- The Himalayan alpine meadows, considered hotspots of Himalayan biodiversity, harbour several endemic species of plants and animals.
- These meadows, also known as bugyals, are facing threats because of several factors including anthropogenic pressure and climate change.
- The Uttarakhand government has taken up a unique way of restoration of these bugyals in Uttarkashi.
Alpine meadows, also known as bugyals, are a valuable part of the Himalayan ecosystem. These meadows start appearing at the height of 3000 meters above sea level, where the treeline ends; they continue till about 4500 meters, where the snowline begins and vegetation becomes scarce.
This biodiversity-rich habitat, which spans across the west to east in the Himalayan mountain range, is under threat.
The aesthetically appealing bugyals attract thousands of tourists every year. There are three types of bugyals. First, the dry alpine meadows in cold deserts like Ladakh; widespread but containing only sparse vegetation. The second type of alpine meadows are situated in the western Greater Himalayas – the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir. Such alpine meadows receive enough rain and snowfall. They are full of lush and diverse vegetation. The third kind of alpine meadows are found in the eastern Himalayan region, like in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, where mostly shrubs dominate.
Himalayan alpine meadows harbour several endemic species of plants and animals. Endemic species are those found only in a specific region and nowhere else in the world. Herbs like Indian aconite or Atis (Aconitum heterophyllum), spikenard muskroot or Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi), Salampanja or Hathazari (Dactylorhiza hatagirea), Kutki (Picrorhiza kurrooa), smooth angelica or Chippi (Angelica glauca), and the caterpillar fungus cordyceps or Yartsa Gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) are found in these alpine meadows.
A number of the endemics found in the alpine meadows, including those listed above, are critically endangered (except P. kurrooa, which is listed endangered, and O. sinensis, which has recently been listed as vulnerable by the IUCN).
All these species have medicinal, aromatic and other properties, and are used to make sought-after products that are sold at high prices in the national and international markets. Therefore, alpine meadows have become a potential livelihood provider to those living in the Himalaya’s hostile terrain, where generally no means of employment are available.
For researchers, these meadows provide a rich landscape to study rare endemics.
“An alpine meadow is a place where species evolve and get differentiated, which means several species form from one species. A high percentage of these species is endemic. It means they are not found anywhere else. I would say these species are global assets. If these (endemic) species get extinct from these meadows, they will not be found anywhere else. So, we need to protect these meadows if we want to preserve this priceless asset,” explained S.P. Singh, an ecologist who has worked extensively in the Himalayas and former vice-chancellor of HNB Garhwal University, Srinagar.
Besides plant varieties, some rare animal species are also found in these alpine meadows. Among them are the majestic snow leopards, bharals (Himalayan blue sheep), Himalayan marmots and kiangs (wild ass).
Experts say that the meadows conserve rainwater and release it slowly, forming a critical part of mountain hydrology. “Alpine meadows also make up the upper catchment for high-altitude rivers and water streams and thus play an important role in the Himalayan hydrological system. They also absorb rainwater to protect the villages at lower heights from flash floods,” G. S. Rawat, an ecologist and plant taxonomist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), told Mongabay-India.
The many threats to the bugyals
Last year, a high-profile wedding party was hosted by a non-resident Indian (NRI) family on the sensitive slopes of Auli meadows in Joshimath, Uttarakhand. The family spent millions of rupees on the gala event and left hundreds of tons of garbage at the venue after the ceremony was over. In the end, the family was let off with a meagre penalty.
“On these hills, our meadows get littered every year. Tourists are careless and administration too lax. Garbage is being dumped in these slopes everywhere, which is damaging the bugyals. The NRI marriage that happened last year shows how the rich can throw money to pollute and mock environmental laws with impunity,” said Atul Sati, a local political activist who also writes on environmental issues.
Sati also showed pictures of a large number of cattle left to graze in the bugyals. In 2018, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister announced a ban on slaughterhouses and the high court also passed an order to prohibit the killing of cows for consumption. “When the animal is no longer giving milk, it is of no use. Earlier people would sell them (for meat purpose), but now due to this ban on selling the animals, they leave them in these bugyals. This is affecting the grasslands very badly,” Sati said.
Besides unmonitored tourism and poor waste management, there are other problems associated with the conservation of meadows. The unsustainable exploitation of medicinal herbs for commercial benefit is one of them.
“People go to pluck the herbs like Yarsagumba [or Yartsa Gunbu, O. sinensis] in large numbers and overstay in these bugyals. They set up tents for the stay and arrange firewood for cooking etc. This badly damages the entire ecosystem. The overexploitation itself is a problem for the herb, but this is also badly damaging the meadows,” said C. S. Negi, a zoology professor at Motiram Baburam Government Post Graduate College in Haldwani.
These meadows are also the grazing ground for both wild and domesticated animals. The anwals, local shepherds from the landscape and the Gaddis from neighbouring Himachal Pradesh regularly use the meadows on an annual basis. Negi, in his study in the Askote Conservation Landscape in Pithoragarh district, says livestock grazing intensity (measured by the size of the livestock and their duration of stay in the meadows), has increased, as exhibited by signs of habitat degradation in some of the prime grazing sites.
This could be ascribed to near-absence of the traditional regulatory mechanisms. As part of this system, inhabitants of villages located at the alpine meadows’ entrance used to levy a cess per livestock and define the duration of stay in the meadows. The absence or dilution of the traditional regulatory mechanisms, vis-a-vis outmigration, needs to be studied holistically and more realistic and extensive assessment of the impact of the livestock grazing pressure on the alpine meadows, says Negi.
Intensive livestock grazing has multiple effects on the delicate ecology of Himalayan alpine meadows. For instance, grazing has affected the yield of Yartsa Gunbu, the caterpillar mushroom, which fetches high in the international markets and has brought about vast changes in the local inhabitants’ socio-economic dynamics.
Yash Veer Bhatnagar, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, says that overgrazing is also threatening the sustenance of wild herbivores who inhabit these high mountains all over the years.
“Overgrazing is surely an issue in many pockets (in alpine meadows) and we have seen this happening in the Chandra Valley of Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh. Take the example of the Gaddi (transhumant) tribe who bring their sheep-goats for grazing in these meadows. In Lahaul the forest department estimates over 1000 gaddi herder groups, each with at least 200 sheep-goats. Many of these areas are overgrazed and even if we see beautiful alpine meadows, much of the green cover is unpalatable. These herds of livestock return to the Himalayan foothills in winter and can thus maintain larger groups, unlike local herders, who are constrained by how many livestock they can rear in winter. The migrants thus cause ‘interference competition’ in summer when wild herbivores avoid areas due to direct disturbance and ‘exploitative competition’ in winter when little is left for native species such as Himalayan thars, blue sheep or ibex. Many such pockets are thus seeing local extinction of species driven by overgrazing,” said Bhatnagar.
Impact of climate change
Researchers have found that global warming is impacting the Himalayan ecosystem. According to a report prepared by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on the climate change impact and vulnerability in the Eastern Himalayas, temperatures are rising across the entire region, with winter and spring temperatures rising more rapidly. One of its impacts is that the treeline – the highest elevation at which tree growth is possible – is moving to a higher elevation. Experts say that it can adversely affect alpine meadows; if the treeline moves upwards, the area of alpine meadows may shrink.
“You have seen how the plants can grow in the poly or glasshouse, even in the winters. A similar situation is noticed in the hills, where at some places an increase in temperature is helping trees grow at higher elevations. But this is not a sweeping rule as many other factors are also important for the growth and establishment of a tree. We have found this happening in some areas of Sikkim. Still, we have also seen that treeline remains stationary in major part of the state, and even coming down in some areas due to other reasons,” said Subrat Sharma, Scientist and Head, Ladakh Regional Centre, G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment at Leh told Mongabay-India.
Other factors, which can also be attributed to climate change, damage the bugyals: untimely and extreme rainfall in short intervals of time and increased number of cloudbursts, causing soil erosion in alpine meadows.
Conservation of a bugyal in Uttarkashi
At 11,000 feet, Dayara Bugyal is one of the major tourist attractions in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. But there was a problem. Besides the tourist pressure and overgrazing in the meadow, two water streams have been eroding the delicate soil of the bugyal and damaged a large patch of this alpine meadow, creating huge cracks in it.
To address this problem, the pastoral community was provided alternative sites for cattle grazing and the flow of tourists in the meadow was regulated. Besides this, the government used eco-friendly techniques to treat the soil erosion in more than 6,600 square meter area of this Bugyal.
Large mats made of coconut husk were laid to accelerate the regeneration of local vegetation. Besides, a large number of gunny bags filled with pine leaves and bamboo sticks were used to channelize the flow of water streams and make check dams. This blunted the corrosive effect of water and arrested soil erosion.
“The method we applied was quite economical and we used all local organic stuff which will act as manure in a few years. We slowed down the water flow so that even if soil flows from the upper part of bugyal, it will get deposited a little lower in the meadow itself. Now where we have laid down the geotextile mats (made of coconut husk), the vegetation is reviving because these mats are maintaining the required moisture and temperature,” Sandeep Kumar, the divisional forest officer of Uttarkashi forest division, told Mongabay-India.
Role of the local community
Conservation experts say that the local community’s role is critical in preserving or restoring such a fragile ecosystem. Zoologist C.S. Negi, who has written many papers on Himalayan ecology, is also overseeing a research project on the meadows of Chipla Kedar area in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.
“When we saw the yield of medicinal herbs is declining and the bugyal was degrading, we organised a meeting of Van Panchayat members of nearby villages. During the discussion, the villagers admitted [that] not only the yield of herbs is declining, but the ecosystem is also disturbed. We explained to them how people in the neighboring countries like Bhutan and Nepal had harvested these herbs sustainably and protected the ecosystem,” Negi told Mongabay-India.
Negi says the community has been very supportive and agreed to follow the prescribed steps.
“We have asked them not to crowd and stay at the bugyals during night time. If they do not spend the night in the bugyals, it causes less damage as wood is not used for cooking. This also prevents the littering of meadows. Above all, this reduces the overexploitation of the medicinal wealth present there, which is so important for their livelihood,” Negi told Mongabay-India.
Banner image: Conservation efforts using eco friendly methods in Dayara Bugyal of Uttarkashi. Photo courtesy Uttarakhand Forest Department.
Editor’s note: A factual detail regarding snow line has been corrected in the story since its publication.