. Ladakh’s wetlands are already reeling under tourism pressure.
“This time in October, the rally was scheduled to enter Dat (in Changthang), Photoksar (in Singay Lalok), Zanskar and Umba La (Kargil). The routes they have chosen were not suitable for such extreme adventure activities. We are not against the event but we are opposing entry into these sensitive routes and we would request them to not go off roads,” Lobzang Visuddha of Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh (WCBCL) told Mongabay-India.
In deputations to the local administration, the concerned citizens had pointed out that Dat is close to the Tsokar lake, a high altitude salt water lake in Ladakh that is home to rich diversity of high-altitude birds including black necked cranes. Tsokar also harbours lagomorphs such as the Ladakh pika. Similarly, Photoksar and Stakpa Umba (Umba La) are known habitats of the Himalayan brown bear, he said.
Visuddha said protests by various environmental protection groups and experts, led by WCBCL, created a positive impact with the organisers finally accepting their suggestions on the route changes.
The changes also ensure that the wildlife, under stress from climate change, are not burdened with additional fallouts due to the rally.
“They have agreed not to go off-road and as well they have agreed not to intrude on the eco-sensitive areas including brown bear habitat. We had argued that the Himalayan brown bear, a critically endangered subspecies of the brown bear, are readying to go into hibernation and just before hibernation they need to feed a lot and there have been changes in their activity patterns due to climate change. So we did not want to put additional pressure due to the rally,” Tsewang Namgail, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, told Mongabay-India.
“There have been reports of brown bears coming to villages and raiding ration stores, so there are already a lot of disturbances and this could be the last straw,” Namgail said.
Conservationists also red-flagged vehicles running over wet pasturelands.
“The ecosystem is so fragile that for the topsoil to form it takes 10 to 15 years and then you destroy it in one go and then its a decade more to form,” explained Namgail.
Sajid Sultan, Regional Wildlife Warden (Ladakh), said wildlife guards of the department will keep a lookout at entry points on rally days.
“The motorists will be traveling from Leh and the district of Kargil also is involved. We reasoned out with them to not go to routes that are very sensitive. We have asked the wildlife warden in Kargil to take the matter with the district administration because many of the areas are outside the protected areas which we manage,” Sultan told Mongabay-India.
“We have our guards there who will keep watch and ensure compliance. Unlike rest of the country, the wildlife in Ladakh is spread all over. They don’t follow boundaries what we define administratively,” Sultan added.
According to Environmental Justice Atlas, a local organisation called “Jungwa Ladakh”, working for preservation of environment in Ladakh, had opposed this event earlier as well.
Visuddha said: “During their rallies, the cars raise dust and honk on the way creating noise pollution. The noise pollution is due to disabling of silencers of rally cars and motorcycles, which also violates the Motor Vehicles Act.”
J.C. Kuniyal who heads the Environmental Assessment and Management & Environmental Governance and Policy (EAM & EGP) at the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development said high speed vehicles generate black carbon aerosols that may increase local temperatures while the emitted dust could exacerbate particulate matter pollution.
“The dust will exacerbate the particulate matter pollution (below 10 micron and 2.5 micron in size). In addition, it will be deposited over the leaves of the plants and would hamper their photosynthetic activity. This would ultimately slow the growth process of herbs and plants. While high noise level would cause unrest among wildlife and shy animals,” Kuniyal, who was not associated with the protests, told Mongabay-India.
“The black carbon, being a heat-absorbing aerosol, would increase the local temperature. This would further lead to shifts in vegetation from low altitude to high altitude and would lead to faster glacial melt,” Kuniyal added.
The Raid de Himalaya claims to have put in place a slew of measures to “reduce its carbon footprint (carbon di-oxide emission and noise pollution) in its endeavour to make the event as carbon neutral as possible.” It also promotes low speed, low sound rallying for tourism and says no to off-road rallying.
Calls and emails to the organisers went unanswered.