- Sustainable ways for funding the protection and management of the biodiversity-rich landscapes in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) and transboundary cooperation in the times of illegal wildlife trafficking, are important.
- There is a need to revisit and rationalise the Protected Area (PA) network and improve the connectivities between them for long-term conservation outcomes.
- It is also crucial to expand funding for PA management that empowers local communities and institutions to protect their natural assets. Nature-based tourism can support conservation and improve livelihoods in PA landscapes.
- The views in the commentary are that of the author.
One among the many critical biodiversity-rich landscapes spread across the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, the far eastern Himalayas, is home to several species of rare, endemic, and threatened flora and fauna. Located at the confluence of three global biodiversity hotspots – the Himalayas, the Indo-Burma region, and the mountains of southeast China – the landscape includes eight eco-regions and nine important bird and biodiversity areas (IBAs).
Spread across China, India and Myanmar, the landscape is defined by shared ecological, cultural, and socioeconomic features that transcend country borders. It features seven interconnected protected areas (PAs) that act as functional habitat corridors for several rare, endangered, and threatened species, including flagship species such as the tiger (Panthera tigris). Although the three countries have long-standing social and cultural ties, poaching, hunting, habitat encroachment, and illegal wildlife trade are rampant in the border areas, and there is an urgent need for transboundary collaboration at the national level. Some bilateral cooperation has been achieved, including a recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aimed at combating timber trafficking and conservation of tigers and other wildlife between India and Myanmar.
Given the scale of habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, it is critical that we find innovative and sustainable ways for funding the protection and management of the biodiversity rich landscape.
Protected areas and corridors
Creating and maintaining protected areas could be one of the simplest solutions to halting habitat degradation and biodiversity loss in the region and sequestering carbon to address climate change. It has been estimated that the global network of PAs stores at least 15% of terrestrial carbon. Yet, only about two per cent of global financing aimed at addressing climate change goes towards nature’s climate solutions. The Paris Agreement, negotiated during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, has also emphasised the role of PAs and other conservation areas in reaching global mitigation and adaptation targets with the ambition of creating a low-carbon, climate-resilient global economy. Importantly, PAs can contribute to all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) directly or indirectly, with the strongest links to SDGs 14 and 15.
Furthermore, there is growing evidence that PAs contribute in diverse ways to biophysical resilience and social well-being. PAs also provide a suite of ecosystem services – from serving as repositories of important biodiversity to providing recreational services. They provide ecosystem services such as food, fuelwood, medicines, and other provisions to communities living in and around them and help in mitigating natural disasters and extreme weather events. However, many habitats are not well represented in the current network of protected areas. There is a need to revisit and rationalise the PA network and improve connectivity between them for long-term conservation outcomes.
Nature-based tourism in the far eastern Himalayas
Nature-based tourism and enterprises can support conservation and improve livelihoods in conservation priority landscapes. As biodiversity hotspots, the PAs of the far eastern Himalayas have massive potential to become economic engines that can generate jobs and livelihoods options and strengthen local livelihoods through tourism. Ecotourism, harvesting and value addition of forest produce, handicrafts, and homestays can all improve the basket of livelihood options, decrease dependence on forests as a primary source of income, and reduce poverty.
Specifically, the landscape has great potential for birdwatching tourism and the conservation and development strategies of China, India, and Myanmar all identify birdwatching tourism as a priority area for development. With the development of sustainable, socially responsible tourism, the rich bird diversity of the landscape can play a significant role in improving the lives of local people living within and on the periphery of PAs.
The Baihualing Administrative Village (BAV) in China, located adjacent to the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve (GNNR) is one example of a local community that has benefited from nature-based tourism. Birdwatching activities contribute anywhere between $3,000 and $20,000 to each participating household annually in the area. The BAV attracted 40,000–50,000 birdwatchers from China and other countries in 2016. These economic returns have motivated locals to engage in the long-term monitoring and conservation of birds, making for an efficient conservation strategy supported by local livelihoods dependent on biodiversity.
Good governance and equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms in PAs can help sustain nature-derived goods and services. If current practices flourish, the landscape could be a model for ecotourism that supports conservation, enhances local pride, and preserves indigenous traditions and cultures.
Valuing ecosystem services
Ensuring effective management and sufficient financial resources for conservation is critical if we are to stem the loss of biodiversity. Despite huge global interest in PAs, 50-80% of the world’s protected areas are underfunded. This has economic as well as ecological implications. Let us consider an example from a purely economic perspective. The ecosystem services valuation of the Giant Panda Reserve, China, in 2010, for instance, was $2.6–6.9 billion, which is 10–27 times the cost of its conservation. These numbers indicate that the potential benefits from investing in the reserve are many times higher than the actual investment. An approach that encourages individuals or institutions to view PAs as investments in natural capital could therefore potentially lead to the expansion of such reserves and provide the economic incentive to drive greater investments in conservation.
It is important to evaluate the ecosystem goods and services that PAs provide to increase conservation financing. Economists have also found that green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spent, and lead to increased long-term cost savings. It is also crucial to explore and expand funding for conservation and PA management that privileges a role for and empowers local communities and institutions to protect their natural assets. Community participation is critical as local beneficiaries are often the best stewards and managers of natural resources. This will also yield and sustain multiple benefits to communities that rely on nature for fresh water, food and other resources and help them adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The author is a research associate with the Ecosystem Services theme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development(ICIMOD).
Banner image: Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve, Miao Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh. Photo by Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.