Sangay Lama Sherpa, the Office Secretary of the Tsomgo Lake Conservation Committee, and the local community protect the high-altitude wetland and keep it litter-free. Their effort not only keeps the tourist destination clean but also protects the region's water source. Illustration by Pankaj Saikia for Mongabay.Sangay Lama Sherpa, the Office Secretary of the Tsomgo Lake Conservation Committee and the residents around Tsomgo Lake protect the high-altitude wetland and keep it litter-free. Their effort not only keeps the tourist destination clean but also safeguards the region’s water source. Illustration by Pankaj Saikia for Mongabay.

The story of transforming Changu

When high altitude wetlands like Tsomgo get polluted, it contaminates the very source of water for Sikkim. Usha Lachungpa, Retired Principal Chief Research Officer (wildlife) of Sikkim and an expert on the high altitude wetlands and biodiversity of Sikkim, explains, “High altitude wetlands are the water bank for the entire river system in Sikkim. These wetlands are the main storehouse of water and if they get polluted, the entire water source becomes contaminated.”

In Changu, while there are no lodging facilities for tourists as permanent structures are not allowed in the area, there is a shopping complex near the lake which caters to the tourists. The main demand here is for the fast food outlets which sell snacks like momos, rolls and noodles. As these shops were the main source of pollution, TPSS’s first job was to take care of them. Sangay says, “The shopping complex has 60-70 shops out of which many are fast food shops.

Prior to the formation of TPSS, the complex was located above the wetland with its trash directly flowing into the lake. So we shifted the complex to a location 100 m below Changu lake which stopped the disposal of sewage in the lake from these shops. Now, we also provide garbage bags to tourists in the car so that they don’t throw trash on the road.”

“We also stopped the sale of cup noodles which was the most littered item in the area. We then distributed water filters at the shops to cut down the use of packaged drinking water. TPSS organises awareness during occasions like World Environment Day and World Water Day. As some pollution was caused by the defecation of yaks which ride tourists around the lake, we discussed the issue with the yak riders association. Now they have hired two people to clean up yak’s poop throughout the day,” he adds.

The waste generated from the lake is collected and disposed daily at a place called 32 No. Martam dumping and recovery center. Chamba Sherpa, a shop-keeper who also doubles up as a Pokhri Rakshak (lake guard) for TPSS, tells Mongabay-India, “We clean the surroundings of the lake twice daily – in the morning and evening. The trash collected is then taken to the recovery center. There, the trash is segregated recovering the recyclable materials like PET bottles, TetraPak cartons, metals, etc. The bottles are then sent for recycling through scrap dealers.”

Volunteers during a drive to clean the Tsomgo Lake. TPSS was the first committee formed with the help of local communities after a push from the Sikkim government to curb wetland pollution. Photo from TPSS.
Volunteers during a drive to clean the Tsomgo Lake. TPSS was the first committee formed with the help of local communities after a push from the Sikkim government to curb wetland pollution. Photo from TPSS.

Even though TPSS has the power to collect fines from tourists caught littering as per the guidelines, Sangay says that they never collect fines. “We try to create awareness among the tourists rather than collecting fines. Nowadays, tourists are also much more aware than before though, among so many tourists, you always get the odd unruly bunch,” he adds.

Usha Lachungpa, while stating that TPSS has been doing an amazing job over the years in keeping the lake clean, also mentions that things are not always in their hands.

“We have no machinery to ensure that tourists don’t litter at all. In Changu, we don’t get quality tourists. TPSS is doing their best but they just get trapped sometimes in the deluge of tourists. And they can’t refuse tourists also because their economy is entirely dependent on tourism. Regulation of tourism is something which is the need of the hour here. These tourists often don’t come properly equipped for the climate here and when they get trapped in the snowfall, the army has to come and rescue them.”

Some time back, there were also issues about the pollution caused by the diesel-run vehicles used by the Indian Army. Because of the proximity to the China border, the area is a heavily militarized zone with a number of army camps stationed near Changu. Karma Bhutia, former Range Officer, Kyongnosla and Member-Secretary of TPSS says. “Around 2014-15, when I was posted here, there were issues with the army regarding pollution caused from their vehicles as well as the garbage dumped by them. When we brought the issue to their notice, they co-operated with us and the issue got sorted.”

A truck with garbage collected from Tsomgo Lake. Photo from TPSS.
A truck with garbage collected from Tsomgo Lake. Photo from TPSS.

The alpine biodiversity of Changu

While going to Changu from Gangtok, one has to cross the Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary first. Kyongnosla and Changu share the same catchment area and the place is known for its unique biodiversity. Kyongnosla is home to both red panda and blood pheasant – the State Animal and State Bird of Sikkim respectively. Animals like Tibetan fox, Himalayan black bear, serow, musk deer, Himalayan goral, etc. are also found there. Changu lake is also famous for its population of ruddy shelducks, also known as Brahminy ducks.

Regarding the biodiversity of the area, Lachungpa says, “In Kyongnosla, the presence of snow leopard has been detected via camera traps. Once a Himalayan takin was also spotted which probably came from Bhutan but then it disappeared mysteriously. Changu lake is also the stopover site for many migratory birds like tufted pochard, common pochard and seagulls along with resident birds like blue whistling thrush, redstart and forktail. The plant diversity of the area is also very rich. Changu lake also supports important micro wildlife like algae and plankton.”

She however warns that the wildlife of the area is facing a grave threat in the form of free-ranging feral dogs. “These dogs feed on the garbage around Changu and also from the kitchen in the military bases in the area. There have been incidents where a pack of dogs has hunted down rare animals like serow and red panda. Wild animals have now actually started avoiding the area because of the menace of feral dogs,” she says.

Meanwhile, the cycle of tourism and conservation continues at Changu, with the TPSS as the custodian of the lake. Their efforts of more than a decade have also been recognised by the Sikkim government who awarded them the ‘Best Clean Tourist Spot Award’ for Changu in 2013. In 2019, TPSS got the award for ‘Best Clean India Campaign’ from the Tourism Department, Govt. of Sikkim.

Summing up the work of TPSS, their former member-secretary Karma Bhutia says, “Since the community took over, the forest department has to give not more than 10% attention towards conservation of the lake. Their job is now mainly to monitor the work of TPSS and provide guidance if required. But overall, the functioning of TPSS has been very smooth and is a perfect example of the success of a community-driven model.”

Tsomgo or Changu Lake in Sikkim. Photo by Shiv's fotografia/Wikimedia Commons.
Tsomgo or Changu Lake in Sikkim. Photo by Shiv’s fotografia/Wikimedia Commons.

Read more: The monks who protect the Bhagajang wetland


 

Illustration by Pankaj Saikia, an illustrator/visual storyteller from Assam. He likes drawing stories that are inspired by his childhood and the folktales of his place. When he’s not drawing, he can often be found in a bamboo grove, hoping to sight a fox.

Article published by Aditi
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